Sunday story: movement and meditation

Most of the time, the lawn of Maymont‘s Dooley Mansion would never be mistaken for a Taoist monastery. But every Saturday at 10 a.m., it feels like a group of more than a dozen regulars who get together to practice tai chi with Wilson Pitts, who has been leading a free class in this ancient Chinese martial art at the estate for 40 years. year.

“Tai chi is much more subtle than calisthenics,” says Pitts. “We don’t just do jumping jacks. I’ve heard people say, “That’s a good stretch for your calves. Really, it’s much deeper than that.

Tai chi focuses on movement and meditation, and the atmosphere in Pitts’ class is calm and focused. Participants meet in the parking lot near Hampton Street and follow Pitts to the cozy spot, tucked under a tree in the shade of Dooley Mansion. Throughout the summer, Pitts will demonstrate 12 poses. Participants mimic his movements and ask questions during the hour-long session, and Pitts assigns “homework.” Beginners are always welcome.

“It’s important to be consistent,” Pitts says. “You should find a time and a place – at the same time and in the same place – to practice 10 minutes a day. If you come to all the classes, by the end of the year, you will have seen all the postures. Once you know the moves, it’s not about memorizing, but practicing the process.

Pitts began studying tai chi in Bethesda, Maryland in the 1970s with famed American martial artist Robert Smith. In 1982, he advertised his first class at Maymont around the Virginia Commonwealth University campus and in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Two hundred people showed up, and 40 years later it still has a following.

“Tai chi was developed in a monastic setting,” he says. “Group meditation is extremely powerful. Imagine hundreds of people together, meditating for hours. This is the kind of conscious environment in which and for which tai chi was developed.

Tai chi focuses on self-defense, yielding to an opponent and changing stance to counter an attack rather than meeting force with force. Pitts demonstrates a “loop,” a simple, evasive movement to be repeated rhythmically in practice. Solo work is only part of tai chi – more advanced students can practice with a partner and with weapons. Travel is also accelerated in intermediate classes.

“All kinds of elite athletes today are using video and slowing it down to watch their movement,” says Pitts. “Well, hundreds of years ago they didn’t have video, so they slowed down the movement to study it in depth. What they found over time was that it produced brilliant health.

In addition to practicing tai chi, which he does for several hours a day, beginning at 5 a.m., Pitts eats foods and herbs prescribed by traditional Chinese medicine. It was also influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, two popular religions in China when Tai Chi was founded.

“Tai chi has always been unique among martial arts,” he says. “There are only so many ways to effectively move your body. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what you call it, but tai chi has a set of martial ethics that most other arts don’t. You don’t want to hurt anyone. Can you have compassion for the opponent even when you defeat him? You don’t beat them with pain, injury or cruelty – you beat them with skill.

“The philosophy is that you have power over the opponent, not over them. The more force they put into the equation, the more they come back. But you’re not adding any cruelty to the mix.

Class participants, many of whom are familiar with tai chi, lead warm-ups and encourage newcomers to put themselves forward. Every once in a while, Pitts will get a question about a tai chi-related movement or philosophy, such as whether practitioners should focus on their breathing or let it go. There are different schools of thought, Pitts says — after all, tai chi has a documented history dating back 400 years and is thought to have its roots in the third century BC.

An important aspect of his tai chi class is that no one gets hurt, even during pair work. “Everyone goes home laughing,” he says, “but it’s a warrior art. A warrior must banish fear and gather courage. Faced with having to fight someone at arm’s length, you have to find courage. In today’s world, we must banish fear and find the courage to face the world in which we live.

Kevin DeCamp, who has been coming to Maymont for several years, is one of Pitts’ many dedicated students. “I got into it for the health benefits,” he says, “but I didn’t expect it to be as profound as it has been. I knew it would be meditative, but I didn’t know it would be so powerful.

“With tai chi, the more you do it, the more you love it,” Pitts says. “I am happy to be able to share it with people. If it weren’t for the deep benefits, people wouldn’t have been doing it for so long.

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