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.