Life with MS

Spotlight: Tony Garcia

By Kimani Hendricks

Tony Garcia’s interest in martial arts began as a youth in the early 1970s, awakened by watching the mastery of Bruce Lee. “I had never seen anyone like him before. His abilities inspired my desire to learn,” said Tony. Between his hometown of Jersey City and the neighboring West New York, N.J., Tony earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do under the guidance of two instructors; during this time, he gave lessons to other children in his community. As he grew, his abilities expanded through different forms of karate – including Shotokan, Aikido, in which he holds a brown belt – and later, Qigong.

While accustomed to a fast pace between his studies of martial arts and occupying a corporate office position, an unforeseen trip to the emergency room compelled Tony to apply the brakes. “One day, while at home, I stood up from my seat when suddenly, the room went into a relentless spin,” he said. “I called my godchild’s mother, who took me to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Less than a month before, I was experiencing occasional numbness in the face, and a holistic chiropractor referred me to a neurologist at Columbia because I had an MRI which revealed lesions. When we arrived at the hospital, I could hardly walk, and after a second MRI, my lesions lit up like a Christmas tree. There, I was diagnosed with RRMS.”

For the next two weeks, Tony remained in the hospital; the spinning persisted, in addition to numbness and diplopia. Although he promptly returned to work in computer security, his double vision remained, proving difficult to maintain efficacy. Tony said, “I decided to leave the company soon after. They offered a long-term disability program to staffers. I thought it’d be best to rest and get my bearings without attempting to juggle my health and the added pressures of employment. Although a hard choice, it was a necessary one.”

Becoming a community leader

After arriving at the acceptance of his diagnosis, Tony found community and comfort in an MS support group. “I was relieved not to feel alone anymore,” he said. “They were like me, experiencing what I had been going through; eventually, I stepped out on my own and became a leader, starting a support group in Secaucus that I would conduct for years before moving to Orlando. While there, I formed a second group, and a few years after that, I began a third in Miami following another transition – this time, to south Florida.”

No matter where he was or who he led, Tony’s passion for the fighting arts never waned, despite symptoms interfering with his training. “There was a time when I believed I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “But I held on because I felt there had to be a place for martial arts in a journey to increase self-care and good health, especially with MS. Around this time, I picked up Wing Chung, which Bruce Lee learned, and safely tailored karate around my condition. Still, I wanted the support group to experience new things with me; I had never practiced T’ai Chi before, and, out of curiosity, I contacted and invited five schools to come and demonstrate for us; only one of them answered, and I am eternally grateful because that man’s ‘yes’ changed the trajectory of my life.”

Becoming a team

The man, who would become Tony’s best friend, was Jef Morris, master trainer of Sun-style T’ai Chi. “I reached a new level of understanding watching Jef lead the group. As he moved, I noticed that I, too, could follow and also reap the health benefits to combat my MS. Jef’s knowledge of the arts and meditation helped me find a way to go at a slower pace. The martial arts are very rigid and fast, but learning T’ai Chi enabled me and others in the group to control our bodies, balance, and breaths. That, along with diet adjustments, makes such an impact on overall wellness.”

Eager to persist in aiding the MS community, Jef and Tony became a team, forming chair T’ai Chi classes that catapulted beyond their expectations. “Everything took off for us in Miami. We went on to work for the city and county, between churches, libraries, rehab facilities, senior programs, underprivileged neighborhoods, you name it, and we were there,” Tony said. Jef and Tony’s reach began appealing to individuals with a whole gamut of other illnesses, such as Parkinson’s, osteoporosis, and fibromyalgia. “We also helped people manage and reduce hypertension, back and knee injuries, vertigo, arthritis, and the after-effects of strokes. Jef was phenomenal in ensuring all training was safe so everyone could follow us regardless of their condition.”

A walk down the aisle

Tony credits their overnight success to T’ai Chi’s intentional movement, and cognitive and physical advantages that await the willing practitioner. “T’ai Chi does wonders for the body, but it begins with the mind,” he said. “We call it a moving meditation, as it requires focus; slowing things down lets you fix your concentration on the practice itself. I liken the overall motions to being in water or space; your stresses take a backseat the more attentive you are and learn. That is why this art is so powerful. Its principles span centuries, as has its restorative godsends.”

