The Way of Energy and the Future of Performance Enhancement
Jayne Storey provides an overview of Chi Kung and T'ai Chi and the benefits from these forms of exercise
In this month's column I would like to give you a little bit of background on the Eastern energy arts and their use in sports training and coaching and then, over the next several issues, we will look in turn at how the Eastern energy arts such as Chi Kung and T'ai Chi can have a positive impact on the four main areas of Sports Science – namely biomechanics, strength and conditioning, endurance and the mental game.
A development which many athletes and coaches may find interesting comes from within the sports world itself, with many top-level sports psychologists and mental game coaches hailing the Eastern energy arts as “the missing link” in sports coaching. From Michael Murphy's classic book “Golf in the Kingdom” to Dan Millman's “Warrior Athlete” and the “Inner Game” concept of Timothy Gallwey, the interest in the Eastern energy arts amongst athletes looking to generate effortless power and mental mastery is now unprecedented.
As a committed sports-woman myself – I train in Triathlon and Golf as well as the Eastern energy arts of Chi Kung and T'ai Chi – and from working with athletes from sports as varied as snow-boarding to rugby and formula one - I know that by combining any sporting activity with training in traditional Eastern practises such as Chi Kung or T'ai Chi, will enhance athletic potential in a variety of ways.
For instance, training in the Eastern energy arts can increase an athlete's ability to release effortless power, improve their efficiency and economy of motion, develop their mental intent (winner's mindset), create a more stable core region and enhance relaxation of their “body-mind”. They will also learn how to generate ground-strength (peng) in order to use gravitational force in the golf swing, tennis serve, 100m sprint, dive, half-pipe routine and so on and learn to move from their body's natural fulcrum or centre of gravity (t'an tien), thus developing unity of motion and increasing their natural force.
So, what exactly are the Eastern energy arts?
Let's take a quick look at two of the most well-known and widely practised of the arts: Chi Kung and T'ai Chi.
Today millions of people in China and around the world regularly practice Chi Kung as a health maintenance exercise. Chi Kung and related disciplines are still associated with martial arts and meditation routines practiced by Taoist and Buddhist monks, professional martial artists, and their students. Once more closely guarded, in the modern era such practices have become widely available to the general public both in China and around the world. Chi Kung can help practitioners to learn lower abdominal breathing, an important component of the relaxation response, which is important in combatting stress and indeed, in developing athletic potential.
“Breathing correctly is the key to better fitness,
Chi Kung is an aspect of Traditional Chinese medicine involving the coordination of different breathing patterns with various physical postures and motions of the body. It is mostly taught for health maintenance purposes, but there are also some who teach it as a therapeutic intervention for patients recovering from illness and/or surgery. Various forms of Chi Kung are also widely taught in conjunction with Chinese martial arts and are especially prevalent in the advanced training of what are known as the Neijia, or internal arts (of which T'ai Chi is the most well-known) where the intention is the full mobilization, proper coordination and direction of the energies of the body as they are applied to some target. As such, Chi Kung relies on the traditional Chinese notion that the body has something that might be described as an "energy field", known as Chi or qi (this is analogous to Prana in Indian Yoga and Ki in Japanese Aikido).
Chi (qi) means breath and, by extension, the energy produced by breathing that keeps us alive; Kung (gong) means hard work and the resultant level of expertise or mastery of an art or craft. Chi Kung translates then as "energy or breath training" or the art of managing one's breathing in order to achieve and maintain good health and to enhance the energy mobilization and stamina of the body.
In terms of developing athletic potential, the following is a list of various ways sportsmen and women can benefit from Chi Kung exercises:
T'ai Chi - a martial art based on the principles of Chi Kung, translates as "supreme ultimate boxing" or "boundless fist". The concept of the "supreme ultimate" is based on the principles of the Yin and Yang duality of Taoist philosophy. Thus, T'ai Chi theory and practice evolved in agreement with many of the principles of Chinese philosophy and Taoism in particular.
Tai chi training involves learning solo routines, known as forms, two-person routines known as pushing hands, as well as the martial applications of the postures of the form. It was created many hundreds of years ago as the lynch-pin of the Chinese martial arts Neijia (soft or internal) branch, where the body's intrinsic energy (chi) is directed with the mind (yi); as opposed to the hard, external forms of fighting like Shaolin kung-fu, where more reliance is put on muscular force.
The physical techniques of T'ai Chi as a martial art are characterized by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination in relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize or initiate attacks. The slow, repetitive work involved in the process of learning how that leverage is generated gently and measurably increases and opens the internal circulation: (breath, blood, lymph, etc.).
Bruce Lee (whose Father was a T'ai Chi practitioner) gave a great analogy for the difference in power between a Karate punch and a T'ai Chi punch. Lee said that to be hit by a karate punch was like being hit with an iron bar, whereas being hit by a T'ai Chi punch was like being hit with an iron ball attached to the end of a chain. Ouch.
T'ai Chi has since developed a worldwide following among many thousands of people with little or no interest in martial training, who practise T'ai Chi for its many benefits to health and health maintenance. Some call it a form of moving meditation, as focusing the mind solely on the movements of the form helps to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity.
For athletes intent on developing their fullest potential, both mentally and physically, T'ai Chi training as an addition to training technique and improving fitness, can have the following benefits:
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About the Author
Jayne Storey is a specialist in T`ai Chi and uses this to help athletes and teams with balance, posture, body-mechanics, attention control, coordination, stress management, mindfulness and also to create the right internal conditions for accessing the sporting zone/flow state.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: