Just one Thing – Dr Michael Mosley on Tai Chi (BBC Radio 4)

The Just One Thing series from Dr Michael Mosley is a radio show on little ideas that might make a big difference to your life. This week he’s looking at Tai Chi, and seeing what difference 15 minutes a day can make.

Dr Mosely looks at the scientific evidence for Tai Chi being as effective as conventional exercise. It’s quite interesting. One study said Tai Chi was better than brisk walking, for example, which is something I’ve always wondered about. He also looks at Tai Chi’s effect on the brain.

Here’s the blurb

“If you’re looking to add more exercise into your lifestyle why not consider Tai Chi. It’s an ancient Chinese martial art – it’s sometimes called “meditation in motion”. It’s a series of different postures that gently flow into each other in slow movements. One of the big benefits to Tai Chi is that it can significantly enhance the activity of our immune system. And although it looks gentle, it can be a surprisingly good workout! Michael Mosley speaks to Dr. Parco Siu from the University of Hong Kong, who has been studying the health benefits of Tai Chi for over a decade. His research has revealed that Tai Chi can lead to faster brain benefits than other exercises. He also found that Tai Chi was as effective as conventional exercise like moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or muscle strengthening activities for reducing body weight and visceral fat!”

Listen here. (15 minutes long).

Lou Reed – The art of the straight line

Acclaimed rock ‘n’ roll icon Lou Reed (Walk on the Wild Side, Perfect Day) was also a Tai Chi fanatic, practicing Chen style since the 1980s. Sadly, Lou passed away in 2013 from liver cancer, but his writings about Tai Chi, meditation and music are about to be published by HarperCollins. The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi, is out on March 14 via HarperOne, and features a foreword from the late artist’s partner, Laurie Anderson.

If you’d like to get a flavour of Lou’s Tai Chi and his thoughts on Tai Chi then check out this short video called Lou Reed – The Voice and The Practice. It’s nice to see that he was into the martial side of Tai Chi as much as the performance side – there’s a nice clip of him pushing hands with his teacher Ren Guang Yi, for example. I quite like the “New York vibe” he brought to the practice.

I asked ChatGPT to write me a blog post about Tai Chi…

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence that can answer questions. Don’t worry – it will not be a threat to academics and journalists they say! I’m not so sure. See what you think… is there a future for even blogging now?

I for one, welcome our new robot overlords…

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

Me: Can you write me a 500 word blog post about using Tai Chi to get better mental health?

ChatGPT: Sure, here is a 500-word blog post about using tai chi to improve mental health:

Tai chi is a traditional Chinese martial art that involves a series of slow, graceful movements and deep breathing. It is often described as a “moving meditation,” as it can help to cultivate a sense of calm and clarity in the mind. In recent years, tai chi has gained recognition for its potential to improve mental health and well-being.

One of the key benefits of tai chi for mental health is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety. The slow, flowing movements and mindful breathing of tai chi can help to regulate the body’s stress response and promote relaxation. Research has shown that tai chi can significantly reduce stress and anxiety levels in people with anxiety disorders, as well as in healthy individuals experiencing stress.

Tai chi may also have a positive effect on mood and emotional well-being. The meditative nature of the practice can help to promote feelings of calm and contentment, and may have antidepressant effects. Some research has also suggested that tai chi may have a positive impact on symptoms of depression and improve overall quality of life.

In addition to its stress-reducing and mood-boosting effects, tai chi may also have other benefits for mental health. For example, some research has indicated that tai chi may improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older adults. Tai chi may also have a positive impact on sleep, as it can help to regulate the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and improve sleep quality.

Overall, the mental health benefits of tai chi are thought to be due to the combination of physical movement, deep breathing, and mindfulness that the practice involves. By helping to regulate the body’s stress response and promote relaxation, tai chi can create a sense of balance and well-being in the mind.

If you are interested in using tai chi to improve your mental health, it is a good idea to seek out a qualified instructor and start with beginner classes. Tai chi can be adapted for people of all fitness levels, and many instructors offer classes specifically tailored for people with stress, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. As with any physical activity, it is important to listen to your body and stop if you feel any discomfort or strain.

Incorporating tai chi into your weekly routine can be a simple and effective way to promote mental well-being and reduce stress. Give it a try and see how it can improve your mental health and overall sense of balance and well-being.

There is no dantien…

… unless we build it.

Great video post from Nabil Rene whose work in Chen style Tai Chi I’ve been following for a while now. Take a look:

For clarity, his assertion is that the “dantien” is something that doesn’t exist by default, the way, say, your shoulder exists, but that it is formed by the simultaneous actions of other parts of the body. In this case, the hips, back, spine, breathing and more.

