Forty people in a corner of Bronson Canyon Park one recent sunny Saturday progressed through a tai chi ritual of short form, long form and short form again, each a combination of up to 108 separate, languid movements. They practiced in complete silence for nearly an hour and a half, in unison and yet everyone in their own fashion, the only sound coming from the birds overhead.
It happens every Saturday, but this wasn't any old Saturday.
This was a long-awaited reunion and the 45th anniversary of the tai chi class in the south Griffith Park area, every single Saturday since 1968. After class, the participants had a picnic to talk about their recollections.
Practitioners work in the shadow of a great oak tree planted two decades ago in honor of Dr. Marshall Ho'o, the pioneering founder of the group.
FOR THE RECORD:
Tai chi: In the Nov. 9 Saturday section, an article about a tai chi class that meets weekly in Griffith Park's Bronson Canyon Park misspelled the first name of one of the participants, Deirdre Feehan, as Deidre.
The current leader of the class, Kenny Klimak, and a couple of buddies discovered tai chi and Ho'o when they were all young guys living in the same apartment building in the early '70s.
"It was so cool. There are lots of tai chi classes now, but when this group started there was none of that," Klimak said. Though it's a martial art, tai chi is a gentle exercise that is believed to move healing energy through the body to reduce stress and promote a more peaceful presence in the world.
When Ho'o started his open-air class in 1968, Chinese culture — let alone martial arts like tai chi in those pre-Bruce Lee days — was little known in the American mainstream. Ho'o, born in 1910 in Oakland, studied tai chi in a basement and was an early advocate of Eastern medicine and acupuncture, before it was legal in the U.S. By the 1960s, he had moved to L.A., where he taught tai chi at several colleges and hosted a public television program about it, said Doria Cook Nelson, the unofficial historian of the Bronson Canyon group.
"We would practice and then he would give a 45-minute lecture every Saturday morning," Klimak said. "It was mesmerizing, this Chinese dude talking about all this esoteric stuff, especially when you were just coming to."
Klimak stuck with it through the rest of the decade until he "fell off the planet in the '80s." But he returned to regular practice in the mid-'90s, and now he's the president of the National Tai Chi Ch'aun Assn., which Ho'o founded in 1962.
Klimak shares weekly instruction duties with Deidre Feehan, another early student.
"This is year 42 for me," chimed in Al Walton, one of Klimak's original apartment neighbors who went on to found a tai chi group in Laguna in the intervening years, like many of Ho'o's students who became teachers themselves. But he's at Bronson Canyon every week.
"Every Saturday morning for the last 12 years I've shown up, rain or shine," he said. "I haven't missed a Saturday. It's a personal quest."
Cindy Constantin credits tai chi with keeping her young ("Berkeley Class of '67," she laughed) and recalled teaching summer classes with Ho'o in Aspen, Colo., back in the day, when people would come from all over.
"He knew that humor was important too, and he was just a magnet," she said.
As they were talking, Maya Ho'o, one of Ho'o's seven children, joined the group and looked approvingly across the field at the commemorative oak planted the year after Ho'o's death in 1993.
"Is that Daddy's tree? It's so big," she said. Ho'o said her father was dedicated to justice, and she was taken along for the ride. "I protested the Vietnam War from a stroller and was tear-gassed in East L.A. at the age of 8," she said.
Ho'o had forged a passion for social justice when he fought in Depression-era bread lines as a young man to feed his family, and he was a crusader for trade unions and farmworkers. He also loved to dance and throw parties.
Maya Ho'o, who lives in Mount Washington, says she doesn't get to the class as often as she would like, but she's pleased that it is part of her father's legacy.
"It makes me very happy," she said. "I think about how relevant all of this stuff is, because it's timeless, and I think about the state of the world, and I try to see it through my dad's eyes."
Tai chi class is 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays in Bronson Canyon Park in Griffith Park, just inside the gate at the far end of the first meadow on the right. Bronson Canyon Park can be reached by going north on either Bronson or Canyon Drive from Franklin Avenue. A $3 donation is suggested but not required.
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