Tuesday 27 December 2011

In the beginning...

Tickled my fancy :-)

Wednesday 21 December 2011

BHR-3 - Another tai chi robot

Yet another humanoid robot using tai chi to showcase its anatomical abilities. Clearly the developers of these robots are looking to show them off as best as possible, and so it is interesting that they choose tai chi to demonstrate their mobile prowess.

I wonder if this is because of people's natural ability to recognise "gracefulness"? After all, it is quite hard to pin down what makes one person's tai chi good or not, as it is all about recognising the subtlety and  coordination. For people who don't do tai chi, this is all done at a subconscious level and our training in the art is trying to move this recognition from subconscious to conscious to be able to manifest it in ourselves.

Some other links to BHR-3 information:



Friday 2 December 2011

Sunday 30 October 2011

Good vs Evil Ninja

The difference between hard and soft styles :-) Courtesy of Commissioned Comic.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Controlled falling the robotic way

When teaching beginners to move in Tai chi, one of the first exercises to do is tai chi walking. This is where each step is taken by first place the foot and then transferring the weight, so that any time you can stop or reverse the action. This is different to normal walking which is called "controlled falling". This controlled falling type of motion is perfectly embodied by this new robotic walker, that can walk for up to 13 hours without any motors or active control!

The energy efficiency of controlled falling is exactly why we normally use it in daily life. However in tai chi terms, what you sacrifice is stability i.e. it would be very easy to trip this robot up. Robots are therefore evolving from a more stable "tai chi" like way of moving, into a more dynamically unstable "normal" way of moving. Ironic then that as humans we're trying to move the other way. Could it be that robots are just naturally better at tai chi*?

* Probably not :-)

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Embrace science to set the chi free

For over a decade I struggled with chi. I wanted to believe it existed, but I knew scientifically that it could not. This dilemma vexed me, as I believe it currently vexes an extremely large number of scientifically minded (i.e. most Westerners) internal art practitioners worldwide. Perhaps ignorance is bliss, so if you believe in chi I say good luck to you, but just like religion, you can not make someone believe through rational argument.

The fact that I didn't believe in chi always made me feel guilty, I worried about it and tried to believe (honestly I did) out of respect for my teachers and my teacher's teachers. Fortunately, I feel I have resolved this dichotomy and internal conflict through my musings, and writings, which is a frankly a great weight off my mind. What makes me so happy is that what I have come up with both respects the traditional teaching and at the same time embraces science. It is a definition that I think is beautiful. But more than beautiful, beautiful in the way Richard Freynman means it (video):

What really opens the door to this way of thinking is the appreciation that consciousness, intelligence and mind are but the tip of the iceberg (just as neuroscience teaches us). The human body is made up of billions of neurons and nerves, each one of which is effectively a tiny sensor acting on the environment around us and also inside us. As we go up the consciousness hierarchy these sensors are grouped together into things we ordinarily call sensations, feelings, emotions, instincts, intuition and awareness. It is impossible to be able to process every neuron at the conscious level, we have to accept the emergent nature of ourselves and try to listen to our body, our feelings and our emotions. The philosophy of Enlightenment if you will (swapping my Westerner dictionary for my Eastern one for a moment).

That bottom-up way of thinking is complemented by the top down view. How does one command the body? Just as we cannot perceive an individual neuron, neither can we consciously command it. The body does not understand logic, language or conceptualisation. We can not talk to the body using syntax and grammar. We talk to the body using visualisation and feelings. If you imagine yourself performing an action, you will get better performing it. If you imagine yourself being happy, you will become happier. This visualisation and concentration is a core part of traditional meditation and tai chi teaching and in the latter is called yi/shen (translated as "mind intent").

So back to chi

Chi is not energy. A fact that I think should be almost indisputable. [Before anyone of a traditional background objects, please note  it is not for me to prove that it doesn't, it is for you to prove that it does. After all, if I claim that pigs can fly, the onus is not on you to prove that they don't, but on me to prove that they do. In the centuries that chi as a concept has existed, no experiment has yet been devised to prove its existence, a fact which I think speaks for itself.]

Chi is not energy, but do not despair traditional reader, I am not dismissing it out of hand like some arrogant philistine. Chi is an incredibly sophisticated visualisation framework (in the top down sense). It also does indeed feel like there is an "energy" inside you if you truly listen to your body and practice hard (bottom up sense). The crucial distinction is that there is a difference between what something feels like, and what is actually there. In scientific terms, chi is not energy, but in practical terms if you actually start paying attention to your body it feels as if it is.
This is a beautiful realisation (at least to me). What it means is that the full body of literature and teachings on controlling and directing chi is valid and useful, as it directly corresponds to how things feel. It is not wrong, and I can look my teachers in the eye again, as it is just a way of describing a feeling or emotion, like any other. At the same time, although the model is entirely valid and extremely useful, it is subjective, and so there is no need for chi to actually be energy in reality, and science breaths a sign of relief. Let me draw an analogy here - consider love:

Q: Can I devise a scientific experiment to measure “love energy” directly?
A: No.
Q: Is love a way of describing an internal subjective sensation using a common language to exchange ideas and thoughts about feelings and emotions?
A: Yes.
Q: Does love actually exist?
A: No.
Q: Do I feel like it does, so it doesn’t matter anyway?
A: Yes.
So there it is, when you deal with other people, the better the interaction is, the more love you feel. Perhaps a better word for love is the Buddhist concept of metta (i.e. loving kindness), along with it's allegory, hate. The better your interaction is with yourself, the more chi you feel, and of course it's allegory is pain. Chi is not energy - it is an emotion, a feeling, a sensation - a realisation that rather than invalidating it, emancipates it. After all emotions may not exist in a pure physical sense, but they certainly have real world effects. Love is about society and relationships. Chi is about internal physiology and well-being. Love and chi are in a sense the same thing but in different contexts. It cannot be a coincidence that they both originate in the gut.

Friday 30 September 2011

The chi thought experiment

I thought I would share my little thought experiment to explain why I believe that chi is efficiency and not energy. To do this I'm going to use my robotics framework, and the scientific mechanism of describing a simplified model of the real world in order to aid understanding. So, consider this little diagram below:

This picture represents a 2D model of Tai Chi, and chi. What we have is a little robot (as an approximation to a human) standing on the ground and pushing against a spring. This robot has four different joints connected together by linkages, and the question is how much force can this little robot issue into the spring? We also assume that this that there is infinite friction between the robot's "foot" and the ground, to remove any complications to do with grip (or rooting).

