Tai Chi and Overuse Injuries
If you are keen on Tai Chi, you will be practicing a lot and if you have access to more of the full traditional Tai Chi Chuan syllabus, you will also be doing a lot of internal energy power building practices, so that you gain ‘the pliability of a child, the health of a lumberjack and the peace of mind of a sage’. Training harder brings greater reward through the development of demonstrable skill and is very fulfilling. Therefore I would recommend seeing how far one can personally go in the Art, rather than just settling for a basic level of Tai Chi. So let us see what we can do to mitigate the risk of deeper Tai Chi journeying.
Intense repeated activity risks several types of injuries:
Injuries due to overall fatigue and tiredness
Repetitive strain injuries arising from bad movement habits or over training
Injuries due to sudden overloading or inadequate warm up
Injuries due to muscle imbalance
I have placed “overall fatigue/tiredness” first because tiredness is a real concern. When we become tired, yet still try to focus, we begin to exhibit signs of stress. So although working with internal energy (‘chi’) through an Art such as Tai Chi is stress-relieving, we must be mindful of the fact that too much training over too long a period of time, without meaningful downtime, may mean that the stress of aggressively pursuing de-stressing becomes more stressing than de-stressing. We have to be aware that you may have been drawn to study Tai Chi due to certain weaknesses or ‘depletions’ in your mind/body system. As the energy patterns in your mind and body are freed up and circulated by focusing on Tai Chi training you may begin to feel much better. But we must then do our best to avoid the temptation to ‘burn the candle at both ends’. This is not the way to get out of debt. If this sounds like you, thinking of your energy as money can be a useful visualisation. If you invest wisely, re-invest what is reaped wisely, spend some on experiencing and living life and keep some aside for emergencies, there is a good chance that over time you will become financially strong, stable and resilient under circumstances that may be driving others into debt. Conversely, if you live chaotically, spend whatever comes your way and incur debt that you have no clear plan for repaying, the odds are that over time you will become depleted, a bad debtor and really rather suffering.
If I describe, in a simplistic way, the basic mechanics of the Taoist way of looking at the human as energy, perhaps you will see the money analogy more clearly. In the internal energy codex there is a basic classification of pre- and post-birth chi. Simplistically, pre-birth chi is split into that which is assigned to form your post-birth mind, body and spirit. It represents the strength of chi given by one’s parents and the universe. When you are born you are consuming pre-birth chi (or gift) where post-birth chi is deficient. Once your post-birth and pre-birth chi gets depleted in different areas, you are likely to experience unnecessary illness and perhaps an earlier death. However post-birth chi can be nourished through factors like correct mind use, correct nutrition, correct environment and correct exercise.
If you imagine your pre-birth chi as money from your parents and post-birth chi as how you cultivate money in your life, surely you can see some of the similarities? Most of us have squandered financial gifts from our parents at some point and then had to figure out how to provide for ourselves as adults. In the same way we can deplete our minds and bodies through ungoverned or unaware action, leading to exhaustion of parts of our systems. This opens us to the possibility of poor mental and physical health, even though we may have had a robust genetic gift from our parents.
I often quote Grandmaster Ip Tai Tak when he said, “power training is boring, it is like saving a penny each day”. If accumulation of internal energy is like that, more fool you if you squander whatever you are given. It’s not easy to build.
Therefore resting the mind and body to avoid depletion is really important. There are numerous scientific studies showing that lack of sleep increases risk of injuries. For example in one study children and teens getting less than 8 hours of sleep a night had 1.7 times the risk of injury. Also a study of almost 7,500 U.S. soldiers showed that those getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night had more than double the risk of injuries.
So part of cultivating internal energy is to change one’s fundamental habits to conserve energy and not deplete it, even when one’s energy is abundant. Within the analogy of money, one should strive to become fiscally responsible.
However the issues from exhaustion don’t just end with an increased risk of injury. When people become exhausted they also suffer from reduced cognition, increased stress chemicals in the blood stream, reduced immune system function, reduced ability to process psychological trauma, increased emotional dysregulation, higher blood pressure, increased inflammation response throughout the body. In fact the list goes on and on. Being exhausted over a long period of time is very toxic.
So when training your Tai Chi, be aware that although we use training to exhaustion to achieve breakthrough, there is a difference between periodic exhaustion to create positive change and overall systemic exhaustion through never having adequate, quality rest. One is a training approach within a training system, the other is a health problem caused by one’s overall approach to life.
Of course it is also possible to have exhaustion in just a part of a body (or mind), rather than be experiencing overall systemic exhaustion/depletion. This is in fact the more usual issue causing injury. It is this sort of thing that can cause RSI in the wrists of those who type a lot, tennis elbow in those using vibrating power tools, et cetera.
