Practicing Yoga at the beach

Exploring the Myth of T’ai Chi: T’ai Chi is Just Like Yoga

We’ve been looking at some of the myths and realities behind the practice of Tai Chi. These aren’t myths about fantastic abilities or feats of power that you sometimes read about in old legends. Instead, we’re exploring the everyday myths that are generally accepted without much thought.

It’s easy to dismiss wild claims of a T’ai Chi masters who seems to have psychic abilities or can use their Chi-Power to perform outrageous stunts. What’s difficult to confront is the common beliefs that are brought about from books, movies, magazines, and the everyday media. These are the notions that need to be challenged in order to gain greater understanding and appreciation of our art.

One myth that can be really amusing to any serious practitioner is the belief that ‘T’ai Chi is just like Yoga.’ While it’s painfully obvious to anyone who trains in either art, that these two practices are uniquely different, it’s worth exploring this myth in order to understand why outsiders might be confused and to gain some insight into our own practice.

When I tell most people that I practice T’ai Chi, I usually just get a blank stare. But, sometimes they’ll say, “T’ai Chi? Isn’t that just like Yoga?”

In popular culture, these two arts are often confused, mostly because they both practice mindfulness. Although their approach to meditation can be quite different, they share some similarities that causes them to be lumped together by those who don’t understand the difference.

It’s not unusual to see Yoga shirts with the Chinese Taijitu, symbol printed on the front of them. Image:
It’s not unusual to see Yoga shirts with the Chinese Taijitu, symbol printed on the front of them.

Many people outside these arts aren’t able to distinguish between Yoga poses and the T’ai Chi postures. Even the symbology from the two arts is often mixed up. It’s not unusual to see Yoga shirts with the Chinese Yin-Yang, or Taijitu, symbol printed on the front of them.

In their desire for some kind of esoteric understanding, some people are willing to ignore the glaring differences between these two arts. Instead, they like to focus only on the mindful principles that these arts teach.They ignore the fact that these arts have completely different countries of origin and have evolved through vastly distant cultures.

Yoga was developed out of the belief system associated with Hinduism, while T’ai Chi is based on the concepts taken from Taoism and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Compared to Western science, these systems carry some similarity in that they both rely on internal energy development within the body. (Prana in Yoga and Chi in T’ai Chi.) However, a true understanding of either art requires that you view it as a distinct system, independent from other ideologies.

We should also be reminded that T’ai Chi was developed as a martial art, while Yoga is based on specific exercises that are intended to develop the mind and body.

Separate approaches to these arts are important when trying to compare them. At their core, they were designed to address different kinds of circumstances, and it’s clear that in the East, these are two very unique arts.

But in the West, there’s a great temptation to link these two systems based on their meditative practice and their energetic healing. Both arts seem to provide so many impressive benefits, that many feel they should be combined to bring even greater advantage?

In the realm of mindful practices, there can be good reasons to take the time to carefully compare these methods to gain a better grasp on the way the mind’s focus can be improved. Both of these arts bring specific meditation techniques that are worth examining and that seem to compliment one another in practice.

However, it gets difficult when we try to do the same thing with these arts in regard to energetic healing. The thinking goes something like this; “If Yoga practice provides health benefits and T’ai Chi also shows that it improves fitness, then maybe we should combine both systems to create a holistic theory of energy healing?”

Chakra Meditation
Yoga is based on a Chakra theory in which there are seven energy centers based along the spine of the body which interact with the person’s well being.

Yoga is based on a Chakra theory in which there are seven energy centers based along the spine of the body which interact with the person’s well being. T’ai Chi is based on meridian theory which asserts there are 14 major meridians, or energetic pathways, which circulate ‘Chi’ energy through the body and its organs.

Both of these systems may have merit, but Western Science hasn’t found a way to reliably measure these ‘energy pathways’ or determine whether or not they can affect a person’s health. The truth is, Western science knows that Yoga and T’ai Chi improve health, it just isn’t sure why.

While it’s intriguing to consider the ways these two systems of thought might be combined. We should also use caution. There’s no historical evidence that these methods were ever intended to be compatible or that they can compliment each other in any way. Trying to combine these arts might cause us to lose whatever made them work in the first place.

There’s really nothing wrong with practicing Yoga with a Taijitu symbol on your shirt or in studying different ideas about meditation. The trouble comes when we start to mix and match the different aspects of these arts without a full appreciation for their individual practice.

In the end, it’s okay if outsiders really don’t grasp the distinctions between our arts, but as practitioners, it’s our responsibility to know the difference.



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