Thursday, July 24, 2008

Striking a balance with passion

Striking a balance with passion, poise
As student and teacher, Peabody woman sees life-changing lessons in tai chi
At first, it didn't take Lisa Kirshon 10 seconds before she started to fidget.

The local tai chi masters were telling her to "change your consciousness."

Be the tree.

Your feet don't hold you up, they said, the earth holds you up.

Your head is touching the clouds.

"You have to think a little bit beyond your physical space," explained Kirshon, who lives in Peabody. "That idea of expansive energy dropping through the earth and lifting upward toward the heavens. And then you have this conduit, which is your spine. So life force flows through."

All you're supposed to do is stand.

Like a tree.

"There's no greed for results," she said.

No rush for instant gratification, just a search for a feeling"the million-dollar secret," she called it - and the thought that you're building a foundation for something greater.

"You feel that connection," she said. "You start to sense that you are a tree. It's hard to explain. It's such a personal experience. You have to experience it."

People thought she was a flake. She admitted as much.

The only reason Kirshon looked into tai chi was because of the herniated disk in her back. Acupuncture worked only so much. Aerobics was too stressful, and yoga didn't make much sense either. She took to tai chi, a "soft" martial arts technique often praised for its health and longevity benefits. She went to the Oriental Culture Institute in Danvers, learning under Rick Wong and Tom Tam, who had been studying the form for ages.

Despite what people thought, she could feel herself becoming sharper, healthier, more confident, and more interested in the art itself.

"I really became very passionate about this type of mind-body exercise and needed to understand," she said. "How am I getting better? What is it? What's changed?"

When Kirshon started the sessions, she was a "domestic engineer," 21st-century language for stay-at-home mom. But when she and her husband divorced, leaving her with their two daughters, she needed to make a living. She needed to make a new Lisa.

Tam had already shown his faith, allowing her to teach a few classes in tai chi.

She took courses to become certified in tai chi, health, and fitness, so that she could be fully compensated.

"The more I read, the more I researched, I became very passionate about this because I've been on the other side," she said. "I know what it's like to be in pain, to have your body control your mind when it should be the other way around."

Now 49, Kirshon is the fitness specialist at Brooksby Village, a retirement community in Peabody, where she passes on the same lessons she learned some 17 years ago. She's also taught tai chi at the North Shore Cancer Institute.

"I just want to inspire and educate and motivate people for my passion," she said.

Last month, the United States of America Wushu Kungfu Federation held its national championship and its third New England International Chinese Martial Arts Championships at Eastern Connecticut State University.

The crowd never rattled Kirshon.

She was a dancer as a young girl, and tai chi often reminded her of ballet.

"It teaches you poise," she said, comparing the two. "It teaches you focus. I drew on that experience."

She could still remember one huge performance with a full orchestra at the Hynes Center when she was a young girl. She just took her deep breaths and prepared for her ballet routine.

The orchestra played a jazz number instead.

By now, pressure, to Kirshon, was simply something you dealt with.

She trained for two months, squeezing in moments when she could - when she was brushing her teeth or at work when no one was looking. "Every day was a day of training," she said.

She returned to Massachusetts with five medals from national competition, taking gold in three events and silver in the others. "It's a very surreal experience. Sometimes I feel like, 'Wait a minute, I don't know how I got this.' "

When she thinks about it, though, she says she pictured it back when she was trying to be the tree.

She said she could see herself teaching, competing, becoming a different person.

"This is a whole new life," she said. "It's life-changing."

In a way, it's tree-like.

"Twenty years of training," she said. "Then you really identify with that."

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