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Tai Chi
No Pain, No Gain?

4 Feb 2009
Athletes of all types, including martial artists, are susceptible to the macho posturing epitomized by the foolish doctrine of "no pain, no gain". In my own training, and the training I proscribe for my students, I prefer to say "no pain, no pain". In other words, the only gain from having no pain is the simple and obvious fact that you have no pain, and hence are not damaging your body. Anything else is drivel, and dangerous drivel at that.

The foolish philosophy that pain is a prerequisite to physical improvement has caused a great deal of suffering. That suffering takes a myriad of forms. Many people believe that extremes of weather, for instance, should be ignored in favor of toughening our bodies and building endurance. Karate founder Gichin Funokoshi famously tested his strength by standing on a rooftop through a tropical storm. He might not have known that German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said "that which does not kill us makes us stronger", but if he had known, he would probably have approved. Somehow people who quote this manage to forget that Nietsche's philosophy was also used to justify Nazi triumphalism and a host of inhuman atrocities.

The truth is, that which does not kill us usually cripples us or breaks us down to a shell of our former selves. If you doubt this, just ask any former soldier suffering from traumatic stress syndrome. The better way is to train our bodies and minds so that they are built up in a healthy, steady, holistic fashion. We Taoists say that to gain a healthy spirit we must first have a healthy mind, and to gain a healthy mind we must first have a healthy body. The three treasures cannot be separated.

Many of my old karate buddies glory in telling stories of the macho cruelties to which their teachers subjected them, and they to themselves. Stories of outrageously difficult black belt tests are fodder for such follies, and students who fancy themselves as modern-day samurai or ninjas eat it up. The truth is that most high-ranking karateka, middle-aged, are beaten up and broken down from their training. They hurt themselve in training as bad or worse than any attackers they fight. I broke and dislocated a few bones of my own before realizing the errors of such training.

That's where Tai Chi training is different. It builds you up and strengthens you with age. In 2005 I met a young ex-Navy Seal, retired from combat before he was 30, who told me he had broken just about every bone in his body at one time or another. "I thought I would never be able to practice martial arts again," he confided to me, "until I took up Tai Chi".

Doctors around the world increasingly prescribe Tai Chi as a gentle strengthening exercise to rebuild broken bodies. I have taken in students with nerve damage to their feet, hip replacements, damaged knees, osteoporosis, even extreme diabetic conditions, and more. Some conditions are more reparable than others, but all are improved.

Meanwhile, in the midst of brutal summers and cruel winters, it is important to carefully monitor ourselves and to arrange our training to show respect, not contempt, for the elements. This is Taoist philosophy at its most practical: balance in all things allows us to thrive; imbalance pulls us off center and away from our goals. Understand what the elements can do for us, and what they can do to us. If it is cold and wet outside, or hot and humid outside, use common sense. Arrange to train indoors where possible. Train long, and hard, and tough, but pay attention to the common sense wisdom that pain is intended to provide.


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