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Health and martial arts

As I see it there are three aspects to the practise of traditional martial arts: Defence/fighting (fang shen), health (jian shen) and philosophical. Emphasising one on the expense of the others leads to some kind of unbalanced situation. There are plenty of examples of people who has been practising only for health ignoring the martial and philosophical side with the result of harmless, empty movements at best and harmful, unnatural movements at worst. If we ignore the philosophical aspect then it becomes a mere physical exercise, lacking depth and something worthy of a lifetime of study. If we ignore the martial side then we have no means to verify if our practise is progressing or not and the meaning of the movements are lost. If we ignore the health aspect we will start to indulge in harmful, unbalanced practises that in the end will prevent us from constant evolving and growth. In this present age with a global culture characterised by impatience, consumerism, and value nihilism I think we have a responsibility to present an alternative where diligent practise, constant improvement, harmony and balance are at the core.

Investigating the health aspect a bit more in detail, there are some questions we can look into: What makes a movement beneficial for health? What makes a practise healthy? What kind of health benefits is reasonable to expect from martial arts practise?

If we look at movements and postures there are some things to consider:

  • Unnatural movements are unhealthy, natural movements are healthy. An unnatural movement is something that goes against how the body is constructed e.g. turning or twisting the knees, torquing or bending the spine to a great degree, letting the elbow joint take care of the force when punching by making it completely straight at the end of the punch.
  • Compensating for bad posture by using muscular strength. If we strive to make postures and movements as effortless as possible we avoid developing a lot of unhealthy habits.
  • If we have stiffness in the body we should stretch and loosen those parts so that we can move more freely. If we have spent a lot of time sitting on chairs (as we do in the west) then the hips are usually quite stiff which results in movements that might “seem” natural e.g. turning the knees when turning the body but are in fact due to a stiffness of the hips preventing one to move in a more truly natural way.
  • Lü’s Spring and Autumn annuals from 239 BC observes:

Running water does not become stale, a door hinge (of wood) does not become worm eaten

Hence exercises should be gentle and focused on increasing the flow of vital energy and bodily fluids.

  • Numerous studies (e.g. examples at the bottom) has shown that standing postures, soft, flowing movements and stretching gives positive health benefits for breathing, digestion, skin, immune system, and the central nervous system as well as better sleep and improved restoration.
  • Breathing properly and deeply can do wondrous things for ones health. Zhuang Zi wrote:

The True Man of ancient times was breathing from deep inside.
The True Man breathes with his heels; the common man breathe with their throats.

Another important information is to observe the age and health of long term practitioners. When looking at this we need to keep in mind that heretical and environmental factors play a big role in ones health and lifespan. Nevertheless many Xing Yi and Ba Gua practitioners where in vibrant health in the upper 80’s. Sun Jian Yun maintained an active practise throughout her entire life and her mind remained crystal clear. Di Zhao Long still practised Neigong and Bagua 3-4 hours a day in his upper 80’s and loved travel and hiking on mountains.

It might be tempting to make alterations to Tai Ji or Qi Gong movements to create simplified health exercises while still claiming the same benefits. I think such claims should be regarded with a lot of scepticism.  If you strip the martial or philosophical sides away and try to create some system that is only focused on benefiting health then you have created something completely new that would need a few generations to prove its worth and its promises. Is it not better to preserve the wonderful practises that we have and perhaps try to improve a small bit on them after decades of practise?

Scientific studies on Tai Ji and Health

* Au-Yeung, PhD, Stephanie S. Y.; Christina W. Y. Hui-Chan, PhD, and Jervis C. S. Tang, MSW (January 7, 2009). “Short-form Tai Chi Improves Standing Balance of People With Chronic Stroke”. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair 23 (5): 515. doi:10.1177/1545968308326425.

* Effects of T’ai Chi exercise on fibromyalgia symptoms and health-related quality of life. Taggart HM, Arslanian CL, Bae S, Singh K. Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, GA, USA. PMID: 14595996 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

* McAlindon, T, Wang, C; Schmid, CH; Rones, R; Kalish, R; Yinh, J; Goldenberg, DL; Lee, Y; McAlindon, T (August 19, 2010). “A Randomized Trial of Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia.”. New England Journal of Medicine 363 (8): 743–754. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa0912611. PMID 20818876

* Liu H, Frank A. Tai chi as a balance improvement exercise for older adults: a systematic review.

* Wang WC, Zhang AL, Rasmussen B, Lin LW, Dunning T, Kang SW, Park BJ, Lo SK. The effect of Tai Chi on psychosocial well-being: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials.

