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, 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 :-)