Chief among the claims made about the Health and Wellness benefits of Tai Chi is it's ability to improve balance.

Health and Wellness justifies its existence by claiming that more visits to the doctor reduces the incidence of serious chronic ailments and thereby reduces the overall costs of healthcare for our society.

But it can also be viewed as a way to justify more and more comprehensive insurance, that is, more and more expensive.

A hospital administrator in Oakland told me that lots of people just wait until they are sick enough to go the the emergency room-- and that's an expensive visit.

I don't know, I like Toyotas because they are cheap, safe and last a long time.  If you ask me how to fix healthcare, I'll tell you to model it after the Toyota!


This is no longer just a fad.  There are numerous studies about Tai Chi and improvements in balance.  People are being sent to me by doctors for the single purpose of improving there balance.  Hospitals are now offering "balance" classes.  I'm game.  Teaching balance is so easy.  It's like cheering at sporting event.  Raaaaaaahh were winning.  It's a pretty small part of Tai Chi, and if that is all new students are interested in, I'm going to get bored pretty fast.  But it is amazing how much a person can improve their balance when they are given a few simply exercises!

Check out this fun video by fellow George Xu disciple Susan Matthews:

The New Definition of Fascia

Josh Leeger turned me on to a series of articles which are using a new definition of Fascia.  This article is particularly worth reading:

Fascial Fitness: Fascia oriented training for bodywork and movement therapies, by Divo G. Müller and Robert Schleip.

Many people I've shown the article to have commented that one of the authors is into a painful type of bodywork called Rolfing, and they have suggested that the authors may have created a Rolfing centric view of fascia.  Strangely no one has pointed out that the other author is into Continuum, which is a very watery type of movement exploration.

You'll get the new definition of fascia by just reading the article, so I'm not going to try to nail it down, but  readers should know that the old definition was a description of the clear or translucent film that surrounds all muscle.  The new definition includes tendon and ligament and sees all that juicy stuff as a single organ.

Whatever, right?  But what is important about this new article, and this new approach, is that it uses clinical language and conforms to kinesiology standards.  Until now there was no clinical explanation of how external martial arts work that any of us could use when talking to a physical therapist.  That's going to be a big change.

Fascia? Fascia?

The article explains that tendons and ligaments themselves can take load and can spring.  What the authors don't seem to understand is that it is through the natural spirals of the body that all of these soft tissues function together.  They don't seem to realize that the reason they are getting these springy dynamic results from slow holistic lengthening is because their method builds on these underlying spirals.  Spirals are there in shortened positions too, as anyone who does whole body tie-up and throw techniques (think: Aikido) can tell you.

So, it's a good start.  It primarily deals with what we call in both internal and external martial arts, "the foundation."  That is the ability to get in and out of a range of deep, long, loaded, and spiraled stances while using smooth (wood), explosive (fire), fluid (water), and hard-solid (metal) movement qualities.  "The foundation" is what I usually refer to in this blog as "jing training," the first level of internal martial arts.  It is also commonly referred to in martial arts lingo as "the benefits of good structure."

The authors lose a few points in my book at the end of the article when they say this training, "should not replace muscular strength work, cardiovascular training, and coordination exercises."  That statement muddies the issue.  All that stuff is just included in basic Shaolin, it's already complete.  If we are building this "foundation" for learning Tai Chi, Bagua, or Xinyi, then we are going to leverage these underlying spirals to allow us to reduce muscular "strength" and discard the torso tension usually associated with "coordination exercises."

The author, however, should get extra credit for hinting at methods for developing higher levels of internal martial arts.  For instance, take the "ninja principle" all the way out, and the body becomes so light and quiet that our experience of the physical body becomes totally empty (xu).  Or take the idea of fluid movement all the way out, and ones habits of coordination and resistance become baby-like, unconditioned (ziran).

The Proprioceptive Refinement section of the article is the most interesting.  They discuss the, "need to limit the filtering function of the reticular formation."  This refers to a part of our brain which we can train to pay attention to certain kinds of nerve stimuli and ignore others.  Muscles transmit information slowly, that's why we need to turn them off and pay attention to other stimuli-- and that's the very mechanism which can make it is so easy to manipulate someone who is, in martial arts lingo, "too stiff."  Eventually we want to turn off most of our 'inside the body sensors' and turn on most of our 'outside the body sensors.'   The authors correctly identify the problems with doing any movement exactly the same way over and over, namely that we become insensitive to small errors which then become habituated.  This is why it is so important that our forms are empty! By cultivating emptiness, our movement is unconditioned by our mind.  On the other hand, always thinking about a specific and exact application of a technique, will turn us into robots.

