a study in movement

a study in movement

"Slow and steady," Herb Heiman reminds his tai chi students as they flow through the Ashland Family YMCA wellness studio as if floating in water.

Unhurried, he rolls his graceful hands, ties an imaginary ribbon, and then spreads his fingers.

"Pretend there is a glass wall in front of you," he instructs his students. "Press your palm against the glass wall."

It is at that second that two career threads cross. Heiman, 79, used to be a professional mime.

He and his wife, Elaine, traveled the West Coast more than 30 weeks of the year, pulling in applause from large audiences and teaching pantomime workshops to adults and children.

But in classic yin-yang style, Heiman's seemingly disparate professions share underlying similarities.

In tai chi and mime, breathing, focus and deliberate movements are key. Every movement has a meaning of its own, and each part is connected.

"The hand doesn't move by itself," says Heiman. "Everything stems from the center. It keeps you in physical and emotional balance knowing that you're centered in the body."

Since Heiman has been living with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, he has had to accept that someday his hands may waver unexpectedly.

"Everyone has some difficulty," says Heiman, who lives in Talent.

"We work around it. We don't try to overcome it. We try to work on balance and consciousness of where the body is moving, and how much control we do have."

Filmmaker Patricia Somers, who assists in Heiman's tai chi classes, says that his philosophy of teaching is to encourage people to adapt the form to their physical idiosyncrasies.

"If you can't put your foot on the floor, you visualize doing it," she says.

Somers created a 12-minute documentary on what she calls Heiman's uncommon class. Titled "Grasping the Bird's Tail," it chronicles Heiman guiding his students — most of whom are seniors — in a tai chi movement that looks like a slow-motion attempt to catch an elusive wild bird.

It is the most repeated of the 108 movements in tai chi, says Heiman, and it's a metaphor for the practice.

One day you succeed, the next day you may not.

"The form is not mechanical," he says. "I do it slightly different each day, depending on my physical wellbeing."

He encourages his students to take their time with the movements, to make the motion feel like a reward, not a chore.

Says Somers: "Herb is a counter to the Western idea that everyone has to be perfect. In his class, you do what you can. That's new for me."

As Heiman tells his students once again that actions have a yin or yang component — each movement is either a breath in or a breath out — it's hard to imagine that he hasn't spent his whole life focused on mindfully moving his body.

In the mid-1950s, Heiman was a theater arts major at UCLA. Soon afterward, he was in the epicenter of rock and roll.

The ABC radio station in Pittsburgh where he worked was the first to broadcast the revolutionary music round the clock.

He then became the program manager of KRLA in Los Angeles, the first southland station to air the Beatles.

This segued into a job in the high-rolling music industry.

After demanding years marketing records — which is a world, says Heiman, that is "too fast for a family man" — he and his wife moved their three children to 15 acres of land outside of Bend in 1972.

In the country, he learned to drive a tractor. They planted an organic garden, and today his grown children say it was the best decision he ever made.

Slow and steady, he continued to practice the gentle movements of tai chi that he learned to release stress during his rock-and-roll years.

In Oregon, he bartered tai chi lessons for casseroles "or whatever was going around," he says.

One day, he saw an ad seeking actors for local TV commercials.

He decided he had a face flexible enough to be a mime, so he put on a costume and went on an audition.

That led to years of work with the Oregon artists and registry program. Later, his wife joined him.

Often, they presented workshops to help children and adults with special needs express themselves nonverbally and learn skills to prepare themselves for a job.

Heiman met French actor and mime Marcel Marceau several times, and he keeps a three-page letter Marceau sent him.

"He said he envied me," says Heiman, "because I got to work with kids."

Heiman remembers a little girl in a wheelchair who couldn't speak but mimicked him as he pretended to be a balloon being blown around by the wind.

As he puffed, puffed, puffed, the girl puckered her lips and pulled herself right up with him. "It was a moment I will never forget," he says. "I felt this is what we were meant to be doing."

When the road got to be too much, he worked as a teaching assistant for children with special needs in Talent.

After a dozen years, he retired, then went looking for another career.

Reflecting on his previous work, he found a common thread.

All of his endeavors dealt with communicating in a singular way. In radio, it's talking. In the record business, it's music. In mime, it's nonverbal expression. And in tai chi, it's the body moving to its own rhythm.

About 10 years ago, when most men his age were hanging up their careers for good, he decided he wanted to teach at the Ashland YMCA.

Laurie Evans, the YMCA's health enhancement and older adult program director, asked him to teach tai chi, because studies have found it relieves stress, improves balance and flexibility, and reduces the risk of falls for seniors and people suffering from illnesses such as Parkinson's.

Evans says that he is bravely facing his illness and is helping others meet their challenges.

"Herb is a kind, gentle, loving spirit," she says.

Spreading out her arms like a mime reaching for a hug, she adds, "and that spirit just flows out of him."

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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