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November 21, 2006 > Tai Chi inspires local devotion

Tai Chi inspires local devotion

by Julie Grabowski

Gone are the days of quiet, inactive retirement; time spent on rocking chairs by people delighted with the prospect of nothing to do. Many have come to view this period of their life as an opportunity to discover new passions, meet new people, and sample what the world has to offer. Violet Gondkoff is most certainly one of these people. Cheerful and full of energy at age seventy-six, Gondkoff recently returned from Zhengzhou, China, where she competed in an international Tai Chi competition. The Second World Traditional Wushu Championship welcomed 4,000 athletes from seventy-two countries; Gondkoff one of the thirty-eight members representing the U.S. She was awarded the silver medal for the 24 Tai Chi Form, and the bronze medal for the 42 Sword in a seniors group of ages sixty and older.

Gondkoff was born and raised in Eleele, Kauai, then moved to Fremont in 1961 where she raised her own family. She worked in the accounting department of Fleming Foods in Milpitas for nineteen years before she retired and began looking for something to do. She became interested in Tai Chi when she witnessed a visitor from Beijing practicing the art at the senior center. She thought it was beautiful and had to try it.

Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art form designed for meditation as well as self-defense, using breathing and slow movements to harmonize the mind, body, and spirit. Gondkoff has been enjoying this exercise for thirteen years and leads a group of her own at 8 a.m. every day at Lake Elizabeth that draws up to thirty people. She follows the Classical Yang Style, which is a gentle and smooth movement, with no twisting or turning. There is a five minute warm-up followed by Chi Kung, a breathing exercise. Then Gondkoff proceeds through four forms: the basic 24, the traditional and longer 88 form, the 48, and 42, which is a competition form. She also teaches the beginning 24 Form at the Ruggieri Senior Center on Thursdays from 9:30 to 11 a.m.

She says Tai Chi is a good exercise, especially for seniors. It is a soft exercise that anyone can do, increasing energy and strength, aiding balance, agility, and stamina, as well as benefiting those with high blood pressure. “It’s such a beautiful exercise. I just love it so much, it just transcends,” says Gondkoff. It is important to her for good health and pure enjoyment, but also admits with a laugh, “They say it makes you younger and I’m all for that.”

Friend and fellow Tai Chi enthusiast Marion Hatland was also drawn to the art after watching people practicing as she walked around Lake Elizabeth. She put it on her list of things to try after retirement and has now been involved for three years. She finds the exercise “very peaceful and graceful” as well as energizing and calming. There are a great number of forms in Tai Chi and Hatland says it can take a while to learn just one of them. An instructor named James told her that the 24 Form takes “a year to learn well, a lifetime to perfect.” But many masters practice in the groups at Lake Elizabeth, and everyone is ready and willing to pass on their help and knowledge. “We have a lot of resources here, its great,” says Hatland. People are free to do as much or as little as they want, moving among the various groups and learning from the simple to the difficult with no pressure. It is a great outlet for seniors, the friendly environment providing both comfort and safety. 

Gondkoff’s first student and regular attendee Alice Lau talks enthusiastically about learning the principles of Tai Chi; the circle of chi, and the power that flows through the body. She knows many people think the exercise is not challenging enough, that it is too slow and boring. “It releases all your body,” counters Lau. Concentrated movements work all the muscles and produce a strong energy throughout, releasing your mind from the duties and concerns of life. “I forget everything!” Lau brightly exclaims.

There are currently three different Tai Chi groups at Lake Elizabeth, though more emerge during summer months. Many that practice this art form are dedicated, passionate souls, who show up in inclement weather and on holidays; even distances don’t keep them away. One man comes from Pleasanton on the weekends, and a woman all the way from Santa Rosa because there are no groups in their area.

Gondkoff still takes Tai Chi classes herself, as well as hula lessons and line dancing. “You never learn enough, I think,” she says, acknowledging that she can’t sit still. She tried working with stained glass but decided it was boring, preferring to be physically active and on the go. Gondkoff also spends time gardening and enjoying her children and grandchildren, and will soon be off again, visiting family in Hawaii. As for thoughts on aging, she simply believes in the familiar phrase: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

 
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