...which should you take?
In an ideal world, both! The two practices complement each other very well. However, there are some key differences between them. If you don't want to dive headlong into two different disciplines, this article is a guide to help you pick the practice that's right for you.
First, a little bit of context.
Qigong is thousands of years old. Tai Chi is merely hundreds of years old. The way I was taught, Tai Chi is a type of Qigong and grew out of a Qigong way of moving and focusing the mind. It uses the same style of movement (soft on the inside and outside, relying on the body's natural structural integrity), and requires a similar meditative focus. Tai Chi and Qigong - the way I practice and teach them, anyway - both have similar benefits. They'll help strengthen and stretch your entire body, calm and focus your mind, and teach you how to work with chi or universal life energy (for the Star Wars fans among you, "the Force"). Both practices leave you with a feeling of being relaxed and invigorated.
That having been said, Tai Chi is a martial art, whereas Qigong is not. The movements of Tai Chi are blocks, strikes and kicks. It has a more dynamic way of moving the body. Qigong movements are directed toward stretching the body in strategic ways to stimulate the internal organs and encourage all body systems to work in harmony. Tai Chi movements accomplish that same goal, while teaching you how to fight. (It takes a long time to learn how to make the slow movements of Tai Chi into anything martially effective.)
What does that mean for you?
Qigong exercises are typically performed standing on both feet. They are more easily adapted to a chair if you must remain seated. If you have balance problems or difficulty standing, or are working through an injury or chronic condition, especially to the lower body, Qigong is a better starting place than Tai Chi.
Tai Chi moves across the room in a more dynamic fashion. To perform it safely, you need to be able to stand on one leg for at least a brief period of time. At the same time, Tai Chi develops leg strength, flexibility, and a more dynamic way of moving very quickly. Some people find the gentle, limited movements of Qigong to be unchallenging in the beginning. If you want to gain greater proficiency with your balance and leg strength, and are looking for a more challenging physical workout, choose Tai Chi over Qigong to start with.
Mental / Emotional Considerations
Both Tai Chi and Qigong require that you bring your mental focus into the present. Both require you to learn a new style of movement that will highlight any physical, mental, or emotional tensions you hold within you, and allow you to learn to release these tensions.
The movements of Qigong are more repetitive and simpler to learn in the beginning. Perfecting Qigong, and learning the more subtle aspects of each movement, is extremely difficult and takes a lot of practice. However, it is a relatively quick process to pick up a basic understanding of a Qigong routine. (I currently offer instruction in two different Qigong sets: Eight Brocades of Silk on Monday afternoons, 1-2pm, and Five Elements on Saturday afternoons from 2-3pm.) If you are looking to pick up a new discipline relatively quickly, or if you tend to get frustrated easily, Qigong is a better choice in the beginning than Tai Chi. If you're looking for stress relief and you tend to find it more relaxing to work with your mental focus, Qigong is a better choice.
The Tai Chi learning curve is steep in the beginning. You are asking your body to perform complex actions that flow one to the next, and it will feel like a long time before your muscle memory kicks in to help you feel your way through the movements. Learning the set is a big challenge, although not impossible if you're able to be patient. It takes six months to a year to learn the set that I teach from start to finish. Once you have the set under your belt, you'll have an incredibly effective tool you can use to help yourself any time you feel that you need a stretch, a workout, or to release stale tensions. If you are interested in learning a skill that few have the focus or patience to acquire, and you want to sink into a learning experience that is very deep from day one, then Tai Chi is a good choice. If you tend to relieve stress through movement (going to the gym, going for a run or a walk to clear your mind), Tai Chi is a better choice than Qigong.
Both Tai Chi and Qigong are forms of moving meditation. Generally speaking when you're first learning, Tai Chi and Qigong both take your mind away from your daily concerns because they require your whole focus in order to just do the class. Eventually, once you get used to the movements, your mind will start to drift again. That's when you'll start bringing your mental focus back to the movements as you perform them. That's when the real meditation begins.
The Qigong exercises are more repetitive and easier to learn, so you'll hit the point where you can do them on autopilot a little faster, which means you'll need to start challenging your mental focus sooner. If you're interested in learning standing and sitting meditation forms, I teach these more frequently in the context of Qigong than Tai Chi. (I run a formal sitting meditation class the first Saturday of each month, 2-3pm, and offer occasional workshops in Qigong meditaiton.) Choose Qigong if you have a stronger immediate interest in meditation than in exercise.
Tai Chi in the beginning is hard physical and mental work. Chances are you'll feel so great after a Tai Chi workout that you won't care about your problems by the time you're done! However, achieving a true meditation effect in Tai Chi class takes a little longer. It's a great long-term investment because all the work that goes into doing a Tai Chi set profoundly prepares your body to be able to handle meditation, but you probably won't be doing Tai Chi as meditation right away. Choose Tai Chi if you are interested in investing in a practice that will prepare you for better, more profound meditation in the long term.
The hard fact is, what you'll get out of Qigong and Tai Chi is directly proportional to the amount of time you spend practicing them. Before you choose either of them, you'll want to take a look at your schedule and see whether you can make time to learn and to do a little practicing.
You can join Qigong classes any time. The curriculum does change periodically as I try to introduce new material for those who have been there a while, but you can dive in and learn the current curriculum whenever you choose. Qigong is easier to pick up after a long break, or to learn a little bit at a time. Choose Qigong if you are not sure you can commit to a regular class schedule, but you still want to learn to work with chi.
Because the Tai Chi set is a long and somewhat intricate series of movements, I recommend that you plan to attend at least one class per week, and miss as few classes as possible, while you're learning. It is fine to skip a class or two here and there, but if you look at the ten-week schedule for the Beginner's course and know that you won't be able to make more than three classes, it would probably be better for you to choose Qigong. I don't personally put any limits on people who wish to learn Tai Chi but may have to miss classes for one reason or another. You are always welcome at class. However, it's probably best to work within your own tolerance for catching up or working through unfamiliar material. If you have a fairly reliable schedule and want to enjoy the benefits of a regular workout, or if you're comfortable with catching up quickly on material you haven't seen yet, then Tai Chi is a good choice.
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Choose Qigong if:
You have balance problems or difficulty standing, or are working through an injury or chronic condition, especially to the lower body.
You are looking to pick up a new discipline relatively quickly, or you tend to get frustrated easily.
You're looking for stress relief and you tend to find it more relaxing to work with your mental focus.
You have a stronger immediate interest in meditation than in exercise.
You are not sure you can commit to a regular class schedule, but you still want to learn to work with chi.
Choose Tai Chi if:
You want to gain greater proficiency with your balance and leg strength, and are looking for a more challenging physical workout.
You are interested in learning a skill that few have the focus or patience to acquire, and you want to sink into a learning experience that is very deep from day one.
You tend to relieve stress through movement (going to the gym, going for a run or a walk to clear your mind).
You are interested in investing in a practice that will prepare you for better, more profound meditation in the long term.
You have a fairly reliable schedule and want to enjoy the benefits of a regular workout, or if you're comfortable with catching up quickly on material you haven't seen yet.