Monday 28 February 2011

Posture causes mood causes posture causes mood

As this fellow tai chi blog pointed out to me, scientific research has demonstrated that posture can affect mood. This is already (subconscious) common knowledge to most, but we usually interpret it the other way round, i.e mood affects posture. Think of the slumped shoulders of detection, the puffed out chest of victory or the humility and deference of a bow. As I am beginning to see everywhere, it is not simply a cause and effect, but in fact that it is a reinforcement loop. Posture affects mood and mood in turn affects posture.

Tai chi is all about posture, and relaxing the body. Naturally therefore this feeds into an enhanced emotional mood and balanced lifestyle. And of course vice versa, if I've had a stressful day rushing all over the place, I find that when I come to do tai chi in the evening I am stiff and tense which makes it difficult for me to hold the correct posture. But if I persevere with the practice, my posture improves, and at the end guess what? I don't feel so tense any more.

In practical terms this was pointed out to me by one of my fellow students at a recent class. It had been a long day and we were studying hard trying to learn new moves. "And one other thing" she said, "try to smile more". And she was right, for many years I have been practising with a "concentration frown" as I try to make sure every part of my form is correct, but if I smile, it is amazing how much better the whole posture feels. I now try to practice smiling all the time, but it's going to take a lot of time to undo all my years of subconscious frowning.

Reinforcement loops are wonderful things. If you are able to affect your mood your posture will follow, if you are able to affect your posture your mood will follow. But it is not just posture and mood of course but the whole gamut of emotions. "Fake it till you make it" springs to mind. I know it works, because I use it quite often when I'm on my way to the pub or a party. I know when I get there everyone is going to be laughing and joking, but when I'm walking there I'm just on my own being solitary and quiet. When I arrive therefore it's naturally going to take me a while to "get into the swing of things". To remedy this, a few minutes before I arrive, I force myself to laugh out loud (quietly so as not to attract attention) so by the time I arrive my mood is much more sociable and outgoing and I immediately feel at home. We like to think of ourselves as sophisticated and logical, but really we're just simple animal machines. Smile and you feel happy. Frown and you feel sad. It really is that simple.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

The propoganda of religion

As this review says "The Power of Now makes frequent references to enlightened masters such as Jesus and Buddha.".

The Power of Now was the first time that I had ever heard Jesus described as an enlightened master. After being born into the Christian tradition, I rejected the principle of belief in favour of the Buddhist path of self discovery. The idea of Jesus as an enlightened individual (buddha) rather than "the son of God", was extremely interesting to me, and opened my perspective. That kind of sat in my subconscious until I read this blog, which although is rather an evangelical attack on Christianity, I find the arguments compelling. Basically the most interesting (to me) of his many points is that the Bible is a misinterpretation of what Jesus actually taught. This is due to the fact that later books of the Bible well written as much for propaganda as for historical accuracy. The propaganda rather than historical accuracy viewpoint goes a long way to explaining why there are many contradictions in the Bible, as would not be the case in a bland historical record. A beautiful illustration of the scale of these contradictions can be found here.

Contradiction aside though, to me, this propaganda insight lends a lot of credence to the idea that Jesus was an enlightened individual. There is no smoke without fire after all, and so although the "bible" can be ignored, there is probably at lot of value to be gained by reading the actual parables i.e. what Jesus said. It will be interesting to go back and read the parables from the perspective of an enlightened Master teaching, without getting distracted by all of the "son of God" nonsense. I imagine this is similar to Muhammad in the Koran, but I will admit to being ignorant on this matter. Here is a rather long extract from the blog that got me thinking this way which I will leave you to ponder (there is much more here):

"The theology of the evangelists--and specifically their Christology (the nature of Christ)--developed into more grandiose claims as Jesus' life moved further into the past. If you wish to discover this for yourself, I advise you to successively read the Gospel of Mark (almost universally agreed to be the earliest Gospel written between A.D. 65-70) and the Gospel of John (agreed to be the latest Gospel written between A.D. 90-100) in a single sitting. Ask yourself this question; are they telling the same story? In Mark's Gospel, Jesus largely speaks in parables and evasive third-person proclamations about someone called "the Son of Man." In John's Gospel, Jesus tells no parables and spends most of the time talking about himself, his godly status, and what the future will bring.
So, here is a brief lesson in the development of the concept of Jesus as God - the transition from focusing on what Jesus said to focusing on who he was. We will only look at the beginning and the end; Jesus' birth and death. Changing the birth and death of Jesus is the most direct route to altering Jesus' status from one contained within a life to one transcending it.

