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Salvation in Slow Motion - Boston Globe - June 4, 2003,

By Jack Thomas: GLOBESTAFF

At Mississippi's in Roxbury, the air is pungent with the aroma of barbecue pork, Caribbean chicken, and buttermilk biscuits, and you don't have to wonder who among the lunch patrons is Heg Robinson, founder of the Roxbury Tai Chi Academy 30 years ago. He's the gentleman seated at the window who is smiling and serene - and strong enough, you suspect after shaking hands with him, to toss Jean-Claude Van Damme out the window.

Not bad for a man who is 60 and now living his second life.

That first one had a lot of bumps, but the ancient Chinese martial art has helped transform Robinson from a man beset by despair, poverty, and ill health to the happy, peaceful, robust businessman running a tai chi academy that grosses $70,000 a year.

"Where would I be without tai chi?" he says rhetorically.
"I'd be dead."

Robinson has a dream; too: to convert his academy to a nonprofit institution, move it to larger quarters, and expand its scope to include acupuncture, health foods, and herbal medicine.

One of 11 children born to a family of sharecroppers in Parkin, Ark. (population 1,414), Robinson remembers a boyhood spent picking cotton till his fingers bled and trying to avoid trouble in the Jim Crow South. If you were black in the 1950s, you were not allowed in downtown Parkin after dusk. "The South was a dangerous place for black kids," he says. "You were always afraid."

-- In that first life, Robinson saw hatred, even murder - racial stuff, like the day the white men came for his friend, Caleb, who was just 15. "He must have gotten into trouble, but I don't know why because nobody ever asked and nobody even talked about it," he says. And nobody saw Caleb again until they found him 5 miles away, floating in the river, dead. "At that young age, you never knew who was going to be next."

When he graduated from high school, Robinson joined the Navy - not to see the world, but to get out of Arkansas. After five years as an aviation specialist, he was discharged knowing only one thing for certain: he'd never live in the South again. Like a hobo in a folk song, he kicked around. He lived on the West Coast for a while, then caught a bus to Chicago. He later made his way to Cincinnati and a kitchen job in the Cotton Club, where blacks were treated so miserably he never went back for his final paycheck.

Robinson came to Boston in 1967 to look up a girlfriend, but she'd moved on; then his health went haywire. He was 24 and broke. His hair was falling out. The pain from an ulcer was unbearable. So it made sense to him one morning, just before dawn, to take a pistol to the Fens, where he sat on the grass behind the Museum of Fine Arts and tried to determine the best moment to shoot himself in the head.

Robinson didn't know it, but he was about to be reborn.
"It was April of 1967, 4 in the morning and chilly, and I was having bad feelings and wondering whether to stay in this life," he recalls. "In the dark, across the grass, I saw this little guy in silhouette, dancing or practicing I didn't know what.

"I went back the next morning, still thinking about leaving this
life, and there he was again, only this time he came over and asked why I was there. I told him I couldn't sleep. He saw the gun on the grass, picked it up, and said, 'Come with me and 111 teach you to sleep, and then you won't have to do this.

"I went back again and again. He taught me eight moves, slo-o-o-owly, over and over. It was hard and it hurt like hell, but after seven days, I was sleeping so deeply people could holler and not wake me. His name was T. T. Liang, and he died two years ago at 102, and what he did that morning was save my life."

Robinson began his reincarnation.

He landed a clerk's job at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and, using veteran's benefits, enrolled in the New England Photography School, then in night classes that led to a degree in education from Antioch College and a job at Madison Park High School in Roxbury teaching photography. He continued to study tai chi with Liang and later with Gin Soon Chu of Brookline. The physical training and discipline began to payoff.

"Tai chi changed my attitude about everything drinking, smoking, substance abuse. I just quit all of that, and I started seeing myself as a man," he says.

Robinson began to teach tai chi at the Roxbury YMCA and other community centers, and in 1973, he invested $1,000 to convert a floor of his home on Highland Park Avenue into the Roxbury Tai Chi Academy. That modest investment has grown to encompass seven teachers and 150 students. Robinson teaches another 200 students, from teens to folks in their 90s, at schools and community centers in Greater Boston.

Derrick Egbert, 52, a management consultant from Cambridge, has been studying with Robinson for a year. "It's changed my life," he says. "I'm more peaceful, more focused, and I consider Heg Robinson among the wisest men I know."

Tai chi is a slow-motion discipline of contrasts, both combative and peaceful, that benefits body, mind, and spirit. It is practiced by a quarter of a billion Chinese people and has grown more popular in Western countries as it has been adapted to emphasize its benefits to health. Proponents say that tai chi aids digestion and that its emphasis on breathing slowly and deeply reduces stress.

"If you want to have your doctor look at you and say, 'Hey, wow!' then I recommend tai chi," says Robinson, "because first, it keeps you healthy, and second, you don't don't have to worry about somebody punching you in the nose."

Robinson and his wife, Renee Wynn, have a son, Tao Tiger, who is 4. From a previous marriage to Mildred McLean, Robinson has two daughters, one a biologist and the other studying for a doctorate in criminal justice.

Robinson exudes strength. The muscles in his arm - lean and long, not bulging like those of a weight lifter - are as hard as the table.

"Look at me," he says. "I'm 5 feet 9 and look like I weigh 140, but I weigh 180. After you practice till chi a long time, it makes your bones full, like the bones of a tiger.

"As I found out a long time ago, tai chi has the capacity to rejuvenate, which is why I teach it to seniors. If you want to stay away from the old-folks home, and if you want to deal with diseases you don't have to have, and if you want to control blood pressure and stay flexible and keep arthritis away from your body, there isn't anything better than tai chi. People who practice it grow old gracefully, usefully, and healthfully."

What about his diet?

"This morning I had one apple and one banana," he says. "To,night I'll have swordfish, salad, and rice. And I take vitamins."

Does he ever: "I take 75 a day. This morning, with a glass of water and powdered rice, I took 50 vitamins, calcium, magnesium, B-complex, sulfur compound."

In detail, Robinson describes the use of tai chi for self-defense, the blocking of an opponent's hands or feet. He rises from the table to demonstrate the Golden Treasure, one of tai chi:s 108 moves, slowly and gracefully.

"To learn that," he says, "takes 12 to 18 months of hard work, but you carry it the rest of your life. With an exercise like that, you can release tension in the body and create calmness in the mind and the spirit."

Does he see his life as a rags-to riches story? "I don't know," Robinson answers. "I used to work for 30 cents a day in the cotton fields, 12 hours a day, from sunup till it was too dark to see. Today I'm not rich in money, but if you're talking about health, then I'm filthy rich. I've got a great 4-year-old son. I'm excited about life, and nothing worries me."

Shall we order food?

"No," he says. "I really can't eat. I'm sorry. When I leave here, I'll take another 25 vitamins and then I'm off to Cambridge to teach tai chi to senior citizens. And there's work to be done on plans for the new academy. I cannot die and not accomplish that, but I'm only one brick in a great wall that I hope will be standing 100 years from now."

After another strong hand:' shake, Robinson is gone, and at Mississippi's, there's a sudden drop in energy.

Jack Thomas can be 'reached at thomas@globe.com.

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