Blog Posts on Tai chi
In case you missed it
In case you missed all the wonderful posts on my facebook page, here's some interesting info:
* New research on the benefits of Tai chi
* Acupuncture on CBS news
* Acupuncture for depression, on Fox News
* From the FDA, how to dispose of old medications
* New research on the benefits and challenges to more individualized care
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When “Healthy” Isn’t
A NY Times article (1) reviewed a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (2) where veteran athletes (longtime runners) were found to have scarring in the heart muscle not present in younger athletes and older non-athletes. The implication – though, obviously, far from proven, or even completely spelled out – is that excessive exercise can be unhealthy.
Once again, I find myself happy to find some ancient Chinese wisdom working its way into the popular press.
Now, none of us are surprised that an excess can cause damage. There’s something simply instinctive about that notion.
There is an area of instinct, however, that I believe has been lost, overridden by popular opinion – the very idea of what constitutes healthy exercise.
Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you that you need to get an elevated heart rate for a certain amount of time, a certain number of times a week. The idea is that you have to “work” your heart to make it stronger.
This basic idea, fighting, struggling, efforting to improve yourself, in this case, your health, is deeply embedded in our minds. (It appears, to me, to be linked to the basic idea of competition being healthy, which is rooted in the idea of each person being a separate individual, thus, required to compete against other individuals, for survival – the whole thing rooted in the appearance of separateness, but I digress…)
There is “you”, there is the “goal”, and there is that which stands in your way, and you have to fight to get what you want or deserve in life. Struggle is seen as fundamental; in its absence is loss and deep suffering.
I would suggest that all of that is simply one approach to viewing the world, one possible way of interpreting existence.
Another way could be as follows: You, though appearing separate, are – at the very least – profoundly intertwined with others. There is no such thing as an action that only benefits (or harms) one individual, as no individual is truly separate. Only on the surface do actions look to damage one while lifting another.
Further, the idea of a need for conscious, willful action on the part of the individual for any hope of success is not necessary. I’m betting you have plenty of experiences of something great happening that was, actually, a surprise. You neither efforted for it, or even fully conceived of it, yet it brought happiness, success, etc.
Similarly, I’m sure you have plenty of experiences of struggling tremendously, yet not attaining goals. These stories abound, yet they typically go ignored or rationalized under the argument the person didn’t work hard or long enough…
Maybe it wasn’t the execution of the underlying belief that failed, but that the core idea, itself, is limited…
Maybe life isn’t empty in the absence of one’s active, willing, thinking mind. Maybe the trees grow despite the absence of mental intent or planning.
Maybe, just maybe, when/if you calm your mind of thoughts, desires, planning and contriving, a beautiful “plan” or idea just comes to you…
Maybe the beauty of the epiphany is that it occurs spontaneously – without effort – and from an unknown place – not the intellect.
The idea of good health only being possible with effort and struggle may have some truth to it, but, clearly – to use more scientific language – it’s limited in its applicability. Maybe you can grow stronger without being beat down.
This alternate hypothesis happens to be the stance of classical Chinese medicine. Now, clearly I’m biased, but when that system which is defined by being the accumulated wisdom of countless generations of sages and physicians says it’s not necessary to deplete yourself so that you can grow stronger, I gotta listen.
In a way, the approach of stimulating a system, provoking a system to do its job, in order to achieve some larger objective, as with breaking down a muscle to force it to regrow stronger, or challenging the immune system to force it to become more active, truly reveals that fundamentally individualistic reasoning – there’s you, then there’s your immune system – but, also, a certain ignorance.
If you knew how the immune system worked, you would more likely work with it to grow stronger, as opposed to standing on the side of the street chucking rocks at it to get it all riled up… wouldn’t you?
Such is the case with Chinese medicine. It is the grand collection of experiences with the human being, in health and illness. It sees behind the veil of separation and, thus, can side with the body to make it stronger.
This is how acupuncture works. I love showing my patients how teeny-tiny the acupuncture needles are and telling them “There’s no way this little thing is going to make you better! It’s you making you better!”
Only in extreme situations does the physician need to step in to replace the abilities of the body. For the vast majority of health issues, the body has the ability, potential, and wisdom to find health, but, again, I digress.
Healthy exercise simply makes the body more healthy and stronger. Not by forcing it into a corner, but by building it up. It’s so simple it borders on silly.
The body is designed to be strong. It’s designed to resist disease and fully recover when the uncommon happens. Only through obstruction of this basic instinct does disease arrive.
Health, then, is not a matter of making the body be or do anything more than what it already is and forever, spontaneously strives to do.
