Monday, 15 June 2015

Know Yourself: Tai Chi and Chi Kung as a Path to Self-understanding

It seems like every day there is new research showing how Tai Chi and Chi Kung can benefit our health. The latest include how Tai Chi may reduce arthritic pain and inflammation, how it may improve kidney and heart function in people with kidney and heart disease, and how Chi Kung reduces fatigue in survivors of prostate cancer. However, it’s important to realise that the benefits of Tai Chi and Chi Kung extend beyond improving such things as joint health and kidney function, important as such things are. Underlying these relatively tangible effects there are more subtle benefits, the sort of things which are not so easy to measure in scientific trials. For instance, they help us to understand ourselves better.

In the’ Art of War’, one of the classic texts of the whole Chinese martial art tradition from which Tai Chi springs,  the ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu tells us “know yourself and know your enemy and you will be ever victorious”. It goes without saying that our enemy here need not be an actual opponent or military force; it could even be our own tendency to laziness, lack of self-belief, or greed. But anyway, before we think about knowing our enemy, Sun Tzu wants us to know ourselves.  A key aspect of Tai Chi and Chi Kung is that they give us the opportunity to do just that.

Of course we might think, or assume, that we know ourselves already, but it is likely that there is a way to go. Indeed, it is likely that there will always be a way to go, that our understanding of ourselves can progress and deepen indefinitely; and perhaps if we are not on such a journey, we will be at root frustrated or lost.

But how do we come to know ourselves better? This happens on a number of levels, the first of which is the level of the body. It may seem crazy that we do not know our own body – after all we have been living with, in or through it for all of our life! But the fact remains that a person’s body is often unknown territory, a mysterious landscape, an undiscovered country.  Knowing our body is more than just knowing a few facts about it, like where the sacrum is or what the trapezius muscle does, although such knowledge may help. Rather we need to know our body by being aware of it, and increasing and expanding that awareness as time goes by, and this is a cornerstone of the practice of Tai Chi and Chi Kung.

On a basic level we may learn that our wrists are not as supple as they could or should be, or that our leg muscles are not as strong as we thought they were. We might learn that our shoulders are stiff or our breathing is shallow. But as our practice loosens our wrists and strengthens our legs, we start to learn about Qi (Chi) itself. As we move through a Tai Chi form, or work on a Chi Kung stance, we start to understand what the Chinese mean by this word. We feel our flowing Qi; we come to know that we are more than just a lump of skin and bone attached to a brain; we learn that we are movement, energy, life - and we learn how to protect and nourish this Qi and thus how to protect and nourish our life itself.

On this level, also, is the natural world of which we are, modern living notwithstanding, an integral part. Through Tai Chi and Chi Kung we learn to breathe (once again, we may have thought we would know how to do that already, but it may not be so!). The process of breathing is of course an ongoing exchange between ourselves and the world around us, and so in learning to breathe we come to understand more deeply how we are inextricably a part of that world, and always will be.

It’s also interesting to notice that many Tai Chi and Chi Kung moves and positions are named after natural phenomena.  A Tai Chi form may include ‘White crane spreads its wings’, ‘Parting the horse's mane’, ‘Golden rooster stands on one leg’ and ‘Hands wave like clouds’. The ancients learnt from nature, the way animals, bird and even clouds move. Tai Chi and Chi Kung tie us into this awareness. In a way, we become the white crane, or the passing clouds, just for a moment. This returns us to nature and our place in nature, which we have, perhaps since the industrial revolution or even earlier, began to become alienated from. We need to know ourselves in context, as part of the natural world. This is a profound thing, a sense of oneness; it can be a tangible experience when we do a Tai Chi form, for instance.

On a more subtle level, perhaps, is the level of our habitual tendencies. Someone once said that a person is really just a collection of habits, and there is some truth in this (especially as we get older!). We learn about these habitual tendencies by coming up against boundaries, as we do with a Tai Chi form or set of Chi Kung exercises. It is our habitual tendencies that disrupt the harmonious engagement with the form, that disrupt the smooth flow of Qi. For instance we may have a tendency to be lazy, so if we are doing a Chi Kung stance which is hard work, we may be tempted to skimp. Of course it is important to practice with a teacher  and/or fellow students; left to our own devices we may be able to ignore this lazy habit, maybe even convincing ourselves that we are following the Tao in not pushing ourselves too much, when in fact we are just following the easy way out!  But once we are aware of this tendency, we can find ways to work on it when we are practising alone as well.

