Tai Chi is sometimes described as "meditation in motion". Originally developed in China as a form of self-defense, this graceful form of exercise has existed for thousands of years. The exercises (movements) are performed slow and controlled with complete concentration. It has become increasingly popular around the world, both as a basic exercise program and as a complement to other health care methods.
Qigong is an ancient Chinese system of self-cultivation developed specifically as a means by which each individual may take full personal responsibility for protecting their health, promoting vitality and prolonging life, which cultivates spiritual awareness and insight.
Chi means “breath” and “air” and also denotes “energy” and “vitality”. Gung or Qong is a general term meaning “work” and is used in reference to any technique or skill which requires time and effort, patience and practice, to perfect.
“Qigong” may be translated as “breathing exercise” as well as “energy work”. The skill of breath control is the key to cultivating control over the flow and balance of energy in the body and harmonizing human energy with th elementary energies of nature and the cosmos. Chi is also the fundamental “stuff” of the entire universe, the basic building block of all matter, the immaterial energy that constitutes all material form.
I am often asked the difference between Tai Chi and Chi Kung or Qigong. Basically, Chi Kung and Qigong are the same, just spelled differently. They both literally mean “working with the breath” and is performed mainly standing in one place, doing repetitions of a certain movement or posture evenly on each side of the body, concentrating on your breath and “cultivating” energy.
Tai Chi, on the other hand, is sometimes called “Grand Ultimate” or “Ultimate Fist” implying living harmoniously with nature itself. It is basically combining various Qigong techniques and postures together and then moving from place to place, often visioning the battling of several opponents. When performing Tai Chi movements, one appears to be the participant in a beautiful dance, but in reality the postures are truly martial in nature. As a result we gently develop strength, improve flexibility and enhance cardiovascular endurance, while simultaneously preparing the body on a subconscious level to be ready for action.
History: For more than 5000 years Qigong was one of the best kept secrets in the world. Practiced quietly behind the high walls and barred gates of ancient Buddhist monasteries and remote Taoist hermitages, in the private villas of the rich and influential, and the guarded palaces of emperors, it became China’s most esoteric tradition. An art personally handed down orally, from master to selected disciples in unbroken lineages spanning thousands of year. The most fortunate to learn became member of an exclusive fraternity of practitioners – “internal family”, included princes and poets, monks and martial artists, warriors and wise men, all dedicated to cultivating the Tao of Life by working with universal energy. Writings were deliberately vague, obscure, encoded, only well-practiced initiates could possible decipher. Texts were circulated and understood only among the inner circles of the qigong world.
There are literally thousands of known martial arts in China today. They are divided principally into 2 systems; the internal and the external. Tai Chi and Qigong are internal martial arts developed as a way or means of attaining superior levels of health, combat ability and spiritual maturity. The history of the Tai Chi movements is a fascinating study in the ability of a group of people to use nature as a teacher. The forms at their best are animal-like; neither too soft, nor too hard, efficient, supple, and very focused. This art was passed from the original Chen family, throughout China….sometimes secretly, often changed, until there are today 5 styles most commonly practiced. Chen is the original style but Yang is the most popular.
When China was reopened to the West in the 1970’s, Tai Chi captured the attention of the media, medical researchers, and social scientists. The phenomenal health of the practitioners, the simplicity of the movements, and the widespread appeal brought Tai Chi to the west and into the mainstream of this country.
Qigong is practiced widely in the clinics and hospitals of China. In historically researching Qigong, most information was published in Chinese, making accessing it difficult. However research is now concluding that Qigong has extensive health benefits on conditions ranging from blood pressure to asthma.
A 20 year study found 70 to 85% of illnesses sending patients to their doctors were caused by stress. Tai Chi and Qigong practice can positively affect the states of mind of subjects to lessen the incidence of type-A behavior patterns, believed to increase the risk of heart disease. Subjects reported less tension, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion and state-anxiety; felt more vigorous and had less total mood disturbances.
An article on WebMD explains that the anger-associated hormones coming from the adrenal gland, located near the kidneys, when over stimulated can result in higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Tai chi is documented to calm those “fight or flight” chemicals and promote healing.
Doctors are now advising patients to exercise rather than “bed-rest” for such diseases. Tai Chi provides a low-impact workout, ideal for older exercisers. There are now hundreds of sites on the internet providing information about Tai Chi and Qigong. Two very good sites that address the health benefits are the Mayo Clinic and the Arthritis Foundation. Both of these sites focus on how beneficial participation can be.
Who is it for: If you're trying to improve your general health, you may find Tai Chi and Qigong helpful as part of your fitness program. It is generally safe for people of all ages and levels of fitness. Studies have shown that for older adults Tai Chi can improve balance and reduce the risk of falls. Plus the movements are low impact and put minimal stress on your muscles and joints. For these same reasons, if you have a condition such as arthritis or are recovering from an injury, you may find it useful. Tai Chi and Qigong appear to offer both physical and mental benefits no matter what your age.
Tai Chi is one of the lowest impact exercise one can do and is gentle and easy enough to perform in business clothes at the office and anywhere. Recent studies show that Tai Chi can provide much the same cardiovascular benefit as moderate impact aerobics. It appears to lower blood pressure in older adults even more than regular aerobics. The fact that it can do this without speeding up the hear rates changes the way medicine looks at cardiovascular physical therapies. These research results “suggest” that exercise intensity may be less important than other factors when it comes to lowering high blood pressure.
Lowering of high blood pressure and creating more favorable lipid levels is good for all of us. The Journal of American Geriatrics reports data substantiating that practicing Tai Chi regularly may delay the decline of cardio-respiratory function in older individuals.
And as for one’s immunity, it appears that Tai Chi boosts the ability to fight viral infections by possibly increasing the number of T-lymphocytes in the body. “T-cells” help the immune system destroy bacteria and possibly even tumor cells.
Extensive research has shown that practicing Tai Chi and qigong regularly may:
Reduce high blood pressure
Improve cardiovascular fitness
Improve breathing capacity
Relieve chronic pain
Improve balance and coordination, reducing the number of falls for the elderly
Improve sleep quality, staying asleep longer at night / feeling more alert during the day
Slow bone loss in women following menopause
Reduce anxiety and depression
Improve muscular strength and definition
Increase energy, stamina and agility
Increase feeling of well-being
Why should I do it: When learned correctly and practiced regularly, Tai Chi and Qigong appear to be a very positive form of exercise:
•It's self-paced and noncompetitive.
•You don't need a large physical space or special clothing or equipment.
•You can do it anytime, anyplace.
•It's easy to do in groups as well as by yourself.
•You can add new movements as you become more proficient.
Because Tai Chi is slow and gentle, it has virtually no negative side effects. It's possible you could strain yourself or "overdo" things when first learning, but with proper instruction, this shouldn't pose a barrier to practicing.
As mentioned previously, Tai Chi involves performing slow, controlled movements with concentration and connection between the mind and body. Performing these basic movements allow the body to build strength within and softness outside, like “iron wrapped in cotton”.
One of the key factors in Tai Chi, as well as life in general, is obtaining balance with body, mind and spirit. A calm mind and strong body are our best tools in achieving an optimal state of well-being. Since Tai Chi and Qigong do all of these things with the avoidance of forcing or straining, adding it to your own personal “toolbox” of life can only enhance the journey in our quest for longevity, vitality and excellent health.