Tommy Kirchhoff: “Sugar is a killer”

Sugar is a killer. People often don’t realize that we get way too much acid in our diets. Sugar turns right into acid. We need to be thinking about alkaline foods to balance out all the acid. Most fruits and vegetables are alkaline, which counteract acid. I also think people need to be much more […]

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Sugar is a killer. People often don’t realize that we get way too much acid in our diets. Sugar turns right into acid. We need to be thinking about alkaline foods to balance out all the acid. Most fruits and vegetables are alkaline, which counteract acid. I also think people need to be much more careful about what they drink. Soda and fruit juices are full of sugar, which turn into dietary acid.


Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?

As a part of our series about “How We Can Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewingTommy Kirchhoff.

Tai Chi Master and Wellness Expert Tommy Kirchhoff spent 17 years refining Healing Exercise, a therapeutic, medicinal movement program based on Tai Chi. He is on a mission to educate seniors, doctors, and everyone about the proven health benefits of this gentle martial art. Tommy became a certified Tai Chi Master and developed Healing Exercise under the tutelage of Victor ShengLong Fu, a world-famous grandmaster of the internal martial arts Tai Chi, BaGua, Hsing-I and others. He studied communication and public relations at Grand Valley State University (MI). Tommy is married to Melissa Kirchhoff, a highly decorated, retired U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sergeant (E8) and combat veteran who is the owner and CEO of Healing Exercise. A professional athlete in both skiing and martial arts, Tommy enjoys alpine skiing, ski racing, and teaching little girls to ski. He taught Tai Chi to two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety, as well as winter Olympians Sarah Schleper and Erik Schlopy. Formerly a senior technical writer at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, Tommy is the author of two books and three abstracts published by the University of Salzburg for the


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

In my childhood I always felt like I had a higher purpose. It wasn’t necessarily fame or lavish wealth, but to become something bigger than I could imagine in my youth. I knew from a young age that I had to be a pioneer.

I started teaching alpine skiing at age 15. In college I studied business, English, communications, public relations, publishing, and kinesiology; I was a bodybuilder, captain of the ski team, and I wrote a popular humor column for the university newspaper. After college I took a one-way bus from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Telluride, Colorado.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

In the spring of 2003 I made my most interesting mistake: I broke my leg jumping over a fence from the top of a ladder. The doctor’s order to continue jogging and lifting weights seemed absurd because both were so painful. Then I saw these guys on TV doing Tai Chi; they were flexible, powerful, and lightning fast. Still, Tai Chi seemed like a gentle way to rehabilitate my leg. I searched for the best Tai Chi master I could find. A guy in Ohio suggested I learn from Grandmaster Fu. I started private study in October of 2003. In the spring of 2004 I took second place in a national ski race. My takeaway was that my leg broke because of stiffness in my joints. I rehabilitated myself, and then developed my joints and flexibility to a very high level. I doubt anything will ever break again.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My teacher, Grandmaster Victor Fu (ShengLong), is a world-famous martial arts master from Guangzhou, China. Grandmaster Fu told me, “You have to walk on two legs: one leg is your practice; the other leg is teaching.”

I think it says everything about my own practice that Grandmaster Fu awarded me with a master’s certificate in 2015. From 2003 to 2016 I had developed a following of a few thousand people in Utah. I taught Tai Chi classes every Wednesday at the Park City Racquet Club (now called PC MARC), I taught several adult community-education classes in Park City, I taught occasionally at the Park City Senior Center, and I taught many large classes for Salt Lake County Aging Services, both at the county building and at all of the senior centers in the Salt Lake Valley. Several of my students have developed their own schools.

Grandmaster Fu also taught many other (more aggressive) martial arts like BaGuaZhang and Hsing-I Chuan; but he made the bulk of his income teaching seated Tai Chi exercise at a circuit of assisted-living facilities around Vancouver, B.C. This became the inspiration for our product line.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My wife Melissa has been so incredibly supportive of this venture. When we got married in 2009, she was a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force with seven years remaining until she was eligible for retirement. We created our company in 2010. We decided that we could help the greatest number of people by focusing on older adults and by offering sitting, standing, and stepping videos. We bootstrapped our company for years, developing products, the brand, and our sales channels. Being a tiny bit shy, Melissa was a real trooper to appear in our Gentle, Sitting Tai Chi video with me. We have survived many ups and downs since we founded our company, but we both remain focused on helping as many people as we can. Since 2019 we’ve sold our videos in 65 countries.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I love “The Deviant’s Advantage: How to Use Fringe Ideas to Create Mass Markets.” The book expounds on the concept of out-of-the-box ideas, and the phases of the artist or pioneer. While it’s not exactly a how-to guide, the book definitely gets the juices flowing in the way it describes real company stories that went from nothing to something gigantic. As a serial entrepreneur, I kept feeling like my journey could be described some day in a book like this. I think it’s a fun read.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