Qi has no memory!  To practice martial arts with qi is to be continuously spontaneous.

To quote the Daodejing:
To be preserved whole, bend.

Upright, then twisted;

To be full, empty.

What is worn out will be repaired.

Those who have little, have much to be gained.  Having much, you will only be perplexed!


Fascia? Fascia?




Discarding Yes and No

Bored-Girl2-1If you've ever been around teens or tweens, or were one yourself at some point, then you are familiar with 'discarding yes and no.'  It is a look they give you that tells you they aren't listening, don't really care to be listening, and many not even be aware that you exist at all. Or as we use to say in Australia, 'I just couldn't be bothered.'

So what do you think happens when I tell my adult students that I expect them to 'discard yes and no?'  That's right! they all look at me quizzically, bring their faces forward a bit, sometimes tilting a little to one side, and nod 'yes'  --Thereby demonstrating that they have no idea what I'm talking about.

If someone I know is walking alone in the distance and I call over to them to get their attention, as they turn they will look first, and then direct an 'I recognize you' face in my direction.  With normal vision one can recognize this face from 100 yards away.  And even if one has very poor vision, he or she will still display the 'I recognize you' face in return.

Comic Ellen Degeneres has a bit where she waves and shouts to get someone's attention and then realizes it isn't them.  It's funny because she reveals how much socially stimulated pain this causes.

The effort it takes to communicate with our faces is usually completely unconscious.  But I would suggest to my readers that normal social communication using the head and face requires enormous strength and torso tension.  That's why teens and tweens sometimes just drop it.  You never actually know if they are listening unless you quiz them afterwards, and even then they may decide not to participate.  And the same is actually true for adults, they may be nodding 'yes' without hearing a single thing you've said.  It could even happen with a loved one on Valentines day!

At about 6 months of age, babies can lift their head and they are capable of a lot of communicative facial expressions.  However, their heads are so big relative to the rest of their bodies that they have to move their chest underneath their head in order hold it up.  At some point they also learn to nod 'yes' and 'no,'  but if you hang out with 5 year olds you'll see that, although they will give a very attentive 'I'm listening face,' they are often reluctant to nod 'yes' and 'no.'  When they do stoop to this adult mode of communication they often exaggerate it with a whole body movement-- undulating with a slack jaw for 'yes,' and shaking horizontally for 'no.'

So.  What's the point?

In martial arts and qigong, the head must be included in whole body movement for it to actually be whole body movement.  If we are using our head for communication, it is very likely that we are exerting enormous torso tension in order to keep it in that state.  As adults, stress is our default position in social situations.

I want to make a distinction here between structural integrity and whole body liquid mass.  A person can be holding their head in an 'I'm ready to nod yes or no' position and still have structural integrity.  As people age, the quality of the structural integrity tends to diminish, but it may still be there.  However, it is not possible to have whole body liquid mass and hold ones head in such a stressful position at the same time.

I suspect that until a student figures out how to get their feet inside their dantian, inside their perception of space, this awareness of the head may be fleeting if it is possible to experience at all.  When the whole body is inside the spacial mind it automatically includes the feet and head.  It is by looking at the relationship between the torso and the head that, as a teacher, or a dude watching too many sub-standard 'masters' on Youtube, I can tell if a persons body is inside their mind--or not.

The head weighs a lot.  Holding it in positions of dominance or submission is a major source of tension.  Holding it in positions of dominance or submission is an obstacle to whole body power.

The Ming Dynasty

This is a big event about the Ming Dynasty happening around San Francisco.

Looks like the best stuff on Ming Dynasty theater is on Saturday February 11th, 2012.  Some stuff on Dreaming on February 8th too.  Check it out.


Hey I went to this.  It kind of sucked.  A room full of scholars talking down to us.  Scholars who are long winded, and answer questions about subjects they don't know anything about.  Yuck.  One of those 21st century experiences where the audience is better informed than the presenters.

I did get a couple of things.  The cross hand movement in Chen Style Tai Chi that comes right at the beginning of 'Lazy about tying ones coat' is used in Kunqu theater to mean, 'waking from a dream!' Cool huh?  Also I learned that it is likely that the ambassador of Burundi who accompanied Zhenghe back to Beijing in the reign of Yongle (1402-1424), brought an entourage with him and that they stayed in China for 2 years.  So it is possible since Zhenghe and many of his sailors were Muslims, that Liuhe Xinyi is a mix of African martial dance and Chinese martial arts.  The mechanism is there.

