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Breathing in the positive

Twenty years ago, Keiko Nojima and her baby daughter, Mei, headed along to a tai chi class in Featherston, run by Toi Walker.

While her baby slept, Keiko savoured “some quiet time”, moving through the gentle movements and physical postures that characterise this “internal Chinese martial art”.

It was the first time she had “really enjoyed tai chi”, Keiko said – Walker’s relaxed and fluid style providing a pleasant contrast to the more precise and “strict” approach practised in Keiko’s native Japan.

Walker’s class was the start of Keiko’s passion for tai chi, and it wasn’t long before he said to her: “You can take over my class!”

Today, Keiko runs three weekly tai chi classes in Greytown, Carterton and Martinborough.

A “top-quality” person

Some of Keiko’s students have been attending her tai chi classes for several years – like her friend, artist Janet Green.

Janet credits the martial art – and Keiko’s “kind-hearted and friendly” style of teaching – with aiding her successful recovery from extensive shoulder surgery.

“Tai chi has made a huge difference to my life,” she said.

“Keiko really is the best teacher I’ve ever had. She is so good with the detail without it being overwhelming.

“She is incredibly humble. She doesn’t make the movements and postures sound intimidating. She encourages us to do as much as we can.

“She’s a living treasure.”

And Janet clearly isn’t the only person who thinks highly of Keiko.

When Midweek caught up with Keiko, she was enjoying lunch after delivering a class as part of the annual Wairarapa Senior Regional Games, at Trust House Recreation Centre in Masterton.

A woman stopped to say hello to Keiko and described her as “a top-quality person”.

Living in the moment

Tai chi originated in ancient China as a martial art and has become a popular form of exercise, with an estimated 250 million practitioners worldwide.

As a martial art, it is not “about winning or losing”, explained Keiko.

“Tai chi can make us stronger, to keep swimming when big waves come in our life,” she said. “Tai chi’s technique is for avoiding the direct impact, and stopping the fight without using force.

“Swish, swish, avoiding trouble, and steadily keep moving on our happy way.”

It is also “a very mindful practice”, which nurtures positive energy through meditative movement and a focus on the breath.

“Tai chi is inner focused movement in a state of tranquility that our modern, busy lives have deprived us of,” Keiko said.

“So, not only older people, but all ‘no-time-busy people’ actually need tai chi, I believe.

“It helps you live in the moment, not always chasing the future. You can enjoy every breath and be thankful.”

Regular practice builds mental strength and resilience, Keiko explained – a skill she had to draw on very suddenly on the first day of 2024.

She was visiting her mother in Japan when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck near the northern coast of the Noto Peninsula, on the west coast of Honshu.

In that situation, “you have to keep going, you have to keep moving”, Keiko said, and ta chi was a means of doing that.

“When I get upset, I use tai chi to deal with it mentally.”

As well as helping to build physical and mental fitness, tai chi classes are important for building our “social muscle”, Keiko said – and she enjoys sharing in the positive effects her 60-minute classes have on her students.

“We look after each other in class and create a better energy together. At the end of class, our eyes are sparkling, and we enjoy every moment.”

Janet agreed: “It’s changed my life. It’s about letting go, leaving your problems outside the door, getting rid of negative energy and breathing in the positive.”

Not just a tai chi teacher

Seven years ago, a student of Keiko’s, who was in her 80s at the time, happened to mention how happy line dancing made her.

“I wanted to try it”, she said.

Not only did she try it, but Keiko now provides regular line dancing classes every Tuesday and Friday in Greytown.

The two art forms happen to be very complimentary, she explained.

“Tai chi boosts energy, while line dancing uses the energy. Slow and fast movement – it’s a good mixture.

“Tai chi is my passion, and line dancing is my hobby.”

In fact, at Studio 73 in Greytown on a Tuesday, you can enjoy tai chi at 9.15am, followed by line dancing at 10.30am, stop for a spot of lunch, and round off the day with chair exercise [tai chi-based movement but sitting down] at 2pm.

“Keiko is just so dedicated,” Janet said. “She drives around the region providing these classes in Greytown, Carterton and Martinborough, charging very little. And with petrol prices rising, that’s incredible.”

Ta chi used to be covered by ACC as part of its falls-related injury prevention programme, Keiko explained, but that stopped some time ago.

Classes in Greytown and Martinborough are thriving with about 15 regular students at each, but Carterton “could do with a boost in numbers”, Janet said.

“We would love to see more people come to the classes. Tai chi is great for balance, great for strength. Just show up. It’s all taken very gradually.”

For more information about classes, please email Keiko at [email protected].

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