By Marleen Roggow
Kenn Chase has been teaching Yang-style tai chi for over 50 years. He knows the many benefits of this low-impact mind-body practice, such as stronger legs, improved balance, and stress relief. The social connections are just as important.
So when Chase and his wife Vicki moved to Oakmont last year, he was eager to bring the benefits of tai chi to the uninitiated and approached Nigel Hall of the Kenwood Community Club about starting a class at the Kenwood Depot.
There is already a sense of warmth and camaraderie in his Thursday morning class. Gabrielle Brown is there to work on her balance, “something that is so important as we age.” Others find it helps them relax. “I really enjoy the meditative aspect of the slow movements,” Ross MacLeod said.
Chase first became interested in tai chi while studying philosophy in grad school at San Jose State University. He specialized in existentialism and Asian philosophy. A friend suggested he check out a tai chi class with Master Choy at the San Francisco YMCA. Chase was immediately hooked by this “philosophy in motion,” and after only two years he was invited to teach at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where he met and was influenced by such luminaries as Moshé Feldenkrais and Ida Rolf.
“That’s when my life really began,” he recalled. His new connections at Esalen led to new opportunities, and he later spent many memorable years living and teaching in Europe.
After returning to California, Chase began offering tai chi classes at UC Berkeley. It was there that one of his students, a doctor, asked him to do a talk and demonstration of tai chi to his medical staff. This was how Chase met his future wife Vicki, a nurse.
The couple would eventually combine their skills and interests to develop a highly successful cardiac rehab program. Word of their program grew, and in 1993, they were invited to work and teach at Cardiovascular Associates of Marin. Always in the presence of Vicki, in her role as a nurse, cardiac patients took part in physical therapy sessions, nutrition counseling, stress reduction classes and a peer support group based on the model developed by the Center for Attitudinal Healing. Chase led the stress reduction classes, teaching tai chi, the Feldenkrais method, and meditation. The program ran until 2011 and close to 900 people completed it, some of whom have continued to study with Chase.
When the couple later moved to the rural Marin community of San Geronimo Valley, word of mouth again led to a teaching opportunity. Chase was asked to teach at the Woodacre Improvement Club and then the San Geronimo Valley Community Center.
Snuey Pearlman and her husband Wyp de Vries have been studying with Chase since the Woodacre days.
When asked what they enjoy about tai chi, Pearlman said, “I love that it’s something we can do together. And after all these years Kenn is still excited and still loves the practice so much.” De Vries said about Chase: “His form is so immaculate. That’s why he inspires me. And he’s very gentle on his pupils.”
Chase’s commitment to his students runs deep. When COVID-19 first hit and the Marin classes were canceled, Chase knew that somehow he had to keep teaching, and video classes were not going to suffice. Undaunted, he scoured the local outdoor spaces and in June 2020 resumed his classes on ball fields, in parks, and at golf courses. Masked and with students spaced six feet apart, he taught outdoors for over a year, during frosty winter mornings and hot summer days when the yellow jackets threatened to sting. Chase turned 80 last year and his students surprised him with songs and cupcakes on the golf course before class.
Asked what it is that inspires him to keep teaching, he responds without hesitation, “It’s the students!” The form never changes, but he notices his students doing it differently every time. He never runs out of ideas and says he still loves teaching. “It keeps you strong.”
For more information about the tai chi class at the Kenwood Depot, held on Thursdays at 10 a.m., contact Kenn Chase at (415) 269-7802.