Similarly we may have a tendency to impatience. We may be rushing towards the end of the Tai Chi form, rushing towards the next move, even before we have completed the move we are doing now. That, of course, is not the way.  Why do we do that? What is so unsatisfactory about the present that we always want to be in the future? Such impatience disrupts the flow of Qi, and we learn to recognise when this is happening, what it feels like.

The point here is that our mental states, habitual ones especially, are reflected in how we hold and move our body; so Tai Chi and Chi Kung can reflect back to us not only what is going on in our body, but also what is happening in our mind. (Although from the point of view of the classical Chinese tradition in which they have their origin, the distinction we are accustomed to make in the west between mind and body does not hold in any rigid sense.) One way this works is that as Tai Chi or Chi Kung loosens any tightness or constriction in our body, corresponding emotional blockages may also start to free up; by working on our body, we liberate our mind.
         To read more about how Tai Chi and Chi Kung can help you, go to

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Benefits of Slow, Coordinated Movement for Health

When we think about exercise, we probably think of moving fast as being the thing; we might even think that the faster we move, the harder we push, the greater the benefit. But hold your horses! There are compelling reasons why spending some time on slow co-ordinated movement, such as in Chi Kung or Tai Chi, can bring benefits that we don’t get from going quicker.
One of these reasons is that when we move slowly we can move more accurately and with a much greater sensitivity to the actual experience of moving; we can have a greater sense of what is actually happening anatomically.
For instance, it may be that there are some movements which we are no longer able to do, that the range of movement of our limbs is restricted, possibly in ways which we are not even aware of. We may have come habitually to avoid certain movements, or shades of movement, without even realising it. Maybe we never completely flex our shoulder anymore; maybe we never turn our head 90 degrees to the left, maybe we never externally rotate our right leg. We probably used to be able to do these things, at least when we were a child, but gradually we have seized up in certain places, some muscles have become too tight whilst others are a bit weak and underused.
In fast moving exercise we don’t have a chance to notice these restrictions; we might even be under the impression that we are, say, fully flexing our shoulder when if we watched ourselves in a mirror we would notice that we only get to about 160 degrees, and that our arm is pulling out to the side a bit as well. When we are moving fast our sense of proprioception (which gives us our knowledge of where various parts of our body are in relation to each other) is not so accurate. Also, if we do try to push through the restriction with a fast movement, we will probably injure ourselves; our body is avoiding a certain movement or position for a reason, after all.
Slow movement, however, gives us a precious opportunity to explore our range of movement, to become aware of these areas of restriction, even subtle restrictions, and work on them. When moving slowly, we are much better equipped to exert the appropriate level of force, enough to push a little further into the restriction but not enough to sprain a ligament or strain a muscle or tendon. We can gradually restore our range of movement without injuring ourselves. Moving slowly we can feel where the restriction lies and gradually open it up.
This is perhaps particularly important as we get older. It is shocking how much movement many people lose as they move through middle age and beyond, but it does not have to be that way. Slow, deliberate movement is the way to maintain and even enhance our range of movement as the years pass. The Chinese have a saying about a door hinge not rusting if the door is repeatedly opened and closed, which is taken to mean that if we keep putting our joints through their natural movements, they will not seize up. We can do this most efficiently by moving slowly and mindfully, exploring any restrictions and gently working on them.
Moving slowly, then, gives us a precious learning opportunity; we can get to know our body quite intimately, a whole lot more intimately than we do with faster movement. As well as being quite useful, moving slowly is also surprisingly satisfying. The human body is really a rather amazing thing. Even what seems like the simple act of flexing the shoulder is a minor miracle of bio-mechanics and co-ordination. The enhanced sensitivity of slow movement can also make it intensely pleasurable.
This brings us to the more psychological (or we might even say spiritual) benefits to slow deliberate movement. I sometimes even notice this when doing something as simple as walking to the shops. Like many of us, I am habituated to being in something of a hurry, and so will probably walk relatively quickly even when there is no reason to rush (or rather, not many reasons to rush!). However, occasionally I wake up to the fact that I am hurrying for no real reason, and slow down.  Suddenly a whole new world opens up to me, a world I take for granted. This is the world of the sky above me and the solid earth beneath my feet; the world of the wind in my hair (and maybe even the rain on my face!) It is the world of my body moving, muscles tensing and relaxing in marvellous harmony with each other. Suddenly I am not walking to the shops; I am walking the earth, as my ancestors have done for millennia, a minor miracle of the evolutionary process. This might just be an occasional experience, depending on my remembering not to be in such a hurry, but with a regular practice of Tai Chi or Chi Kung, it becomes a gateway to a wholly different, and more satisfying, way of being.
Slow, deliberate exercise opens up this kind of experience for us. The adrenalin rush of fast intense exercise is pleasurable, but if we don’t do any slow movement exercise we are missing out on a more deeply rewarding kind of joy.
If you would like further information about learning the ancient arts of Tai Chi and Chi Kung, either to improve your health, enhance your sport or simply to combat stress, please visit

