Monday, May 6, 2013

The Physics Behind Tai Chi


By Veronica Pineda

Many people forget how much they are a product of mathematical and physical laws.  When we focus and study each breath, movement, and action we make, we can understand that every action a human takes conforms to nature's laws.

Instead of struggling against the inevitable, Tai Chi suggests that we study how the Universe behaves and use it to our own advantage. Tai Chi is a mixture of art forms such as dance, martial arts, and meditation.

Tai Chi requires more than simple throws and absorbing or dealing hits to attain victory. Tai Chi art requires more than strength flexibility, or any combination of simple physical characteristics. It requires an understanding of geometry, space, and the physical laws that govern their physical interactions.

On April 27, 2013, The University of Utah participated in World Tai Chi Day, the global celebration of Tai Chai. Millions of people in more than 70 nations searched for their centers using the techniques of Tai Chi in unison. Every hour beginning at 10:00 GMT (5:00PM Mountain Standard Time) participants began moving their “chi,” or internal flow of energy, in unison with participants worldwide.

Healthy and conscious flow of a person's chi is a concept of Eastern culture health that is the key to living a healthy, balanced, and fulfilling life.

Tai Chi, similar to yoga and other martial arts, requires self-awareness to fully harness its potential. This requires that the practitioner block out all external stimuli, focusing solely on their mind and chi. This is the main principle of Eastern medicine – the unity and communication between external stimuli and internal reactions.

Western sciences began to understand the same concept, many years later, through Newton's Third Law of Classical Mechanics, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Everything that someone does or is done to them has an equal internalized reaction.

Newer developments in physics, specifically in the field of quantum mechanics, demonstrate that objects exert influences even without directed physical contact. Through a phenomenon called Quantum Entanglement, one can measure a particle and instantaneously affect another particle in an equal and opposite manner no matter how far away they are, even faster than the speed of light.

Tai Chi uses six fundamental directions of movement according to Jerry Gardner, co-owner, director and master instructor of Red Lotus School of Movement where he teaches advanced courses in Wing Chun, Kung Fu and Tai Chi.

Tai Chi also uses the concept of the center, the sphere, and the cube. The cube represents the six directions relative to the practitioner. The sphere is inscribed within the cube with the practitioner in the center and all directions equally distant from the foci (i.e. the practitioner). The practitioner adjusts their internally inscribed circle in response to changes in their external environment. 

“There is no law of classical physics which does not require the concepts of space and time for its formulation,” the Tao of Physics.

According to Gardner, the practitioner's goal is to find alignment and balance within these internal and external dimensions.  If the practitioner loses their internal balance, they will also lose their external point of reference and become disoriented internally and externally.

A way that Tai Chi practitioners remain in balance is by shifting their weight back and forth. According to Bill Parkinson, associate professor of Tai Chi at the University of Utah, “If you can keep your balance and get your opponent off balance, they can not throw effective kicks and punches, and you can.“

It takes only a small amount of force to disrupt a person's balance. According to the Physics of Tai ChiChuan, “You need only four ounces of force to move a thousand pound force.”

“A little baby can push a 300 lb. person over if you push them off at the center. You want to push them high so that they tip over,” said Parkinson

According to this principal, a Tai Chi practitioner can use a difference in balance between them and their opponent to reduce a forceful attack. By continually shifting the practitioner's center of gravity, the blow may be avoided entirely – not only avoiding the force of the blow, but also forcing their opponent off-balance, allowing for a counter attack.

A key aspect to the art of Tai Chi is maintaining a dynamically shifting center of weight.

According to Parkinson, “In Tai Chi we are always moving. We are always fluid with our movements, so we don’t have to overcome inertia.“ In other words, Tai Chi practitioners maintain continual motions, so that they never have to exert energy to restart their movement, energy that would otherwise be advantageous rebalancing and repositioning.

According to Newton's First Law, “A body at rest will stay at rest or if in motion will continue in uniform linear motion, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

By completing actions and maintaining momentum of movements within the cube mentioned earlier while simultaneously maintaining reactivity within of their defined sphere, the practitioner is able to disrupt the opponent’s balance.

This technique of using two geometric shapes, a sphere and square, allows the practitioner to protect themselves through 10 different directions of attack: up, down, front, back, left, right, and the four front facing diagonals (relative to the practitioner. The practitioner must choose one direction to exert their momentum, any change requires energy. This energy wastes time and opens vulnerability.

In accordance with Newton’s Second law, an opponent will need time to change the direction of their momentum. This provides an opportunity for the Tai Chi defendant to either block the attack or preferably avid the attack entirely and perform a counter-attack. 

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