* Jahnke R, Larkey L, Rogers C, Etnier J, Lin F. A comprehensive review of health benefits of qigong and tai chi.

* Wang C, Bannuru R, Ramel J, Kupelnick B, Scott T, Schmid CH. Tai Chi on psychological well-being: systematic review and meta-analysis.

* Wang W, Sawada M, Noriyama Y, Arita K, Ota T, Sadamatsu M, Kiyotou R, Hirai M, Kishimoto T. Tai Chi exercise versus rehabilitation for the elderly with cerebral vascular disorder: a single-blinded randomized controlled trial.

* Lavretsky H, Alstein LL, Olmstead RE, Ercoli LM, Riparetti-Brown M, St Cyr N, Irwin MR. Complementary Use of Tai Chi Chih Augments Escitalopram Treatment of Geriatric Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial.

Xing Yi as a way of life

Xing Yi as a way of life as I see it is certainly not the vulgar path of optimizing one’s ability to do harm as a way of life but rather a method of studying and serving life itself. To be human is to be in relation to others and in relations conflict often occurs. Conflict is a fundamental part of life. There is competition over resources, conflict due to opposing agendas, conflict due to misunderstandings etc.

Xing Yi is a kind of Wu Shu which usually translates as Martial Art. The meaning of the character Wu (武) is composed of two parts: Zhi(止) meaning ”to stop” and Ge (戈) meaning halberd. Shu (術) means art or craft. The simple meaning of Wu Shu is therefore ”the art of stopping violence”. Learning to resolve conflicts effectively is thus a very important thing and Xing Yi is a way to practise conflict resolution. Being in the service of life means to work with birth and death, creation and destruction to support it. Sometimes things need to be destroyed to make room for something new. When structure and order becomes stiff and rigid or is no longer serving life it is time for it to die. Sometimes new things need to be created to fit circumstances better. In order to make progress and to be able to live in harmony with ourselves, with others and with nature we constantly renew and create new things that enables this better than before. The five elements creative and destructive practise set is a way to help us understand the theory of creation and destruction.

In serving life we begin with the study of self preservation in Xing Yi. If we want to preserve ourselves we need to understand who and what we are so we understand what it is that we are preserving. For this reason the study of self and others in the most fundamental sense, is at the core of Xing Yi. Self preservation means strengthening and understanding the body and mind through practise. It also means gaining the ability to efficiently defend ourselves against an attacker. Where some people find the pursuit of martial arts to be the development of the most efficient combat system that can inflict maximum damage to an opponent, we see the necessity of being able to stop violence as quickly and efficiently as possible in Xing Yi but do not stop there. Instead we take this a good first step, connected to development of Ming Jin, and then further develop this martial provenness in the service of life in two dimensions.

The first dimension: Once I have acquired the ability to defend myself against an opponent, regardless of the amount of damage that I do to him, I extend this ability so that I am able to defend my friends and family against evil doers as well. Once I have learned to do this I extend this ability to serve society in stopping evil doers from destroying society for their own selfish aims.

The second dimension: Once I have acquired the ability to defend myself against an opponent regardless of the amount of damage that I do to him, I extend this ability so that I am able to defend myself with a minimum damage done to the opponent. This coincides with the development of An Jin. Once I can defend myself with minimum damage to the opponent I extend the ability to be able to defend myself with no damage to the opponent. Once I can defend myself with no damage to the opponent I extend the ability to dissolve or transform the conflict before it even breaks out into physical action. This practise coincides with the development of Hua Jin or transforming force in Xing Yi. At its ultimate level, no conflicts ever occur as immediately when a potential conflict arises it is transformed into win-win collaboration or cooperation in the service of life instead.

The practise of Xing Yi is not about repeating forms and movements over and over hoping to force some movements into becoming automatic reflexes. It does mean embracing form and ritual to connect with and explore fundamental truths about ourselves and nature and it does mean rigorous practise of movements over and over to discover and remove blockages to allow the movements to be expressed freely and naturally however. Repeating patterns over and over becomes a kind conditioning that is contradictory to the essence of Xing Yi unless we approach it with awareness, curiosity and a desire to go deeper. As much as the practise of fixed form is absolutely necessary be it doing pi quan or beng quan back and forth for hours on end, standing in San Ti, work on a sand bag or practising two man sets, it must be balanced with the practise of free form Quan Wu (shadow boxing) and various forms of free sparring to properly nurture one’s ability to improvise and create. In my mind, Xing Yi without creative improvisation is not even half an art.

