Taking part in a Qigong class by Michael McCormack are, from left, Lynette Harrison, Gail Watson, McCormack, Alice Farber, Ann Katzenbach, Walter Clark and Annette Field. (Photo by Barbara Crawford)

by Barbara Crawford and Len Lear

You might not expect a guy with a working class background from North Philly to be teaching a holistic Asian system of philosophy and martial arts in Chestnut Hill, but that’s exactly what Michael McCormack does. Now 59, McCormack was born in North Philly, grew up in Northeast Philly and graduated from Archbishop Ryan High School in 1976.

After high school, Michael worked 54 hours a week to save for a used car and for college. At age 20 he did spend one semester at Bucks County Community College in Newtown and did well, but he found the schedule of working 54 hours a week, going to school and “studying constantly in the Asian arts that I loved somewhat overwhelming.” (Michael’s fascination with the discipline of ancient arts started with his study of Japanese Karate when he was 16. He attained a black belt when he was 24 and became a teacher in his early 20s.)

Michael embraced the Chinese saying, “Open one door and go deeply.” He studied Judo, Jiu jitsu, Chinese weaponry and Tai Chi. Along the way he encountered a teacher who taught him about energy.

He came to love Tai Chi and practiced constantly. It helped him stop taking medication for ulcerative colitis. However, he still did not feel completely well. So in his 30s he started Qigong, which he practiced daily.

He was motivated to study Qigong for two reasons: to complement the healing process for his ulcerative colitis and to study the healing art as a balance to the martial arts that he loved. Michael, who has lived in the Burholme section of Northeast Philly for 13 years, began studying Qigong in 1995 at the Qigong Research Society and found that it gave him “better health … and a calmness and centeredness gained through the moving meditation.”

Qigong (“Life Energy Cultivation” in Chinese) is a holistic system of coordinated body posture and movement, breathing and meditation used for health, spirituality and martial arts training. According to Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian philosophy, Qigong allows access to higher realms of awareness, awakens one’s “true nature” and helps develop human potential. Qigong practice typically involves moving meditation, coordinating slow flowing movement, deep rhythmic breathing and a calm, meditative state of mind.

In 1987 McCormack started the Northeast Philadelphia YMCA Karate Club on Knights Road and continued teaching there until 2004. “The YMCA then changed the financial contract we had been working under,” he said, “without consulting me of the change. From an integrity standpoint, it didn’t sit right with me. I had always taught my students to stand up for what they believe, but I left on good terms.”

McCormack started teaching Qigong at the Center on the Hill in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave., two years ago. He offers classes twice a week on Mondays, 2 to 3 p.m., and Thursdays, 9 to 10 a.m.

In addition to teaching the Asian arts, McCormack has had many other jobs. He was a busboy, dishwasher, cook, maker of naval ship doors, a groom at a racetrack, a salesperson and technical reference individual for and industrial supply company (for 25 years), a waiter, professional musician, guitar teacher at an elementary school, teacher of women’s self defense classes (for over 20 years), et al.

“Every aspect has presented experience and life lessons that helped me to be what I am,” he said, “a teacher enriching lives and adding to the whole picture. Sometimes over the years, when people would ask what I do, I would answer, ‘I change lives.'”

For more information: 215-247-8855 or Info@chestnuthillpres.org. Barbara Crawford, a Chestnut Hill resident, used to work in public relations and advertising but is now a freelance copy editor. She polishes books for authors before they look for agents or publishers. She has worked on novels, memoirs and textbooks and most recently worked on a Buddhist superhero comic book for a talented artist/writer in Roxborough. She wanted to write about McCormack because “he is a great teacher and also (pure self-interest) I want to keep him teaching his classes in Chestnut Hill.”