Almost everybody is familiar with Tai Chi (or T'ai Chi, T'ai Chi Ch'uan or even Taijiquan) but very few people know what it is and even fewer know what the Ki (Chi or Qi) exercises that we offer at the Zen Studies program are. They are very similar but there are some striking differences as well.
Why Ki and not T'ai Chi?
Both Ki and T'ai Chi focus on inner energies and use slow movements but the purposes for both are much different. T'ai Chi is a martial art, which means there is an emphasis on defensive skills and even some offensive skills. T'ai Chi has an entire part to it that is devoted to weapons. Ki is solely about the internal energies and connecting them to the external flow of energy - the Ki of the name. While there are some forms in Ki that you may recognize as being from a martial art (most notably Aikido and Kung Fu) they were adapted from the Ki to the martial art form and not the other way around. While T'ai Chi has only been recognizably in existence since the early 1800s, in the Ki form you will recognize yogic positions as it is considerably older, dating from around 200BCE to 500CE.
Why Ki and not Yoga?
Given that they are intricately wound together in origin, why would someone do Ki and not Yoga (or vice versa)? The answer comes from where the meditative practices of both their histories diverge. When Buddhism was developing, the purpose of meditation became very different from what was commonly practiced by the different traditions using yoga. In the Yogic tradition, the state of meditation of "no-thought" was the ultimate state to achieve and its end point. Buddhism developed around the belief that there was a state that came after - that of a "liberating cognition" where the purpose was not just to reach "no-thought" but then to have the liberating thought or to be in a state of sublime mindful awareness.
What is it like?
The Ki exercises are a form of moving meditation. If you have done yoga before the most striking element of the Ki is that it is performed in silence. The instructor gives a few minimal words of direction at the beginning (about focusing on balance and the feel of the wind against your palms) and then goes through the exercises without comment. The practitioner must engage in a mindful awareness of the instructor's movements in order to learn them. Attention to detail and focus is paramount. This is why a Ki session is often so relaxing for people. Even though you are engaged in 45 minutes of solid movement that will work your core and increase your balance through gentle posing, your mind is freed of your thoughts and replaced with concerns of detail, fluidity and balance. Many of the Ki forms are imitative of animal life and there are many motions that involve a redirecting of a physical sensation of energy. The exercise can be as physically challenging or as easy as you need it to be to match your level of fitness. Oh yes, and just to keep things interesting, it is based on the lunar cycle so every day the pattern of forms changes slightly so you never reach a point of being able to "call it in."