Aikido and Tai Chi are both considered soft martial arts in that strikes are met with a yielding defensive technique designed to absorb and redirect the energy of the attack. I’ve always been fascinated by both these traditional martial arts and I’ve looking into ‘Tai Chi vs Aikido: what are the key differences?’.
Let’s start by looking at history of both martial arts.
History of Aikido
Aikido was founded by the Japanese martial artist, Morihei Ueshiba (1883 – 1969).
He spent considerable time under the master Takeda Sōkaku, a practitioner of the martial art of Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, a style that largely consisted of throws and joint locks.
Ueshiba went on to establish the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo in 1926 and hundreds of students.
At the beginning, from the 1920s to the mid-1930s, Ueshiba taught Takeda’s Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu system.
Following a number of spiritual experiences, he modified his martial art teachings. Various techniques became softer and more gentle. Strikes to vital points and the use of various weapons were largely removed from the curriculum.
This new martial art was given the name Aikido in 1942.
It spread from Japan in 1951 with a trip to France by Minoru Mochizuki, a highly skilled Aikido student. Further trips to the USA, the UK, Italy, Germany and Australia followed.
Aikido has since spread around the world and remains a popular martial art.
History of Tai Chi
Tai Chi (T’ai Chi Ch’uan) has a rich and varied history, much of which is bound up with myth and legend. Separating fact and fiction, can be somewhat tricky.
We do know that Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art and was practised as early as 500 BC by followers of Taoist philosophy.
This philosophy emphasized the practice of improving one’s physical health in order to live longer.
Its modern form can be historically traced to Cheng Wang Ting as the originator of the Chen Tai Chi style in the 1600s.
Today, under the influence of the Chinese government, the various schools of Tai Chi have largely been unified and the forms standardized.
Tai Chi originated in China and has a much older history than the Japanese martial art of Aikido.
Martial Art Styles: Tai Chi vs Aikido
In terms of “hard” and “soft” fighting style, Aikido very much sits at the ‘soft’ end of the spectrum. Brute force is never met with brute force but rather, in an Aikido technique, the attacker’s energy and momentum is redirected and is used to initiate a counter attack. The opponent’s strength is used against them.
One of Aikido’s core concepts is the timing of defensive techniques to either blend or to neutralize an attack’s effectiveness and to use the force of the attacker’s movement against them.
Tori will frequently step into the attack before turning and redirecting the force of the movement. The opponent’s momentum is used against them. The attacking and counter-attacking movements flow together as can be seen in the following clip.
Aikido focusses on throws and joint locks and the following unarmed combat techniques:
- Knife Hand strikes
- Punches to the head and torso
- Wrist grabs
- Shoulder grabs
- Chest grabs
Of note, is the complete lack of kicks in this martial art.
Whilst Tai Chi may look like an ornate dance routine, it actually consists of a number of offensive attacking movements: kicks, punches, strikes. It also features defensive blocks, throws and leg sweeps, some of which are illustrated in the video below.
The philosophy behind the art is that hard attacks should be met with softness. Tai Chi’s blocks consist of flowing circular movements, similar to Wing Chun Kung Fu, designed to absorb the power of an oncoming strike.
Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, famously wrote “”The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong.”
This is very much the philosophy of Tai Chi which aims to keep Yin and Yang, softness and harness, in constant flux.
Tai Chi is known as a “soft” martial art, as opposed to a “hard” martial art like Taekwondo, where force is met with force and blocks are delivered with as much power as the attack.
Tai Chi’s patterns of movement (called forms) were developed to enable the individual to practice alone. The forms can also be taught to others allowing them to be passed down the generations.
Whilst there are trips and a few throws in Tai Chi, the focus is on punching and kicking techniques as can be seen in the video below.
Both Tai Chi and Aikido are “soft” martial art styles that focus on absorbing the energy of an attack and redirecting it. Where they differ is their focus: Aikido utilises throws and joint locks, whereas Tai Chi mainly consists of punches and kicks.
