Naturalistic Tai Chi

A naturalist error is one in which we fail to make a distinction between something that is factual or concrete knowledge and something which is a prescription for action or what ought to be done; also known as the is/ought fallacy. Ex. Just because drinking alcohol *is* helpful in preventing some medical problems, doesn’t mean we all *ought* to be drinking.   If it feels good, should we always do it?   Not necessarily.  Through scientific study, we learn about the world and much about our bodies function and structure.  But how we are to use that knowledge in our Tai Chi is quite a separate matter.

This problem is represented by two separate fields of exercise science: biomechanics and motor control.   In biomechanics, we learn about muscle anatomy and equations for determining the velocity, force, torque, etc of bodily movement.  Much of this research is done by video analysis, or things we can see externally.  Motor control, on the other hand, is concerned with what we think about, focus on, or are told to do in order to produce movement.  It focuses more on the internal world.  Or to sum up:  Biomechanics describes what movement is while motor control is concerned with how movement is produced by humans.

Things get more interesting when we start talking about the mind, or the cognitive neuroscience of movement. When we “think” about movement the part of the brain most utilized is the thinking part of the brain or the cortex, more specifically, the motor cortex and some nearby regions. As movements become more skilled and require less conscious control, sub-cortical regions of the brain like the cerebellum take over.  This unconscious control center, which is responsible for refined movement, contains half the neurons in the entire brain, demonstrating how the brain’s structure prioritizes the importance of movements which are not consciously controlled.

Specifically thinking about a movement, according to the brain’s structure, means that we are engaging in a movement which is less skilled or not even a skill at all.  Thus in Tai Chi practice, if we are thinking about which muscles to use when or about the various angles of our joints while moving, we have not yet refined those movements enough so that they can be taken over by the cerebellum, i.e. unconsciously controlled  This is perfectly normal in the beginning when learning a new skill, but as we advance we must practice letting go of excessive “biomechanical” thoughts, so that we can develop smoother more efficient movements.

Learning biomechanics or anatomy is not necessary for learning or even teaching Tai Chi.  Thinking about movement is different from the physics of the movement that occurs.   It actually may do more harm than good. In motor learning research studies, it’s been shown that when students are told to focus their minds externally, that is focus on the effects their correct movement is supposed to have rather than focusing internally or on the feeling of certain muscles being used, joint angles etc, those focusing externally have the advantage in learning the new movement.  Teachers often make the mistake of telling students that a movement should “feel” a certain way or that this muscle should be used, but this is not how people learn new movements efficiently.  Thinking externally by being told things like “punch toward his gut” initiates a lot of automatic control processes in the brain that naturally coordinate many of the desired muscle actions.  Once that basic movement has been ingrained in the mind then the student can gradually devote more cognitive resources to refining certain aspects of the movement and improve how it feels.

In the internal martial arts, many instructors have experience with traditional Chinese medical terms like Qi and have little anatomical knowledge.  Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, yet if taught right away, it could cause students some learning difficulties due to the inefficiency of internal visualization.  Saying things like “train your Qi” also has very limited benefits for teaching people how to develop practice methods that are specific to them.  “Qi” is a representation of how we feel performing certain movements.  How anyone feels during movement is very subjective, and telling people that they should feel a certain way may not help them move any better at all.  This is where some might start talking about biomechanics instead, thinking that the more accurate depictions of movement will help people move better.   However, attempting this would mean bumping into the classic degrees of freedom problem in motor learning studies, namely that there are so many possible configurations of the various joint angles of the entire body that we must somehow choose from a mathematically infinite number of movement possibilities — far too much for our conscience minds to handle at the speed needed for athletic activities.

So what are some good visualization techniques?  As noted above, the best ones are those that have some depiction of the motion that is outside the body.  For example, when working on the stability of various fixed postures, try imagining being able to support pressure from several different directions.  The imagery can be aided by having someone push on you from different angles. Imagining outside forces prevents the mind from focusing too much on particular aspect of the movement or specific muscle groups and naturally unifies the body.

Thinking of the martial art applications is often a useful way to get people to learn new movements quickly.  Some Tai Chi practitioners are resistant to this idea because they feel that thinking of direct applications with lose sight of Tai Chi’s emphasis on relaxation.   In the beginning this will be true; however, no movements can be very relaxed when they are first being learned.  I argue that it is better to first teach the move in the most efficient way possible so that greater relaxation can begin to occur even sooner than if we focused on relaxation right from the beginning.

Some martial art applications are too complicated for the beginner to usefully visualize in the early stages of learning; this is especially true of the internal styles of Kung Fu.  For those I would suggest other less complex imagery to aid in learning such as drawing lines in the air with the hands/feet or moving imaginary objects around.  These visualizations are simply a means to an end, and can be discarded once the basic movement becomes more automatic.

To sum up,  what we actually think about to produce movement in the martial arts doesn’t matter in the least, as long as it helps us move the way we want to, whether it be qi energy flowing from your dantian or equally imaginary arcs, angles, and line segments in the air. After all, the goal for martial artists should be to not have to think about their own movements at all, but to devote those precious cognitive resources to discerning the movements of the opponent.

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