Healthy exercise clears the way for health; it doesn’t force health upon you.
Tai chi and yoga are the great examples that I’m aware of. They are based on the idea of opening up the flow of energy through the body. This flow is both the fuel and wisdom to function properly.
These systems of exercise are designed to help the body simply be true to its own, inner design. (They are, necessarily, based on deep understanding of the body, allowing them to work alongside you in health, as opposed to meeting you head-on in a battle of who is stronger – you or your body… kinda crazy, isn’t it?)
As was said at the outset, there is some truth to the idea of “struggle” in obtaining better health. Neither Tai chi, nor yoga is completely easy. It takes a certain type of effort.
The difference is that the struggle is always aimed at re-engaging parts of yourself that have become isolated. The struggle is in removing obstructions, reconnecting.
Physically, this is difficult (think of working out lots of knots during a good massage), but it is also very challenging mentally and emotionally. These things, these parts of ourselves that are stuck on the other side of the obstruction have been locked out for awhile; re-enlivening them can cause much discomfort.
Think of an arm that has fallen asleep and the “pins and needles” accompanying the fresh flow of blood. Then, add on the emotional component of re-experiencing events/thoughts/feelings that have been held, cut off from conscious awareness in the unconscious…
Attaining good health isn’t easy but you can see how it’s not really “forced”, in the way that forcing yourself to get up and run in the mornings is.
The reward for truly improved health is also far different than that fleeting feeling of having accomplished a goal of so many push-ups done or miles ran. Good health reconnects you to spirit, the divine, the ultimate, most deep, yet highest state of life. It is as inspiring as it is exhilarating.
So, rather than “work hard”, I’d say engage. Engage in life. If you must, struggle to return to health…
and do more yoga!
1. Reynolds, G. When Exercise Is Too Much of a Good Thing. NY Times, March 9, 2011.
2. Wilson, M. et. al. (2011). Diverse patterns of myocardial fibrosis in lifelong, veteran endurance athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21330616.
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Tai Chi and Quantum Physics
Once you see it, you see it everywhere. I think that basic statement holds true for a lot of things. Once you grasp some fundamental in one thing, you see it all over the place. That same, basic “mini-truth” in one area of life, pops up in others.
This is why, and how, I am able to move freely from Chinese medicine, to Taoism, to yoga, to Tai chi, to quantum physics, even, briefly, through web development and, believe it or not, contract and constitutional law – It’s all the same thing! Kind of. There are, simply, basic truths out there that are applicable in a lot (all?) fields.
This morning I had a little epiphany of a basic similarity between learning Tai chi and an essential difference between classical and quantum physics. (If you haven’t, already, you may want to read my post on quantum physics and Chinese medicine. It gives a very quick intro/review of physics, as it relates to Chinese medicine.)
For those of you who don’t know, Tai chi (Tai chi chuan) is a martial art that incorporates a style of training that involves slow, continuous movement of the body through a set of postures, all together referred to as a Tai chi “form”. The form takes anywhere from 10-20 minutes to complete.
Tai chi is one of the most powerful martial arts out there. It is, actually, in a class almost by itself. As a side effect of the training, health improves tremendously. Hence, its popularity for use as an exercise for health.
Learning Tai chi is a challenge. That’s the trade off. Its martial ability is far beyond the vast majority of martial arts out there, but it’ll take you, at least, ten years to train to that capability (whereas with the other styles of martial arts, you attain combat ability within a year or two of training).
It’s the same with the health benefits. Daily proper Tai chi can cure all kinds of diseases, lengthen life by many, many years, and improve the quality of life to a level, literally, unimagined before. The downside, of course, is you have to be training properly, doing Tai chi correctly – and that takes a lot of time and effort.
This morning, I was working one-on-one with a young woman who has been studying Tai chi for years (She actually holds a black belt in kung fu.) She knows Tai chi, and can move through the form with skill. It was her skill that allowed us to take the training to a new level. To an outside observer, it would appear we were getting “nit picky” with the details, and in those details I found a great example of an essential difference between classical and quantum physics. That difference, being a “fundamental”, can be seen in many areas of life, as well.
The move we were diving into is basically stepping and, while shifting weight from one leg to the other, moving the hands through a certain movement. As is typical of many Tai chi movements, there are tons of things happening within that single move. It’s very tricky to get all the parts of the body to do all the things they are supposed to be doing in a coordinated, smooth fashion.
