28 February 2009

Shintaido from the physiological perspective, part 2:stability and extension

(Interview with physiotherapist and Senior Instructor of Shintaido Ula Chambers, continued from previous post)

David Franklin: What I'm thinking about is, we have this traditional Japanese philosophy called Ten Chi Jin (天地人 lit. "heaven earth human" — what Mircea Eliade called the axis mundi). It puts such an emphasis on verticality and balance. Ten Chi Jin philosophy equates keeping your spinal column vertical with a cosmological or natural, harmonious relationship with nature. What I'm aiming to explore is what goes on in the body about keeping the spine vertical. What goes on in the nervous system, or the brain, or the interaction of all of them.

Ula Chambers: Well here's a thought: there are ways of moving that require more or less energy. If your body is tense for some reason and your muscles are contracted, it's using more energy, naturally. That makes sense doesn't it, because the muscle needs oxygen and glucose etc. to be able to contract. It needs the whole metabolic process to be able to keep contracted. So you're using energy. If your spinal column is vertical it's more efficient. For example, people doing fudodachi stance (不動立ち, "stable stance") often lean one way or the other don't they. Their arms are out like that and they often tend to lean towards their arms, which isn't a very energy-efficient way of moving.

If you align your body in such a way that doesn't require unnecessary muscles to become tense because they're keeping you in an abnormal position, then you have more energy to use for other things. So then you may be to continue, for instance, or to think. So there's an energetic reason, an energy efficiency reason.

And that's why it's "natural movement." And the unnatural movement happens because we're not used to, or we haven't understood the movement, but that's part of the process of learning the technique. It's not to say that people don't move naturally when they do move, because when we're moving for our normal day-to-day things, we do move naturally— for us— we each have our own movement patterns. But some people don't move as well as they should, they're putting more loads than they need to on certain structures and so forth because of their habit of movement.

In a way, Shintaido is challenging the habits of movement that people come with. For instance even such a simple thing as standing in seiritsu-tai ( 正立体 neutral meditation stance), will make us aware of the sensation in our body, and it will make us aware of the habit of movement. One of the key things that happens to people is they learn to relax their shoulders and move. So instead of keeping the shoulders tense, you actually have the energy available for core stability. I think that's what happens when you have that sensation in your koshi (腰 center of the body) that it's stable. You've lost the tension maybe up here (indicates shoulders) and the energy is more concentrated in the muscles that are keeping you stable, the core muscles.

Core stability muscles help with balance. There are neural feedback mechanisms which, for instance, if you learn to stand up, the trunk muscles are working to keep you stable, hip and thigh muscles are working to keep you upright. If you then move your arm, that actually disturbs your balance. And the only reason I haven't fallen over is that my brain has learnt that what happens when I lift my arm up is that the forces in the body change, and even before I've lifted my arm, muscles in my body are working to prevent this movement from unbalancing me. And this is what I've learned just by going around normally.

In Shintaido we do a lot of this (extending arms) and in fact when you look at beginners, they fall over a lot don't they? This extension is a big challenge to our balance. And you see that beginners often stumble or lose balance a bit.

DF: Or, they don't reach out enough.

UC: Or they don't reach out enough! Because actually, this is comfortable (reaching somewhat), but that isn't comfortable (extending more), that's going to make me fall over, so I'm not going to do it. That's why they don't do it.

DF: And where is this leading?

UC: This is leading to core stability. Part of it is that you have to re-learn that your body can cope with this extreme extension, so we have to encourage people a lot, we really have to encourage them to reach out far and push out far, because when they've done it often enough, the body will learn. I can feel, stretching my arms out now, pushing out really far, I can feel these stomach core stability muscles are working really hard. And if I put an object in my hand, a bokuto or a bo (bokuto: 木刀, wooden sword; bo 棒 long staff), they're working even harder!

But what happens is, when people begin, they try and stabilize this (the bokuto or bo) with the upper body. And they can't relax. But that whole thing about pushing out with your koshi is about moving the stability from up here (shoulder area) to down here (waist and hips area) — even while extending the arms holding something. These muscles (around the hips and waist) are huge, and they're capable of handling really big forces.

