2017-01-19 / Around Town

Conversation with Tai Chi Instructor Jesse Harding

By Tom Walsh

Anne Cuvelier is one of the many students who enjoy Jesse Harding's tai chi class at the Edward King House Senior Center. (Photo by Carmela Geer) Anne Cuvelier is one of the many students who enjoy Jesse Harding's tai chi class at the Edward King House Senior Center. (Photo by Carmela Geer) If you’ve ever enrolled in a local tai chi class, it may be that Jesse Harding has impacted your life.

“Jesse is the real deal,” said Carmela Geer, executive director at the Edward King House Senior Center, where Harding teaches tai chi. “Jesse is a very open soul, a very warm person. He has set the bar so very high. Tai chi is part of our fabric here and we feel that in Jesse we have one of the best tai chi instructors in the state. We are truly blessed.”

According to descriptions available online, tai chi is considered a “soft martial arts style” that focuses on internal power and stresses leverage and a lack of muscle tension. The discipline, it is said, teaches practitioners to use attackers’ aggression and force against them, rather than meeting it head on.

Harding remembers where he was and exactly what sparked his nearly lifelong adventure with tai chi and the martial arts.

“I was eight or nine years old,” Harding said. “One of the sparks was in 1984 when I went to see the movie ‘The Karate Kid.’” Not long afterwards, he signed up at a Villari school in Quincy, Massachusetts, to learn more about what he’d seen on the silver screen.

Harding, 42, lives with his wife, Anh Hoang Harding, in Quincy. But he has strong roots in Newport, where he has taught undergraduate courses as an adjunct professor at his alma mater, Salve Regina University.

Another spark that propelled Harding further down the tai chi and martial arts path was his enrollment at Salve. “I took a course freshman year in Asian philosophy,” Harding recalled. “I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.”

And so he did. Harding’s resume starts with his Bachelor of Arts degrees from Salve in philosophy, psychology and religious studies. But that’s just the beginning.

Over time, he has become the chief instructor and director of Villari’s Martial Arts in Middletown. He has also become a sixth-degree black belt and master instructor of karate and has had martial arts training in Southeast Asia and Thailand with various well-known grand masters, including Tuhon Leo Gaje Jr., Tom Sotis, Tuhon Nene Tortal and Guru Edward Lebe. He is also an instructor of “Amok! Combat Tactics” and “Extreme Combatives.”

Sitting in the King House recreation room and talking with Harding, a soft spoken and easy going man, and listening as he explains the use of these tactics can be difficult to imagine.

But tai chi, it is often stressed, focuses more on health and meditation than on the use of force in combat. It purports to teach ways to deal more effectively with stress and with ways to calm the body and mind when one encounters stressful circumstances. These attributes more closely describe the King House classes.

In some instances, tai chi offers physical movements that may be used for self-defense in combat situations. But these are intended to deflect or redirect blows rather than meeting force with force.

In his classes, Harding often refers to the Dao, which may be defined as “the way or the path.”

“It’s a theory of how things work, the way of nature,” Harding said. “It’s a philosophy of being in harmony with oneself, the world, the universe.” Attaining those goals results in harmony and balance, as well as good health, he added.

“Jesse lives what he teaches,” the King House’s Geer said. “He teaches from the heart. Plus, he truly understands this age group.”

Roger Englander, a 90-year-old Newport resident and faithful attendee of Harding’s King House tai chi classes, remembers getting started in 2001. “I don’t think I’ve missed a class that was on the schedule,” Englander said. “Back then, Jesse was like a teacher learning from his students.”

These days, Englander maintains that the beneficial exercises that accompany tai chi help him stay on his feet. When no classes are scheduled, he added, he does tai chi exercises at home “when I get out of bed. I would not be able to walk without these classes.”

Englander’s Newport home has three flights of stairs. “I’m on them all day. If I take it very, very slowly I can do it.”

Harding said he has heard similar stories from a few other tai chi followers.

“Learning to relax is a big part of it,” said the instructor, who also likes to sprinkle his thoughts about tai chi with various short parables to illustrate a point.

For example: “A man had a horse and a son. One day the horse ran off. People said it was awful that he lost his horse. But then the horse came back with another horse. It’s great that now you have two horses, people said. The man asked his son to break in the new horse. The horse threw the son to the ground, breaking the boy’s leg. How unfortunate, the man was told. The next day an army recruiter came to the door looking for able-bodied sons to go fight a war. We can’t use him with a broken leg, the recruiter said.”

“Sometimes,” Harding said, “what appears to be bad becomes good.”

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