On a recent trip to the coast, I was attending a memorial golf day for my brother-in-law when some 50 family and friends joined us. The last time I played golf was two years ago and before that, you could count them on one hand. While I was watching others in my group hit the ball, I noticed that their practice swings were more natural and relaxed compared with their actual shots. Some people were tense through the swing, some managed to relax just before impact with the ball. On a par-4 hole, I was instructed by one of the regular players to make sure my feet were pointing in the direction I wanted the ball to go. The ball I hit landed just about 5 metres before the green. Everyone said that since playing this hole over 10 years for most of the group, they have never seen a shot go as far as this one. They all asked me how I did it. I just said it’s about coordination, alignment and relaxation. I hit quite a few good shots on the day and I knew that it was my training that was making the difference.
For someone who is 59 and feeling strong, I thought that the training could help others to improve their sport. I also noticed that golf is a very one-sided sport in that you are always using the same side of the body which can cause all sorts of postural problems. The basic warm-ups and relaxation training that we practise in Tai Chi and Wu Dao Gong can benefit all sports and for that matter all activities.
One of the first problems I noticed was the number of tension people is holding in their bodies and in particular the shoulders. This is a universal problem these days. Most people are under some sort of stress whether it be physical, mental, emotional or a combination of all three. The adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol into our bloodstream to help the body deal with danger. In many cases, it is an imagined danger or an exaggerated reaction to a situation. Once cortisol is released, it signals the body to get ready for fight or flight. One of the problems in our modern-day world is that many of the perceived threats are not life-threatening, such as confronting a dangerous animal in the wild. Unfortunately, the body doesn’t know the difference so our system is still releasing cortisol into our bloodstream while we are feeling frustrated at the desk after we have a disagreement at work or on the phone. As cortisol builds up, it causes many internal responses in the body. If this build-up is not dealt with, it can lead to a host of physical, mental and emotional health issues. In one recent study, cortisol has even been linked to dementia. It also reduces immunity and can cause weight gain, heart problems, anxiety and hypertension. Long term stress increases our susceptibility to depression and other mental health issues.
To deal with stress and tension, practices such as Tai Chi and Qigong give us the tools to calm the mind and body, reducing the build-up and release of cortisol. It enables us to maintain a sense of equilibrium in our daily lives. Poor posture, weak and painful joints, a lack of sleep – all these factors contribute to stress. If we can look after ourselves more effectively, we will feel better and become more resilient.
The training in Wu Dao Gong is more martial based. Hence, you can increase your aerobic capacity as well as learn to calm the mind. Wu Dao Gong is a comprehensive traditionally based training system which increases fitness, power, precision and concentration. The training develops a more internalised force called Nei Jin which is different from external brute force (li). Nei jin is connected to the tendons and is released through the whole body from the ground up just as a wave rises from deep in the ocean. It is a force that is very hard to stop. It is powerful yet relaxed.
Great masters, such as Sun Lu Tang and his teacher Gao Yun Shen in Xin Yi, Chen Fa Ke in Tai Chi and Dong Hai Quan in Ba Gau all had this kind of power, making them invincible. It provides the tools to defend against physical challenges which also can be seen in an emotional context. When we understand our weaknesses and learn to address them, we also become more aware of other people’s weaknesses. This makes us more understanding and accepting of others which helps us see others and ourselves with greater clarity. This clarity allows us to see what’s happening in a given situation, making it less personal and less emotional. This enables us to be more effective in coming up with solutions instead of feeling bad, sad or helpless.
Regular training in Tai Chi or Wu Dao Gong can give you a set of powerful tools to combat stress in your life. Many students have reported the changes that they have experienced regarding headaches, anxiety, depression and chronic pain. These arts have had thousands of years of development. This knowledge was painstakingly acquired and has stood the test of time. It has helped thousands of people and can also help you. One of the profound differences that Tai Chi or Wu Dao Gong offers in comparison with other exercise systems is the emphasis on developing internal energy (qi). Qi is our life energy and is seen as the roots of the tree of life. So knowing how to cultivate this root will naturally affect the well being of the tree’s many branches and leaves. Maintaining a calm focus is an integral part of this training.
In both Tai Chi and Wu Dao Gong, there are qigong training methods to improve internal energy. In Tai Chi, an important part of the energy cultivation system is the Hun Yuan Qigong set which was passed down to Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang by his teacher Hu Yao Zhen, a famous Chinese medical practitioner and martial artist in Beijing in the 1940s and 50s. In Wu Dao Gong, we use various standing postures. The main one is the Santi Shi (the trinity stance). It trains the physical body, enabling us to gradually unite the upper, middle and lower sections. On another level, it embraces the Taoist philosophy of heaven, earth and humanity. The Santi posture connects the body, mind and spirit with the world around us and the universe we live in. You could say that it unites us on a cosmological level. All the internal practices we teach lead to a greater supply and stronger flow of qi in our bodies. As your practice matures, you will feel happier and stronger. It will help you deepen your understanding and experience of your body, mind and spirit.
So how can this training improve your golf, tennis game or any other sport? It makes you more aware of how you are using your body. If you can feel whether your spine is straight, your shoulders are tense or relaxed, your knees are bent when you move and whether you are coordinating your body from the feet to the waist and spine and then to the hands, you are on your way to improving your overall performance. Lack of sensate awareness will make it difficult to analyse what the body is doing wrong in terms of tension and poor alignment and ultimately your techniques. One reason that the internal arts are practised slowly is to magnify the mind’s awareness of the body in motion. If we only practise at a fast pace, we will miss a lot of the finer details and connections between movements. Some elite swimmers even deliberately swim slowly to find weaknesses in their techniques. With regular practice, you will learn to relax and open your body leading to greater power. Tension restricts your ability to fully release your power and will cause your muscles to fatigue more quickly, making it difficult to recover your composure. Overall physical and mental relaxation plays a big role in performance as it helps us to focus and maintain our energy levels during a physically stressful event. Relaxation also helps in the recovery from physical activity. If you do not know how to relax your body and mind, you will gradually suffer from burnout. Deep relaxation teaches you to reorganise your mind and body, allowing deep rest and recovery in every part of the body and nervous system.
If you practise the warm-up exercises, the relaxation and qigong and certain movements from Tai Chi and Wu Dao Gong, you will feel stronger and yet more relaxed. This state will naturally extend to all activities in your daily lives. You will be pleasantly surprised at the difference in your chosen sport.