Martial Arts and Pseudoscience March 20, 2009

Martial Arts and Pseudoscience

Reader Demyx has recently begun taking martial arts classes and enjoys them… but there’s one problem:

The problem is that they’re constantly talking about “chi energy” and other pseudoscience stuff. This really bothers me. I mean, martial arts has actual health benefits (at least in the sense that I’m getting some exercise, if nothing else) so why do they constantly need to frame it in terms of magical thinking?

Am I being oversensitive? Is there any way to do martial arts without having to pretend to believe in pseudoscience?

Any advice for Demyx?

Have any of you encountered the same issue and found a way to deal with it?

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  • Find a real dojo where they don’t try and pull that fake mystical shit.

  • Twin-Skies

    From my experience, “Chi” is often the way dojos will try to explain their understanding of body mechanics.

    “Chi” can mean proper breathing technique, proper posture, or the proper way of tensing your muscles to execute or to defend against an attack.

    Thought I’m speaking strictly frome experience – my teacher explained most of our lessons in very scientific terms.

  • I agree with second poster. I train Wing Chun kung fu. Sometimes they do use those terms to talk about body mechanics. But you should be wary of any school teaching about mystical energies.

  • MV

    Speaking as a black belt, I know this stuff exists, but I never encountered it. To each his own I guess. It is not needed to do karate.

    I do know some of “Chi” stuff is actually just proper breathing and muscle techniques wrapped up inside of mysticism. Nothing special in that.

    Learn the moves, then learn the principle behind them, then apply it.

  • I agree with Twin-Skies…it’s fine to refer to “chi” or “energy flow” if it’s used as a metaphor. These words can be useful for visualizing your muscles and body movements. However, if they are going much further than that, and it’s distracting, then I don’t think that you are being too sensitive if you look for a new instructor.

  • Jesse

    I don’t have any advice for you, but if you are oversensitive, I am too.

  • GullWatcher

    Yoga posed the same problem for me. Luckily, I found another instructor (at the same studio) that focuses on the move instead of the woo. If I have to take a make-up class from another instructor, I just tune out the woo. It’s pretty easy with practice.

  • Chris
  • I think if you did the research on the origins of the idea of “chi” you’d find that it’s not the woo it’s made out to be by some. For some people the mystical part makes it more appealing to some people stress it but I’d agree with CC and MV.

  • Melissa

    I’m with GullWatcher, I’m currently taking a yoga class through my college right now, and my teacher does similar things. She discusses the different Chakras daily, and occasionally mentions “Heaven” during our practices. Despite the pseudoscience and religious references she sometimes makes, she’s truly an amazing older woman who takes so much joy out of it. She doesn’t push any type of belief on my class, and just as long as I get the workout I came for, I’m willing to ignore all the mumbo jumbo I don’t believe in. Granted, if I wasn’t taking the course for credits, and was instead taking it at a gym or studio somewhere, then I may try a different teacher, but that’s just me.

    Honestly, if the chi stuff is bothering you so much, then scope out a new dojo somewhere and see if you can’t find one that focuses more on the workout than the actual art behind it. It’s worth a shot

  • I too practice yoga and do the same thing that Gullwatcher and Mellisa do.

  • “Chi Energy” may very well be what we call “The Zone”.

    There’s an observable phenomenon that happens to athletes when they lose all other extraneous inputs and the mind becomes hyper-focused. This is especially evident in target shooters, but I imagine it’s the same for martial artists.

    Brainwaves enter a calm period before entering the “Zone”. And thereafter, they become active again. This second phase is the “Zone”.

    This level of concentration may give the appearence of some form of “energy” or “flow” of sorts, but this is perhaps our own perception of our minds at work.

    The brain is such a complex organ, there may be all sorts of wonderfully bizarre observations we can make when the mind tries to conciously observe itself.

    That’s just my theory on it…

    I just don’t believe there is such a thing as “Mind over Matter”. I just think we haven’t really understood the full limits of our own physiology and how our bodies respond to extreme duress.

  • As a black belt in Tang Soo Do, I interpreted “chi” as the ability of the human species to go just that little bit further. I do believe to some limited extent that “It’s not how good you are, it’s how bad you want it.” Okay, me and Koby Bryant going at it on the basketball court would be nothing short of embarrassing, no mater how much “I wanted it”. But for two equally matched competitors ‘going for gold’ can draw on that pseudo science, mental psychology, woo, or whatever you want to call it, to get you to achieve what you really, really, really, want.

