Cold Mountain Internal Arts in Kitchener and Phoenix Tai Chi Center in London have a long history of friendship. We meet at the Canadian Taijiquan Federation’s events, we go to each other’s celebrations, we attend each other’s workshops. For many years Gloria Jenner, along with other prominent tai chi teacher, has been at the center of these activities. Here is an interview with her, conducted after the CTF’s Annual General Meeting (24 June 2017, Hamilton) by Tanya Korovkin.
Gloria Jenner, the Founder and Former Director of Phoenix Tai Chi Centre, London, Ontario.
TK. Thank you, Gloria, for having agreed to share your experiences with us. You have been teaching tai chi for many years by now, so how and why did you decide to start practicing tai chi?
GH. I was, actually, doing yoga, and I found it being very uncomfortable for my body. One day I was in Toronto, at a conference at the University of Toronto. I came early and saw people doing what they said was tai chi. So I asked “What is tai chi?: They demonstrated it a little bit, explaining some tai chi principles. And I thought: that’s for me!
TK. And why did you think so?
GH. Because it was a continuous movement, so that my joints, my body felt relaxed and moving. I was not standing still, as in yoga; I was not holding stretches that were uncomfortable. Tai chi was rhythmic -- breathing in and breathing out -- yin and yang – like the ocean waves flowing. So I enrolled in a tai chi class under a teacher from Western University. It was actually hard at the beginning, because the moves were right brain, left brain cross-over movements. In Western exercises we did at that time arms moved the same – no cross-over to the next exercise. Tai chi being difficult, I was determined to get it!
TK. And how did you yourself become a teacher?
GH. In 1982 the Y asked me if I would like to be a teacher there. I said, “No, you need my teacher.” Up to that time I had only taught helping my teacher. The Y said, “We want you to teach with music.” I agreed. At that time teachers didn’t often used music in tai chi classes. So I had to find some music that would be calm and level, some music that would go well with tai chi. But over that years, I noticed that with music people picked up tai chi faster. With music, people connect to the idea of one movement flowing into anther much faster, than without music.
TK. So you started teaching at the Y… and when did you decide to create what later became Phoenix Tai Chi Centre?
GH. It was in 1988. I first started looking for a space that would be for tai chi classes. Eventually, I found a big hall owned by a church. It was the right size, and it had a wooden floor. The location was not so good though. It was located in a residential area, off the beaten path, so I was concerned first that people wouldn’t find it. The fellow who was in charge of the hall gave me the key without asking many questions. “But you don’t really know me!” I told him. “I have your first name and your telephone number,” he said, “that’s enough.” I just raised my arms and said “Thank you, God” quietly.
TK. How many people did you have when you just started?
GH. I started with only 8 or 10 people, once a week, from 7 to 8 pm. At that time nobody knew much about tai chi. So I started contacting people in the healing community: massage therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and so on. I invited them to do presentations about their skills after the tai chi class, in the same hall where we would practice. It was good for them: they would get access to free space and they could also distributed their flyers or business cards. But it was also good for us. People who came to the workshops would usually come a little bit earlier, so that they would see a bit of the tai chi class. Many of them liked it, and later would join the classes.
TK. And how many people would you be getting after the tai chi classes increased in popularity?
GH. The Centre itself came to have approximately 50 members. However, we did a lot of work outside the Centre. People in the healing professions knew me, so they would call me, asking for tai chi classes. In this way we started working at all kind of places. We started working at the retirement homes, with the hospital staff, at Wellspring Foundation [offering support to cancer patients], in the libraries, and so on. When there was an opportunity, we would also do presentations at health fairs, schools, businesses, and conferences. After the tai chi classes became really popular in London, there were 13 of us, Phoenix teachers, offering taiji classes. I would be giving 14 classes a week, and 12 other teachers – Judy Elliott, Mary Deware, Steve Holbert (now Director of the Centre), Roseann McKay, Laura Vonka and many others -- would give classes in the broader community. I could not have done the expansion of Phoenix classes into the community without the help of these supportive and dedicated teachers. All in all, I believe that between all of us we were reaching something like one thousand people a year!
TK. In all these years, what, would you say, were the most challenging experiences that you had as a teacher?
GH. I had classes with people who had serious health problems: MS, chronic fatigue. Once I had to develop an entire form for a person with MS. It was very challenging. Another thing, of course, is how in class you deal with really challenging, keen students. I would ask them to help me teach in a community class. Then, if I saw they would be good at teaching, I would give this class to them.
TK. And what were the most beautiful and rewarding ones?
GH. When I just started teaching at the Y, everybody had their shoulders up, knees locked. It was so hard to break this habit! So I began with a series of sessions where people would just learn how to relax and open their bodies. So little by little, they would become more open, more relaxed. To me it was just beautiful to see how tai chi was able to change everybody.
TK. One last question. What advice would you give to the new generation of taiji practitioners?
GH.When I experienced the changes in my own body, I realized, YES, taijiquan is the “Supreme Ultimate Exercise.” These changes made me look at how the moves were designed. I suggest one look deeper into the moves. Notice the left and right brain movements that create an inner feeling of centeredness. And when you feel physically and mentally centered, nothing can blow you of your center. Pay attention to the footwork. The stepping using twist-step in brush knee movements strengthens ankles. Shifting weight back to the 45 degree foot and then forward again strengthens hips and knees. The slow movements reach into the small muscles, toning them. And pay attention to how movements work with our in- and out-breath. Very few Chinese did weight lifting or exercise machines in the past! I played sports when I was young, and always belonged to the Y. Previous exercises did not create the physical grounding and flexibility as did tai chi. It is an exercise that you can do into very old age. And every move can be an application of defense if needed. It is a discipline that helps you through many years of challenges because it develops the innate ability to calm and center yourself. Stay learning tai chi for at least three years to feel and notice the difference in your body and in yourself. And then it becomes automatically yours to perform.