ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Tai chi master Gary Grooms likes to start with the basics. “The first thing I try to teach people is how to stand,” said Grooms, who has been studying and teaching the Chinese martial art for more than 30 years. “Most people use their skeletal system instead of their muscular system to hold themselves up. And people wonder why they have joint problems.”
Grooms is 55, but his body looks like that of a college athlete. “I am efficient, powerful and I never get injured,” said the St. Petersburg resident. “That is what tai chi will do for you.” “Tai chi chuan,” which translates to “grand ultimate fist,” was originally developed for self-defense. Today, however, most people study tai chi for the health benefits. “It will reduce stress, drop your blood pressure, improve your flexibility, make you stronger,” he said. “I could go on and on.” But for the middle-aged weekend warrior who wants to run a faster 5K or conquer a first sprint triathlon, the ancient martial art may be just the thing to not only enhance performance but also avoid injuries. “If you practice tai chi properly, you can’t help but become fast and powerful,” Grooms said. “It helps connect the mind and body. And the more in tune you are with your body, the less likely you are to do something that is bad for it.”
The secret to tai chi’s success lies in its speed and simplicity. When performed correctly, tai chi is a smooth, fluid exercise. Each movement is measured and deliberate. To many Americans familiar with the fast-pitched pace of mixed martial arts, the slow, graceful movements of tai chi may look more like a waltz than a way to do battle. But once you accept that the slow, precise, repetitive movements will bring results, you start to benefit, Grooms said. He knows from experience.
For several years in the early 1990s, Grooms trained members of the Atlanta Falcons football team. “Most of my work was with the wide receivers and defensive backs,” he said. “I focused that initial contact at the line of scrimmage.” If a wide receiver can get past a defender without much effort, the better the chance he has of getting downfield to catch the ball. And the longer a defender can delay a receiver, the less likely the receiver is to make a play downfield. “We would go over the same hand and body movements again and again, slowly and deliberately,”
Grooms said. “The football players always wanted to go fast, but before you can introduce speed, you have to make sure the technique is perfect.” That is why Grooms starts his students off with the simplest of movements, actions that might even seem second nature. “Most people don’t really know how to walk,” he said. “They just sort of plod along and each step is really nothing more than a controlled fall.” But after a few months of tai chi, the student learns to focus on the present, and with each step, to glide across the earth. “You will learn to walk so lightly that if you live in a condo, your neighbors will never know you are home,” he said.
There are other obvious advantages to being light on your feet. The less energy you expend walking, the more energy you will have for other activities. “I think the ultimate goal should be how to receive and deliver energy as efficiently as possible,” Grooms added. “Tai chi can make you an all-around better athlete.” (Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin(at)tampabay.com.)