Xing Yi as a way of life does not mean rejecting everything else such as pursuing a career or family life for the sake of practise but to make Xing Yi part of all aspects of life. If you can practise Xing Yi 24 hours a day how can you not improve much faster than someone who only practises for a couple of hours each day? Finding a way to always practise Xing Yi includes paying attention to your posture when sitting at your desk at work, or cleaning the floor at home. It means paying attention to how you interact with your colleagues at work and your spouse and kids at home – is it in the spirit of supporting life, transforming each moment towards higher refinement and depth? It means practising awareness of oneself and of the surrounding when going to work or buying vegetables. It means always maintaining integrity, generosity and a search for a deeper truth. It means the practise of doing things whole-heartedly with mind, intent and action as one. It means serving life by listening with your whole system to find harmony, let that with needs to die, die, and engage every moment with creativity and focus.

What is the right way?

Ever since coming back from a workshop in Taiji i did in the UK I have received questions about what the correct way is to do a certain movement or the correct way of practising this or that is.

My take on this is that there is a right way but the right way is not the same for everyone. At the same time, this does not mean that whatever I think is right is correct – actually most of the time it is wrong. The thing though is to keep trying and to learn from ones mistakes. The last couple of years when I was training with Sun Jian Yun was very different from the how we practised before (which was essentially learning the details of the movements and how they worked as well as listening to lots of stories about her father, Sun Lu Tang, and his other students). More and more teacher Sun would ask me a question (many times a phrase from the taiji classics or her fathers “the true meaning of boxing”) and then send me to the park to research it myself. I would then come back after 3-4 hours and tell her about what I had come up with. Sometimes she would say that I was completely wrong and have to start over again but most of the time she would give me hints about aspects or areas that I had not considered and I would continue to work on it. This way the dialogue of the topic i.e. the question, my own research and practise and my teachers input and hints would continue and deepen until we got to a point where she would be satisfied enough to move on to the next question. She said to me at one point that she did this because she was now in an advanced age and being from Sweden I needed a way to keep progressing even when she was not around. I am immensely grateful for these last years and they have proven to be one of the most important things I have learned in the study of martial arts.

There is a paradox between Taiji as a system and Taiji as an embodied experience in the sense that there is really no Taiji outside of you and yet you are in a constant dialogue with it. Focusing only on question of “the right way” without understanding this dialectic makes the pursuit shallow in my humble opinion. I mean, on one hand there is such a thing as “the spirit of Sun style Taiji” which guides you and informs your practise, on the other hand Taiji is nothing outside of what you have found in your research to be true and which you can do.

One of the ways to look at the role of the teacher is to help students to find a productive way to relate to this – sometimes pointing to the classics or to high level practitioners of old, other times encouraging the students to look into themselves, to question and to research what works and what is true essentially acting a kind of mediator holding this paradox live and present as it is the doorway to progress and deepening in this wonderful martial art.

Martial Virtue

The practise of martial arts is a personal journey but require help and support from friends and teachers to be successful. Sun Jian Yun often talked about two aspects of martial arts as Wu Gong meaning martial skill and Wu De meaning martial virtue. Martial virtue is Shou De (hand virtue) and Ping De (Virtue of character). Shou De means to use your martial skills for good deeds e.g. protecting someone who is bullied, not doing unnecessarily harm but lead the unrighteous on to the righteous path, transform violence into peace and use your strength and skill as an expression of loving kindness. When your skill level is low you will need to exert force and cause harm to the person attacking you in order to defend yourself. As your skill increases you will be able to diffuse or transform a violent or potentially violent situation without harming the attacker.

Virtue of character (Ping De) means to develop honesty and uprightness, benevolence, charity, faithfulness, integrity, good manners, respect etc. We start with our selves and get to the root of our own violence and other things stopping us from cultivating virtue. Learning to see our conditioning and how to be freer in relationship to that is just as important as cultivating virtuous qualities.

Many times Sun Jian Yun talked about virtue in the from 3 different perspectives: Virtue in a Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist sense.

The Confucian sense was the basis of her teaching on virtue. They include the cultivation of benevolence, righteousness, etiquette, knowledge, integrity, loyalty etc.

When talking about Ping De from a Buddhist perspective she sometimes looked at them as moral practises like the 5 precepts: not to kill but to cherish all life, not to steal but to respect others, not to misuse sex but to cultivate sincerity and integrity, not to lie but to be truthful, not to misuse drugs but to strive for clarity of mind). At other time she was more emphasising qualities like the paramitas: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, focus, wisdom.

