Chi in Martial Arts – Mysticism or Newtonian Mechanics?

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Almost every martial artist – or those who are considering the study of martial arts – has heard of the system known as Tai Chi. Some believe theTransfering chi system is simply a method of increasing one’s health. Others maintain it is a way to unite the body and the mind and promote internal harmony. Others still believe it is just a fancy slow dance and the practitioners are deluded into thinking that it is worth anything at all.

I say the answer to the mystery of Chi is much simpler than that. There is no mystical energy. The movements of systems like Tai Chi and Chi Gong are not just slow, exaggerated movements. What is one man’s science is another man’s magic. The answer can be found in Newtonian Mechanics.

Move Slowly for Fast Results

When I was first learning the basics of martial arts – many years ago – my instructor advised me to move perform the techniques of the system I Martial arts stancestudied as slowly as possible. Being eight (8) years old, this frustrated me because I wanted the speed and power that I saw on TV and movies. I didn’t want to learn how to fight a snail.

As I gained proficiency in martial sciences, I learned that moving slowly allows me to make necessary corrections to my structure, form and effectiveness that I had missed as a child. By moving slowly, I could build muscle memory, cultivate relaxed and effortless power and become that “immovable object”. I’m still kicking myself for not listening to my first instructor. Needless to say – after almost 40 years of practice – I practice even the simplest movements as slowly as I can so I can investigate everything I am doing and make necessary corrections.

Here is a little experiment for you. Become a passenger in a vehicle of some sort. Travel down a road for approximately one (1) mile. Look out the window and pay attention to everything you can. Note how many birds you see, count the phone poles, count the cars, their makes, models and colors. Make note of how many people you see, their clothing and which direction they are traveling; if they are moving at all. At the end of your trip, jot down everything you remember somewhere.

Now, return to your origination point and make the same trip; only this time, walk. Remember all the details you can. How many trash cans do you see? Is there a breeze? What do you smell? Were there any noises that stand out or are out of place? Go back to your notes and write down everything you remember. I’m certain the two lists will differ in length and detail. By moving fast in a vehicle, you missed many details that make up your environment. The same thing can be said for fast movements in martial arts.

Mechanics vs Strength – Which Achieves the Best Results?

If someone asks you to move a car, what are your exact movements? Do you walk over to the car, place your hands on it and push with all your might? Of course, you don’t. You get in, fire up the engine, put it in gear and reposition it to the destination of your choice. Are you moving the car or is the car moving itself under your guidance? When you press on the accelerator pedal, are you moving the car or are you moving the pedal; which connects to a series of actions that results in the car moving?

Thinking of this process – not moving the car, but the mechanic process that results in an object moving – try the same thing with a pencil. Move it across a table by nudging it with your finger. Did you use just your finger to move the pencil? If you believe that, cut your finger off (please don’t actually try this), lay it next to the pencil and use that finger to do the same action. Silly, right? However, I think I have proven my point. Every action is a series of movements that delivers a result. Wait!! That’s Newton’s third Law of Motion: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

All of our body parts – from our hearts to our fingers – are connected in the form of a single, interconnected machine. In order to do something simple – like move a finger or a toe – thousands of micro-actions cause that to happen. Mechanically speaking, we are a complex web of interconnected pulleys and levers that make our internal systems operate and propel us through life.

Movement without Thought

Is it possible that the “cultivation of Chi” is simply the result of programmed movements that – over time – become second nature? Let’s investigate that theory. When was the last time you focused on the mechanics of sitting up, taking a step or moving a fork or spoon to your mouth? My guess would be that the answer is, “Not since you were an infant”. Ok, that’s fair, but what is the process of any of those actions?

First, you form an intention of what you want to achieve; an elevated perspective, forward momentum or a full stomach. Next, you start planning the process it would take to accomplish your objective. Then, you calculate the muscles necessary to preform the first action in the process and the order which you need to use them. Finally, you engage those muscles and perform the action. This is the same process for EVERYTHING we do in life; whether familiar or brand new.

As we gain in experience, we can elevate the action from sitting up to standing up, from taking a step to running and from taking a single bite with a tool to shoveling the food in like a fast-food worker on their 15 minute break. The movements become so familiar that we are able to perform them without thinking about them. Years down the road, we are not even able to explain the mechanical process that made those actions possible. We just “do” them. So, isn’t it possible that the “cultivation of Chi” is simply learning the mechanical process that allows us to move about in the most structured and efficient way possible? By thinking about our movements in slow practice, aren’t we  programming ourselves to perform the same movements at a higher rate of speed without the effort of thought or muscular strain?

Chinese Proverb – Use 4 ounces to move 1000 lbs.

How much do you weigh? It’s a question that is considered only appropriate for your doctor to ask, but bare with me here. Do you think a child who is one (1) year-old could lift you? After reading up to this point, you are probably thinking of the pulleys and levers required to make that happen. That’s a good thing because my next question is, “If a child weighing eight (8) pounds or more can’t move you, how do you do it with your foot?”

The answer is simple; pulleys and levers. Once you start the movement, it is easier to either continue the motion or increase its velocity. After a time, it would require more effort to slow down or stop than it would just to continue moving. Your muscles provide tension like a pulled rope on pulleys. The joints act like pulleys that transfer the tension and turn it into movement. Through relaxed tension (tensing only the muscles necessary and having proper structure), though, the body moves smoothly without restricting or slowing you down. That doesn’t mean that you are using some mystical energy to knock something or someone down.

Additionally, a moving object is easier to manipulate than a stationary one. As an example: Try to dead lift a heavy trash can. It takes a lot of effort because it is heavy. Now, get the can moving before you try to lift it. You should be able to easily swing it up onto your shoulder. It wasn’t your strength that did that, but the inertia of the moving can and the guidance you gave it to get to your shoulder. Now you should be able to walk away with the can because it is not  being supported by muscles, but the frame of your skeleton. You will also notice that it took a LOT less effort to get the can to your shoulder than it took to try to dead lift it even six (6) inches. Is that Chi? No, it’s Newtonian Mechanics.

Apples and Oranges

You have a bowl with an apple in it and you add another apple. How many objects are in the bowl? Two (2); naturally. OK, now replace the apples with the same amount of oranges. Still two? Fine. Now exchange strawberries for the oranges. Still two? At this point you might be wondering what apples, oranges and strawberries have to do with Chi.

I will answer the question with a question. How many apples, oranges and strawberries do you really have for this example? None? Then how did you provide the answers to the question? The answer to that is simple; visualization. Some people are auditory learners, some are physical learners and some are visual learners. Using the concept and visualization of a physical energy to help structure and relax us so we can operate at maximum efficiency is simply a mental tool we use. Is there energy running through our bodies? Yes, it allows the transfer of messages to and from the brain. It just isn’t some mystical energy that we can control.

The principles behind resistance, leverage and motion are constants. They can be applied universally and do not depend on a person’s skill level to be able to use it. Yet, according to the “Chi masters”, it takes years of study and practice to perfect. I’ll let you decide which is more likely.

Does that mean that the concept of Chi is invalid? Not at all. Visualization is one of the brain’s most powerful tools. It means that the proponents that hold that Chi is a mystical power are holding onto a fantasy. Likewise, it mean that those who hold that Chi is “evil” are equally wrong. They would be just as accurate in blaming the apples, oranges and strawberries for there being two objects in the bowl. I welcome your thoughts. Please leave a comment and let me know your position on the matter.