Seeing the Difference Between Tai Chi and Religion


tai chi and religion comparison

Let’s say I told you that I met a group of people and spending time with them makes me happy. We meet for about an hour a week and afterwards I feel a sense of calm, am less worried, and generally feel better. What we talk about in that hour even has a positive impact on the rest of my life. I am learning tools that help me see my problems as opportunities and generally am more accepting of my situation rather than always trying to change it. Where would you guess I was? In a church or synagogue? In a park? While tai chi is not a religion, you can see why tai chi and religion are often talked about together because of their shared outcomes.

Similarities and differences between tai chi and religion are often debated primarily due to their shared goals. Namely, peace of mind, reduced stress, acceptance of life’s situations, community, and a positive outlook.

However, this distinction gets muddy when tai chi is misunderstood to actually BE a religion. People (often older) that would benefit tremendously from tai chi are scared off because they don’t want to compromise their religious beliefs. There have been Christian religious leaders that explicitly forbid members from doing tai chi and on the other hand, churches and synagogues that offer tai chi and yoga classes. How can this be?

That’s what we need to talk about. Let’s clear up the relationship between tai chi and religion so that all of us collectively continue to benefit from being practitioners of one, the other, or both. At the end, we need to highlight a specific belief that is different between tai chi and Christianity and is causing most of the heated debate.

candles

Is Tai Chi a Religion?

The quick answer is that tai chi is not a religion. The long answer is that tai chi shares a lot in common with the many world religions so the confusion is absolutely understandable. Here’s a really acceptable definition of religion from Wikipedia that makes the point:

Religion is usually defined as a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that generally relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements.

Wikipedia

Using this definition, we can see some of the shared and unshared aspects of both religion and tai chi. Let’s break it down:

Tai Chi Religion Comparison

Tai ChiReligion
Social-Cultural SystemMaybe (?). There are Chinese cultural aspects that are part of the art.Yes
Designated Behaviors and PracticesYes. You learn series of movements designed for specific purposes.Yes
MoralsMaybe (?). There is not a tai chi doctrine on right-living equivalent to religious guidance. However, and this is a stretch, when doing tai chi you experience an overall feeling of goodness. You work to emulate this feeling throughout your days and it’s akin to a feeling of living with moral purpose.Yes
BeliefsYes. Tai chi teaches philosophical ideas intended to help us understand tai chi and move better. The most common example is Yin-Yang Theory. Yes
WorldviewsYes, indirectly. A goal of tai chi is to make someone a better person and thereby improve the world.Yes
TextsYesYes
Sanctified PlacesNo. There are historical places and important places related to lineage, but not sanctified. Tai chi is practiced in temples sometimes, but the temple is not dedicated to tai chi.Yes
PropheciesNoYes
Introduce Humanity to Supernatural Elements.No. This is where we get into some trouble. There are practitioners who claim supernatural powers which is not universally accepted by all practitioners. This irritates religious folks for the obvious reasons.Yes
Introduce Humanity to Transcendental Elements.Yes and No. At higher levels of tai chi it becomes meditative and can change a person’s outlook on life and disposition. However, most tai chi practitioners do it for the health aspects alone.Yes
Introduce Humanity to Spiritual Elements.Yes. Pulling from the Latin root “spiritus” (breath), there is a focus on slow even breath and a goal of imbuing yourself with a calm, positive disposition – a spirited purpose if you will. There is also a belief in the “oneness” of everything living that we share this spirited purpose with.Yes

In essence, tai chi influences how we think and live in a positive way but is not a religion. Much of the misunderstanding that has led some people to see tai chi as a form of religion has to do with the fact that it gained popularity in the West during the 1960s when many mystical and metaphysical traditions were becoming poplar. That being said, tai chi does share its roots and base its philosophy on religious beliefs.

What Religion is Tai Chi Associated With?

We start here with the first of two arguments that keep religious people at odds with the idea of tai chi. It’s the idea that we all have the potential to achieve and experience a sense of inner divinity.

Early on in my tai chi development I hit a roadblock for quite a while that would not let me reconcile my tai chi with my religious upbringing. My religious exposure (Christian) did not give me any space to accept that I could evolve into something greater or experience something greater on a spiritual level.  That was the stuff of God, not lowly me. Even talking about “experiencing a sense of God” felt sacrilegious. And yet, I would practice and feel truly great, connected to something bigger than me.

