There are so many ways to get in shape and get a great workout.
Some of them are vigorous and intense.
Like lifting weights.
Or hammering out a run.
But there are other, gentler forms of exercise that can help calm your mind and body while still giving tons of health benefits.
You’ve probably heard a lot about (and maybe have even tried) yoga, which is one such discipline.
But there’s also a growing movement of people who prefer the flowing practice of Tai Chi for exercise.
Yoga and Tai Chi share a lot of similarities but are profoundly different practices with different benefits, pros, and cons.
Overall, Tai Chi has more movement and less pausing or holding in specific poses. It also encourages less inward reflection than yoga, preferring to promote moving throughout the space with grace and ease. You’ll also spend more time on the floor or mat in a yoga class, while you’ll be on your feet more during Tai Chi.
In this article, I’ll explain Tai Chi vs Yoga in depth to help you decide which one is a better fit for you and your health goals.
What is Tai Chi?
Simply put, Tai Chi is a longstanding Chinese martial art that could be several hundred years old.
(Though much debate exists about its exact origins.)
It’s a little hard to explain in concrete terms, but Tai Chi generally involves slow, graceful, flowing movements that help you harness and invigorate your body’s energy, or qi (life force).
Though traditionally known as a fighting martial art, Tai Chi today is mostly practiced as a meditative exercise practice, similar to yoga.
Here’s a super simple, 5-minute Tai Chi routine aimed at beginners, so you can get an idea of what the most basic movements look like in action:
Types of Tai Chi
Like many different martial arts and forms of exercise, there’s more than one way to do Tai Chi.
In fact, there are around 5 or so distinct styles of types of Tai Chi movements, all of which utilize different tempos and movements, and have different benefits.
The basic styles of Tai Chi are:
Chen: This is a complex style that alternates slow and fast movements. It’s best for more advanced practitioners.
Yang: This is the most common form of Tai Chi practiced today and probably the best for beginners. It utilizes mostly slow, fluid movements that almost anyone of any fitness level can do.
Wu: Wu is an even slower and more meditative style of Tai Chi than Yang. The movements in this style are small, slow, and almost imperceptibly graceful. Most of the work done in this style of Tai Chi occurs on the inside, harnessing your energy and focusing your mental state.
Hao: Hao is an extremely old and mostly unpracticed style.
Combination: Of course, many practitioners of Tai Chi take little pieces here and there as inspiration from the above styles and form something of their own.
Health benefits of Tai Chi
As I wrote above, Tai Chi is mostly a slow, gentle, and graceful art. It utilizes flowing movements that are often accessible to people of all different kinds of fitness levels.
So it sounds pretty easy, right? Does it even give you a good workout or have health benefits!
It sure does!
Take it from a Harvard health article.
Practicing Tai Chi may not boost your cardio or build tons of muscle, but it will improve your flexibility, balance, and overall levels of strength.
Build strength in your upper or lower body: Despite not working with weights, some of the movements are deceptively challenging and will build muscle strength and stamina.
Improve flexibility and balance: You’ll often twist and contort your body in challenging ways, though nothing too difficult or painful, of course! Consistent practice will improve your overall mobility.
Be a gentle cardio workout: You won’t be huffing and puffing after a Tai Chi class, but it should slightly elevate your heart rate and help you burn some extra calories. With consistency, Tai Chi can help you improve your aerobic conditioning.
What is Yoga?
While Tai Chi is a physical and spiritual practice from China, Yoga finds its roots in ancient India and the philosophies of Hinduism.
The earliest practice of yoga is thousands of years old, dating all the way back the fifth and six centuries BCE. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s or so that yoga became a common practice in the modern world for physical fitness and meditation.
You might be familiar with some popular yoga poses (downward dog, warrior II, tree, etc… along with their traditional names), but what is yoga all about? What’s the point of yoga?
In essence, yoga movements and poses are designed to help you find inner peace, strengthen your body, control your breathing, and expand your consciousness.
The simple explanation of yoga? It exercises your body, spirit, and mind.
On the very surface level, yoga sounds pretty similar to Tai Chi. And it is!
But the practice and execution of these two disciplines can be very different.
Here, take a look at a quick 5-minute yoga routine for beginners to get a basic idea of the movements:
Types of Yoga
Like Tai Chi, there are lots of different ways to practice yoga. Not all classes are created equal, both in intensity, variety of movements, and their goals.
If you’ve ever been confused when looking at a yoga class schedule, here are the basic types of yoga and a short description of each.
Hatha: Hatha yoga essentially includes all forms of yoga that are rooted in physical practice and poses, which is a wide umbrella. This is the most common style you’ll find in the West and the best one for beginners to try.
Iyengar: This is an advanced form of yoga that focuses on the intricate subtleties of form in each pose. In these classes, you’ll hold poses for much longer and go far deeper into the poses than normal in an effort to perfect your technique.
Kundalini: These classes are intensely focused on breath control, and fast-paced repeated movements. There can also be a vocal element with chanting and mantras in coordination with breathing exercises.
Vinyasa: This has become an extremely popular form of yoga in recent years. Vinyasa yoga is all about “flow” and how the body moves seamlessly from one pose to the next in coordination with your breathing. Vinyasa yoga can include other forms like power yoga and prana.