19 February 2009

Shintaido from the physiological perspective, part 1: reflex arcs and natural movement

Excerpt of an interview with Ula Chambers, 22nd July 2003

Ula Chambers is a senior instructor of Shintaido in Great Britain and a professional physiotherapist. (At the time of this interview, she was in her final year of study as a physiotherapy student).

Reflex arc, defined: The route followed by nerve impulses in the production of a reflex act, from the peripheral receptor organ through the afferent nerve to the central nervous system synapse and then through the efferent nerve to the effector organ.

If this is too technical for you, don't be alarmed. In more day-to-day language, a reflex arc occurs when a sensory impulse travels to the central nervous system and back out to the periphery (say a muscle), and there is a response before the person makes a conscious decision to respond.

Ula Chambers: Balance is really interesting, becuase there's a kind of chain of balance reactions that happen. It involves the core stability muscles in your trunk, but there's also a foot/ankle reaction. For instance if I'm falling over there, I don't have to think "I'm going to put my foot there to stop myself from falling over." Eventually you realize that you have put your foot there.

David Franklin: You're saying that when you loose your balance, it just happens-- the foot goes by virtue of this sensory nervous system reflex arc.

UC: Yes, and it involves various muscles in the body. The muscles that need to do it work, but also all the muscles in the torso have to respond to stabilize the trunk. For instance, if I were standing here and somebody brushed past me, what happens is it begins with an ankle reaction to stabilize the feet on the floor. It's a tightening of the gastrocs and tibialis at the front which stabilizes the leg at the bottom.

DF: Suppose I were to say that when we do wakame taiso ("seaweed exercise" わかめ体操), we are invoking this reflex arc that normally operates automatically and unconsciously. And now we are trying to do it consciously. We're trying to activate it consciously, but we're not trying to do each movement consciously. Is this perhaps one of the things it means when we refer to "natural movement" in Shintaido?

Let me put it as a speculative question: what might the effect be of taking this reflex arc that exists already as a pattern in the body, and trying to be conscious of it, without interfering?

UC: If you're conscious of it, then it becomes a process of your higher brain functions. When it's unconscious you don't have any knowledge of it as such. But when you have knowledge of it, then it's part of a wide range of choices that you have for voluntary movement. So therefore it's a tool, and you can use it. You can choose to use it, as opposed to it just being there for a particular instance. You can make the decision to work on it.

If we do wakame for instance, and we train ourselves almost to feel how it is to be unbalanced, depending on how flexible you are or how much you can let go, the effect is to challenge the system. It's like the study we do with bokuto (wooden sword 木刀), where you're understanding what's going on behind you, developing your sixth sense. I think you're training your senses to be aware of things, and then to be able to use them. It's like that whole thing with the Star Wars Jedi stuff, "use the force," it's that kind of thing we're doing.

DF: Part of what I'm hearing is that we often make this vague statement that Shintaido will help you to develop more natural movement, and if someone were to ask you "Well what does that mean, specifically?" this would be one of the answers: we take these reflex patterns that are part of the human body, and develop them, and use them more consciously. Which leads me to another question:

What kinds of things might interfere with reflex arcs of the sensory nervous system?

UC: You have inhibition and excitation from the higher centers. For instance, you know about the knee jerk reflex, when the doctor hits the knee with a little rubber mallet. Well, if they're thinking about it, sometimes you do that to people and it's practically nothing. That's because they're aware of it, they've stopped it somehow; there's some kind of inhibition going on from the brain that says "I'm not doing this." So you have to distract people, tell them to count in French backwards from 10, or spell their mother's maiden name or something, and then you do get a response.

DF: So to clarify, reflex arcs can be inhibited or enhanced, depending on what the conscious brain is doing.

UC: Yes. What it does is, the brain will adapt the reflex to suit the environment. So what we're doing is we're creating an environment.

DF: Would you say that we're creating an environment that nurtures that reflex to occur more?

UC: I suppose so, because we're making it happen often. But we're making it happen in such a way that we're controlling it.

13 February 2009

Magic eye movements

Clearly, the way we use our eyes - that is, conscious control of eye movement and direction - is important in Shintaido and other martial arts. A recent article by Devon Powell about magicology (the scientific study of magic and illusion) in New Scientist magazine (24 December 2008) sheds some light on both the practical martial arts applications and the philosophical implications of consciously controlling our eye movements.