Know that the way western religion is structured and the way we celebrate extreme cases of success have influenced what we see as possible for ourselves.  Since religion or eastern traditions are how most of us conceptualize this powerful mental serenity called “consciousness,”  let’s take a quick look at 3 main world traditions that truly believe that a calm, controlled, “awareness” or “consciousness” is available to all of us.

The Relationship between Tai Chi and Buddhism

comparison to Buddhism.

Buddhism is a tradition that was imported to China from India in the first centuries A.D.  Indian Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism teach practitioners how to free themselves from suffering by practicing meditation, understanding philosophy, and using devotional practices.  According to Buddhism, all people are capable of becoming like the Buddha.  Fully awake, aware, and enlightened.

The physical movements of tai chi find there roots in Buddhism and in the teachings of Bodhidharma and his influence on Shaolin monks.

The Relationship between Tai Chi and Taoism

Taoism is the most ancient of the three schools of Chinese spirituality (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism). Taoism means “the study of the Way.” This concept is difficult to completely define because this Way refers to a “reality that is beyond words and concepts.”  You make progress in life through introspection and observation, not through following a dogma or church. It has its roots in ancient healing arts where solutions were pursued through observation of the environment and intuition, not through books or the use of the intellect.

Taoism has had a dramatic influence on the philosophy of tai chi and indeed Taoist practitioners have a form of tai chi. However, Taoism itself is not a religion, it is a philosophy. So Christians who are concerned that they cannot practice tai chi because of “it’s Taoist religion roots” are off base for a couple of reasons.

Taoism’s central idea is to live in harmony with “the way” or the natural order of all living things. This results in having a balanced life because you are at peace with events and your surroundings. Hardly a bad thing but also not something that would be in conflict with religious beliefs.

The Relationship between Tai Chi and Hinduism

tai chi and religion comparison to Hinduism.

Our understanding of Hinduism is shaped by Western notions of religion as it was originally documented during colonialism.  It is actually too broad to be categorized as one system of spirituality or one tradition. Hinduism has no unquestionable religious authority or governing body. It has no prophet nor any singular holy book. Instead several revered Hindu texts cover how to transcend what we face here on earth through good conduct, purification, pilgrimage, self-inquiry, meditation, discipline, and surrender.

Notice that ALL of these traditions see that the power to improve our mental state and thereby improve our lives is available to all of us.  They are not debating whether you can or can’t. The only difference is the degree to which you have transformed yourself, based on where your currently are on your own path.

Tai Chi and Christianity

There is no relationship between tai chi and Christianity but, like many Western practitioners I have come to a better understanding of all faiths by experiencing the feel-good sense that tai chi can give us. That being said, there is one specific belief that Christianity and tai chi hold differently.

Christianity considers the source of everything to be God.

Tai chi considers the source of everything to be energy called “chi.” All living beings are made up of chi and sensing, improving, and developing chi results in overall improvements in your life.

This is very hard to swallow for many Christians but there are also Christians who are more universal in their thinking who see chi as God, simply manifested in a different way by a different culture.

the bible

Can Christians Do Tai Chi?

The Christians that I have worked with have come to an understanding of chi as being God, manifested in a unique way. They practice their religion and enjoy the same good feelings with they practice tai chi. If that is too much of a stretch for you, then Christians simply benefit from the health aspects of tai chi.

Many, I would even say most tai chi practitioners don’t focus on or do anything related to the philosophical side of tai chi. They practice in the same way someone would do yoga and reap the benefits of great balance, flexibility, posture, community, activity, low stress, and a highly oxygenated system.


Seeing the ideas of tai chi and religion as being in conflict I think denies a large portion of our population with a health-producing activity that can be undertaken well into your 90s. Very few western activities can claim this.

Easy-to-Learn Instruction on Tai Chi for Western Practitioners

Readers of Tai Chi Basics consistently ask for resources to start meditating or improve their tai chi practice. I have become a big fan of tai chi online courses because they get past some of the travel, location, and expense limitations. If you are considering tai chi, it is a great way to try it out. Here is one that is straight forward and exceptional: Yang Tai Chi Short Form

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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