What is the difference between tai chi and yoga?

If you're looking for an exercise class that has a meditation component, you might be interested in yoga or tai chi. Both practices have their origins in eastern spiritual traditions. Both emphasize stretching and strengthening. Both focus on increasing the flexibility of the spine.

Where some forms of yoga emphasize getting into a posture and easing deeper and deeper into it, tai chi tends to work on stretching through dynamic movement. When you do a tai chi set or practice the movements of chi kung exercises, your goal is to flow constantly from one part of the move to the next, never to hold one pose.

Unlike yoga, tai chi is a martial art. Some classes emphasize the martial arts aspect of tai chi more than others. Although I train students gently and always match my lessons to the pace of the individual, I do show people how the movements would be used for self-defense. Although many people who come to my classes are hesitant about this aspect at first, they often find that it becomes their favourite part of tai chi. Most people find that it is much easier to access the warrior spirit within than they would have thought! Like any martial art, tai chi gives you a keen mental focus that is stimulating and uplifting.

Where some yoga poses require the student to use his or her arms to support the body (e.g., downward dog), tai chi does not involve the arms in this way, except in some advanced exercises that are not introduced in the beginning. If you have any concerns about putting pressure on the joints in your hands, wrists, or arms, it may be that tai chi is a better option for you.

Tai chi and yoga are two different paths to the same goal: health, joy, and inner peace. The ultimate answer to the question of which to choose has to depend on you. Ask an instructor in each of the forms if you can sit in on a class and observe. Take your time and shop around. See which one speaks to you.

Can I Do Tai Chi Even if...

This post is the first in a series of answers to questions that people have asked me about tai chi.

Sometimes people have concerns about beginning tai chi training. It's natural to wonder about whether a medical condition or other physical limitation will mean you can't do tai chi.

Some forms of this question include:
  • Can I do tai chi even if I must remain seated?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I have chronic pain?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I have a major chronic illness (lupus, Parkinson's, MS, fibromyalgia)?
There are less extreme versions of this question that might still prevent you from trying tai chi:
  • Can I do tai chi even if I've never done formal exercise before?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I don't do any other kind of exercise?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I've been told I'm uncoordinated?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I have trouble focussing?

While I can't speak to how other tai chi instructors deal with this kind of issue, my answer to all of these questions is yes, you can. One of the many beauties of tai chi is that it can be adapted for anyone who is willing and able to attend a class.

My training has included hours of instruction on how to tailor lessons for each individual, so that each participant receives exactly what he or she needs in a class. I have worked with people with Parkinson's, MS, Alzheimer's, brain injuries, arthritis, and chronic pain.

When I teach someone in compromised health, I work from my own experience. Part of my tai chi journey has included using tai chi to overcome chronic joint pain that resulted from a cycling accident. I know how very effective the gentle stretching and strengthening movements of tai chi can be as you work toward recovery. It has been my experience that anyone can begin to practice tai chi and receive some benefits even from one session.

This is not to say that it is equally easy for everyone to begin. Tai chi is an incredibly sophisticated and complex system for healing mind, body, and spirit. Challenges await anyone who decides to start down the tai chi path to healing. And it is especially difficult to engage in physical exercise when your health is already compromised. But I guarantee that no matter what your situation, with effort and practice, you will be pleasantly surprised at how soon you begin to feel better.