I’ve written here before that this is somewhat similar to the idea of the lap in English. The lap is formed by taking a seated position, and when you stand up it disappears.

So, when you form Tai Chi postures, you are also forming a dantien. Or at least you should be.

You can think of this as being an incredibly complicated prospect, but I don’t think you need to. There is also an implied simplicity to the idea. The problem is that when you start out the feeling of ‘strength’ in that area of the body is inherently weak, but correct practice of Tai Chi should be the training you require to start to build that dantien so that it’s a much stronger feeling.

Correct practice on a daily basis is what you need.

Of course, if you talk to Chinese medical practitioners, to them the dantien is as real as any other part of the Chinese medical system, and doesn’t require ‘work’ to exist. But I think that when talking about Tai Chi things, it’s safer to assume that this is not the dantien being talked about.

Alan Watts – The Principle of Not Forcing

Alan Watts – what a guy! As the public philosopher entertainer de jour he spearheaded the Eastern spirituality movement of the 60s that took America by storm and forever gave Tai Ch its hippy associations. The lectures on Eastern religions, particularly Zen, he did for a local radio station in California have provided endless motivational video fodder for advertising-packed YouTube videos, and they’re all very good. For example:

He had such a good speaking voice, and could articulate mystical ideas, particularly the idea that existence was simply consciousness playing an eternal game of hide and seek with itself, in ways that Westerners could understand. Of course, the downside of that after you die your words get used to advertise all sorts of things you may or may not have been in favour of. For example, he’s currently doing a voice over for a company selling cruises on UK TV at the moment. I’m not sure what the old guy would have thought of that, but there you go. That’s life! It’s never what you expect it to be.

I’ve heard people say that Alan Watts was a good communicator, but a poor example of the Taoist ideas he espoused. This is mainly because he was an alcoholic who died at the relatively young age of 58 due to related health complications. However, if I look at the 60’s popular philosopher entertainers like Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell, they’re so much more interesting and interested in their ideas than today’s sorry crop of pitiful, grifting, sophists like Joe Rogan, Scott Adams and Jordan Peterson. All of them are usually trying to convince you of some terrible conspiracy theory with one hand while selling you something with the other. At least Alan Watts had enough self respect to be dead before he started trying to sell me cruises!

I saw one of Alan Watts’ videos on YouTube recently, that sparked a few ideas in me. It was to do with the Taoist idea of Wu Wei. It’s called “Alan Watts – The Principle of Not Forcing”

“Not forcing” is Alan’s translation of the Taoist idea of Wu Wei, which is usually translated as “not doing”, or “doing nothing”, however Alan’s translation is much better for martial application. In martial arts, like Tai Chi, it is forcing things that is bad. Alan even mentions Judo in his explanation above. 

In English, the idea of doing nothing sounds too passive. Tai Chi isn’t passive. You can’t do a marital art by doing nothing, so I much prefer the translation of “not forcing”. It’s what we aspire to in Jiujitsu as well as Tai Chi. If you feel like you have to force techniques to work in Jiujitsu then it’s not the right way. It might be required in a time-limited competition, but the Gracie family were always famous for not wanting time limits on their matches, mainly because, with their hyper-efficient style of Jiujitsu, they knew they could survive longer than their opponent, exhausting them in the process. When you are forcing things to work you are burning energy, and wearing yourself out.

I think different styles of Tai Chi might look at this situation differently though. Yang style, and its derivatives tend to effortlessly breeze through the form. The emphasis is on efficient, continuous movement and relaxation. And while it may look effortless, you feel it in the legs, even if you are not visibly out of breath. Chen style seems to want to work a little harder. The stances are lower, there are occasional expressions of speed, power and jumping kicks. But there is still that emphasis on being like a swan moving through the water – graceful up top, but the legs doing all the hard work below the surface.

But regardless of style, all Tai Chi forms follow the same principle: Wu Wei.

Feet-together postures in Taiji (Tai Chi) and Xing Yi

I’ve always been curious about the postures in martial arts forms where both feet are together, because these postures don’t look very martial at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine why you would want to use a stance like that in a fight, and yet we find them in a lot of Tai Chi forms:

From: Sun Lu Tang, A Study of Taiji boxing, 1921

From: Long ZiXiang, A study of Taiji boxing 1952

Here’s an example of the posture in application in Taiji performed by my teacher Sifu Raymond Rand:

Sifu Rang, Brush Knee, Twist Step.

