- Tai chi instructors see increase in 20- and 30-somethings attending classes
- Millennials say they use tai chi to counteract stress, find calm
(CNN)Standing 6 feet 5 inches tall, Patrick York is a gentle giant.
The soft-spoken 26-year-old with a "Peace Love Tai Chi" T-shirt flowed into a grounded stance on a Long Beach, California, hilltop. He was among several dozen people taking a free tai chi class this warm July day.
"I do tai chi to reconnect my mind, body and spirit, as well as to strengthen my muscles, loosen my joints, get my body relaxed," York said.
What is tai chi?
Tai chi is an ancient martial art developed in China that's often referred to as a "moving meditation."
"It takes the principles that we've observed in nature and uses it as a martial art," said Daniel Hoover, tai chi master, chiropractor and owner of School of Healing Martial Arts in Long Beach. Hoover gives a free class every Sunday on this hill.
Tai chi's slow, graceful movements are accompanied by deep circular breathing. Though tai chi is practiced slowly for health benefits -- stress relief, improved balance and flexibility -- it can be sped up and used as a fighting form in very advanced classes.
Chinese physicians prescribe tai chi as a gymnastic form of medicine to complement other traditional treatments such as acupuncture and herbs, according to tai chi master Terry Dunn, who helped popularize it in the West.
The movements are working with what is called "qi" or life force, a type of "flow" that, according to tai chi practitioners, everyone has.
"Within every tai chi movement is the principle of yin and yang. The idea that there is unity within opposites: positive and negative, full and empty, dark and light, hard and soft, cause and effect," writes Dunn.
Each posture has a classical Chinese name, such as "Wave Hands Like Clouds," "Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg," "High Pat the Horse," "White Crane Cools Its Wings" and "Shoot Tiger with Bow."
Beyond just the forms, there is sparring called "push hands," in which two practitioners try to unbalance one another by redirecting the other's energy.
Though studies show that most of those who practice tai chi are 50 years old and up, several instructors report a renewed interest among younger folks looking for an antidote to stress.
Young practitioners looking for peace
York does tai chi three times a week, which he says helps him be more patient and go with the flow.
"I live in Southern California, so driving on the freeways, it can be tempting to rush through traffic and go as fast as you can," he said. "But since I've been doing tai chi, I've been able to stop and pull back and just be like 'all right, here I am in the flow. I'm going to go with it, and if it's slow, that's OK.' "
It also helps him be more patient in his job as classroom aide for special-needs children.
"A couple of times I have guided them through some breathing exercises, and within minutes, they're more focused. I'm more relaxed, they're more relaxed, and we're able to move on to the lessons," York said.
Dunn, who has been teaching tai chi in Los Angeles for more than three decades, says that in the past year and a half, he's gotten an uptick in calls from young men in the tech industry.
He gives private lessons to 20 people, including one young man who works for eHarmony and another for Yahoo.
"Computer tech people, they love tai chi. It's a good destresser for them: sitting hours behind a keyboard, hunched over doing programming," Dunn said. "A lot of these people are more introverted. They like that gentle nature of tai chi that doesn't have sparring and hitting bags."
Google headquarters has been offering tai chi to its employees for the past couple of years.
Master David Chang, owner of the Wushu Central Martial Arts Academy in San Jose, says he has several students in their 20s and 30s.
"It used to be all senior citizens. It was uncommon for anyone younger than 30 learning tai chi. I've seen it's shifted quite a bit."
Chang, 41, says those students are looking for both a good source of exercise and something to relieve stress.
"We have some students working in high-tech companies, environmental site analysis, another in air-conditioning repair. It goes across the board," Chang said.
Tai chi slowness is deceptive
"Tai chi has a stigma of being for old people because it's slow. Tai chi is great for young people because it helps you to develop that slowness, which can be very beneficial in the world when things are stressful," York said.
He says that although it's practiced slowly, it's not easy.
"The slowness of tai chi is deceptive. It's more difficult to remain slow and connected to the breath."
"Each movement uses almost every muscle. So when we're standing and we're in a form and we're centered low -- the legs are engaged, the torso, the arms -- everything's engaged but not stressed like it would be in a workout in the gym. My legs have become much stronger."
Taniela Irizarry, 37, says it helps with her injuries from years of beating up her body as a professional dancer. She too practices it outside on Signal Hill.
"At first, it does seem a little difficult to slow yourself down at that point. But once you do, you realize that it's so calming and it's so relaxing. I just feel like everything just kind of releases," Irizarry said.
"You feel the wind blowing through. Sometimes, maybe it's the energy we're creating, but little bees, butterflies and birds come zipping around us," she said.
May guard against inflammation, chronic disease
Most health research into the benefits of tai chi focus on people over 50. But the earlier you start in life, the more you reap the rewards, says Dr. Michael Irwin, director of UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center. He says the benefits are cumulative.
"A younger person that's experiencing stress, there's a way for them to target that stress so that it does not accumulate over time -- increasing the likelihood of them developing disease."
Irwin has carried out more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies evaluating the ability of tai chi, yoga and mindfulness to improve health outcomes.
Irwin's earliest tai chi study in 2003 found an increase in the number of disease-fighting "T cells" that fight off shingles in patients who practiced tai chi. The 15-week study showed no increase in those who did not participate.
In a later study, Irwin found that practicing tai chi gave the same immunity boost as a vaccine developed for shingles.
In 2015, a study found that tai chi, over several weeks, reduced cellular inflammatory responses in patients suffering from insomnia, Irwin says.
"As we age, we find you can be more at risk for an infectious disease, or you can be more at risk for an inflammatory disorder," he said. "Tai chi importantly impacts both elements of the immune system. It improves our ability to fight off infectious disease. It also decreases our inflammation. "
Irwin is now studying whether tai chi can be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy to treat depression and anxiety.
What makes it so effective?
What is is about tai chi that is so impactful on our health?
"We simply don't know, but we have various clues," Irwin said. "What happens when you practice tai chi: We're slowly moving, but we also have to be present in this moment -- not tomorrow, not yesterday, but in this moment."
He adds that this is true not just for tai chi but for other mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation.
"Being present in the moment turns off these kinds of stories that we tell ourselves, that our brain tells our body. When we're telling all these stories about all these horrible things that have been happening to us, we get an activation of these stress response pathways," Irwin said. "So being present in the moment helps us maintain a sense of calmness but also short-circuits activation of these stress pathways."
'We need a practice ... that allows us to slow down'
At the end of the tai chi class on Long Beach's Signal Hill, York says he brings his practice with him everywhere he goes.
"If I'm feeling agitated, it's a good lesson for me to remember to slow down and tune in with my breath. I do tai chi to get back into myself and to my center, because throughout the week, the world will pull us in different directions," York said.
"I think tai chi is great for younger people because it forces you to disconnect from the world around you."
"We all need a practice, whether it's tai chi or something else, that allows us to slow down."