It is truly excellent to see Great Britain attaining an overall third in the Olympics and with the Paralympics still to come rarely have we witnessed such a good feeling and excitement surrounding sporting activity in our country. Much discussion now surrounds what kind of “Olympic legacy” this will leave behind. Surely the best thing is that our Olympic champions have set us an excellent example to get out and get active. Where we currently see only a minority of people who regularly engage in sport or exercise perhaps we might play a part in turning this around so that it becomes simply a normal part of life for us all. There still seems to be some social stigma in the UK attached to looking after oneself; hopefully this will fade over time.
It’s great just how many sports are encompassed by the Olympics; there is something for everyone. This serves as a great inspiration for those of us who are not perhaps blessed with the stereotypical notion of sporting ability. Archery, Judo, Boxing, Table-Tennis, shooting, to name but a few purport a high level of a wide variety of skills. Awareness, concentration, as well as physical prowess, are required in equal measure and this is something we can all learn and develop over time no matter where we start from. Furthermore, it is often the psychological skill of an athlete whatever their choice of sport that makes all the difference in how they perform when it comes to the high pressures of competition.
Of course we are all keen to see who it is that wins in events such as these but it is important to remember that it really is the taking part that counts. As far as I’m concerned you are a winner if you are prepared to accept a challenge and just give something a go. Anyone can succeed as long they persevere and bearing in mind that success is relative, it was Albert Einstein who said ‘Try not to become a man of success but rather a man of value’. This is food for thought. With any kind of sport or exercise I think it is really important that you enjoy what it is that you do and that it engages your mind as well as your body. This way you are much more likely to exercise the whole of your being and furthermore not pack it in when the going gets tough.
Going back to the previous Olympics I remember how amazing it was to see the thousands of Tai Chi players moving fluidly together as part of the 2008 Beijing opening ceremony. This served as an excellent promotion for the art and gave many who had never seen or heard of Tai Chi before a chance to witness it and after the Beijing Olympics there was quite a surge in interest in my classes.
Even though Tai Chi is not yet an Olympic sport there are many skills one fosters during Tai Chi practise that are integral to all sports. Clear perception and focus, efficient body-mechanics, and the ability to relax under pressure are just some basic Tai Chi components that could greatly enhance ones sporting performance. In particular Tai Chi encourages one to ‘be in the present moment’ and not be distracted by incessant thoughts especially when you least want them. This ability is akin to being ‘in the zone’ highly prized amongst top sportsmen and is like any skill in that it can be trained into oneself.
I was initially drawn to Internal Martial Arts such as Tai Chi by the high level of martial arts skills long term, dedicated practitioners of these arts are said to posses. Moreover, I also wanted to move away from “conventional” exercise because of my desire to find out about how we might train ourselves in a more intelligent, injury-free way and ideally integrate the body and mind. I’d had quite enough of the traditional stoic approach to training where you keep pushing the body through the pain barrier. And so over the last few weeks I have found it very interesting to follow some accounts of how the top athletes have been training. In particular I have marvelled at some of the high-tech methods sports-scientists, bio-mechanics and coaches use and their similarity to the ancient body-mechanics and principles of Tai Chi.
One example of this is when an athlete is filmed to have their technique analysed by computer. When played back in slow-motion his or her movement is scrutinised by experts for efficiency. The slowness allows any discrepancies to come to light and thus the athlete’s training regime is adjusted accordingly to facilitate their improvement. If you think about it Tai Chi does the same thing but only in a much more integrative and holistic fashion.
People will immediately think of the clear mental focus and relaxation that we train in Tai Chi but there is much more to it than that. Tai Chi is as much physical as it is mental. It seems as though we cannot but help to separate mind from body in our culture, even our language necessitates such a divide, but in order to do anything well we have to realise this fundamental error. In Tai Chi we approach the mind and body as an integrated unit; we do not separate training our muscles from our mental activity for they are inextricably linked. To perform any action at a high level we have to work on ridding ourselves of unnecessary tension (both physical and mental) which impedes our natural motion, perception and flow of awareness. Similarly, we must seek that our entirety works together as a seamless, balanced and homogeneous unit for it is in this direction that health lies.
As you learn and practise the slow and smooth movements of Tai Chi you develop the ability to perceive and influence the mechanisms of your own inner workings – you become your own bio-mechanic, your own sports-scientist. As your perception of your own body improves you start to clearly feel where your body is harbours habitual tension and is misaligned. In this way one can work towards improving such things in a natural way. The most important point here is concerns developing high level awareness and perception for without these one cannot discern such discrepancies in the body structure nor clearly feel what one is doing or how one moves etc. Without the slowness it would be almost impossible to do this well, if at all. And here’s the thing; when the mind is busy it very difficult to feel the body accurately, in fact it seems as though all of our senses are dulled by thinking. Training the body slowly and perceptively necessitates a quietening of the mind and engages it in its observant and embodied nature. As I train my body I train my mind, they go hand in hand and this my friends is the genius of basic training in Internal Martial Arts like Tai Chi.