Spotlight Iowa City: The art of living healthily
Frank Cheng is 85 years old. But that doesn’t keep him from executing a nearly flawless tai chi pose he calls “tiger ascending the mountain.”
“My stability is a little off today,” Cheng said as he attempted the move near the Coralville Public Library’s wishing well. “I’m getting old.”
Wearing a lavender blazer, red cardigan, and black-and-gold tie covered with Tigerhawks, the UI professor emeritus in radiology (he retired in 1992) said the age-old Chinese exercise of tai chi — a system that incorporates calisthenics, self-defense, and meditation — is helpful in promoting health and nutrition.
He has spent much of his spare time over the past 50 years sharing his knowledge of the art form. It keeps him active, he said, both physically and in the community.
“I should do it every day, but I’ll be honest — I’m not as consistent as I should be,” he said, smiling and sipping a Chinese green tea scented with Arabian jasmine blossoms. “Exercising day in, day out, it’s easy to lose interest.”
Cheng keeps his interest high by introducing new features to tai chi and teaching in the community, including in Iowa City elementary schools, university classes, the UI Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, and local retirement centers.
Cheng’s wife, Margareth, a retired elementary-school teacher who instructs an after-school program in Chinese culture at Weber Elementary, said her husband has demonstrated tai chi for children there.
“He did ‘the sparrow’ and other moves for the kids, and I told them to follow his motions,” she said. “They really enjoyed it.”
A term Cheng finds distasteful is one he said many youngsters use to refer to tai chi — “shadow boxing.”
“I’m not a fan of that one. It’s not for attacking — more for defending,” he said, “because it teaches you to stay calm and be alert.”
Cheng has incorporated three main “features” into his style of tai chi, which he learned decades ago in his hometown of Shanghai, China, from one of his professors.
He said he is interested in having music accompany the exercise, “something like Dvorak’s New World Symphony.” He also uses deep-diaphragm breathing techniques to coincide with the relaxing meditative aspect. The last facet of Cheng’s practice entails good air quality for a “clear atmosphere.”
Perhaps it was this interest in air quality and the environment that prompted Cheng to work tirelessly with the Small Business Flood Assistance Program as member of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, which he says he has worked with for 15 or 20 years.
Among the businesses he has helped revive are Coralville businesses Hunan and Peking Buffet.
Cheng is also proud of his title “Friends” Ambassador at the Cancer Center at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. His primary interests include cancer treatment and the natural defenses of the body.
“Though there’s no evidence, I believe using tai chi for health and exercise might help avoid cancer and improve longevity,” he said.
If the 85-year-old’s health is any evidence or indicator, then perhaps more will look into the benefits of tai chi.
“I’m healthy to this extent,” he said, nodding. “But you know, I do get the occasional backache,” he added with a grin.
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