Tai chi millennials_00004811.jpg
Tai chi isn't just for old folks
01:29 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

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.

Millennials are taking up tai chi to reduce stress and become more "grounded."

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.

Taniela Irizarry, 37, takes a free tai chi class on Long Beach's Signal Hill.

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 i