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
  • 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].