In order to learn the move, it has to be broken down into smaller steps. You practice those steps repeatedly, and even have someone demonstrate the full thing to you, so you can try and mimic them. At one point, she did ask to watch me step through the movement. It was in her watching me and commenting on how I was effecting the move, that I realized, you simply cannot break down the move into little pieces. You just can’t. And – boom – there it is.
You can take this complex Tai chi move and break it down into smaller pieces, in order to practice it. However, those little pieces do not constitute the move. There’s the dangerous illusion. You have to reduce the move into smaller parts (just as classical physics does with nature, in an attempt understand it), but the move is not contained within those parts. They can only approximate it. And that is a core realization that came with the discovery of quantum mechanics.
Physicists thought that classical physics was accurately describing the world “as it is”, or was getting really, really close to doing that. But then there were some events that classical physics simply could not explain. Its theories were woefully inadequate. Through much experimentation and “out of the box” thinking, led in part by Einstein, eventually it was discovered that physics, of the time, wasn’t as accurate as once thought.
The world described by the formulas of classical physics, it turns out, is only basically correct. They’re close enough to allow us to do a quite a bit, but when you look closer, when you start looking at things at the atomic level and smaller, the world appears very, very different. Importantly, the “rules” of classical physics, the rules that we all pretty much agree the world follows, break down at the level of the very small, the realm described, specifically, by quantum physics.
I’m trying, desperately, not to get too terribly side tracked, here, but the basic idea is that the world, on the surface, day-to-day, level appears to follow certain basic principles. For instance, things appear quite distinct and separate. Clearly, this laptop is not this table. Causality holds pretty well, to. If I push this coffee mug to the edge of the table and further, it will (most likely) fall off the table and shatter. We have these basic “laws of nature” in effect, right? Well, kind of, but not really…
That way, above, we understand the world isn’t completely accurate. It’s pretty close, but, to get really picky, the above “laws” are only typically how things work. They describe the general tendency of things. (This is a specific point of distinction with the new physics. The world isn’t truly causal, with specific, accurate predictions able to be made. Such causality is replaced with probability.)
So the new physics says the old way of looking at things gives you a good impression of the world, but not it, exactly. With Tai chi, I can break down the movements, but even if we did so, and those steps were followed exactly, it’s still not Tai chi. Tai chi doesn’t exist as the sum of a collection of pieces.
For those who haven’t seen Tai chi in action, think of dancing. Imagine a dancer intentionally executing a list of moves, one after the other. It kinda looks mechanical, doesn’t it? It doesn’t flow. There’s something essential to the dance missing. Dancing is much more than just doing the correct moves in the correct order.
That something missing, that certain thing that brings the dance, Tai chi, reality, itself, alive, cannot be known through the strict logical, reductionistic ways of the old science. That old way gets you close, but it can’t get you there.
Interestingly, another similarity just popped up. Just as you can’t break Tai chi or dance down into isolated movements, reality can’t be broken down into little, indivisible pieces. The idea of atoms as being the basic building blocks of all matter has fallen apart. A world based on that idea approximates reality, but it isn’t it, exactly.
Instead, the new understanding places emphasis on the interaction between pieces of matter. It’s the movement, the dance, of those particles that is of importance. (Well, you may think, that is still using the idea of “particles”. The difference is, however, whenever you try to isolate any individual one, to try and get to know more about it, the less real or tangible, “knowable”, it becomes. It loses definition, meaning, when removed from the context of a specific interaction. It ceases to exist when you look at it by itself. That is, the only “real”, knowable thing is the interaction, the movement, the dance.)
Also, in both dance and Tai chi, there is something essential about the flow of the movements. They only really come alive when you “lose yourself”, the intentional execution of specific moves, one after another, disappears, and the movements just happen. Again, with classical physics, you had little pieces of matter interacting, and that just doesn’t quite cut it. Physicists have been forced to acknowledge that particles are better understood as energy, and not so much as solid, inert matter. Just as dance moves can look mechanical, the world actually appears to be like a big machine, when you try to understand it as made up of a bunch of little pieces. If you think about the world as made up of energy in constant interaction, you get something much better resembling reality.
To me, this extends to so many other things in life. The logical analysis always seems to fall short of truly capturing the nature of the thing described. It’s only in the direct experience that you can truly “know” a thing, any thing, the most important things… And, yet, we value logic as a describer of reality so highly. We demand things “make sense”. We demand strict, rational “proof” before acknowledging or accepting something new… but I am in danger of digressing… again.
I honestly thought the idea for this post was gonna go for maybe three paragraphs. It seemed so simple!
Thanks for indulging me on this one. More later…
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