    I believe we all have an animal instinct that’s innate in us that let’s us go that little bit further than is scientifically possible. The slay dog that runs itself to death to the first marathon runner, Philippides, that died after delivering his message. Putting aside the atheist humour for one second, imagine what a mother would do to protect her new born baby?

    “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” – Mark Twain

  • entertaining_doubts

    One more vote for the “metaphor” approach.

    There was plenty of woo talk at the kungfu school where I studied for five years. I found that, if nothing else, “chi” is a good mental concept to get your body to do things in a smooth, powerful, well-balanced way, without over-intellectualizing about the anatomy and physics involved. Sorta the same thing you get from “pre-visualization” techniques in other sports, where you imagine how it looks and feels to do the technique right. The trick, as with any placebo, is getting it to work for you once you stop believing it’s real….

    At least with the Chinese arts, the woo is interwoven with a lot of cool history and legend, so it’s also interesting if you can look at it from an anthropological point of view. A little like appreciating the architecture and history of a cathedral or mosque without getting too hung up on the religious connotations.

    At least at my kungfu school, you didn’t have to “believe” in the woo to earn your belts. It was always pretty clear who took it literally and who was more metaphorical about it, and both ways were OK. Through first black, anyway — I never got past that level, for various logistical reasons.

    If it’s at all possible to think your way around the woo issue, I recommend that you stick with the training (or as others have said, find a situation that emphasizes the physical part over the mystical). I’ve been away from martial arts for about ten years, and there are still aspects of the conditioning that have stuck with me — deep breathing, flexibility, balance, body awareness & mechanics, etc. One anecdote, FWIW.

    Good luck!

  • I did some Tai Chi back in college, and more recently gained rank in Aikido, so I know exactly what you mean.

    I agree that chi/ki works as a metaphor. It’s like stretching your hamstrings and being told to “breathe into the muscle.” You know that you’re not physically breathing into the muscle, but the metaphor helps you relax in the proper way. I also know that the reason my palms are red and splotchy after Tai Chi is from increased circulation, not from the chi flow, but I’ll take it, anyway.

    In Aikido, my sensei does a good job of explaining ki and energy flow without sounding like a nutjob. It’s more of a visualization than a literal transference of energy. If your instructor is too over-the-top, to the point where you can’t retool it in your head as metaphor, I’d agree that maybe you should seek out another dojo.

  • Philip

    When I’ve studied some of the martial arts, I’ve had likely similar methods of teaching directed my way.

    It’s always bugged me, too, but I just mentally translated it into trying to find the right balance, breathing, way to direct (physical) forces, and so on for whichever mechanism the moves require. I just saw it as a way people without a good underlying understanding of biology and physics can translate the needs into something they can reliably replicate and teach to others.

    To be completely honest, I’m in the group having not a good enough training on the bio side since I haven’t had any formal biology training since junior high. Regardless, I’d just try and apply my physics degree to what they were saying and wing it with the assumption that all parts were just joined levers with a variety of forces able to be applied and that would get me most of the way there (picking up what biology I could on my own through independent study). I would take their Chi/Qi instructions and try to figure out where they thought a particular force should be directed. Even understanding the mechanics doesn’t completely help, though, since the need to practice a move many (many) times is still there to be able to do it as well as possible (combined with the need to have the mental focus while improving the technique).

    Some have recommended you look for someone that uses more real-world ways of describing what you are doing. Depending on exactly how strident they are in their insistence on magical energies and thinking and whether you can consistently map their words to the real world and find enough in what they are saying to continue to learn the art form from them is likely unique to your situation. (Not to mention determining how easy/hard it might be in your area to find someone else that teaches one of the arts you want to learn in a way you want to learn it; no small task in Bryan/College Station, Tx where I was at the time.)

  • Polly

    I first learned of this Chi thing and martial arts connection when my (Very) Chinese physics professor mocked the idea when we were going over basic Newtonian forces. She didn’t buy into it, saying no such thing as action at a disance other than the usual forces of nature.

  • I agree with eksith. Martial Arts are all about focus, and since after much practice the various “stanzas” of motion become muscle memory, the necessary focus is to observe your surroundings and correctly react with the muscle memorized stanzas. This requires less analytical thought and more reactive thought, so it is very likely that a martial artist’s brainwaves are similar to the described “Zone”.

  • When I was younger and took karate classes from a Japanese guy, I didn’t hear much about ki. From what I’ve read about other people’s experiences, it’s kind of a crap shoot — on both sides of the Pacific — whether a martial arts instructor will have a more naturalistic or more mystical worldview.