First the birth narratives. In Mark there is no birth narrative. Jesus' higher metaphysical standing begins when He is chosen at his baptism. This is a story that Jews would have known well. The Old Testament is replete with God adopting servants - sometimes even called "sons" - during a communicative moment in their lives. Mark did not believe Jesus' status differed greatly from God's chosen sons of the past; David, Elijah, Moses, Elisha etc. In fact, in writing for a Jewish audience, he thought it important to strongly align Jesus with the prophets of old. Mark's Christology is thoroughly earthly and - when judged against later alterations - mundane. However, this aspect of Mark is of paramount importance; the earliest Evangelist, the one least removed from Jesus' life, did not know what Christians now "know." It is simply absurd to believe that, of all the things Mark knew about Jesus and with all the time he took to compose and disseminate his gospel, Mark just didn't know that Jesus' birth was a once-in-an-eternity miraculous event. While Mark certainly plays up the figure of Jesus, he was not willing to go that far. When Mark is taken by itself--a gospel lacking a birth narrative and a resurrection narrative (the last twelve verses are almost universally agreed to be later additions), fraught with a persistent "messianic secret" in which no Apostle is able to completely understand Jesus' status, and Jesus' constant, oblique, third person references to a figure called the "son of man" (almost assuredly a reference to Daniel 7:13)--no interpretation even remotely resembling Christianity can be culled from it. Instead Mark fits squarely into well-known traditional Jewish stories of chosen prophets instructing the Jews as to God's will.

For Matthew and Luke this "Jewish Jesus" would not do. Rather than taking a modern viewpoint that the earlier source should be trusted (that is, if you care about historical accuracy which, as I've said, they clearly did not), Matthew and Luke (written c. 80-90) decide to insert important "facts" into Mark's general narrative that raise the status of Jesus to a figure whose scope extends beyond Judaism. With this in mind, doctoring what he said was not as important as doctoring who he was. Thus, they go back to his birth and tell incompatible, incredible, and clearly manufactured stories of Jesus' miraculous birth to a virgin. In doing so they both establish Jesus' higher ontological status than the prophets of old, and - by bending over backwards to place Jesus in Bethleham - they make sure that Jesus satisfies the prophecy that the Messiah was to come from the "city of David."

Looking at the differences between the Synoptics, we are also able to see the solution to the oft-mentioned "problem" of Jesus' missing years. Other than Luke's small story of a twelve-year-old Jesus teaching in the Temple, we have no other (canonical) stories of Jesus between birth and baptism. By comparing Mark with Matthew and Luke, the obvious answer presents itself; such stories didn't exist because no one cared about Jesus until he established a ministry. Jesus' "missing years" are no more bothersome than the "missing years" of the majority of Hebrew prophets.

But John would change everything and one-up all who came before him. Jesus wasn't merely "chosen," "adopted" or created from a miraculous set of circumstances. No, Jesus is something else all together. Feeling it wasn't good enough to go back to the beginning of His ministry or the beginning of His life, John decides to go back to the beginning of time (John 1:1 "In the beginning was the word...") to establish the nature of Jesus. Thus, Jesus has been raised to the ultimate heights; dizzying heights that would have confused and shocked Mark.

Likewise, the death of Jesus changes dramatically throughout the Gospels. The changes (of which there are many more than these) can be summed up in the three different accounts of the last words of Jesus: Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 "My god, my god, why have you forsaken me." Luke 23:46 "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." John 19:30 "It is finished." The development of Christianity is encapsulated in the move from the utterance of pain, ignorance, nonacceptance, and suffering seen in Mark and Matthew to the statement of acceptance, foreknowledge, and peace that is seen in John. These are incompatible interpretations of Jesus. The character in the gospels may have the same name but it is not the same man hanging on the cross.

