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Finding Tai Chi Gung

As the only Tai Chi Gung teacher in the state, a Tupelo woman passes on her knowledge of an ancient practice.


Written by Leslie Criss  |  Illustrated by Sarah Godwin

 

Though it’s a practice that has been around for more than 3,000 years, people have only recently begun to become aware of tai chi gung.

 

Odds are words like tai chi and yoga are, at the very least, a part of one’s basic vocabulary. And Google references to both abound. Learning about tai chi gung, however, takes a bit more digging.

 

A primary distinction between other tai chis and tai chi gung is that tai chi gung is not considered a martial art.

Its history is a storied and rich one. A holy man from India, Boganathar (later renamed Lao Tzu) went to China and spent years engrossed in nature.

 

His quest was to find answers to his questions regarding why the physical body ages and passes away. His search led him to develop a method of movement and breathing that created energy that could regenerate the body.

 

He was asked to share things he’d learned to help Emperor Chen, who was ill and bedridden. Over a period of time, the emperor got better and, in fact, lived another 30 years. After the emperor died, Lao Tzu was asked to pass on his teachings, but he felt unworthy to teach others. Instead, he left China for the Himalayas, where he taught a dozen lamas (spiritual leaders) and started a school in Darchen, Tibet. This was where tai chi gung had its beginnings. The purpose of tai chi gung is health and spirituality.

 

“The idea of teaching tai chi gung master to student has been a way of keeping the practice pure,” said Anne Babb Roberts. “It was not opened to the world until 2020.”

 

The 74-year-old Tupelo woman is currently the only tai chi gung teacher in the state of Mississippi. But before she was a teacher, she was, of course, a student.

 

In 2015, Roberts was driving often from her Greenwood home to Corinth to spend time with her mother who was ill.

 

“I was on the road so much from the Delta to Corinth. My mother was dying,” Roberts said. “Truthfully, I was not in the best of health.”

 

Her mother’s death in 2018 had a profound impact on Roberts, who was soon after diagnosed with Meniere’s disease and lost the hearing completely in one ear. She couldn’t walk well because of bad knees, and she’d been told she needed knee replacements. She’d given up on her beloved music thanks to painful, frozen fingers and low self-esteem. She also worried a lot about the state of the country and the world.

 

In 2020, Roberts heard an online message by Master Lama Rasaji. It’s not an exaggeration to say it was the beginning of a changed life for Roberts.

 

“His words resonated with me,” she said. “In ’21, I read his book, ‘Circle of Chi’ and started doing Emperor’s Choice exercises. I did them seated because I was unable then to do them standing.”

 

In time, Roberts realized she was getting stronger as she continued with the daily practice of tai chi gung. She was walking better with much less pain. And in July 2021, she was hospitalized with COVID-19 and pneumonia. She leaned heavily on her tai chi gung breathing exercises.

 

“I didn’t sleep; I just breathed,” she said, smiling. “After three days in the hospital, the doctor was going to send me home with oxygen, but he told me he didn’t know what was going on, but I apparently did not need it.”

 

Roberts has done tai chi gung every day since March 2022. She didn’t decide to teach until 2023. She continues to take four online classes each week from her teacher, Master David Paul, who is currently the only master tai chi gung teacher in North America.

 

The differences the gentle exercises have made in Roberts are many. She’s back to playing piano and singing — her fingers no longer give her as much trouble or pain. And thanks to a refreshed estimation of herself, she doesn’t give much thought these days to whether she’s good enough. She hasn’t been able to stop all her worries about the country and world, but she has the tools needed to calm her thoughts.

 

“The best thing that’s happened to me, I think, is I feel so much love toward people,” she said. “More than I ever have before.”

 

Hank Roberts, her husband of 51 years, has noticed the changes in his wife.

 

“He is a great supporter,” she said, smiling. “He will tell people how good tai chi gung has been for me. But he also tells me, ‘Just don’t expect me to do it.’”

 

Roberts teaches two classes of tai chi gung — one standing, one sitting — once a week at her church. She teaches another class at The Dance Studio of Tupelo.

 

A typical tai chi gung class begins with soft instrumental music and a reciprocated reverence among students and teacher. Comfortable clothes are necessary; shoes on or off is a matter of personal preference. The exercises are always done in the same order in each 45-minute to hour-long class.

 

“This is not like going to the gym,” Roberts said. “These are a system of exercises that works from the inside out. They are such beautiful, gentle movements you might not think you are doing exercise.”

 

Roberts is accustomed to students’ post-class comments such as, “so relaxed,” “mood is lifted” and “feel so much lighter.”

 

Martha Ann Staub, 83, spends one day each week joining both the standing and seated classes of tai chi gung. She has put what she’s learned to use in her daily life, especially when shopping.

 

“I was standing in line at the grocery store recently,” Staub said. “I have no patience. There were about five people in front of me, and I was agitated. I thought about the figure 8 exercise we do in class and wondered if anyone would notice if I did it while standing in line. So, I did it, and it released so much tension, calmed me down. It really helps.”

 

After a fall, Pat Bobo, 86, had shoulder surgery. She credits tai chi gung for helping in her recovery.

 

“It helped with the pain, but mostly it helped so much with my balance,” Bobo said. “It’s good fellowship, too.”

Roberts plans to continue to learn about and share tai chi gung with her students.

 

“These are regenerative exercises for mind, body and spirit,” Roberts said. “Tai chi gung can make a difference in your life. It has mine.”

 

Visit circleofchi.com/mary to learn more about Anne Babb Roberts’ local classes.

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