Crowd gathers downtown to honor late tai chi grandmaster

Participants focus and work their way through a tai chi exercise on Sunday as part of an event in City Plaza to honor the memory of late martial arts teacher Sifu Lenny Vavallette. Photo credit: James Groh

Martial arts devotees came together at City Plaza on Sunday to practice tai chi in memory of the late Lenny Vavallette in what was dubbed Sifu Lenny Day.

The gathering was organized by Vavallette’s martial arts successor, Farshad Azad, the owner of Azad’s Martial Arts Family Center in Chico.

Doing tai chi in the park on what would have been Vavallette’s 95th birthday was the perfect way to honor him, Azad said.

“(Sifu Lenny would have been) all smiles today,” Azad said.

Tai chi is a form of martial arts that focuses on breathing, posture and fluid body movements to achieve internal relaxation and strength. It is a roughly 700-year-old art form originated in China by a man named Chang Sen Feng.

There are multiple schools of tai chi, but on Sifu Lenny Day, it was a style derived from Shaolin Kung Fu that participants were learning.

People of all types, including students, friends, children and random bystanders, contributed to making the day a success.

The diverse crowd that attended was very fitting, said David Gantt, a longtime student of Azad’s and friend of Vavallette’s.

“Sifu Lenny had a spirit to share knowledge,” Gantt said.

“Sifu” and “grandmaster” are honorary titles given to martial arts teachers once they have achieved a certain level of mastery.

Vavallette served as a United States Air Force pilot and acrobatic instructor. He owned his own helicopter business, mined for jade and took countless trips to China, gaining the respect and admiration of many martial arts masters.

He died on Christmas Day in 2011 at the age of 91.

At the memorial, participants learned a variety of tai chi routines. Azad taught the group a basic step in the beginning and by the end of the day, it had progressed into a technical walk that involved the entire body.

Vavallette’s love for teaching was second to none, said Curtis Lemire, one of Azad’s students. Sometimes Vavallette would randomly show up to Lemire’s taekwondo class and teach the lesson in place of Azad.

Lemire, who had never done tai chi before, said he had a blast and was able to learn quickly.

“It was a great way to honor him,” he said.

Martial arts in the plaza did not come as an impromptu decision. A morning of tai chi in the park had been something Vavallette planned on doing for a while but was never able to coordinate, Azad said.

“It was successful in many ways,” Azad said. “It brought peace and balance to the park.”

Balance is a core tenant of tai chi and something that Azad wanted to achieve in addition to bringing people together to celebrate his teacher’s life, he said.

City Plaza, which is frequented by drug abusers and the homeless, has not been the most welcoming place as of late, Azad said.

“Too much yin,” he said, referencing the Chinese philosophy known as yin and yang.

Azad wanted to infuse positive energy and good vibes into the park to reclaim it for the people, he said.

He wanted to bring the yang.

James Groh can be reached at [email protected] or @James_Groh14on Twitter.