It seems to be mainly Taiji lineages that have some influence from Sun Lu Tang that do this the most. A lot of people attribute the distinctive ‘feet together’ postures he used to his prior training in Xing Yi, and there could be some truth to this. Xing Yi does have ‘feet together’ postures quite a lot.

Sun Lu Tang showing a selection of postures from , A Study of Xing Yi Boxing, 1915

Of course, the root of Xing Yi is spear fighting, but the modern interpretation of the art is heavily biased towards bare hand training, and this creates a misleading impression. Think about it – if you were at at least one spear length away from your opponent the risk of being tackled to the ground because your feet are together would be greatly reduced. You’re now free to use the power generation advantages that can be gained by letting both feet come together, which is handy when you are holding a heavy object, like a spear.

If you watch this excellent video of Xing Yi spear technique by Byron Jacobs you’ll see that he doesn’t hang out with his feet together all the time, but occasionally he uses the feet together moments for power generation (and of course, also standing on one leg for range advantage and manoeuvrability in a way that makes sense with weapons).

Video:

Example feet together transitional posture:

Byron Jacobs of Mushin Martial Culture

In Xing Yi the most famous example of the ‘feet together’ posture is the Half-Step Beng Quan. Here the back foot stepping up to meet the front foot in place creates a powerful closing action of the body, kind of like a door slamming.

From: Selected subtleties of the Xing Yi Boxing art, by Liu Dianchen [1921]

So, is this the origin of ‘feet together’ postures in Taiji forms? Quite possibly. However, there is one more thing to consider. After first learning Xing Yi, Sun Lu Tang learned his Taiji from Hao Weizhen 1849–1920, who learned from Li Yiyu 1832–1892, who learned from one of the Wu brothers, Wu Yuxiang 1812–1880 who had learned directly from Yang Luchan 1799–1872 and also sought out Chen Qingping 1795–1868 who he learned from in Zhaoboa village.

It’s often thought that the distinctive stepping seen in Sun style Taiji, where the back foot is often lifted and brought up close to the front foot, is a consequence of Sun’s prior Xing Yi training. This makes sense as part of the narrative created as part of the Sun Style Taiji brand, which is that he incorporated his earlier Xing Yi and Bagua training into his Taiji style. However, if you look at the Wu (Hou) style he learned, it already had this distinctive stepping in it.

For example:

From: Wu Yuxiang style Taiji Boxing by Hao Shaoru

While the feet don’t go completely together as much, if at all, in Wu(Hao) style, they are very close together for a lot of the time. Watch this video for an example of the form in action:

One theory about why this is is that Wu Yuxiang was a member of the Imperial Court at the end of the Ching Dynasty, and was therefore expected to wear traditional court dress, which restricted the stepping.

I think you can see that influence extending into Sun Lu Tang’s Taiji, which makes sense since he learned from this lineage.

Finally, I should note that thought this post I don’t want to create the impression that all the steps in either Xing Yi or Taiji performed by Sun Lu Tang are small or restricted. He also had plenty of wider postures in his arts too, for example.

Xing Yi:

Taiji:

However, compare it to postures found in other styles of Taiji whose practitioners didn’t have to wear court dress:

Chen Ziming for example:

From: The inherited Chen family boxing art, Chen Ziming

My Drunken Boxing interview with Byron Jacobs

I appeared on the Drunken Boxing podcast run by my friend Byron Jacobs yesterday where we dived into the story behind all the martial arts I practice, who my teachers are and how I discovered them.

I’m usually the one interviewing other people on my podcast (I interviewed Byron back in episode 2) so this was a bit different. To be honest it feels a bit cringe listening to yourself talk about yourself, but hopefully there’s some interesting stories here to entertain people.

Drunken Boxing #042 Graham Barlow

Here’s a few links to some of the many and varied things I talk about:

Master Lam and Sifu Raymond Rand on the cover of Fighters magazine 1983:

Sifu Raymond Rand, Tai Chi Chuan applications 2022:

Stand Still Be Fit, Day 1: Master Lam Kam Chuen’s original Channel 4 TV series.

Graham in a BJJ sub-only competition 2013, blue belt

Woven Energy podcast episode 1

Graham Tiger Shape Xing Yi

What is the point of Tai Chi applications?

Yang Cheng-Fu showing Tai Chi applications from his book.

In the comments section Richard asked a good question in response to my last post. I wrote a brief reply in the comments, but I thought I’d flesh it out a bit as a blog post, because it’s an interesting topic.

The question is, ‘what’s the point of Tai Chi applications?’ Actually, to be fair, he was talking specifically about the one application video in my last post, not about Tai Chi in general. But personally I think you can extrapolate the question to include the wider Tai Chi universe, and that would be where I’d look for my answer.

