Medical School analyst finds peace in tai chi

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Lauren McCarthy spent many years trying to find a suitable tai chi instructor.

Her first experience with the martial art came around 1990 while working as a computer programmer in Royal Oak. The company where she worked invited an instructor to offer a class at the firm’s gym at lunchtime.

“I was like, ‘This is so great. Even though I’m a klutz, I’m not a klutz at this. I feel so good about myself,’” said McCarthy, senior applications analyst for the Department of Learning Health Science at the Medical School. “I just went with it. I didn’t even know I was looking for it, but there it was.”

Once she moved from Royal Oak, finding a compatible instructor was challenging. After several mismatches, in May 2016 she signed up for an Active Aging Adult program offered through Washtenaw Community College at the Ann Arbor Senior Center.

A photo of four women standing and two men kneeling
Lauren McCarthy, second from right, and her wife, Karla Groesbeck, second from left, launched Tai Chi Love more than five years ago. Also pictured are Donna Brigman (far left), Cathy Day (far right), Sam Works (kneeling left) and Andrew Langlois (kneeling right). (Photo courtesy of Lauren McCarthy)

She had an immediate connection with the instructor, Karla Groesbeck. The connection was so deep that two and a half years later they were married.

“When I was teacher shopping, I had gone through so many who called themselves masters who didn’t know what they were doing, or were only in it for the money. I knew what I didn’t want, but it’s harder to know what you want,” she said.

“When I walked in (to Groesbeck’s class), I knew it wasn’t going to be for the money. The style was different but close enough to what I’d been doing before and she was an amazing teacher.”

Lauren McCarthy

Tai chi has become such a major part of their lives that they opened a school to spread the spiritual and physical benefits of the martial art to others. Tai Chi Love opened more than five years ago, offering a multitude of options to learn and practice tai chi. Over time, the brick-and-mortar school closed and all teaching was offered through WCC, which receives grants to encourage seniors to get or remain active at little or no cost.

One of the more transformative moments for McCarthy as an instructor came while helping an elderly woman through a movement.

“I moved her hands to get into the right position, and she said, ‘I think it’s been years since someone ever touched me,’” she said. “That community, being with people, has made such a difference.”

Tai chi is an attractive option for seniors because it’s relatively gentle on joints compared to other forms of exercise, but it also fosters a strong mind-body connection and can be beneficial to anyone looking to destress and be centered.

“Although tai chi is famous for being an exercise for seniors it is absolutely an art for young people,” McCarthy said. Like McCarthy and Groesbeck, one can begin young and continue with this art for a lifetime.

It is also a far less violent form of martial arts than what McCarthy studied. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in East Asian Studies from Vassar College, with stints at Taiwan Normal University and the American Graduate School of International Management, before receiving her master’s degree from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

She spent her junior year abroad and studied kung fu and other hard martial arts.

“I enjoyed a lot of it, but I didn’t enjoy the training where you’d have to hit your forearms with sticks,” she said. “They said your forearms should get all knobby and powerful with calluses. I didn’t like this — I wanted a tiny bit of fighting, but not too much.”

There are five major styles of tai chi, each named after the Chinese families who originated them. Within each of those styles are scores of various forms, although each style has its own established long form. Short forms have been created to promote the benefits of tai chi for people who have less time to devote to practice.

McCarthy said tackling any of the long forms can take between 25 and 40 minutes — in addition to a couple of years to learn — depending on the speed with which the student does it, so “it’s a big commitment.”

McCarthy describes tai chi as a combination of body movement, spiritual energy movement, meditation, dance and martial art. It differs from yoga in that yoga is done on the floor while tai chi is done standing up, and poses are held for longer in yoga while in tai chi participants move from one posture to another.

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“The benefits are similar, but most people either like tai chi or they like yoga and there’s very little overlap,” she said.

Learning tai chi can be challenging, and reaching a level of expertise to successfully teach it is even tougher. Since McCarthy had some early exposure to tai chi when she joined Groesbeck’s class, she had a head start.

But even after nearly a year of learning a form and passing a test, that essentially meant she was a beginner who could explore other aspects of the form, be it meditation, fighting or weapons forms like sword, staff or fan.

“Once you ‘graduate,’ it doesn’t mean you can be an instructor. It just means without copying the teacher you can go through the form on your own,” she said. “You’ll be able to show people the sequence and modify as needed depending on their abilities.”

It took McCarthy another year to attain enough skill to be able to teach the physical form. “I moved along quickly because I was pretty obsessed,” she said. Groesbeck has been instructing tai chi for 30 years and continues to uncover the deeper internal secrets.

McCarthy would encourage anyone interested in tai chi to drop any reservations and give it a shot.

“Tai chi is something you can do for the rest of your life that you don’t actually have to memorize. Embody the principles and you’re going to feel better,” she said. “There’s no special equipment needed, and it can be done anywhere, anytime.”

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