Tai Chi and Qigong – What is the Difference?

The terms  “Tai Chi” and “Qigong” often cause confusion. Whilst most people have heard of Tai Chi many are less familiar with Qigong (pronounced Chi Gung), so we thought we would try to explain the difference, starting with a quick summary.

(For information Qigong is sometimes written as Chi Gong, Chi Gung or Chi Kung, but all these refer to the same tradition and discipline. The accepted modern spelling is ‘Qigong’).

Tai Chi Qigong

Both Tai Chi and Qigong share similar characteristics – soft, controlled movements, a focus on breathing and posture and meditative elements that are intended to relax the body and calm the mind.   The main difference is in their original purpose. 

Qigong movements tend to be short, symmetrical forms and exercises. They are often repeated and can be used to target specific areas of the body to improve health.

Tai Chi forms are more complicated and take greater skill to practice. Tai Chi exercises provide similar benefits to Qigong in terms of improving health and well being, but the movements are utilised in a martial art and were originally intended for defensive or fighting purposes. 

In the West Tai Chi is most commonly practiced for its health benefits.  Many classes now incorporate the most effective exercise elements of both Tai Chi and Qigong – hence “Tai Chi Qigong”. 

If your primary interest is in learning Tai Chi as a martial art, then you will need to look for a specialised class.   

If your focus is on health and fitness and perhaps learning a little Tai Chi along the way then Tai Chi Qigong or Qigong classes are likely to provide a more relaxed alternative.  They can also provide a steppingstone to the more intricate forms of Tai Chi. 

Tai Chi

‘Tai Chi’ is a martial art that emerged in China about 700 years ago. It is practiced both for its health benefits and for defensive purposes.  Its full title is “Tai Chi Chuan” – a term usually translated as “Supreme Ultimate Boxing”. Various stories and legends exist about its early origins. It was probably taught in family groups; its skills were closely guarded and passed from generation to generation.  The earliest documented tai chi style dates to Chen village in the 17th century, but the discipline was not popularised until the 19th century when Yang Luchan, one of the foremost tai chi practitioners, was permitted to train with the Chen family.  He went on to travel widely throughout China. His success as both a fighter and a teacher helped to popularise tai chi and other styles emerged along family lineages.  The most common tai chi styles today are Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun and Hao – but there are many combinations of these.

Qigong

The roots of Tai Chi are in a much older tradition called “Qigong”. 

The term “Qigong” is actually 2 words in Mandarin and is usually translated as “Energy Work”.

Qi = Life or Vital Energy
Gong = Work, skill or mastery

It is a comparatively modern term that embraces thousands of exercises and techniques whose purpose is to improve health and well-being. These follow the principles of traditional Chinese medicine and some of them can trace back their roots several thousand years.

The 3 main categories of Qigong are medical, martial and spiritual. As the name suggests medical Qigong focuses on health and healing. Martial Qigong incorporates fighting arts such as Tai Chi and Kung Fu – the emphasis here is on physical skill.  Finally, spiritual Qigong covers meditation, internal awareness and mental focus. Over the centuries all three have become closely entwined – sharing elements and principles with each other.

QI

Qi ( pronounced Chee) is a difficult word to translate because we don’t really have a similar concept in the west. Think of ‘Qi’ as the energy that keeps us alive and gives us health and vitality.  We are all born with Qi, but we can also cultivate it and make it stronger. If our Qi fades, then we become sick. If we lose our Qi then we die. Strong, healthy Qi is what gives us quality of life.

‘Qi’ sometimes comes with spiritual overtones in the West, but its meaning within Traditional Chinese Medicine can be more down to earth. It is made up of the air we breathe, the food we eat, qualities we inherit from our parents and can be influenced by a host of other factors including our environment. 

Qi is thought to flow along pathways in the body called ‘Meridians’. Meridians form a network within our body that connect with the major organs; within them are pressure points – exactly the same ones that are used in acupuncture.  

If one of the meridians becomes blocked or damaged then illness or injury is said to occur in a corresponding area of the body. Qi can also become ‘stagnant’ if prevented from flowing freely and cause health issues.  There is a range of techniques to deal with such damage or blockages – for example acupuncture uses needles, but it is also possible to use exercise.  Movement / stretches can be used to open the required meridians and thus target specified areas of the body. The overall aim is to cultivate strong ‘Qi’ and enable it to move freely through the body.

Shibashi

‘Shibashi’ in Mandarin translates simply as ’18 movements’.

There are currently eight Shibashi sets and these were developed from 1979 onwards by Professor Lin Houseng, a prominent expert in qigong. The various sets incorporate the principles of qigong with the core elements of tai chi in sequences of gentle, flowing movement. They effectively form a bridge between the two and can provide a useful introduction to the more complicated forms of tai chi. The first Shibashi set is widely practised and has become one of the most popular qigong sequences in the world. 

The exercises co-ordinate breathing with soft, fluid movement: this helps help to release tension and promote calm and relaxation.  The movements gently stretch, mobilise and strengthen the body, helping us to energise ourselves and achieve balance.

Our classes often include the first two shibashi sets. These are easy to learn and accessible to just about anyone, regardless of age or fitness level. They can also be adapted to be performed seated

Shibashi 1 is deeply relaxing – its movements focused mainly on the upper body. Shibashi 2 is a little more energetic, with a mix of exercises for the upper and lower body.

The sets are enjoyable to do alone, but performing them within a group, brings a real energy to the experience.