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]