Tai Chi - it's the ultimate. In fact, as name translates, it's the Supreme Ultimate. But you probably knew that. Tai Chi Ch'uan however, being a singular facet or aspect of Tai Chi, is somewhat less than ultimate.
Now, before you cry heresy let me qualify that remark. First, to give you a perspective on my involvement with Tai Chi, i should point out that i have been an avid practitioner and teacher of this discipline for some 25 years. Indeed, with the passing of time, I have increasingly come to appreciate the subtlety, sublimity and depth of this movement art form, which in transcending its martial origins has found direct relevance and applicability to many aspects of daily living.
However, Tai Chi Ch'uan is not a static and strictly codified gospel, choreography or formula that is ‘carved in stone’ so to speak; a metaphor more in keeping with its spirit would be ‘writ upon water’. Indeed, according to the dictates of both nature & need, Tai Chi Ch’uan is a dynamic, constantly evolving, adaptive as well as adaptable philosophy, art and science. Certainly, as a form of dynamic meditation it has no equal, whilst in both the external arena of martial arts as well as the internal realms of the healing arts it is superlative. Nevertheless, regardless of whether considered from the perspectives of either the healing, spiritual or martial arts, Tai Chi Ch'uan is far from comprehensive, failing to adequately address certain important aspects of training for health, strength, fitness, agility and acuity. As such, it requires augmentation by way of supplementary exercises.
At this juncture you may well respond with "tell me something i don't already know". After all, aren't these shortcomings the reason why various warm-up, cool-down, stretching and energy flow routines are incorporated into the practice sessions? Yes, true enough, but this doesn't necessarily mean that these supplementary exercises are either sufficient or the most efficacious in all circumstances. In fact, in my experience, these ancillary Qigong routines, regardless of whether they are of ‘internal’ (spiritual) or ‘external’ (Shaolin) derivation, tend to be yet more of the same. Given the common oriental ancestry and ideology of these schools, this should come as no surprise. In addition, in the course of my studies over the years with a number of different teachers, I have observed that these routines are generally regarded as secondary, hence they tend to be performed in a rather perfunctory manner.
Accordingly, i have delved into the philosophies and associated practices of a wide variety of physical, mental and spiritual developmental sciences. As a result of these researches, i have come to incorporate traditional Western training methods — particularly gym based workouts, military style fitness drills, hydrotherapy, and Pilates methods — as well as elements of Yoga into my clients’ exercise prescriptions and classes. Broadly speaking, these workouts or routines can be subdivided into the categories of: Aerobic (Cardio-vascular) conditioning; Resistance training; and, Flexibility enhancement exercises. What i'd like to do now is present you with a brief overview of the relative merits, practices, principles and applications of each of these categories.
Before i begin though, let me disabuse you of the popular misconception of the gym environment and it's associated practices as being primarily the domain of sweaty, testosterone drenched body-builders. Muscle bulking (hypertrophy) is only one aspect of the various goals that gym clientele have. Physicians and physiotherapists will often recommend that their patients enrol in a gym in order to (pro)actively address problems relating to stress, weight-management, blood pressure, physical rehabilitation, postural defects, circulation issues, general fitness, coordination, balance and flexibility.
These are exercises designed to promote cardiovascular (CV) fitness, the priorities of which are to: strengthen cardiac muscles, enhance respiration, elevate body core temperature, stimulate circulation, develop endurance and burn fat. Additional benefits accruing from this are a lowered resting heart rate (RHR) and normalisation of blood pressure.
The exercises grouped into this category range from brisk walking, (a much underrated, widely applicable and highly beneficial exercise), to high intensity cardio circuit routines and quasi martial-art group routines such as Taebox.
Regardless of the level that the abovementioned are performed at, the basic principle is the same, viz. in order to be effective the exercise needs to be performed at a sufficient level of intensity and appropriate duration so as to maintain a specified heart beat rate. Moreover, of course, the level that is determined and prescribed varies with each individual, that level being factored by the individual's age, weight, gender, state of health and medical history.