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Benefits of Tai Chi and Chi Kung in a Busy, Fast-Paced World

Many of us live what we consider to be ‘normal’ lives. Which is to say that we live in a similar way to that of our friends, and perhaps also in a way that TV and the media, and the omnipresent advertising industry, tell us is how we should be living. But is this ‘normal’ the kind of life that thousands of years of evolution have fitted us to live? In particular, is the pace of what we consider a normal life not really rather excessive, and becoming increasingly excessive with every passing year?

Of course it is too easy to romanticise the past. If you lived in Lincoln 1000 years ago, you might have had to move pretty fast to escape from marauding Vikings, but one suspects that the average pace of life would on the whole have been a lot slower. One of the benefits of travel, of course, is that it introduces us to different cultures and helps us gain a valuable perspective on our own and to realise that what we consider to be a normal pace might look pretty rapid to people from other places. Indeed, you don’t have to go very far to see that – try the west coast of Scotland for instance.

Is a fast paced life a bad thing? Perhaps we should make a distinction between speed and haste. If we are not careful, our fast paced life means that we are always in a hurry. Sometimes we are even in a hurry when we are at leisure – we might be hurrying to the cinema to get there in time for the film, hurrying to cram a visit to the gym into our schedule, so much used to haste that we don’t even notice its presence. And it becomes not so easy to slow down even should we want to. We might take up meditation, only to find that our mind is racing from one idea to another like a demented monkey. Alternatively we may find that we swing wildly between running just to stand still and crashing out on the sofa in a sort of slothful haze.

Hurrying and haste perhaps imply an excessive orientation to the future, to the next thing. Life becomes valuable only in terms of what it promises for the future, not in terms of what it is actually like now. ‘Life is what happens whilst you are busy making other plans’, as John Lennon said. There is something unsatisfying about such a life, and it might not be really rather ineffective as well. More haste, less speed. Too much focus on the future means mistakes in the present.

Another aspect of this unseemly haste is that our body gets left behind; our body is our anchor to the present moment, so that an excessive orientation to the future comes with a loss of contact with our body, even an alienation from it. It’s not hard to get a sense of how this is not great for our health; the less aware of and in tune with our body we are, the less capable we are of looking after it.

One of the benefits of Tai Chi and Chi Kung is that they introduce us to a different relationship with time, and with our body, allowing us to fully inhabit our body once more, and so re-anchor ourselves in the present moment. We come to fully experience the simple wonder of our bodies and their ability to move. In a word, we rediscover harmony.
When we do a Tai Chi form, we learn to move harmoniously. The various parts of our body move in harmony with each other, we move in harmony with our environment, and as our practice deepens we develop a degree of harmony between mind and body that we may not have thought possible. Of course a regular practice of Tai Chi or Chi Kung can provide us with an island of calm amidst the frantic pace of life, but more than that it can help us begin to bring some of that harmony to bear on our everyday life.

Perhaps surprisingly, this does not mean that we will necessarily slow down; but it does mean that we will stop hurrying. It means letting go of our anxiety about the future. In classical Chinese terms one might talk about this change in terms of something called the Tao, often translated as the ‘Way’. To live in accord with the Tao is to live in accord with our true nature and in harmony with the world around us. It is to stop trying to force the world into the shape we want it to be, and to work creatively with the world as it actually is. Think of how a bird of prey rides the thermals and air currents, effortlessly attuned to the subtle movements in the air in which it lives. It can move fast when it needs to, but smoothly and without haste.
This is not a matter of ‘going with the flow’ in a vague, unfocused kind of way. Tai Chi, after all, is a martial art. It is a matter of learning how to live and move gracefully and dynamically, maximising our potential and avoiding haste, clumsiness and inefficiency.

