Formative Experience

Formative Experience

What do you picture when you think of tai chi? Shirley Chock thinks she knows: a group of senior citizens practicing slow movements in a park. But that’s just “a tiny sliver of what it’s about,” Chock says.

There are, in fact, some senior citizens in the Tuesday night class at Aiping Tai Chi Center in Orange, where Chock is a shifu, or master teacher, and co-director. But the class also includes a seventh-grader and several of us who fall somewhere between. Chock herself came to tai chi in her 20s. As a child in Taipei, she had seen her grandfather practicing in the courtyard of her family’s home, but she hadn’t thought of it as something for her. Instead, after moving with her family to New York, she studied at a mixed martial arts school. When she came to Connecticut as an adult, she visited “every single martial arts school” and tried kempo, karate, kung fu, aikido. Then she found Grandmaster Aiping Cheng’s studio on the Boston Post Road. “Her spirit, her focus, the training, everything about her just really resonated with me,” Chock says.

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She began studying under Cheng and competing in the martial art of wushu, but in 2001, she tore her ACL. “I thought, ‘OK, let me go and I’ll do tai chi, and that’ll help me recover, and once I’m recovered, I’ll go back and do wushu again,’” Chock says. Once she started tai chi, though, “I realized this is so deep… Master Aiping used to describe it as the well that has no bottom.”

The mixed-level class I attended at the Aiping Center began with a shared warmup and standing meditation, then broke into several groups led by different instructors and tailored to the needs of individual students, including two who Zoomed in from New York and Boston. Instructor John Kaluzynski took me through the components of the walking movement we had just practiced as a group, which included deliberate steps, leans, pivots and hand and arm movements meant to flow in a single relaxed but attentive motion. Each movement is part of a larger series known as a form. The most popular form takes six minutes to complete, but longer forms can take as many as 25.

“There’s something about tai chi,” says Pam Elliott of Hamden, who’s been practicing at Aiping for 18 years. For the first year and a half, she wasn’t so sure this martial art was for her. Then, one day, “I went from one movement to another, and I realized I didn’t know how I got there. I didn’t force it, I didn’t think it, I didn’t make it happen. It just happened from somewhere inside of me, and I thought, ‘This is special!’”

What makes Aiping Tai Chi Center, in particular, special, Chock says, is the fact that it’s a school devoted to tai chi—a rarity in Connecticut. You may find tai chi classes at a kung fu or karate school, a community center, a gym, but “when you have people at varying, different levels, it’s very hard to teach the foundational components,” Chock says. “So usually what happens is you… jump right into a form, and you’re just trying to follow along, but you haven’t really learned… how to move.” You also miss out on the “whole aspect of internal power cultivation,” Chock says. Aiping offers classes in Yang, the most popular type of tai chi, as well as the Chen and Sun styles and tai chi weapon forms. Group lessons in 12-week sessions range in price from $225 for once-a-week classes to $585 for unlimited classes. Private lessons are also available.

The center is also special, Chock says, because of its pedigree. Grandmaster Aiping Cheng, who began her wushu training in China at the age of 15, was later chosen to be on the China National Wushu Team six times between 1973 and 1988. She competed on the 1974 team, which toured the United States and performed on the White House lawn after President Nixon opened relations with China. After coaching at the highest levels in China, Cheng immigrated to the US and began teaching in Connecticut in 1996. In 2017, she tapped shifus Chock and Jonas Karosas to take over the school, which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Chock returned to competition after her injury and won the national titles of U.S. Female Grand Champion and Female Internal All Around Champion in 2006. But martial arts competitions were becoming more and more demanding, and Cheng and Chock decided it was time to take a step back and focus on helping people realize the health benefits of tai chi instead. Chock left a career in finance at Yale to devote herself to running the school full-time, but not before she’d put her tai chi skills literally to work. “I had a pretty thriving finance career even though I saw other people around me who were stressed and struggling,” she says, “and I knew it was because of my tai chi.”

The practice, she notes, is not only a martial art. It’s also a philosophy based on the yin yang theory that, essentially, everything exists in relation to its opposite. “It’s about how we react to changing forces and forces that you feel pushing at you,” Chock says, pressing the air with her hands. “This is something that everybody experiences constantly, and if you can relax even when you’re getting pushed, then you have just such a greater ability to be resilient and not be stressed.”

Pam Elliott has experienced that firsthand. “It gets inside of you,” she says, “and it just makes you calm, and it gives you strength.” With practice, “the movements come from some inner place. That’s, for me, what tai chi means.”

Aiping Tai Chi Center
inside Wudang Kung Fu Academy – 518 Boston Post Rd, Orange (map)
(203) 795-0203 |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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