Tai chi instructor helps students go with the flow

As his students file into the exercise studio at the Southern Saratoga YMCA for their tai chi class, instructor Sal Casano, decides to welcome them with a short skit about over-reliance on technology in the 21st century.

“We haven’t rehearsed this!” Casano said, before beginning to read his lines from a piece of paper.

After getting some laughs from the crowd, his students fall back into rows, and switch into the focus mode that is required for them to get the most out of their tai chi class.

Casano has been practicing tai chi for over two decades, and has been teaching classes at the YMCA for 11 years. Though he currently lives in Rexford, Casano picked up tai chi when he was living on Long Island, where he taught advanced placement chemistry at the Massapequa School District for 34 years. Casano previously studied kung fu, and then switched to tai chi.

Tai chi is a martial art that originated China. There are five different styles of tai chi, each in turn taught and passed down by members of select families. Casano practices Yang-style tai chi, which is today considered to be the most popular and widely practiced of the five.

Casano, who is certified to teach by the National Qigong Association, Patience Tai Chi association and the American Tai Chi/Qigong Association, still has a handful of students in his classes who came to his first class 11 years ago. Tai chi, he said, has both meditative, martial and health components to it, and likened the practice to a seashore in its slow and elegant movements.

Learning and especially mastering tai chi is a lengthy process, Casano said. Those who wish to learn tai chi, he said, have to be prepared to make mistakes, to change, and need to be open to constantly learning. Casano said that he doesn’t really put pressure on his pupils, because he believes that the work will get done, however slowly. But, he added, one of the most important and significant aspects to tai chi is the fact that, no matter what, the moves remain the same.

“The forms are the forms,” he said. He added that if students violate tai chi’s principles, which include correct alignment and posture, abdominal breathing, then they aren’t really practicing successful tai chi.

There aren’t any ranks in tai chi, just the position of student and sifu, which means master. Casano’s classes are open to people of all ages. There are no mats involved, and minimal equipment. Casano makes use of music during his classes, which he says plays an important role in focus and relaxation. He usually begins his class with a period of Qi gong, which focuses on breath control and meditation. Sometimes he guides his classes through long periods of standing meditation. There are thousands of different Qi gong practices, and then the classes moves into the more martial tai chi practice. Casano’s class retention rate is very high, he said, and he consistenly welcomes new students who have come at the suggestion of friends.

Tai chi has given Casano more than a new hobby. Casano said that he was able to carry over the things he go from tai chi, such as an increased ability to empathize, to his work with students when he was a teacher. He described how he was able to help a artistic student who was struggling in a science class find a new outlet for success by having him design a special Periodic Table of Elements. Had he not had tai chi to push him to be more understanding of the student, Casano said it would have been easier to let the student continue to struggle.

Tai chi, Casano said, is slow moving, and involves flow. The forms are very precise, Casano said, and learning to do the forms correctly is usually the largest hurdle people have to overcome in their practice.

“Tai chi is very prescribed…that’s what makes it tough,” he said. “Learning the movements and the sequences is the most difficult part.”

And just because the forms stay the same, doesn’t mean that the practice has an end point, Casano said. The intention, he said, is to continue to learn.

“You never can know it all,” he said.

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