Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The reason I blog....

Just saw this over on reddit and couldn't help myself, as it sums up my feeling about why I want to look at tai chi from a scientific perspective.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Tai Chi Elements virtual training environment

[Thanks very much to my friend, and reader, Ashley for pointing this out to me]

An interesting kickstarter proposal for a new virtual environment for training in tai chi, is currently open for backers.

The idea seems to be that it's a virtual world where people can study 3D models of "Tai Chi masters" developed through motion capture technology. This is an interesting project and I've made a pledge. I have to say though that I'm sceptical as to what the real benefit of this might be, but am supportive of it as an interesting initiative.

The reason I'm sceptical is that they don't talk about things like being able to capture your movements directly using a kinect for example to match your body positions to that of the motion capture model. Without this feature, I can't really see what the benefit of the motion capture is. Tai chi is after all about subtle rotations of the body core/centre/dan-tien. The positions of your arms and legs are a secondary consideration, as they should follow the movement of your centre. The 3D animated model would potentially suffer from the drawback of capturing limb position very well but miss the movement of the centre. In other words, why not just watch a video (even a multi-angle video) of a real master, rather than removing yourself one step through this animated 3D model. Because it's an immersive 3D environment/game that's why - which I guess in itself is a benefit if you are into computer games.

So it's obviously not the all singing all dancing virtual in training environment that I would want. But as with most things in life, that would need to be developed over time. This project looks to be a good first step on that road, and perhaps if I help them out it might open up chances to include all these "more advanced" features in the future. I'm happy to put a little bit of money towards it, to reward their initiative. It's easy to talk (or write), I give respect to people who are actually trying to do.


PS.  I notice that some of the larger pledges include all-inclusive residential courses. Now I don't know anything about who is running these or what they might include, but giving them the benefit of the doubt that it will be a fair amount of tai chi tuition, these prices seem to be pretty good value. Hence even if you don't care in the slightest about the 3D game, it might be quite a cheap way to get some good residential tuition, or a tai chi retreat holiday!

EDIT: Having failed to get anywhere near their £75,000 funding target, they are trying again with an "incremental approach" and a radically reduced target at only 7% of the original goal. At the time of writing it looks to have attracted roughly the same level of interest (i.e. mainly people buying residential courses who they presumably know already in most cases).

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Structural warm up exercises

About time I posted an actual tai chi video, so here's one I really like. Great set of generic warm-up exercises with a detailed commentary. Extremely articulate explanations based on structure and bio-mechanics, without any supernatural mumbo-jumbo, which makes it all the more authoritative for me.

Simple exercises, but if you understand the principle they can be powerful. That is the secret of tai chi - being able to do a small number of things extremely well. The art of course is understanding what those small number of things actually are!

Friday, 19 October 2012

Demystifying chi - a must watch video


Wow, I have just discovered the most wonderful video thanks to my fellow blogger at internal gong fu. This video is called demystifying chi and is essentially reinforcing the point that I have been making (as regular readers will know), that I am not a big fan of "chi" and all it's connotations as energy. Where does this apparent translation come from? This video provides the answers:

Direct video link

But for those of you who don't have time (it's ~1 hr long but I suggest you make the time if you are interested in internal arts or "energy") or just want to get the gist of it, let me quote from internal kung fu on his write up:
"[Dr. Nugent-Head] begins the seminar with a brief history of the word "Qi" and follows this with presenting nine primary definitions for Qi. He then reads through a list of 163 definitions where Qi is the first part of a compound character set and and then reads a list of 235 definitions where Qi is the second part of a compound character set for a total of 407 definitions that use the character Qi. This largely consumes the first 37 minutes of this lecture.

While you might think that listening to a reading of definitions is boring, if you only know Qi as "energy", "life force", "pneuma", "breath of God" or whatever, then you are in for a real surprise and listening to this list is absolutely essential! I found my understanding of Qi shifting and changing as he read through the list.

In my opinion, by us (American's) translating a non-definitive, non-elemental word-concept like Qi into definitive, elemental terms like "energy" or "life force" or whatever, this flawed "translation" process has resulted in some real silliness in the internal martial arts."
Good summary - and now let me add a couple of highlights of my own from the video, that I would draw your attention to:
  • At time index 03:00 (and then discussed at 40:00), he points out that if we want to talk about a word from another language (chi) rather than arguing about it we should go to a dictionary first of all. He then points out that not a single one of the nine English to Chinese translations of chi is energy. Go figure. Why has this come about? Through his language grinder concept and for historical and co-incidental reasons (watch the video).
  • At time index 51:30 - "The concept of chi as energy creates an aura and vaulted status to practitioners; to demystify it would leave them naked to the scrutiny of their own skill level" [and later on] there are a lot of unscrupulous people making money off chi, not like the proverbial snake oil salesmen - they are snake oil salesmen.

Representational not definitive


Frankly a wonderful video in which I found very authoritative, entertaining and based in reality not superstition. As Dr. Nugent-Head says at the end in summary, chi is not a thing (a thing that confounds Western science), it is a "representational not definitive" concept of a pictorial language.

In other words chi is more like an adverb or an adjective rather than a noun or verb. Adverbs & adjectives on there own mean nothing, but they give flavour and emphasise to meaning. So as a little though experiment; imagine that for some reason the word "very" had been translated into Chinese as "strong". A whole lexicon and theory had then grown up around the concept of this "English strength", intermingled with some hypothetical cultural feature. Chinese practitioners would spend years of their life debating this "very" concept, trying to find and explore it. It sounds ridiculous, but neverthless that is exactly what has happen with "chi means energy" in the west.

"What is very?" a Chinese person might ask you, "well it doesn't really mean anything on it's own" you would reply "it depends on the context of the sentence". And low and behold that is the same answer a Chinese person would give to you if you asked them "what does the word chi mean?". Chi is just a way of language, of culture. It is not a thing. It is not energy.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Humiliation for Yan Fang

I'm glad to see some action has been taken against that obvious charlatan Yan Fang that I wrote about before. She has been striped of all of her tai chi credentials and denounced as a faker and fraudster by her closest peers. As Xiang Guoyuan, is rightly quoted:
"I've told her to stop faking the technique years ago, but she never listened... Such foolishness can damage the image of Tai Chi."