There are plenty of videos of respected masters of various styles of Tai Chi running though the applications of their form movements and producing a series of very questionable applications that would require a perfect storm of events to happen for them to work. I don’t want to post them here because I think it would distract from the point I’m making, but look up ‘Name of famous master’ and ‘applications’ on YouTube and you’ll find them.

I really like the phrase “a perfect storm” to describe Tai Chi applications because as far as I can see, most (if not all) Tai Chi applications one would require a ‘perfect storm’ of attacker, positioning and timing for the application work. Therefore the one application video I posted previously is not particularly different to any other Tai Chi application video, at least to me.

That might not be a popular opinion, but I think it’s true.

Contrast this with a martial art like Choy Li Fut. I’ll choose CLF because it’s a kind of a typical Chinese Kung Fu style. It’s has some key techniques like Sao Choy – sweeping fist and Charp Choy – leopard fist and Pao Choy, a kind of big uppercut, Gwa Choy, a backlist, for example.

Here’s 10 of the ‘basic’ techniques that you find in CLF:

I wonder – does the man in the mirror ever punch him back?

If you watch a Choy Li Fut form then you’ll see these 10 techniques crop up again and again, but each form enables you to practice them in different combinations:

A great title for a video “Killer Choy Li Fut form!” It’s actually a great performance, especially with the drumming in the background.

Or check out the famous first form of Wing Chun – Siu Lim Tao, it’s a series of techniques performed very, very accurately so you can refine and practice them:

Now when you do those techniques in a form, you are performing a technique that would work exactly as shown. The only thing you need for success is to actually contact with an opponent and do the move correctly at the right time. 

Tai Chi as a marital art just doesn’t work in the same way. We don’t have a toolbag of techniques designed to be pull out and used ‘as is’. Ward off is not a fundamental technique of Tai Chi – instead Peng, the ‘energy’ you use in performing ward-off, is the important thing. And I think this leads to a lot of confusion about what Tai Chi forms are.

So, if we don’t have techniques that exist in the same way as other marital arts, how are you supposed to fight with Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is a set of principles and a strategy that together make it a martial art. In a nutshell the strategy part can be summed up with the 5 keywords of push hands – listen, stick, yield, neutralise and attack. The principles cover how the body is used, resulting natural power derived from relaxation, ground force and a series of openings and closings expressed in the 8 energies. When the principles of Tai Chi are properly internalised you become something like a sphere, which can redirect force applied to you with ease and respond as appropriate. All these things are elucidated in the Tai Chi Classics.

Now that short description probably leaves a lot out, of what Tai Chi is, but at least it’s a starting point.

If that’s your goal, then putting emphasis on individual techniques doesn’t make much sense. Everything you do now exists in relation to an opponent, rather than existing on its own terms. The Tai Chi form then becomes a series of examples of how you might respond to specific attacks. In essence, it is a series of perfect storms, one after the other, put in a sequence that is long enough that you start to internalise the principles of movement and energy use. And obviously the strategy part requires a partner, hence why push hands exists.

I think that’s also the reason why Tai Chi forms are so long and slow, btw, so you internalise things.

As a final note, I’d say the jury is still out as to whether the Tai Chi way is the best approach to teaching people to fight. It’s interesting to note that a lot of martial arts innovators tend towards this same nebulous ‘technique-free’ style of training the further they get into their research into martial arts. Bruce Lee for example, was moving towards freedom and the technique of no technique in his later years – see his 1971 manifesto ‘Liberate yourself from Classical Karate’ for example. Then there’s Wang Xiang Zhai who created Yi Quan by removing fixed forms and routines from Xing Yi Quan and mixing it with whatever else he had studied. See his criticisms of other Kung Fu styles in his 1940 interview, for example.

Photo by Thao LEE on Unsplash

In contrast a lot of the martial arts that have actually proven effective in modern combat events have turned out to be very, very technique based. Brazilian Jiujitsu, for example, is taught through very specific techniques. So is MMA. Karate, for all of Bruce Lee’s criticisms often does very well in competition against other more esoteric styles because it contains some no nonsense techniques.

Another factor to think of is that while Tai Chi may have those lofty goals of producing a formless fighter in its classical writing, it often isn’t taught like that in reality. One of the martial arts that Wang Xiang Zhai is criticising as having lost its way and become a parody of itself in that 1940 essay linked to above, is, in fact, Tai Chi Chuan!

So, as ever with marital arts, I think the answer is: it’s complicated.