One of Tony’s most memorable experiences involved a 24-year-old woman with MS who wanted nothing more than to walk down the aisle to her groom on their wedding day. “This young lady used a wheelchair to get around, and she sought help from Jef and me in hopes that by learning T’ai Chi, she would walk again,” he said. “Little by little, we used what we knew, helping her out of the chair, utilizing the balance bar, and mindfulness to encourage her to connect her feet to the floor. Sometimes, she was afraid, but eventually, that fear became faith. Three months later, she told us, ‘I’m going to walk now.’ We instructed her to place heel to toe on the floor, feel it beneath her, and walk.

With these body-mind concepts, she married the man of her dreams and walked arm-in-arm down the aisle with her dad that day. “Every time I tell that story, I almost cry. Jef and I gave everything, and so did the young woman. All of our energy, desire, and mindfulness was the reason it worked. We have done similar things with stroke victims too. I fell in love with the art because I have seen time and again what it could do for people with different conditions, especially those with MS.”

Parting of the ways

“Today, Jef lives in Maine while, as of 2020, I returned to Orlando,” Tony said. Despite the distance, the pair talk daily and are still best friends. “He will always be my brother; I owe him so much and would not be where I am today were it not for Jef. He taught me and inspired me to teach again; remember, as I learned karate, I trained the kids of my neighborhood back in Jersey. Uniting with Jef and spending all those years with him revived that will to give back in this way.”

Tony conducts public and private T’ai Chi lessons online and in person. One of his favorites, T’ai Chi in the Garden, is an intimate gathering with students while surrounded by nature. “I teach at Mead Botanical Gardens on Saturdays in Winter Park, Fla., from 10:30 to11:30 a.m. I love doing that because, while you can practice T’ai Chi anywhere, there is a tranquility about the outdoors. We are supposed to enjoy the world around us, and this is one way I and others can,” Tony said.

Virtually, Tony still teaches his Miami students twice a week, and as of autumn 2022, he accepted an invitation to lead T’ai Chi classes for MS Focus: the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. “I got referred to the Foundation by a friend, Maggie, who regularly attends their Health and Wellness classes; she told Kasey, the executive director of MS Focus, about me. We connected, ironed out the details, and here I am,” Tony said. Like those he led years before, Tony’s T’ai Chi classes at MS Focus became an immediate success. “I never tire of hearing the feedback. Their presence each week tells me a few things: that they are connecting with themselves and the movements, they are letting go, and MS isn’t present. If I can make them forget about their troubles, even for an hour, I am glad because I know I am helping them the way Jef helped me.”

Everybody can move something

As for the future, Tony hopes his virtual students, through MS Focus, accept his efforts to incorporate philosophical approaches. Beyond his classes, Tony is writing a book on blending T’ai Chi into everyday movement. “Whether you open a door, put on a vehicle seatbelt, or grocery shop, you can take T’ai Chi everywhere. Its methods can exceed one hour each week. By continued practice, you’ll realize that you are far more capable than you previously believed.”

Tony insists that his faith was a colossal part of navigating the highs and lows of his life with MS. He said, “I don’t question why this happened to me. God’s presence, even at the start of my diagnosis, was and is the most incredible comfort. Without question, it’s been a rough ride, but what good am I if I don’t prioritize my self-care to help steer others in their wellness journey?”

When asked what he would title his life if it were a class, he replied, “Living with Obstacles and Not Stopping Along the Way. After getting diagnosed, while still in the hospital, I went from room to room and prayed with other patients. It would have been easy to think only of myself, but I persisted even amid uncertainties about my condition. No one there ever rejected prayer with me; the answer was always ‘yes,’ and by the end of the devotion, what they had been carrying and holding in was released. That is what I want my students to feel
after every class.”

Tony believes there is an activity everyone can do, even if T’ai Chi isn’t for them. “We do ourselves an injustice by not moving what we know we can. I’ve taught this art to bedridden individuals; it doesn’t matter your position: everybody can move something, even if that something is only a little. Fewer movement still goes further than none at all.” To learn more about Tony Garcia, visit his website,