Tai chi master gives back by offering free classes

When John Charleton asks people how old they think he is, they usually guess much younger than his actual age of 78.

He attributes being a “healthy 78” to practicing the art of tai chi for more than 40 years.

Tai chi is an art embracing the mind, body and spirit. Originating in ancient China, it is one of the most effective exercises for health of mind and body. Although an art with great depth of knowledge and skill, it can be easy to learn and soon delivers its health benefits, according to taichiforhealthinstitute.org.

About 40 years ago, someone told Charleton a grand master was going to be in Bloomington. He was interested in tai chi, so he went to that meeting, and the rest is history.

“I started attending meetings all the time in Bloomington, and Grand Master William C.C. Chen would come to Indiana and hold workshops,” he said. “He doesn’t leave New York very often but will be coming to Indiana next month, and I still takes opportunities to practice with him, even though I started teaching a long time ago.”

He said Chen used to travel from New York and have class in Indiana. Then over a period of years, he gave three students the title of master on the same day. One of them was Charleton.

“We were probably eight years into the practice at that time, and I have been a master in tai chi for 37 years,” Charleton said. “I think I might classify as a grand master, but I don’t meet the criteria, which is someone who has spent a lifetime doing tai chi. I’ve spent a lifetime doing it but make my living in another way, so I’m happy to be a master.”

He said tai chi is labeled as a soft martial art because it’s internal instead of external.

“You do more with less energy, so you find a way to take advantage of the other person’s energy,” he said. “Along the path of improvements, as soon as the other person makes a movement, the brain already knows what’s going to happen, and you can act with something that wasn’t planned. It just happens, so it’s kind of miraculous in some ways.”

We put all of this information into the brain, which is a storage place, and it does things you don’t realize, and you don’t know something has happened until your consciousness tells you, he said.

“There are several variations of tai chi, and they all have the core of the same thing: Softer, sensitive, understanding energy before it happens and all those kinds of things,” Charleton said. “There could be a lot of variation depending on the area that is practiced, but the foundation is consistent.”

Over the years, Charleton has taught tai chi around Indiana and Ohio, but the most time he has spent teaching took place in Indianapolis, mostly at different churches.

“One of my long-term students is now a master but still takes lessons from me,” he said. “There are a couple others I used to practice with that are masters, too, but I’m the one they come to.”

Charleton said the benefits of tai chi depend on a lot of factors, such as what the person has been taught, how they understand it and how they practice it.

“If they do all the right things, it does a lot, such as discover your own own energy, to relax and open up to let the channels open for chi,” he said. “Chi is a energy that travels throughout the body that goes beyond muscle and mind.”

Charleton said it’s not strength but rather explosive energy in the brain to the body. Having the channels open and the chi flowing naturally seems to have no limit.

Born and raised in Seymour, Charleton said the only time he was away was when he was in the military.

“Vietnam was heating up, and they were looking for people that were available and the draft was on,” Charleton said. “I knew I’d be going somewhere, so I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served for four years.”

He currently works at Cummins Columbus Engine Plant in the emissions group and has been with the company for 45 years but foresees retirement in the near future.

“I wanted to find a way to keep helping people after I retire, and I’d like to teach tai chi,” Charleton said. “I went walking downtown the other day to try to find a place to teach tai chi, and all the doors I went to were locked except for one — The Pacey Apothecary.”

He talked to the owner, Tonya Pacey, and she agreed to let him teach his tai chi classes there.

“I had made a personal commitment sometime before that to find a part-time job to augment my income after I retire,” Charleton said. “But I also wanted to find something where I could help people and it wouldn’t cost them anything.”

His second in a series of four free Tuesday night classes will be held at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at The Pacey Apothecary, 125 W. Second St., Seymour. The class will not be held July 4.

There were a dozen participants at his first class on June 20, including Bonnye Good.

“I’m recovering from a couple of surgeries and thought the tai chi class might help me regain some life and help my strength and my health,” Good said.

Another class participant, Coco Henderson, said she had been trying to learn tai chi on her own but wanted to attend the class to see if she was doing it correctly and was looking forward to the class.

A slow-moving practice that focuses on the mind, body and breath, tai chi is for all body types and energy levels.

The Tuesday night class is open to all ages, and while registration is not required, space is limited. It is recommended participants wear comfortable clothes and bring water.

If you go

What: Tai chi class

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays (no class July 4); schedule is subject to change

Where: The Pacey Apothecary, 125 W. Second St., Seymour

Cost: Free to the public; registration is not required, but space is limited

Instructor: Tai chi master John Charleton

Information: Call Charleton at 812-569-1256