Philosophy of Tai Chi and Aikido
Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, was a follower of the Ōmoto-kyō religion (a neo-Shinto movement) which practiced the philosophy of extending love and compassion to others. Aikido principles are based on this belief system.
Ueshiba also had several spiritual experiences. These greatly influenced his martial art teachings. After the third such experience, he stated:
“The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Peace, the power of love”.
In Aikido, the aim is that not only is the defender left unharmed, but so is the attacker.
The name Aikido translates to mean “Way of one with the Universe” or “Way of love”.
There is also a spiritual aspect to Tai Chi.
Some Tai Chi students believe in Qi (Chi). This is the life force that flows through all living things and the Universe.
Within the human body, Qi flows through particular points in the body called meridians. When this flow is blocked or impeded then ill health could result. Tai Chi supposedly helps to maintain the flow of Qi through the body.
In addition, practicing the Tai Chi forms also acts as a form of moving meditation which combined with breathing techniques, results in a very relaxed and calm state of mind.
This still and tranquil state of mind relates to Tai Chi’s original fighting origins. In order to be victorious in combat, it was believed it was necessary to have a mind like still water; undisturbed by distractions or emotion. This allowed the fighter to be able to instantly react to their attacker.
Today, the combat element of Tai Chi has been largely forgotten. It’s mainly practiced for it’s mental and physical benefits. It’s a form of gentle exercise, helping with flexibility and lower body conditioning. Its slow movements and deep breathing techniques help to create a sense of mental wellbeing.
The practice of Aikido is very much about learning to extend compassion to others. In Tai Chi, the focus is more on the health benefits that the art brings.
The effectiveness of Tai Chi and Aikido
Tai Chi’s combat techniques have largely been forgotten by many of today’s schools. Many of its practitioners are simply performing the movements of the various forms without understanding their original purpose. Tai Chi has developed into a styalised art form than an effective martial art.
Very few schools practice the strikes and blocks that form part of the forms and patterns. It would be rarer still to find a Tai Chi class that practiced live sparring with an actual opponent.
It’s lack of combat application comes to light when you consider that there isn’t an MMA fighter that has incorporated Tai Chi into their training syllabus.
Of course, there are numerous Tai Chi masters who challenge the arts perceived combat ineffectiveness, usually by challenging MMA fighters. You can see the typical results in the video below:
Aikido does have an advantage over Tai Chi in that Aikido training is done with a partner.
However, what also becomes evident is the sheer number of wrist locks involved in the martial art.
If you’re attacked in the street, and the adrenaline’s pumping, the chances of being able to get a wrist lock on your opponent are slim to none.
When you have an adrenaline dump, your fine motor skills go out the window and your left only being able to perform large gross movements. Good luck being able to perform a wrist lock.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Aikido is that you’re always sparring with a compliant partner. If you watch any demonstration, the practitioners practically throw themselves at the slightest movement from their opponent. This is completely unrealistic.
The disturbing thing is that someone can spend years studying Aikido as a method of self defense and obtain a black belt with the false belief that they’d be able to defend themselves if attacked. I just hope they never experience a street confrontation otherwise they’re in a shock.
Look at the Aikido practice session below and see if you feel it would be effective in an actual attack. You may want to choose a different martial art.
Both Tai Chi and Aikido have strayed far from their original fighting roots. Tai Chi is now largely practised for ite health benefits, whereas Aikido is completely unrealistic and impractical in a real world confrontation.
Summary: Tai Chi vs Aikido
There are a number of key differences between these martial arts:
- Tai Chi originated in China and has a much older history than the Japanese martial art of Aikido.
- Aikido utilises throws and joint locks, whereas Tai Chi mainly consists of punches and kicks.
- The practice of Aikido is very much about learning to extend compassion to others. In Tai Chi, the focus is more on the health benefits that the art brings.
- Tai Chi is now largely practised for ite health benefits, whereas Aikido is focussed on self defense but in reality it is completely unrealistic and impractical in a real world confrontation.