Tai Chi has been around in the West for quite a while now, but Qigong is less well known. In this post we’ll explore what Tai Chi and Qigong are, and how to know which you should learn.

What is Tai Chi?

Most people think of tai chi as a series of slow, relaxing movements for old people. However, none of those things are strictly accurate. There is a good reason why it’s often practiced slowly, but it isn’t always. The movements shouldn’t be completely relaxed (and this is a common error). And while it’s a great form of exercise for older people, it’s also excellent for younger people.

What many people don’t seem to realise is that Tai Chi is a martial art. This isn’t always obvious because of the way it is usually practiced, and because it is an internal martial art.

The External and Internal Martial Arts

Based on the traditional Chinese method of classification, martial arts can be categorised into two types – external and internal.

The external martial arts are all about speed, strength and power. Most martial arts fall into this category, including modern kung fu (wushu), but also karate, taekwondo, western boxing, kickboxing, etc. They largely generate power from the muscles and alignment of the bones.

The internal martial arts are more concerned with rootedness, relaxed power, whole body movement and mental stillness. There are a few martial arts in this category, the most common of which are tai chi (properly tai chi chuan/taijiquan), xingyiquan and baguazhang. In these arts, the power is generated differently – it involves Qigong.

What is Qigong?

Literally, it can be translated as ‘energy work’ or ‘skill with energy’.

Qi = ‘energy’

Gong = The same word as kung as in kung fu. It means skill obtained by a sustained period of dedicated effort. Gongfu / Kungfu actually means ‘that which you’ve developed great skill in’, so you can have gongfu in martial arts, painting, gardening, medicine, or even making tea. It’s what you put your spare time into and get really good at.

So Qigong means getting good at managing your energy. So now, what do we mean by energy?

Well… lots of different things in different contexts. It can mean the energy/nutrition in your food.┬áIt can mean the air that oxygenates the cells of your body, or the ability of the heart to pump blood around the body. And, perhaps most relevant to the martial arts, it can refer to sensations of movement or change felt in the body.

How do we actually do (or obtain) qigong?

Qigong involves integrating mind, body and breath. That is, there is a synchronisation of a particular kind of posture or movement, a particular method of breathing, and a particular use of the mind.

At its most basic, this involves moving in time with your breathing and relaxing the mind enough to pay attention to the movement. At more advanced levels, there are very particular things you do with the soft tissues, pressurisation of different parts of the body with the breath and specific ways of working with the mind.

There are various Qigong exercises designed to achieve particular effects. Some might open different areas or lines through the body, move things up or down in the body, benefit particular organs and so on. Each exercise can be done in a number of different ways or with different emphasis depending on what stage you’re at in your practice. In internal martial arts like tai chi, each movement will have fighting applications, but will also have underlying qigong principles.

Qigong or Tai Chi – which should I learn?

In theory, a Tai Chi class should always involve some Qigong – whether that’s taught as separate exercises or within the Tai Chi form itself. However, the form is usually fairly long, and usually a bit more physically demanding than Qigong exercises. Often you will spend a long time learning the form before actually being able to put any Qigong principles into it.

On the other hand, Qigong exercises are all about developing the skills. The movements are usually repeated many times, and are simpler and less physically demanding. So, here is my general advice:

You should learn Tai Chi if you:

  • Are interested in the martial applications and benefits;
  • Want to challenge yourself physically with more balancing and deeper postures;
  • Want to challenge yourself mentally by learning longer and more complex (but beautiful) forms.

Otherwise, you should learn Qigong.

All that being said, in practice what a Qigong or Tai Chi class actually involves will vary a huge amount depending on who is teaching. My recommendation would be to find the best teacher you can and learn whatever they have to teach.