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Relationship Between Tai Chi, Chi Gung, and Yoga

October 13, 2015

Students often ask about the differences between Tai Chi and Chi Gung, and the relationship between Yoga and Tai Chi.  This is understandable since they are all internal energy practices to varying degrees.  And they are usually grouped together in one classification for scientific research purposes, along with moving meditation and healing touch.  That is probably because they all focus on using energy to modify the body rather than more traditional quantifiable means.

Tai Chi and Chi Gung

I was told as a student that chi gung is often described as the mother of Tai Chi because it is much older.  Actually, this is an overly simplistic explanation of the relationship since there are many forms of tai chi, and many different kinds of chi gung.  Tai Chi form comes to us through families, although there are many principles of tai chi that evolved far earlier than family form and are embedded in Taoist tradition.  Chi gung originated from the various cultural movements in China, Buddhism Confucism and Taoism, and they are not necessarily like one another at all.

Even though the two practices are both ways to move energy, chi gung is not the parent of tai chi, and tai chi is not simply one form of chi gung.

Tai chi derived from the martial arts family and retains that focus, while chi gung is rooted in health and retains that focus.  However, this is not a clear distinction either, since the practice of tai chi can improve health, and the practice of chi gung can increase ones power and strength.

Tai chi uses continuous flowing movements of the body, and involves the consistent circulation of energy throughout the entire body.  Chi gung will often focus the movement of energy on one particular part of the body, and is usually done in a standing still position.  However, there are tai chi forms using less movement, and chi gung forms using more movement.

Suffices to say that the many differences between tai chi and chigung do not override the basic similarities in moving internal energy, breathing, and relaxation of the mind and body.  And both practices are steeped in tradition and ancient wisdom about the relationship between mind, body, emotions, and spirit.  We would be well advised to avoid the trap of judging one over the other, or making overly simplistic conclusions, and in stead respect the gifts each has to offer to those who choose to practice.

Tai Chi and Yoga

Tai chi and yoga are both ancient traditions that are practiced by millions around the world, although tai chi is a bit behind yoga in mainstreaming here in the west.  We have seen a growing diversity and an increasing variety in yoga practices. Tai chi, as well, is beginning to express in ways that go beyond the traditional practice of form tied to lineage and heritage.  We see the emergence of health tai chi, recreational tai chi, social tai chi and fitness tai chi, alongside an increasing emphasis on the preservation of traditional lineage form.

In this diversification, the concepts of both yoga and tai chi has been broadened and perhaps, a bit diluted, and thus, can be more easily misunderstood.  This they share in common.  Yet they are both practices relying on a relaxed body, deliberate breathing, a quiet mind, and the intentional movement of energy within.  And they both change the body for the better and reduce stress.  Many people practice both, and I am one of them.  I also have students who practice both.

But differences remain.  Tai chi involves continuous movement and breathing, while yoga involves holding postures and breath.  Stretching in tai chi comes through gently movements while stretching in yoga is more direct and strenuous.   The posture in tai chi is always erect with a straight back, while yoga assumes various postures and curves the back. 

Tai chi coordinates the entire body with flow of movement, while yoga focuses on posturing parts of the body with control.  Tai chi is full of circles while yoga is relies on more linear movement.

As with chi gung, we can appreciate the value of both these practices and recognize that technical and structural differences do not surpass the basic commonalities they share.  In the larger context, we can appreciate the richness of each of these practices, and the gifts they can offer to the serious practitioner in a time of social and environmental stress and challenge.