The difference between Tai Chi and Qigong
by Great Grand Master Kellen Chia
October 23, 2011
Posted by Tai Chi Society
Tai Chi and Qigong are ancient practices that have led to improved health, fitness, wellbeing and longevity for countless individuals up to the present time. They both cultivate the Qi, also spelt Chi -- the life energy that flows through the body’s energy pathways -- by combining movement, breathing and meditation. Tai Chi and Qigong have in common the same basic property (Qi), the same fundamental principle (relaxation), and the same fundamental method (slowness). Tai Chi’s other principles, methods and applications are distinct to Qigong regarding how the form is practised, how the energy is manipulated and how the body posture is conditioned.
What is Qi?
Qi is the animating power that permeates the universe and all living things. It is a basis for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) -- Qi flows throughout the body’s energy pathways, or meridians, to help maintain essential health. The body is unwell when the flow of Qi becomes stagnant or blocked, whereas a free flowing and balanced Qi energizes the organs, systems and cells.
What is Qigong?
Qigong literally means “life energy work” -- a way of working with the life energy. It is a healing art, a way of cultivating physical, spiritual, emotional and psychical health, that originated in China about seven thousand years ago, widely practised by the shaman priests during that primitive era. Qigong is part of Traditional Chinese Medicine and was first detailed in an ancient Chinese medical text book -- the Huang Di Nei Jing or Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon - that has been regarded as the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine for well over two millennia and is still in use today. Subsequent Chinese medical books published in antiquity also reveal detailed theory and the clinical practice of Qigong procedures for treating disease and enhancing health. The art of Qigong can be practised as physical movement that incorporates breathing exercises, or as stationary meditation.
Categories of Qigong
The art of Qigong has three categories which are medical (or healing) Qigong, meditation Qigong and martial Qigong. There are more than two thousand Qigong exercises that comprise of hundreds of different styles, engaged in moving, standing, lying or sitting. Some styles of Qigong foster Qi better than others because of their superior moves and applications -- those that are simple are typically more effective and can be excellent for the central nervous system, the chronically ill, and for general health.
Medical Qigong can refer to a healer using the palms to transmit Qi into a patient’s body. It more commonly refers to medical Qigong kinetics -- movement exercises practised by the general public all over the world, and by chronically ill patients in many Chinese hospitals. Medical Qigong exercise is a slow, relaxed and gentle physical work-out with each move repeated in coordination with the breath so as to nourish the Qi and improve health and well-being. The movements are designed primarily to nurture the Qi, enhance its flow and massage the internal organs of the body.
Meditation Qigong is carried out either sitting, standing or lying for the purpose of mind-body integration, emotional and spiritual fulfilment, Qi cultivation and healing. It is also an effective way to relax the mind and the body. There are different types of meditation Qigong, each with their own methods, techniques and objectives. Most meditation Qigong entails visualization, focusing the Qi to move to a specific part of the body, or focusing on breathing patterns, sounds, specific ideas, images and concepts. Meditation Qigong is commonly applied in Chinese martial arts, while one type of meditation Qigong centres on healing power to be used for oneself or others by projecting Qi from the palms with the hands touching or positioned very close to the body.
Martial Qigong is dynamic and strenuous, and is used by martial artists to supplement their power by way of encouraging Qi in the body. The Qigong training typically involves repeatedly tensing and then loosening the muscles, combined with deep, long breaths often incorporating reversed abdominal breathing. A static standing posture, sometimes on one leg, is held by the martial artist for a period lasting three, five, ten minutes or even longer. Martial Qigong has a few healing benefits, primarily by strengthening the internal organs of the body and developing stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments. One has to be reasonably fit before beginning such training because otherwise it can damage the body’s systems.
Qigong kinetics are relatively simple exercises that can be learnt very quickly, and even instantly, by simply following a teacher’s moves. Although generally the movements in Qigong are straightforward to carry out, the practice is not solely about moving the body and the extremities because otherwise Qigong would be merely a physical exercise. Some people, even some Qigong students, mistakenly think that Qigong is warm-up exercise. While it might look like one, it is instead a healing art in which a practitioner enters a state of relaxation in the mind and the body as a way of working with the life energy.
The forms in Qigong are not nearly as intricate as those in Tai Chi; they need not be executed as precisely. Qigong forms are free in movement and can be merged with an individual’s moving manner. The same form may look slightly different depending on the practitioner’s style of movement, but it is still the same form, and importantly it provides the same healing benefits even if the movements are not done precisely. Qigong can be carried out standing, sitting or lying down with the whole body still with only the extremities moving, so really anyone can practise Qigong.
Practising Qigong Forms
Qigong forms are practised individually: each form is repeated -- typically from three or four to nine times -- before progressing to the next form. Usually one’s practice incorporates from five to perhaps as many as sixty four or even more Qigong forms. By repetition, the requisite Qi is generated to replenish the Qi, adequately self-massage the internal organs and benefit the muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Beware of fraudulent claims
There are people who claim to be Qigong masters possessing supernatural powers. While there is one method of meditation Qigong that can transform one into a master healer able to discharge strong healing power to help the ill, the training required is over twenty years to a life-time. Achieving this power in fifteen years is impossible, just as impossible as it is for a baby to walk within six months of birth. Be cautious, then, if you hear promises of great healing power. Other claims may also be made and perhaps demonstrated, for example: bending metal objects without touching, igniting paper or fabric by projecting Qi from the palms, throwing people without physical contact, etc. Insist that they demonstrate on your own spoon or paper but do not let them touch anything prior to demonstration (do not allow any chemical substances to be subtly applied); or insist that they throw you and not an accomplice. There are sceptics who have offered millions of dollars for genuine demonstrations of such paranormal ability, and yet no one to this day has claimed such a prize. Human beings are simply not built for such capabilities, just as we cannot fly.
