Tai chi and tae kwon do are at opposite ends of the martial arts spectrum: Tai chi largely has evolved into an exercise system which de-emphasizes its historical roots as a fighting technique in favor of developing balance and inner harmony. It retains, however, effective martial arts techniques hidden in its graceful movements. Tae kwon do, by contrast, continues to emphasize kicking and striking techniques. Both a sport and martial art, it has been codified to qualify as an Olympic event.
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Hard vs. Soft Martial Arts
Most traditional martial arts to varying degrees offer similar benefits such as improved fitness, confidence and stress reduction. Some, like tae kwon do, are considered hard, or external, martial arts emphasizing kicking and striking techniques.
Others such as tai chi are considered soft, or internal, systems because they emphasize redirecting an opponent's attack, the development of calming inner thought processes, and a kinship with the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism.
Tae Kwon Do
Tae kwon do is a popular external martial art that originated in Korea, and is now popular worldwide. The American Tae Kwon Do Association translates it as: "Tae," meaning to kick or jump; "Kwon," meaning fist or hand; and "Do," which means 'the way.'"
It is apparent from its translation that tae kwon do relies heavily on kicking and punching techniques, with emphasis on the former. Like all well-taught martial arts, tae kwon do should offer its students "a non-aggressive and ethical system of self-defense," in the view of the American Tae Kwon Do Association.
The Association acknowledges that its art is well-known for its variety of kicks, but adds that it "also emphasizes breaking power, such as splitting wood and bricks using only the bare hands and feet. Training involves a variety of techniques, to include punching, kicking, dodging, jumping, parrying and blocking. Taekwondo also focuses on sparring and learning formal patterns of movement called forms."
Tai Chi Chaun
Tai chi, the more internal martial art, is also known as tai chi chaun, taijiquan, taiji, t'ai chi ch'uan and t'ai chi. The "Taijiquan Journal" explains that the different styles of tai chi are named after their founders: Yang, Chen, Wu-Li-Hao, Sun, and Wu Jianquan.
Unlike tae kwon do, tai chi employs few jumping or flying kicks. Instead it emphasizes stability, according to the Standford University Wushu Club, with movements based in redirecting, deflecting and countering techniques.
The gently flowing, rhythmic, relaxed practice of the different forms of low-impact tai chi may provide significant health benefits including, improved sleep, balance, cardiovascular health and general feelings of contentment -- all without the harder aspects associated with a striking and kicking art such as tae kwon do.
In its most popular form today, tai chi is more of a noncompetitive exercise stressing balance, control, and flexibility than it is a combat-effective martial art.
Choosing Between Tai Chi and Tae Kwon Do
Choosing between tai chi and tae kwon do should be a simple matter. If you are interested in a nonaggressive form of exercise to increase your balance, reduce stress and engage in a moving meditation, then tai chi would be an excellent choice.
If, on the other hand, you are more interested in a aggressive martial art that emphasizes kicking and striking techniques along with the health benefits that vigorous workouts bring, then tae kwon do would be the best selection when limited to a choice between the two.