MILWAUKEE — When Ron Mackiewicz began offering tai chi classes at Our Lady of Good Hope Parish last fall, he didn’t have great expectations of the project.

“I’m not a tai chi master, but I know what I know, and that’s more than people who’ve never done it before,” he said. “I thought, hey, if I get three people to sign up, we’ll do it, because I do it all the time anyhow – what difference does it make if I do it alone or with three other people?”

Patti Gondek, left, and Liz Dunlap participate in the Jan. 26 tai chi class led by Ron Mackiewicz, center. (Catholic Herald photos by Colleen Jurkiewicz)

And so he was “flabbergasted” when the response was so enthusiastic that he had to expand the programming to three weekly classes.

“The price is right,” he said of the free offering – but perhaps he’s simply being modest. It is, after all, impressive that 40 adults – parishioners and non-Catholic members of the larger community – signed up for the 45-minute classes, which are open to everyone, but focus on teaching the basics of the low-impact workout style to seniors.

As the finance council chairman, Mackiewicz was involved in discussions with the pastoral council and Fr. Mike Barrett regarding how to cater more programming to seniors at Our Lady of Good Hope.

“We asked ourselves, what are some ways of being church that we haven’t discovered? How can we be a parish and a church and engage the population that we serve, which primarily is an older group?” said Fr. Barrett. “What arose from that discussion was getting people to the campus on days other than those designated for weekend worship.”

Mackiewicz has been a tai chi devotee for several years, since injuring his back. “I was having a hard time with physical therapy,” he said. “I’ve always been fairly athletic and it was very frustrating for me.”

But after taking a few classes, he realized the principles of tai chi meant “exercising with my body, not against it.”

Ron Mackiewicz, right, a member of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, Milwaukee, leads a tai chi class on Thursday, Jan. 26, at the church. The free classes are in part an effort by the parish to engage the population it serves, according to pastor, Fr. Michael Barrett. (Catholic Herald photo by Colleen Jurkiewicz)

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art known for its slow, graceful movements. A form of tai chi has gained popularity in the West in recent years due to the physical and mental health benefits proponents say it encourages, especially for seniors.

“When you have issues with your back and other kinds of injuries and your nerves and your muscles and your brain get all out of sync, the slow and deliberate movements of tai chi force them back into working order, so to speak,” said Mackiewicz. “If you can do (the movements) slowly, you’ll really build strength, and you can do more quick movements because your body will be back firing in the right sequences.”

The effect of tai chi for him, physically, “was just remarkable,” he said. “I thank God for the day he put that in my life.”

Each of the three classes offered differs slightly in style and content, he said. One is a seated class, and most students are in their 80s and 90s or suffer from grave physical problems. “The movements really help a lot with the mind,” he said.

In a recent 9:30 a.m. class offered in the Northwest Catholic school building, the environment was lighthearted and energetic. Mackiewicz began the morning by going over the basic principles of tai chi, which include breath awareness, staying in the moment, muscle relaxation and central equilibrium. The class started slowly as students loosened their muscles by “shaking the tree,” swinging their hands from side to side, doing hip circles and “gathering” their hands from the ground.

Mackiewicz infused the class with humor and encouragement.

“You couldn’t do that three weeks ago!” he complimented one student who extended her leg during an exercise known as “kick-walking.”

To an onlooker, the exercises might look like simply moving in extreme slow motion – but to participate is to feel the burn. And all movements require great concentration and mental focus, making tai chi as much of a mental workout as a physical one. “Concentrating is good,” Mackiewicz reminded the students. “Thinking is bad.”

Stan Bruskiewicz has been coming to the class for several weeks. He slipped on the ice and injured his arm recently, and tai chi has helped him heal.

“I can raise my arm now much higher than I could before,” he said. “I like the slow and deliberate movements. They build strength. Before, it was hard to even get up off a chair.”

Fellow student Liz Dunlap experimented with other workout styles like Zumba but found them too intense. She likes that the tai chi is, in Mackiewicz’s words, “self-calibrating.”

“The movements are easier. I have back problems, so it’s hard to do really strenuous things. In Zumba, the movement changes were just too quick,” she said. “But tai chi is still a great workout – you really feel it the next day. You can push as far as you want.”

Most students are parishioners or community members, but the parish staff has also been known to take advantage of Mackiewicz’s classes. Fr. Barrett will slip into class now and then when he has a free moment.

He said, despite how it looks, tai chi is “a great challenge.”

“It’s all about balance and your core,” he said. “You see people down at the lakefront doing it and you think, they look so weird and silly. But then when you get involved in the class and you understand the principles as Ron explains them, it’s really very, very important, especially as we do age and walking and keeping your balance is so important. And also, it’s fun to get together with others, and it’s a different way to be church.”