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Tai chi as a martial art

People often wonder if tai chi has any real martial value, and indeed I have written about this before. I said then that seeing was believing, and so here are two videos from China which I think go a small way to ticking that box.

First of all a student of Chen Style tai chi winning a mixed wushu competition on Chinese tv. Read about the details here and watch the video below (note the guy with the red sash is the chen tai chi student):



Secondly a video of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang demonstrating the technique of tai chi rooting to overcome China's strongest man. Yes that's the current strongest man out of a population of over a Billion, being unable to push a 70 year old man over (in three 1 minute rounds). Amazing demonstration of technique over strength.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Tai chi zero trailer

Ahhhh.... the serene and spiritual practice of tai chi originating in chenjiagou. I'm sure Hollywood will stay true to the art and do it justice....

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Eco Hovis Lite tai chi robot

Yet again another robot doing tai chi, this time the "ECO Hovis". It's becoming pretty clear to me now that there is no better way to show off the capabilities of your humanoid robotic skills that to demo it doing tai chi.



As I talked about before, tai chi is really an ideal tests case for robotic capabilities. Just as the Turing test is a wonderful benchmark for the social abilities of artificial intelligence - the "tai chi test" could be considered as an analogous test for robotic anatomical abilities.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Giving tai chi a bad name

Look at this video to see just how ridiculous tai chi promotion can be. A great write up here by global times, and I fully agree this looks more like a comedy sketch than push hands ;-) This video and the implicit claims are quite simply ludicrous. This is what happens when people think tai chi is all about mystical supernatural forces, rather than simple physics and bio-mechanics.

There's no point even articulating a rational argument against this type of stuff (although that Global times article does a good job of highlighting the issues). If someone thinks this type of stuff is "real", then they almost certainly have a religious belief in "chi and super powers" - and we all know you can not use logic to argue against religion.




Edit: Follow up here.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Tai chi and the road to self defence

I recently got an enquiry from a prospective student which I would like to share with you along with of my response (both suitably edited / annoymised).
Hi, I am wondering if you can answer a question for me please. I have been interested in Tai Chi for a very long time, but one thing has made me hesitate. Can Tai Chi be used as an effective martial art and defence art for the world we live in today?
Great question - I could talk about this for hours! I think there are basically two questions here: Can it be effective? And is it likely to be effective for you?

First of all can it be effective? Simple answer: yes. Internal arts are extremely effective once mastered.  I have seen Masters drop people to the ground and nearly break limbs almost without thinking about it (these were not set pieces either). In a real fight, I dread to think... I have seen others too who I seriously respect - essentially seeing is believing. I have seen and I believe.

The second question is, is it likely to be effective for you (in the "one" i.e. general sense)? The issue here is that tai chi is like the tortoise in the fabled hare and tortoise race. Ultimately tai chi will be one of the best things you can learn, but in the short to medium term you will essentially have nothing. There are no shortcuts, no tricks, the only way to get any level of martial arts ability is to practice. And practice A LOT. Traditionally, people could obtain some decent level of skill in say 3 to 4 years. But that's the traditional model, where the student would practice five hours a day, every day, during those years! Tai chi was their full time job.

The point is that (in my opinion) there is a fundamental minimum level of training required before any real martial arts / self defence skill can be claimed. 99% of tai chi people never get anywhere near this level, simply because we do not train hard enough or long enough. This problem is not unique to tai chi, but because external martial arts give you some techniques and sparring upfront and from the outset, the difficulty is not so pronounced. "Applications" in tai chi come much further down the line, in some senses after they have already been learned subconsciously.

In practice therefore, it is likely that you would need to study for decades to have any real martial arts skill (I would not yet consider myself to be over this threshold yet, but I am training hard and believe I will get there). It simply depends on how much you want it. Train like a demon every day, and within a year say, you could become a direct student of a skilled Master, who will open the door for you if you continue to train. Alternatively, you could go to a class or two a week and occasionally remember to do a bit on your own. In this scenario, you would get the health benefits but in practice never attain an "effective martial art for self defence".

Tai chi is a long road. If you want a life long learning challenge it's perfect. If you want instant results it's not.

Friday, 24 August 2012

100 posts and counting...

Well here we are. Since I started back in July 2010 on my quest to try and understand tai chi scientifically, I have finally reached my 100th post milestone, which is a good opportunity for a bit of reflection.

Numbers numbers

So first of all some raw statistics to share with you from Google analytics. They compare quite favourably (i.e. better :-) than a number of other hobbist tai chi blogs from what I can determine. But I'm still climbing the ladder and have some way to go before I am at the level of, say, Violet Li's professional blog (who only has ~40% more subscribers than myself), or David Gaffney's well respected blog (who probably has about 400% more than me):
  • 12,965 page views
  • 6,703 unique visitors
  • 100 posts
  • 37 comments
  • 32 regular subscribers
  • International readership
Visitors to this blog come from all over the world (with a strong showing from the USA)
Looking back, there are a number of posts which I am quite proud of and are linked to in the highlights section. But surprisingly, these are not necessarily the most popular ones in terms of Google searches. After "tai chi", the second most highly ranked and popular keyword phrase is "tai chi kinect" - who would have thought it? :-)

The journey so far

I have enjoyed writing this blog immensely, not least because it has help me to develop and refine some of my ideas. Equally, it has been a useful archive for me to gather all my thoughts together in one place, which I'm sure would otherwise have been lost! In the course of my writing I have discovered a small number of others, who would seem to have a similar outlook or agenda to myself (e.g. Martin Mellish, Meditation in Motion, Martial tai chi, The Qigong Institute, The Australian TCCLCHSoHSD). But we are quite definitely in the minority so I'm glad to be helping to fill the niche. To me, being part of this evolution-in-tai-chi thinking movement (as I might rather grandly characterise it) is exactly where I want to be. On the cutting-edge of developing tai chi, treading ground that is not well trodden and [business speak mode] removing the barriers to promoting tai chi beyond its core market (i.e. hippies and senior citizens). Of course I'm only a tiny cog, but I'll keep rotating.

For me, I feel that the most significant development of my own thinking that has so far taken place, is with my understanding of chi. I always felt that chi was the elephant in the room for tai chi in Western cultures. It sits there rather uncomfortably as this nebulous quasi-religious beast. Western tai chi teachers have to choose between either being a zealous new age preacher type, or trying to brush it under the carpet in a rather embarrassed self-conscious way. 