For more information about how you can use Tai Chi or Chi Kung practice to help help you live well in this fast-paced world, please visit our website at

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Tai Chi Benefits Body, Mind and Spirit

Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker"
When thinking about human beings, it is usually a mistake to compartmentalise too much. So for instance, if you were to think that exercise and movement benefits the body, that something like learning a new language benefits the mind, and that, say, meditation or prayer benefits the spirit (whatever that might be...see the blog "Mind, Body and What?"), think again: it’s not quite that simple.
In fact, whilst an expression like ‘mind, body and spirit’ might be useful in emphasising that the totality of a human being is meant, we should not imagine that there are three distinct and separate aspects of that being. This was perhaps the mistake made in the West from the sixteenth century onwards, leading to the “ghost in the machine” model of a human being as a mechanical entity (the body) mysteriously inhabited by a non- corporeal, “ghostly” mind or soul. (Rather reminiscent, for readers of a certain age, of the Beano cartoon ‘the numbskulls’.)
In fact, a moment’s reflection should be all we need to realise the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit; a brisk walk (or even a cup of strong coffee) has an immediate effect on our mental state, our thought processes, our emotions, our spirits; the border between mind on the one hand and body on the other is blurred and porous.
So this means that exercise can, and perhaps should, be something we do not just to benefit our body, but also to benefit our mind, (and our spirit, every bit of us.) In fact exercise should be something that includes the mind; so that when we move we move “mindfully”. We should avoid compartmentalising ourselves so that when we exercise our mind is elsewhere, distracted, worrying perhaps, planning, cut off from our body; our mind should ideally be fully involved in our moving body. And likewise, when we do mental work, we should avoid losing touch with our body (easier than ever these days, perhaps, with the effect of technology; in extreme cases, a few people have actually died after playing computer games non-stop for 24 hours or more – presumably having become in the process so out of touch with their physical experience that they were unable to heed the warning signs of a developing cardiovascular crisis!). Our motto should perhaps be ‘move with the mind, think with the body.
Exercise, especially in this integrated way, has big gains for us in our totality. Our awareness can become crisper; our thinking clearer, our Qi – to use the Chinese expression – flows freely. Stuck emotions can be freed up.
For instance, I was struck recently by the fact that I was, as far as I recall, never taught how to think. Suppose we need to think clearly about an issue on our life, how do we do that? Maybe if we have done a philosophy degree or something like that we have learnt how to think, but the rest of us probably just bumble along without really knowing how to think clearly. No doubt this is a big question, but perhaps part of the answer is to do with exercise and movement (another part of it is to do with how we eat – in Chinese medicine there is an explicit connection between the digestive system and the thinking faculty.) D.H. Lawrence said that thought was “a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.” This makes it clear that thought is not a compartmentalised activity but an integrated one, and therefore something we do with our body as well as our mind –a fact perhaps illustrated by Rodin’s sculpture ‘the thinker’. If we want to think well, we need a well exercised body.
And what about that mysterious thing, the spirit? I take the word to mean something about how alive we are, how vital, how much we have got to meet the challenges and demands of life. Again exercise helps build spirit in this sense. A word perhaps should be put in here for discipline, which is closely associated with building spirit. An important part of any exercise programme is how it teaches us to discipline ourselves (or even to accept discipline from a teacher, as for example in a traditional martial arts context.) Do we still go for a run even though it is raining? Do we get up early to do our yoga practice before work, even when we are so warm and comfy in bed? Do we refuse to settle for going through the motions of a Tai Chi form, not letting our mind wander? If the answer to these questions is yes, we will gradually build a strong spirit to serve us well in life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Exercise, then, is something which should involve every part of us, and from which every part of us, mind, body and spirit, has much to benefit from.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Reconciling Wu Wei with Sean Barkes

I've always struggled with Tai Chi and Chi Kung. Much of the philosophy behind these arts is based upon the concept of Wu Wei. Certainly, I've always been attracted to the concept of Wu Wei (literally 'non-action). For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is the idea that, in order to harmonise with nature or live naturally, we should not push or make effort in our endeavours. This is diametrically opposed to all that is me!

So, how do I reconcile this with my deep-seated desire to improve, grow and push forwards against all odds?

Well, one of the phrases which is often associated with the concept of Wu Wei, is "following the path of least resistance". Water, in its qualities and behaviour, has often been used to help describe the philosophy of Wu Wei. Water follows the path of least resistance. Water never rests. If it slows, it becomes stagnant and stale. From the moment water droplets form around a nucleus in a rain cloud, water has the desire to move and change. Before it hits the ground, even, it has the intention of finding the lowest point. It's ultimate, and insatiable desire is to move forwards. Sure, it is influenced by factors surrounding it, but still it moves forwards. Even as it arrives at the ocean, it continues to move in the waves, tides and the currents as it is influenced by other forces such as wind, temperature and the moon. Eventually, it evaporates and returns to the clouds for yet another cycle. These cycles are eternal and endless.