In this diagram I also represents the concept of total (scientific) energy available, as the big bucket filled with water. Humans have only a finite amount of chemical energy available to them that they can transform into muscular force. This is the classical scientific view of energy, which can transform stored chemical energy (glucose) into a force on the spring (pressure). To model this transformation, connected to this bucket are a series of hosepipes and taps that go to each of the joints, so that the joints of the robot are controlled by hydraulics. The question now is how do I distribute the total amount of hydraulic pressure available across the different joints in order to achieve the maximum force into the spring? This can be solved mathematically (which I leave as an exercise for the reader :-). Intuitively however it is likely that the optimal structure is, an arrangement whereby the linkages of the robot form a classic arch, just as has been used for thousands of years in civil engineering.

To my mind therefore doing Tai Chi is akin to solving this problem. If we can distribute our available glucose energy throughout the joints of the body optimally, that will be the maximum force we can issue. How much chi we have therefore is equivalent to how optimally we transfer force across the joints of the body. This is commonly referred to as maintaining "your structure", "correct body alignment" and "whole body coordination". The better we are at utilising every possible joint and muscle, the more effective we will be at issuing force. Chi is therefore a measure of how efficient and effective we are at solving this complex optimisation problem instinctively. No one actually solves a complex optimisation problem mathematically in real-time of course, what we do is use the feelings and sensations from within our own body to "just do it". In Chinese parlance we call these sensations "feeling that chi".

The alternative, and in fact mainstream, view of chi, is that it is a mystical energy force which I represent in the following diagram:

This diagram assumes that there is an additional chi energy that we can use to add force to the spring. This chi energy does not conform to the most fundamental physical laws in science: the conservation of energy. If it did, it would go into the original bucket. I do not believe this can possibly be true, as this would represent the most profound and fundamental revolution of our entire scientific knowledge base. Amazing claims require amazing proof, and there is no amazing proof. Frankly there isn't even any weak and feeble proof. Unfortunately however it is impossible to prove a negative, so you cannot prove that the second model is incorrect, but I defer to Occam's Razor :-)

I do believe that the concept of "chi" is useful. It is a powerful way to visualise how things feel inside the body. All we have are feelings and it is perfectly valid to feel as if chi is flowing, even if it doesn't exist. After all, we are happy to visualise things like "extending our roots into the ground like a tree", but no one in their right mind would claim that we actually have roots, and understand it is just a metaphor. Chi is an incredibly powerful visualisation metaphor, and mastering these feelings of chi is fundamental to achieving mastery of the internal arts. It is of course important to realise that there is a distinction between how things feel and how things are. Chi is not energy it is a feeling.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Chi is not energy

Humans can't transmit energy like this
What is chi? This is a fundamental question of the internal arts. To my mind is it also the root cause of why Westerners are sceptical of practices such as yoga and tai chi. Internal arts teachers rabbit (or should that be parrot) on about chi being energy (as they were instructed), but chi is not energy and I will explain why.

Energy, in scientific parlance, is a specific property of the universe that can never be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. This conservation of energy law is fundamental to all science and cannot be credibly disputed. Energy can be stored in many forms, from electricity, to heat, to momentum and so on. For example, electromagnetic energy (sunlight), can be converted to chemical energy by plants, plants can be processed to create oil ("bio-diesel"), which could then be converted by an engine into kinetic energy (motion), and so on and so on - an endless chain of energy conversion. The question is can I change any form of scientific energy into chi, and back again? Can I put chi into an energy chain as I have just done in that example? I believe the answer to this is no, and therefore chi is not energy. Until someone can devise an experiment which proves otherwise, and thousands of people have tried to do so for decades without success, that will remain my position.

However, it's easy to be negative and disagree with something, it is of course more difficult to be constructive, and so here is my explanation for what chi is.

Chi is efficiency.

Although energy can always be converted from one form to another, in practice what happens is that when it is converted, it changes not into another single form, but into many different forms simultaneously. So for example when I convert electricity to light in a lightbulb, I also generate heat. As a whole the energy of the system is still conserved, but I have only managed to convert (say) 50% of my electrical energy into light energy, which is really what I'm trying to achieve. This percentage is normally called the efficiency (of the lightbulb). If a new form of lightbulb comes along that allows me to convert 80% of my electrical energy into light energy, that new bulb is more efficient than the first one. Chi is better thought of as being an analogy to this efficiency, rather than the energy itself. These new lightbulbs will give off more (light) energy for the same amount of electrical energy input, but it does not inherently have more energy itself, it is just more efficient. This is excatly what chi is, a property of the system, not a physical quantity. So if you "cultivate chi", you do not have more energy, you just become more efficient at using the energy you do have, and so you appear (even to yourself) more energetic.

So to express this in more internal arts like terms, imagine trying to block/deflect a punch. If a Tai Chi Master does this ("who has cultivated a lot of chi"), they will be able to block the punch with minimal effort. They can do it with minimal effort, and hence use only a tiny amount of energy, because the master is extremely efficient at coordinating his body. However, if the novice tries to block the punch, he will find it much more difficult and will use a lot of energy to defend himself. The novice is not very efficient at using his body, or to phrase it another way he lacks chi.

The significance of what I'm saying is that in practical terms nothing changes. In our classes we can still "cultivate chi" (or "enhance efficiency"), and train in the same way we've been doing for centuries. Internally within our own bodies it feels as if we do have more energy (just as our new lightbulb will shine more brightly) and so we get that glow and feeling of health. However by reinterpreting chi as efficiency rather than energy, the concept of chi is no longer at odds with Western science. There is no longer any discrepancy between Western science and Chinese medicine. The major obstacle of scepticism has been removed.

