The ancient martial art of tai chi

Buddy Jett teaches tai chi for the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department. Pictured here (from left), Debbie Hoffman and Kim Deloriea practice a pose with Jett leading the way at the front of the class. Culpeper resident Hoffman said of tai chi, “I like that it’s peaceful and involves the intellect and the spirit and the body. It looks so simple, but it isn’t.”

The latest in a series on county residents involved in sporting activities.

Leroy “Buddy” Jett has a white ponytail and a variety of tattoos. Silver rings glint along the perimeter of his left ear. His scratchy voice sounds like it’s made of the air and clay of Orange County, which it is. A member of the Patawomeck Indian tribe, he spent 32 years working in the printing industry, but for most of his life, his heart has been with tai chi.

On this particular evening, Jett, 69, is teaching tai chi to students who signed up for the class through the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department. The previous week, Jett’s mother died and earlier that day, he had major dental work. But Jett was smiling and ready to teach.

He reminded his students that the first principle of tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art form, is to relax.

“Body should be at ease; mind should be at peace,” he told the group, five men and eight women of varying ages.

As he led them through a series of graceful postures, the room was quiet except for the sound of a ticking clock and the scrape of feet, in socks or lightweight tai chi shoes, on carpet. The group’s movements had a flowing, liquid quality, as if they were dancing underwater.

“Every posture is an example of physics,” Jett said.

For some postures, he told his students to place 70 percent of their weight on one leg and 30 percent on the other. Accomplishing that requires bodily awareness and a good sense of balance.

He also reminded his students they needed to keep the knee and toe aligned in every posture.

“If you do that, tai chi is a very safe practice until you’re 100 years old,” he remarked.

After class, one of his students, Nancy Luja of Louisa, told him her father had taken up tai chi about seven years ago and credits it with his good mobility. His 100th birthday was coming up the following week.

Later, Jett laughed and shook his head over the coincidence. He has spent many decades studying tai chi and has taught it for the past five or so years through the local parks and rec office. If he can’t be practicing tai chi, there are few things he loves more than talking about it.

Jett’s parents split up when he was 11 years old. He grew up in Rhoadesville, where his mother, June Darnell Jett, worked next door at the country store her father owned. They were poor and Jett’s mother didn’t know how to drive. After he turned 17, he got a motorcycle, dropped out of Orange County High School and “kind of went wild.”

He was part of what he calls an “informal motorcycle club” and spent a lot of time partying around Orange.

Later he earned his GED diploma. He also married and had three daughters. That first marriage didn’t last, but he beams when he speaks of his family, including his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Having grown up without his father, he came to a crucial realization as a young man ready to change his ways: “I inherently knew I needed some discipline in my life.”

He began studying karate when he was in his early 20s and later joined the Blue Ridge Zen Group in Charlottesville. By chance, he saw a tai chi demonstration during First Night festivities in Charlottesville. The man leading the demonstration was Pete Yadlowsky.

Jett began studying tai chi with Yadlowsky in Charlottesville, and the two remain close friends. Yadlowsky and one of Jett’s longtime students, Augie Ruotolo, come to Jett’s classes and assist him with demonstrations.

After Jett found a new purpose in life through his study of tai chi, he packed up his Ford Grenada and headed to San Francisco to pursue it further. He studied with an aged tai chi master in Golden Gate Park and became ever more entranced with the practice that he says involves the mind and spirit as much as the body.

After eight years living in San Francisco and elsewhere, Jett returned to Orange County in 1994. He remarried and loves his family and fellow members of the Patawomeck tribe, but much of his life revolves around tai chi.

He is keenly aware of moving through both time and space as he practices it. He said his mind goes into a neutral state and he dwells in the moment, free of distraction.

That’s not to say that it’s easy.

“It’s full of paradoxes,” he said. “You have to put in effort [for it] to eventually become effortless.”

Jett wants people to remember that tai chi is a martial art as well as a way they can improve their mobility, flexibility and concentration. During his parks and rec classes, he brings Ruotolo and Yadlowsky to the front of the class to show the beginners how they can defend themselves through tai chi.

A graceful flick of one’s wrist or swift movement of the arm, and a would-be mugger would be left blinking in amazement. When tai chi is done correctly, no one gets hurt.

The ancient masters emphasized this lesson, Jett said: “Walk like a cat.”

Doing so involves delicacy, balance and supreme self-awareness. Cats don’t stomp their feet, and Jett said tai chi masters don’t, either.

Jett emphasizes the spiritual part of this internal martial art form that doesn’t involve striking opponents.

“It allows you to have an altered state of consciousness. It’s calming,” he said. He believes practicing tai chi regularly can help a person get through stressful situations—and he repeatedly tells his students they need to practice at home, not just in class.

Tai chi has been a gift to Jett, who said he thinks of his students as brothers and sisters. He wants them to feel the beauty of what he feels when he is moving in slippered feet across the carpet or across a grassy lawn:

“The here and now will never come again. This is it,” he said. Tai chi “becomes a profound exploration. Even more than that, it’s an internal exploration.”

To find out about future tai chi classes offered through Orange County Parks and Recreation, call 672-5435. For more information about Jett’s approach to tai chi, go to his website, www.floatingcloudtaichi.org.

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