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High school teacher Holly Escobar runs and kickboxes, but appreciates the peacefulness and sense of well-being she gets from performing the ancient Chinese practice of Qigong.

She's one of several students who take classes regularly with Santa Rosa instructor Lori Furbush, and participants say the practice has physically, spiritually and emotionally enriched their lives.

"I come after work and my mind and energy are scattered. This gets me grounded. It helps to center me and makes my focus stronger. When I leave class, I'm calm but not sleepy," said Escobar, who has been practicing Qigong for a year and a half.

Some of Furbush's students accustomed to vigorous athletic regimens have had to abandon their previous workouts because of injury or illness, and Qigong is providing them a way to preserve or increase their flexibility and strength. Others in her class who are involved with sports or yoga find Qigong an important addition to their other athletic activities.

Numerous teachers in the North Bay offer classes in Qigong and Tai chi, and while there are similarities, classes differ based on how each instructor was trained and their individual teaching approach. Classes are offered in local health clubs, gyms and private home studios.

Yoga is similar to Tai chi and Qigong because they all involve physical, mental and spiritual practices, but there are some key differences. With yoga, which originated in India, participants move through postures and positions both standing, sitting and on the floor, with the arms often bearing the body's weight. By contrast, in Tai chi and Qigong, which were developed in China, practitioners are standing and they go through a sequence of choreographed movements with legs bearing the majority of body weight.

Like Tai chi and Qigong, there are dozens of yoga classes offered throughout the North Bay, with sessions available as early as 5 a.m. and classes extending into the evening. Classes take place in health clubs, private studios, meeting halls and schools.There are many forms of yoga, such as Bikram or hot yoga, gentle yoga and Iyengar yoga, which uses props like cushions, straps and blocks. There is yoga for vocalists, chair yoga for seniors, yoga for children, prenatal yoga and even laughter yoga.

Those interested in learning about Tai chi, Qigong or yoga can do an Internet search to research what's offered in their area, and it's possible to watch YouTube videos demonstrating different forms of yoga, Qigong and Tai Chi. It's often possible to take an introductory first session before making a long-term commitment to a particular teacher or class.

Furbush, who also teaches yoga, describes Qigong as a way to tap a person's internal energy and get it flowing throughout the body. It's a cleansing, relaxing process and students in her class stand quietly as soft music plays and she guides them through deep breathing, gentle movements and self-acupressure.

The Chinese character "qi" has been simply translated as breath or life force, and "gong" has been translated as work or cultivation, meaning the practice is about working with a person's vital energy.

Furbush's classes are held in a tranquil setting, either in a studio at her Santa Rosa home or in her wooded, secluded backyard when the weather is good. She also teaches at Parkpoint Health Clubs in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg and Montecito Heights Health Club in Santa Rosa.

Amy MacNair, who has been facing medical issues, was referred to Furbush by an acupuncturist. She used to do weight training and high-impact aerobics, and likes Qigong because it "helps unstick energy and balance my energy."

Another Qigong student, Cindy Arthur, has a cervical spine injury and was referred by a neurologist.

"I've been coming for a couple of months. I'd been doing weights and cycling. I feel tranquility from this and focus, and I'm beginning to feel the spirituality of the group. I was frustrated I couldn't do the same physical things I did before, but my strength is improving and my balance is better," said Arthur.

When Furbush first began studying Qigong in Sebastopol, she said she wondered, "What in the world does this do for you?" But as she became immersed in learning the practice, she realized its powerful effects on the body and mind.

"The key word is &‘easy.' It shouldn't hurt. It should be effortless and soft with no tension in the body," she said.

Joseph Park, a Petaluma acupuncturist and Chinese medicine practitioner, teaches both Tai chi and Qigong, and he's given patients written prescriptions for Qigong, first demonstrating to them how to do it.

"Qigong is a stationary way to build up energy, like a kettle boiling things up. Tai chi is a martial art, but it's practiced as a meditative movement where you're coordinating the movements with the breath," said Park, who teaches Tai chi at Club One in Petaluma, and during good weather teaches public classes at a local park.

Park explained that Tai chi has evolved from the different families who practiced it in China, and there are many different interpretations and forms.

"Some are completely different, but the general principle is you stay relaxed, centered, and are not using physical forces," he said.

Freestone instructor Jane Golden teaches both Qigong and Tai chi, with classes held several times a week in the large gymnasium at Salmon Creek Middle School. She's been teaching in the area since 1979, and many of her students have been participating in her classes for years.

Tai chi is often described as meditation in motion and promotes relaxation through a graceful sequence of memorized movements. Although it was originally practiced as a martial art, Tai chi gained recognition in the United States in the 1960s as a stress-reducing form of exercise, and was featured in the opening scenes of the popular musical "Hair," explained Golden.

Tai chi is an elaborate form of Qigong, and because it consists of set steps, practitioners develop mental discipline as they memorize the pattern of movements, said Golden.

With Qigong, it's possible to drop in to a class and follow the instructor as she demonstrates movements, which are initially simpler to learn than Tai chi.

The fluid, gentle movements of Tai chi may look physically undemanding to an observer, but people who practice the ancient martial art say Tai chi is deceptively challenging.

Moving through a slow or fast set of movements requires core and lower body strength and recruits muscles to create proper body alignment, posture and balance. Tai chi also enhances joint flexibility and improves circulation, said Golden.

One of her students, Tony Styskal of Cazadero, is an avid surfer, and he finds doing Tai chi three times a week beneficial for his chosen sport.

"It's exactly like surfing moves. It's helped me surf better, and it helps with everything you do," said Styskal.

Johncaleb Sarsfield, 25, is a Sebastopol vegetable farmer who likes hiking and cycling, and he joined Golden's Tai chi class about four months ago.

"You get a calmness that extends beyond the class, and it lasts all week long. It's good for posture, leg strength and alignment," he said.

Jean Cool, an OB/GYN physician, said she enjoys using props in Tai chi class.

"Nobody said &‘Do it because it's fun,' but for a lot of us, it's the only place to play with swords and sticks. I do Tai chi because it makes me be in the present and slow down in the world, and that's huge for me."

Another student, a 73-year-old woman, said doing Tai chi has given her a greater sense of physical security and helped improve her balance, and she's even been confident climbing up into fruit trees.

Golden likes to paraphrase a popular expression about Tai chi and its usefulness throughout life.

"When you practice Tai chi in youth, it's a martial art. If you continue practicing in middle age, it's for health and exercise. And if you keep doing it in old age, it becomes poetry," she said.

Sonoma County freelance writer Janet Parmer can be reached at 782-9130 or jhparmer@comcast.net.

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