Saturday 31 July 2010

The spectrum of exercise

Just as it is important to have a balanced diet, it is also important to have a balanced exercise program. Ostensibly you will be given one of these if you pay for a personal trainer or enroll in a program at your local gym. Indeed this probably is balanced if done properly, but purely from the very limited perspective of muscle groups. Going to a gym will not give you the practical body conditioning to equip you for daily life. Nor will it give you the mental control needed to derive inner power, or what you might call confidence or happiness.

Body awareness is the name of the game, but how can you concentrate on your body if you're watching TV, listening to music, or attempting to impress that attractive stranger?

Meditation goes to the other extreme of focusing on mind control. Emotional stability and balanced and logical thoughts are obvious benefits of meditation, but neglecting the body will cause long-term problems. Indeed Taichi is said to have been invented when Bodhidharma saw how emaciated and weak the Buddhist meditators were at the Shaolin temple.

If you were to dedicate your life to any particular aspect of health and body awareness, it is indeed likely that the full plethra of benefits can be gained. The lifelong meditator can control his body to such a degree as to be able to exhibit wondrous feats of strength. The Olympic weightlifter knows that the difference between gold and nowhere, is all in the mind, and is able to achieve a singularity of focus and mental control.

Essentially therefore I hypothesis that any training can in time (and in principle) bring the benefits of all the other methods. However, each particular form of training is optimised so as to derive particular benefits first. Meditation gives you mental control first, and muscle control much later. Going to the gym makes you muscular first, and mental control much later. There is a spectrum (and a vast array of options) in between which goes something like: meditation, yoga, tai chi, kung fu, karate, weight training (obviously this spectrum is not precisely one-dimensional!).

Rather than start at one point in the spectrum, there is no reason not to start at multiple points for a truly balanced exercise program. Make sure to do some meditation, go to the gym once a week, go to a karate class etc. However, in order to allow all the benefits to feed in to one another and become greater than the sum of the parts (you don't want to be strong only at the gym, or be able to concentrate only during meditation), it is desirable to practice an activity that unifies all of these concepts.

In my opinion Taichi fills this unification objective. It requires concentration (moving meditation). It requires strength to hold postures. It requires stamina to perform for any length of time. It improves core stability. It can be competitive with push hands or competitions.

From my personal experience, I practised solely tai chi for four years. But it was only in the fifth year when I augment my daily practice with a weekly visit to the gym, a meditation class and a game of badminton that I began to experience a more profound understanding; and started to improve at the far rate faster rate than I had been before.

One must always remember that the tai chi classics were written hundreds of years ago, in a different age and a different culture. Had those past masters had access to weekly pilates classes and sophisticated muscle group isolation machines at the gym, perhaps their advocated training resumes would not have been so pure and dogmatic, and more in line with what I advocate.... Possibly.

Friday 30 July 2010

Tai chi for scientists

I have been studying Tai Chi for about 10 years now, and almost since the day I started I have been inspired to write a book on the subject. But you know how it is, getting started is the difficult bit, and so in a flash of inspiration I decided to start a blog in the meantime, which perhaps one day when I am old and wise, I will edit down into a book. To that end, I'm going to attempt to keep this blog reasonably focused and not post pictures of dogs covered in lipstick etc - let's see how restrained I manage to be....

I am both a Tai Chi practitioner and academically qualified scientist and professional engineer.  I am therefore interested in formalising my understanding of Tai Chi in a scientific manner and to carry out research into Tai Chi for personal development, in the language and manner with which I am most comfortable: scientific analysis. I do not really intend to discuss the intricacies of particular styles or postures, as I leave it to others far more qualified than I, to fulfil this role.

Secondly, I believe that embodied in Tai Chi is powerful, self consistent and valuable knowledge based on millennia of research that I wish to share with others. It seems to me that scientists (which I prefer to use as a term rather than "Westerners") are deprived of this knowledge as it is usually presented in a way that they generally consider unscientific, alternative or hippie.  I'm not looking to "prove" anything, but rather provide translation service between the two respective worlds. In other words to make the internal arts accessible to people who have a natural predisposition to scientific skepticism.

Now time for me to start coming up with some hypotheses! And by all means please challenge my assumptions and reasoning in proper peer review process :-)

Thursday 29 July 2010

Internal arts blogs out there

I've had a quick look around and found a few other interesting looking tai chi blogs out there (athough most seem to be dormant or only very occasionally updated). If anyone can recommend some other blogs for me to follow, I would be most grateful :-)