Traditional Embodied Chinese Culture: Taoism and Athletics

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A workout is more than simple physical strength – it should be an emotional experience as well. When the dualism of the body and mind can come together for the same ultimate goal of overall health, they will achieve true unity. The principle of Taoism – bringing the body and mind together as one – can be very important and very helpful in the fields of exercise and sports. The integration of Taoism and Taoist principles into sports and exercise is a very positive and healthy decision overall – its principles and exercises can be directly deposited into sports like Track and Field to make an athlete healthier and more effective on the athletic field.

Taoism (pronounced ‘Daoism’) means ‘the way’ or ‘the path.’ “It is a universal principle that underlies everything from the creation of galaxies to the interactions of human beings… (it is) often beyond human logic” (Lin, 2013). Reasoning alone is not enough to truly understand Taoism – one must apply their intuition as well. The seven most important teachings of Taoism are, according to the ancient sage Laozi (also Lao Tzu), as follows: non-contention, non-action, non-intention, simplicity, wisdom, humility, and duality (Lin, 2013). Taoism is not wholly spiritual, nor religious, but instead can be used under both assumptions. Many use Taoism as a supplement to their own belief systems. “The idea is to explore and learn the correct way or the better way to live and to conduct our personal affairs by understanding some of the principles that govern our lives” (Lin, 2013). Taoist ideas are meant for everyone, regardless of religion or lack thereof; many use Taoism to complement or improve their own beliefs. These principles are simply meant to improve lives and promote health and wellness.

According to Tommy Kirchhoff, author of “Internal Athletics,” wellness is not simply about health because health is multi-faceted. Health “is about immunity, mobility, stability of the mind, your ability to heal, your balance, and the functionality of your mind and body” (Kirchhoff, 2013). He also notes that the Taoists have developed “amazing systems of health” through principles and traditional Chinese medicine. Tai Chi, Kirchhoff’s martial art of choice, is a perfect vehicle for the Taoist principle and can be used in order to improve in other forms of athleticism. The most important Tao principle that leads to unity of body and mind within athletics is wisdom. “Logic has its place in human affairs but isn’t everything. There is a limit to what we can understand through rationality and reasoning. To transcend that limit, we need to engage our intuition fully” (Lin, 2013). Wisdom would be best placed into this situation because it is important to understand how your body and mind work, as well as how to apply these to athletics - Track and Field being a proper example.

There are two exercises that utilize Taoist principles and improve athletic performance in the area of Track and Field are foot patterns (there are several) and a walking/breathing exercise that requires work with a partner. Each of the foot patterns, as well as the breathing exercise, requires great focus and balance. The first exercise can be done through a step by step process. First, take a deep breath in through the abdominals, then through the ribs, then through the chest. Then, exhale while pushing against your partner’s hand while you walk forward. You must retain your balance and keep a steady breathing pattern throughout. The second exercise is multiplied: foot patterns.

These exercises can be integrated into different types of sports, as well as Track and Field. Naturally, this particular sport requires strength, agility, and speed, and these abilities can only be made better with the combination of Tai Chi and Taoist principles such as wisdom. It is a grand mix of traditional principles and modern ideas. Tai Chi not only supports your body but also your mind and emotional state – it looks after your spirit and is truly a cure-all. Physical exercises that incorporate Tai Chi movements and Taoist ideals into your each day workout or into your regular sports practice, as well as your daily life, can improve all aspects of your health. Mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually – all aspects of your health will seem new. Kirchhoff writes: “Tai Chi is internally based: this means that the movements organize, message and improve the internal organs, which in turn raises metabolism and burns body fat” (2013). As well, he mentions that exercises like jogging and resistance training make a body look better but instead robs the internal organs of ‘chi,’ or “internal, nourishing energy” (2013). There is no reason, however, that Taoism cannot help restore chi in such athletics through the use of wisdom, just as it nourishes and complements other spiritual belief systems. It is possible through an understanding of the sport, the principle of wisdom and a commitment to a long and healthy life. A good point to make as well is that an athlete, long after their career is over, can use the ideals of Taoism through Tai Chi and other like exercises to prolong their health as they grow older.

In Paula M. Niedenthal’s 2007 article, “Embodying Emotion,” she explores the relationship between posture and facial expression in contrast to how people process emotional information. Taoism promotes mental and emotional health, as well as physical well-being, and such commentary on emotional health promotes wisdom in the field. Niederthal’s conclusion was: “all of these studies show that there is a reciprocal relationship between the bodily expression of emotion and the way in which emotional information is attended to and interpreted” (Niedenthal, 2007). The experiments, manipulations of facial expressions and bodily movements within certain emotional situations, offer the same results as the application of Daoism and its principles to both sports and to life itself. “In theories of embodied cognition, using knowledge – as in recalling memories, drawing inferences, and making plans – is thus called ‘embodied’ because an admittedly incomplete but cognitively useful re-experience is produced in the originally implicated sensory-motor systems, as if the individual were there in the very situation, the very emotional state, or with the very object of thought.” (Niedenthal, 2007)

Knowledge and emotion are “embodied” – it becomes who we are as human beings and as students. One of the keys to Taoism is wisdom, which Lin says the following: “this is the key to insights as opposed to knowledge, and the difference between living the Tao and reading all about it” (2013). The most important Tao principle that leads to unity in athletics is wisdom. “Logic has its place in human affairs but isn’t everything. There is a limit to what we can understand through rationality and reasoning. To transcend that limit, we need to engage our intuition fully” (Lin, 2013). Taoist ideas directly relate to this because they do engage all parts, a healthy mind, and body.

Tai Chi is about posture: it helps a person to stand up straighter with a flatter back and flattened stomach. A person will then hold their head higher with their chin down, shoulders become relaxed, and knees are nearly always bent. Kirchhoff says that “this is aesthetically pleasing too, as you will look younger, and healthier, and you will move far more gracefully” (2013). Niedenthal elaborates on this with the subject of how anger and tension affect the body and muscles. Anger causes tension in muscles that are then used to strike, and it even causes the facial expressions to become tense into a tight scowl (2007). For this reason, Tao ideals are the perfect complement to sports like Track and Field, where posture and agility are important aspects and can improve skill and mindset. It is no scientific fact that emotional health can affect looks, posture and how a person perceives the world. Taoism, applied to the above two exercises and even further onto the athletic field, can really be a game-changer.

Athletics are not always about health or wellness, but perhaps strength and speed. However, there is no reason why those two areas should not meet and exceed a person’s expectations for overall health. Taoist ideals muse so perfectly and naturally into the actions of Tai Chi and other Tao based exercises. Taoist ideals relate to the exercises mentioned and to the student’s involvement in track and field and physical activity overall and how physical health is important in an athlete’s life.

Works Cited

Kirchhoff, Tommy. "Wellness." Fu Style Tai Chi. Fu Tai Chi, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.

Lin, Derek. “What is Tao?” True Tao. Great Tao Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

Niedenthal, Paula M. "Embodying Emotion." Science 316.5827 (2007): 1002-005. Print.