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Americans Turn to Tai Chi, Yoga for Health, Relaxation - 2004-06-07

Many Americans engage in meditation and exercise systems developed in Asia, including Indian yoga and Chinese Tai Chi Chuan. The trend is flourishing in Los Angeles, where many are pursuing inner peace and relaxation through age-old practices.

Dozens gather every Thursday in the gymnasium of a Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, California. These students of the ancient Chinese art of Tai Chi range from their teenage years to well into their 80s.

Their teacher, Dan Lee, is a native of Shanghai, and in 1948, at age 18, he won the Chinese national welterweight boxing championship. Moving to the United States, he studied engineering, and worked for 30 years at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Along the way, he maintained a passion for Asian martial arts, from Judo to Karate, and the slower, more flowing movements of Tai Chi Chuan.

In the 1960s, he studied with film star and martial arts expert Bruce Lee, and also under a noted Tai Chi master. Since then, he has taught both systems.

Tai Chi is a martial art, but is usually practiced slowly in what has been called a moving meditation. Dan Lee says most of his students are seeking its health benefits. "In this country, Tai Chi is for stress reduction, because it goes slow, emphasizes relaxation and balance," he explained. "So the business people in their 30s and 40s begin to be attracted to Tai Chi."

He says it also helps younger people, who are active in sports, like track and field or tennis, by improving their coordination and stamina.

In China, Tai Chi is known for its elderly adherents, who gather in public parks in the early morning. Mr. Lee says, for the elderly, it aids general health, and improves the sense of balance. "We have an old couple learning square dancing," he said. "They find it helps with square dancing, because they learn to balance better."

The basic movements of Tai Chi can be learned in a few months. Mr. Lee says that's the "short form." "I teach the long form, which is 108 movements," said Mr. Lee. "And for people to learn the whole long form, it takes a year."

Perfecting the movements can take a lifetime, but the teacher says that even beginners reap benefits from the system.

In a nearby suburb of Los Angeles, another teacher leads students through the movements of yoga, using a rope-and-pulley system that he devised to guide their practice. He also runs a yoga studio in Hollywood.

Yoga originated in India, but Gudni Gunnarson hails from colder parts. He's a native of Iceland. He began as a fitness coach, then discovered yoga. By the 1980s, Mr. Gunnarson was teaching his system of "Rope Yoga," which he says had become popular in Iceland.

"Lo and behold, a producer from Los Angeles shows up in Iceland as a friend of one of the executives that I was working with at the time, works out with me a few times and said, 'Wouldn't it be great, if there was someone like you in Los Angeles?' And I said, 'That can be arranged,'" he said.

Here, he teaches individual and group classes. He says this Indian system, while old, is also very modern. "It's not about ancient history," he said. "It's not about where yoga came from. It's not about going to India to find yourself, because if you're lost, you can find yourself anywhere. So, I realized I had a concept here that, with a little constructive effort, could be made into a unifying system."

Back in Pasadena, film producer Mickey Kaiserman is helping teacher Dan Lee lead a class of Tai Chi students. He has studied with Mr. Lee for 11 years, and speaks enthusiastically of the benefits of the system.

"It gives you better balance," said Mr. Kaiserman. "You're not winded when you're doing other sports. It helps you out in all aspects of your life, mentally, physically, emotionally. I recommend it for everyone."

Fellow student Karen Bartlett is a financial planner, who says her six years of Tai Chi practice has helped her in her job. "Because if you get too stressful, then you can do your deep breathing, or you can do some moves in Tai Chi," she said. "They help you to relax and settle down."

There are countless variations of Asian-inspired systems being practiced in the United States, in parks, community centers and private studios. Adherents say the systems add focus to their lives, and help them cultivate inner peace and balance.