The Gospels are guides to belief written by believers. This is a horribly unreliable way to learn accurate information. When you already believe "The Truth," distortions that you consciously engage in - that you see as promoting "The Truth" - are not seen as lies, but rather, as efficacious ways of getting "The Truth" to the hearts of readers. We don't know why the evangelists believed as they did, but in the gospels they don't give us the reasons they believe, they give us reasons to believe; an entirely different matter. But we do KNOW that the theological conception of Jesus changed as the believers grew more distant from his life. What Christians believe most fervently (i.e. Jesus being God, appearing after he died, dying for the sins of the world) are concepts that were developed later. They are concepts that did not exist in the earliest generations of Christian belief. They certainly did not exist when Jesus was alive.

Early Christians invented myths to overcome the "stumbling-block" (1 Cor. 1:23) of the cross. Paul knew that, for the Jews and Gentile Greeks, the execution of Jesus represented a major problem. The "king of the jews" was not supposed to be an executed lowly peasant. The "savior of mankind" was not a common criminal. Over time, theological concepts developed that explained this hang-up. Thus, an executed traitor was turned into a victorious Messiah."

Friday 18 February 2011

Tai chi behaviours

So I thought I would start to begin to explore my robotics framework. One of the prevalent ways of thinking on robotics is that actions are in fact made up of a set of behaviours that all work together collectively. This is most easily seen with the subsumption architecture where you have low-level behaviours such as "don't walk into walls" and "wander around aimlessly", combined with a high-level behaviour such as "stop when you get to point X". Together these behaviours are sufficient to achieve the objective of navigating to a particular point, without having to worry about all the details of path planning. Can we apply this same principle to Tai Chi? I thought I'd give it a go.

So here's a starter for 10 on some really simple behaviour ideas that should hopefully combine together to give you a tai chi capable robot.

1) In order to achieve a movement, move your joints/limbs sequentially, starting with the ones closest to your centre of mass. In tai chi speak: "Everything comes from the Dan-tien". My supposition for this is that the dan-tien and is actually the centre of mass of the human body.

2) Given a particular configuration of your points of attachment (i.e. feet), arrange your joints/limbs, so that your centre of mass, is located at the centre of all possible stable centre of mass positions. In other words this means that your centre of mass (dan-tien), has the maximum possible movement potential and is therefore is in the most flexible and stable position.

3) No joints move in isolation. All joints move simultaneously in every movement. In tai chi speak this is whole-body coordination. Practically this means recalculating all joint positions dynamicaly for every movement, but if me do this in a distributed, rather than centralised manner it should be posible to achieve.

Anyway that's just some thoughts that I've jotted down, more to follow...

Sunday 13 February 2011

Tai chi grain by grain

What is the difference between all the various well-being classes? Yoga, Pilates, Meditation, Tai chi, going to the gym - which should you choose? The analogy I like to use is of a spectrum - let's imagine each one has lined up in order of its "internal-ness". We have meditation at one end (very internal) and something like weightlifting at the other end (very external).

Now there is a traditional Chinese saying that every day you practice tai chi is like adding a grain of sand. Each day you add a grain, but the change is imperceptible, but after a few years suddenly you have a huge pile of sand. A poetic way of explaining cumulative benefit. So let me extend this grain of sand metaphor to my spectrum.

As you add your grains of sand, they do not stand precisely on top of each other, but they collapse into a mount whose base slowly widens. Therefore if you imagine that each day you are putting a grain of sand on the "tai chi" position, slowly the base will expand to also encompass neighbouring positions, such as "Yoga" or "kung fu". In other words if you put a lot gains of sand in any particular position these will begin to spill over into other positions. In other words if you do tai chi for many years, you will also have achieved some of the benefits of doing yoga and meditation etc. If you do meditation for many years, you will also achieve some of the benefits of doing Tai Chi. Of course you will achieve the most benefit (highest point of the pile of sand) from where you put the most grains.

Of course there is nothing to stop you putting grains of sand in multiple positions for a balanced exercise portfolio as I talked about before.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Tai chi emergence

I am fascinated by emergence and swarm intelligence. (An accessible "popular science" book for introducing the topic is "Out of Control" by Kevin Kelly). Whilst reading this book, I was reminded of the decentralised and emergent nature of the brain. In other words, the neurons of the brain behave in a similar way to bees in a hive. There is no centralised "you" or ego, thoughts and  thinking "emerge" out of the set of neurons firing. The emergent nature of the body and mind is the scientific meaning of the traditional Buddhist concept of the destruction of ego.

