The first time Gary Harris saw someone practice tai chi at a Chinese New Year celebration in the Case Western Reserve University student union, he was mesmerized.
Harris had trained in judo since he was in elementary school and so was very familiar with grappling and short, intense spurts of energy, but tai chi was different.
“He was so fluid, so in control of his body, so graceful and it looked so easy, even though it’s not,” Harris, a Stow resident, said. “This was pure movement and control. I thought it was beautiful, and I thought I’d like to learn that.”
That was over 40 years ago, and now Harris is the owner and operator of the Center for Body-Mind Harmony, a Cuyahoga Falls health center specializing in tai chi (also spelled taiji) and traditional Chinese martial arts that he inherited from his teacher, David Schenk.
“It’s been a very interesting journey, but a good one,” Harris said.
Harris, originally of Philadelphia, started learning tai chi when he transferred from Case to the University of Hawaii to study biomedical and electrical engineering.
With so much work to do and so little money, Harris took a break from practicing judo, but one day, he saw a flyer about tai chi classes being taught on the roof of a nearby apartment complex. Remembering what he had seen at Case, Harris decided to try it out.
“He was slow and patient with us,” Harris said of his first teacher. “I think I played with him for six months.”
Harris explained: “When I went to China to study they use that terminology, ‘play with,’ and when you think about it, if you tell a kid to go clean their room, that’s work. You tell them to go outside, it’s fun and it’s play. This is something we look forward to, so we don’t call it a workout. We play.”
After graduating, he returned to Ohio to work for General Electric and resumed judo, but then happened upon another martial arts demonstration at Chapel Hill Mall, which renewed his interest in tai chi. He took classes with Bob Krueger for about a year and a half before beginning to study under Schenk in 1984.
“I really began my journey with Master Schenk,” Harris said. “He spent a lot of time learning about the art instead of just playing. We just thought it was learning to do the movement and perfecting them each time you come to play, but he would talk to us about the energies within the body, the points of energy, the health, eating right, proper living and relationships with people.”
Though Harris sometimes would miss class because of his job, he was a dedicated student when he was present, and Schenk slowly began asking him to complete various tasks and help out at the center, which moved to West Avenue in Tallmadge around 1990.
Around 2004 and unbeknownst to Harris, Schenk became sick and asked Harris to begin teaching classes for him at the Tallmadge Recreation Center and at the Natatorium in Cuyahoga Falls.
“That’s when I knew something was not right because I thought that would be something he’d love to do,” Harris said. “Then I started noticing a lot of changes. He’d come in later, asked me to do more, and then when an opportunity came up to teach in Kent, he asked me to do that too.”
In 2006, Schenk ended up in the hospital and a few months later was sent home on bed rest. During a visit with Harris, Schenk asked him to take over the school if his health did not improve.
“I said, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it, but you’ll get back to teaching,’ and then he said, ‘But if I don’t, will you take over the school?'” Harris recalled. “Now, I’ve got a full-time job working for Summa Health System, but I said that I would. I mean, what do you say to someone who’s that sick?”
When Schenk died in June 2007, Harris stuck to his word and took ownership of the school, which deepened his relationship with tai chi.
“I started studying it more, asking questions and that led me to China in 2010. I spent two weeks studying all over China with different teachers and got a better understanding of what Chinese martial arts really is,” he said.
He played in the Shaolin Temple and visited Chen Village, which is believed to be the birthplace of tai chi.
“It was an amazing time for me, and that’s when I really started learning about tai chi —because if I want to go higher and take my students higher, I need to spend more time studying,” he said. “I look at it more as a way of living because it teaches you to be flexible, understanding and cooperative. People call it ‘Meditation in Motion.'”
In 2019, Harris, who is now retired and also teaching at the University of Akron’s Confucius Institute, moved the center back to Cuyahoga Falls, not far from Schenk’s original school. About a year later, it was forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but continued to pay rent and utilities.
“It was unfortunate because unless you have a really big business, you’re not making money. I just love to teach, I love the students and I love the interactions and seeing them progress,” he said. “My tax accountant keeps saying that at some point this has to be a business and not just a hobby.”
The Center for Body-Mind Harmony reopened in May, and has since recovered most of its students and even gained a few more.
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.
At a glance
About the series
For the entire month of February, the Beacon Journal is profiling Black-owned businesses in Summit County. Read more of these profiles at https://bit.ly/3jb0h1e. The Beacon Journal will continue to highlight minority-owned businesses as part of its ongoing regular coverage.
Have a suggestion for a business to feature? Email us at email@example.com.