Tai Chi or Qigong – Which is Right for You?

Tai Chi or Qigong – Which is Right for You?

As scientific evidence grows for the health and wellbeing benefits of mind-body practices, Tai Chi and Qigong are becoming more popular and highly sought after. But what is the difference between the two, and how can you know which is the right one for you?

Let’s start with Qigong

Qigong is derived from two words: “qi” which can have a number of meanings including “breath”, “air” and “energy”; in this context it refers to our life-force energy, and “gong” which also has several meanings, including “cultivation”, “work”, and “effort”. Therefore, Qigong can be translated as “cultivation of life-force energy through effort”. The practice of Qigong exercises can be traced back thousands of years and has in theoretical roots in Taoist philosophy and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In simplest terms, it is a system of breathing exercise coupled with physical postures which assist in the development and circulation of qi throughout the body’s meridians, with the aim of improving one’s health, physicality, vitality and longevity.

There are numerous different types of Qigong exercise, each with its own specific purpose. These exercises may be performed in standing, sitting, or even lying down, depending on the technique and the reason for performing it. Some Qigong exercises look very dynamic, with wide stances and large movements, while others appear more static, relaxed, and meditative. Regardless of how it is performed, the focus of Qigong is internal: the nourishment and support of all the structures of the body through the circulation and refinement of qi.

Because Qigong is a mind-body technique, learning from a qualified instructor is essential to get the most benefit from it. An instructor will be able to guide you through the exercises and give you feedback on your technique as well as helping you understand any feelings or sensations that may arise from practising.

 What, then, is Tai Chi?

Though some may argue that Tai Chi and Qigong are the same thing, they are quite different. Tai Chi is the common name used for the martial art taijiquan. Though more commonly practiced today for its health benefits, it is still a martial art: its movements and techniques all have martial applications. It is the application of these techniques that explain why certain postures and movements are performed in a specific way. Like Qigong, there are many different Tai Chi sets which are often classified by the primary family lineage that developed them. Of these the four main recognized lineages are: Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), and Sun. The Yang family style is perhaps the most recognized and practiced around the world.

Where Qigong is defined as an internal art, Tai Chi is often recognized as being both an internal and external art. The internal aspect is likely derived from its Qigong roots, while its external aspect comes from its martial application. Unlike many other external martial arts which focus on hardening the body against attack, Tai Chi utilizes softness or yielding to avoid or redirect an opponent’s attack, keeping energy in reserve and waiting for the right opportunity to counterattack. In this respect it is often compared to the flow of a river: winding and taking the path of least resistance, yet able over time to cut through rock.

Like Qigong, learning Tai Chi is also most effective when done with a suitably qualified instructor. As well as ensuring correct postures and techniques, an instructor can help adapt the Tai Chi forms to allow for any physical limitations you might have, while still adhering to the basic principles of Tai Chi.

So, which is right for you?

Both Tai Chi and Qigong have been, and continue to be, well researched and the scientific evidence for the benefits of both is growing every day. Many healthcare practitioners are beginning to incorporate one or both practices into their wellness plans; for example, Veteran’s Affairs has implemented Tai Chi as part of its overall wellness plan to deliver good health outcomes for veterans. Both have great benefits to offer, and practising either will make tangible differences to your health and wellbeing. Both are very accessible to a wide range of people, with little to no prerequisite level of fitness or ability required to commence them. It’s for this reason that they are considered especially ideal for older adults as opposed to other forms of exercise.

With that in mind, the deciding factor arguably comes down to two components: 1) what type of exercise/activity are you looking for; and 2) what is your current level of ability?

For some people, the martial aspect of Tai Chi is not very appealing and puts people off. They only want the health benefits of Tai Chi, and so go searching for “medical” or “health” based Tai Chi. The thing to understand is that all Tai Chi styles are designed to improve health and wellbeing. In fact, most research into Tai Chi’s benefits have used traditional (ie: martial based) styles of Tai Chi in their studies. Inclusion of the martial basis of Tai Chi does not mean you are going to be learning how to fight: rather, it gives your mind a focus, which in turn leads your energy and gives your movements purpose and form.  To separate the martial aspect from Tai Chi is to take away part of the essence that makes Tai Chi what it is: at best it reverts to Qigong, and at worst is little more than low impact aerobics.

However, because of its very nature and principles, Tai Chi does require a person to be able to stand and move on their feet. If you are unable to stand or take a step without some form of support, then Qigong may be more appropriate form of exercise for you to commence with. Because there are Qigong exercises which can be performed without necessarily being able to stand, or even sit, unsupported, it is often a good introduction to a mind-body practice for health, regardless of physical ability. It may even be a useful starting point to help develop the physical capacity to commence Tai Chi practice; if not, the benefits to one’s health can still be obtained and maintained through regular, long-term practice of Qigong.

Many Tai Chi instructors will include some form of Qigong exercise as part of their classes, and many Qigong instructors will have some familiarity with, if not directly practice, Tai Chi. The easiest way to determine which is right for you is to speak to a suitably qualified instructor, outlining what your current abilities are, and what your goals are, so they can help you determine the right choice for you.

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