Taiji and yoga do not arise from the same philosophical backgrounds. Taiji has its origins in Taoism whilst Yoga arose from Hinduism. Each has its own unique conceptualizations of how to move the body in order to facilitate health. And yet there are many similarities in the types of postures that make up the practices. Both taiji and yoga possess the same ultimate goal: to use the body as a tool for gaining peace in mind and spirit.
The way you move your body through the postures thus serves a specific purpose for a corresponding organ. While bending your knees helps the heart, lifting your arms helps with the kidneys. The body becomes the vessel for greater balance and better function for the universal energy of your being. Although people may see Chinese martial arts (CMA) and yoga as very distinct practices, they both come from traditions of seeking wellness in body, mind, and spirit.
In order to get a grasp on the relationship between CMA and yoga, it is essential to understand the health system that ties together the two. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a complicated interplay between different parts and various aspects of the body. Based on yin and yang, qi, and the five elements, TCM provides people with ways of understanding the interconnectivity of their lives through the health of the physical body.
One of the simplest ways to conceptualize the basis of TCM is to understand five elements theory. Each element represents a different attribute that categorizes and assesses the state of health and balance in a person. Fire indicates joy, earth indicates worry, metal indicates sadness, water indicates fear, and wood indicates anger. There are many different ways of categorizing the elements in order to help people understand and treat their health imbalances.
One of these important categorizations is that each element associates in particular with an organ and an organ system. According to TCM, the body is comprised of different meridians – pathways throughout the body that connect with major internal organs. You can visualize it as lines traced on top of the skin that connect your fingers to your heart, your toes to your stomach, so on and so forth.
We use energy to flow freely along these lines. However, when there is an imbalance in the body (for example, excess fire), the energy becomes blocked. To fully maximize our health, we need to find balance by unblocking the energy that flows within our bodies. Moving the body in different ways throughout space has an effect on the internal organs. Lifting your arm above head causes changes in body alignment, and activates specific organ system meridians, which effects an organ.
This is the underlying principle that governs martial arts and yoga: by moving your body into different positions, you are able to activate the energy system in your body so that you can optimize your health. Yoga is also an energy-based health concept. The chakra system of yoga is based on the belief that there are specific energy pockets along your spine, and by practicing different yoga poses, you can unblock those energy pockets and optimize your health.
Despite the different philosophical backgrounds of taiji and yoga, it is astounding that two completely different practices can yield postures that are so similar. It seems that there is something universal about the two, something that pervades culture and origin. Both are facilitating the flow of energy within the body and moving the body along very similar postures. However, depictions of yoga in popular media ignore the deep philosophical underpinnings that tie it so closely to CMA and TCM.
Looking at any Instagram page featuring yoga, it is easy to see a kind of super flexible people. In many yoga classes around the world, people see yoga more for its fitness aspects than for its true nature. Similarly, martial arts tend to be violent or action-based, whereas their true nature is finding peace and balance within the self. The universal nature of these physical practices becomes lost when people place certain stereotypical attributes upon them.
Yet, buying into the stereotypical “yoga” or “martial arts” images doesn’t necessarily mean that we lose the more profound aspects. Instead, the practice takes on a new form. And perhaps there is not the intention to find balance through yoga or taiji practice. Changes will still naturally occur because of the principles explained in TCM theory. It is not our intention to find balance and optimal health. Regardless, the practice of these yoga and taiji postures will naturally lead us to it.