At age 15 my favorite quote was, “Only dead fish swim with the current.” I can’t remember where I read it, but I was crazy about this pioneering philosophy. It seemed like everything great came from someone who forged his or her own path. I knew from a young age that I had to be a pioneer.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

While it has been a long, uphill battle to create simple, easy-to-follow videos that educate people about the endless medical benefits of Tai Chi, these are the culmination of my life’s work. At this point we’ve sold over 50,000 DVDs and downloads, and the product reviews and testimonials read like a book of miracles. A large body of evidence supports how Tai Chi can help with arthritis, chronic pain, COPD, fibromyalgia, heart disease, MS, Parkinson’s, and many other illnesses. But what is so exciting for us is hearing how our videos helped people with unstudied illnesses like neuropathy, cerebral palsy, spinal stenosis, paralysis, and myasthenia gravis. A lady in West Virginia bought our Sitting Tai Chi DVD through PBS and left a review saying she was able to stand up and walk in a straight line for the first time in many weeks. We are ecstatic to hear more and more physical therapists and doctors are recommending our videos.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together.

Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Mental wellness is about cognition, mental acuity, logic, comprehension, reason, and decision making. All of these functions are enhanced with better breathing and more oxygen. Tai Chi (or Taoist “Reverse”) breathing is different from everything else. Combined with comprehensive skeletal posture and even tongue posture, the long slow inhalation contracts the lower abdomen, and the long slow exhalation expands it. This kind of breathing saturates the lungs with oxygen and puts much more of it into the bloodstream. This in turn supercharges the brain and greatly enhances cognitive function and sharpness.

2. The aspects of mental wellness can also be enhanced with relaxation. It’s been proven that the human brain cannot logically reason when in a state of anger. Conversely, logic and reason come forth much more easily when the mind is relaxed. All the shades of gray between anger and calmness can be described as levels of stress. Even ambient noise can throw off a train of thought, which is why I am a big proponent of ear plugs (the cheap, conical foam variety you can buy at the store). Tai Chi greatly reduces stress and allows the mind to sharpen and perform.

3. The tenets of Tai Chi describe the use of intention. Proper posture takes considerable concentration. Purposeful breath and carefulness in balance, stepping, and movement are all decisions we make in Tai Chi practice. I like to say concentration and relaxation are opposing forces — so when you can learn to effectively do both, your mind can break through to a new level of function.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

Meditation is defined as a practice where an individual uses a technique to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state. Many kinds of meditation exist, and most of them involve stillness. Tai Chi is a different kind of meditation where mind and intention are focused internally for posture, breathing, and movement. To the onlooker, Tai Chi might seem simplistic and quite distant from physical training; this is because the slow tempo of movements are concentrated internally. Tai Chi is meditation in motion. Over time Tai Chi develops the mind and the body together. In my experience, people who start learning Tai Chi tend to stick with it because it feels so good.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1. First I have to explain that I was a bodybuilder, a triathlete, and a jogger for a long time. I have a strong understanding of kinesiology, muscular development, cardio training, and fast (glycolytic) twitch / slow (oxidative) twitch muscles. When I learned Tai Chi most of that knowledge pretty much went out the window. Tai Chi forbids the use of strength and panting like a buffalo. Tai Chi demands deep relaxation, specific physical posture, and development of the connective tissues in the joints. “Fitness” (which I say is a dirty word) does not equate to optimum physical wellness. Shocking, right? Strength and cardio training shorten the tendons and degrade the joints over time. The body will get stiff, and grow old, and eventually break down. But with Tai Chi practice the joints are “lubricated,” refreshed, and enhanced. Stiffness and asymmetry are washed away, and the body can become more youthful. Clinical studies show Tai Chi increases strength without practicing strength. Again, shocking, but it’s because every strength movement has agonistic muscles that move something and antagonistic muscles that obstruct movement; relaxing the antagonistic muscles offer more power. Tai Chi practice, including the special, repetitive calisthenics known as QiGong (chi-gung), are the only true way to achieve optimum physical wellness. Sure, you can say that cross training or “functional fitness” can significantly raise one’s performance level — but again, the body will eventually get old and break down. Six-pack abs? Take a picture, because they rarely last.

