Going with the flow: Giancola offers Tai Chi Chuan, Yang style long form lessons in Clifton, teaching how to always finding balance in your life
"The goal is not to demonstrate strength, power or violence. The goal is to attain serenity, tranquility, and the discovery of oneself. It is truly an exercise of the mind." – Grandmaster Tung Kai Ying on Tai Chi Chuan
CLIFTON – Nature is all about balances, with ecological systems usually in a stable equilibrium or homeostasis. In physics, there's Newton’s third law of motion which states that for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. And then there is ancient Chinese philosophy in which each element has a counter parity.
This balance between opposing parities is also the foundation of Tai Chi Chuan, to the point that from stillness comes fluid movement. A Taoist monk named Chang San Feng invented a series of martial arts exercises based on the circular movements he observed while watching the combat between a snake and a crane. The movements, after which many of the Tai Chi postures are named, evolved into the 108 moves known as Yang style, which surfaced in China in the early 1800s. Of the five main schools of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, namely the Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun and Zhao Bao styles; the Yang style is the most practiced form of Tai Chi in the world today.
In Bosque County, there is now an opportunity to practice this graceful and serene ancient art by attending Elizabeth Giancola’s classes who teaches Tai Chi Chuan, Yang style Long Form at Tolstoy’s Bookstore in Clifton every Wednesday at noon. The lessons are on a donation basis.
The first building block to mastering Tai Chi is good instruction. An encouraging teacher, Giancola offers expert, patient guidance, focusing on body awareness, intention of movement and adding Tai Chi background information every now and then. She delights in sharing her love for this art form with her students, and uses a playful and focused approach to help people of all ages to connect to feelings of peace and ease as they learn the practices.
The second building block is regular and correct practice. All the path to excellence needs is many repetitions. And patience is the third building block, because Tai Chi Chuan cannot be learned quickly. The ease of movement comes from discipline and focus. Giancola herself has been a student of Grandmaster Tung Kai Ying and Master Tung Chen-Wei since 2001. But she started practicing Tai Chi much earlier than that.
This is Elizabeth Giancola's first section of Yang Style Long Form:
Growing up in Massapequa N.Y., Giancola loved athletics, playing basketball, volleyball and track. At 16 she became fascinated with Tai Chi taught by her brother’s Chemistry teacher. She loved the fact that it was outdoors, and she felt it gave her mental balance to her love of physical exercise, and it was “cool.” She has been practicing Tai Chi ever since. Her level of expertise is based on decades of formal instruction with her main teacher was Master Tung Kai Ying and his son Chen-Wei in Los Angeles, and she follows Tai Chi Master Jane Golden.
“Tai Chi gives the practitioner a mental clarity and peace because you have to be so focused when you do it," Golden said.
While based in martial arts, at the heart of it, Tai Chi is a moving meditation in the form of a series of gentle exercises that create harmony between the mind and body. The ultimate purpose is to cultivate inner life energy – Qi – to let it flow smoothly and powerfully through the body. This is a spiritual experience, as much as a physical one.
Tai Chi Chuan is based on the principles of Yin and Yang and Taoist philosophy, and is represented by the iconic circle divided into the light and dark – the Yin and Yang with a contrasting spot in the wider part of the symbol. The Yin/Yang symbol represents the duality and the balance between both parties, where two opposite characteristics can actually exist in harmony and complement each other – “There can be no light without darkness.”
It is male and female, plus and minus, positive and negative and Chuan is the technique of reconciling these seemingly opposites into a harmonious whole. And when watching people practice Tai Chi, there is another duality – it looks so easy, but it is surprisingly challenging. Movement and tranquility, in fluid alternation, become each the source of the other. It is all about opening channels between energies or two polarities with the body being a conduit between the air’s energy and the earth’s energy and encourage the proper flow of Qi. The movements and poses originating in martial arts connect and unblock the different body energies.
Giancola usually starts the session with some warming up exercises followed by Qigong movements that involve coordinated movement, breath, and awareness used for health and meditation. Qigong plays an important role in preparing for Tai Chi as it starts the energy flow. As her students follow the motions, Giancola conjures up images of clouds, water, a recoiling snake or a crane spreading its wings help them visualize the fluid and connected movements.
In this low-impact, slow-motion exercise, the movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. Tai chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.
