Out of Asia came two great traditions of health and metaphysics, Yoga from Hindu/Buddhist India and Qi Gong from Taoist China. Thanks to the British empire, the West has known about Yoga for at least a century and today most of us are quite familiar with it. But China remained more secretive until recent decades and the Taoist arts are still relatively unknown.
These two classical systems are each at least 4000 years old and probably had a common origin in the Himalayas, or perhaps the Indus valley. One could say they have common goals, i.e. promotion of physical health, the unification of the individual into a seamless integrated whole, and ultimately unification with the earth and Cosmos. Both systems begin with physical movements and static postures which do not share a lot in common but both do set the stage for unifying the energy. Energetically, the methodologies diverge further despite several commonalities.
The physical exercises of Yoga are comprised of numerous static postures and some transitional movements in between. Sometimes the postures are not held very long so you have routines that resemble Tai Chi, a relative of Chi Gung. In contrast, the Chinese systems have relatively few static postures but thousands of moving exercises. Some of these occur in sets with each one being repeated 10-20 times, and others stand alone and are meant to be repeated in a continuous cycle for as long as an hour. Each one has basic parameters into which many layers can be added, thus increasing their complexity and efficacy exponentially.
Energetically speaking, in Yoga the primary tool for unifying the diverse and often chaotic human energies is the breath. “Prana” may be translated as breath, energy, or chi. “Pranayama” means to discipline and increase the breath/chi. In Chi Gung the main tool is the mind which directly controls the chi, and the breath is seen as an indirect method which may or may not be used. So for example, a person who required an iron lung to breathe but still had an intact mind could still do energy practices.
The breathing practices themselves also differ. Chi Gung breathing is slow, quiet and continuous with no holding since that tends to lock down emotions. Yoga recognizes this and reserves breath holding for more advanced students. There are also staccato like, yang, ‘breaths of fire’ that do not exist in the yin, water methods of Chi Gung. And, in filling the torso capacity many yogic breaths expand and lift the chest whereas Taoists expand the abdomen, midriffs and back leaving the sternum stationary. The emphasis is downward into body and earth vs. upward into the mind and heavens.
When it comes to meditation, this directionality reflects a philosophical difference of staying grounded in the physical world vs. traveling unattached in the karmic and psychic realms. Kundalini progresses in an upward direction whereas Taoist meditation proceeds downward. A few yoga practitioners are willing to sacrifice physical health through long periods of meditation without food or sleep. Taoists consider a healthy body to be a prerequisite for withstanding the rigors of meditation. Interestingly, a Buddhist Chi Gung was developed at the Shaolin temple in China c. 500 AD specifically for meditators; it’s emphasis is on the acupuncture meridians which govern the physical body. Here, the separate traditions of India and China found a common ground.