I was listening to this podcast the other day, an interview with Jonathan Bluestein.
[Sidenote: Bluestein is really worth paying attention to - I really enjoyed his book. He writes mostly about internal martial arts, and I disagree with at least 40% of what he says, but most of it is well argued and thought provoking.]
In the podcast Bluestein makes an assertion about how training in the internal martial arts - such as tai chi - makes people morally better. He did that thing that drives me nuts, making an interesting claim about internal martial arts and supporting it with nonsense (I think it was something about tense muscles having a negative influence on character, which is pretty unsupported and kind of ridiculous), but he got me thinking.
My first reaction was to dismiss this idea. But this notion - that the slow internal arts lead to moral superiority - is very tightly ingrained in our culture. Think about our stereotypes - who is more likely to start a fight, a kickboxing instructor or a tai chi instructor? I don't mean that hard martial artists are actually more violent or of lesser character, only that our stereotypes align with that view. I've also heard from many practitioners some version of "I felt like a better person when I gave up external, hard training for softer, internal arts." Could there be some nugget of truth to this story?
I have an hypothesis about this topic.
First, if you don't remember what the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are, do some reading, you can look at my blog post about this topic here. Short review: these are two parts of your autonomic (involuntary) nervous system; the sympathetic is activated with fight or flight - stress, adrenaline, getting you ready to run from or kill a predator. The parasympathetic system is opposite -it's kicked in when you're relaxed, happy, digesting a huge meal or something.
The thing is, when your sympathetic system is strongly engaged, your body is preparing for violence or extreme physical activity. Generally speaking, that means you're going to have a higher heart rate, higher levels of stress hormones, and be jumpier. It also means that, at least for many people, you're going to be quicker to anger, quicker to violence, and more likely to snap at others or overreact to stimuli. Your body is primed for combat. Different people will get dramatically different degrees of this behavior, but for any given person, they are most likely to be irritable or violent when highly sympathetic.
[Don't believe me? Do something that scares the crap out of your spouse (jump out at them or set off an airhorn), then do something that really annoys them. Then, a week later, repeat that experiment, but feed them a huge meal instead of scaring them, then do the same annoying thing. Let me know how it works out for you.]
When the parasympathetic system is engaged, your personality gets pushed in the opposite direction. You're more relaxed, less prone to a quick reaction, and less violently emotional.
I'm not saying that this completely determines behavior. I'm pretty sure that a parasympathetic Mike Tyson is still quicker to anger than a highly stressed sympathetic Dalai Lama. But for any given person, they get pushed one way or the other depending on which system is most active.
Now imagine someone who does a stereotypical external art - karate or kickboxing or something like that. They engage in hard, spirited training on a regular basis. They get deeply anaerobic, doing very intense activity, flooding their body with signals that say, "we need every last bit of reserves here, we're doing some very difficult things." And remember, your body doesn't really know the difference between a hard sparring session and an actual fight.
That training style - high intensity, all the time - is constantly activating the sympathetic nervous system. That's the system that gets us through hard workouts. And some people are really naturally good at coming down from that state, and getting into deep relaxation quickly afterwards. But most people won't. They'll just have an overactive, overstimulated sympathetic nervous system all the time.
And what do you think happens when such a person runs into a confrontation or a challenging situation? We know that some hard training karateka have very tranquil demeanors, but someone who does a lot of hard training is going to be less likely to be calm and tranquil, and more likely to be emotional and tense, because their body is flooded with stress hormones and neurotransmitters that were designed to help us fight off bears.
Suppose that same person, instead of karate, had taken up tai chi. The training sessions for tai chi involve a lot of standing or moving very slowly and focusing on easy breathing. The workouts aren't intense (physically) or anaerobic - your body doesn't get the signal "start releasing energy, because we're doing something very demanding" the way it would with hard physical training. In fact, while it's not the same as tai chi, yoga (another discipline made up of slow, easy movements) has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Slow, deliberate moving is probably even better for activating the parasympathetic system than resting on a couch.
Who's going to be more likely to snap at their kids or curse and yell at someone cutting them off in traffic? We can see this with people all the time - stress makes us worse people (some people under terrible stress are still wonderful people, but not as good or easygoing as they would have been without it). And hard workouts are a stress just as much as divorce or problems at work or obnoxious kids.
This is why, in my opinion, hard training people often take up meditation or internal martial arts later in life and talk about that practice in such glowing terms. It makes them feel better. After an hour of karate, doing a half hour of seated meditation or tai chi or yoga will activate the parasympathetic system, and if yours hasn't been active, that can be a blissfully enjoyable experience (try it!)
The mistake is in thinking that the softer, easier practice is a good replacement for hard training. You simply don't get the adaptations from slow easy movement that you can get from striving to be as forceful and explosive as possible. I don't have data on it, but I seriously doubt that tai chi is going to do as much for bone density or jumping ability as Crossfit or kyokushin karate training.
So what are our choices? Train hard and resign ourselves to being snappy, angry people? Absolutely not.
The thing we need to do, especially if we train hard, is to recognize that the hard training is pushing us into a place where we shouldn't stay. We don't want to be sympathetic all the time. It's not good for our bodies or our character.
You need to plan, as part of your hard training, activities that de-activate that sympathetic system and bring you back to a middle ground. You need to plan activites that activate the parasympathetic system, maybe the day after your hardest training sessions.
Have a 2 hour sparring day? Don't just sit around the next day - actively compensate for it with some yoga, some tai chi, a gentle walk in nature, a massage, or significant seated meditation (and sorry, I doubt 3 minutes at the end of class is going to do the trick).
This will not only make you an easier person to live with, which is its own reward, but will improve your health and help you recover physically for the next hard session of training.
[Another side note: I don't mean to denigrate tai chi as a combat art, or say that its only purpose is to relax people after hard training. I only mean that I think the reason so many people feel spiritually connected to tai chi is because the physical qualities of its practice - the slowness, breathing, and mental concentration - are all likely to activate the parasympathetic system, which most of us need more of.]
Conclusion: Train hard, but relax hard too. Osu!