How Different Are Yoga And Tai Chi?

Yoga and tai chi may seem quite similar to the uninitiated. While both Eastern philosophies aim to bring harmony of the mind and body with the world around you, they are not as alike as you would imagine. Surprisingly, though both are grounded in the same kind of beliefs, it is the external manifestation and approaches of the two that differ greatly. And while learning either will equip you to fight the stress and pressures of a busy life, these differences are worth understanding before you decide which one is for you.

Eastern Beliefs, Energy, and Balance: Meeting Points

Yoga and tai chi both hinge on balance, harmony, and the proper flow of energy within the body using specific poses or postures. The importance of an inward-looking approach and reflection to bring you on your own road to harmony is another shared belief. Breathing and energy point activation are also common concepts in both. While yoga looks at chakras, tai chi has its channels or meridians. The other thing both traditions have in common is their hugely popular following in the West, quite often in a much modified form that may stray from the root philosophy.


Martial Art Vs. Exercise and Meditation

In its elemental form, tai chi is a gentle martial art from China, with a history that draws on Taoist roots. It is a form of meditative practice that looks at making your body stronger, and with it, your “Chi” or life force too. Because of its deeply meditative nature and less extreme demands on the body, it is hugely popular among older people who cannot do more strenuous exercises.

Yoga, on the other hand, is a combination of meditation and exercise, with its roots in ancient India. Originally, the aim of yogic practice was the attainment of liberation or moksha. This was achieved through eight pillars. Now, however, things have changed and yoga is used as a therapy and exercise by the young and old, in the East and West.


Achieving Harmony: Two Different Paths

In the case of yoga, there are eight pillars, made famous in yoga’s holy grail, the “Yoga Sutra” by Patanjali. Yama or ethics and integrity; Niyama or self-discipline and spirituality; Pratyahara or looking inward and detaching from the external senses; Asanas or postures; Pranayama or breathing techniques; Dharana or concentration; Dhyana or meditation; and Samadhi or a state of ecstasy from a connection to the divine. Of these, two (Asanas and Pranayama) are much in vogue and get all the attention today while the others are usually skimmed over.1 These pillars can also be seen as steps to be followed to attain that ultimate goal of Samadhi or perfect blissful harmony.

Yogic practice prepares not just the mind, but also the body to take on any challenges that life sends your way. However, physical ailments, according to the Yoga Sutra, must be guarded against. Which is why in an attempt to strengthen the mind, the body should not be neglected. For more philosophical obstacles, students of yoga should turn to their Guru or teacher and mentor for guidance.2


When it comes to tai chi, the concept of Yin and Yang is the foundation of the practice. Followers of tai chi believe in the existence of polar opposites. Finding a balance between these contrasts is what helps bring harmony. A balance must be found between emptiness and complete immersion, between rest and action, and so on. An individual must look inward, observe oneself moving between these opposites to find that perfect medium which will bring on calm. This is an ongoing and very deliberate effort that must be made. The movements of tai chi comprise exercises that find that perfect balance of yin and yang.3

Movements: Static Vs. Fluid

Yoga asanas or postures are designed for specific purposes and can be performed as needed. One asana does not have to be followed or preceded by a specific one. While performing a yoga asana, holding that pose for a few seconds or even minutes is an important part of the practice. The poses also often involve a fair amount of stretching and movements that need extreme positions to be taken with the back arched and joints locked.


In tai chi, however, progression is key. Movements flow into each other without interruption, a key tenet of the approach. The emphasis is not on stretches, and movements tend to be less extreme and therefore less demanding for someone who has arthritis or joint trouble.

That said, both practices have been influenced by each other as is evident in the flowing postures of the Surya Namaskar or sun salutation that are so popular around the world today.


Same Or Different, They’re Good For You

While the two approaches may be different, the outcome on the body and mind can be quite similar. Studies have found both tai chi4 and yoga5 effective in easing symptoms of various kinds of pain ranging from headaches and migraines to rheumatoid arthritis and back pain.

Because both philosophies rely on meditation and focus, and on inward reflection, they can be the perfect antidote to the stress and restlessness of the mind you experience every day. For those with anxiety issues, yoga can supplement or reduce dependence on pharmacological treatment.6 Tai chi, too, has been shown to improve psychological well-being by easing depression and anxiety, lowering stress levels, and improving mood.7


You can also improve the strength and vitality of your body with these ancient practices. Tai chi requires an immense degree of focus and balance. It isn’t unusual to see people as old as 90 practicing tai chi and staying perfectly balanced as they perform the slow deliberate movements.8 With yoga, the asanas, if done correctly, can improve control and balance.

With gentle exercise and movements, both tai chi and yoga can help lower depression and improve quality of sleep. Tai chi can help reduce sleep disturbances even among older adults with sleeping trouble, leaving them feeling refreshed.9


These exercises are also great for the mind and can improve alertness and acumen. As one study found, students of yoga were able to perform better in academics. Researchers attributed this to the improvements in cognition, attention, and stress management as a result of yoga.10