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Excercise: The Yin and Yang of working out - December 6, 2008,

By Karen Miller: Boston Banner

Roosevelt Robinson is the name his mama gave him, but he goes by Master Heg.

He practices and teaches T'ai Chi Ch’uan, an ancient Chinese martial art that uses rhythmic movements, meditation and breathing for health and self-defense.

Now 65 years old, he says that his inauguration into T'ai Chi occurred years ago. He just didn’t know it. He just didn’t know it.

As a young boy, he worked with his father on a two-man saw. Both had to be in sync with one another. “Boy, you don’t move if I don’t move,” his father warned him.

“You had to move with him,” said Heg. “I didn’t know what I was learning.”

Unknowingly, he was practicing the “push hands” technique in T'ai Chi.

These days, Heg gives lessons to students who learn a series of gentle, deliberate movements that flow into body positions called “forms.” Each form contains between 20 and 100 moves, and requires 20 minutes to complete. Students must focus on their breathing and technique rather than strength and power, although good muscle control is required to complete each form satisfactorily.

Heg has studied with many masters for several years and now teaches out of his academy in Roxbury.

Master Heg has nothing but praise for T'ai Chi.

“It works on the mind, body and spirit,” he explained. “It improves balance, posture and can help control diabetes and high blood pressure. It increases strength, stamina and coordination.”

Research has shown that T'ai Chi can offer the same cardiovascular benefits as moderate-intensity impact exercises, but the two are different in form. Although both activities are rhythmic, movements in T'ai Chi are slow and gentle, while aerobic exercises, such as walking, are repetitive, fast and sustained for a period of time.

Aerobic (meaning “with oxygen”) activity improves the body’s intake of oxygen, which is necessary to generate energy.

Oxygen is required for almost every function of the body. It keeps the heart pumping, allows muscles to contract and processes the information from the brain to the nervous system.

The more oxygen in the system, the more energy it can produce.

Aerobic activity therefore challenges the body and makes the cardio-respiratory system — affecting the heart, lungs and blood vessels — more efficient. This decreases the risk of stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes.

While aerobic and strengthening exercises are recommended for people of all ages, activities to improve flexibility and balance are also important, particularly for the elderly to help prevent falls, which can result in hip fractures.

That is why a large percentage of Heg’s students are elderly.

The master ticked off other advantages of T'ai Chi. For one thing, it is practical.

“Anyone can do it at any age,” he said. “You don’t have to be athletic and you don’t have to wear special clothes. You can practice it anywhere — and if you do it right, you won’t pull a muscle or break a bone.”

No need to tell George Morrison about the benefits of T'ai Chi. He already knows.

Master Heg instructs George Morrison in the T'ai Chi form called "grasping the bird's tail." T'ai Chi has been found to improve strength and balance in older adults; as well as as reduce the risk of heart disease.

He is 73 years old now and is very honest in explaining why he started practicing T'ai Chi. It wasn’t because of any medical condition. Nor did he have problems with his balance or stamina.

The real reason, Morrison explained was simple — to stop his longtime friend, Master Heg, from nagging him so much.

Morrison finally surrendered 10 years ago. “I became a student of T'ai Chi,” he says. “I am still a student.

“I understand the value of conditioning,” Morrison went on. “I was an athlete and played football in school and ran track.”

But as years passed, Morrison realized he had lost a step — or two. He still golfs, but T'ai Chi is now a part of him. He practices twice a week.

“It helps strength, balance and coordination,” he says. “It gives you a healthier life — more stable and secure.”

Morrison was quick to point out the mental conditioning that results from T'ai Chi as well. “It’s a total problem-solver,” he said.

Karen Miller can be reached at kmiller@bannerpub.com.

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