“This gentle form of exercise can help maintain strength, flexibility, and balance, and could be the perfect activity for the rest of your life,” Harvard Health stated in a May 24, 2022 publication. “Tai chi is often described as ‘meditation in motion,’ but it might well be called ‘medication in motion.’ There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. And you can get started even if you aren't in top shape or the best of health.”
The body is in constant motion with each posture flowing into the next without pause. It is a gentle, graceful way to fight stress, increase flexibility, muscle strength and balance. When practiced regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking. Other reasons to practice Tai Chi are body awareness, meditation, dance or aesthetic movement, self-defense, concentration, proper body alignment and energy flow, massage of the internal organs, and opening of the joints to prevent arthritis.
While on a trip to China, one of Giancola’s students and her husband spontaneously joined in with a group practicing on a square, and even without any previous training or knowledge of the art, they were hooked. Later when recovering from a brain injury, the holistic exercise Tai Chi helped her refind her balance in her physical therapy and her mental wellbeing. Other student is recovering from hip replacement surgery and Tai Chi is helping her strengthen the affected joint area in a gentle way.
Because motion cannot occur until one side yields, a key principle in Tai Chi is to avoid using force directly against force or “hardness against hardness.” It is a yielding to and redirecting an attack rather than meeting it with opposing force. Sixth century Old Master and traditionally regarded founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu wrote, “Water is the softest thing, yet it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principles of softness overcoming hardness. The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong." In that vein, Giancola tells her students to be something between a jelly fish and a brick wall when positioning their joints and doing the movements.
While Giancola embraces the marital art foundation of Tai Chi, her soft nature prefers to compare the movements to dancing with a partner, rather than using the moves fighting off an opponent. And Tai Chi is just one of Giancola’s many areas of expertise. While studying Comparative Literature and Spanish at Brown University, Giancola felt most at home in the community garden, and teaching – both her parents are educators. She started teaching poetry, arts and horticulture to high school students.
Subsequently, her wandering spirit and knowledge of horticulture and organic farming took her all over the world from Mexico, to Argentina, to Spain and back to the States, to California where she was the teacher in residence at an educational farm just north of San Francisco. There she brought together her love and passion for getting kids out in nature, while offering them social and emotional support.
“So many kids live just within walls and with a screen,” Giancola said. “While being outside in nature is vital for brain development, emotional and physical wellbeing.”
Her holistic healing is always grounded in knowledge. As she traveled, she expanded her knowledge as a horticulturist, and herbalist. She studied to be a doula providing physical, emotional and informational support to mothers surrounding childbirth. And she spent three years teaching gardening programs to middle schoolers and was a basketball coach. An Upleger Institute craniosacral* therapist, studying Occupational Therapy added a more conventional scientific basis to her healing practices, giving her patients the best of both worlds. And it gave her another way to be of service.
Giancola believes she was born to be of service, and in some small way help shape the world into a better place, whether it is by producing food, giving back to the earth or gentle healing with her occupational and craniosacral therapy. She is inspired by Mother Theresa’s quote “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” And whether it is as a Tai Chi student, or patient getting therapy you can feel this great love in all she does, making you feel at ease and more confident under her guidance and tutelage.
The global traveler’s path eventually led to Maui and to her husband Mat, a personal trainer and Kung Fu teacher. Falling in love with Lake Whitney, the warmth and the nature, they moved to Central Texas last year, putting down their roots.
Novices to the exercises should focus on the fluid, full body movements and not be intimidated by the deep-rooted Chinese philosophy, the amount of the moves or their names; they just give a deeper understanding of Tai Chi’s foundation and concepts. And while over time her Central Texas students master the 108 movements of the long form, it is just the beginning of a lifelong activity of finding balance in opposites. The next step is learning the mirror form, when all the techniques are done the opposite way. Or to do the exercises with a partner/opponent. And all the while relaxing and strengthening at the same time.
It seems a dichotomy, the ability to relax in strength. But in Tai Chi, from stillness, you begin to move. Through the movement you relax, and as you relax, you get stronger and as you get stronger, you relax – the whole system builds on each other – a perfect balance.
EDITOR'S NOTE: *Craniosacral therapy (CST) is a gentle hands-on technique that uses a light touch to examine membranes and movement of the fluids in and around the central nervous system and assist release of the body’s connective tissue. Relieving tension in the central nervous system promotes a feeling of well-being by eliminating pain and boosting health and immunity.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
©2022 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.