Another important aspect to consider is risk. Heavy weightlifting and strenuous cardio training also include a significant element of risk. Muscles can tear, ligaments can pull out, joints can wear, and bones can break. Next, consider the sport or competition. If you run and lift weights to play football, you might get hurt in the gym, or you might get hurt on the field. Believe it or not, the most injurious sport out there is bicycling. While you think you may be pedaling toward optimum physical wellness, one crash at 30 mph can take you out of the game completely. My friend rode hard for 30 years and had to have the back side of his kneecaps shaved a couple times because they got “rough” and would no longer glide over the joint. Those kinds of injuries do not happen in Tai Chi.

2. In our system we focus on loosening the hips and waist. “The hips” are not the chunk of bone mass known as the pelvis. The hips are the two joints that connect the legs to the pelvis. When you say “put your hands on your partner’s hips,” it usually means the pelvis. But when you get a hip replacement the surgeon does not replace the pelvis, but the joint at the top of the leg. Our principles offer that if you have problems with your body, the root of the problems is probably in your hips and waist. I find that so much neck and shoulder pain simply starts from having tight hips. Our system has great repetitive exercises that stretch the waist and hips across all three planes. Even tension headaches can be ousted with a few minutes of stretching the waist and hips.

3. Posture is extremely misunderstood. It should be comfortable and sustainable. When your mom told you to pull your shoulders back, or when your yoga teacher told you to press out your chest, or when your chiropractor told you the spine should always have an S-curve — all of that is incorrect. Proper posture “hollows” the chest inward, and the scapulae slide forward on the rib cage. The tailbone curls under and toward the front. The head is held very straight with the chin down. This takes much of the curvature out of the spine. Trees and buildings are straight, not curved. People say to me, “How do you know you’re right?” The posture I just described, combined with profound looseness in the hips and waist, is the only way to reach the highest levels of physicality in our system. The very difficult martial arts forms in our system simply cannot be performed with improper posture. Watch a BaGuaZhang video on YouTube. BaGuaZhang is so physically demanding that it can only be compared to gymnastics or figure skating. Even the most elite gymnast cannot learn BaGuaZhang without immense relaxation and embracing proper posture.

In the summer of 2004, the U.S. Ski Team (Men’s Alpine) asked me to teach them Tai Chi. The most dedicated student in the group was an uncoordinated, 19-year-old development-team kid named Ted Ligety. Ted never missed class, and I could tell that he was practicing diligently. The very next winter Ted Ligety won his first world cup race, and in 2006 he won a gold medal in the winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. Ligety went on to become one of the most successful athletes in U.S. Ski Team history. Funny that he never discussed his Tai Chi practice in any interviews.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

I like to point out that when people go to Subway, and they get to choose from all of the offerings behind the glass, it’s the vegetables that make the sandwich taste good, not the meat and cheese. I think most adults really like vegetables, but it does take some work to clean and prepare them. Eating a salad once a day makes us feel good, but when we have to do the work ourselves we often get lazy and just go for something easy. Subway makes it easy. A salad bar makes it easy. We need to find the energy and impetus to make more salads and vegetables at home.

Sugar is a killer. People often don’t realize that we get way too much acid in our diets. Sugar turns right into acid. We need to be thinking about alkaline foods to balance out all the acid. Most fruits and vegetables are alkaline, which counteract acid. I also think people need to be much more careful about what they drink. Soda and fruit juices are full of sugar, which turn into dietary acid. Two very useful tools are a food pH chart (to understand acidity and alkalinity) and the glycemic scale (to understand how sugary or fibrous foods are). We need more alkaline and more fiber.

I am a firm believer in intermittent fasting. Skipping breakfast and lunch once in a while is very healthy. When we were prehistoric hunter/gatherers we quite often went without food. We’re still built that way, even though food is so easily obtained now.

