Fast Class: Tai chi with Jake Newell
Jake Newell likes to practice tai chi at the Town Green because it reminds him of a certain park in Taipei, and had a hunch others would be interested in joining him in the ancient pursuit. He now teaches beginning and continuing tai chi classes for the Windsor Park Department.
How did you first get involved with tai chi and why?
Traditionally, tai chi is practiced for three reasons: health, self-defense, and meditation. I think everyone comes to the practice through one of these gates. In my case, I was 19 and in good health and had grown up in a very safe environment, so I was not driven by the need for health improvements or self-defense. I was interested in meditation, and something about the movements of tai chi really drew me in. I felt that I needed a path to wholeness on a fundamental level, and now that I’m practicing I no longer feel un-whole. My first class was under a fig tree beside the Lagoon at UC Santa Barbara in 1994, and I’ve been practicing regularly ever since.
What made you decide to teach tai chi for the Windsor Parks Department?
After one’s tai chi practice matures, it becomes natural to share it with others. I practiced for 10 years with various teachers before I felt ready to teach – this is a traditional maturation period for tai chi as well as many other Chinese arts.
I have been teaching in Healdsburg since 2004, for a time through Healdsburg Yoga Studio and for a time through the City of Healdsburg. My first six years produced two committed students, and the past few years produced several more; I feel that my teaching is coming through much better now – people are learning faster.
I recently moved to Santa Rosa to be closer to my day job, and Windsor is mid-way between my home and my students in and around Healdsburg. Windsor is an interesting town, with all the growth that happened in the 1990s and the retroactive move to generate a town center at the Windsor Town Green. I like to practice under the trellis at the Town Green because it reminds me of a certain park in Taipei, and I had a hunch there would be others interested in this practice here.
It looks like this is indeed the case because over 20 people have registered for my first session. It’s really great to teach through a municipal recreation program because it is very accessible to town residents and there are good facilities. We’re in the Huerta Gymnasium, but in the warmer weather of summer we’ll practice outside in the Town Green. I draw a lot of inspiration from helping people discover this amazing practice and experience the shift in energy inside their bodies.
What do you hope to communicate in the beginner’s class?
The beginner’s class is a brief entry into the fundamentals of the practice. No one is going to learn tai chi in a 5-week session, but it can start to plant the seeds for further growth. Specifically, I will convey some of the philosophy underlying the practice, several simple “Qigong” practices to assist in relaxation and smooth energy flow, and show people some of the first few postures of the tai chi form, which is a series of slow, gentle movements at the heart of the practice. Really it’s a chance for people to see if it’s a practice they’re interested in undertaking and if I’m a suitable teacher for them.
What do you do differently for the Continuing level class?
The continuing class is for people who have gone through the beginner’s class and decided they want to continue with the practice. I call it “continuing” rather than “intermediate” because it takes many years before I would consider someone an intermediate practitioner. Tai chi practice takes a long time to develop. The continuing class is an opportunity for me to spend time with people who have made a commitment to really learn the practice, so I work more on the tai chi form as well as partner-practice, which can lead into exploring some of the martial applications. I also work with people outside the group classes for more personalized instruction, which can be an important way to refine one’s practice.
How do you use tai chi to benefit your life and how do you communicate these benefits to the community?
When my practice wanes I become irritable, socially awkward, and my lower back becomes stiff. These are actually great gifts because they keep me practicing, and the fruits of practice are indescribably satisfying.
I don’t make too many promises to people about the benefits because I’m not a natural salesman. You can read articles by Harvard Medical and others about the myriad health benefits that have been scientifically documented. The benefits only arise if you practice regularly for some period of time, and Americans are more geared toward quick results. I think this makes teaching tai chi here a unique challenge. The benefits can vary depending on one’s particular ailments. Tai chi does not target specific ailments but rather supports the natural functioning of all of our systems.
What most often produces an appetite for tai chi practice is an intimate experience of one’s own decline. This is why most people who come to class are much older than me. Tai chi is designed to reverse some of this decline and to help us find energetic composure in the face of the inevitable changes in our lives. It’s not just about being healthy, but connecting with something deeper within ourselves which is not subject to sickness, injury, and decline.
For more information about Newell’s classes, call 838-1260 or visit townofwindsor.com/recreation.