This is where I reconcile my competitive instinct, my deep-rooted desire to be better tomorrow than I was today and to create in every moment. Where I become lost, from time to time, is when I fail to follow the path of least resistance in the pursuance of these goals. This manifests in a race when I push myself beyond the point where my breathing and movement is efficient, not necessarily effortless, but at least flowing. My movement becomes laboured, awkward and uncomfortable. Also, in my work, in business, when I do not balance activity and rest or in exercise, when I do not properly balance soft and hard exercise, I become tired, tense, irritable and lose focus. Nature always has it's way of reminding me that I'm departing from its rhythms. 

So, this is how I reconcile the philosophy upon which Tai Chi, a significant part of my life for decades, is based and my approach to everything else I do.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Four Dimensional Tai Chi

Tai Chi is a four dimensional exercise. A beginner practices Tai Chi in one dimension: left and right; moving on one plane. The intermediate student practices Tai Chi in a two dimensions; the added dimension being up and down (rising/falling, sinking/floating). Two dimensional Tai Chi is disjointed. It has up and down, left and right, but no expansion or contraction or, indeed, any integration and blending of all these directions. Advanced students perform Tai Chi in three dimensions. Three-dimensional Tai Chi blends all these directions in a seamless flow creating spiralling movements. One who has mastered Tai Chi performs it in a four dimensions. The fourth dimension is the mind. But when I say "mind", I do not mean the brain. I include the functions of the brain but also its connections with the rest of the body via the nervous system. The fourth dimension includes the influence of the mind on the extremities and the skin surface. This is the body's refined proprioceptive ability. As far as I can make out, this is a combination of two Chinese concepts: Ting Jing (listening power) and Zhōng Dìng (central equilibrium). Because of the time and dedication required to develop it, most people will only achieve a glimpse of four dimensional Tai Chi.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Mindful Movement

By now most everybody must have got the message that some sort of exercise is important in maintaining health. But something else which the medical establishment is waking up to, perhaps rather belatedly, is mindfulness; only last night I saw a snippet on a local news programme about how arthritis sufferers are benefitting from using mindfulness to help control pain.

Mindfulness is not something new; people have been practising it for at least 2,500 years! It involves simply paying attention to the present moment, a moment-to-moment awareness of what is going on in our experience. And whilst mindfulness is associated with meditation, when it is combined with exercise, it creates forms of movement such as Tai Chi and Chi Kung which are particularly powerful in terms of recovering, maintaining and enhancing health and well-being.

You can get something of a sense of what mindful movement is like by watching an experienced Tai Chi practitioner; and also by watching the way some animals move – think, for instance, of how a cat moves as she stalks her prey. Her mind is fully focused on what she is doing, in fact her whole being is concentrated on the task. (Not, however, the kind of concentration that you can see in humans who are forcing their mind on to something, brows furrowed.) She moves gracefully and harmoniously, flowing apparently effortlessly from one movement to the next. This kind of movement is strikingly different from, say, the movement of someone on a gym treadmill with music pounding through their earphones, maybe even watching a video monitor,  and a mind which, perhaps, is jumping from one thought to the next.

As the cat moves, she moves in harmony with her environment; cats aren’t usually clumsy. Her movement is relaxed and supple, muscles only contracting when they need to, again in contrast to how humans often move, muscles habitually tensed to no purpose. You can get a sense that in the simple process of prowling through the garden, the cat is exercising her whole body.
Perhaps you can say that the cat inhabits her body, again in contrast to how humans can be; the runner on the treadmill watching TV has their attention away from, outside of , their body. Even, we could say, they are alienated from their body. It is as if their body is something separate, which they know they need to look after, rather in the way they might walk the dog, but which they only experience at arm’s length. Without mindfulness, body and mind are not harmonised.

Of course there is no reason why the person on the treadmill cannot make mindfulness part of what they are dong - ditching the earphones is a start. But the beauty of things like Tai Chi and Chi Kung is that mindfulness is so essential to their practice. It would be hardly possible, for instance, to do Tai Chi or Chi Kung whilst at the same time watching the telly.

Of course humans have a lot going for them that cats can only dream of. In a way the price we have paid for the much greater mental sophistication we have is the loss of the natural and supple way the cat inhabits her body. It is not that we can go back and become animal again, even if we want to. Rather, the mindfulness we develop through the practice of things like Chi Kung and Tai Chi gives us the opportunity to re-acquire something of the grace and fluidity of, for instance, the cat, without sacrificing the best of what makes us human. This is a deeply satisfying experience in which we re-connect both with our body and with the world in which it moves. Indeed the combination of our distinctively human self-consciousness with the body awareness of the cat makes for an enhanced level of being in which we feel deeply at home in our body and fully connected with the world without losing our sense of our individuality and distinctness, which is in fact enhanced. We have all the languid connectedness of the cat combined with the pristine self-awareness of the human.