The Subtle Differences Between Tai Chi & Qi Gong

Both count as low-impact exercise.

An expert explains the differences between tai chi vs. qi gong and how both practices benefit your e...
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Walk past a park or stroll through a gym and you might find people practicing tai chi. The flowing exercise-meets-meditation has been around for many centuries and is renowned for its roster of health benefits. But, if you look into signing up for a class, you might notice there’s another practice called qi gong that looks mighty similar.

So how do you compare tai chi vs. qi gong? The main point of differentiation is the movements themself. In essence: Tai chi is more focused on specific postures, while qi gong involves more of a free flow. “While tai chi is practiced in many ways, often it's known for a classical sequence of movements called tai chi chuan, which promote overall health and wellbeing,” says Mike Taylor, a tai chi expert with Strala Yoga by Tara Stiles. As you get to know tai chi postures, you’ll learn that each one has a name and meaning that combine to form a sort of slow dance.

Even if you’re new to tai chi, it’s generally easy to catch on as you flow through each posture. That said, while qi gong is also a string of movements, Taylor says the practice is more basic. “The foundations for qi gong and tai chi are much the same and often get mixed together, but qi gong takes the simplicity of tai chi a step further with movements that don't require any special memorization,” he adds.

If your goal is to meditate, relax, and/or do a gentle form of exercise, you really can’t go wrong with either. Taylor says how you approach your practice is more important: He recommends focusing on how you feel inside, rather than trying to copy your instructor. It’s also a good idea to take a deep breath before you begin, he explains, to create a connection between your breath and body. This is called “harmony” and it’s a foundation of both practices. With that said, here’s more info on tai chi and qi gong.

What Is Tai Chi?

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Tai chi started about 800 years ago as a Chinese martial art with origins in philosophy. At its core, it’s a way of being and moving, says Taylor, and it’s meant to bring more space into your body and a sense of calm in your mind.

To start a tai chi practice, you’ll gather your energy or “chi” by lifting your hands. Taylor recommends “shaking it off” by literally shaking your arms. You then plant your feet and begin a series of movements with names like cloud hands, brush knee, and diagonal flying. As you focus on your movements and your breath, you should start to feel more relaxed and limber, which is all part of the appeal.

The Benefits Of Tai Chi

Tai chi offers multiple wellness perks to both your body and mind. Taylor says its benefits include strengthened immunity, better balance and mobility, greater bone density, and reduced stress, among others. “Numerous studies have supported the basic elements of breathing deep in connection with your whole body alongside moving your whole body easily in harmony through a wide range of positions,” he says. In other words, engaging in stretching, mental focus, and deep breathing is a winning combo for your physical and emotional health.

What Is Qi Gong?

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Have you ever jumped up and down to wake your body up or let out a big sigh to release stress? If so, you've already practiced qi gong. “It's simply written into our human biology to breathe and move in a way that supports us to be healthy and get things done,” Taylor says. “Qi gong's simple movements give us a way to do this.”

Qi gong is another Chinese-based practice that’s developed over the past 5,000 years to enhance health, energy, and wellbeing by a focus on moving your “chi” or life force energy. “While tai chi movements can increase in complexity, particularly as you add martial arts applications, a qi gong practice remains wonderfully simple and easily accessible,” Taylor says. “If you have a few minutes to breathe deeply and move easily, qi gong can help bring your whole body and mind into a more peaceful harmony.”

Taylor explains that your “chi” is something you’re innately able to access (like by jumping or sighing). And practicing qi gong helps you tap into that sense of “What does my body need right now?” and move energy around so you can feel more balanced. Focus on gentle movements and breathing whenever you need to wake yourself up, reset, or change how you feel — there’s no right or wrong posture.

The Benefits Of Qi Gong

The benefits qi gong are basically the same as those of tai chi, all thanks to its foundational elements of breathing, movement, and meditation. Taylor says clinical research has shown that both practices boost your energy and mood, make it easier to fall asleep, and improve strength and mobility.

Tai Chi Vs. Qi Gong

Clearly, the differences between the two practices are subtle. Where they overlap, however, is in how they benefit you beyond your muscular strength. Both are low-impact forms of exercise, both help reduce stress, and both function as moving meditations — so you really can’t go wrong doing either.

Studies referenced:

Huston P, McFarlane B. Health benefits of tai chi: What is the evidence? Can Fam Physician. 2016 Nov;62(11):881-890. PMID: 28661865.

Jahnke, Roger. (2011). A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi. Am J Health Promot. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3085832/

Li, H., Chen, J., Xu, G., Duan, Y., Huang, D., Tang, C., & Liu, J. (2020). The effect of tai chi for improving sleep quality: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 274, 1102–1112. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.05.076

Oh B; Bae K; Lamoury G;Eade T; Boyle F; Corless B;Clarke S; Yeung A; Rosenthal D; Schapira L; Back M; (n.d.). The effects of Tai Chi and Qigong on Immune responses: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicines (Basel, Switzerland). Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32629903/.

Wehner, C., Blank, C., Arvandi, M., Wehner, C., & Schobersberger, W. (2021). Effect of Tai Chi on muscle STRENGTH, physical ENDURANCE, postural balance and flexibility: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjsem-2020-000817

Wu, H., Wang, Y., Wen, G., Tang, Z., Yu, Y., Zhang, J., Liu, P., & Wu, J. (2020). Tai Chi on bone mineral density of Postmenopausal Osteoporosis: A protocol for systematic review and meta-analysis. https://doi.org/10.37766/inplasy2020.7.0104

Yeung, A., Chan, J. S., Cheung, J. C., & Zou, L. (2018). Qigong and Tai-Chi for mood regulation. FOCUS, 16(1), 40–47. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.focus.20170042


Mike Taylor, tai chi expert with Strala Yoga by Tara Stiles