Sheila Melvin presented entirely on the contemporary revival of kunqu which was interesting particularly because theater is still seen in an intensely political light in China, and also because the situation vis-a-vis the government is so fluid.

Is Humanity Blind?

Is humanity blind?  In asking the question I'm not referring to the limitations of our eyes, I'm speaking metaphorically.  But since I brought up the limitations of the eyes, here is a quick review.  1) Peripheral vision mis-perceives distance, I first discovered this while doing outside crescent kicks in a row with a person on either side and my eyes cast straight ahead.  If I don't make students look to the sides before kicking, chaos ensues.  2)  Motion and color are learned functions of the imagination.  This is so hard to conceptualize because we learn to see color and motion so early, but when children are born blind and gain sight through a surgical opperation after the age of 3, they don't see color and they don't see motion.  In place of color they see complex patterns of reflected light.  In place of motion they see something akin to stop-motion- objects get larger and closer but aren't 'seen moving.'  Weird huh?  3)  Tunnel vision is in focus, everything else that we think we see in focus is imagined.  You can test this by staring at one word in the middle of the page and attempting to read with your peripheral vision.  4) I'm betting readers can contribute many other examples of human sight inadequacy.

A reason for all the spinning and head turning in Baguazhang is to train the eyes to see without focusing.  Welcoming the blur, as it were.  Thus reducing the effort and time normally wasted convincing ourselves that we are not blind.

And on that note I have a few items from the News for my dear readers.

First off, Why Placebos Work Wonders from the Wall Street Journal.  Before you get your hopes up, the article does not convincingly answer the question and it says noting about Nocebos.  Depending on where you happen to be standing in the 'what is medicine' debate you may be shocked to learn that sham acupuncture out performed real acupuncture in one of those double blind thingamajiggies.  Just hearing about it is enough to give me a hot flash!  Also, a study suggests that the more indulgent we think we are, the less we will eat.  If I were juggling just now I would have drop my balls.  After reading this article you may drift beyond the  question of whether humanity is blind, and might find yourself wondering whether we exist at all.

And off to a good start, why not ask; is humanity deaf? Can anyone actually hear the difference between a modern violin and a Stradivarius?  I got a good laugh when the maestro compared the double blinded musicians to people trying to distinguish a Ford from a Ferrari in a Walmart parking lot.  Umm dude, them Walmart parking lots is pretty big, and I think I could tell a Ferrari from a Ford upside down in a ditch, with earplugs, a blindfold, a shot of whisky, and in my pajamas. (Perhaps the NIH will fund the study?  If not then surely the NEA.)

Meanwhile, Tai Chi folk have known for some time that our stomach is a brain.  This science-blog is choca-block with links pointing to the notion that Your Gut Has a Mind of It's Own.  I should be heartened by this news since it suggests a host of new angles with which to approach the idea that Tai Chi is medicine.  I guess my serotonin levels are flagging.  Perhaps I should be doing Tai Chi before dinner?  As an aside, it occurs to me that the movement of (from?) one person's dantian could sync up with the movement of another person's dantian to create mood and other outlook changes.   There are many studies looking at how we coordinate movement and breathing (sic) unconsciously, it's not so far fetched.

Perhaps you still believe that despite the fact that we are blind, deaf, and emotional robots, we still might have that old saw free will?  Turns out what we have is free won't.  Here is another study showing that violent crime is linked to brain injury.  It's a bit off topic but this summary of the debate about the drop in violent crime is a good starting place to throwing up your hands and declaring with fervent lusty abandon, "I just don't know!"

Why I Hate Breathing

I have contributed a guest post to the venerable blog Dark Wing Chun. I commend it to my readers. I also wish you all a Happy New Year!

To entice you to click through I offer this little appetizer:
I was driving in my car the other day and a woman comes on the radio and starts telling me how important breathing is!  Not like there was any actual content there, it was just a disjointed emotional rant scientifically calculated to sell HMO Medical Insurance.  That’s when I realized, I hate breathing.

Gross Motor and Fine Motor - Reconsidered

I've been puzzling over the meanings of the terms gross motor and fine motor.  A while back I proposed that we could coin a new term to describe the movement of internal martial artists--monster motor.  I got this from pondering and imitating the way wild predators move.  That's fun, but on re-consideration it might be more prudent of me to push for definitions of gross and fine motor which are more consistent with my understanding of human movement.

