PLEASANT HILL -- On a Tuesday evening, as rain drummed on rooftops and streets, a group of people moved slowly, in cadence with the rain.
Students of the Taoist Tai Chi Society lifted their arms and made smooth pivots with their feet as they followed instructor Sim Peyron's guidance.
His mother, Phyllis Peyron, once suffered from chronic back pain and started practicing tai chi in Canada with relatives. Over time, as her interest in the gentle martial art form increased, the pain in her back decreased.
"I cannot pinpoint exactly when the pain stopped. It's like all of a sudden, I don't need a pillow to use on the plane," said Phyllis Peyron. "They taught me fundamental exercises that aligned my back."
So she began to look for more tai chi classes in the Bay Area and found the Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA had classes as far away as Palo Alto and San Francisco. Peyron aimed to offer this form of tai chi in her own backyard.
With the help of instructors from San Francisco, she began offering classes in the Kumon Learning Center in Pleasant Hill, which she owns. Only recently, after a retrofit, half the building space was designated specifically for tai chi classes.
On March 30, she and fellow students will celebrate the official opening of the Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA's first permanent branch center in the Bay Area.
There will be free admission to the grand opening of its new California center at 2601 Pleasant Hill Road in Pleasant Hill, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Members will also demonstrate the tai chi "set" and talk about the health benefits of this ancient art.
The event also includes a vegetarian lunch and a performance by Chinese lion dancers. Activities are free, but donations are welcome.
Existing branches in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Mendocino and Sonoma are rental, temporary facilities, said Alice Wong, the society's Bay Area president.
"This is the only full-time location in the San Francisco Bay Area," said Wong.
She added that while the international headquarters is in Toronto, where Moy Lin-shin founded the society, there are branches across the United States.
What makes this tai chi different from other forms is the society's mission to make the benefits and methods available to all, as well as to promote cultural exchange and help others receive the health-improving qualities of the internal and gentle martial art, Wong said.
Cheryl Arceneaux first discovered tai chi in 2009.
"I'm half Chinese and half African-American, and I've always been interested in the martial arts," said Arceneaux. "I would see people doing tai chi in the park, and I said, 'Maybe one day I'll try that.' Then my daughter, who was 17 at the time, suggested she'll try it with me. I was intrigued how relaxed I felt after doing tai chi."
Arceneaux worked a stressful job at an insurance company and remembers being a "gym rat," working out during her lunch break, then heading back to work. She tried different regimens but nothing seemed to fit.
Tai chi movements are slower paced, and Arceneaux said she believes it's a great way to move the body mindfully to prevent and heal injuries.
Axel Duwe of Martinez said his sister-in-law who had been practicing tai chi for 17 years introduced him to the martial art. He was thrilled to find out there was a tai chi center so close to home.
"It's surprisingly good for strength," said Duwe, who teaches a microbiology class at Diablo Valley College. "Tai chi helped me empathize with students -- it makes you tolerant to learning new movements. It rejuvenates you in that respect."
Duwe said a chronically bad shoulder plagued him, but after practicing tai chi for just months, the shoulder pain stopped.
"It's good for concentration," he said. "I can't think of a better thing to do for older people. You can modify movements. You do what you can. I've seen a person in a wheelchair doing tai chi. It's a really nice social activity -- that's why they keep coming back. It gets people out of the house."
Students say tai chi isn't just for older adults. Sim Peyron, Phyllis Peyron's son, is an instructor, and Arceneaux's young adult children also practice the art.
Frances Tompkins of Martinez said she was first introduced to tai chi by a high school instructor 10 years ago. She's only been practicing at the new center for two months and said she's hooked.
"It seems like a good fit, the society's mission is to spread the benefits of tai chi and make it accessible to different types of people," Tompkins said. "It's been a mindful practice for me. There are moments of stillness that bring my brain to rest, and I'm thinking of tai chi and not thinking of 10 other things."
Who: Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA, Pleasant Hill location
What: Grand opening celebration
When: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. March 30
Where: 2601 Pleasant Hill Road, Pleasant Hill
Information: www.california.usa.taoist.org (click the Pleasant Hill link), and the International Taoist Tai Chi Society website at www.taoist.org. For queries about classes and events, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 925-979-5509.