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Students experiencing many benefits of Tai Chi in Sharpsburg

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 9:02 p.m.
Jan Pakler | for The Herald
Phil Jannetta gives Tai Chi instruction to Darlene Cerra at the John Paul Center during one of his classes on Wednesday evenings and Friday mornings.

Stepping slowly and repeatedly from the ball of her foot to the heel, Marlea Gallagher looked as if she were practicing deliberate moves to a tap dance.

But Gallagher, 58, wasn't working on a show-stopping quick-step but rather on tension release and balance.

She is one of a dozen students enrolled in a new Tai Chi course at St. Juan Diego Parish in Sharpsburg.

Aimed at boosting strength and flexibility, and, thwarting heart disease, arthritis and sleep disorders, Tai Chi is an ancient exercise that's enjoying renewed popularity.

“I really didn't know what it was,” said Gallagher, who works at the parish office along 9th Street.

With classes held in the adjoining John Paul Center from 6:30 to 7:40 p.m. Wednesdays and from 10 to 11 a.m. Fridays, Gallagher couldn't help but to check it out.

“It's only our second class,” she said. “But when I come in I feel kind of tense and when I leave my joints feel more open, more relaxed.”

Led by instructor Phil Jannetta, an O'Hara resident and 35-year advocate of the practice, students of all ages can learn the gentle movements that are hailed as helpers of balance, low bone density, breast cancer, hypertension and Parkinson's.

“It's a non-familiar concept and it might seem strange,” said Jannetta, who first studied in Taiwan and Japan.

“If you learn some basic moves and continue with it, it can offer a sense of well-being, balance and calm.”

In essence, Tai Chi is like “meditation in motion,” Jannetta said.

Originated in China as a martial art, the mind-body practice uses slow, focused movements of the arms and legs that can produce vitality and prevent disease, he said. The muscles are relaxed, there is no breathlessness or pain, Jannetta said.

“Tai Chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confine in wheelchairs,” he said.

The movements are so deliberate that they resemble a step-by-step dance class.

Students Cindy Stupak of Shaler, and Millie Guentner of O'Hara, on Friday learned a move called “The Cat Walk.”

In a series of motions meant to build leg strength and promote balance, the women stepped forward on the balls of their feet while pushing slowly with their hands into the air in front of them.

“I want to build my balance,” Stupak said. “I like this because it makes you feel really stretched.”

Guentner said the 70-minute class doesn't tire her out, yet she leaves feeling refreshed, “like you just really exercised!”

Darlene Cerra, a longtime parishioner, decided to learn more about Tai Chi in an effort to regain some of her lost flexibility but also as a way to learn to relax.

The same goes for Aspinwall resident Tim Gigliotti, who said in a matter of only two classes he feels like he has gained additional balance in his day-to-day activities.

“I've seen it over and over,” Jannetta said. “If people like it, and continue with it, they will see benefits.

“They will gain an intuitive awareness of how to shift weight in effective ways and that can prevent falls. They will experience balance, in and out of class.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-782-2121, ext. 2 or at tpanizzi@tribweb.com.

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