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Differences Between Tai Chi and Qi Gong

5 Mins read

When you stroll through a community park, hang at the beach, or take a peek at classes at the gym, you may find people practicing the fine art of tai chi or qi gong. Both are mind-body exercises that are rooted in ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). These practices are known for their roster of health benefits such as reducing anxiety, improving sleep, boosting immunity, relieving stress, helping improve digestion, and more. Both qi gong and tai chi share the same objectives of creating harmony, with a few of the moves even looking somewhat similar to each other. Both practices are a form of meditation in motion with many of the same health benefits. So how do you distinguish between tai chi and qi gong? 

The differences between the two movement therapies are very subtle, and at times the moves even overlap, so it’s easy to get confused. Both have the primary goal of boosting your qi (pronounced chi), which is translated as vital life force or energy. Creating balance for proper energy flow is the primary foundation of both tai chi and qi gong, which is also the core value promoted by TCM. 

Tai chi and qi gong are considered movement therapies that belong to the 5 Pillars of Chinese Medicine. The other 4 pillars are Chinese dietetics, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and tuina massage

Practitioners believe that when there are blockages in your meridians, you succumb to pain and illness. Tai chi and qi gong are seen as both preventive and curative. When you practice either of these two moving meditations, you strive for proper energy flow and equilibrium. Both movement therapies are low-impact exercises, so the moves or poses can be readily done by people of all ages. You can’t really go wrong with practicing either of the two as they both aim to create harmony within your mind, body, and soul. 

People think of tai chi and qi gong as art forms, exercises, movement therapies, and meditation practices all in one.

If you want to learn about these art forms, check out this brief overview of their differences: 

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The Primary Difference Between Tai Chi and Qi Gong

The primary differentiation between tai chi and qi gong lies in the movements. Tai chi focuses on specific postures, while qi gong encourages a more free-flow type of movement. According to Mike Taylor, a tai chi expert, you can practice tai chi in various ways and it’s known for classical sequences known as tai chi chuan. All of these series of movements promote overall wellness. 

Each tai chi posture has a unique name and meaning, which when combined is akin to a slow dance. Those who are just beginning their tai chi practice can follow the flow and imitate each posture, but it may take time for them to master the proper form. The moves could also increase in complexity and intensity as you add more challenging poses and applications. For example, you start by lifting your hands to gather chi (or energy), focusing on the breath, and planting your feet on the ground as you begin movements with unique names like cloud hands, diagonal flying, and brush knee. 

Meanwhile, qi gong also focuses on a string of movements, but they are less complex and a lot simpler than tai chi. Qi gong movements are accessible and you can easily practice them since they don’t require any memorization. At times, you can even repeat one single movement over and over again. In some cases, it doesn’t involve any movement but focuses on just breathing. Cate Morrill, a tai chi and qi gong expert says that qi gong is often referred to as the internal component of tai chi. 

To illustrate, many people wiggle their bodies to wake themselves up, or let out a huge sigh to alleviate stress. These simple movements are considered part of qi gong. It is naturally written in human biology to move and breathe in a way that gets things done. Qi gong allows you to move your qi or life force through movements and breathing to bring balance and harmony. You can innately access qi by moving repetitively and breathing easily, allowing your whole body and mind to be more calm and peaceful. There is no right or wrong posture in qi gong. Just listen to your body when you need to recharge and reset.  

Different Foundational Forms 

Tai chi is an art that really focuses on the proper form. You must be disciplined and conscious when you move your body. For instance, your spine, feet, and knees must always be positioned correctly. Otherwise, you can’t achieve the desired results without executing the correct form, position, and breathing. 

On the other hand, qi gong is more flexible and less rigid, since it is a more free-form practice. Qi gong is more adaptive so it could work well for people who struggle to maintain positions, moves, and stances required in tai chi. 

For example, qi gong could work well for people with certain movement limitations or even athletes suffering injuries since they may find the tai chi forms more challenging to accomplish. Moreover, no matter the state of your health, you can participate in qi gong’s breathing exercises and readily adapt the simple movements to your own physical level. 

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Martial Arts Versus System of Wellness

The practice of qi gong traces back thousands of years ago, and it is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and tradition. In contrast, Tai Chi’s origins are more recent. It was developed around 800 years ago by Shaolin monks and Chinese military figureheads. Originally, tai chi was developed as a form of self-defense or combat skill. The movement of tai chi chuan in pinyin is roughly translated to as the “great universal fist” or “supreme ultimate boxing.” For this reason, some dub tai chi as shadow boxing, and many consider it a form of martial arts. 

Notably, the founders of tai chi are also well-versed in qi gong. As a result, some of the elements of qi gong are interspersed with tai chi. However, qi gong is considered an element of daily living and treated as a part of the wellness system. Unlike tai chi, qi gong is not a martial art. Qi gong’s rough translation is “life energy cultivation” so practitioners focus on doing light calisthenic movements with gentle breathing to keep qi flowing in the body’s meridians. 

Tai Chi and Qi Gong Share Many of the Same Health Benefits

Both tai chi and qi gong offer a lot of benefits for the mind and body since it aims to create harmony. A lot of studies affirm that engaging in breathing and coordinated movements is a winning combination for your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. According to numerous research, the foundational elements of both practices could proffer the following:

If you’re thinking of practicing these movement therapies, perhaps it’s because high-impact exercises aren’t suiting you. It would also help to take a CircleDNA test to assess which the optimal fitness training program for you is, based on your genetic makeup.

But in general, both tai chi and qi gong are safe and well-tolerated exercises. You can do either practice no matter what your shape or fitness level is. They don’t require any equipment, and you can adapt the moves to your fitness level. Tai chi or qi gong could be beneficial for those with chronic conditions or illnesses, since it enhances immunity while helping alleviate anxiety to promote optimal holistic health.  

Hannah Wabe
148 posts

About author
Hannah Victoria Wabe has an MA in Development Communication, which shows how just much she loves and believes in the power of words. She works part-time as a writer and educator but works full-time as a mother of three kids, ranging from 8 to 18. Though she’s not a big fan of math, she believes in counting blessings and imbibes an attitude of gratitude.
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