I do not want to conform to either of those types, and this blog has been, and will continue to be, a way for me to explore the third way, the scientific way. My 100 posts have now got me to a point where I am entirely comfortable with the fact that, through rational deduction, it is quite apparent that chi does not exist. There is nothing supernatural, mystical, occult, or non-scientific about it. Chi is a concept nothing more. Paradoxically however there is a wonderful duality about it, because it is in fact meaningful and powerful. An extremely good analogy is that of love. Love is also a concept, but not a physical object that can be measured. I'm sure however there are many who would argue that love is one of the most powerful forces in nature.

To look forward

So where to now for my next 100 posts? Who knows. But I feel like I should return to my mandate of trying to translate Eastern concepts into Western concepts. Just like learning tai chi, I will aim to drop a level of subtlety refining my ideas into more detail - spiralling down and going deeper.... The guiding motivation I always like to picture is that of Star Trek's Data walking into one of my tai chi classes. How would I teach him? He wouldn't be capable of "feeling the chi", but he sure as hell would have the potential to become the greatest tai chi grandmaster in all of history!

Finally a thank you to all of you who have visited, subscribed and commented on my blog in the last two years. You have been immensely helpful to me and it is rewarding to know that there are people out there reading and thinking about my work, even if I never know who or where you are. THANK YOU!!

Peace, Love and Chi to you all.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Using or researching tai chi?

People who love tai chi continue to practice it because they derive some benefit for themselves personally. I too fundamentally believe that tai chi is good for you. What I'm not necessarily convinced of is that tai chi is the most-ultimate-form-of exercise-ever-which-improves-every-aspect-of-your-health-and-life (everyone needs a balance exercise diet after all). Unfortunately most reporting of "scientific tai chi research" implicitly (usually through ignorance and good intentions) tries to claim/hint at the latter, rather than the former.

What it boils down to, is that you need to compare apples with apples. Unfortunately, trying to conduct tai chi research using this methodology (i.e. double-blind trials) is extremely hard if not impossible. So we generally find people comparing apples with oranges. Although the actual researchers no doubt understand this (and are in fact asking some quite specific question), as the reporting makes its way out into the wider world, these caveats are slowly lost. Eventually down the reporting chain this science (as it is branded) is reported as if it had compared apples to apples. The result is that tai chi (and in the same way alternative health) people at the end of the chain, feel as if they have scientific proof to backup their beliefs. These people then become aggrieved as they feel that the "stupid western doctors" are ignoring the science. The reality is that very little, if any, apples with apples studies have been conducted, so there's no point holding up an orange to claim that it has.

So let me explain by way of example, using two bits of tai chi research that I have seen publicised in the last week or two by respectable sources.

First of all that tai chi helps to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In summary, it seems that it does and I am happy about that, but look closely at the setup of the study and you find:
"The research team worked with 42 people with COPD with incurable lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Half the group attended Tai Chi lessons twice a week and practised at home, and the other half followed their usual medical management, which did not include exercise."
Did you notice that? The control group did not do any exercise at all! Surely then the headline result should be that exercise helps treat people with COPD and in this case, tai chi just happens to be a suitable form of exercise for them to undertake? I think pretty much the whole world is in agreement that doing exercise helps to improve your health, which is what this article should be saying. Exercise is good. Tai chi is exercise so that ticks the box. It may not be the best form exercise though. Perhaps yoga would be better? Maybe swimming would be better? Maybe an individually tailored programme including all sorts of different forms of exercise would be better? This study can say nothing about the marginal benefit of tai chi over other forms of exercise, only that this one particular class of exercise showed some benefits. A specific point result, not a general one. A study using tai chi, not a study about tai chi.

Secondly, Tai chi increases brain size and potentially delays the onset of Alzheimers. Clearly it does, that's great and I'm glad, but again lets look at the study setup:
"A representative sample of 120 non-demented, aged 60 – 79, selected from the same district in Shanghai was randomized [in] to four groups (Tai Chi, Walking, Social Interaction and No Intervention) for 40 weeks. One of the exclusion criteria is that participants could not have prior Tai Chi experience."
Do you spot the flaw with this? The exclusion criteria was not that people should also have had "no experience of walking" or "no experience of social interaction".... So what we get is four groups, one of the groups is learning a new skill, and being challenged in new ways. The other three groups are basically doing things with which they are no doubt highly experienced. Hence the result is that learning a new skill, or keeping mentally challenged helps to improve brain function. Well of course, pretty much everyone knew and agreed with that already. I bet if you had done the trial with "tai chi" replaced by "Scottish dancing", the results would have been similar.  The marginal benefit of tai chi over other similar activities is not being researched here. Violet Li doesn't claim that it does, but that's the tone and impression of her article. The next person in the chain will likely dilute it more (naturally), missing out some details, so that is begins to look more and more like an apples vs apples study.

For those who are interested Meditation in Motion has a third example which is deconstructed exactly as I have done here. This "tai chi study" producing the gound breaking result that getting up and moving is better than sitting around. Hardly revolutionary tai chi research I think you'll agree.

My point is that none of these examples are really tai chi research, rather they are examples of research that use tai chi. Tai chi research must compare tai chi to other equivalent forms of activity in a fair and controlled manner. If you don't do that, then you're not really saying anything about tai chi. Just because a study shows that tai chi delivers a benefit (which is good), it does not mean that that same or greater benefit cannot be delivered by other activities - a critical point that is almost always "forgotten" in the tai chi community.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Kung Fu Quest: Taijiquan


I just discovered a highly informative TV program on tai chi made in China called "Kung Fu Quest: Taijiquan". Obviously, it's slightly artificial (rather than a straight documentary) with the premise of taking three young martial arts practitioners and teaching them tai chi. Editing aside however, I found it a really informative and enjoyable little program focusing on the martial arts applications of tai chi rather than the health benefits. Moreover I found it sincere, genuine and respectful, especially as it features some extremely highly regarded tai chi practitioners including Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang.

Fully subtitled and narrated in English, so if you have an hour to spare, I highly recommend watching it. [Note, the show is actually in four parts, but has been uploaded to YouTube in five parts, so you may need to skip through the gaps where the adverts are supposed to go].









