Tai Chi or Yoga? 4 Important Differences

Here's How to Determine Which is Best for Your Needs

Tai chi and yoga have many similarities. Both are gentle, low-intensity exercises that have been practiced for hundreds of years. Both are good for your mind and body (see "Tai chi and yoga benefits"). And both have been shown to be beneficial for older adults in particular. How do you choose one over the other? Several differences can influence your choice.

TAI CHI AND YOGA BENEFITS

Tai chi and yoga share a long list of health and wellness benefits. Both can improve your balance, flexibility, strength, mobility, mood, quality of life, range of motion, reflexes, and thinking skills. They also reduce pain and your risk of falls.

How do two exercises accomplish all that? "Rather than targeting just one aspect of health -- like an aspirin for a headache -- yoga and tai chi movements address many health systems and work synergistically," says Peter Wayne, faculty editor of the Harvard Special Health Report An Introduction to Tai Chi.

2. FLOWING VS. STATIC MOVEMENTS

Tai chi and yoga use different types of movements to challenge your muscles and balance.

Tai chi is like a graceful dance of flowing motions. As you perform a series of slow, choreographed movements, you breathe deeply, focus on body sensations, and gradually shift your weight from one pose to another.

Yoga is a series of focused, mostly static (still) strengthening and stretching postures combined with breathing techniques.

2. STANDING VS. SITTING

Both tai chi and yoga can be adapted for people who want or need to sit in a chair while exercising. But generally speaking, tai chi is performed while standing. Yoga can involve standing, lying down, sitting on the floor, and kneeling on all fours. Some positions require you to bend, reach backward, or even turn upside down.

These are important considerations if you don't have access to a chair-based program and you either can't stand for long periods or have difficulty getting up and down off the floor.

3. A LOT TO REMEBER

Tai chi and yoga both have an instructor who leads you through the exercises. Still, some people have trouble following or memorizing tai chi choreography.

The good news: "Many modern tai chi programs have been simplified to include only a small number of movements that can be done in an easy-to-learn, repetitive manner," explains Peter Wayne, faculty editor of the Harvard Special Health Report An Introduction to Tai Chi and director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

4. STAND-OUT DIFFERENCES

While tai chi and yoga have similar benefits, each has a particular effect that stands out in scientific studies. "Tai chi improves your balance, and that leads to a 20% to 60% reduction in falls. The exercise sharpens all of the skills you need to stay upright -- leg strength, flexibility, range of motion, reflexes, and awareness of bodily sensations and mental focus," Wayne says.

Yoga appears to reduce pain -- especially back, neck, and other musculoskeletal pain. This could be from the gradual stretching and strengthening of muscles that support the back (such as the paraspinal muscles that help you bend your spine and the multifidus muscles that stabilize your vertebrae). Yoga also may reduce pain by reducing mental stress: stress tends to increase the perception of pain.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Choosing between yoga and tai chi often comes down to personal preference and practical considerations. "Try them and see what you like," Wayne suggests. "You might enjoy flowing movement more than being still."

You can always let your abilities guide you. If you have memory challenges, you might want to try yoga first; if you have severe arthritis, tai chi might be an easier option than yoga.

But both types of exercises can be adapted for your ability, even if you have Parkinson's disease or other physically limiting conditions. And that makes the instructor an important consideration. "You want a teacher who will adapt protocols to ensure that they're safe and the appropriate level of challenge for you," Wayne says. "If you have a health condition, it can help to have an instructor who also has medical training, such as a nurse or physical therapist."