I think people understand that garlic, onions, and greens are very healthy. But incorporating a little Chinese health food can be highly beneficial. I like the comparison of a carrot to ginseng. A carrot grows in fertile soil and can easily rot in the ground. Ginseng grows in the harshest of environments and it does not die easily. Grandmaster Fu puts green onion, fresh ginger, garlic, and cilantro in almost everything, and it tastes delicious. I also recommend periodically ingesting a little ginseng, sesame, and reishi mushroom. I drink reishi mushroom coffee every day.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Tension equals stress. People can say yoga is relaxing, but it’s not; yoga as it’s practiced in the U.S. is completely tension-based. Downward-facing dog is essentially a complex pushup. Mountain pose lightly tenses all the muscles of the body. On the other hand, Tai Chi brings the mind and body into a state of deep relaxation. My teacher’s father once wrote, “Tai Chi is a kind of profound art where you use your mind and do not use your physical strength. There should not be one single iota of brute strength remaining within your muscles and bones.” When the mind is calm and the body is thoroughly relaxed, the stress melts away and offers up a place for optimum emotional wellness. Clinical meta-analyses demonstrated that Tai Chi interventions have beneficial effects for various populations on a range of psychological well-being measures, including depression, anxiety, and general stress management. Tai Chi also includes repetitive exercises that have been clinically proven to improve sleep.

2. I think people should know their own happy places — whether it’s cooking, a man cave, reading, or talking with that special friend. Nobody knows what you need except you. Getting back to your happy place is a great way to refresh emotional wellness.

3. Our emotions are often affected by our relationships. I’d like to recommend a couple of books: “The Color Code” by Dr. Taylor Hartman is pretty great. The basic premise is that you can develop what Dr. Hartman calls EQ or emotional quotient by understanding four basic personality motivations: red for power, blue for nurturing, white for peace, and yellow for fun. Each of us has all four motivations, but by and large we each have one primary (color) motivation. When you understand these motivations in yourself and in others you are able to make and maintain better relationships. Like plenty of others, I had a difficult childhood. During one particular rough patch, my dear mother bought me the book, “Tough Times Never Last but Tough People Do” by Dr. Robert Schuller. I have to admit that I consumed that book like a bowl of soup, and it made me feel a lot better. I highly recommend it for help people who might feel helpless.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

“Smiling’s my favorite.” –Buddy the Elf

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

In Tai Chi and Taoism the spirit is the inner desire for something better. Children want ice cream. Young adults might want to excel at sports or academics. Adults might want a better car or a bigger house. Older adults tend to experience waning health, so they take steps to improve it. This concept of the spirit overlaps well with other religious definitions too. I think spiritual wellness is optimized when the spirit is tempered. When the mind and the emotions are balanced and well controlled, the spirit can become satisfied.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

Of course, nature makes us feel better — bare feet in the sand, hearing birds singing in the trees, a little sunshine on our skin, hugging a tree. But we must first recognize that we are, in fact, natural beings. The word “unnatural” has become popularized to mean human-created, and the word “natural” means untouched by humans — but everything we do is natural. Even when we build nuclear-power facilities, we are no different than a monkey using a rock to open a coconut. We have to stop self-flagellating because we have dirtied up the environment. This only separates us from nature. We can improve our intentions for the environment, and at the same time be a part of the environment.

Taoism began in the 4th century B.C.E. with the book, “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu. If you haven’t read it, I can assure you that it’s a very short and easy read. It is a collection of brief Chinese poems that can really bring you back to nature and harmony. Just look it up on the internet (thetaoteching.com), where you can read it for free. I like to recommend reading one poem each day.

I offer here the ninth poem of the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim

and it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife

and it will blunt.

Chase after money and security

and your heart will never unclench.

Care about people’s approval

and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.

The only path to serenity.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

When I started this quest, I thought Grandmaster Fu would be the guy to teach the whole world Tai Chi. But when I was driving back from the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 I saw a billboard in rural Idaho that read “Be the change you want to see.”

That hit me like a ton of bricks, and I had my epiphany. I am the one who has to teach the world Tai Chi. And I am living my inspirational movement. If a tree falls on me tomorrow, I know I have helped 50,000–100,000 people live better lives. When ladies call me or send me emails to say our videos helped them with a medical miracle, I feel truly fulfilled.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Oprah Winfrey. She really cares about people and has such a powerful influence that if she were to say “Tai Chi can change the world,” people everywhere would believe her. In 1995 I went into Rose’s Market in Telluride (where we both live) to buy some groceries. I was looking at vegetables when I noticed I was standing next to Oprah. Back then Telluride’s celebrities felt comfortable to be out in public because people left them alone, which is what I did that day. When I first conceptualized this venture in 2004, I thought Oprah would be the key to getting folks to take notice of Tai Chi. My good friend Roger spent a day and a night with Oprah when she produced her TV tour of Ralph Lauren’s ranch here. I have wanted to talk to Oprah Winfrey about Tai Chi for almost 20 years. I still think she is so cool.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The best source for information and current happenings is my website, HealingExercise.org. It links to my Facebook pages and group, my YouTube channel, and our company press kit.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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