Updated: Feb 17, 2020
How are Qi Gong and Tai Chi different?
A common question that new students have is how Qi Gong and Tai Chi are different. Both are not super well known, but Qi Gong seems to be even more obscure, and the closest thing people have to a descriptor of Qi Gong is in reference to Tai Chi.
From the outside both look similar, featuring slow, graceful movements, but the nature and application is quite different. Tai Chi is a name commonly used to refer to Tai Chi Chuan (Tai Ji Quan)*, a martial art, originally created for self-defense, like Kung Fu. Each move has a martial application, involving meeting oncoming force and deflecting it or off balancing it from its root. The space of the arms to the center of the body allows one to maintain their own center while having a mobile extremity, which can be quickly emptied of energy. A big part of the Tai Chi training is linking together every move in unbroken harmony, another is to switch empty and full in a way that seems to disappear.
Tai Chi is learned in a form sequence, like other varieties of Kung Fu, and the form must be memorized as a whole. Tai Chi-Qi Gong or Tai Chi Elements is another way to practice the moves by splitting it into chunks which can be practiced in repetition. There are 5 major families of Tai Chi; Chen, Yang, Sun, Wu, and Wu-Hao, as well as the Wudang or Sanfeng style. There are many subdivisions of these families, including forms of different lengths and emphasis. The legend being Zhang Sanfeng originally created a 13 move form on Wudang mountain, from which all the Tai Chi families are derived.
Qi Gong is a type of exercise used for balancing internal energy or qi. Qi responds to mind and consciousness. Where the mind flows, the qi goes. When part of the body, or energy field has an abundant flow of physical energy, as well as conscious awareness, it is full of qi. Yin and yang interaction creates qi, as much as qi creates the yin and yang interaction. It is both mutable and constant, and its physical correlations can be measured, such as circulation, immune factors, heat, color, and luminosity, but it can only be directly observed subjectively.
There are a variety of types of qi, the qi inherited from parents and ancestors, nutritional qi, heavenly qi, earthly qi, and all the stages of transformation in between. There are different types of Qi Gong, some that target the organs, some that exchange qi with the environment, and some for activating meridians. There are practices that are completely still, and some that are more active. Once qi is understood and cultivated, it can be brought into hard exercises, and daily activities. Ones entire life becomes absorbed in qi and is a constant act of cultivation. There are risks to it like any esoteric practice, resulting from deviating energy flow, although these can also be a result of the integration process.
In short, Tai Chi is the name of a specific martial art, while Qi Gong can refer to a wide variety of practices.
*The spelling Tai Chi Chuan comes from the old westernization of chinese, the Wade-Giles system, as does the transliteration “Tao”. Qi Gong, being a more recent cultural import is already in standard Pinyin system, like the transliteration “Dao”.