Master Class

At Maine Coast Taijiquan, Ken Ryan nurtures bodies, minds, and spirits.

The tidy, shingled barn tucked back off Main Street in South Freeport is newer than most of its neighbors, but easily blends into the classic New England village. With skylights and a tall, windowed cupola, its second floor looks from the outside like an airy retreat for a lucky artist or writer. Its owner, Ken Ryan, welcomes me inside, and after removing my shoes, I follow him upstairs to a serene space, where Chinese music plays faintly, and squares of sunlight checker the white cathedral ceiling and glossy gray-painted wooden floor. This is the home of Maine Coast Taijiquan (pronounced “tie-gee- chwan”), where Ryan has invited me to join his Tuesday morning qigong class.

On a very basic level, qigong (pronounced “chee-gong ”) is the foundation of the Chinese martial art tai chi, and focuses on the same kinds of simple, slow, and flowing movements. The two practices are considered “Chinese internal arts” and at first may seem to be opposites: qigong is a healing art, while tai chi is technically a martial art. However, tai chi also has healing qualities, Ryan explains. “Through meditation and dedicated practice, healing and martial become yin and yang of one whole.” He compares qigong—which is easier than tai chi for beginners like me to learn and follow—to acupuncture without the needles, in that it helps to move energy and remove energetic blockages. “It’s the evolution of exercises that people can do to achieve the benefits of Chinese medicine on their own bodies,” he says.

Class members begin to arrive, chatting and laughing as they hang up their coats and climb the stairs to the studio. I’ve long associated martial arts with solemnity, so hearing such joy is a surprise. “The laughter is part of the chemistry,” says Ryan. “In Chinese medicine they say being overly serious makes your chi (life force) murky.” Some members of the group, along with Ryan, have recently returned from Tuscany, where they spent a week practicing qigong and tai chi three times a day, plus learning how to make salumi, eating pasta, and drinking plenty of good wine. They also take regular retreats to Vinalhaven in the fall, organized by a student who has connections there. These shared experiences dovetail with the physical practice, says Ryan, and are at the core of what he has created with Maine Coast Taijiquan. His students don’t just register for classes; they make a commitment as members. “You’re not just showing up at Starbucks for a latte and then leaving,” he says. “You’re part of something.”

Twenty years ago, Ryan had never heard of qigong or tai chi. He grew up in Brunswick, graduated from Bowdoin College, and went into teaching, meeting his wife, Jill, when they both taught at Mt. Ararat in Topsham. He left education when the couple moved to Boston, where they studied to become licensed clinical social workers. They returned to Maine to raise their daughter and established a private practice on Brunswick’s Park Row; Ken’s specialty became anxiety disorders. In 1996, he discovered karate, eventually earning two black belts at Brunswick’s Northern Chi Martial Arts Center, whose sensei urged him to try tai chi. Ryan first studied with Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, in Boston, founder of the now-worldwide Yang’s Martial Arts Association, for more than a decade; he has subsequently trained with a variety of other masters to broaden his practice, and now studies with Wang Hai Jun, a celebrated Chen Style Master. Finding a need in the community, he began teaching tai chi and qigong and discovered, as he dove deeper into the internal arts, that they mirrored what he was trying to impart to patients in his therapy practice. “The emphasis on deep relaxation, on controlling your metabolism and central nervous system through relaxation and mind focus; on balance; on physical exercise, which can be better than medication—it had the whole package.”

It was also fun, and connected him to people in a way that wasn’t available to him as a therapist. With that realization, the last piece of the puzzle clicked into place. “I feel like I have been getting closer and closer to using my authentic self,” he says. “There’s a notion in Chinese medicine that at the moment of conception we are all given a blueprint; then as you go through life, things get in the way that take you away from your blueprint. A good internal arts practice makes you more complete as your authentic self, closer to your original blueprint, and that in itself is a pretty exciting venture. But then, when you’re doing that with other people, who are on the same path, it magnifies the whole experience tremendously.”

The Ryans renovated the second floor of the barn, and in 2002 Ken launched Maine Coast Taijiquan. He now teaches eight classes a week: four at the barn studio; two at the South Freeport Congregational Church; and two at Bowdoin, where he has also hosted prominent tai chi masters and organizes Maine’s largest contribution to World Tai Chi and Qigong Day—a mass demonstration of the internal arts held each April. Some of his students are well qualified to fill in for him when he has to be away, and are critical to his school’s commitment to a continuous class schedule. He’s hoping to increase the number of classes he now offers. Talking about the development of the school over the last 14 years, Ryan seems surprised and humbled. “It’s been stunning to me, the number of people who have stuck around,” he says. “We somehow attracted a very special group of people who attracted more special people. I tell my classes that each of them makes the class better—to feel valued and that you belong also activates healing.”

Dressed in billowy black pants, a slouchy zippered sweatshirt, and soft-soled shoes, Ryan starts the qigong practice with simple, soothing movements: we rotate our wrists and ankles, massage our knees, and use our fingertips to tap the backs of our skulls. Our lower bodies are anchored in “horse stance”—legs spread apart and knees slightly bent as if riding a horse. “Our goal is making the body inhospitable to illness,” Ryan says. As I continue to follow along, I feel the same sense of warmth in my muscles and calm in my mind that I get from yoga. The practices are similar, he says, but where yoga focuses on holding positions, qigong and tai chi are more about “moving through the world.”

Some of his tai chi classes include practice with weapons—sword, saber, staff, and fuchen (horsetail whisk) —but the “enemy” for his students is likely to be raking the roof, shoveling snow, or working in the garden— ordinary tasks that older people, in particular, can get hurt doing.

“I haven’t been sick for the 13 years I’ve been coming here,” 84-year-old Sue Gerry of North Yarmouth gleefully tells me after class. “I ascribe my health, my emotional stability, and my joie de vivre to this.” Dorothy Eckhardt of Cumberland says practicing qigong has made a “huge difference” in managing her multiple sclerosis, and other class members chime in that they feel the benefits while driving, pushing a shopping cart, or when they have to sit for long periods of time.

Kim Flood first encountered tai chi when she saw Ryan leading a class in the Bowdoin quad. The Brunswick resident has now studied with him at the South Freeport Congregational Church for four and a half years. Diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in August, she credits her tai chi practice with keeping her immune system strong and helping her feel healthy. “It’s a slow-moving cancer—I probably had it for quite a while,” Flood tells me on the phone shortly before heading to Boston for chemotherapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She also touts Ryan and the school for supporting her through treatment. “It’s more than just exercise class; it’s really helped me with the anxiety,” she says. “I feel very blessed that I can still do it, even with the chemo.”

The transformation students experience from practicing qigong and tai chi is subtle, says Ryan. “It sneaks in, and you realize that the problems you used to have are gone— you’re less depressed, less anxious, your digestion’s better.” Even after just one class, I can appreciate the benefits. My body feels uncoiled, relaxed, yet thrumming with energy, and my brain is focused. Kind and thoughtful people have embraced me. I wish every Tuesday could begin this way.