To see this in practise consider that tai chi is about coordinating the body in an efficient manner. The more efficient you are, the more you will be able to perform with your current level of strength. Or alternatively, you will be able to do everything you do now, but without using so much energy. Of course it is not just about muscle strength, but also about the way the internal organs work together and the whole array of complex interactions, all of which can of course be made more efficient. As you train more and more, the tai chi principles will start to become subconscious and will carry through to your daily life. You will feel full of beans, less tired and all those other great things that tai chi brings, not because you have "increased your chi energy", but because you have increased your efficiency and are able to do more with less.

The bicep and tricep working as a pair
Fundamental to tai chi training is relaxing the body, another principle that is easy to relate to the efficiency interpretation of chi. In order to move around we use muscle strength. Muscles work in pairs, for example you tense your bicep (and relax your tricep) to bend your elbow, and you tense your tricep (and relax your bicep) to straighten it again. Your bicep and tricep operate as a pair (in simple terms). It is however difficult to fully relax muscles. If I could totally turn off my tricep (i.e use 0% of its strength), I would only need a tiny amount of my bicep strength to bend my elbow (i.e. 1% of its strength). That would be very efficient indeed and achieved through relaxation.

If however I cannot fully turn off my tricep and it uses 5% of its strength say, in order to be able to bend my elbow I have to overcome the strength and use 6% of my bicep strength. I have wasted a lot of energy to achieve the same effect. The more I am able to relax my body therefore, the more efficiently I can operate and the more I can "feel the chi".

I fully believe that chi is all about the sensations within your own body. It is like the opposite sensation to pain. If I feel pain it means something is going wrong. If I feel chi it means something is going right, it means my body is working at peak efficiency.

Friday 16 September 2011

Processing at a subconscious level

Those of us to work with computers know that software is slow and hardware is fast. If you want your program to run quickly you have to implement it in hardware. Of course the downside from the engineering perspective is that it costs an awful lot more money and time to create a purpose-built dedicated hardware platform, than to code a piece of software to do the same thing on a standard PC.

I see this as a perfect analogy for internal arts. If you want to do something consciously (software) it is slow and awkward but it can be done. However if you can do something subconsciously (hardware) it can be exceptionally fast, natural and effortless. And similarly to the computer, training yourself to do something consciously is relatively easy, but training yourself to be able to do something subconsciously requires a great deal of time, dedication and practice.

What better video to demonstrate the power of being able to do subconscious processing than this modern-day Samurai Master? (but of course bear in mind my "TV is not evidence" rant from before! :-)

Sunday 4 September 2011

Developing tai chi mathematics

I believe that tai chi is a self-consistent and multi-layered system. By which I mean there are some fundamental building blocks which form a set of non-contradictory principles. These building blocks can be combined together to produce higher level layers which in turn have their own properties. These higher-level layers can then themselves be recombined into even higher layers.

To give an analogy from science, let us consider the structure of matter. A physical higher-level object, like a car, can be broken down into components such as wheels, glass, foam padding etc. These materials are made up of molecules (and crystals), which are themselves made up of atoms. Atoms are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons, and these are themselves made up of quarks. And I will stop there. Another object, say a tree, can similarly be broken down, but it is still made up of the same atoms and quarks, just in different quantities and arrangements.

Tai chi is slightly different to the above as it is a system of movement, a process, and hence it is not physical. So we could have a tai chi form, which would break down into a series of movements (or postures, although to my mind the word posture lacks the necessary connotations of dynamics) e.g. 'Single whip' or 'Cloud hands'. These movements are themselves built up from a number of characteristics, which in Chinese theory are called the eight methods: Peng (ward off), Lu (diversity), Ji (squeezing), An (pushing down), Cai (plucking), Lie (splitting), Zhou (elbowing), and Kao (bumping). Finally these eight methods are all themselves made up from yin and yang. This is Chinese yin yang theory as it applies to tai chi.

Discovering the layering

The multilayered aspects of tai chi are self-evident to me. The more I practice, the more I "discover" the lower layers and the connections. When doing a movement X, I will suddenly noticed that a part of it is fundamentally the same as another movement Y. In other words, I have suddenly realised that both movement X and Y have a common building block. These small epiphanies are enlightening, and I try to teach students using a similar approach, "...this bit of movement X is just like the bit we did before in movement Y...".

Learning tai chi is the process of trying to understand these connections, and normally happens via mini epiphanies, either when your teacher tells you/corrects you, or more powerfully, when you notice for yourself. If you train hard, once in a blue moon you will have a major epiphany. These cannot be learnt, they must be discovered. Your teacher told you for years to "drop your weight as if you're sitting on a chair", and you feel that you are, but one day, you suddenly GET IT and you understand the meaning (at least at the next layer down). You yourself might try to explain it, but are reduced to saying things like "drop your weight as if you're sitting on a chair", as that was really all there was to it.

Indeed, this layering, and its connections are really what people who practice tai chi are trying to discover. It is why generally in advanced classes we can often find ourselves standing for prolonged periods, or working on the foundation exercises just as total beginners do. That is contrary to popular perception that in advanced classes students jump around all over the place doing incredibly exotic and complicated movements. That is because in advanced classes although externally we are doing the same movements as beginners, what advanced practitioners are training and trying to understand, is at a deeper layer.

An advanced student is really one who knows depth rather than breadth. This is fundamental tai chi training philosophy. Someone who can do one movement perfectly (e.g. standing) can do the entire form perfectly. Why? Because if you understand the deepest level then you understand the building blocks, and which order you put them in is trivial.

Mapping the layers

Although I use the Chinese yin yang theory, in some ways I find it unsatisfying. Perhaps this is because I have yet to reach that layer, but perhaps not. I find it unsatisfying, because it does not meet the requirements that I set out for myself in my robotics thought experiment framework. Could I program a robot to do tai chi using yin yang theory? I doubt it, and the reason this matters (to quote myself) is because:
"It is often said that you only really understand the limitations of your own knowledge when you try to teach someone else. By extension therefore if we take the ultimate "dumb" person, a robot, and metaphorically try to teach it tai chi, we are in fact deepening our own understanding."
Therefore, if I cannot teach a a robot (who is anatomically identical to human) to do tai chi, that is a failure of my own understanding, or perhaps even the collective understanding.

