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in Slow Motion - Boston
Globe - June 4, 2003,
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.
bad for a man who is 60 and now living his second life.
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.
would I be without tai chi?" he says rhetorically.
"I'd be dead."
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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."
began his reincarnation.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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
exudes strength. The muscles in his arm - lean and long, not bulging
like those of a weight lifter - are as hard as the table.
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.
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."
about his diet?
morning I had one apple and one banana," he says. "To,night
I'll have swordfish, salad, and rice. And I take vitamins."
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."
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.
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."
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."
we order food?
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."
another strong hand:' shake, Robinson is gone, and at Mississippi's,
there's a sudden drop in energy.
Thomas can be 'reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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