Tuesday, 31 July 2012

More tai chi on kinect - but this time it's dangerous

I see there is another Microsoft kinect game on the market that uses tai chi, this time "Self-Defense Training Camp". As I have written about before, I do believe that the kinect system is a viable way for people to learn some basic tai chi and chi gung exercises.

However, I have to disagree with the whole premise of this program. There is absolutely no way anyone should ever attempt to learn any self defence techniques from the kinect system. That is just plain ludicrous. Even some real word self defence classes I consider to be a bit dubious, as no one should be attempting any of these techniques unless they really know what they're doing.

In self defence situations, overconfidence is an extremely dangerous trap - running away or screaming for help is usually the best defence. If you think you can perform a technique, and it goes wrong, there is a much more significant risk of you being harmed. The point being that I can almost guarantee it will go wrong if all you use is this kinect game.

Actually I think this is bordering on corporate irresponsibility by Microsoft. I mean listen to this trailer.



The woman says "self defence made me feel more confident...". But she is a black belt in karate! She doesn't mean "self-defence the kinect game" made me feel more confident, but is being deliberately ambiguous to mislead people. I should basically stop there before I go on an extended rant about how advertising (which is deliberate manipulation) is harming society. This is just an example which is actually dangerous.

In short do not buy this game. If you want to learn some tai chi (rather than self-defence) using kinect, I recommend you try "Your Shape Fitness Evolved".

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The duan wei tai chi qualification system


My article on a mathematical way to calculate your tai chi skill level, was designed as an informal guide to your own progress. However (currently) the only true way to be able to gauge progress is to be judged by others.

I see that the Chinese Wushu Association has introduced a formalised assessment process to assign skill levels to practitioners. Given that it is all in Chinese, it's hard to actually see what the skill levels translate to. But Violet Li has a brief description, in her article about Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei being elevated to the 9th and highest level.
"The Duan Wei system is sub-divided into three categories: Elementary Duan Wei: One through Three; Intermediate Duan Wei: Four through Six; Advanced Duan Wei: Seven through Nine. For the Elementary Duan Wei and Intermediate Duan Wei, tests are required. Often times, practitioners need to score high in tournaments to qualify for a rank promotion. For the Advanced Duan Wei, practitioners need to have publication and/or research and exhibit significant contribution in promoting the art. There are also waiting times required between each Duan, for example, one has to wait at least six years before being eligible to apply for a rank promotion from the 6th Level to the 7th Level. With that, most masters who earn the highest honor of the 9th Duan have at least 50 years of experience in practicing the art and most of them earn their title in their 70’s or later."
I personally believe that formalised panels of senior practitioners conducting an "examination" over a few hours is most likely to give you an accurate reading of your skill. After all, this is essentially the same approach that we use for all other qualifications, academic or otherwise (this is especially true of nonscientific disciplines).

Tai chi ability is in some senses relative to the skill level of your peers (certainly when we are talking about martial arts applications). So what better way can there be to measure your own level, other than be to be judged by tai chi "professors"? 


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Tai chi gardening


Tai chi is a bit like gardening. When you go to a chi gung or "energy" type class, there will be all sorts of little tips and tricks that you should do to ensure your "chi flows properly". I'm thinking here of things like making sure men circle their hands one-way and women another, or making sure you do your chi gung exercises in the correct order.

If you are a gardener, you will be aware that there are precise times of the year to do each of the pruning, watering, feeding, harvesting jobs for optimal planting. You can even take this to the extreme by taking account of the lunar cycles.
Both however suffer from the same problem, that you just need to get out and do it. If you only go to one tai chi or chi gung class a week, which order you do your exercising is effectively irrelevant. Likewise, if you only have a restricted amount of time when you can do your gardening, just do what you need to at that time.

It is important to try and understand what is important and what is merely "enhancement".

Your tai chi will improve only if you do it every day, and at that point you can start worrying about all the subtleties. Just as your garden will look more beautiful, if you get out there every day tending to things just when they need it. If you only have limited time however, just concentrate on your breathing or prune like mad!

Friday, 13 July 2012

Tai chi in outer space


Extremely unusual Tai Chi article by Violet Lee over at Examiner. She reports how a Chinese astronaut has no doubt claimed a world first, by becoming the first ever person to practise Tai Chi in orbit around the Earth!

Obviously a bit of a stunt, as clearly when you're in a weightless environment, there's no such thing as rooting as you have to be strapped to the "floor", to prevent you floating away. Fascinating stuff. Presumably the body structures you would need in a zero G environment are entirely different to the ones you would need on earth. Or are they? Mmmm...


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Understanding chi

Entertaining tai chi page I just stumbled across along with a slightly tongue in cheek definition of "chi" that tickled my fancy. I don't have much more to add other than quoting it directly :-)

Chi means many different things to different people. Sometimes it correlates roughly with energy or force, but the way I hear it used it more often than not means "I don't understand". As such it is a useful word, as it rapidly makes you aware of the gaps in the speaker's knowledge. When I ask someone a question about Tai Chi and they use Chi as an explanation I know not to bother asking them again - they don't understand it themselves.
There is nothing mystical or supernatural about Tai Chi or in it's application as a formidable combat art. However peoples natural inclination to immediately assume such forces are at work when they don't understand how something works rears it's ugly head frequently with Tai Chi. Conversely if they believe supernatural/mystical power is at work then they don't understand what is really going on. This is certainly true for Tai Chi! My personal observation reveals a very close correlation between those who don't understand Tai Chi and those who attribute things to Chi.

The following table illustrates how to interpret statements people make involving Chi.

Chi termWhat this really means in plain English
He used Chi.I don't understand how he did that.
I use Chi.I don't understand what I'm doing.
Use Chi.I don't know how you should do it.
I lift my arms using Chi.I don't understand how my arms lift.
I transfer my weight with Chi.I don't understand how my weight changes.


Having said all this it should be noted that to some people the term Chi has no mystical or supernatural interpretations. To them it corresponds to concepts which are consistent with the laws of physics, and does not indicate a lack of understanding. This will usually be quite obvious from the way they use the word. It is when Chi is used to explain physical manifestations but cannot itself be explained physically that you should find a better source of information.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The benefits of injury in tai chi


Being unable to train in tai chi clearly sets you back, but sometimes through injury or illness it is inevitable. Having recently twisted my knee during an unrelated activity, I was once again reminded that there is a silver lining to being injured. If you look for it...

