We all know that we are meant to exercise regularly in order to stay healthy and though many of us choose not to there is a general consensus as to what said exercise actually entails. Take a moment to think about what it means to do ‘exercise’. I wonder what thoughts will transpire. Usually exercise is synonymous with sweating and straining; faces contorted with extreme effort, going to the gym, running, aerobics and so on. Perhaps images of buff athletes with svelte physiques come to mind or maybe dreaded memories of torture-like PE lessons at school. Most likely is that your thoughts of exercise comprise some amalgamation of all these things. One thing is for sure though, I bet that the age old maxim of ‘no pain, no gain’ flows like an undertow through them all.
Whoever coined this terrible phrase must have had only the most superficial understanding of human biology and body-mechanics for this really isn’t the way to develop optimum health. An example of this is that most sportsmen/women while at the top of their game in their youth are almost always plagued by injury as they age. If they are such fine exhibits of health and peak fitness then why does happen?
It was after three or four years hard graft learning martial arts as a teenager (Kick-Boxing mainly) that I began to question the concepts of health and fitness. Outside of learning various techniques and how to apply them while sparring a large part of our martial training was oriented around developing fitness and strength. The rigorous running, weight-training and dynamic stretching that began like pure torture gradually became easier over the years as my body toughened up. While I became what would be considered ‘fit’ it always seemed like a real uphill struggle to maintain, let alone improve, this level of fitness. Another thing that bugged me was that along my journey to ‘fitness’ I had accrued a number of nagging injuries even though I ‘thought’ I always warmed up, cooled down and stretched sensibly before and after training. Most, if not all, of my peers had similar injuries of some kind or another and upon consultation the overriding consensus was to just accept them and push on regardless.
To me the ability to just put one foot in front of the other, lift a weight up and down or repeat the same swimming stroke again and again lacked intelligence. It seemed that to simply push on and not give up was the only mental content required and just like swimming upstream started to feel terribly uneconomical. This bothered me and I began to find this approach to exercise somewhat unsatisfying and superficial. “There must be another way”, I thought to myself.
There is no denying that it takes real effort and a lot of sweat and strain to run those miles, lift those weights and swim those lengths and usually during such exercise our minds are focused upon trying to ignore the discomfort and pain we are causing overselves and to just finish the task in hand. We push the body like a workhorse to run a certain distance or complete a certain amount of repetitions and boy are we pleased when it’s over!
Such exercise is stressful. Literally so. It triggers the release of adrenalin and sparks the fight or flight response of the body to perceived danger and pain. While this gets the job done at the time over the long term it has a tendency to create a tense and rigid body structure vulnerable to all kinds of injury. Let’s put it like this: it doesn’t matter how big your muscles are, how trim you are, how far you can run or how many chin-ups you can do, if one of your intervertebral discs herniates you will be in serious trouble.
The general consensus is that we have to push ourselves ever harder and when we do get around to exercising more than anything else it is usually our desire to change our outward appearance that motivates us rather than a real felt sense of health, fitness and well-being. However, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and nowhere is this more explicit than in body and mind. Perhaps if we swapped this phrase for the dreaded ‘no pain, no gain’ we would have a good working model for how to improve health and fitness without damaging ourselves as we do so.
The thing is that exercise doesn’t have to be like this. It can be enjoyable, satisfying and fascinating. It is possible to exercise in a way that works within the natural capacity of the body and engages the mind in an intelligent way. We learn how to use our bodies most efficiently when we become aware of them from the inside out. To be able to feel, to deeply perceive movement, balance, breath and mental processes requires a kind of physical intelligence bound up with a quality of mind that disassociates us from simply operating and exercising on automatic pilot. From the very first moment I first started Tai Chi I realised immediately that this is what I had found.
With Tai Chi we gradually connect and strengthen the entire fabric of our bodies in a composed and mindful manner that greatly improves and informs the quality of our daily lives. The answer lies becoming aware of what our bodies comprise and how they work from our own direct experience of them. So after fourteen years of vastly enjoyable Tai Chi practise I can whole-heartedly say that I feel incredibly much ‘better’ in everyway than when I was a ‘fit’ teenager. I have found what I was looking for.
Sam Moor is the senior instructor for Sussex Tai Chi. See the website for details: http://www.sussextaichi.co.uk