By Nancy Gutierrez

When people think of Tai Chi, what usually comes to mind are visions of people dressed in loose fitting clothes moving methodically to the same rhythm.

No one would envision a group of junior high students spread out in a classroom with desks pushed up against the wall, but that is the picture of health at Steve Garvey Junior High School.

Since January eight boys in the Garvey after school program have had the opportunity to study the art of Tai Chi with instructor Norman Kao. Often mistaken as a method of relaxation, Tai Chi actually teaches students a mode of self defense, with the added bonus of having a calming effect.

"This is a self defense class," Kao said. "All of the moves are practical."

During last Thursday's class students began with stretching exercises. But there were no toe touches or locked knees there. Instead the students conducted a series of exercises with names like "horse stance". The students breezed through the warm-up, probably a little quicker than their teacher would like. Students were eager to partner up and review the moves they had already been taught.

"Some of the basic moves are boring to them but they are fundamental skills and the basis for more advanced skills," Kao said. "They like to do more of the playful exercises so I concentrate on their technique."

Kao said all of the exercises are useful in reducing stress in the students lives. Kao said the movements, though slow, are difficult and raise the body temperature, releasing stress.

"It is similar to an idea taken from martial arts," Kao said. "These movements help them relieve tensions, they're stress busters."

Joseph Morillo, the program group leader who helps supervise the class, said these lessons also help build confidence and self esteem in the students. As the students progressed through the classes he said he saw a change in some of their attitudes.

"[One student] didn't talk to any body when he first started. But he was interested in the class," Morillo said. "Now he talks to students and has more self esteem. It's good for them and they know how to defend themselves."

Kao said he has also seen an improvement in the students, compared to when they first started. The students have been working at Tai Chi for four months, each week they worked on their discipline and stamina.

"We are not as flexible as other Asian countries," Kao said. "Even in junior high our kids can't bend down and touch their toes. So It's rewarding to see them improve."

The classes are taught at 4 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. Students enrolled in the after school program are eligible to participate. Classes will not be available during the summer but will start again at the beginning of the next school year.

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