What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is also a healing art that originated in China more than two thousand years ago. It is a series of continuous, circular, slow, relaxed and smooth flowing movements that has numerous health benefits for people of all ages and health conditions. Tai Chi is not just a form of physical exercise; tremendous Qi is generated and circulates throughout the body when one adheres to certain theories of movement, specific posture alignment and -- in one or two of the forms -- particular breathing. The callisthenics of Tai Chi attracts many more practitioners than Qigong, as does its feeling of fluidity of movement.
Tai Chi Forms
The forms in Tai Chi follow certain rules and involve intricate body mechanics; both are necessary conditions for the energy and power to be produced. The direction and the flow of the energy and power within the body are controlled by the forms. Done correctly, the form stimulates the energy and power, freeing up blocked pathways and allowing the Qi to flow throughout the body more effectively. The aspirant needs to learn each form to a stage where it can be practised by oneself, which for a basic form can take up to twenty minutes or more depending on the form and the individual because it involves technique. The Tai Chi forms -- except the very simple ones -- take considerably longer to learn than even the more complex forms of Qigong. And while everyone has their own natural style of movement, so long as the forms in Tai Chi comply with the specific rules the essence is retained; the forms must adhere to the Tai Chi principles because otherwise the art is not Tai Chi.
Practising Tai Chi Forms
Tai Chi is a series of forms which are not repeated as in Qigong; instead one form is followed by another, with each form an integral part of the next to make up a continuous flowing movement. Because each form is connected, a ‘path’ is built and the Qi can flow in a continuous stream throughout the practice. This Qi produces the energy that, at a high level of regular practice, is stored in the back bone. When people see Tai Chi it is clear that it is not a warm-up because the forms are in a continuous series with every movement highly crafted. Learning Tai Chi is quite an endeavour, which in itself is relished by many practitioners. Learning the forms also improves flexibility, coordination and balance that lead to precision with further practice.
Advanced Tai Chi
Tai Chi at a higher level is a form of Qigong, provided that the fundamental principles of Tai Chi are applied in the practice. While low-level Tai Chi is solely a physical exercise, at higher level it transcends into a Qigong discipline. In other words, if there is no Qigong then there is no real Tai Chi -- if one cannot master the internal skill of Qigong, then one will not be able to master Tai Chi. If one has mastered Qigong internal skill, then it does not necessarily mean that one is capable of mastering Tai Chi, but if one has mastered real Tai Chi then one has also mastered Qigong internal skill.
The essence of Qigong is critical for Tai Chi, in that it gives one real power throughout the practice of Tai Chi. If one’s internal energy skill is insufficient then one’s Tai Chi is empty. Of course, this may not be the only reason: the cause could be a violation of the internal principles of Tai Chi which is unfortunately quite common amongst practitioners who are often unaware of the inadequacies in their Tai Chi practice.
Tai Chi can be performed with grace and fluidity to the extent that even some Tai Chi instructors are greatly impressed, and so one can mistakenly believe that the art of Tai Chi has been mastered. In reality, though, the Tai Chi can be empty, lacking internal power and thus being little more than a ‘dance’ -- beautiful like a flower, but feeble. If so, it is because one has not mastered the internal energy skill.
Note, though, that Qigong training is not a prerequisite for Tai Chi practice. One can still acquire power in Tai Chi without practising the art of internal Qigong because Tai Chi at higher level is a form of Qigong. One can still discharge the built-up energy in the Tai Chi routine. However, at the highest level of Tai Chi one’s power will be greater if one has also trained in internal Qigong. Also, if one practises Qigong at the initial stages of learning Tai Chi then one’s Tai Chi will become superior at the advanced level because the art is built on powerful roots. The effect of internal Qigong practice produces superb Qi in the body that acts both as a boost and as a supplement that helps greatly throughout Tai Chi training, especially in the early stages of Tai Chi learning. This is because the Qi is not easily cultivated in the early period of Tai Chi practice, whereas Qigong practice can generate tremendous Qi in a much shorter time.
The main differences between Tai Chi and Qigong are outlined below:
1. Tai Chi power is ‘dense’ whereas Qigong power is ‘light’. Because Tai Chi at a high level is intricate, the Qi that manifests in each form has subtle characteristics that change with each form throughout the set, each form being an integral part of the whole. Qigong forms are less intricate and so the Qi expressed is more general, its characteristics less defined.
2. Tai Chi at a higher level strongly accumulates Qi throughout the tendons, ligaments and meridians -- as the Qi flows in a continuous stream it builds to a tremendous level -- whereas in Qigong the effect is considerably less powerful.
3. The art of Tai Chi involves an advanced and elaborate choreography, unlike the art of Qigong.
4. The discipline of Qigong is focused on cultivating the Qi, there being no need to study the forms. Tai Chi practice is instead centred on the forms involving alignment, integration, coordination, connection, precision and unity -- the Qi manifests itself as a result of the form.
5. The art of Qigong -- particularly meditation Qigong -- can be a profound meditation going exceedingly deep into the realm of consciousness. The art of Tai Chi is a moving meditation that is less intense.
6. One type of meditation Qigong can achieve potent healing power for treating oneself or the ill, whereas Tai Chi and moving Qigong are less powerful and are for one’s own general health benefits. Note that if you have ailments such as a cold, flu or fever, then it is often best to delay practising Qigong or Tai Chi until you have recovered.
7. Another type of meditation Qigong can lead to advanced spiritual development, whereas at a high level of Tai Chi one can feel the flow of Qi, energy and power but not as profound a spiritual awareness.
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