Socks and shoes off, we wiggled our toes and found our “center” in a quiet studio at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, home to a new tai chi class taught by celebrity trainer Jonathan Angelilli. A self-described “fitness alchemist and peaceful warrior,” Angelilli is passionate about teaching holistic fitness and training the body and mind to work together toward a more mindful state of being.
When a snowboarding injury damaged his neck eight years ago, Angelilli began practicing tai chi at the recommendation of a physical therapist. Originating in China centuries ago, tai chi is a martial art often referred to as a moving meditation, linked to reductions in stress and improvements in balance and physical functioning. Angelilli says practicing tai chi “took his healing process to the next level” and helped him become more connected to his body — an awareness many people lack.
As we closed our eyes, focusing on smoothing out our breathing and quieting distracting thoughts, Angelilli led us through a series of movements matched to our breath. We raised, lowered and circled our arms, then drew paths with our hands between our “third eyes” and our solar plexus. Though some of the movements might seem unusual, even silly (I was holding in giggles at one point and Angelilli encouraged me to let it out), I was finally able to let my body gently float through the practice once I stopped overthinking the instructions.
But our minds weren’t just spacing out like they do in a daydream; a mental component is actually essential to the tai chi practice. When performing most movements in tai chi, practitioners visualize completing a specific action. Angellili instructed us to use our minds to imagine various scenarios: our arms skimming water at our waists, clouds lifting our arms and elbows to the sky, hands smashing plums together (one of our favorite moves to warm and “awaken our organs”).
Angelilli encouraged everyone to move in ways that “felt good,” instead of forcing our bodies into uncomfortable poses. Throughout the class, he explained how seemingly simple movements can increase blood flow and effectively restore our energy.
”[Becoming] stronger, faster and better only happens during rest, recovery and relaxation,” says Angelilli. Overusing and breaking down the body in order to push beyond its limits, he believes, is an unhealthy and stress-inducing workout culture. “Softer practices [like tai chi],” he says, “allow you to recover way faster and balance out a high-intensity workout, which makes progress sustainable.”
Opening our eyes after the final movement, I definitely felt more focused, energized and ready to continue with my day. While I still love that burns-so-good sore feeling from a good sweat session, I’m motivated to balance out my tougher workouts with softer, healing practices that center my mind and restore my body.
If you’re interested in trying out tai chi or other breathing practices, Angelilli suggests Qigong, a practice similar to tai chi, or yin yoga, which is a gentle and healing form of yoga. Head to the site meetup.com to find practicing groups in your area, or check out informational videos online.