An excerpt from the article:

Over the past decade or so it has become clear just how scarce attention is: focusing on one thing can make you oblivious to other things that would otherwise be obvious....

[Researcher Gustav] Kuhn recently demonstrated this using a trick where he makes a cigarette and lighter "disappear". In truth he simply drops them into his lap when your narrow spotlight of attention is pointing elsewhere.

By tracking eye movements as people watched a video of the trick, Kuhn showed that people miss the deception even when they're looking directly at it. It works because, at the crucial moments, he makes attention-grabbing gestures and eye movements that divert attention (but not gaze) away from the action....

During his training as a professional thief [pickpocket], [Apollo] Robbins was taught to use two types of hand motion to control his victims' attention. Slow, circular hand motions are good at engaging and keeping attention, while fast, straight ones are useful for quickly diverting it from one spot to another.

There are several eye-movement training methods in martial arts that I'm aware of. In some styles of T'ai Chi an unfocused attention covers the whole visual field, enhancing peripheral vision. In other styles the eyes are focused on the hands as they move. In karate partner sparring, I was taught to focus on the opponent's chest or on an area above the head, but to avoid looking at the eyes. (This may relate to avoiding focusing on social cues such as the other person's eye movements and facial expressions - see below). Certainly there are many other eye-movement training methods in other martial arts, meditation techniques, etc. that I'm not familiar with.

In Shintaido we often use distant eye focus, focusing beyond what we "actually" see to the infinite distance. This suggests that we are training ourselves to focus beyond that which grabs our immediate attention - which, in the context of self-defense, could potentially mean another person's attempt to misdirect our attention in much the same way that magicians or pickpockets do. (There are some other eye-movement training methods in Shintaido, such as the meditation described by Aoki-sensei on page 209 of his textbook Total Stick Fighting: Shintaido Bojutsu).

At the same time, this practice of literally looking beyond the illusion could function as a practical method for exposing the mechanisms of perception to conscious observation or control. A further excerpt from the New Scientist article:

A second key tool in the magic repertoire is illusions, particularly cognitive illusions. These rely on the fact that much of what you think you see is actually invented by your brain. Perception is not about capturing a full picture of reality, but taking snapshots of the world and making the rest up.

In the vanishing ball illusion, for example, a magician tosses a small ball up and down while following it with his eyes. He fakes a third toss, keeping the ball in his hand but still moving his eyes as if watching it. This reliably creates the illusion of the ball being thrown upwards - then disappearing into thin air.

Kuhn recently brought this trick into his lab to examine how it works. By tracking people's eyes as they watched it being done, he found something unexpected. On real throws, the eye movement of subjects followed the ball's trajectory. But on the trick toss, their eyes remain firmly glued on the eyes of the magician. This, says Kuhn, shows that the brain overrules the eyes and creates an image of an object that doesn't actually exist....

The trick also relies on another glitch in the visual system. Information captured by the retina takes about 100 milliseconds to reach the brain. To compensate for this lag, the brain predicts what the world will look like in the near future and acts on this prediction rather than the real information at its disposal. This is useful in real-world situations such as driving a car, but it also gives magicians an opening to exploit.

(A fuller report of the research by Kuhn and Land is in Current Biology).

While this phenomenon is about seeing something which isn't there, you can experience another well-studied perceptual phenomenon by watching a video on-line. Before you read any further, try to precisely count the total number of bounces of all the basketballs in this video.

If you didn't see the person in the gorilla suit walk through the middle of the scene (about 50% of test subjects don't), you have experienced "inattentional blindness," which occurs when we are strongly focused on certain things and literally do not see something else that is right in front of our eyes. This was demonstrated in the well-known experiment conducted in 1999 by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (of which the video was a part). (An abstract is here).

What all this implies is that perhaps by consciously controlling our eye movements we can influence the reality-generating function of the brain's visual perception system (as mentioned, the real information from the eyes is there, being fed into the brain but being ignored). This would significantly change the way we are programmed to perceive reality. Concretely, what we do in Shintaido practice is to enter into a social situation - kumite or partner exercise - while simultaneously keeping a visual focus beyond the other person, beyond walls of the room or the limitations of the physical environment, and beyond the social cues that influence us to see as we are programmed to.

