Mind-body movement offers the ultimate two-for-one combo: As you work on your physical health, strengthening your muscles and balancing out your body, you also nourish your mind in a major way. Two of the most powerful and ancient mind-body practices out there—tai chi and yoga—have become beloved across the globe in recent decades.
Both modalities challenge and ground you both physically and mentally by incorporating various postures and movements and connecting you to your body and breath.
However, though tai chi and yoga offer many similar benefits (science-backed benefits, might I add), they have different origins, histories, and styles.
Whether you ultimately opt for tai chi vs. yoga depends entirely on personal preference (though you can totally do both!), but there are a few things to know about what to expect in a class.
Ready to feel strong in all the ways? Use this guide to get familiar with tai chi and yoga’s rich roots, what each practice looks like in real-time, and how to get started.
The Origins Of Yoga And Tai Chi
Though yoga and tai chi have unique histories and roots, both have existed for centuries and originated in Asia.
Before yoga spread across the globe and became the popular physical and mental practice that it is today, it began about 5,000 years ago as an Indian philosophy; a way to connect with divine spirits, says Kelly Turner, RYT, director of education for YogaSix. “It was more about meditation and concentration—and moving toward a place where a person could overcome the burdens of being human and find liberation and enlightenment,” she explains.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 1900s that the physical aspect of yoga became more prominent in India. “The physical postures were designed to help people sit more comfortably in meditation,” Turner says. Eventually, a few key yogis led the charge in creating the yoga practices that we know in the Western world. Today, there are a number of different styles of yoga students may practice, from invigorating vinyasa to quiet restorative yoga.
Tai chi, meanwhile, dates back to about the 1600s and originated in the villages of China, says Shifu Pam Dye, instructor at Forever Tai Chi in New York. As with yoga, several styles of tai chi have evolved throughout its existence, including Yang, Sun, and Chen. (Chen, which is considered the original style, was created by Chen Wangting.) The practice spread from China to the U.S. in the 1950s.
Also like yoga, tai chi incorporates mental and physical practices. However, tai chi’s roots lie in martial arts. “Each posture you see people doing has a martial art or self-defense application to it,” she says. “It may look like gentle movements with names that come from animals or nature—but if someone comes at you with a punch or grabs you from behind, you can use the postures to defend yourself.”
Still, much of tai chi’s focus is on creating harmony and balance of your mind, body, and spirit—and letting go of unnecessary tension, adds Margaret Matsumoto, director of teacher training at the Tai Chi Foundation.
Tai Chi vs. Yoga: What Each Physical Practice Looks Like
Both yoga and tai chi have several different specific types of practices under their main mind-body umbrellas. Some—like Ashtanga or power yoga and Chen-style tai chi—are more intense, while others—like yin or restorative yoga and qigong, which is a collection of separate basic movements instead of one long sequence of flowing moves, according to Matsumoto—are more low-key.
Regardless of the unique style you practice, though, both yoga and tai chi involve a series of poses. In a class, your instructor will guide you into and through each pose and offer tips on proper posture and alignment, according to Dye.
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Whether you pause in a particular pose for several breaths (or even minutes) or continuously flow from one to the next, depends on the style, says Dye. She refers to dynamic tai chi as “meditation in motion.”
That said, while some yoga instructors may focus on specific areas of the body (like shoulders and hips), tai chi takes a more holistic approach. “Tai chi is interested in integrated movements, so the whole body operates as one,” Matsumoto says. “Rather than working the body like a machine, tai chi works to relax unnecessary tensions within it.” So, while tai chi is rarely (if ever) practiced on the floor, certain yoga poses—like bridge and savasana—take place on the mat.
Tai chi also stands out from yoga because of its martial arts and self-defense element, which becomes more prominent as you to get into more advanced classes, says Dye.
However, despite their physical differences, both yoga and tai chi involve a focus on yourbreath. You’ll do mostly deep, diaphragmatic breathing in tai chi, but you might do different types of breathing techniques in yoga, Dye says. Kundalini yoga, for example, incorporates different types of breathing techniques to help you shift out of “fight-or-flight” mode and into a more restful state, Turner explains.
The Benefits of Tai Chi vs. Yoga—And How They Compare
To date, there’s more in-depth research on yoga than there is on tai chi. Still, both have some science to back up their benefits.
Research has found that yoga, for example, may help with stress, depression, and anxiety, while protecting brain function and potentially decreasing inflammation in the body.
Studies suggest that tai chi, meanwhile, can help healthcare workers manage stress, while helping college students relax and sleep better. Research also backs up that tai chi can improve the health outcomes of those with underlying health issues like heart disease and arthritis.
Meanwhile, other research shows that both practices may help with pain management. Both yoga and tai chi also improve your balance, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Keep in mind, though, Dye says you have to be in the right state of mind to reap the benefits of these practices. “You have to be relaxed,” she says. “If you’re not fully relaxed, you’re not going to get the full benefits of stress reduction and flexibility. You may feel the physical part, but if you’re not fully relaxed, you’re not going to get the mind part.”
Tai Chi vs. Yoga: Which Is Right For You? Here’s How To Decide
Thanks to the postures involved in both practices, both tai chi and yoga will help you strengthen your muscles and improve mobility. If your goal is to support your overall fitness, try taking both a yoga and a tai chi class to see which you like better. Lots of people take interest in tai chi classes for better overall health, Dye says. It also appeals to athletes who want better full-body awareness and to move more efficiently, Matsumoto adds.
One caveat: Since yoga often involves holding various deep stretches for longer, it should be your go-to if flexibility is top-priority, says Turner.
When it comes to stress relief, both practices are equally awesome. Yoga and tai chi both have strong mental components, so you really can’t go wrong with either.
And for those seeking weight loss? There is some research on yoga’s effect on body composition, with at least one systematic review and meta-analysis suggesting it can help reduce body mass index in overweight and obese individuals. That said, you might want to opt for a power yoga or vinyasa class, which will be more rigorous. If you’re more interested in tai chi, a Chen-style class, which may include some explosive movements like jumps and kicks, is the way to go.
If you’re having trouble deciding which to try, Turner suggests chatting with studio staff or instructors to figure out the different types of classes they offer and what you should know ahead of time. Then, try out different instructors and styles to get a feel for what you like. “There are so many ways to customize your experience,” she says.
The bottom line: No matter what your fitness and mindfulness goals look like, yoga and tai chi both provide a pretty powerful opportunity to bring them together. Ultimately, whatever practice keeps you coming back for more mind-body movement is the best option for you.
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