Mt. Airy psychotherapist spreads Tai Chi throughout Philly to help AIDS patients, elderly

Alan Zaklad’s Tai Chi students prepare for class eager to ease the aches of aging, to treat pain from AIDS or to learn their next move, but across the board they come to just slow down.

Zaklad is a psychotherapist for AIDS patients, but he’s also a Tai Chi instructor in Mt. Airy and Center City. Rather than going by “doctor” or the formal Chinese name for a Tai Chi instructor, “Sifu,” everyone calls him “Zak.”

Zaklad was always interested in caring for the dying and wondered how he could help during the AIDS epidemic. In 1994, prominent Philadelphia AIDS activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya encouraged Zaklad to lead a support group at Philadelphia-based nonprofit ActionAIDS. Zaklad also started working at COMHAR Inc., an organization that provides healthcare for people with low incomes.

After seeing many of his clients’ struggles with various forms of physical and mental pain from medication and drug abuse, Zaklad wanted to help people heal without adding another pill to their daily routine.

In 2007, Zaklad started his first free Tai Chi class at COMHAR Inc.

“When you get HIV and AIDS, there are a number of sources of chronic pain, like arthritis and peripheral neuropathy which makes your legs feel as if someone is slicing them up with hot knives,” he said.

“Even if my clients are unable to stand, they can empty their minds and breathe deeply. It lowers stress, which is an immune system killer,” Zaklad continued.

In 2010, Zaklad began another class for his neighbors in Mt. Airy and in September 2012, he started to teach a class at Center City’s William Way LGBT Community Center. His classes are free-of-charge.

The practice of tai chi

“There are three jewels in Taoism: compassion, humility, and honesty. I’m trying to mold my life and my classes in that direction,” Zaklad said.

Zaklad studies under Sifu Bill Phillips at Patience Tai Chi School in Brooklyn. Phillips’ teacher, Sifu Cheng Man-Ch’ing, was well-known for his expertise in art, medicine and Tai Chi. 

The martial art form trains students to memorize movements used in fighting. The concentrated and fluid motions are meant to be a calming meditative practice that relieves stress and improves health, while strengthening core muscles.

Building a sense of community

Each class has a distinct sense of community where students work together and move at their own pace. On a drizzly Sunday morning, Zaklad’s loyal Mt. Airy students of different backgrounds and skill levels slowly begin their movements.

Newer students graciously move to the side to observe once they reach the last move they know. Most of his students keep going until the end. They are not always in perfect unison, but they are together.

The newest addition to the Mt. Airy class, Foster Childs, was drawn to Zaklad’s Tai Chi class for its emphasis on unity and equality. He was first exposed to the practice when he was in Vietnam and witnessed entire communities practicing together in public parks.

“I’m not the type of person that just joins groups, but I felt [Zaklad’s students] were very sincere, so I wanted to be a part of it,” Childs said.

Aside from Tai Chi’s physical benefits, one of the most important reasons Childs has kept coming back is community. In the midst of busy schedules, neighbors don’t often have time to stop and chat and Zaklad’s classes offer one hour out of the week where students can bond as they build their skills.

The classes at COMHAR Inc. create a space where the power dynamics between therapist and client are softened, according to recovery counselor Nate Michels. He takes part in the Tai Chi classes to manage stress and connect with paitients outside counseling sessions.

“Tai Chi doesn’t try to be complicated and psychotherapy often is complicated,” Michels said.

Michels recalled an instance where he was able to build a bond in Tai Chi class with a deaf client without having to communicate through a translator.

“Tai chi creates a soul dancing to understand the form and the spirit of the movement,” Michels said. “Being the teacher and learner back and forth builds a strong foundation for relationships.”

Impact on students

David Warren recently returned to classes at COMHAR Inc. Tai Chi helps Warren manage emotional stress and physical pain from 26 years of having HIV. 

“Other therapy makes you sore, this doesn’t. You have the opportunity to meet with other people and see them improve and learn from them,” Warren said. “I’ve seen how it works, I’ve learned to slow down and take care of myself.”

Donald Thomas started coming to classes at William Way 11 years after a car accident that left him in a coma for months.

“I wasn’t supposed to live. I’ve had at least 20 operations and brain damage and it left me with feelings of anxiety and just being scared of how to get myself back together. Zak was telling me this class would help me relax, take my time, and stay focused. At first, I didn’t think that would be possible. But since I’ve started coming to the group, it’s been helpful for me for my movement and mind,” Thomas said.

Candice Thompson, director of Center Services at the William Way LGBT Community Center, views Zaklad’s class as particularly important because it caters to the elderly LGTBQ community’s health.

“In the LGBTQ older adult population, individuals may be hesitant to engage in wellness activities at mainstream organizations, like senior centers. This is not always the case, but it’s documented that for some people, being able to engage in activities in an LGBTQ-specific setting, a safe space if you will, is very important. We know that when people are able to bring their whole selves to any setting, it is less stressful,” Thompson said.

The Tai Chi class also includes non-LGTBQ students, “building community across age, gender, and sexuality,” according to Thompson.

Mt. Airy classes are on Sundays at 8 a.m. at Ned Wolf Park on the corner of McCallum and Ellet Street. Classes at the William Way LGBT Community Center are on Tuesdays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at 1315 Spruce St.

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