Bikram: This is one of the most common forms of hot yoga (yoga performed in a highly-heated room) to help you sweat profusely and challenge both your mind and body. These classes are almost always 90 minutes long and are extremely consistent no matter where you take one. However, not all hot yoga is Bikram style. (Vinyasa or power yoga can also be done in hot studios, as well.)
And there are plenty more! That’s just a taste.
No matter what your style (intense, cardio-challenging, sweaty workouts vs slow, gentle, low-key meditative sessions), there’s probably a style of yoga that suits you.
Health Benefits of Yoga
This section might be more efficient if I told you what health benefits yoga DOESN’T provide!
Yoga has been linked to a literal ton of positive outcomes for your mind, body, and soul.
Here are just a few yoga benefits to pique your interest:
Strength & muscle
Injury prevention and recovery
Improved athletic performance
Lower anxiety levels
Alleviate neck and back pain
And the list goes on and on and on.
To be fair, most forms of exercise when done properly, safely, and consistently, can provide most or all of these benefits.
Sources claiming that yoga can cure or prevent cancer or other bombastic claims are usually backed by shaky science, so take those with a grain of salt.
Major differences between Tai Chi and Yoga
When you get down to it, Tai Chi and yoga are pretty similar.
Both have goals that are well-aligned, and both aim to focus your mind, body, and spirit.
But there are also a few differences between these practices that you should keep in mind.
Tai Chi is a martial art
One of the fundamental differences between Tai Chi and Yoga is that Tai Chi was developed primarily as a martial art and has immense self-defense applications.
Most people today practice it for meditation, exercise, and spiritual wellness, but its movements and principles can easily be adapted for self-defense purposes.
The difference is mainly in how the techniques are applied.
Solitary space vs moving through the world
In yoga, the focus is on deep self-reflection and making the most of your personal space. (In most classes, you’re relatively confined to your own yoga mat.)
For this reason, yoga appeals to many people who crave time and space to turn inward.
Tai Chi, however, has a stronger focus on moving around and through the other people in the class, as your own personal space in the studio is less defined. In a Tai Chi class, you’re more likely to be partnered up with someone for 2-person movements.
This may or may not appeal to you! But it’s definitely a key difference between these two practices.
Tai Chi is “flow-ier”
Many forms of yoga focus on seamless flow from one movement to the next, but they often involve long pauses or holds of deep stretched positions. This stillness can be very calming for the mind, body, and soul, and excellent for building strength, endurance, and balance.
Tai Chi offers fewer pauses, with one movement flowing into the next instantly and smoothly. It looks a lot more like a dance, for this reason.
Both have their own benefits, and actually share a lot of positive health outcomes. The style of exercise is just different between the two, and each will suit different kinds of people.
Put another way, yoga is better for static flexibility and stretch while Tai Chi is a more dynamic art.
In yoga classes, you’re far more likely to have guided meditations, reflections, mantras, chants, etc. A lot of yoga teachers will implement themes and discussions into their classes (love, gratefulness, peace, etc.)
The spirituality is more overt and embedded in yoga.
In Tai Chi, you’re encouraged to be calm and balanced, which often encourages self-reflection, but it’s usually a lot less overt and guided.
On your feet vs on the floor
In general, you’ll spend a lot more time on the floor (on your mat) in a yoga class, exploring deep stretching positions from a sitting or prone position.
In Tai Chi, most of the work save for some warm-ups is done on your feet, which is a nod to the practice’s martial arts root.
If getting on the floor is uncomfortable for you, you might prefer Tai Chi. That’s why Tai Chi for seniors is so popular.
Should you do Tai Chi or Yoga?
That’s ultimately up to you!
Like I keep saying, Tai Chi and Yoga really have more in common than not. They both promote strength, balance, flexibility, and peace of mind. Both have proven health benefits for mind, body, and spirit.
But which one is right for you?
You might prefer yoga if:
You want to improve your static flexibility
You like guided reflections and ruminations on spirituality
You want the time and support to carve out your own physical and mental space
There are lots of convenient yoga studios near you
You might prefer Tai Chi if:
You prefer dynamic, almost dance-like movement
You like staying on your feet (most Tai Chi movements are done standing)
You like the martial arts / self-defense aspect of the discipline
You can find a good teacher nearby (which can be hard)
Combining Tai Chi and Yoga
Many people mention that, because of their many similarities, yoga and Tai Chi can work extremely well as complimentary disciplines.
Meaning, if you do both (either at the same time or alternating), you can advance in both at a much faster rate.
Or, if you just want to mix things up, these two are fantastic alternatives for one another.
Been taking yoga for years and need something fresh? Try Tai Chi! You’ll improve your balance and flexibility in totally new ways.
Ditto for well-practiced Tai Chi students. A yoga class will challenge your muscles and balance like never before and advance your Tai Chi practice in the process.
There’s so much to love about both Tai Chi and yoga. In our fast-paced, overworked, over-technologied world, getting the time and space to reconnect with your body and slow your thought-train is priceless.
And while both can look deceptively simple and calm, they can both give you an amazing workout!
The primary difference is the static (yoga) vs dynamic movements (Tai Chi), and how much you like to be on the floor vs on your feet.
You can’t go wrong giving either a try, whether you’re trying to alleviate back pain or arthritis, strive for weight loss, or just improve your overall health.
This primer is only a super high-level overview of each discipline, and there is so much more to explore. I hope you’ll take the time to further research yoga and Tai Chi.
Hope this helps!