Eugene Ervin started doing qi gong in 1977 after his son was born. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

Inside the classroom in the Louden Nelson Center, the Wednesday afternoon traffic is a distant hum. It’s not that Center Street has gone quiet, by any means—it’s just been absorbed into a great stream of concentration and a calmness that fills the room. Time itself appears to have slowed.

Five women are pushing invisible balls of energy gracefully across the front of their bodies in an exercise called “Dragon weaves around the body.” Their slow and calculated movements follow those of their instructor, Eugene Ervin, a tall, fit man who volunteers his time to teach this qi gong (pronounced “chee gung”) class for baby boomers once a week. They make scooping and spreading motions, moving the qi (often spelled chi) around. Ervin attempts to explain.

“People, they’ve tried to explain what ‘chi’ is. ‘What is chi?’ they say. ‘I don’t see it.’ Well, it has weight and substance,” says Ervin. “You go to your physics book and you turn to atmospheric pressure, and you find out that the weight of the atmosphere on a human being is 14.7 pounds per square inch. But the only reason you are not crushed under the weight of the atmosphere is because your body is pressing out. If I were to put you into a vacuum chamber and pump all of the oxygen out of it, you would explode.”

 In the ancient Chinese practice of qi gong and its cousin t’ai chi, “chi” is the eternal power that moves the universe. It is the energy that flows through every living being until it is dispersed at death. Disease and ailments are caused by blockages and stagnation in the flow of chi. To yogis, it is the “prana,” and in Western medicine it could be equated to the electromagnetic force field in the body.

In the ancient Chinese practice of qi gong and its cousin t’ai chi, “chi” is the eternal power that moves the universe. It is the energy that flows through every living being until it is dispersed at death. Disease and ailments are caused by blockages and stagnation in the flow of chi. To yogis, it is the “prana,” and in Western medicine it could be equated to the electromagnetic force field in the body.

To Ervin, it is a way of life. Ervin teaches and practices several forms of qi gong every day, as a rule, often going to the beach to do so, where he says the energy coming off the ocean is immense.

“T’ai chi saved me. I was a druggie, I did all kinds of stuff,” says Ervin, who began studying t’ai chi in 1977 shortly after his son was born. “I was 40 years old and I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘When he’s 21 I’ll be 61. I want to be able to hang out with him.’”

Ervin is convinced that his practice is the only reason the substances he was using did not overtake him.

“I’m so happy that I took the time to stick with it. It took a lot of patience,” says Ervin.

Ervin’s studies of t’ai chi and qi gong includes their written history and the Taoist philosophy from which they were born and cannot be separated. It’s an imperative part of the study that each student must do on his or her own, he says.

Cultivating ch’i could also be a fountain of youth—the spritely 75-year-old does not look a day over 55. While many men and women his age sit quietly in rest homes, Ervin remains a social presence in the community, still works at the university and can’t walk down Pacific Avenue without running into someone who knows him.

“It makes no difference how old you are, it will help you stay in a very youthful and vigorous state of mind and body, and if learned and done consistently, living the life of a t’ai chi person, you can become as old as you want,” Ervin says.

On a physical level, when chi is flowing correctly the joints are lubricated by constant rotations, the body is flush with oxygen and the skeleton and muscles are in alignment, strengthening from within. The mind and body unite in a heightened state of awareness and concentration. On a spiritual level, the practice aligns one with the magnetic force of the universe. Ervin equates this connection to what happens in meditation.

“When you meditate you close your eyes and you don’t just see the walls. Everything appears when you open your eyes, but when you close your eyes it’s infinite.”