The short answer is that both are holistic exercises originating from the Chinese Taoist tradition that focus on the mind paying attention to the body. Of course, it’s a bit more complex than that.
Qigong is an ancient Chinese form of medical exercise. Qi may be translated as breath, spirit, or life force, Gong may be translated as work, merit, or mastery. So Qigong literally translates to breath work. So a Qigong exercise may be as simple as focusing on how the body feels upon inhale and exhale. It may also more complex where you focus on how you breathe while performing a complicated series of movements. By connecting movements to the breath, the mind and body are connected. Movements guide the Qi through meridians, or channels, in order to keep the Qi flowing smoothly. Traditional Chinese Medicine holds that disease is caused by blocked Qi. So to maintain good health one has to keep the Qi flowing and avoid blockage. Qigong is used to help maintain health. In addition, a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor may actually prescribe certain Qigong exercises for specific conditions. There are specially developed specific qigong for different ailments. Other types of qigong are for general health, relaxation, and recreation.
Tai Chi is an internal martial art. It is similar to Qigong in that it stimulates the circulation of Qi, the life force. Practicing Tai chi helps harmonize the Qi which provides many health benefits- lowering anxiety, preventing osteoporosis, and lowering blood pressure to name a few. Tai chi is a moving meditation yet it is a martial art! How can this be? Practice starts with connecting the mind to the body, very similar to Qigong. Feeling one’s body shifting weight is key to learning how to walk while staying in equilibrium (Tai chi walk). Standing on one leg is great for balance. Standing and shifting weight is good for bone density (osteoporosis prevention). Tai chi movements are slow and intentional so as to connect the mind and body by moving one’s Qi. The slow movements are actually martial sequences. By practicing slowly the mind develops muscle memory and the movements become instinctive. Tai chi is practiced with active relaxation. Active relaxation is the sweet spot between collapse and stress; where the mind and body connect and we feel truly alive and well. So practicing Tai chi helps with balance, focus, and harmonizing the mind and body to achieve active relaxation.
To practice Tai chi as an internal martial art, one must first learn oneself internally by meditation and learning to feel one’s Qi and to direct your Qi to where you want it to go. . This takes many years to master but the good news is that the health benefits start with the beginning of practice! Martial art applications use minimal external force, the energy comes from directed Qi. Before one can master the martial applications, one must learn to feel one’s own Qi, then to listen and feel one’s partner’s, or opponent’s Qi. One must calm the ‘fight or flight’ (sympathetic) energy and use our ‘rest and digest’ energy (parasympathetic); thus learning to respond vs. react. A Tai Chi classic saying is “4 ounces of force can deflect a thousand pounds.’ It may sound like magic but it is indeed very real.
Tai chi is the name of the YinYang symbol. It is commonly translated as ‘Supreme Ultimate’. This refers to the ancient Chinese creation story where movements began from nothing (Wuji); thus the Tai Chi symbol was created.
True to its name, Supreme Ultimate, Tai Chi has many applications.
Qigong and Tai chi are similar and interrelated. Both have origins in China, both connect the mind and body, both circulate the Qi, and both are good for your health. I practice both Tai chi and Qigong every day.