Martin Eisen, Ph.D.
Tai Chi has increased in popularity in the western world. It often appears in the background of advertisements of unrelated products. It is recommended for seniors and by the American Arthritis Society, which has its own simplified version. Many health clubs
and martial arts studios offer Tai Chi classes.
Tai Chi is a Chinese art designed to protect oneself from unarmed and armed attacks and
illnesses. It is both a martial art and a method for preventing and treating illnesses.
Information about its history and concepts can be found in the article “Are You Really Learning Tai Chi and Is It Effective for Stress?” at
Qigong, pronounced Chee Kung, is not as well-known as Tai Chi and is frequently given
as an auxiliary exercise before or after doing Tai Chi. In Chinese “Gong” means work or
hard task. Qi can be translated as life energy. Qigong is the task of learning to control the flow of Qi through your body by using breath, movement and meditation. It is a Chinese discipline that is at least 5000 years old.
The main divisions of modern Qigong (Chi Kung) are: Spiritual, Medical, Martial and
Athletic depending on the main goal of the practitioner. However, there is an overlap
between these branches.
Medical Qigong is a branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM postulates that
health is the result of smooth Qi circulation, without accumulation or deficiency in any part of the body, while disease is the result of poor Qi circulation. Once the flow of Qi is balanced, the body tends to heal itself.
Here Qigong will be used to denote Medical Qigong for preventing and treating
diseases and will not include Tai Chi, which is also a form of Qigong. More information about Qigong can be found in “What is Qigong” at
If you want to learn classical Tai Chi you must find a knowledgeable instructor. Many classes only offer shortened, altered forms that are supposed to be for health purposes only. Many of these so-called Tai Chi forms are not taught according to Tai Chi principles and are some sort of new-age dance. You can save money and probably get the same
health benefits from slow walking and waving your arms. Even if you find an instructor that teaches a classical long form and you want to learn self-defense, investigate if
2-person Tai Chi martial art forms are taught and not self-defense based on Karate or some other martial art.
Many health benefits have been ascribed to the practice of Tai Chi. However, there are a few problems with these studies. The scientist conducting these studies may not be an expert in Tai Chi and so selects an incompetent teacher for the subjects. The form may have been altered by the instructor and so another teacher may not teach the same, exact
form in another study. Sometimes the sample size is too small. If the subjects are required to practice at home some will be fanatic and others barely practice and accurate reports of practice times are difficult to obtain. Finally, Tai Chi, even shortened
versions for health, require years of study before the subject is really doing Tai Chi. Hence, the studies should be called the effects of trying to learn Tai Chi. More long-term studies are required to verify the beneficial effects of Tai Chi.
Clinical trials have shown that Qigong is helpful in about 200 diseases, even more
diseases than Tai Chi. There are many different forms of Qigong. Some are classical and others are made-up or modified by a teacher. The criticisms given above for Tai Chi
research apply to Qigong research.
Learning Tai Chi takes self-discipline to practice daily and tenacity not to give
up. Those who have studied arts, like dance or music, that require constant practice are more likely to succeed in learning Tai Chi. Tai Chi requires more coordination than some forms of Qigong. A good memory is also helpful. Nevertheless, learning Tai Chi only for
health requires years of study. From discussions with other instructors and my own experience, less than 1% of beginning students will learn even a short form, like the Chen Man Ching form. My exoerience in teaching the SIx Healing Sounds, a form of Qigong for health, is that close to 100% of students can learn it.
Seniors interested in preventing or treating illnesses should consider learning Qigong
rather than Tai Chi, especially if they have memory or coordination problems. There are health forms of Qigong that are much easier to learn and require less coordination strength and flexibilty than Tai Chi. For example, a Qigong method for losing weight can be learned in about a minute. The hard part is to practice it before every meal.
For life threatening diseases use Qigong. You may die before you learn Tai Chi. Some
hospitals have drop-in Qigong classes. Such classes are not useful for treating serious diseases. Usually, you are not informed that you must practice for hours every day. Find a specialist in medical Qigong who can give you a TCM type of diagnosis and construct an
individualized Qigong protocol based on the diagnosis.
Even in China, it is difficult for patients to practice Qigong for hours. Patients join a social Qigong group or are placed in a hospital.
[Dr. Eisen is a retired scientist, who constructed mathematical models in medicine. He has studied and taught Judo, Shotokan Karate, Aikido, Qigong, Praying Mantis Kung Fu, and Tai Chi in different places. He took correspondence courses in Chinese herbology and studied other branches of Chinese medicine with a traditional Chinese medical doctor. He was the Director of Education of the Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Institute in Upper Darby, P.A. http://home.comcast.net/~carolezak]