It is vitally important to take into consideration the possible adverse effects of improperly performing or prescribing these exercises. To begin with, an individual needs to be reasonably fit in order to embark on a CV training program at even moderate levels of intensity. In addition, these exercises are frequently performed with great enthusiasm and a somewhat gung-ho attitude which can lead to over-exertion, strain and a host of attendant physical repercussions. The oft-heard catchcry in this area is "no pain, no gain".
Aerobic workouts also incorporate an impact component. Impact routines (Plyometrics) have been clinically validated as excellent for the development of a solid skeletal framework, and for bone (re)mineralisation. Once again though, the potential for self-inflicted injury is considerable, hence these routines need to be performed with due care and proper supervision.
This category features exercises designed to develop muscle, tendon and neuromuscular functioning. Resistance programs are customised to focus on the development of strength, power and/or endurance in accordance with the practitioner's needs, finding application in the activities of daily living (ADL), sports, physical rehabilitation, work conditioning and weight control (specifically weight gain).
Resistance training can incorporate free weights; machines (which offer the benefits of partial support as well as facility to tailor the resistance through the various stages of a muscle's contraction); spring and elastic tubing devices (Therabands); isometrics; and body weight exercises. Body weight and isometric exercises have the added advantages of their suitability to being performed unobtrusively, in confined spaces, and without the need of specialised equipment, thus they may be incorporated at work, home or in transit. In addition, these routines may be undertaken as compound sets (in order to develop the large muscle groups), or targeted to isolated muscles through desired range of motion (ROM).
It is important to recognise that skeletal muscles are not just concerned with the exertion of force. Muscles act together in different ways; hence, particular movements recruit sets of complementary but opposing muscles (agonists and antagonists) together with the relevant controller muscles in order to achieve a co-ordinated, efficient, stable synergistic action.
This method was first developed in Europe in the early 1900’s by Joseph Pilates. He formulated these kinaesthetic routines as the result of an extensive background in the health sciences and martial arts, and was engaged by the military and police forces to train their personnel. In addition, he was widely consulted by many of the foremost dancers in Europe and the USA for the purposes of rehabilitation, postural correction and technique enhancement. In essence, the focus of his method is on Core Stability — the promotion of pelvic, abdominal and lumbar stability via the mechanism of low-intensity, dynamic, balance oriented resistance exercises performed in coordination with the breath.
Once again, there is a wide variety of approaches (together with their relevant techniques) that are prescribed in a gym setting. In addition to the conventional static stretching postures incorporated at the end of a workout, there are also bounce stretches, passive assisted stretches, PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) routines, and yoga.
When performed with due sensibility and sensitivity, yogic meditation, breathing and stretching routines make for an invaluable adjunct to physical conditioning and internal purification regimens. There are a number of different schools utilising approaches ranging from the extremes of populist bendy-stretchy physical agility (e.g. Iyengar) to ultra esoteric navel-gazing. Generally however, they are all intrinsically concerned with the promotion of peace-of-mind and physical well-being through a series of exercises aimed at: a) Tonification of the internal organs; b) Conditioning of tendons and sinews; c) Stimulation of the body's vascular and lymphatic circulatory systems, and; d) Harmonisation of breath and movement.
Tai Chi Ch’uan differs from the Western physical conditioning sciences as follows:
A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Mow is the proprietor of Syzyjy Kinaesthetics, a company specialising in physical rehabilitation, fitness and energy enhancement programs, integrating Eastern healing & martial arts with Western human movement sciences.
He has been actively and extensively involved in the modalities of complementary & alternative medicine (CAM) for three decades, including some 25 years as a practitioner and teacher of Tai Chi & Qigong, and has studied with numerous masters of these arts. Currently he is a Vicfit accredited fitness instructor; is studying towards a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology (Victoria University, Melbourne); and has submitted proposals for conducting research into human biofields, and postural stability strategies
For further information, the author may be contacted via: post Syzyjy, 162 Lygon Street, Carlton, VIC, Australia 3053; email firstname.lastname@example.org; tel 613 9662-1547 or mob 0407 00 5435
I am indebted to the numerous Tai Chi Ch’uan masters who have patiently instructed me in the intricacies of form & function, but most especially to Simon Lim, who has served as my esteemed mentor, guide and teacher over the years, and from whom I learned to transcend (or unlearn) form.