It has sometimes been said that if you take a break and then come back, you feel much more proficient. However wise masters will say that this is an illusion. The fact that you are reactivating all of your "tai chi muscles" after a break, means that you are suddenly filled with a rush of endorphins and sensations you misinterpret as proficiency. Do not get trick by this effect!

One thing however it is certain is that if you have a break in your training, your body will start to tense up, as you naturally adopt less optimal structures in your daily life. When you come back to it, you have an opportunity to notice which parts of your body have lost their fluidity. Pay attention to this, for it is a direct indication of bad posture in your daily life. Does your right shoulder feel exceptionally stiff? No doubt you have a natural tendency to to tense it for some reason. What a great clue to investigate the cause which may or may not be obvious.

If you have a specific injury (such as my twisted knee), although it might be painful or weak to begin with, the benefit is that it will be exceptionally sensitive. Tai chi should be about natural movements and postures, so if you can hold static postures reasonably well, but you notice shooting pains at particular movements, that might well indicate incorrect technique. If like me and your knee is weak for a few days, you will naturally pay attention to knee position throughout the form to ensure it is correct. Perfect! After all, we are training our concentration and body awareness abilities and there's nothing like pain to keep you focused!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Mosquitoes use tai chi to fly through rain

It seems that tai chi can be found in some unexpected places in nature! Researchers have shown that mosquitoes use the principles of tai chi (i.e. a yielding to incoming force rather than resisting it) to fly for through the rain. The mosquitoes also used rotation to escape the effects of surface tension, which could be analogous to the spiralling twisting action of frequently used in tai chi.

A more extensive write-up can be found here.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The sci-fi mandarin collar connection

I have one foot firmly in the martial arts camp and the other firmly in the science fiction geek camp. No doubt therefore that I should be wearing a mandarin collar. It has always been staggering to me that science fiction seems to have accepted that all uniforms of the future will be mandarin collar based. Does this mean that Chinese martial arts culture has come to symbolise power and authority? :-)

So let's take a look at the neck line of some classic kung-fu heroes, so we're all clear what a mandarin collar is...

Once Upon a Time in China

House of the Flying Daggers

Ip Man

Now let's have a look at some sci-fi heroes...

Star Trek
The Matrix
Battlestar Galactica

Futurama

Red Dwarf

Pretty compelling I think you'll agree. We can even see it in the most legendary sci-fi character of all. Perhaps he just has his western collar turned up, but if he does, it's a very small collar, so borderline Mandarin...

You don't know this one?! Get off my blog.

And of course it is not just limited to science fiction. Some of our favourite fantasy characters are Mandarin collar based...

Lord of the Rings

Game of Thrones

Anyone know any more? :-)

Friday, 25 May 2012

My local tai chi motion caputre facility

I just discovered there is a tai chi motion capture facility only about half an hours drive away from me at the University of Portsmouth! It seems that it is open to the public in principle (by arrangement), so I'm sorely tempted to go down there myself! Maybe this will be a realistic way in to start scientifically analysing my movements. And a lot of fun of course :-)

Obviously this is just a general motion capture facility, but it seems that one of the lecturers there is a fan of tai chi so sets his computer science students the task of building a virtual tai chi trainer system using motion capture and computer graphics. A very cool project no doubt. You can see a video here.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Tai chi animals


So I couldn't resist.... Seems the tai chi bug is spreading to our furry friends :-)







Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Shoot yourself not your master

Interesting angle on video training - that being able to rewind and replay means you see subtleties later that you miss on the first viewing. Obviously, this post has the subtext of trying to promote their "learn tai chi online" product, and it is careful not to say that video is better than learning from an actual teacher. But I nevertheless agree that video training does bring with it some additional benefits to enhance and review your understanding of what your teacher is saying.

Trying to learn tai chi purely from a video is like trying to learn to sing from a book - ludicrous. You need someone who can actually sing to hear what you're doing and correct you. However if you do have a singing teacher, learning from a book as well help you improve faster as it gives you an alternative perspective.

However I would say that the biggest gain of video is not watching a master over and over again, but rather watching yourself. Everyone has access to smart phones and digital cameras these days so it's really not that hard. If you video yourself and watch it back you'll be amazed. All sorts of things will jump out at you that you "didn't realise you were doing". You get an alternative viewpoint on yourself for which there is no substitute. I guarantee that if you start regularly filming yourself and watching it back you will improve in leaps and bounds.

After all, think about top international sports stars who effectively have unlimited resources for training. Where do they spend a great deal of their time? - video analysis. They video themselves, and watch it back. These are people who are at the top of their game and only focus on things that show results. Tai chi is no different - give it a go.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Three new tai chi movies for 2012

In movie terms, this year seems to be looking quite exciting for tai chi with three new movies on the horizon. Movies that also includes some big Hollywood names. So first of all we have:

Tai Chi 0


How much tai chi there is in this I'm not sure, but perhaps they just removed all those slow scenes from the high-energy trailer? Certainly has a bit of a steampunk feel (who knows, maybe there will be a tai chi steampunk robot - well I can hope). Looks set to be the first of a trilogy and is the nearest to hitting the screens of the three.




Jet Li's Tai Chi

It seems that this movie, will follow the adventures of Yang Luchan, may become a trilogy with the first one hopefully out this year. Jet Li himself is expected to play Yang in the second film, with a different (as yet unnamed) actor playing the younger Yang in the first, and another actor filling the role for the third film. But that's all just rumour at this stage and Jet Li certainly wants to promote tai chi, so wouldn't be surprised if he was heavily involved.

Man of Tai Chi



Finally we have Keanu Reeves making his directorial debut (and also starring in) this film which has just got underway shooting in China. Set in contemporary Beijing, Man of Tai Chi follows Tiger Chen, who was part of the kung fu team in The Matrix. In Man of Tai Chi, Chen stars as a young martial artist whose fighting skills brings him to a realm of vast opportunities, and painful choices. Keanu is another of the big celebrity names who has spoken out about his love for tai chi.

Looks to be an exciting 2012 - I can't wait!