What I'm looking for therefore is to define and understand the mathematics of these connections. To be able to write them down as formulas, as tables, as processes, as science (something my robot will understand). To return to my structure of matter analogy before, in mediaeval times we had theories of matter, but it was only when the structure of the atom was discovered and matter could be understood in a systematic manner (e.g. the periodic table), that a revolution in understanding took place. The periodic table ushered in this revolution of understanding, because it was able to make testable predictions and identify previously unknown elements. It now provides a structure and a framework to enable discoveries to be made on a daily basis in chemistry, physics and material science that we all rely on every day.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could achieve a similar thing in tai chi? After all it would be arrogant to assume that everything we (collectively) know now is all there is to know. Searching for a systematic science of tai chi is therefore not a Westerner snubbing Chinese theory, but a researcher searching for a breakthrough. If you could unify the eastern and western sciences of our bodies I think we can all agree that would be the foundation of a healthcare and lifestyle revolution.

So to come back down to earth again, what I'm looking for, as a step on the journey, is a way to codify tai chi so that it can be manipulated and reasoned about logically. We need to put a "tai chi mathematics" in place before we can begin to apply it as a science.

Tai Chi Mathematics

As with all science, it's best to "stand on the shoulders of giants" if at all possible, so the question is whether there is anything already out there which might be applicable? My initial thoughts on the subject were to look at dance choreography. Is there a system that is used to score a dance routine in a similar way to which you might score a piece of music? It turns out that there is (but how widely used it is I'm not sure) and it is called Laban Movement Analysis (LMA).

The LMA syntax is a language for interpreting, describing, visualizing and notating all ways of human movement. At the top level, Labour described movement using four different categories: body, effort, shape, and space. What I initially find very promising is that the effort category which "is a system for understanding the more subtle characteristics about the way a movement is done with respect to inner intention". Tai chi principles dictates that movement should follow intention, and so having the ability to represent this already built into core system gives me some reassurance that LMA will indeed be suitable.

It seems that this technique has yet to be widely applied to tai chi, however I have found a website called movement psychology that has a long description about the linkages between the two. There is a lot to process here and so I will take my time. Although I cannot find any specific conclusions, it appears to be an excellent start to the process of codify tai chi systematically. The next step now then is to try to characterise a very simple movement sequence and see what it looks like... watch this space!

Thursday 1 September 2011

TV is not evidence

A while ago I had a friendly email exchange with a fellow tai chi blogger (I will not specifically name them, as I respect what they write, and wouldn't like this post to be interpreted as a criticism). The gist of the conversation was:
ME:  "...I certainly agree that there is much that is unexplained in this world. If you could point me towards some physical phenomena that are unexplainable, I would be most interested!"
THEM:  "How about this for "conventionally unexplainable" :)". [What they were referring to was this video]
Whether or not this video was sent as a joke in this particular instance, I don't know, but either way I have encountered numerous people who consider things such as this "evidence". This is most certainly NOT evidence or conventionally unexplainable, and I will explain why below. In my opinion, in the wider perspective, people quoting things like this as evidence gives the internal arts a bad name. If you quote things as fact that are not fact, it has the opposite effect and actually alienates people who are technically or scientifically minded like myself. This video squarely falls into my "hippie babel" category.

Ok, so let's get specific. What's wrong with this video?
  1. First of all, this is a TV show. It's whole raison d'être is to provide sensationalism and to dress up the mundane as exciting. As a TV show it has absolutely no requirement to tell the truth or to adhere to facts. Moreover, TV is based upon lying and manipulation with things such as trick photography and re-editing footage commonplace. Simply, you cannot believe anything they say.
  2. Next 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 Celsius) isn't actually that hot. I would speculate that it is possible to generate such heats with friction alone without invoking "chi". Indeed, we see in the video the chi gung master rubbing his hands firmly together frequently.
  3. Increasing pressure also generates heat, and again we see the master squeezing the towel repeatedly.
  4. If you look at the heat pattern from the IR camera, it is clear that the hottest part of his hands are where he has been holding the towel. Could it be that it is the towel that is in fact hot? Where does this towel come from? Who knows, just off camera he could have a big bowl of hot water that he keeps dipping it in?
  5. They have testimonials in here from doctors. So what? Testimonials are not evidence.
  6. Heat therapy and gentle massage of the body to alleviate (not cure mind you) arthritis pain? What's unconventional about that?
  7. What would be more compelling to me (but remember my TV caveat), would be a continuous shot of his hands through the IR camera. Why not show his stationary hands in plain view (not doing any therapy) starting at normal body temperature and rising (to 200 degrees) as he directs his energy? That would be more convincing about his ability to control his energy.
  8. The walking on paper bit is a complete non-sequitur and not even nearly unexplainable. This has been performed for thousands of years, in its more standard guise of "the bed of nails".
I think I'll stop there. For this to count as evidence, it must be beyond reasonable doubt, and without alternative explanations. The point I'm trying to make in the above statements is that this video contains only doubt and so there are a huge number of alternative explanations. Hence, it can not be considered as evidence or even in anyway convincing.

All this is not to say that I don't believe that this guy is a great chi gung master, I'm sure he is. Moreover, I'm sure his therapies do work. What I'm criticising here is the fact that this is "conventionally unexplainable", it is not. What we need to be able to reliably quote something as evidence is either peer reviewed publications or double-blind trials. Hearsay and testimonials are just marketing and PR.

I'm sure this master has genuinely helped many people, and I myself would probably go to him if I had the opportunity and need. The point is, there is a difference between belief and science. Belief is easy, science is difficult. People who claim there is science or evidence need to be careful, because it is a double-edged sword. If you can provide evidence and scientific research there is no more powerful argument, however, if it turns out not to be true, not only do you undermine your particular argument but you damage your entire reputation and credibility.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Further thoughts on Tai chi for Kinect

