Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Let the force be with you, not against you

Stiff and unbending is the principle of death.
Gentle and yielding is the principle of life.
Thus an Army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
--Lao-Tzu, Tào Té Chīng, Chapter 76, 6th century BCE
The "Chi" in T'ai Chi can be roughly translated as "ultimate," while the "T'ai" means "great." Originally, the practice of T'ai chi ch'uan developed strictly as a martial art, wherein "ch'uan" meant "fist," giving the art the full name of Great Ultimate Fist. But even as a martial art, T'ai chi ch'uan was a product of Taoist thought, having been developed (supposedly) by a Taoist monk in China--one Zhang Sanfeng--during the Song Dynasty, circa 960 to 1279 CE.

As such, it was--as a system--firmly grounded in Taoist principles: mastery proceeded necessarily from a calmness of spirit, mind, and body, and from constant practice as goal to be relentlessly pursued. And the application of force was always minimized, the goal was to absorb and use the force of others, either of things in the environment or of the opponent when in combat.

This idea of using the force of an opponent against them, of essentially turning their own force back on them, is a key feature of many schools and styles of martial arts. And it is very much a staple of Chinese philosophy, as well, appearing in various forms in the writings of thinkers like Confucious, Mencius, and even Han Fei Tzu. For it proceeds from an understanding of energy as a tangible thing, in and of itself. Under this rubric, all energy present is available to use, to be exploited, by whomever is present at a given moment. One need not supply additional energy to achieve a result, but can--more often then not--simply use what is already there.

When running, there are three principle sources of energy present: the energy supplied by the runner, Earth's gravity, and the force of the ground, itself (be it a track, a road, a dirt path, or what have you). The goal for the runner should be--in a T'ai Chi way of thinking--to minimize the energy expended by taking maximum advantage of what is already available.

So how do we go about doing this?

One of two key ideas for having a proper running form in this regard:

Use gravity to move forward; don't fight it. Gravity is always pulling us down. And we are always resisting this pull, by using our own energy to stand, or by borrowing that of something like a chair to sit. Imagine sitting on a chair and then having it suddenly disappear. What happens? You fall backwards, don't you? And why? Because of your body's position relative to it's center of gravity. Try standing up, then leaning forward slowly without bending your knees or waist. You can feel the pull, can't you? And if you keep leaning, eventually you will fall. Forward.

This is something the Altra instructional videos and Danny Dreyer in Chi Running (and many other experts) are very keen on, and I've found their arguments to be very persuasive, to provide a significant advantage when properly heeded.

The last is critical here. One cannot simply take this advice--to lean forward--and run with it (pardon the pun). There's a lot more to learn. Proper posture must still be maintained. The back needs to be kept straight, as a matter of course. The lean itself should be at the ankles. And it is not a very big lean, at all. It's almost slight. Because if one leans too far forward, one loses control, and this is a bad thing. Take a good look at the proper extent of the lean--as compared to no lean--on the homepage of ChiRunning. See how small the lean we are talking about actually is in practice?

Still, for someone like me who always ran as vertically as possible, this is no easy change to make. Just a slight lean feels huge. I'm still working at it, carefully and slowly (which, by the way, is another lesson from T'ai Chi: incremental change is the way to go, always). But my understanding of the forces at play, my recognition of them in relation to myself, is making the change possible, is allowing my body to process the change in form as beneficial.

As the quote that opens this piece notes, flexibility is a virtue, while a lack of flexibility represents a serious problem. And yielding means accepting what is before you, what affects you, not fighting against it. In this case, we yield to the forces impacting what we are doing, to the extent that we benefit from these forces, we work with them in confluence not opposition.

In the next piece, I'll look at the other outside force runners must contend against, each and every step they take: the ground they tread upon.