Friday, 4 May 2012

How to calculate your tai chi skill level

Do you know how good you are at tai chi? If you have only been doing it for a for a few months it's pretty obvious you're only a beginner. Likewise, if you've practiced every day for 40 years you're going to be at a pretty high level - but most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Working out how good you are is not straightforward. Unlike external martial arts (like karate) there is no belt system to gauge progress [irrespective that most belt systems are primarily about revenue generation rather than true skill level, but let's not go there]. Although push hands can theoretically be used to gauge how good you are compared to your peers, it takes quite a high level of skill before this is actually a meaningful measure of tai chi skill, rather than just a form of "wrestling" and a result of hard strength rather than technique.

What I am going to do here therefore is set out a formula that you can use to calculate your approximate level of tai chi skill.

This calculation came about through two experiences that I had recently. First of all reading the The five levels of taijiquan book by Master Jan Silberstorff. This book defines some approximate time periods needed to achieve specific levels of tai chi skill. It gives some constraints which (combined with some assumptions) can be used to construct a formula for calculating your level of tai chi skill.

The second experience was attending a recent Easter training camp with Master Wang Hai Jun. Master Wang frequently speaks about the amount of training and effort required to progress in tai chi. Again he gave some specific numbers, combined with traditional teachings and sayings, that can be used to derive a tai chi skill calculation formula.

Plug in some numbers and out pops your approximate tai chi skill level - at least that's the idea. The premise of this approach is that "there are no secrets" as Cheng Man Ch'ing famously said. There are no secret techniques or shortcuts, the only way to get good is to practice. A lot.

Show your working


So, let's begin with the derivation, like any good maths student should. [For those of you who are not mathematically minded, or are simply not interested in why I have done what I have done, I suggest you skip over these explanations and graphs, to the end of this article and the "results" (such as they are)].

The first postulate that I'm going to make is that learning tai chi is a cumulative process. The more you practice, the better you get. I'm also going to assume that your skill level increases in a linear fashion. If one person practices twice as much as another person, they will be twice as good - which I think is a reasonable simplification to begin with. Basically, how good you are is directly proportional to your total practice time.

Now in order to gauge skill we need some objective measure of performance. Master Silberstorff's book expands upon the well-known five levels of tai chi skill outlined by Chen Wang Xiao. The result of my formula is therefore going to tell you what level you are using this yard stick. The only change is that (without loss of generality) I extend this concept from these discrete levels, to a continuous function so that more than likely you're going to end up being level 1.34 (or something).

The other thing I am going to define is that it is exponentially more difficult to go up the levels as you progress. This is a bit of an arbitrary assumption, but I can't really find any quantitative information on how much better someone at level 1 is compared to level 2 (say). So I'm going to define that each level results in a twofold skill level increase. Hence someone at level 4, is twice as good (whatever "good" means) as someone at level 3. And someone at level 3, is twice as good as someone at level 2. Level 2 is twice level 1, and so by implication someone at level 4 is eight times "better" than someone at level 1.

We can now put the bare bones of our formula together. As this is cumulative and linear, we can say that our tai chi skill is purely a function of how many hours of training we have put in. All I need is to introduce some constant that allows the mapping from number of hours training to skill level. Something like:
Skill level = constant *  number of hours training
Now I use the five levels book, to determine what this constant should be. The book gives the following two reference points. That a practitioner should be able to reach level (the top of) 1 after one year of training and (the top of) level 3 after seven years. The crucial point though is that this is for a student in the traditional model i.e. a young chinese disciple who gives up his life to live with his master as his apprentice, training extremely hard every day. [Note that it is one year to level 1, a further two years to get to level 2, and then another four years to get to level 3 = 7 years in total, which does fit with my exponential increase in skill level assumption that I made above, if you assume the student progresses at a continuous rate].

An assumpton is now required here. I'm going to say that this dedicated disciple is probably going to train on average about four quality hours per day. This is unlikely to be in one go, so if you allow time for warm-ups and occasional rests on top of that, you're more than likely talking about 5 to 6 hours of actual training time per day. I think that this is a reasonable long-term sustainable level (if it is your primary "job") but I'm happy to be corrected and would not be surprised if it was more.

This now allows us to calculate the constant which turns out to be 0.000018265. Below is the plot of this simple function on a graph of time versus skill level for this traditional student. We can see that the student is approximately at level 1 after the first year and approximately at level 3 after the seventh year. Note that the both the scales are logarithmic.
Time vs skill level for a traditional student practising for  4 hours every day
Time vs skill level for a traditional student practising for  4 hours every day
Even at this stage, this simple formula now allows us to do a bit of experimenting. Imagine (and this may not be too hard) that you are not this traditional disciple, but are only able to practice a bit each day. The following graph is a demonstration of how long it will take you to reach the top of level 1 given a different amount of practice each day. Note that I express the amount time for daily practice in the number of Laojia's (the chen style 74-movement long form) performed per day. This is the way the Master Wang Hai Jun expresses training. 

A Laojia takes about 15 minutes to do, so 15 laojia's represents about ~4 hours of training/day (but remember you need to add warmup time on to that). This graph shows that if you only do about a quarter of an hour of training each day, it's going to take you about 5,500 days (~15 years) to reach the top of level 1. If you do somewhere between 1 to 1.5 hours per day you'll be there in about 3 years. Our disciple does 4 hours a day and gets there in 1 year.
Number of days to reach the bottom of level 2, given different amounts of daily regular practice.

The uphill battle


Now we need to add in the second major component of the skill calculation formula. Master Wang describes learning tai chi as like riding a bicycle uphill - if you stop pedalling you go backwards. He also talks about the commonly used traditional saying that "one day missed is 10 days back". In other words you need to train absolutely every single day, otherwise you are seriously hurting your efforts. Tai chi skill is a cumulative thing, but every day you don't practice, you have to add "negative skill" to your current level.

Working out how to represent this analytically turns out to be a bit tricky. After all, what if you missed two days of practice in in a row? Are you now 20 days back? 11 days back? What about if you missed 10 days in a row? Equally, if you happen to have trained twice as long as normal for the previous 10 days, surely if you miss a day it's not going to be as bad as if you had not trained twice as hard?

The "one day missed is 10 days back" is a reference point, but it is only saying as Master Wang acknowledges and goes on to elaborate. He says that once you have reached a higher level, this fact is less of an issue and you can take the occasional day off without significant detriment. What this means, is that the amount of degradation in your tai chi skill, if you don't practice for a day, is dependent on your current skill level.