Tai Chi on Fitness-Evolved supposedly tracks
over 1 million points of your body
I've been delving a bit deeper into Microsoft Xbox Kinect's Tai Chi system that I talked about before.The interactivity of the system is really what inspires me, but I realise now that it also has a hidden benefit: visual feedback. What is powerful about the system is that it shows a digital representation of your own position on the screen in real time. This is placed right next to your "instructor" so you can immediately spot the difference and make the corrections both consciously and subconsciously. In my time training in tai chi, I have found that that there are significant advantages to either watching yourself in a mirror, or videoing yourself and watching it back. After all, in tai chi we are trying to rewire our properception, and unfortunately what the brain tells you is not always correct. You may think that you are standing upright, and feel like you are, but look at yourself in the mirror/video and you suddenly realise you are leaning over to one side. These video analysis techniques are widely used in professional sport coaching - and of course, top sportsmen only do things if they are worthwhile! The kinect system allows you to do this in real time, which I think is great. Indeed, this review by FindingSanctuary highlights this as one of its key positives:
"When you’re playing Fitness-Evolved it actually projects you into the game! You see yourself stood next to a virtual instructor. What’s more amazing is that as you follow the instructor through the movements Kinect tracks you’re movements and offers advice."
As that review discusses, whether or not it's good at teaching you tai chi, is almost secondary. What this system is doing is popularising tai chi, and inspiring people, who might not otherwise do so, to "have a go". This game is not designed for a serious practitioner, (and indeed looking at these videos of the exercises, it seems that it is really chi gung rather than tai chi), but that is to miss the point. If these 15 minute xbox kinect tai chi workouts help to relax some people, then that is a benefit in itself. Tai chi snobs may turn their noses up, but really it is a way of demystifying these internal arts, and bringing it to the (western) masses. Hopefully some of these people will then go on to join classes and of course the more people who want to practice tai chi the better!

Another fascinating article I found over at the well respected wired.com, was about the research potential of tai chi and kinect. I have previously talked about how mood can be affected by posture, which is where a lot of the relaxing benefits of tai chi come from. The wired article extrapolates on this principle, to show how kinect systems, which encourage you to adopt certain postures, can in turn affect your mood. Essentially you can design games that subconsciously make you feel different ways. Fascinating. What's more, is that this has potential to be used in scientific research, as I can explain by outlining a little scenario:
Researchers could design two different chi gung/tai chi/yoga workout programs to be performed using the kinect system. Volunteers could carry out the exercises daily for a period of weeks with the data recorded. You could also ask the volunteers a series of psychometric questionnaires throughout the trial. At the end of the trial what you would then have would be data on how people's emotions and moods were affected. You would also have data on how well/accurately the volunteers performed the tai chi moves. It would then be possible to compare the two groups of volunteers who each did different exercise routines to determine which one was better/worse.  
Serious chi gung practitioners will say that each of the different exercises is connected to a different meridian/element in Chinese theory and can help to balance and strengthen the associated aspects (including emotions) of that meridian/element. The kinect experiment I outline above, would provide empirical data on how different chi gung moves affected emotions to test these assertions. I would hope such testing would be welcomed by the chi gung community.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Tai classes

Well, finally my sister website for my tai chi classes in Winchester goes live! If you live in Hampshire, UK and fancy learning some traditional Chen style - drop me a line :-)

The new round of beginners classes starts in Winchester on Wednesday 5th October, with a free taster session.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Posture causes mood: Evidence

Posture affects your mood, and your mood affects your posture. Or to put it another way your body affects your mind and your mind affects your body. As I talked about before, this feedback relationship is fundamental to tai chi, and now I can point out some decent research to back that up (and another write up here).

Published in the Psychological Science, Cuddy and coauthors Dana R. Carney and Andy J. Yap performed this experiment:
"Subjects in the high-power group were manipulated into two expansive poses for one minute each: first, the classic feet on desk, hands behind head; then, standing and leaning on one's hands over a desk. Those in the low-power group were posed for the time period in two restrictive poses: sitting in a chair with arms held close and hands folded, and standing with arms and legs crossed tightly. Saliva samples taken before and after the posing measured testosterone and cortisol levels. To evaluate risk tolerance, participants were given $2 and told they could roll a die for even odds of winning $4. Finally, participants were asked to indicate how 'powerful"' and 'in charge' they felt on a scale from one to four."
The results indicated:
Controlling for subjects' baseline levels of both hormones, Cuddy and her coauthors found that high-power poses decreased cortisol by about 25 percent and increased testosterone by about 19 percent for both men and women. In contrast, low-power poses increased cortisol about 17 percent and decreased testosterone about 10 percent.
Not surprisingly, high-power posers of both sexes also reported greater feelings of being powerful and in charge. In addition, those in the high-power group were more likely to take the risk of gambling their $2; 86 percent rolled the die in the high-power group as opposed to 60 percent of the low-power posers.
Previous research established that situational role changes can cause shifts in hormone levels. In primate groups, for example, after an alpha male dies the testosterone levels of the animal replacing him go up. The hormonal shifts measured in this experiment show that such changes can be influenced independent of role, situation, or any consciously focused thoughts about power. The physical poses are enough.
As this much more detailed article underlines, the implications are simply that if you want to affect your mood, it is sufficient to change your posture. Or simply "fake it until you make it". So to extrapolate into tai chi terms, if you relax your body your mind will follow.

Monday 15 August 2011

Globalisation and the 'Internal Alchemy' in Chinese Martial Arts: The Transmission of Taijiquan to Britain

Great extended journal article on the history of Tai Chi and it's introduction to the UK. I will only quote the last section of the conclusion, but I recommend reading the whole article.

"The West has made its mark on taijiquan, adapting it to suit its priorities and purposes: therapeutic, martial, scientific and spiritual; but China has also responded by reasserting control. The globalisation of taijiquan can be understood as an illustration of the process of 'Easternisation of the West' (Campbell 1999). It demonstrates the pragmatic outcomes, at individual and interpersonal levels, of ongoing Western interest in Asian martial and meditative practices for their spiritual, therapeutic and self-defence benefits. This appeal is not simply 'aesthetic' or 'ideological'; concerns with practical efficacy have driven this process as part of the move towards effective self-directed healthcare. One of the most interesting arenas for future intercultural exchange around taijiquan will be scientific due to shifts in the twentieth century towards enhanced (and demonstrable) efficacy in health and medicine. The scientific literature for taijiquan has expanded rapidly since the 1990s, touched by agendas in both 'evidence-based' and 'alternative' medical practice and the need to address systemic problems and challenges in autoimmune and chronic illness in preventative medicine and public health. One of the most interesting and well-researched forthcoming publications on taijiquan from the practitioner community (Docherty 2009) explores the technical expressions of its proposed roots in both neidan 'internal alchemy' practice and the type of boxing technique evidenced in the Classic of Boxing (Quan Jing) text on military practices compiled by sixteenth century General Qi Jiguang (1528-1587). Whilst the documented effects of globalisation include both widening health inequalities and rising social violence, the scientific gaze appears less focused on investigating the use of Asian martial arts to manage violence. Understanding the dynamics of efficacy and appeal will depend on the ways in which control of global taijiquan, culturally and scientifically, practically and conceptually, is negotiated in future decades. The British case will be an interesting indicator, as its present diversity suggests an impulse towards reintegration and greater coherence within the practice of taijiquan and in its relationship to other Chinese therapeutic practices and martial arts."