Neural networks, of which the brain is the ultimate example, are extremely adept at pattern matching, in fact I would go so far as to say it is their raison d'être. Pattern matching is what allows us to interpret the world without being overwhelmed by the data we're constantly being bombarded with from our senses.

In visual terms, this allows us to recognise objects and comprehend the space around us. We learn what a dog looks like, and the more dogs we see, the better we get at recognising them, irrespective of distance, colour, orientation etc. [As an aside recognising a dog is an extremely challenging task for a computer to accomplish, although we as humans take it for granted.] The pattern matching rules of vision are most famously exploited in what we call optical illusions.

In auditory terms, pattern matching allows us to understand speech and extract meaning from the varying tone and pitch of sound waves. Equally it allows us to enjoy and comprehend music, and recognise different styles and genres. Again speech and musical recognition and interpretation is very challenging for a computer.

But how does this relate to Tai chi? Well my supposition is that there is also a pattern matching associated with proprioception. Proprioception is what allows us to feel how our body moves and is orientated, and this is what we are (re)training when we do Tai chi. As you get better at tai chi, you get more astute at recognising the patterns of movement (In tai chi language, we call these the principles of tai chi). Aha you say, this rollback motion in move X is just like the rollback motion in move Y.... The spiralling of the hips is the same as the spiralling of the shoulders.... and so on. As you train more, you become more astute at recognising the patterns. Sequences of movements become natural and patterned. But what's more, they emerge in a distributed manner. In the beginning it is your conscious mind deliberately placing each of your limbs in particular positions. As your body begins to understand the patterns, it is almost as if the muscles of your body are moving independently (like individual bees), but the whole body is moving collectively (like the whole hive).

In practical terms as the body is an emergent system, without a centralised controller, the only way to program it is through chicken and egg iterative improvement (i.e. practice). Outwardly beginners and advanced students do the same training, it is just that inwardly, the advanced students understand more of the patterns. The beginner will therefore only be training the single exercise, where as the advanced student, seeing the connections and patterns (or principles), will be training hundreds of exercises simultaneously.

Monday 7 February 2011

Kinect-ing with a Tai Chi robot

Well, if this isn't a mechanism to train a robot to do Tai chi I don't know what is!

Friday 4 February 2011

Practise makes points

Doing Tai Chi is all about regular practice. But motivating yourself to get into / maintain the routine can be difficult when surrounded by life’s other pressures. That's why in a flash of inspiration I’ve decided to use some of the motivational techniques that dieters and gym freaks use. In both of those systems you have “points” i.e. calories or minutes on the treadmill etc. You create a training program by setting yourself point targets (i.e. max calories per day) and your natural inbuilt competitiveness helps you strive so improve your previous “score”. It also has the added benefit of being able to track your improvement.  Tracking your improvement over time is something that is very difficult to do with Tai Chi as it is all internal, personal and there are no real milestones to judge yourself against.

My plan is therefore to award myself points for every bit of Tai Chi I do. I will set myself a minimum number of points required per day (more is great of course), and then increase that minimum over time. The idea is to make it a very low threshold in the beginning, as what you're really training here is “getting into a routine” (which I believe takes about 4 weeks to make into a habit). At the end of every day I will write down the points I have scored (which I’m sure I will immediately over complicate with statistical analysis). Anyway, the point system I plan to use is:

Lao jia
Long form (takes about 15mins)
Canon fist, Sword, Sabre, or Competition form
“Advanced forms” (takes 3-5mins ish each)
Short form
Takes about 2mins
10mins of standing
Standing meditation / Standing like a tree
One set of Silk Reeling, or Chi-gung
A good 8-10 reps, on both left and right sides
10mins of seated meditation
Going to a group class
A pretty stingy number of points for over an hour class, but the idea is to improve home practice.

My teacher Wang Hai Jun recommends 5 Lao Ji’s a day – that’s 50 points. I think I’ll start with a much more modest 4 points and work up. But remember this is a minimum, I fully intend to do more than 4 points worth most days. The point is, I must absolutely not fail to do at least 4 points worth every single day (i.e. training regular practice), or face the shame of having to write a 0 into my wall chart.