Tai Chi vs. Yoga, Chi vs. Prana
What is chi? Well, we prefer to talk about things in terms people understand, like the blood. Blood is a vital liquid that flows through your body. Blood is also chi. So chi can be a metaphor for the blood, which is a real thing that you understand. Make sense so far?Now imagine you need to go outside and water your flowerbed. You turn on the faucet on the side of your house and hear the water flowing into the green garden hose; but the hose was not put away very well. When you find the end of the hose there is no water coming out. So what do you think the problem is? Right, there’s a kink in the hose.
Chi is like the water and your body is like the hose with a kink in it. Physical problems in the body manifest as kinks or “blockages.” If you’re crooked, or bent over, or stiff in one hip, or walk with a limp, your blood does not flow through your body as well as it could. Tai Chi is a tool to fix those “kinks” or physical problems.
If your back is not straight the blood cannot flow through as well. So Tai Chi teaches you how to hold your back straight. We commonly call this “posture”; but proper posture is incredibly misunderstood because millions of different “experts” all teach posture of the back differently.
Yoga teachers seem to think they know best. They have very specific mandates on how to achieve the tadasana or “Mountain Pose” (which is standing up straight). Because Tai Chi and yoga are often compared, and chi and prana are generally considered the same thing (energy), we can compare and contrast yoga’s Mountain Pose to Tai Chi’s standing-up-straight posture called “Wuji.”
I am a Tai Chi master, but I am not a yoga master. I can only read and research and regurgitate info about yoga. But what I find about yoga seems to echo and corroborate among the sources.
Yoga’s Mountain Pose is standing up straight.
Tai Chi’s Wuji posture is also standing up straight.
The sources on Mountain Pose indicate you will use all of the muscles in your body. Wuji posture instead requires deep relaxation. Mountain Pose tenses the thighs (quadriceps), while Wuji focuses on relaxing them. (So far, which of these postures sounds like it will allow blood to flow through more easily?)
Mountain Pose squeezes the big toes together, as well as the shins, and it allows the heels to push apart. Wuji posture can vary, but in our system the heels are together and the feet form a 90 degree angle.
Both Mountain Pose and Wuji seem to prescribe curling the tailbone under, perhaps a bit more so in Wuji—but from the waist up the two postures divide sharply. Mountain pose means to maintain the curve of the spine or perhaps even accentuate it. Wuji flattens the back and straightens the spine.
Mountain Pose lifts the chest and pushes it out. The shoulders go back and flare out. Again, the Mountain pose prescribes tension throughout the body. When I try this pose for myself I feel tense and not relaxed.
Wuji sinks the chest and pushes out the back so that the spine is straight. The shoulders go forward. Notice the straightness of my back in the above photo.
So I don’t know yoga and I don’t know prana; but if the Mountain Pose (tadasana) is supposed to allow the flow of prana then I would have to say that prana and chi are definitely NOT the same thing.
I sent the Mountain Pose photo above to my teacher, Grandmaster Victor ShengLong Fu, and asked him what he thought (just to check my math). He said,
"Tai Chi standing posture is the opposite of Yoga standing posture. Tai Chi has a hollow chest."
When I stand in the Wuji posture I can deeply relax my whole body with the exception of the area around my naval. Flip back and forth between the Mountain Pose and my expression of Wuji (which was photographed more than 10 years ago). Which one looks more relaxed? Which one do you think would allow the blood to flow through more easily?
In my opinion Mountain Pose is a garden hose full of kinks. Tai Chi principles would say that a person cannot breathe properly in the Mountain Pose. Between the muscular tension and the position of the back and shoulders I think don’t think anything can flow through easily, certainly not chi.
Tai Chi makes it a principle to relax deeply. Most of the yoga poses are straight-line tension exercises. Down-facing Dog is just a complicated push up. Yoga teachers recommend tension and prescribe movements that demand muscle and force. Tai Chi is the exact opposite and demands that whole-body relaxation is a must, and that movements should be absolutely devoid of “brute force.”
To me, yoga is just another strength exercise while Tai Chi is the anti-strength exercise.