Friday 12 August 2011

Therapeutic benefits of Tai Chi exercise: research review

Just found this scientific review paper published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal 2006, (Volume 105, No. 7.42), entitled "Therapeutic benefits of Tai Chi exercise: research review". I'm very pleased to see proper scientific review papers like this. Here is the summary:
"The majority of studies on Tai Chi conducted between 1996 and 2004 had focused on health and well-being of Tai Chi exercise for senior adults. The results showed that Tai Chi may lead to improved balance, reduced fear of falling, increased strength, increased functional mobility, greater flexibility, and increased psychological well-being, sleep enhancement for sleep disturbed elderly individuals, and increased cardio functioning. Wang, Collet and Lau did a systematic review of Tai Chi research and found some limitations or biases in existing in some of the studies and it was difficult to draw firm conclusions about the benefits reported. Therefore, more well-designed studies are needed in the future.
    They need to be studies on the effects on younger and middle-aged people. More longitudinal studies are needed, since time is an important factor of physical and psychological interventions. Studies on the effect of Tai Chi on the immune system and bone loss reduction are still very exploratory and will be especially useful for arthritis patients and others with immune disorders. Future studies should investigate outcomes associated with Tai Chi training as a function of different instructional techniques, different Tai Chi styles, different diagnostic groups and different age groups.
    It is not yet clear which of the components in Tai Chi makes the exercise form especially effective for seniors. Tai Chi exercise is a relatively "low tech" approach to preventing disability and maintaining physical performance in older adults. The positive effects of Tai Chi may be due solely to its relaxing, meditative aspects. The current data suggest that Tai Chi can influence all the individuals' functioning and well-being and provide some appreciation for why this exercise for has been practised by older Chinese for more than three centuries."
To my mind this confirms my feeling that although there are clearly benefits and widespread anecdotal understanding of the therapeutic benefits of Tai Chi, this is a long way from being scientifically accepted. This is not to say that I don't think there are benefits, but the crucial thing is that scientifically speaking, these benefits need to be demonstrated relative to a control group. The point I'm trying to make, is that of course there are benefits of doing Tai Chi - exercise is good and relaxation is good, no argument there. But relatively, is doing Tai Chi better than going for a regular daily relaxing walk of a similar duration, or sitting quietly watching the ducks say? The answer to that is very far from clear.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Star wars tai chi video

Star wars... Tai Chi.... and Psy Trance. It doesn't get better than this!

Star Wars Tai Chi from John Leo on Vimeo.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Standing at work experiment

All tai chi practise must incorporate a significant amount of "standing". Essentially this is a core foundation exercise designed to strengthen the legs and knees, but it also helps to develop an awareness of your rooting ability.

Having read this post over at the great Zen habits blog about his "standing experiment" I was convinced to try standing at my computer. I work from home one day a week, so this was the ideal place to try it. I was sceptical, but now I really enjoy it. I hardly even notice the fact that I'm not sitting down, and clearly every bit of standing you can do helps your posture. I recommend everyone to try it!

Now the next level is to try to concentrate on adopting the classic wu-chi stance whilst I'm at my computer :-)

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Tai chi science DVD?

Apparently an intriguing new DVD on the science of Tai Chi has just come out. I haven't watched it, but it seems to be recommended by Violet Li at examiner.com and I usually respect what she has to say on her blog (despite the fact that this particular article reads a bit like a "paid for promotional ghost-written blog post" that are becoming a bit insidious). Probably best just to nip over there and read her article yourself. But I might as well include some juicy titbit quotes:
"In the DVD, Rosenfeld first visits Ge Wu, Ph.D. and professor of the Department of Rehabilitation and Movement Science at the University of Vermont.... The research quantifies the muscle movements during Tai Chi practice. Her studies strongly suggest that Tai Chi can strengthen muscles and is good for endurance training as well as motor control training."
"At his next stop, Rosenfeld stops in to see Ruth Taylor-Piliae, Ph.D. and professor of cardio rehab at the University of Arizona.... Dr. Taylor-Pilliae says that in general, they have seen patients with better blood pressure, improved cholesterol values and higher glucose tolerance."
There is also an extract of the video, which although not focusing on the "science" I quite like what he has to say:

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Happiness in Practise

Surrey university meditation
Just found something I wrote a few years ago as publicity for a
meditation class I was running at the time. It's all still applicable of
What were your New Year's Resolutions? No doubt their goal was to improve your life in some way, to make you happier. We all want to be happy, not just occasionally, but fundamentally. Trouble is, that's where it normally stops, remaining a hope, a wish, a desire.
So how do you become happy? Everyone knows the answer already; it's common sense. Any self help book boils down to this paradigm. It is not only the strategy to make you happier, but to improve your sporting prowess, to improve your exam results, even the way to drink more beers without falling over. So what is it? One word: Practise.
But how do you practise to be happy? Well start now - just try to be happy! As a beginner though, you will need to start slowly. Try setting aside five minutes each day to practise being happy. Within those five minutes, think positive thoughts, laugh, smile and appreciate all your good qualities. Watching TV doesn't count mind, you need to concentrate without distractions and without a fear of being judged. It's free, safe, requires no special equipment, and you can practise anywhere. Sounds easy huh? Unfortunately most people are simply not dedicated enough to do it. Maybe once, twice, maybe a whole week, but then it lapses. The result is also subtle, indirect and cumulative; there is no high and no adrenalin. The effects creep up on you. It might take six months, before someone comments on how happy you seem. That moment though will be magical. "I am happier" you will think, "It really does work!"
Anyone can teach themselves, but everyone learns faster with a teacher, and perseverance is easier in a group. Classes and teachers of happiness are everywhere, but traditionally go by a different name. So if you want to be happy, put aside the fear of the unknown, and join a Meditation class.

