Allen Zaklad, 70, a Mt. Airy psychotherapist (center), holds free Tai Chi classes for local residents every Sunday, 8 to 9 a.m., at Ned Wolf Park, located at the corner of Ellet and McCallum Streets in West Mt. Airy. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Allen Zaklad, 70, a Mt. Airy psychotherapist, has been helping patients with AIDS for many years. After seeing these patients suffer from debilitating physical and psychological pain for so many years, Zaklad decided to do something to help relieve their pain that did not involve taking more medication.

So in 2007 he began offering free classes in Tai Chi through COMHAR, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides health care for low-income Philadelphians. In 2010 Zaklad added classes in Tai Chi for his neighbors in Mt. Airy in addition to his free weekly classes in center city for AIDS patients and others.

His free classes for local residents are held every Sunday, 8 to 9 a.m., at Ned Wolf Park, located at the corner of Ellet and McCallum Streets in West Mt. Airy. Zaklad, who has been teaching martial arts for over 30 years, said he started taking Tai Chi classes himself to become more graceful.

“I thought I was a little klutzy,” Zaklad said. “I saw these people doing Tai Chi, and they looked like willow trees. I thought, ‘Gee, if I learned that, maybe I would look a little more graceful.’”

He began studying Tai Chi with William Phillips, a former student of Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing, who is known for his development of a Tai Chi form commonly known as the “Yang-Style Short Form.” Zaklad said Tai Chi is based on the ancient philosophy of yin-yang found in the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu about 2500 years ago.

“The philosophy is based on the three jewels of Taoism: compassion, humility, and modesty,” Zaklad said. “I am trying to live my life according to these principals.”

In 2007, Zaklad said he received a miracle. “I was suffering from severe arthritis in both my hips. It was extremely painful. I couldn’t do martial arts anymore.”

Later that year, Zaklad had both of his hips replaced at Rothman Institute. “It was a miracle,” he said.

After a few weeks the Mt. Airy therapist could do martial arts without any pain. “I felt like I had been given a fabulous gift, and I needed to do something to give back.”

That’s when he started teaching free Tai Chi classes to clients with HIV and AIDS. He explained that people with HIV and AIDS suffer from chronic pain caused by arthritis and peripheral neuropathy.

One of his clients was wheelchair bound from a stroke. “Half of his body didn’t work,” Zaklad said. “but he had a very strong mind, and he was committed to getting better.”

Zaklad approached the man and asked if he would be interested in learning Tai Chi. He said yes, and after a year of studying Tai Chi, he was able to get out of his wheelchair. “I was blown away,” Zaklad said. “It wasn’t just the Tai Chi that helped him get out of the wheelchair, but he said it definitely was a combination of the physical therapy and the Tai Chi. I was very humbled considering I am not a Tai Chi Master.”

After that Zaklad decided he wanted to offer free Tai Chi classes to his clients and Northwest Philly residents as well. He declared, “Doing Tai Chi, teaching Tai Chi and creating and sustaining our Tai Chi school gives me a strong sense of purpose that I am doing my bit to make the world a bit better. This was the hope of Professor Cheng in creating the Tai Chi practice we do. It is also the best way I know how to enhance my own health — mental, physical and spiritual. Tai Chi is one of the few activities I know that works the mind, body and spirit in a powerful and connecting way.”

According to Zaklad, scientific studies have proven that Tai Chi helps sharpen people’s cognitive abilities. It helps people to focus, reduces distractibility and creates a sense of calmness and peace. A few of the physical benefits include building core strength, increasing flexibility and strengthening the cardiovascular system. It has even been shown to protect against specific diseases including arthritis, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s and MS.

Zaklad wants his classes to “exemplify the values of compassion, humility and modesty.” Mt. Airy resident Tyler Smith, 30, who helps teach beginners and has done other forms of martial arts, said he loves coming on Sunday mornings because “it’s a very humble group. I love them to death.”

Karen Drumwright, 48, of North Philadelphia, agreed. Drumwright, who suffers from chronic pain, said the classes have helped her build strength in her legs and given her a sense of inner strength. “Zaklad’s class is more than a martial arts class; it’s a community that is welcoming and supportive,” Drumwright said. “Zaklad is an excellent teacher because he is patient and lets people learn at their own pace.”

Zaklad pointed out that Tai Chi is not competitive in nature. “We come together in mind, body and spirit with one strong purpose, to help each other,” he said. “My teacher, Sifu Bill Phillips, said that you measure progress in Tai Chi not in weeks or months but in decades.”

Zaklad teaches two free classes weekly: Sunday mornings in Ned Wolf Park and Tuesday evenings at the William Way LGBT Community Center (www.waygay.org), 1315 Spruce St., 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

For more information about Mt. Airy Tai Chi: azaklad@craftech.com or 215-848-4380.