I see you, doing Tai Chi in the park

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I live in the suburbs of Bristol. While Bristol itself is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK the suburbs tend towards leafy suburbia where you can feel the crushing weight of normality on your shoulders. So, while seeing somebody in a central Bristol park doing Tai Chi on their own wouldn’t be unusual, it’s almost unheard of in my local parks. I’ve done Tai Chi in my local park of course – usually when training with somebody else and it’s not something I do solo, since I can just imagine the amount of funny looks it would generate around here.

Imagine my surprise then when I saw somebody else doing Tai Chi in my local park this morning. I looked to my right as I entered the park on the way back from the supermarket and facing towards me in the Push posture, just a couple of meters away was a man doing Tai Chi. One glance was all I need to identify that he was doing Yang style, or possibly the Beijing 24-step, which is based on Yang style. He had that large frame posture and super slow movement speed.

He was an older man with striking white hair, brushed back and John Lennon-style glasses, but tinted, so you couldn’t see his eyes. It was that moment where you see something that you recognise but it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, so your brain takes a moment to process it and you freeze like a rabbit in the headlights. The Germans probably have a word for it.

After over 20 years of living in an area where it would be considered odd, even weird, to do Tai Chi in a local park, it had finally happened. I’d seen somebody doing Tai Chi in the park! And do you know what my first thought was on seeing him?

‘Gee, what a weirdo!’

I just walked off without saying a word and he just carried on, his attention rapt up in his movements.

The Balance Tai Chi Brings To Your Weight

Have you ever been in a situation where you suddenly felt a subtle change in your body? Maybe your body is feeling a bit weaker, sluggish, or even a tad stiffer than usual? Maybe you’ve put on a bit of weight, and your body decided to send you a little message. It is interesting how you always have the sense that you need to move, as if your body is trying to tell you something.

Your mind is a powerful instrument. It knows exactly when you need a push and how much push you should be giving your body. One great way to harness your mind’s capability is to channel it through Tai Chi. Tai Chi requires a type of resilience that no other exercise can provide – it requires you to develop the resilience to work slowly and methodically even when your mind is telling you that it would rather do something much more intense. During high-intensity workouts, you can easily tune out and smash your way through them as you blast out tunes to keep you going. Tai Chi requires that you stop and reconnect with your breath before you go through your routine. You are then expected to keep your mind present and engaged throughout. The mental fortitude you develop while doing Tai Chi – which even the British Heart Foundation points out is required for a healthy lifestyle – will better serve you as you face more daunting tasks, like losing weight.

Here are a few beginner-friendly routines to get you started in Tai Chi, if you haven’t started already:

Exercise #1: Tai Chi Walking

As you go through this routine, concentrate on shifting your weight smoothly and without wobbling. Pay particular attention whilst you’re shifting forward onto the turned-out foot as you are twisting your torso. Complete beginners will often find this challenging, so don’t feel frustrated if you have a hard time. Your body will get used to this movement the more often you practice. To make sure you are getting the most out of the workout, try to keep your centre of gravity levelled. Be aware of how much you bend your legs and keep your body from moving up and down as you shift weight.

Exercise #2: Wild Horse Parting Mane

The key to this Tai Chi exercise is to try to combine the weight transfer, torso twisting, and arm separation and perform them in a flowing motion. Be mindful that your legs should be driving the pelvis forward. Feel your spine being in charge of rotating your shoulders as your shoulders propel your arms.

Exercise #3: Cloud Hands

As much as you are able to, draw circles with your arms in a smooth, continuous motion and keep your speed uniform all throughout the routine. With constant practice, you will begin to notice the overhand arm pulling while the underhand arm pushes/stabs. This movement activates the posterior chain on one side of the body while simultaneously engaging the anterior chain on the other.

Committing to a regular exercise routine, like Tai Chi, helps bring you closer to your ideal weight. Moreso, small lifestyle changes like being aware of what you put in your body will also help you tremendously. WeightWatchers notes that the best weight loss programmes work optimally when their main goal is to help you find movement you enjoy. This way, your decision to move becomes a healthy habit that sticks.

If you are still not convinced of the weight loss potential you can get from Tai Chi, you might be surprised to find out that the calm, rhythmic flow of Tai Chi works equally as well as cardiovascular exercise and strength training. The results from Tai Chi are comparable to the mentioned exercises in terms of reducing waist size and cholesterol improvement. A trial published by the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that three 1-hour weekly sessions of this low-impact practice helped the participants lower their level of triglyceride (a type of fat found in the blood). This eventually led to greater drops in body weight.

When it all boils down to it, the best way for you to lose weight is to find an activity that you enjoy, and that makes you feel good. If you are looking for a workout that would help you strengthen your mind as you strengthen your body (and lose weight in the process), give Tai Chi a try.