Friday, January 04, 2008

endurance sports and kung fu (part 6) - relaxation

one of the more intriguing topics i've seen crossing over between endurance sports and kung fu is that of relaxation. not relaxation as in lying around and being a lazy fat turd, but rather as in having a loose body, with no tension in the body (muscles, skeleton, or connective tissue) or the mind. i suppose this makes the notion of relaxation as one where a person is in a relaxed state.

endurance sports--or even sports in general--make this an important issue, arguing that optimum athletic performance requires freedom in motion and thinking, and that this condition is enticed through a relaxed state. the reasoning is that tension, whether in the body or the mind, acts to impede reflexes and movement, thereby increasing demands on the athlete's physical and mental resources to overcome such resistance. this results in decreased performance, or at least much more difficulty in achieving performance.

i think of this in terms of an analogy to a motor engine (any will do, but your typical petroleum-powered internal combustion engine will suffice). an engine operates with many moving parts. without lubrication, these moving parts generate friction. friction creates resistance between parts, which decreases engine efficiency--the more friction in the engine, the more energy it will consume to overcome the that would otherwise be dedicated to engine output. lubrication reduces this friction.

to me, relaxation is a way of decreasing friction, like lubrication (okay, sort of, but you get the idea). instead, relaxation eliminates friction by easing the tension that stiffen the athlete's movements. i'm guessing that physical tension creates resistance to motion at a cellular level, so that the body's tissues end up impeding their own movement; mental tension creates hesitation in action, so that the body's tissues struggle to respond to unclear or delayed commands from the mind. a relaxed state avoids both these problems, thereby allowing athletic activity to become more fluid, and hence more free, enabling more energy to be devoted to performance. in essence, it allows the body to be more efficient.

you can see the weight given to relaxation for endurance sports in the following sample of sources:
but the idea that performance can be accentuated by a relaxed state is something similarly emphasized in kung fu. in the styles i've been studying--mostly bagua zhang and tai chi quan, which are among those commonly labeled as "internal" styles--there is a continual stressing of the need to avoid tension, and to free both the body and mind. from what i've been able to determine, the reasoning is largely the same as for sports: tension impedes reflexes and movement, and so prevents the practitioner from acting with speed or decisiveness, and thereby throttling performance.

in the kung fu i've studied (and i suspect in other styles of kung fu, as well as martial arts in general), there is a primacy given to being able to act decisively with speed, since it is understood that combat situations (i.e., self-defense) involve chaotic, frenetic confrontations with little time to think things through. martial arts sees that there is little luxury in wasting energy on anything other than physical performance. as a result, anything that is contrary to performance and anything that wastes energy is inefficient, and worse, dangerous. this means that a thing like tension in body or mind, which demands energy to overcome it, must be eliminated.

kung fu also seems to assert that tension frustrates good form. in martial arts, particularly for the "internal" kung fu styles i've been studying, there is a desire to avoid direct force-on-force confrontations, since this invariably leads to a situation where the stronger party wins. instead, the preference is for redirection and manipulation of a stronger person's force that protects the practitioner. doing so, however, requires 1) an understanding of technique and its physics, and 2) execution of the technique. tension makes it more difficult to perform the required movements of a technique, since it consumes energy and thereby makes it harder for the practitioner to move. hence, tension needs to be avoided.

moreover, at least in bagua and tai chi, i've noticed that the precepts of the styles require that the practitioner be able to sense an opponent's actions, whether through visual recognition or physical detection. this, however, requires that the practitioner be in a state of mind where they can exercise their senses. tension, because it consumes a person's resources to overcome it, disrupts the state of mind needed to attune the senses, and so must be expunged.

you can see the attention given to relaxation in kung fu in the following selection of sources (note: they're largely tai chi-related, but that's mostly because there seems to be more material available on-line for tai chi...i suspect there's similar discussion in other martial arts, but they don't seem to be as readily available on-line):
for further comparison of relaxation in actual practice, check out the following videos that i think indicate how relaxation is taken as an implicit component of each.

1) endurance sports
this is a video from Chasing Kimbia, an organization that i've talked about on this blog before (reference: videos: kenyan marathon runners), and which features a Youtube channel following a group of Kenyan marathon runners in their training and racing. take particular note at the 1:39 mark, where the coach, Dieter Hogen, tells the runner, Baba, to stay "comfortable and relaxed":

2) kung fu
this is a video of Chang Dong Sheng, a noted martial arts master (shuai jiao, or Chinese wrestling, as well as tai chi and chang quan) from Taiwan. at the time this video was made, he was in his 70s. but you can still see how much his training and practice were based on his body holding to a relaxed, flexible posture, with little of the hard or forceful movements typically associated with martial arts:

i find this cross-over intriguing, not only because of the common nature of relaxation to both endurance sports and kung fu, but because it makes me wonder as to the possibility of transposing their approaches. it seems to be a logical extension that the relaxation training of one would work for the other, since they're both effectively dealing with the same problem: physical and mental tension.

endurance sports has already led in this direction, with the ever-present suggestions and advice for yoga practice to supplement sports training. almost every endurance athlete i know does yoga, and for certain every professional endurance athlete i know swears by it. yoga, along with the vaguely related practice of pilates, is prescribed largely to 1) improve flexibility, 2) develop core strength, and 3) develop a relaxed physical and mental state.

i don't deny any of this. in fact, i'd tend to agree. the burgeoning results of sports medicine and sports training adoption of yoga (or pilates) is too much to ignore.

but i want to assert that similar results can be found through kung fu. i won't say all kung fu, or all martial arts. but i do believe that there are certain aspects and styles of kung fu that lend themselves to these objectives. again, my own experience has been that the "internal" styles seem to be most consistent.

personally, and following the journalistic mantra (how, where, when, what, and why), i can tell you that my study in bagua and tai chi has made me far more aware of the extent of tension in my body in terms of 1) how much of it there is, 2) where it is located, 3) when it occurs, 4) what it feels like and what it means to my performance, and 5) why it happens. in addition, it has also helped me deal with tension, in terms of training movement, breathing, and concentration that helps control my body's ability to ease it. apart from the typical forms that are popularly known to so much of the public (e.g., the tai chi you see in the park on early mornings), kung fu also has qi-gong, which seems to do as much to train your mind-body awareness, physical and mental sensitivity, and breathing as much as it trains your relaxation.

i should point out that i tried yoga to help with relaxation, but i wasn't satisfied with the experience. it just...didn't work. for whatever reason, i have found kung fu to be more effective. i'd to like to bring it to people's attention as a possible alternative. if you--like me--aren't happy with yoga, i'd encourage you to try kung fu, albeit styles more suited towards development of a relaxed state (my suggestion: find a good, as in no BS, tai chi, bagua, or xing-yi class).

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