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Tai Chi vs. Qi Gong: Master Gu explains how to spot the differences

Dec 02, 2021

What is the difference between Qi Gong and Tai Chi? To answer this we must explore the history and philosophy of each practice. Understanding this will deepen our practice, helping us to use these ancient healing arts to generate energy and live with a natural vitality. Let’s begin.

What is Qi Gong?

Qi Gong 气功 (Chi Kung) translates as energy practice. Through simple repeated movements inspired by the natural world, Qi Gong teaches you how to use your breath to find peace of mind and live with energy.

Master Gu teaches that Qi Gong is made up of two things: tranquillity (静 jing) and movement (动 dong).

Taoist culture offers an abundance of ways to do Qi Gong. Drinking tea. Playing music. Calligraphy. Chess. Walking in nature. Qi Gong forms. And, even sitting meditation. The movement can be within the body. The micro-adjustments of the muscles keeping you upright. The rise and fall of the breath.

So long as your mind is present (jing) with the movement (dong) of the body it can be called Qi Gong.

What, then, is Tai Chi?

Qi Gong's roots go back thousands of years and are deeply intertwined with the earliest Chinese wellness practices.

Tai Chi Chuan (太极拳 taijiquan) was developed later. According to legend, in 1000CE a monk living in the Wudang Mountains called Zhang Sanfeng saw a fight between a bird and a snake. Inspired by their effortless agility he began to emulate them. He developed Tai Chi Chuan, which translates as "Grand Ultimate Fist”.

Tai Chi is a ’soft’ martial art. Some Masters developed self-defence techniques but on the whole tai chi is designed not for violence but for cultivating strength, power and flexibility - like that exhibited by animals throughout the natural world.

What is Tai Chi? Taoist Master Explains History, Philosophy and Benefits of Taiji Quan - YouTube

An important part of Tai Chi practice is being fully present with your body. You are sensitive to what is happening with your legs, your torso, your breath. This makes for more powerful practice. After all, if you did have an opponent in front of you, ruminating about what to cook for dinner would put you at a serious disadvantage.

In Tai Chi, the mind and body are unified. Moving with tranquillity.

Sounds familiar?

As you may have already guessed, Tai Chi is a form of Qi Gong.

How can I tell the differences?

Tai Chi always includes concepts from Qi Gong but a Qi Gong practice won’t necessarily include Tai Chi. Practically, what should you look out for to tell them apart?

Qi Gong: beauty in simplicity

Qi gong can be as simple as waiting at the bus stop and being present with your breath. Another type of Qi Gong is standing meditation, Zhan Zhuang (literally tree trunk standing). You may repeat the mantra tu na as you breathe which means “expel the old, draw in the new”.

This is a beautiful way to experience how your nature is related to the nature outside you. Because Isn’t nature always practising qigong? The trees they too “expel the old, draw in the new” as they ‘breathe'. The animals demonstrate balance and grace, their attention always in the present moment.

There are also Qi Gong forms where specific moves are repeated. Here is Master Gu explaining the 5 animal Qi Gong:

Tai Chi: more physically demanding

Tai Chi is more complex. A tai chi form involves a series of martial moves that can take months to learn and a lifetime to master.

Here is Master Gu performing the 28 form in front of Purple Cloud Temple

You can adapt Tai Chi depending on what you want out of your practice. If you want to develop strength you can practice in a more martial style. Sink your hips lower as you move. If you are recovering from injuries or starting to improve your mobility, you can take it more gently. The important thing is to practice with the correct technique and listen to your body.

I didn’t do this when I first started Tai Chi. I allowed my knee to collapse inwards when I turned my hips. Over time I developed a knee injury.

I am very grateful for this injury. It taught me a lot.

Knee problems are one of the ‘injuries of civilisation’. In the past, our ancestors were constantly walking on uneven terrain. Constantly strengthening their knees and the supporting muscles. Today almost everything we walk on is flat. Pavements. Floors. Stairs.

No wonder I got injured. I never used my knees in the way that nature intended.

Tai Chi is a natural form of movement. And so, it challenges you to understand your own nature, to understand your mind, body spirit and to give them what they need to flourish.

My knee problems came from the fact that my legs (particularly my bum muscles) were not strong enough. I overcame this through daily lunges and yoga. My legs became more powerful. My tai chi practise became more powerful. And I now feel that power in the rest of my life.

The ultimate aim: self-care

Thankfully you do not need to choose between Qi Gong and Tai Chi. They are both awesome and will teach you different things.

Qi Gong forms have simpler moves, are easier to learn and so, early on, can feel more meditative. Qi Gong is a fantastic practice to integrate into your morning routine. It wakes up your body and calms the mind - helping you handle the day's challenges.

Tai Chi helps you develop strength, balance and power. If you can find a teacher, they can give you feedback on your form. You can learn with Master Gu’s online academy - he gives you precise step-by-step instruction. You can learn more about becoming a student here.

The ultimate aim of both practices is for you to take charge of your health. To discover the power of your breath. To reconnect with your body. To move with grace. To develop peace of mind.

How you achieve these things is less important than your intention for self-care.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the wonderful Kenneth Cohen from the Way of Qigong. A book I highly recommend:

Thirty percent of qigong is learning the technical skills, but the remaining 70 percent is about nurturing and learning how to practice self-care. We’re finding out how we can take care of ourselves, slow down, and do less,

George Thompson
San Feng Pai 16th Generation Tai Chi disciple


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