When discussing Ping De from a Daoist perspective she saw virtue as both the expression of the way (i.e. that virtue is a natural expression of truth) and the sign that you are in accordance with the way (i.e. if you act virtuous then you act in accordance with truth).

The character Wu (武) in Wu Gong is made up for the character for “stop” and the character for “lance” i.e. “to stop violence”. Stopping violence is not just learning to defend oneself from physical attack but also about not contributing to increased or prolonged violence. This includes holding grudges, violent speech, violent thoughts, violent feelings etc.. It is true that we need emotional content when we practise martial arts and engage in life, but not unmanaged anger or hate.

The practise of Sun style martial arts is learning to transform anger into assertiveness, hate into engagement, and aggression into decisive action. The heart must be tranquil, the mind quiet and the soul at peace. The practise of sitting and standing allows us to get a taste of true stillness. The practise of walking the circle or doing the Taiji form allows us to get a taste of this stillness while in motion. As it becomes more and more involved – in applications practise, two man practises such as wu xing sheng ke or tui shou as well as duan da and san shou, we must make sure this connection with our true selves are not broken and that the connection with inner peace is not lost. If it is then we need to trace the root of the problem back to its origin and uproot it thoroughly. Uprooting means to acknowledge it and see into it to understand it clearly and then to learn to direct the energy in a different, more creative and constructive, way.

In Sun style we talk about whole body power being the correct way of acting. This is the power that comes from heart, intention, Qi, force and the physical body united i.e. it requires wholeness. Wholeness is health. In Swedish, “hela” (to heal) is a verb coming from “hel” (whole) i.e. to heal is to make whole. In order to be healthy we need to live healthy lives. In order to live healthy lives we need to examine it mindfully and work on all aspects of it.

Having many students is not important compared to having a good, stable and deepening practise. Being able to knock someone’s teeth out is not important compared to one’s ability to calm down and defuse conflict in everyday situations. Sun style martial arts help you to know yourself and to know others and to find the courage and power to act in accordance with this knowledge. It requires diligent practise, deep reflection, clear intention and a strong love for the truth.

Practising forms

Forms have a special place in Chinese martial arts. Almost every martial art in China (with some important exceptions, e.g. Yi Quan) have forms which consists of a sequence of movements connected together. It places such a central role that they in many respects represent the essence of the art.

The practise of forms has been criticised by many. In some cases for good reasons and in other cases due to ignorance about how to make forms practise deeply meaningful and conducive to ones development.

A form as just a sequence of movement is just a shallow indoctrination of habitual patterns and if practised mindlessly as some kind of repetitive callisthenic will at best have a slight health benefit but will give you nothing in terms of martial ability or personal development. Fortunately, it is possible to go beyond shallow repetition into a space of dialogue and insight.

There are two phases in form practise where the second one depends on the first.

The first phase is about learning the form. Learning the form starts with learning each movement. Understanding each posture and the transitions between the postures. In any Chinese martial art there are several applications for each movement and to learn the form properly you need to learn at least 3 different ones for each movement in the form.  You also study the type of power (Jin) that is expressed in each movement. In the internal martial arts any kind of power is an expression of whole body power (Zheng Ti Jin). Whole body power is achieved by adhering to the six harmonies. It often becomes apparent when learning a form that there is some aspect of six harmonies that was not understood before. To address that one needs to practise more basic exercises such as standing, walking or  single movements until that particular aspect of whole body power has been found and integrated. Learning the form is a lot about about precision. There is no room for individual interpretation at this level. The form needs to be performed exactly according to standard, down to millimeter precision. Of course if there are physical limitation that is taken into into consideration.

While you are learning the form you are also finding a place in your daily life to practise it. After some months you will have a daily ritual of practise of the form. It will take another couple of months until that ritual starts to deepen your practise. Thus the second phase begins. If the first phase took concentration, discipline and devotion the second phase requires curiosity, openness, inquiry and listening. You need to relax into the ritual to the extent that you stop “doing the form” and instead let the form do you. This opens the dialogue where the wisdom of the past generations who devoted themselves to perfecting the form starts to tell you their secrets allowing you to investigate strategy, application, power, the flow of qi, why postures are the way they are etc. Rushing it or wanting it too badly will not help. You need to patiently and gently inquire and listen in the temenos (sacred container) of the ritual you have created around your daily practise. Verify your findings in pushing hands and free fighting with your boxing siblings and with your teacher who could verify and guide you to even deeper levels. Properly cultivated, this dialogue and the teachings of the form can continue for the rest of your life allowing you to slowly improve day by day.