When bonsai experts describe one of their miniature creations, they don’t talk about when it was planted. They talk about how long it’s been “in training.” That’s the year the painstaking process of grooming the tree began.

Nick Gracenin has been in training since 1977. That’s when he started learning tai chi. Six years later, he started teaching it. And on a recent Saturday morning he was teaching it in a bonsai-filled courtyard at the National Arboretum.

“I encourage you to use the shady areas,” Nick said to the 30 or so people who had gathered at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. Some were beginners. Some had taken classes with Nick before. One woman was dressed in shiny blue silks: flowing pants and a Mandarin-collared shirt.


A butterfly floated past. A hummingbird hovered. There was the sound of water from a fountain, inside of which rested a bonsai bougainvillea — “in training” since 1985, its fuchsia flowers in bloom.


“Relaxing isn’t something you make happen,” said Nick, 60. “Rather, it’s something you allow to happen.”

Easy enough for him to say. Have you tried relaxing lately? The planet’s boiling. Guns are everywhere. The president keeps tweeting.

“Close your eyes,” Nick said. “Feel your heart rate slow down.”

I learned that morning that “tai chi” is actually pronounced “tie ji.” And “bonsai” is closer to “bone-sigh.” The tai chi classes are organized by the National Bonsai Foundation, along with a bunch of other offerings: yoga, meditation, forest bathing (described as the Japanese practice of “meditation, rejuvenation and contemplation” amid the bonsai)….


Many are followed by a private tour of the arboretum’s collection of bonsai and penjing, penjing being the Chinese progenitor of the Japanese bonsai. (Tickets to the classes range from $15 to $35. Visit bonsai-nbf.org for details.)


“Open your eyes,” Nick said. “How do you feel? Lots of smiles. Good.”

Except for seeing it in movies, or catching a glimpse of senior citizens in a park, I’d never experienced tai chi before. It was harder than it looked, requiring a posture — knees slightly bent, back slightly curled — that I found difficult. I prefer to lock all my joints rigidly in place, as if they were Tinkertoys.

But I learned that doesn’t work in tai chi.


Nick described various elements of Chinese exercise: the breath and energy work of qi gong; the calisthenics of tao yin; the “polarity boxing” of tai chi chuan.

Chinese medicine, Nick said, is all about circulation: moving it, smoothing it, equaling it out.

“Think of it like water flowing,” he said. “Water is the stuff of life. If water is stagnant, it becomes smelly.”

Tai chi, he explained, is about polarity, the idea of positive and negative poles and finding the balance between them.


“We could use more of that,” Nick said.

Sounds good to me.

I called Nick up a few days later to hear what it’s like to seek balance in this most partisan of towns. He grew up in western Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. When Nick taught tai chi there, joint injuries and back problems were the physical ailments he heard about most often from his students.


“Here, the two biggest complaints have always been, ‘I don’t sleep well’ and ‘I can’t seem to relax.’”

Washington is full of hyper-driven, Type-A people who, Nick said, ameliorate their lack of relaxation in two ways: “You binge watch TV till your brain fries or you drink a lot to get your mind off whatever’s bothering you. The problem is, eventually you have to face whatever it is that’s bothering you if you want to resolve it.”

Hear that, Congress?


“That doesn’t mean you let go of it completely, but you need balance in your life,” Nick said. “I have as much stress in my life as anyone else does. I think my practice has been something that’s really helped me through challenges that have come my way.”


The National Arboretum’s bonsai and penjing collection dates to 1976, its core component a Bicentennial gift of 53 trees from Japan. The oldest tree — a Japanese white pine — has been in training since 1625.

It was in the nursery of the Yamaki family of Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped on atomic bomb on the city.

The tree, behind a garden wall, survived. So did the family.

“I think it’s both inspiring and beautiful,” Nick said of the tree. “To look at it and then be able to practice tai chi alongside it is a little mind-blowing the first time.”

The little tree survived that cataclysm. Here’s hoping we can survive ours.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.