Thursday 26 May 2011

Spelling Tai chi, Tai ji or Tai qi?

Today I discovered the wonderful Google Labs Ngram. This new tool allows you to graph the number of counts of particular keywords in all the books Google has scanned, grouped by the date they were published. What this means is that you can effectively track how much people were writing about particular topics over time, or how phrases come and go from the English language (and others) for example.

So I had a go at using it to back up some of my assumptions about tai chi in a quantitative manner.

First of all, spelling: Tai chi, Tai ji or Tai qi? [No one seems to disagree about the Tai bit].

The graph above shows the incidence of the three main spellings (Tai chi, Tai ji and Tai qi), along with various contractions and extensions, in the published books going back to the 1950s. What this shows is that prior to the 1960s it was spelt almost exclusively without space with both Taichi and Taiji being roughly equally prevalent. Around the 1970s Tai chi (with a space) started to enter lexicon and this continued up until the late 1980s with roughly half of the  publications using Taiji, and the other half used Taichi or Tai chi.

For some reason in the early 1990s there was an explosion of interest (see below) and Taichi and Tai chi became the dominant form of expression. The incidence of Taiji spelling therefore fell (as a percentage of total usage). The most recent 2008 data indicate that Tai chi (with or without a space) is now the most normal spelling in about 85% of the cases. As the English language (and spelling) is a fluid concept that continually evolves as usage patterns change, we must therefore say that Tai chi is the "correct" form of spelling. I predict therefore that over the next 50 years time the Taiji usages will drop away, to be consigned to history.

Second: Public awareness

This graph clearly backs up my experiences of explaining tai chi to people. It's easiest to say "it's a bit like yoga" to get them into the right frame of reference, and then "it's a martial art" which also helps them narrow it down. What's interesting from this graph however is that yoga has been written about for a much longer time in western books than I imagined. Most likely this is because of the colonisation of India by the British exposed Westerners to it. There has clearly been a surge in popularity of Chinese martial arts and Tai chi in the last couple of decades however, which again backs up my own experiences.

Third: Which style?

Pretty much a no-brainer this one. Yang style dominates with the other styles not making so much as a blip. What fantastic marketing by the Yang style guys. Most likely however this is due to the fact that some of the Yang style teachers were the first to takes the brave step of trying to teach their art in the West, for which no amount of credit and gratitude can be too much. Given this graph however, it is little wonder that most Westerners don't realise there are multiple styles and just believe that Tai chi is Yang style. Those of us practising other styles need to work that little bit harder!

Monday 23 May 2011

Elven Tai Chi?

Today I have been thinking a lot about elves (as in the Lord of the Rings sense). Elves always seemed to me (and deliberately intended to be so by Tolkien) to be the most graceful and beautiful of the races of Middle Earth.

As most people know, the undertaking of three Lord of the Rings films was a phenomenal effort, with attention paid to every detail, to create a world that was totally immersive and self consistent. As there was a lot of fighting in the books/films, care was taken to ensure that all of the different characters and races had "accurate" fighting styles to match their physiques, temperament and cultural sensibilities of their respective races. So I started to wonder what are the martial arts techniques that the elves use?

I found this great interview with Tony Wolf who was the Fighting Styles Designer for the Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy. Toni Wolf (TW) was talking to Sword Forum International (SWI), and I've extracted part of the transcript below:
SFI: What martial arts styles did you draw from in developing the fighting arts of the Elves? And are there other examples we see in LOTR?  
TW: The design process was not really a matter of borrowing techniques from real-world fighting styles. Having determined a series of very specific "key points" about a given character type's posture, weapons, armour, tactics and so-on, the techniques essentially created themselves.  
SFI: What key points did you define for the Elves, and what other examples of techniques arose from those points?  
TW: It's great that martial arts-oriented viewers seem to latch on to the Elves. Basically, the Elves were beautiful. Every aspect of their culture reflected a refined sense of aesthetic beauty and wonderment. They were completely attuned to their environments. It followed that, as warriors, they would be superbly balanced — grounded from the waist down, light and free from the waist up. Although they were capable of linear movement, their style was based on a spiraling action — circular, gliding footwork patterns, deflections rather than blocks, slices rather than thrusts or strikes. Also, because they are immortal, they've spent decades or even centuries perfecting their martial arts — they can do things that human swordmasters could only dream of.

What does that remind you of? Pretty clearly tai chi (and chinese martial arts) to my mind as that description ("grounded from the waist down, light and free from the waist up....based on a spiraling action") is almost the exact definition of the tai chi principles. To paraphrase the rest of the interview, the humans had styles derived from Western mediaeval techniques. Dwarfs were almost sumo like and all about power, whilst the orcs were corrupted, angular and out of balance versions of all three.

Clearly then, if you want to emulate the gracefulness of an elf from Lord of the Rings, best start practising tai chi.

Friday 20 May 2011

The four Q's

I often get asked by beginners things such as "how long does it take to learn the form?" and "are we going to be learning lots of new movements?". And indeed, I used to ask such questions when I first started, as it is natural to want to feel a sense of progress and gauge your development.

However, after a few years, you realise that even people who've been practising their whole lives are still doing the same foundation exercises that the beginners are doing. What this means, is that Tai chi is essentially about quality not quantity. Refining a small number of movements to perfection rather than developing a huge repertoire at a substandard level is the name of the game.

The problem is however that such a statement doesn't really sound appealing to beginners. Mainly because new learners have no appreciation of the depth and subtlety but also because it is not quantifiable. How many moves you know is quantitative - a number you can see increasing, how good your movement is is a feeling and therefore qualitative. It's difficult to gauge progress in a qualitative way when you are new to the experience (and even when you're not!).

Qualitative quality - not quantitative quantity!

