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.

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