For simplicity of my formula I choose to make the degradation inversely proportional to your current skill level. The higher your level of tai chi, the less skill you will "lose" if you miss a day's training. Tai chi is like cycling up a hill, but the higher up the hill you get, the flatter the gradient becomes. Intuitively this makes sense, someone who has been practising for decades could miss a month or two (say through injury), but would be able to recover reasonably quickly. Someone who goes along to a few classes and then has several months break, is likely to find themselves back at square one.

Skill level change per day with no training = constant / current skill level

In order to work out what this second constant should be I make assumption that this "one day missed is 10 days back" saying is really aimed at someone who is just starting to learn. It is designed as encouragement to keep consistency in the early phases. I arbitarily choose this to be someone who is at level 0.5.

To quantify "10 days back", I will assume that student is following the advice of their teacher. Master Wang says that in order to make progress in tai chi you need to be doing at least five laojia's a day. However to only maintain your level (i.e. for health) he says you need to be doing two or three (i.e. ~30-45mins) per day. Hence, missing a day when you are at level 0.5 is equivalent to losing 25 laojia's worth of training. Using this constraint, it turns out that this degradation constant is 0.0014.
Impact of taking days off for people in the early years of their tai chi training.
The above graph shows the effect of missing days training for someone who is in the relatively early phases of learning tai chi. Each of these four curves represent the same total amount of training per week (one laojia per day). However in each of these cases the distribution of training and rest days is altered. The graph clearly shows that unless you train each and every single day, you never really get off the ground (if you only do 15mins per day average). I believe this is what the traditional wisdom is trying to say. Other graphs show that if you start at much higher level, say at level 3, your good work is not undone so rapidly, and you can maintain your level with days off. So that's a bit of a reward to look forward to after earning it with your initial years of dedication and hard work.

The formula


So here we go then with the tai chi level skill calculation formula. I have set it up to be a recurrence relation, so your level at (the end of) day n depends on your level at day n-1 and the amount of practice you did on day n. My units for "the amount of practice", p, is a points system I previously thought up for my particular style. However, for use in a different style 15 minutes is effectively 10 points. But remember, you can't include warm-ups etc. You only get points for concentrated effort, not for time spent standing around in your dojo. The reason I prefer points to time, is to reinforce this distinction. 

Tai chi skill level calculation formula

So we actually have quite a simple formula. I'm sure the constants could use some tweaking, but the aim of this is to give a first order approximation to your skill level. A sort of mathematical rule of thumb.

My temptation would be to spend a long time trying to refine and extend the formula to include second-order effects, but I'll resist as I don't think that's actually a very fruitful thing to be doing. This is supposed to be a guide, not an accurate measure. Everybody's situation is different, and so for any particular individual the formula is going to be more or less correct, but on average across everone, it should be a good approximation. As an aside however here are some thoughts on refinements and second-order effects:
  • Natural talent: Some people are going to be naturally more suited to tai chi than others and are going to improve faster. Equally other people might lose tai chi skill on days off at different rates. It's a fact of life and nothing can account for that.
  • Your teacher: How good your instruction is will make a big difference, as will how often you attend class. Mathematically I can imagine this is as an additional term in the function related to the difference between your skill level and your teacher's skill level. When the difference is big (your teacher is at much higher level than you), you will improve more rapidly.
  • Intensity: There is no doubt that it is not quite a linear cumulative process. Training for 20 hours over five days is better than training for 20 hours over 20 days. In formula terms, I imagine representing this as a derivative - a feedback so that the steeper the gradient of the recent past, the greater the improvement per "practice point".

A lookup guide to your tai chi skill level (a.k.a "the results")


So we're done with the maths now. [Welcome back all those of you who jumped ahead!].

Having developed a formula we can now put it to work. Of course you can use the formula yourself for your own circumstances to calculate your skill level estimate, but at this point it's probably sufficient to provide a few examples. Hopefully, one of these is reasonably close to what you actually do, and you can just use these guides and a bit of a fudge, to guess what level you might be.

Below is a table that sets out the amount of training time needed to reach level 1.0 and level 3.0 given a daily training regime. Remember though this is a rigorous daily training regime which means training each and every single day, without exception.


Training regimeTime to Level 1.0 (years)Time to level 3.0 (years)
15 mins per day every day15127
30 mins per day every day864
1 hour per day every day432
2 hour per day every day216
4 hour per day every day
(the traditional chinese disicple)
17

The problem is that most of us mere mortals find it difficult to train every day without exception. The next table therefore shows some more realistic training regimes, for those of you who are only doing tai chi as a "hobby" rather than your life's purpose.

Training regimeTime to Level 1.0 (years)
1 hour class a weekNever
1 hour class a week and 20 mins practice by myself a couple of times in betweenNever
1 hour every other dayNever
1 hour per day but take Sunday offNever

Bummer - what a kick in the teeth! Now we can see why Master Silberstorff says that 99% of tai chi practitioners are below level 1.0. By Western standards, doing an hour every other day would seem quite impressive in the context of "going to the gym". But we see from the table that even doing this supposedly prestigious amount is still never going to get you any real tai chi skill. Health benefits - yes, real tai chi - no.

But do not despair, the formula shows us an important aspect of training: the detriment of missing days is more pronounced at lower skill levels than higher. In practical terms, what this means is that when you're just starting, there is a crucial and necessary intensity/continuity period that is required. Once you get over this hurdle, you can slack off a bit (if you wish) and allow yourself a more interrupted training regime. If you slack off, you hamper your progress to the next level of course, but at least you won't be going backwards anymore.

The next table shows some examples with an initial period followed by a consistent period of doing one hour a day but taking one day off a week. The point of this table is to show how much and how long you need this initial period to be. There is a threshold where the amount of training outweighs the negative effects of number of rest days. If you are above this threshold you make progress and get there eventually, if you are below, your good work is always being undone and you never make any "real" progress.

