Like Climbing a Mountain

What is the difference between styles?

We often get asked about the differences between different arts like Qi Gong and Tai Chi, different styles like Yang and Chen or even between internal (e.g. Tai Chi) and external (e.g. Karate) martial arts.

There is a lot of commonality between all of them. They all agree on similar fundamental principles since they all aim to do the same thing: maximize the effectiveness with which we use our body. Since we all fundamentally have the same physiology and live within the same laws of physics, the principles must have a lot of overlap.

There are also some obvious differences in terms of the focus areas and priorities we set in the different arts. Some arts put a lot of emphasis on speed and force, like Karate, Kung Fu or Boxing. Others try to use an opponent’s energy and turn it against him, like Aikido or Tai Chi. Some focus completely on the inner awareness and energy flows like Qi Gong, Yoga or meditation.

None of them is better than the other and all of them complement each other. We try to increase and improve energy and its flow in our classes, so we add energy-focused Qi Gong exercises in the beginning, before we focus more on the flow and movement of the Tai Chi forms.

Like climbing a mountain

My favorite way of thinking about this is to compare it with climbing a steep mountain. You can think of each different martial art as a different path to the summit.

There are many different trails to the top. Some are steeper and more direct, while others are gentler as they meander a little more. Some lead over rocky terrain while others cross the meadows. There is a right path for everyone.

The more different paths you take, the more different sides of the mountain you will experience. However, if you try out too many paths on the foothills and always flip between them, you will never reach any significant heights or get close to the summit.

Once you reach the summit, the view is the same. Everyone has the same experience, no matter the path they took.

That’s why it’s nonsense to talk about ‘the best martial art’. There is no such thing. There are only different heights a specific practitioner has reached. It’s all about the practitioner, not about the style.

Everyone who sticks to it until the top, enjoys the same breathtaking views. However you cannot describe the views in a meaningful way to others who haven’t taken the climb, since the work to get there is part of the reward and experience. A glass of water is better when you’re thirsty, a slice of bread tastes better when you’re hungry. Without the work for it, you miss the flavor.

Find your own path

You cannot do that early on or you will get lost, but eventually you need to find your own path. We all have the same physiology but we don’t have exactly the same body. We also don’t have the same way of thinking or experiencing the world. That’s how different styles emerge. That’s why practitioners will place different focus areas after a while and do things slightly different (if they don’t, then they just copy someone else’s approach without reflection).

Even for Uli and I, while we do the same Tai Chi, we learned the same arts on the way from the same teachers, we practice, explain and teach things slightly different. Uli is more focused on energy and imagination, while I often look closer to the martial arts roots and the body mechanics.

Like a beautiful vase, you can explain the colors and shapes or marvel at the static and balances. Or you can just focus on the smells of the flowers in the vase. The teacher shows one way of thinking about it, the student finds her own way through careful study over the years.

“If someone points to the moon – don’t just look at the finger.”

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