What is Tai Chi?

If you're looking for a group exercise class to refresh and rejuvenate your spirit, Tai Chi should be at the top of your list.

Tai Chi, also known as TaijiQuan, is a Chinese internal martial art that increases self-awareness and elevates the 'spirit of vitality' through focused coordination of the mind, body and spirit. Steve Heath, a Tai Chi instructor for the YMCA, has been practicing the art for 23 years.

Learning Tai Chi

YMCA Staff and Members

"It is a time-tested traditional Chinese method of self-development," Steve says. "It's a blend of the most refined medical, meditative, and martial knowledge."

For the beginner, Tai Chi class uses methodical postures that move fluidly from one to the next. By unifying the actions of your spirit, mind and body, Tai Chi brings a relaxed, alert awareness. "Fully focused in the moment, the senses are alive, balance improves, and both your heart rate and blood pressure decrease," Steve says. Through Tai Chi, students improve their coordination and can even address memory issues, making this group exercise class a great recommendation for seniors. Tai Chi initiates the “relaxation response,” which actually alters the chemistry of your nervous system toward accelerated inner healing and enhancing the efficiency of your immune system.

Steve teaches "condensing breathing" to his students, which is the practice of breathing in pure white light and energy, and then exhaling to let that energy radiate outwardly. Condensing breathing is part of an ancient practice of waking things internally that have started dying. As we age, bone marrow can die out; condensing breathing can reawaken and restart red blood cell production in this bone marrow.

At the Y, you'll find various forms of Yang, Sun and Chen styles of Tai Chi.

Watch Tai Chi from our friends at YMCA Twin Cities

Yang Style

Yang style Tai Chi is the most popular and widely practiced Tai Chi style in the world. At least 20 main variations of the Yang style exist in America & England, and there are even more varieties in China, Steve says. Though the Yang family learned the art from the Chen family, each variation of Yang style was performed according to the approach of a specific master or a particular geographic region in China. While each variation has a distinct flavor, some may look slightly different from others and may emphasize different technical points.

Sun Style

Sun is the youngest style of Tai Chi. The creator of Sun style, Sun Lu-tang, was versed in several other styles before developing his own. As written by the Tai Chi for Health Institute, "Sun described his Tai Chi as using Baguaquan’s stepping method, Xingyiquan’s leg and waist methods and Tai Chi’s body softness."

Chen Style

"Chen Taijiquan was created by Chen Wangting towards the end of the Ming Dynasty," Steve says. "At the time of its creation, Chen had a friend named Jiang Fa with whom he studied and trained to create Taijiquan. Chen combined traditional Chinese medicine with the essential theories of General Qi Jiguang into Chen Family Taijiquan. Chen created twining, coiling and arcing movements, which came to be known as 'silk reeling.' The movements are executed through the turning of the waist or center and alternately expand, contract, open and close. These movements stimulate the main and collateral energy channels and acupuncture points through which the inner vital energy or chi flows. If the vital energy in different parts of the body is in harmony, a person enjoys good health."

Steve teaches Sun-style Tai Chi for arthritis and Chen style. "No matter what style Tai Chi I teach," he says, "I incorporate Chen family principles I learned from Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang because I feel it is necessary for good health." His first training was in Yang style. This developed his passion for Tai Chi and nurtured a desire to learn more about the "art of rejuvenation," as he describes. In 2013, Steve learned energy healing from Sifu (Cantonese for "master") Larry Lee. With his broad training in several popular styles, Steve recommends trying out a few different classes and instructors to see what fits best for you.

Finding better health

"If my students don't feel better when they leave my class than when they arrived, they haven't experienced Tai Chi," Steve says. "Following the required principles for the physical body while practicing Tai Chi strengthens the core, joints and connective tissues. The first requirement in Tai Chi is to calm the mind and find peace in a place where your thoughts are not scattered. I teach my students how to find their happy place."

He's used his knowledge of Tai Chi and energy healing to help students with physical issues, and in 2015, taught Tai Chi at the Alvin C. York VA facility in Murfreesboro to help veterans dealing with PTSD. "Going in, I told myself that if I could reach two of these heroes, teaching them how to find a peaceful, happy place, it would be fulfilling," Steve remembers. "One veteran in particular had a difficult time quieting his mind until one day, while preparing for the form, he said, 'I got it!' He recalled a cherished memory with his grandson that he could use to find his happy place. I could see the tension just melt away from his body. Due to the success of the program, Tai Chi is now being utilized for its therapeutic benefits in VA facilities across the United States."

YMCA of Middle TN

While a class in Tai Chi is a great foundation for appreciating this internal martial art, Steve encourages his students to learn and respect the form using the required principles—because Tai Chi is a time-honored tradition.

"Practice the form daily to strengthen the body and elevate the spirit," Steve says. "I want my students to use the peace they find in Tai Chi in their daily lives to make calm decisions and lead a happy, fulfilling life."

Welcoming all students

One of the great things about practicing Tai Chi is that everyone is welcome. It's especially beneficial to those looking to improve their hand-eye coordination and balance. "Tai Chi helps in so many aspects of life," Steve says. "I would like to see it offered to children in public schools. I wish I would've started at a younger age."

Refresh and rejuvenate your spirit through Tai Chi with an hour-long group exercise class. Find Steve's classes (taught at Christ Church, Brentwood, and Green Hills YMCAs) or another one of our exceptional Tai Chi instructors by location through our class finder.