In a more philosophical context, it seems the very same techniques embodied in martial arts and Shintaido practice speak to seeing beyond the Maya, the veil of illusion that we mistake for reality. By looking beyond, we avoid getting caught up in the illusion of what we think we see or what we are subtly being told to see. Paradoxically, this may help us to see more clearly what is right before our eyes.

06 February 2009

Comparing the arts

Michael De-Campo wrote: "...however I'm not sure comparing the arts is that much useful."

The reason I sometimes find it useful to make some specific comparisons among martial arts (with an attitude of respect of course) is that Shintaido does not exist in a vacuum. Sometimes it's helpful to consider where Shintaido is located in the vast landscape of martial arts, meditative disciplines, health exercise, varieties of yoga etc.

At times Shintaido feels like a complex project that arrives on our doorsteps with a message "some assembly required" (and complete instructions not always supplied). There is a specific practical problem, internal to Shintaido, that I hope we in the Shintaido community can work on together: renki kumite. (I believe this exercise was introduced to the international public for the first time in 2000 at the event in Haguro, Japan.)

In some ways, this partner exercise (especially renki kumite variations 6 and 7) appears similar to T'ai Chi push-hands. Shintaido certainly has some movement principles in common with T'ai Chi, but other principles might be quite different. I feel it would be helpful to clarify the details of this exercise, and to define what we aim to learn from it. The details were not made very explicit by Aoki-sensei when he introduced it, so there is certainly room for interpretation.

Therefore I hope Shintaido practitioners of any level of experience will take a shot at answering some of these questions. I'd like to hear your opinions.

Have you ever practiced or taught renki kumite? If so, just some of the variations, or the whole process (10 parts is it?)

Generally, what do you feel are some of the goals of this exercise?

Are there some specific movement skills we should aim to learn from it?

Is it better to maintain a vertical posture throughout, or is it OK to lean, or is it desirable to lean?

How much pressure should be allowed to build up at the point of contact? (I do remember Aoki-sensei saying "Don't make it a contest of strength."

Should you sometimes try to put your partner off-balance?

How much should you accept your partner into your space? Should you to some degree deflect him/her away from your center?

Do you consider this part of the Yoki-kei (softer, nurtuing ki exercises) aspect of the Shintaido system? Can it be done with many variations of koshi (hips, pelvis) positions?

04 February 2009

Seek the center?

Unlike many martial arts, Shintaido does not always advise the practitioner to "seek the center" or to "be centered". While a T'ai Chi practitioner might try to be always in balance and centered -- near the center region of the area representing the ability to keep balance -- a Shintaido practitioner often explores the regions where s/he is out of balance or almost out of balance. The most representative and distinguishing movements of Shintaido (ageoroshi, shoko, most kaihotai movements, eiko, shintaido jump and other jumping, many of the meditation postures...) demand that the practitioner extend and reach out beyond or almost beyond the limit of keeping balance.

When you operate near the limit of the range of balance, important muscles surrounding the spine, in the lower back, and around the pelvis -- muscles related to keeping balance -- are powerfully engaged and trained. So this can have a beneficial and therapeutic effect on the spine, the root of our ability to balance ourselves vertically in this world of gravity (which weighs on us relentlessly 24/7 from the moment we're born till the day we die). It can untangle and detoxify the distortions and maladjustments imposed on our bodies by the demands of the modern "civilized" lifestyle.

At the same time, the psychological and emotional effect of operating near the limits of balance is to encourage psychological and emotional growth. The will to challenge our limitations psychically is not really separate from the process of challenging physical limitations. So an important part of Shintaido training is overcoming fear. Shintaido practice helps to develop bravery through physical challenges that push us beyond our "comfort zone" -- yet with minimal actual physical danger (in contrast to challenging adrenaline-addictive activities such as skydiving, rock climbing, walking across beds of hot coals and so on). Rather than just physical bravery, this is a more internal bravery: the bravery to handle whatever experiences are difficult for you.