Updated: Oct 6
If you’ve spent any time exploring the world of well-being recently, you are likely to have come across Yoga and Qigong. You might have asked yourself if one is better than the other and if there is any real difference between them. Which one you should try is really down to individual preference.
Both practices in their modern forms are very much focused on cultivating health and well-being, though they weren’t always this way. Both systems are well over 5000 years old and in their earlier expressions had very different goals. If we look at such texts as the Rig Veda (the spiritual texts used by the Vedic priests of India) we can see that yoga was primarily a spiritual practice, with an emphasis on the development of meditation. Much later, it became allied to Ayurvedic medicine as a way of enhancing health and well-being, formally two separate branches of Vedic knowledge.
You might have to look quite hard to find the spiritual dimensions of yoga in many modern classes, as this tends not to be emphasised to any great degree. Similarly, in the practice of Qigong, you would have to look carefully to find the martial and spiritual aspects of the practice. Again, in its modern expression, it tends to be much more focused on developing physical health and well-being, though in the West it hasn’t changed anywhere near as much as yoga. Unlike yoga, Qigong has always had a strong focus on the health and medical applications of the practice, which has sat comfortably alongside its spiritual dimensions. In fact, Qigong is often referred to as internal medicine. It has its roots in the shamanic dances of Neolithic Chinese villagers and was used in those days for the preservation of health. It was mentioned in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, one of the world’s oldest books on health and disease. Today, it is being taught to coronavirus patients in the wards of Chinese hospitals as a way of strengthening the immune system.
At the core of both yoga and Qigong is the concept of subtle energy. This is the energy that sustains life everywhere. In Qigong it is referred to as chi and in yoga as prana. Both yoga and Qigong work to bring balance and harmony to this vital life force within all of us.
From the perspective of Qigong, subtle energy moves along meridians which pass through three major energy centres called dantiens. In yoga, the energy moves along energy channels called nadis which connect up the seven major chakras (or five major chakras from a Buddhist point of view). Dantiens and chakras are not the same things, nor are meridians the same as nadis. Although they have a relationship, they are different cultural understandings of the subtle energy system.
Qigong and yoga are much more than healthcare practices. They both also have one other key element in common. They have as their foundation, at least in their traditional forms, mindfulness meditation as they assist the practitioner to move into a meditative state of deep awareness. Both methods do this through a combination of mindful breathing and awareness of the body through movement.
In some places in the West, particularly in the big cities, yoga has become the dominant form of physical exercise, though it took some time to become the billion-dollar industry that it is today. On the other hand, Qigong is at a much earlier stage of its emergence in the West. Maybe with the current tsunami of interest in health and wellbeing and especially in the benefits of mindfulness meditation Qigong could catch up with yoga or even overtake it.
Qigong is not yet at the stage that yoga reached some time ago, where all of its spiritual and mindfulness elements were discarded in favour of a purely physical focus. With the increase in awareness of the benefits of mindfulness meditation, it’s possible that the still more mindfulness-based practice of Qigong emerges strongly in the West. For yoga, it might now be difficult to re-incorporate this into the Western mindset around the practice.
If you want to supercharge your mindfulness practice, taking up traditional forms of either yoga or Qigong would be a good idea. The combination of working with the body, mind and spirit or breath is a powerful way to maintain a state of health and overall wellbeing.
Yoga is, however, a practice that requires some physical ability. It’s a practice that can be quite tough if you are elderly or have a physical disability. Qigong on the other hand is accessible to a much wider range of people, with its focus on gentle flowing movements. Yoga was developed as a muscle-builder to develop a practitioner’s ability to sit for long periods in meditation. Qigong is much gentler and doesn’t have the muscle-building focus of its Indian counterpart. People in wheelchairs can practice Qigong. The elderly in their 70s and 80s can practice it. Kids can do Qigong. There are even forms of Qigong that require no movement at all and can be practiced by anyone regardless of their physical state.
For those with a focus on their physical health, Qigong is often their practice of choice. After all, although yoga has many therapeutic benefits, Qigong was actually designed as a form of medicine, which means that it can be a very fast path to getting the health benefits that you seek.
So Qigong vs yoga, which practice should you choose? It depends on what you want to achieve. If you wish to get more of a workout and develop your flexibility, then perhaps yoga is the thing you should opt for. If, however, you have physical limitations or if you are interested in building your mindfulness practice, then perhaps Qigong is for you (though if you can find a yoga class that still has this dimension, it will work just as well). Whichever you choose, you are assured of feeling more peaceful and with a greater sense of balance, harmony, and physical well-being as a result.