Exercise is an integral part of serving on active duty. But after leaving service, making time for exercise can get tougher.
That’s where Army Reserve Master Sgt. Valetta “SuRae” Stewart comes in. With 23 years in the Army, including two years as a drill sergeant in the late 1980s, she’s now a proponent — and certified trainer — of TaijiFit.
Pronounced tai chi fit, it’s an adaptation of tai chi that’s easy to learn and quick enough to fit in a during a workday.
“Tai chi is called a moving meditation … you learn to move while you meditate,” Stewart says. “People very seldom just stop and ‘be,’ so tai chi helps you learn to be.”
Stewart says it’s easy for people to follow along during TaijiFit classes. “I don’t have to say, put your foot here, balance here, stand here and do this,” she says. “I move, you do what I do. TaijiFit is basically a really simple aspect of follow the leader.”
TaijiFit takes different aspects of tai chi, including the flow, movement and peacefulness, and makes it accessible to people who normally wouldn’t go to a dojo or take tai chi as a martial art.
Stewart says TaijiFit was designed for corporate environments, for employees to take 15- to 20-minute breaks when they’ve been sitting at their desks for too long.
“To learn something and to bring something in the workplace that will help people is beneficial to the employer and to the employees,” she says. “It can also be trickled down to your families.”
She says she’s always been interested in fitness and as a 9-year-old would tell her mother that she wanted to grow up to be an “Army man and fly helicopters and drive trucks.”
Now a command sergeant major-designee who lives near Joint Base Andrews, Md., Stewart is a certified personal trainer as well as a TaijiFit trainer. She received a scholarship, available to military veterans, from the American Council on Exercise for her personal training coursework.
Stewart says TaijiFit is especially helpful for service members who have gotten out of the military.
“With TaijiFit, they’re in the flow, they’re harnessing their energy, they’re increasing their lung capacity,” she says. “The lymphatic system and metabolism are kicking in, and a lot of people are sleeping better.”
Since TaijiFit incorporates tai chi’s mental aspect, Stewart says veterans with post-traumatic stress could benefit from incorporating it into their routines. The peaceful, flowing movements in TaijiFit are similar to meditation, which can help bring order to the mind and clear away negativity, she says.
Carl Powell, a TaijiFit master trainer who facilitated Stewart’s training, says TaijiFit instructors aren’t trying to turn participants into martial artists.
“We allow them to meditate and relax,” he says. “When you get to the point to induce flow in a room, you see everyone change and kind of melt into it.”
TaijiFit is low-impact and accessible to all fitness levels.
“Most people think you have to go to the gym and exercise for an hour, and you really don’t,” Stewart says. “It’s nice and it’s simple.”
Powell says anybody can practice TaijiFit. “That’s the beautiful thing,” he says. “With kickboxing, etc., there are so many things that are restrictive, so some people just could not do it.”
One difference between traditional tai chi and TaijiFit is that tai chi is slower.
“With TaijiFit, they’ve given us the opportunity to introduce contemporary music, which is nice,” he says. “We’re not using bells and whistles; we’re using real music.”
Besides participating in TaijiFit itself, Stewart says fitness is a great vocation that translates well to veterans, who are still eligible for ACE scholarships.
“Lots of people don’t know about it, but military people who have been recently discharged honorably can still apply for a scholarship to get trained as a personal trainer … for free!” she says.
Kimdra McNeil, the learning resource manager at Strayer University’s Prince George’s Campus in Maryland, near Joint Base Andrews, says she hopes Stewart can teach regular TaijiFit classes to students, many of whom are military.
“We’re excited about getting the students up and moving,” she says. “You’d be surprised because you’re moving so slow, but it’s really still working you out.”
Charlsy Panzino is a writer for Military Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.