Yoga and Tai Chi are sometimes referred to as “Meditation In Motion”. But to answer the question of which is better when it comes to meditation, we must keep in mind the Exercise Physiology principle of Specificity of Training.
Training is specific to the event. If the event is to throw the javelin, then the training should be as specific as possible to the requirements of throwing the javelin. Yoga is inherently slow in pace. It’s usually practiced on a mat or in a small-contained area with not much movement outside of that area. Yoga postures can also be quite linear and static within several slow breath cycles. The asanas, or movements, are ultimately designed and practiced to prepare the body for stillness. So if stillness is what you need, then yoga might be for you.
Energy travels in circles or spirals, like water going down the drain, a screw burrowing into wood, a bullet as it spirals out of a chamber, or even a tornado, hurricane or tsunami. All Tai Chi movements are done in circles or spirals. Tai Chi is also usually practiced slowly. However, some styles like Wu Dang and Chen are accompanied by sudden bursts of speed known as “Fa Jin”, which means to “Deliver the Energy”. Not that spirals are absent in yoga, but they are much more subtle, often within the anatomical structure of the skeletal system of the pose. Yes, there is movement, but miniscule. Tai Chi forms are generally practiced upright. The movements cover ground with a constant transfer of weight high and low and therefore, the legs are used in a dynamic fashion. As it is generated from the legs and feet, Tai Chi Power comes from the lower dan tian or low belly. Yoga can develop specific upper body strength in arm balance poses but generally, not a whole lot of leg strength is developed.
So, getting back to Specificity. If your goal is to become more still and relieve stress, both yoga and Tai Chi can achieve this. If flexibility is your goal, then yoga can accomplish this in a more “static” fashion. However, with yoga, it is very difficult to totally leave out the ego and accept your state of flexibility all the while watching the teacher or other students. Unfortunately, injury is a factor here for those who “push too far” or do not know how to practice the poses correctly. Yoga shoulder and wrist injuries are not uncommon and I challenge anyone to show me one Ashtanga Yoga practitioner that has never been injured in that practice. Many people do not have the shoulder stability, strength, or flexibility to perform a handstand or even the down dog posture correctly, yet they try to “push through”, putting themselves at risk. I cannot ever recall hearing about a Tai Chi related injury. The increased range of motion gains flexibility and strength in the lower body through Tai Chi over several seconds while loading and unloading the leg muscles during the many movements. Think of starting high and slowly lowering into a lunge over several seconds. If balance, center and proper structure are maintained, chance of injury is quite small. Upper body flexibility and grace is achieved through the natural circular movements.
Yoga is great for re-alignment, injury prevention and in some cases, for the healing of injuries. Specific internal strength can be developed though the bandhas (breath locks) and arm balances.
Human beings tend to be mobile, up on two feet, and in constant motion. Tai Chi is constant movement on both feet, one foot, and sometimes with high fast kicks. Legs lifted high sometimes occur in yoga, but usually very slow and those lifts are only held for several breath cycles. Tai Chi arms, shoulders and hands are in constant spirals, gathering and building internal energy with the feet, dan tian, and breath.
Yogic breathing and Tai Chi breathing have many correlations (slow, deep, and relaxed to name a few) and many differences such as length of cycle, placement of the tongue, and visualization of breath movement. Synchronization of breath to movement is one of the essential keys for mind-body-spirit integration found in both practices, while eye focus and mental intention are two differences.
Slow yoga postures are excellent as a warm up or cool down as static stretching has been proven to relieve muscular soreness after vigorous exercise. With a very wide range of yoga practices in which to choose from, a person has choices. Two examples are Iyengar for a more restorative practice and Ashtanga, which is a more athletically challenging form.
As mentioned earlier, there are several styles of Tai Chi and many forms within each style. Tai Chi is also a Martial Art Self Defense System; waiting for an adversary to make an aggressive move and never meeting that force “head on”, but rather, to re-direct it and ultimately use that force against the attacker. In theory, with proper technique, a smaller weaker person can easily overcome a stronger adversary. Practical application relies on the individual’s ability to specifically adapt to the situation. One principle of Tai Chi is “constant change”. Most people practice Tai Chi for the health benefits. Knowledge of the practical applications can aid in further mind body connection and awareness as the lower dan tian (low belly) energy manifests upward through the middle dan tian (heart) to the upper dan tian (third eye) and then immediately back down to the lower dan tian in preparation for the next movement. Perhaps I will delve more deeply into this in the next discussion.
So let’s get back to “Moving Meditation”. Unless the yoga sequence is learned and memorized (like with an Ashtanga or Bikram style that have pre-set required asanas that are not deviated from), then often times the yogi’s attention is divided between following the instructor’s verbal or visual cues and the instructor’s own “inner self”. Therefore, true inner meditation can be quite difficult and must wait until savasana, the corpse pose, or still meditation at the close of the practice.
Tai Chi usually has many movements in a choreographed pattern that can last for several minutes and sometimes up to thirty or more minutes like Tai Chi 108. I thought I’d throw in the “108” because that is a magic mojo number within yoga and meditation circles as well – I doubt if it’s just a coincidence. Unless the Tai Chi movements are memorized, then attention is focused on following the instructor also. However, once these movements are learned, then the body, mind and spirit can integrate freely throughout the Tai Chi form.
So who developed these forms? Obviously someone with a high degree of skill acquired over a long period of time through hard work. But bear in mind that this form or pattern was created by that specific person for his (or her) specific body.
So which is better for meditation, Tai Chi or yoga? There are many benefits from Tai Chi and yoga, some overlapping, some independent of each other. Do both and see which one, if not both, resonates within. Some gurus encourage yogis to eventually develop their own practice, and if Tai Chi is about “adapting to constant change”, then you might just come up with something very unique that fits you perfectly.
Steven Leigh is a practicing Martial Artist and Yogi. Find out more information at www.kungyo.com.