Archive for the ‘Taiji and Other Martial Arts’ Category

Naturalistic Tai Chi

July 26, 2016

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.

Taiji vs Xing-yi training methods

July 13, 2009

I came across a board discussion the other day over at Tim Cartmell’s Shen Wu website which I feel compelled to comment on.  A Richard S. wondered, “Perhaps if every Taiji instructor started students with standing practice, countless repetitions of a few foundational single postures, and application work on those single postures they would have the same reputation for being effective fighters from the beginning [as do Xing-yi fighers]. ”

Of course the first point here is that many people do practice Taiji in the ways described above, and I will go into how that can easily be done a bit later.  It is probably true; however, that the vast majority of Taiji practitioners only practice the form, maybe some push hands, and little else.  I believe the reasons for this are two fold:

1. Yang Taiji was largely popularized because it only requires a person to learn a single empty hand form, wherein the important moves were repeated several times, the intensity of the workout can be adjusted by the preference of the practitioner, and which the calming effect of practice is felt after only one round.

2.  Doing repetitions of single moves from the taiji form is probably not nearly as satisfying  (at least at first) as repeating the 5 fists of Xing-yi.  When practicing the 5 fists or the 12 animals you are practicing an explosive martial technique with each rep., with one technique executed per second or less.  When doing a similar exercise with Taiji, on the other hand, the movement might have a martial application, but one’s main focus should be on correct body alignment, relaxation, and other taiji principles.  A complete movement will be executed every 4-5 seconds or more.  Doing the moves slowly helps to condition the body for the more flowing and centered application work taught in push hands.

Having said all that, it is my firm belief that if anyone really wants to be good at taiji, they absolutely MUST go beyond simply running through the form.  For starters, basic waist turning and weight shifting exercises ought to be taught first, even before standing practice IMO, not only because nearly all the principles of taiji can be  shown in this way, but also because these help loosen up the hips so that the correct alignment in standing practice can be achieved more easily.

As for repetitive movements, those should be easy to do.  Brush Knee, Cloud Hands, Monkey Steps Back, and Part Horse’s Mane are all designed to be done in a line much like the Xingyi 5 fists.  Monkey Steps Back ought to be paid particularly close attention to since those straight backward stepping muscles are only worked in that move of the form. One could  move forward with Brush Knee then return with Monkey, go forward again with Part the Horse’s Mane, then return again with Monkey to make sure the move is practiced a bit more than the others.  Also, it is good to do Cloud Hands moving in both directions and not just to the left side.

Other moves, like Golden Rooster and Separate Foot can be repeated while standing in place.  Fair Lady can be repeated simply by continuing to move along the four corners.  Switching the turn step, so that you move in a counter-clockwise pattern will ensure both legs get same workout.

Finally, the most important move to practice repetitively is Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail (aka. Ward Off, Roll Back, Press, and Push)  The reason being is that this move is the foundation for push hands practice from which all the intuitive martial skills of Taiji are learned.  If this move is not mastered, it is impossible to make any further progress.  Whereas if this move is done correctly, even if all the other moves are less than perfect,  a decent level of skill can still be achieved.  The best way to practice this move is to do it on both sides, stepping forward with the rear leg after each side is completed and repeat.  It may feel strange to practice on the opposite side like that, but if done enough times applications will feel much more fluid and natural when working with a partner for push hands practice.

To conclude, doing all of the above exercises can certainly improve one’s taiji.  Whether or not they will make one as good a fighter as a Xing-yi stylist is a different question in my mind as will be elaborated on in a subsequent post.  For now, it is enough to say that even if similar training methodologies are used, taiji and xingyi are still very different kinds of martial arts and as such will produce very different martial artists.