Early in the morning, a diverse group of Whatcom Community College students meet in the quiet gym of the Pavilion and assemble into two lines. Standing straight, they breathe slowly and deeply as they prepare to practice a martial art, which, when translated from Mandarin, is known as “supreme ultimate fist.”
This translation may be surprising for those familiar with the soft, flowing movements of tai chi ch’uan, or just tai chi, which is practiced slowly to promote both physical and mental health, almost like yoga. It is also a system of self-defense and its history and development is tied to that of traditional Chinese kung fu.
“When you’re doing tai chi movements you’re doing martial arts movements,” said Paul Mulholland, the instructor of the class, who has been teaching tai chi for 11 years.
The goal of the practice is to promote the flow of chi, a life energy believed to exist within traditional Chinese medicine, to promote energy and well-being, Mulholland said. Research has shown that tai chi can promote good health and reduce the risk of chronic conditions like arthritis and high blood pressure as well as improve balance.
As defined by western medicine, “health means diet and exercise, and tai chi just happens to be an exercise,” said Mulholland.
“I wanted a class that would be good for stress,” said Debbi Hamlin, a Whatcom student who is going back to school after a decades-long break and using the class to help ease the tension that comes with returning to college.
The class begins with a short warm up, which consists of light stretching, before moving on to practicing forms, specific sets of movements which are committed to memory. Mulholland stands in front of the class and leads them through each form once, then walks around the room and helps the students individually as they practice on their own.
Although the movements are done slowly, “it’s much harder than it looks,” Hamlin said. In the beginning, “my mind and my feet just weren’t cooperating,” she said. “Thank goodness he’s so patient.”
“All of tai chi is relaxation,” said Mulholland.
The atmosphere lends itself well to this mantra as the gym stays peacefully quiet, the silence broken only by the occasional creak in the floor or Mulholland’s instructions. The students each move at their own pace yet are usually almost in unison.
“There’s something really calming about watching someone do it,” Hamlin said.
The class closes with a standing meditation, called qigong, which focuses on proper breathing technique to build strength and energy. Coordinating breath with movement, this component is “the number one thing in tai chi,” Mulholland said.
An avid martial artist, Mulholland has a varied background in several fighting styles, some familiar, like karate, and others more unusual, like aikijutsu and ninjutsu. It was through training in these arts, he said, that he became familiar with the concepts of tai chi and its practitioners.
“I just got curious and landed on a great teacher,” said Mulholland.
This experience is incorporated into the class, as the purposes of certain stances are explained in the context of positioning in a fight, while the practical applications of hand gestures are demonstrated.
“This is used as a hook,” Mulholland says while swinging around a bent arm. “This other one is used to peck the eye,” he explains while extending his arm straight forward with a pointed hand.
While physical and mental health are the true goals of this art, “I do like the martial part of it,” Mulholland said. Tai chi shows that it can be beneficial “to be more gentle in martial arts,” he said. “You don’t have to use a lot of strength.”
“Students old and young should be open to coming,” Mulholland said, “even students with afflictions or disabilities.” The class can show everyone “a relaxed and natural way that the body wants to move,” he added.
“I feel like I have more energy,” said Hamlin. “I think it will stick with me, like riding a bicycle.”