Qigong and Eastern Wisdom for the Athlete

The Relationship Internal and External Cultivation

In Taoist philosophy, there is a saying “Nei Wai Jian Xiu” (内外兼修), which translates as ‘dual cultivation of the internal and the external’. Traditionally, this phrase points to the importance of virtuous personal conduct, where the ‘internal’ refers to a character high in morals and being a well-learned person; the ‘external’ refers to behavior, specifically how a person acts, talks and interacts with others.

Taking the traditional meaning and applying to an athlete, it can mean that an athlete should strive to practice good sportsmanship, be respectful to the opponent and be loyal and helpful to your team. However, being a physically active person and a martial arts professional, I like to interpret this saying in a different way.

For me, the dual cultivation of the internal and external can also mean the necessity of balancing strenuous training and workout sessions with methods of recovery to ensure that no one side is over emphasized.

Here the external refers to working out, and the internal refers to recovery. Let me explain.

Being a martial artist, I enjoy my time “on the mat” training hard.

Because training hard is so enjoyable, this can easily lead to overtraining. And this applies to athletes of any sport out there. Serious athletes always seem to feel that they don’t train enough and there is a mistaken notion that the higher volume of training will lead to a proportional increase in skill and performance.

I have definitely been guilty of chronic overtraining, in fact, although I recognized the foolishness of this a few years ago, I feel I am still paying off the “health debt” that I incurred from overtaxing my nervous system for years on end.

This is a common phenomena in athletes, many times they feel that ‘something is not right’ but they cannot identify exactly what it is and choose to ‘tough it out’.

This results in a state of ‘excess yang’ and can lead to burn out, injuries and lower performance.

I’ve seen this a lot in athletes and in my own martial arts students. It is common knowledge in athletic circles that we make leaps in our performance when we are recovering and not when we are working out. But still, many don’t practice what they know.

So now that we recognize the importance of recovery, how do we go about doing it?

Just lying around on the couch does help and at times we all need some of that, but there are other more active (and enjoyable) ways to help out body and mind recover. When speaking of recovery, the most common methods seen in the West include massages, ice baths, cryotherapy and yoga etc.

These are all nice ways to recover, but personally, I found that a daily regime of meditation and traditional Chinese medicine Daoyin (qigong) practice has allowed me to speed up my recovery after a hard martial arts session and it has also improved my health and vitality.

Stanley Tam Taiji
Stanley Tam with his class

The practice of meditation and Daoyin (qigong) is largely overlooked by athletes in the West, I think this is a pity because these modalities are very beneficial in the recovery process and they also have a “side effect” of improving your health and well-being.

Although volumes of books can be written on the subjects of meditation and Daoyin (qigong), I will quickly say that they benefit the athlete by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which controls homeostasis of bodily functions and is responsible for our rest and recovery function.

The PNS is activated through a combination of the “Three Regulations”, namely regulating the body (keeping the body in a structurally aligned but relaxed state), regulating the breath (adjusting the breath so that it is slow and deep) and regulating the mind (calming the mind).

Once the Three Regulations are achieved, our vital energy or Qi will flow in our body.

With correct practice the Qi will flow freely in our meridians and clear obstructions in our body (which are responsible for pain and discomfort).

The end result points towards increased health and well-being, which allows us to get back to training hard in our respective sports or activities.

Meditation and Daoyin (qigong) is just like recharging a phone, if you use it you must also recharge it.

On the flip side, I feel it is also necessary for everyone to participate in some form of general strength training, which falls into the ‘external’ training category. This is especially true for those in the higher age group because numerous studies have shown that strength training helps maintain bone density and slow down sarcopenia (muscle loss with aging).

When I talk about strength training, I am not referring to Olympic lifts (a sport), doing a human flag (stunt) or Crossfit (looking to get injured?); Rather I am referring to general strength training, which should be simple and does not involve mastering any particular set of skills. Examples would be your basic push up, pull up, bodyweight squat etc.

I feel quite strongly about this point because both in the West and in China I see many teachers of Daoyin (qigong) who are, lack of a better word, either fat and/or flabby.

Although they claim to teach a health practice, their external appearance seems to indicate otherwise.

In traditional Chinese health practice, it is said that a fit looking exterior doesn’t mean a healthy interior, and I do agree with that. But your physical body is the vessel that is tasked with carrying the interior and is also responsible for enabling one to move around effortlessly and efficiently, should that not be given its due attention as well?

When I see these flabby teachers of internal exercises, it is an example of too much yin that is not balanced with yang. Although the majority of the world, especially athletes, overemphasize the yang, there are also some who veer too much on the yin side as well.

Therefore in order to be healthy and vital, we should strive to health both externally and internally, balancing the yin and the yang.

Have a well functioning interior with a strong and able exterior. This way we live in the modern world according to the ancient wisdom of “Nei Wai Jian Xiu” (内外兼修), ‘dual cultivation of the internal and the external’.

Qigong students
Stanley Tam teaching Qigong to a student group

About the author:

Stan is a Jiu-jitsu black belt and traditionally trained in Daoyin (qigong).

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