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.

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