Therefore if you are having a lot of training injuries, it may be due to an underlying exhaustion that needs to be rectified and paid back over time like a financial debt.
The first two types of injury I listed are entwined: repetitive strain injuries arise when a part of the system is fatigued and/or tired and made to carry on despite this; whereas Injuries arising from an overall sense of tiredness relates to how the system behaves when there is inadequate rest. These two are tricky, because without pushing oneself you are unlikely to achieve a satisfying level of demonstrable skill in Tai Chi. So yet again we run into the need to raise our awareness, for as the Tai Chi classics say, “look left beware the right”. In other words, if you focus on one thing, you risk losing awareness of the overall picture. Hence the need to raise one’s Teng Jing (listening energy) to higher and higher levels.
So we have discovered that fatigue, stress and inflammation can be at a systemic or local level – a generalised malaise of the entire mind and body, or a problem for a specific place or aspect of mind or body. As we move on to the third classification of injury we are discussing, those attributable to sudden overloading or inadequate warm up, we are once again straight into the need for listening energy, or awareness.
The issue of defining what is an adequate warm up so that you do not overload is highly contextual. It is about what you have done in preparation being adequate for the demands you are planning to place on yourself. It is very easy to desire to follow the crowd when practicing in a group and skip warm up when practicing alone. Yet there is nothing that checks for sure that the group culture is correct for the activities taking place and certainly nothing except one’s own discipline and experimentation to know if what one is doing solo is adequate too.
A warm up for running gently through a Tai Chi form does not need to be as extensive as a warm up required to be thrown all over the floor. A warm up for extreme power training is not required for zhang zhuang (standing post) chi kung practice. Also a warm up when you are 20 years old is very different to a warm up for when you are 60 and riddled with wear and tear injuries and various pockets of arthritis. In general, setting aside the issues of age, the more power you are looking to develop from a unit of training, the more comprehensive the warm up should be. Therefore if you are not sure what warm up you need, improve your listening energy.
The final category of injury I wanted to discuss was those arising from muscle imbalance. This is interesting because it does not directly come from the first three, yet often does. Muscle balance is a western medical idea. In the traditional teachings of the East they would rely more on one’s awareness of Yin and Yang combined with listening energy to appreciate the balance of power within their systems, looking for an integrated, harmonised whole, not a specific local balance only. However as we think in the analytical western way primarily, we must often work with that to gain initial awareness. Muscle balance in its basic form is the idea that joints around the body are moved using antagonistic muscle pairs. An example of one of these pairs would be the quadriceps on the front of the thighs and hamstrings on the back of the thighs. The theory is that if one is significantly weaker than the other, you have a mismatched pairing. This will affect joint stability, balance and mobility. The ramifications of a non-functional imbalance are myriad, yet your intelligent system will do its automatic duty and subtly compensate for the gap in strength. However, this adaption can lead to a widening of the gap between the strong muscle and the weak. From an internal energy perspective, this can lead to the energy channels weakening and closing, diminishing one’s internal power. Over time the weak muscle can end up being increasingly avoided and the strong muscle can become overloaded, increasingly stiff and fatigued. The perfect breeding ground for wear and tear, tendonitis and injury.
Although this situation can happen as a result of guarding a previous injury, it can also simply develop over time or be a ‘way’ that your family tends to move. In essence there is a link between the concept and awareness of our own bodies and how we decide to move and use our bodies. The movement habits we have lead to the pruning and shaping of our neurology over time, so that our bodies begin to literally match our mind awareness, which is itself a certain way due to limited awareness. So if you imagine that our systems can be riddled with such atrophy, no wonder it leads to muscle imbalance and structural collapses. Yet we think, within our limited awareness, that we are living fully.
When we begin Tai Chi, we challenge our perceptions, expanding our view of the mind/body system and how it should be used. However, even after many years practice it is possible to realise that our training approach is not quite as full as we first thought. As a result, despite doing a holistic Art, our fixed view of it can create the same problems that we were having before encountering the Art, it just took time for one limited view to transform into another limited view. So although during the change it may feel as if your health is improving as muscle imbalances are challenged, they are only changing towards a different set of imbalances that eventually create their own issues, representing our new limited view of our own systems. This is why it is important to focus so much on listening energy. It really is synonymous with self-awareness; mentally, physically and energetically. The ability to feel should be used to realise how to use all muscles more fully so that development works towards a truer balance. When things are balanced, the energy channels can fully open and Chi can flow at its maximum for your system. This is good health. If you are also careful not to become fatigued or depleted, you ought to be positioned for good health with fewer injuries. In fact you will gain ‘the pliability of a child, the health of a lumberjack and the peace of mind of a sage’.