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By Kaitlin Mayhew -- email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Nine years ago, Pete Voll was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition that leaves many sufferers bedridden.
He credits his background in martial arts, specifically Chinese martial arts, for his being not only mobile, but able to open his own tai chi studio in Front Royal, and continue work as an instructor.
Full Moon Tai Chi, at 205-B E. Main St., opened in April and is owned by Voll and his wife, Kasia.
Voll began taking martial arts classes when he was 9 years old. Since then he studied many varieties, such as judo, karate, taekwondo, kick-boxing and later multiple varieties of Chinese martial arts.
He said he began with the more physical versions of martial arts, which have more to do with aggression and attack, and he never even tried tai chi until he was 20.
"Most guys want to use muscles and it's so hard for us to neutralize and relax," Voll said. "[Tai chi] goes way beyond learning the motions. It's a way of thinking, a way of moving that goes against everything you learn as a young person."
When he came to the Winchester area in 1999 from Fairfax, he met tai chi master Pat Rice, who changed his outlook on tai chi and other internal martial arts.
"I thought I was pretty talented. To have a grandmother toss you around like a rag doll is very humbling," Voll said. "I soon realized I didn't need all the muscles or aggression and that I could have more power by being relaxed.
Voll now holds gold medals in Yang Style Tai Chi and Xing-Yi at regional, national and international levels. He is also a silver and bronze medalist in three other types of Chinese martial arts at the national and international levels. He has been teaching tai chi in Winchester since 2000.
When he was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is characterized by an over-active immune system that attacks the eye, joints, affects energy level and causes the spine to try to fuse together, he was bedridden for two months.
"It's quite frustrating to have a disability as a martial artist," he said. "I grind my back every day, every part that tries to fuse I stretch it. I also have to take frequent naps."
Tai chi classes at Full Moon Tai Chi take place in the mornings and evenings on Mondays and Wednesdays, giving Voll time to rest in between.
"I think I do pretty well considering that most people in my situation do not work," he said.
The tai chi classes usually consist of about eight to 12 people and, according to Voll, they are designed so that anyone new can come and join the class at almost any time.
"It doesn't matter what your physical shape is," Voll said. "We start with last week's move and then go on to this week's move."
Classes are available twice a week, and the price is $50 a month for once a week and $75 a month for twice.
"We try to encourage people to do twice a week," Voll said.
Voll is one of the few tai chi instructors who teaches it as a martial art.
"Tai chi is known for its health aspects, and also for being popular among the senior set." he said. "But tai chi is a very effective, vicious martial art. It looks like you're just moving, but every motion has a purpose. It's sort of a hidden way to practice the movements."
The first step of learning tai chi is to learn the movements. There are 103 in all, and according to Voll it takes about a year to learn them all.
"Then you continue to learn energies and how to use those movements more effectively," he said.
Voll also said that he hasn't found tai chi is more popular with any particular age group in Front Royal, and he has students that are young and old.
There are many video-based tai chi instruction programs, but Voll said it is very important, at least at first, to train with an actual instructor.
"An instructor is key to learning any martial art," he said. "You can't see and critique yourself and know you're doing it right."
Health benefits associated with tai chi are "endless" according to Voll, and include improvement to arthritis, high or low blood pressure and joint problems. But the benefits stretch further than that.
"Usually within three to four months a student will have a story on how they were able to handle a situation better or prevent themselves from falling," he said.
Kasia Voll, who has been involved in the business end of opening the studio, only began doing tai chi herself in October. She said she has seen amazing benefits since then.
"I have become so much calmer and just able to deal with things on a whole new level," she said.
Christine Andreae of Front Royal has been doing tai chi since 1996, taking classes from the same master as Voll in Winchester.
She now takes classes with Voll in Front Royal.
"He's a very good teacher," she said. "It's interesting for me to train with another instructor and it's nice to have another approach."
Andreae was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2002, and found that tai chi was the only thing that gave her any relief.
"I tried many, many different things, supplements, painkillers, acupuncture and it really didn't work," she said. "Moving to help the pain is sort of counter-intuitive. But I found that after [doing tai chi] I really did have relief from the pain."
The Volls also share the studio with a wushu instructor and a yoga instructor. Owen Sargent gives three different wushu classes from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tammy Battista offers a Monday morning yoga class from 9 to 10 a.m. beginning Sept. 12. Beginning Oct. 3, she will also offer a Monday evening class from 5 to 6 p.m.