Fine motor control seems to be mainly about stuff we do with our hands.   Since most body action and control has been observed to develop from the torso outwards, fine motor control develops after gross motor control.  Gross motor is the more challenging term.  This particular list of infant development is helpful in defining gross motor: Toddler clapping hands

  1. Symmetrical Bilateral Integration. Symmetrical bilateral integration involves both sides of the body working in mirror-image unison, where the actions on one side of the body mirror the actions performed on the other side.

  2. Reciprocal Bilateral Integration. Reciprocal bilateral integration involves moving both sides of the body at the same time in opposite motions.Toddler crawling

  3. Asymmetrical Bilateral Integration. Asymmetrical bilateral integration involves each side of the body acting in a different way to complete a single specific task. For example, one foot may kick a ball as the other foot plants on the ground and balances the body.

  4. Crossing the Midline. The “midline” is the imaginary line down the center of your body from the top of your head to your toes). Crossing the midline involves instinctively reaching across your body to complete an activity.Toddler kicking ball

These are all process of basic spacial awareness that fall under the larger gross motor label.  The problem arises for me when we start applying the same term to actions like throwing a ball or skipping rope.  These actions in practice require a great deal of fine motor control on top of gross motor skills.  Even proper adult walking (the way I walk when I want people to think I'm normal) requires peripheral and distal (away from the torso) precision.

The physical therapy kinesiology world may have become confused because it has emphasized the use of  muscles and muscle groups to describe action categories.  It's my suspicion that because they possessed a detailed "scientific" map of the muscles early kinesiologists felt obligated to reference it as a way to confer authority on the field as a whole.  But individuated muscle groups don't exist in a mind which is learning new movement.  If we parse our imagination into muscles it will actually inhibit learning.

I'm still having trouble with the categories.  I want one category for movement in which the mind is inside the body guiding and controlling!  And I want a second category for movement which is driven by visual or auditory impulses seen, felt or imagined outside of the body!

Then again, I'm almost willing to accept that gross motor movement is the same as whole body power.  And then re-define fine motor control as movement strategies which reduce, limit or focus power.

I'm suggesting that gross motor movement starts out pure, with the mind always leading the qi. Babies bodies are empty (kong) and don't store any stress in the muscles (xu) therefore their locomotion is only initiated by changes in spacial perception.  Because they are xu, qi floats around the their body not in the muscles and bones. Because they are kong the shape of their whole torso changes to support and propel their actions as their spacial mind changes.

In any event, the process of learning internal martial arts forces me to consider this problem deeply.  Lately I've been trying to take my Shaolin Wuhu Dao (five tiger broad sword) and my Baxian Jian (8 immortal double edged straight sword) forms and make them purely internal martial arts.  I find that the big challenge is in the grip!  To use internal power the sword must be inside my qi body.  To accomplish this my connection to the entire sword has to be solid, and that requires a firm grip, like a baby grabbing your finger.  However the techniques in both forms require a lot of fast loose changing of angles.  The traditional grips I learned are ever changing, sometimes loose, sometimes tight, sometimes rolling.  If I take out all that fine motor control in the grip it feels great--there is so much whole body power behind the swords.  But many of the techniques don't look right--I simply don't have the wrist flexibility to execute them with a firm grip.  Yet.
His Bones are Soft, his muscles are weak,

But his grip is very strong! --Laozi

Now check out how a baby at 6 months can lift his head!  I key gross motor skill. Ask yourself honestly, do you know any adults that can do this?  With grace and power?  With soft enthusiasm?  Every time qi rises in the body this is how it should look and feel.  The Chinese term for this is zheng -- to be upright, to rectify, cosmic harmony.

Becoming Left Handed

I was talking to George Xu the other day and he compared the process of changing from being an external martial artist to being and internal martial artist to the process of changing from being right handed to being left handed.  To accomplish that, you would have give up writing and feeding yourself with your right hand and learn those actions with your left hand.  Simple enough, I suppose, if you're a hermit in the mountains with a years supply of edible mushrooms.

However, if you are going to keep your life going you'd have to accomplish it in steps, gradually going back and forth between left handed and right handed actions.  I imagine it would take a lot of confidence and determination.6a00e55404668688330115724cc09b970b-pi

Of course we aren't trying to change from right to left, we are trying to change from so called "external" to so called "internal."  Add to the problem that there are few people who can model it well, and even fewer that can clearly explain the task-at-hand.

But my point here is that learning internal arts has a real similarity to trying to do stuff with your non-dominant hand.  You have to turn off the well established how to messages, and replace them with clumsy awkward undeveloped ways of moving.  And you have to do this consistently, in an experimental feedback loop, over an extended period of time.