Ancient Chinese martial art balances self-defense and meditation

T’ai chi students focus on slow, deliberate movements during class at ACAC. Photo: Elli Williams T’ai chi students focus on slow, deliberate movements during class at ACAC. Photo: Elli Williams

It’s an interesting feeling, knowing that the person standing next to me could knock me to the ground by barely lifting a finger. Luckily, she wants to teach me to do the same thing.

It’s 9am on a Thursday. I’m in leggings, a t-shirt, and socks, facing the mirrored wall of one of ACAC’s exercise rooms, ready to try my hand at t’ai chi, the ancient Chinese internal martial art. I’m the youngest in the class by at least 20 years, and I am clearly the only newbie.

Instructor Hiromi Johnson, who runs Hiromi T’ai Chi Cheng-Ming Martial Arts Association Charlottesville Branch, stands among her students rather than at the front of the room. We start with light stretches, which at first is comparable to what I’ve done in past yoga classes, until Johnson gently reminds us to keep our joints relaxed.

“No hallelujah hands,” she tells us as we’re reaching our arms above our heads. I look around and, sure enough, everyone’s wrists are bent, fingers loosely dangling. I relax my wrists and let my hands flop down, feeling a little silly.

One of the warm-up moves involves holding my right arm out in front of me at an angle, at hip level, then flicking my hand upward toward my body, making a fast circle so my arm ends up in the original position. I don’t give much thought to its meaning, but it feels sassy, like my left hand should be on my hip and a snap should be involved.

Once we’re warmed up, Johnson reminds us to remain focused on our center.

“From the top of your head to your tailbone should be one unit,” she says.

We begin cycling through the sequence of movements, and the only thing we hear is the soft flute music playing quietly in the background. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’ve been strategically placed in the center of the group so that every time we make a 90-degree turn, I have a clear view of someone who does in fact know what’s going on. Johnson continues reminding us to keep our bodies relaxed—knees and elbows slightly bent, standing lightly on our feet, no harsh movements. The motions are slow, but they’re so foreign to me that by the time I figure out where my left wrist is supposed to be in relation to my right elbow, I’m already two steps behind. Luckily we go through the sequence several times, and by the time we bring our feet together for the final bow, I feel a little less silly, and pleasantly relaxed.

Johnson’s been practicing t’ai chi for more than 30 years, and she said feeling a little weird is normal for first-time students.

“It was very awkward, and I felt strange,” said Johnson, who took up the practice as a teenager after her second knee surgery. “So when students say it’s strange, I understand. Everybody goes through that process.”

After regular practice, she was back to full mobility and flexibility, with little to no knee pain. Johnson said she sees incredible improvements in the balance, coordination, and strength of her students, especially athletes and people recovering from injuries.But patience is a virtue.

“The benefit doesn’t come in one day. In the western world, everybody’s waiting for the immediate results,” she said. “I tell people to give it three months.”

T’ai chi is held by three pillars: martial, medicinal, and meditation.

It was originally created as a form of self-defense, based on a Chinese legend that Taoist monk Chang San-feng watched a crane battle with a snake and mimicked the animals’ contrasting graceful and sharp movements. It’s practiced slowly and meticulously, relying on internal power to be forceful. Every motion we learned in class has a meaning, Johnson said, and when put together with more speed, it’s a quick, effective form of self-defense.

The medicinal aspect is all about the chi, or the body’s natural energy flow.

“If you take the correct posture, you are circulating your chi in the body,” Johnson said. “You have to have a good buildup of chi to be healthy.”

And once you’ve got the movements and positions down pat, and you don’t have to think about what comes next, Johnson said, you reach the meditative state.

Johnson said some of her students don’t necessarily want to learn to hurt people, and she understands if they want to focus solely on the medicinal and meditative aspects without learning the martial application.

Class is wrapping up, and we form a circle around Johnson. She steps in front of each of us in turn, showing us the martial application of that strange arm-circle movement from earlier. She makes her way over to me, and I grab her left wrist tightly, per her instruction. Before I know it, my right arm is twisted all the way up to my shoulder, and in one quick, swift motion, she’s flipped her hand over mine and is out of my grip. I watch as she easily does the same thing to the man next to me, who’s a solid 12″ taller than her.

“See?” she says after she’s made her way around the circle. “It’s not about muscle strength. Your body has to be soft and supple. It’s the opposite of external martial arts, but the goal is the same.”

Getting started 

– ACAC offers t’ai chi classes nearly every day for everyone ranging from beginners to seasoned practitioners. Check the calendar at

– Stop by Hiromi Johnson’s Downtown studio for a special beginners’ offer.

– Wear something comfortable, but don’t expect to be doing much sweating. Shoes are optional.

– Go in with an open mind, and don’t be surprised when you feel a little goofy. Everyone around you has been there too.