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Juniata Psychology Professor Uses Tai Chi in Classroom

(Posted September 10, 2012)

Phil Dunwoody at his Tai Chi studio in Huntingdon.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- The image of martial arts in pop culture -- honed from thousands of Hollywood films featuring ninjas, flying swordsmen, high-kicking Hong Kong detectives and the odd karate chop -- conveniently ignores the deep philosophical foundations and the mind- and body-sharpening benefits of these ancient techniques.

Phil Dunwoody, associate professor of psychology at Juniata College and a nationally affiliated teacher with Yang's Martial Arts Association, would like to change that. As an accredited teacher of Tai Chi and owner-operator of HuntingdonTaiChi.com, Dunwoody has been incorporating tai chi lessons into several classes on campus, as well as several extracurricular assignments.

"Tai chi is really two things," Dunwoody explains. "It's a holistic health practice that promotes balance and relaxation and it also is a traditional martial art that involves Chinese philosophy and Chinese kung-fu."

Over the last several years Dunwoody has incorporated his interest in tai chi into his teaching methods, most prominently in the Juniata course China Today, a cultural analysis course taught every spring by Dunwoody, Doug Stiffler, associate professor of history, and Jingxia Yang, a lecturer in Chinese.

In that course Dunwoody teaches primarily about China's cultural psychology, which is very holistic and typically views the world as being very interconnected. In addition to mastering the course material, Dunwoody takes the students out on the quad or into a studio and expects them to learn such arcane techniques as "Repulse the Monkey," "Part the Wild Horse's Mane," "Snake Creeps Down" and "Grasp Sparrow's Tail."

"Tai chi is really two thing. It's a holistic health practice that promotes balance and relaxation and it also is a traditional martial art that involves Chinese philosophy and Chinese kung-fu."
Phil Dunwoody, associate professor of psychology

"The students really enjoy getting out to practice the moves," Dunwoody says. "So far none have decided to learn tai chi more fully, but a lot of them have told me they are better balanced as a result of doing the movements." Explained simply, tai chi is an ancient martial art that can be an exercise or a defensive skill. As exercise, tai chi is sort of a "moving meditation," where classic martial arts moves are performed very slowly and precisely. As a martial art, these movements are performed at high speed.

In addition to classes, Dunwoody has taught incoming freshmen tai chi for the past two years at Juniata's Inbound Retreats program and has offered a tai chi class at the college's Alumni Weekend gathering.

Although Dunwoody can talk equally well about Jungian analysis or repulsing monkeys, he describes his devotion to tai chi as an outgrowth of his study of psychology. "As I became a graduate student I realized I was spending a lot of time sitting in chairs in classrooms and libraries and I thought I needed to be more active, so I started studying it," he recalls. "My attraction to tai chi is that it's rooted in Daoist philosophy and it has a very long tradition which also fascinates me."

Recently Dunwoody's school in Huntingdon became affiliated with Yang's Martial Arts Association, a worldwide organization of martial arts instruction that includes more than 50 schools in 17 countries. For two weeks every summer, Dunwoody travels to California to study with the association's founder Yang Jwing-Ming and his staff. "Anyone interested in either improving their balance and flexibility, or in learning a traditional Chinese style of kung fu, give Tai Chi a try," Dunwoody says.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.