If your answer was “absolutely nothing,” you’d be correct. The short answer is that the Bible offers not a single word regarding tai chi, qigong, reiki, or any other chi-related practice.
There’s no explicit documentation of a Biblical character practicing tai chi, nor is there any clear commandment telling us that we should or should not practice it. Instead, like many modern topics, the answer to our question falls into a gray area.
So, for the long answer, keep reading.
But First, What Even is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi, also sometimes termed tai chi chuan, taiji, or taijiquan, is a Chinese martial art form. Within martial arts, tai chi is known as an internal form (as opposed to an external form). What this means is that tai chi is primarily focused on internal development–there’s an emphasis on spiritual qualities and vital energy, on awareness of the internal state of the mind as it shows up in the body, and on the health benefits that come from practice.
Your practice of tai chi will build on your mental discipline and focus, not so much on your brute strength. Where other martial arts forms may teach you directly how to defend yourself or even how to begin a physical attack, tai chi prioritizes internal sensitivity, awareness, and vitality. Nevertheless, there is a defensive application still to the forms. While tai chi is most well-known for its health benefits, the movements you learn all train the body to defend from physical attacks.
Most likely though, your interest in tai chi comes from a curiosity about energy-based traditional medicine, or a doctor’s suggestion for dealing with any number of chronic medical conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, loss of balance, or difficulty moving. And this is really where tai chi has taken off as a global phenomenon.
While tai chi has enjoyed a popular following in the West since at least the 1930s, in recent years, international organizations like the Tai Chi for Health Institute have created a network of certified instructors schooled in forms accredited and supported by numerous health organizations in the USA, Australia, and beyond.
Your introduction to tai chi may come from one of these instructors, through popular books and DVDs, or similar networks such as qigong practitioner Jeff Primack’s Supreme Science Qigong and Food Healing.
These schools of practice vary significantly in their approach to transmitting their teachings along a traditional lineage, or to preserving a traditional sense of what is even being taught. It’s important to recognize that this variance between schools and through schools over time is not necessarily an indicator of unfaithfulness to the original tradition. Rather, chi-related practices are part of a living tradition that is still growing and branching out including through the schools that transmit it to this day.
Where Could This Go Against Our Faith?
As with anything that is coming from outside an explicitly Bible-based culture, there’s a degree of caution that might be warranted here. We ought to be mindful that the features of what we would categorize as “religion” may not be shared by other cultures (and likewise, our conceptualization of what is free to take, modify, or derive profit from may be different).
What this means is that religion or other cultural values show up differently for different people. Sharing is great. In fact, on this particular subject, sharing has been ongoing for almost a full century now in modern times, and the possibility of a much longer timeline there exists as well. At the same time, our differences in cultural background could create offense when our chi-related practices are divorced entirely from their traditional Chinese roots, or when people being mindful of the spiritual practices they adopt unknowingly engage with practices connected to other metaphysical philosophies and religious systems at an uncomfortable level.
In over a decade of studying chi-related practices, I can’t think of a single time I’ve been asked to chant a foreign gawd’s name, to meditate on its image, or to conceptualize my body or creation in ways that I can’t recognize from the teachings of Torah. (With some forms of yoga, these are all much more present sites of potential concern).
I have, however, been challenged to perceive creation as something animated by a vital energy that moves in and through all of us, to recognize the value in a lineage of schools and teachers that made my practice of the discipline possible, and to open my heart to the possibility of the soft and subtle being deeply transformative and meaningful.
Your comfort level with any of those things will vary, as will the emphasis any specific teacher and school place on incorporating ideas from Taoism and Confucianism into their understanding of traditional Chinese medicine and chi.
So There’s No Direct Connection Between the Bible and Tai Chi, Right?
Again, directly, no–there’s no connection. But since you made it this far into the post, I’ll give you a few things to chew on as a treat.
First, there’s the really obvious one. Chi, or, alternatively, qi or ki is central to the metaphysics of tai chi, qigong, and reiki. It gets a lot of different translations depending on who is teaching you, but the central takeaway is that it’s the name for the intangible stuff that gives things life. It’s our vitality, our will to live and pushback against things seeking to rob us of it.
“Breath of life” is not out of bounds for a translation here. And in that sense, we might understand chi as literally G-d’s breath within us and within everything around us. These disciplines connect us back to the very foundational act of creation. They’re restorative and renewing to the body that way, returning us to awareness of that very initial relationship we share to G-d.
So…to describe all of that in Hebrew, we actually wouldn’t need to change much. Because we’re talking about chai. Even writing chai out in Hebrew script gets you about two-thirds of the pieces needed to depict qi.
Of course, that’s all a stretch. And so are the only Biblical stories I’ve ever heard tied to chi-related practices. In Genesis 24, Isaac is out in the field when his future wife, Rebekah is being led into their home to meet him. Some say he was meditating, others say he was praying or out walking. The exact translation of the Hebrew there is open for interpretation. So naturally I suppose, there’s a possibility that what is really recorded in scripture is some ancient Jewish form of tai chi being practiced.
And if you want to go out on that limb, review Genesis 25 when Abraham grants gifts to his other children, including perhaps mystical knowledge of creation, before sending them to the “Land of the East.”
The only direct connection we can really draw on here though is that G-d created the world, right? G-d created humanity. Our bodies, all they could ever become, our health–those are gifts in a sense that we have received from G-d.
The mindfulness of self, the awareness of the body and of our thoughts, and the patient practice of gentle exercise–all of which we cultivate in these chi-related practices–I can say with absolute certainty that those things care for and honor that gift we’ve been given.
Like so much of life, the Bible is a great resource to start with, but learning how to live aligned to the values it teaches us is something we’re all still figuring out. If something like tai chi is still confusing you spiritually, go back and start with your relationship to G-d. Let what you do or don’t do flow out from that.