Qigong, Tai Chi and Therapy – Similarities and Differences

Recently my friend Annette Evans, author of the “On Her Own” blog and website, referred to activities like going to the doctor, undertaking therapy and taking time for oneself as “radical self-care” and “the ultimate form of self-defense, defending yourself against your most intimate potential enemy: the demons in your own mind and the gremlins in your own body.”  It’s a good description and I like it. 

One of the more common narratives I’ve heard from new students as to why they decide to attend a tai chi class is because they feel crummy and run-down, and they realized that the situation is not going to get better unless they start doing something about it.  It’s only just now that I realize what a big leap this may be for some people, and that I should appreciate the statement more than merely accept it.  Whatever my own attitude toward their decisions, I’m glad students show up and grateful that they’re letting me share the art and all its potential with them.

Since I’ve never asked them, I can’t know what expectations my students bring into class with them.  I refer to what we know about things like physical therapy, workouts, competitive sports, dance lessons, other martial arts and so on, and how tai chi and qigong compare and contrast with them.  Like the former, tai chi and qigong are physical activities that require us to learn new skills and pay closer attention to our bodies.  I make a big deal in class about paying attention to our bodies and what they tell us, but the truth is every physical activity gives us feedback we should be paying attention to if we want to get any good at them.  And good trainers will (or ought to) make a point of directing their students’ attention to it.

The principal difference, in my mind, between tai chi/qigong and all the other activities I listed is in the nature of their goals.  Speaking generally, physical therapy, workouts, competitive sports and martial arts have definable goals and – often – timelines by which these goals are anticipated to be met.  The goals of physical therapy are determined by a caregiver and the timeline depends either on the opinion of the physical therapist or an insurance company.  Sports have competitions; the goal is to win (or place the best one can), and the timeline is determined by the date of the competition.  Martial arts such as karate or tae kwon do have belts or “kyu/dan” rankings, where each level is gained either by the successful demonstration of certain tasks or, in the case of high-ranking masters, longevity and seniority.  Workouts are less fixed to time but as a rule a goal is set (“Lose X pounds”/”Reach X% body fat”/“Deadlift X kg”/“Run 3 miles in X time” etc.) and reset or maintained as each goal is achieved.

The goals of tai chi and qigong are not so strictly defined.  There are steps to mastery in tai chi, for example, and they typically follow in order (memorizing the postures/transitions, understanding the energy/mass transfer, interacting with others, adapting the form itself to the individual); but while “mastery” is the goal, there are no belts and there is no timeline.  There is a generalized admonition to practice frequently & diligently, and a generalized goal of being a bit better today than you were yesterday.  But the nature of the growth or improvement is not specified, nor can it be – it’s up to each player to discover and learn in their own way and at their own pace.

Qigong is closest to physical therapy in that both are concerned with improvement and healing.  But physical therapy tends to have a defined goal and deadline.  And once you reach this goal (or the number of visits your insurance will pay for), you’re “done.”  Patients are encouraged to continue healthy activities after therapy, but it’s been my experience that those who actually do so are rare, and those who go over-and-above what they did in therapy are unicorns.  Qigong, by contrast, has no timeline.  This is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time.  The advantage is that no expectation of measured performance is placed on the qigong player, no shame or sense of failure if a goal is not met by a certain time, and no incentive to push oneself farther or harder than is prudent – in other words, there’s no pressure

The disadvantage is that there’s no pressure.  Some people respond best to having a spelled-out goal or a requirement in front of them, and a deadline by which it must be met.  Since tai chi and qigong are so open-ended, it takes a great deal of self-direction, self-discipline and self-dedication to persevere, particularly when other pressures are jockeying for attention (“everything is ASAP”).  The hope is that the player will discover the benefits of both activities, early enough in their progress that continuing and persevering is more desirable than turning away and busying about with all the stuff that got us all crummy-and-run-down feeling (the stuff we need the “radical self-care” to recover from) in the first place.  But each person is different and I as a teacher can’t make that decision for the student.