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After Hours - Berdel finds peace of mind and body through t'ai chi ch'uan
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Richard Berdel
Richard Berdel

Berdel finds peace of mind and body through t'ai chi ch'uan

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

1997 was not an easy year for Richard Berdel. He realized he preferred working with people one-on-one to help them solve computer problems, rather than the supervisory role he held. The stress was affecting his health.

"I had a lot of tension in my body because of that position, and I was having a hard time letting go of it," he said.

Within a year, he transferred to a position that provided more opportunities for assisting others and, after researching various relaxation techniques, began practicing t'ai chi ch'uan.

"I gradually was able to relax, to let go of the anxiety that was leading to muscular tension," said Berdel, a computer systems engineer who has worked at ITC for six years.

One of several martial arts that have become popular in this country, t'ai chi ch'uan is a blend of healing art, self-defense and meditation that was created by Chinese monks in approximately 1000 A.D., though its Taoist roots are much older. It emphasizes relaxation and inner calm rather than strength, utilizing the body's internal energy, or "chi," to turn the opponent's force against him in an actual conflict.

A t'ai chi form involves a series of slow, flowing movements, including soft kicks and punches, intended to direct chi throughout the body. Focusing the mind on the body's movements can be therapeutic physically and emotionally.

A moderate cardiovascular exercise, t'ai chi ch'uan improves balance, lowers blood pressure and stress hormones, enhances respiratory and immune function, and promotes psychological well-being, according to research by the National Institute on Aging and other respected organizations.

"For me, t'ai chi ch'uan goes way beyond simply relaxing," Berdel said. "It's a sustaining activity. It re-establishes my feeling of connectedness to all living things."

He arises at 5 a.m. each day to spend an hour practicing t'ai chi ch'uan, including warm-up exercises. "It's a huge motivator for me," he said. "I really enjoy doing it a lot."

Berdel said he has tried several kinds of exercise, including yoga and bicycle racing, but "I haven't found anything that is as beautiful in the way it unfolds for me each time I do it. There is a level of beauty and inspiration in t'ai chi [ch'uan] that the other kinds of physical activities I've done don't have."

Practicing t'ai chi ch'uan has affected other aspects of Berdel's life, he said, encouraging "a kind of introspection with regard to every activity."

At work, being more relaxed has helped him to be more open and communicative with his co-workers, he said, while, at home, it has enhanced his ability to focus on a major project, building a new house.

For the past two years, Berdel and his wife, Mable B. Kinzie, an associate professor of instructional technology at the Curry School, have been overseeing the design and construction of their new home, designed by U.Va. architecture professor William H. Sherman.

"It's the most sustained creative activity we've ever undertaken," Berdel said, adding that "it's certainly been enhanced" by his t'ai chi ch'uan practice. The house will have a t'ai chi room with a wall-sized window overlooking woods.

Practicing t'ai chi ch'uan also sparked Berdel's interest in Taoism. He started reading the Tao te Ching, a collection of philosophical poems written in about 500 B.C. by Lao Tzu, and discusses eight translations of one poem each week with a Taoist study group.

"The really interesting thing about the Tao te Ching is that each of the chapters challenges you to go a step beyond the written word and let go of the intellectual control that we normally think we have over life and pride ourselves in having.

"When I stop grasping after sensations and what I think is going to happen next, I no longer have multiple desires going in different directions. I experience life going in one direction, and there's harmony between myself and the world."

Inspired by his study of Taoism and t'ai chi ch'uan, Berdel started writing poetry again, after a 15-year hiatus, he said.

He is a founding member of the Little Mountain T'ai chi ch'uan Association, a soon-to-be non-profit organization that offers classes in t'ai chi ch'uan and a Taoist study group Berdel leads.

Classes in t'ai chi ch'uan are offered through U.Va.'s Intramural-Recreational Sports program, as well as several martial arts schools in Charlottesville.

"After Hours" chronicles the interesting and varied off-Grounds lives of University faculty and staff. If you have ideas for future stories, please share them with us via e-mail at



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