Training regimeTime to Level 1.0 (years)
1.5hr/day for the first year. Then 1hr/day, 6days/week.4
1hr/day for the two years. Then 1hr/day, 6days/week.6
30mins/day for first three years. Then 1hr/day, 6days/week.9
1.5hr class once per week. Plus: 30mins/day for one year, and then 1hr/day, 6days/week.Never
1.5hr class once per week. Plus: 30mins/day for two years, and then 1hr/day, 6days/week.Never
1.5hr class once per week. Plus: 30mins/day for three years, and then 1hr/day, 6days/week.6
1.5hr class once per week. Plus: 1hr/day for one year, and then 1hr/day, 6days/week.5
1.5hr class twice per week. Plus: 30mins/day for one year, and then 1hr/day, 6days/week.Never
1.5hr class twice per week. Plus: 30mins/day for one year, and then 1hr/day, 6days/week.4
1.5hr class twice per week. Plus: 1hr/day, 6days/week, from the startNever

Effectively what this table shows is that it is the daily consistency in the initial phase that is important. It looks roughly like you need to put in about ~700hours of training without days off, to get over the threshold. The exact numbers here shouldn't be taken as gospel truth remember, this is only an approximate formula to give you a rough feel for things. The key message is:

If you want to learn tai chi seriously, you need to make a commitment to start off practicing every single day for a number of years.

The longer you can spend each day practising, the shorter the overall initial period will have to be before you're allowed to start taking occasional days off. But beware of starting to slacking off to early, as the "one day missed, 10 days back" effect will really start to hurt you, and you wouldn't want to waste all your earlier efforts.

So there you have it. The answer is simple, just as your teacher said. You need to practice every day.

The two paths


I can already here the cries.... "but I've been going to weekly classes for years, without practicing at home, and it's obvious I'm better".... Although I accept that this formula may well be too simplistic, such a sentiment would be to misunderstand the two paths of tai chi. The path I have been talking about here is the tai chi as a martial art path.

There is a second path however which is the health path, and is frequently referred to as the gentle dance path. On this path, what you're really learning is chi gung not tai chi. These skill levels and training requirements that I have been talking about, are about gaining a deep understanding, rather than how gracefully you can wave your arms around. With chi gung you can be very graceful (and healthy), but still be at a low level of tai chi understanding.

Any amount of tai chi will give you health benefits, but after all, you can get health benefits from going to dancing classes, or the gym, or sports.... If all you want is health, balance, a good way to manage stress, these levels are irrelevant - you enjoy it,  it makes you a bit healthier, that's all that matters. It is important to acknowledge this fact and be aware that you are on this path, which after all is an equally valid one.

Why is that important? Because on the health path you are not learning a martial art any more, and so you should not expect to ever gain any meaningful self defence skills or any of the really deep physiological, structural and awareness changes that transform your body. I'm sure a large proportion of practitioners, probably the vast majority, are entirely happy with that. But if you want to be in the 1% of people who are not, this formula shows you how to get there. Make sure you choose your path, because if you haven't choosen, you're almost certainly on the health one.

For me at least, this exercise has motivated and inspired me to redouble my training efforts as I want to learn tai chi, the martial art. Seeing those stark realities in black, white and mathematics has helped me to feel that I am on that path, and that every day's training really does count. I hope it might do the same for you.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Review: The five levels of taijiquan by Master Jan Silberstorff

This is a review, so I'm going to get straight to the point. Should you buy The Five Levels of Taijiquan? Yes - but only if you are a really serious or "advanced" tai chi practitioner.

So to rewind little, I have the greatest respect for Master Jan Silberstorff (and Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang), and have a lot of time for what he has to say. Indeed, I was quite excited about reading this book before it arrived, and being only a thin volume, devoured it in a couple of sittings. Master Silberstorff has a clear and simple style, writing as someone who evidently practises what he preaches and knows his subject matter extremely well. This is a subtle and thought-provoking book, but the problem is, it is almost certainly lost on you (and me).

So why is this? Well, first of all this is a translation and commentary on Grand Master Chen Xiaowang's essay on the five levels of tai chi chaun. This essay itself is freely available online and translated (for example here), and so the cold hard reality of the value for money equation is immediately diminished. But just like practising tai chi, what you see at face value is only a small part of the story - the subtleties of explanation and fine points are neatly identified and teased out in Master Silberstorff's commentary. Master Silberstorff also brings a Western perspective even going so far as to include graphs and dagrams. Where as Chen Xiaowang's essay talks in terms of chi, it is noticeable that master Silberstorff never really does so, preferring instead to use terms such as centre, connectedness and awareness. For me personally, this makes his explanations much more relevant and meaningful.

In a sense, this makes the book worthwhile, and there is much to recommend it, but only if you can appreciate those subtleties. In order to do so I would say you need to be at least a level 2 or a level 3 practitioner as, to quote from the book:
"We shall pay particular attention to level 3 (beginning at the middle of level 2), 4, and 5."
The problem is, that in all probability you are but level 1. To quote again from the book:
"About 99% of tai chi practitioners (students as well as teachers) worldwide are at level 1 and the beginning of level 2" ....[and in a subsequent section]... "Therefore, we can see that 99% is a rather conservative estimate, and a reminder to beware of ranking oneself too highly too soon."
Back of the envelop calculations based on some further explanations in the book, means that for a typical Westerner, fitting in tai chi practise around their 9-to-5 life and family, even if they take it quite seriously, are talking about decades of training before they reach level 2. Oh dear. To extend the analogy Master Silberstorff himself uses - this book is aimed at a post gradutate level audience, but 99% of practitioners are still in junior school. More than likely this book is simply wasted on you. No doubt you will gain a nugget or two of insight, but on the whole I would advise looking around for reading material aimed at a more approriate level.

The power of this book therefore is that it shatters illusions and puts you in your place. It makes you realise that tai chi is a lot of hard work... for the rest of your life... a mountain to climb, with a summit you are unlikely to reach. Perhaps that will cause many people to give up, but for me I actually find it quite inspirational. This book has helped me to focus on training with renewed vigour, to appreciate that I cannot just coast through and hope to one day wake up a Master.

There are two, equally valid, paths in tai chi the first is the "I do it for health" - the gentle dance path, the second is the "serious martial art" path. If you are on the former this book is irrelevant for you. If you are on the latter, it is worthwhile but only if have been practising for decades, most likely you are a tai chi teacher yourself already or a senior student at least. The fact that the target audience for this book is so incredibly small enhances my respect for Master Silberstorff. He writes for the elite as only a true Master can.