Saturday 14 May 2011

Mirror neuron visulisation

When researching for another blog post, I came across this page about tai chi training techniques. It was not what I needed, but it had a couple of paragraphs that made me think:
"Now, here is the science. The human sub-conscious brain doesn't know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. So we imagine cutting a lemon in half and sucking the juice. What happens? All of the same things happen like saliva welling up in the mouth etc., that would happen if we were eating a lemon for real. 
And it's this principle upon which the old masters based their teachings. So now, when you practice your Tai Chi form, although you are doing relatively slow movements and very gently, apart from the obvious fa-jing (explosive energy movement), you are actually fighting someone for 20 or 40 minutes! This is how Tai Chi teaches you how to fight without teaching you!"
I really like this. Essentially this is true, as the power of mirror neurons (which is what is being implied here) is extremely well researched and one of the breakthroughs of neuroscience. It seems likely that mirror neurons can trace their evolutionary history from the need to mirror (or imitate) someone else doing a task, in order to be able to learn it yourself. But as the quote above says, the mirror neurons also fire, if you imagine watching someone do a task, even if that someone is an idealised you.

This power of positive visualisation is widespread in professional sport, and is the reason that visualisations are used so much and tai chi. Hence when we talk about things such as "feeling the chi", we're not really making a statement that chi exists, rather we are using it as a visualisation metaphor. The act of imagining yourself having power, makes you feel as if you do have power, and feeling as if you have power improves the power that you actually have. If you do the training without the imagination/visualisation, you are training the muscles and body but you are not using the mirror neurons, which is where the real work is done. It really is all in the mind.

This accurately reflects the age-old principle that when training in tai chi your intention must guide the rest of your actions.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

The science of rooting?

In one of my recent tai chi classes, there was a lot of discussion about rooting (also called sinking or grounding). In simple terms the techniques for improving your rooting ability are to feel as if your weight "sinks" to your feet; to visualise roots like a tree passing into the ground; or to have a spiralling gripping sensation with the feet as if you are screwing yourself into the floor. I think this blog post gives a good initial explanation of the classical description (including good video).

Whilst I do agree with all of the above, I find it hard to come up with a scientific explanation. Your body is a fixed mass and irrespective of your posture, the sum of the repulsive force going through your feet is always constant, and exactly opposite to your weight (gravitational force). Clearly you can lower your centre of mass but I do not believe that is the complete explanation. What is going on here? Is it perhaps your ability to "get underneath" an opponent and therefore use their weight against them? But how does that translate to standing in isolation where you cultivate a feeling of rooted-ness?

I don't have any answers at this point, but I thought I'd share my puzzlement!

Saturday 7 May 2011

Superman does Tai Chi!

I've always been struck by the similarity of the Superman logo and the yin/yang. Clearly Superman draws his influence from chinese martial arts teachings. That must be where he gets all his power from :-)

[A bit of photoshopping later.....]

Sunday 1 May 2011

Tai Chi on Kinect

I previously mentioned the 3D computer program to teach you Tai Chi. I was a bit disparaging about it, but I see that it is possible to learn Tai Chi using Microsoft Kinect system and the Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2012 game. The graphics are far more sophisticated than the game from the previous post, and you can see quite a lot of subtly from the instructor.
It seems to me that this would have the potential to actually be a reasonable learning system as it is interactive. The closer you are to the correct posture the more points you are awarded. How fine-grained it is possible to determine your subtle posture to using the Kinect system is another question, but in principle this seems to me to be a very good idea.

I can hardly find any information about it on the Internet, so if anyone knows of anything or has any experience with it, please add some comments to point me in the right direction. I did find this video which gives you an impression of how it works. Essentially it is a couple of Russian guys mucking around, but if you can ignore them, you can start to see the system in action.

[EDIT: A follow up post with further thoughts]

Tuesday 26 April 2011

3D Tai Chi Chuan 1.0.0

So what do we think of this then? I never thought that learning Tai Chi from a DVD or video was a good idea, but nevertheless a lot of people do and it seems the format is evolving. Witness the first 3-D computer program to teaching tai chi. Although you have "no limitations of viewpoint" the blocky gaming avatar graphics mean that all the subtleties are lost. Good innovation but I wouldn't recommend it.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Martial arts training aids

Tai chi is traditionally a formal and prescriptive practice. However, there are lots of scientific insights that can be gained from other disciplines and sports science and incorporated into training regimes for improved performance. Just because "that is the way it has always been done" does not mean that the best way, and as good scientists it is our duty to investigate them.

Anyway, I'm not really going to talk too much about that here, instead, given that background, here are a couple of modern training tools that I use that I think have helped me improve my Tai Chi. Equally they would benefit anyone who does any form of martial arts

1) Swiss ball. As I have a computer-based job in the real world, I obviously spent a lot of time sitting in front of it. Sitting immobilises your spine and causes all of your balance reflexes to become dulled over time. By sitting on a Swiss ball you engage in "active sitting" that maintains your balance skills continually strengthens your back.

2) Poi. Poi is basically a performance art similar to juggling. The movements require you to continuously spin pendulums around your body, which with practice can form hypnotising patterns (experts even set them alight for fire-poi dispalys). However from an exercise perspective, I'm not sure there's anything better for toning your arms and shoulders. As you have to continually keep the ball end of the poi spinning, there is a centrifugal force that you must counteract with your arms. As the spin direction of this force changes you must therefore exert this force in a continually changing direction, which work the muscles for dynamic strengthening in all directions. Anyone who practices Tai chi will recognise this need to project force outwards in all directions is a fundamental tenet of tai chi. Not only is poi strengthening, but the diverse rotation planes mean that your shoulder and arm joints become significantly looser and more flexible. I really do recommend poi to anyone who would like to loosen their shoulders, elbows or wrists.

3) Contact juggling. I do not do this myself, but it's my intention to learn. Lots of Tai Chi is about visualising a ball and controlling it. Indeed I understand there are a whole sets of Tai Chi exercises and forms that use a ball. You just have to watch a contact juggling video to see the obvious parallels.

4) Core Balance Discs. These inflatable discs are slightly oval in shape and therefore to stand on them requires quite a lot of balancing skill as it makes you very unstable. I have two of them, and by putting one under each foot and then performing chi gung or silk reeling exercises, it really takes the difficulty to a new level. It's amazing how much your understanding of the movements improve (by identifying where you are unbalanced or weakest) as you wobble around all over the place. Best practice privately, at least to begin with, as graceful it is not.
Altus Athletic Core Balance DiscAltus Athletic Core Balance Disc