DUNEDIN — Pegoty Packman is moving around a class of a dozen students at the Taoist Tai Chi Center, adjusting a foot here, straightening a back there. She focuses on each student's stance, helping that person complete a move — one of 108 such moves that constitute a "set" in Taoist tai chi.
A Pinellas County middle school principal for 22 years, from 1982 to 2004, Packman credits this ancient Chinese art form with having kept her life in balance since 1990. The demands of a career in education created that need.
"The day-to-day pressures of being a committed educator took a lot of energy," she said. "My mind was always going."
In 1990, after reading an ad for tai chi classes taught in St. Petersburg, Packman enrolled in her first class.
"I had an interest in Eastern cultures and spirituality," she said, "and this class sounded like a good fit for me."
That class marked the beginning of what appears to be a lifelong commitment. "I found it restorative," she said of tai chi, "and I've never stopped."
Combining the physical with the spiritual, this slow version of martial arts is sometimes likened to a moving meditation. It involves stretching, bending, twisting and focusing on each move. The entire set, which takes about 20 minutes, is packed with gentle weight resistance exercises, using the resistance of one's own body.
At school, Packman, a Clearwater resident, found herself practicing deep hip bends in the ladies room, or completing a set in the corner of the cafeteria. She drew the interest of dozens of students, first at Oak Grove Middle School and later at Palm Harbor Middle School. Certified to teach the art in 1991, she began an after-school class at Oak Grove, which was attended by students, parents and staff.
In the early 1990s, Packman sustained injuries in a serious car accident. Left in pain and feeling stiff, she used tai chi to regain her flexibility and strength.
Of the many forms of this ancient art, the Taoist version is attributed to a 13th century Taoist monk in China who created the 108 moves. That version was brought to Canada in the mid-'70s by another monk, the late Master Moy Lin-Shin, whose influence on North American practitioners was profound, Packman said. From Canada, it moved into the United States.
"Love of people and helping them is the common thread in Taoist tai chi," she said of the organization, where all instructors are volunteers. "That dedication to helping others felt natural to me."
Packman teaches three classes a week at the center in Dunedin.
Among the students is Norris Varkalhoff, a bus driver for the Pinellas Transit Authority who drives the 4:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. shift. He entered the class, he said, seeking a sense of calm. Sitting long hours at the wheel, unpredictable weather, traffic and sometimes difficult passengers have all contributed to his feelings of stress.
The 42-year-old began tai chi classes with Packman almost a year ago and now does a complete set at home in the wee hours before setting out.
"That recharges me for the whole day," he said of the exercise. "I can feel the difference from a year ago until now."
Packman, who retired from public education in 2004, has long been active in the national and international Taoist tai chi organizations and serves on boards or committees in both. She sees no end in sight to her involvement.
"It's an incredible living legacy," she said of teaching tai chi. "I don't have to wait until I'm dead to leave the legacy of Master Moy."