TORONTO - On a recent weekday in the heart of Toronto's Chinatown, a group of people gathered for their regular practice of the discipline of Taoist tai chi — the very picture of calm and easy relaxation as they slowly progressed through a series of gentle synchronized movements.
They're just a few blocks from where the founder of the International Taoist Tai Chi Society, a Taoist monk who immigrated from Hong Kong, held his first classes in 1970.
This week, society members are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the world's largest non-profit tai chi organization, started by Master Moy Lin-shin in Toronto. As more and more students learned the art, and began teaching it to others, the society expanded to 26 countries and more than 40,000 members.
On Saturday, thousands of people around the world, including a sizable Canadian contingent, will mark the occasion by simultaneously completing the 108 moves of the tai chi set at 10 a.m. ET.
"I was very fortunate to be able to study with Master Moy every day for about three years before he passed away in 1998," said Chris Farano, manager of branches in the Greater Toronto Area.
"It was a wonderful experience, and an incredible learning opportunity on many different levels."
"Master Moy, as we referred to him, set an incredible example as an individual in terms of his compassion and desire to help others, and he did it quietly and selflessly, and for many of us, showed us how we could also do it and be of service to others."
Dr. Bruce McFarlane, a rural family physician for the past 40 years and medical adviser to the society, often attends the weekday class in Chinatown led by Andrew Hung. He's been going to the class for six or seven years, he said, ever since having back surgery.
"What I found, personally as I try to recover from my back disease, and patients, (is) that this has much to offer in terms of recovering health and maintaining health," he said. "I found this to be spectacularly helpful and rich.
"In a class like this, you'll have me, 66, with my disc trouble. There may be a 23-year-old, there may be an 83-year-old. We're all working together. It's pleasurable. It's engaging the mind, it's pleasurable to the body, and you're doing it with other people."
McFarlane can speak eloquently of tai chi's compatibility with conventional medicine. Western medicine, he said, has become "really powerful" for treating acute problems because of dramatic improvements in medications and surgical techniques in the last 100 years.
"But what I found with this art is I have a response for people to pursue when western medicine has nothing left to offer," he said.
Chronic conditions such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and arthritis, as well as regular aging, cause stiffness, the loss of strength and the loss of elasticity of soft tissues, he noted.
"Although we have surgical responses to some of those problems, for instance, an arthritic hip, we can replace the hip joint, but if we don't deal with all the tightness and weakness around the hip joint, you can't make use of that new hip joint."
Judy Millen, who's on the board of directors of the international and Canadian organizations, agreed that the practice of slow-moving, stretching, expanding and contracting movements offers health benefits.
The tai chi set of 108 moves can be taught in three or four months, and then a student moves into the "continuing" stage, she explained.
"There's no competition in our practice. You move into continuing, and at continuing, you refine. So the basic thing is to just learn the basics for the first three or four months, and then you move into the refinement. As you refine, you access the health benefits."
Taoist tai chi has a spiritual element, too. Before Moy died, he left the organization with the mandate to complete the Three Religions Temple of Fung Loy Kok near Orangeville, Ont., said Millen. It encompasses Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, and was completed in 2007.
"As far as the religious part of Taoism, he was far more inclined to just open the door and let people come in with the tai chi practice, because of the health benefits," she said.
"He really wanted us to get out there and demonstrate as much public recognition as we could. With the temple side of it, he was much quieter. It was about our wanting to walk through the door."
David Draper, who's also on the board of directors of the international society, echoed her comment.
"If people want to explore Taoism and the spiritual part of that, the door is there for them to walk through. It's a very open door. It's not the primary reason. It's not what we're here for."
There's a connection between mind and body, he said.
"We call it a moving meditation and so there's this development of the mind or this exercise for the mind at the same time that starts from the beginning ... this comes from a tradition that's thousands of years old and is founded in one of the great religions of China, Taoism."
Millen said the practice of Taoist tai chi can be compatible with having another religion, as long as the other religion allows it. Draper agreed.
"Many of our members talk about the fact that in their own practice through doing the tai chi, and being active and doing volunteer work, that it's helped deepen their own connection to their own religions like Catholicism and Buddhism, other forms, so it's actually complementary."
Farano noted that classes are held in parks, the society's own locations, rental locations, as well as hospitals, seniors residences and rehabilitation hospitals.
A study was done in the late 1990s looking at whether practising Taoist tai chi would improve balance in seniors, he said, and more study of the health benefits is planned.
"We are working on getting ourselves to a place where we can have peer-reviewed studies started about this particular art ... where it goes from anecdotal to what is expected I guess, ultimately, within the medical community," he said.
But enthusiasts aren't just necessarily seeking better health.
"It's a lot of fun and there's a great sense of community and spirit in the society," Farano said. "It's a wonderful environment in which to learn, and the society really attracts a lot of wonderful people."