    In Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk, for instance, he describes taking lessons (in China) from a Tai Chi master who believed all the chi-power woo woo, but at the same time he was taking Wushu classes from another instructor who insisted the mystical chi stuff was bullshit and the word just meant “breath.”

    At most I think the word refers to the subjective feeling of having everything go right — the posture, the breathing, the timing, etc. What really matters is whether your instructor is a good physical and tactical model for the art being studied.

    Finally, if you want a good web site that’s devoted to removing all kinds of woo from martial arts — mysticism, racial chauvinism, urban myths, rampant narcissism and so on — try 24 Fighting Chickens.

  • i am a dodt

    I think it’s really about your own comfort level and the teacher. The teacher can really make or break any class. I took Tai Chi for a required credit. The teacher and I butted heads. He was a total sexist and justified it with the teachings of Tai Chi. Also, he dispensed medical advice to his students without any medical degree. However, we had a substitute teacher once who didn’t pull that bs, and I actually enjoyed the class for once.

  • elf_man

    A few points. Part of the difficulty is that chi means a lot of different things depending on context. A lot of the really fluffy woo that comes up lately is in part due to the whole New Age appropriation thing. It has been separated for a couple decades now from the Chinese cosmology that it fits into, which includes certain views of the body such as meridian theory, and all of that. Which is, in a sense, an early, if quite sophisticated, form of biology tied into taoism.

    In one sense, you’ll hear references to everything being chi, and in another sense, it’ll sound like a sort of energy you generate, etc. In terms of martial arts, it does seem to correlate to proper body structure (look at the standing stance training of xingyi, or tai chi silk reeling), especially development of connective tissue rather than muscle as such, and connected to the breath.
    Breath is very important to this, as you’ll see in reference to chi, ki, prana, etc. Improving your circulation and expanding your ability to oxygenate your blood seems to have some impressive effects on the body over time. Heck, look at the use of chest expanders with old strongmen. The ability to breathe freely and deeply is very, very important. A lot of people that we see as especially fit and strong (whether it be someone like a strongman or an eighty year old internal MA expert) usually seem to have quite broad chests. And all of these together seem to have a “sum is greater than the parts” effect on the practitioner; the gestalt could be called “chi”. From a practical perspective, this is what makes the most sense to me. From an impractical perspective, there are a lot of “chi” experiences that don’t have any effect on the physical world and don’t have any satisfactory explanation, but seem to be pretty reproducible for a lot of people. How that works is, of course, up for debate.

  • It’s been my (admittedly limited) experience that instructors who use “chi” as a metaphor for body mechanics don’t really understand the body mechanics at work, which is why they use “chi.” I’d say find a new dojo.

    Just avoid these guys (they were Warriorschool when I wrote all that, but now they’re called “Passages”).

  • Donna

    I had the same problem with a yoga class once. Among other things, the instructor told us that gritting your teeth helped prevent colds, that holding a position with your head down would help students on exams, and that advanced practitioners could ingest poison without harm. This completely ruined her credibility for me and I quit the class.

    Still, if there were no alternative instructors and I was getting enough out of the rest of the class to make it worthwhile (I wasn’t), I might have stayed.

    I did worry, however, that other students seemed to be eagerly lapping this nonsense up. I do wonder what my responsibility was to these other students. Should I have argued with the instructor for their sake, or did I do right by just going away quietly?

  • Zadius

    Try practicing a martial art that is also a sport which has active competitions, like muay thai, boxing, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, kyokushin karate, etc. Not necessarily to actively compete yourself, but because competition leads to adaptation and the skills and techniques you’ll learn are the way they are not because they are tradition, but because they actually work for their stated purpose. So, not only would you be less likely to encounter mystical thinking in these arts, they will probably also be more useful in an actual self-defense situation (even though sport and self-defense are, of course, not the same thing).

  • piratebrido

    Come across it all the time. I done Tai Chi for years and the organisation I was with rejected the idea of mystical forces. The real psuedo in traditional martial arts is how they train and the beleif it is effective. Far more dangerous in my book, it gets people hurt when a real situation comes up.

  • Yeah, the best way is just to stay the hell oway from martial arts which peddle that crap. Try Muay Thai, I’ve been doing it for a while now and it’s fantastic. No mystical energies or bowing to the memories of the ancient masters – just kicking ass with fists, feet, knees and elbows 🙂

  • Beowulff

    A site that may be of interest on this topic:

  • I’ve done martial arts for years, both Tae Kwon Do and karate. They have both been entirely free of woo, very scientifically based. So I guess you just need to find the right dojo!

  • Claudia

    I’ve been doing martial arts since I was a child. Many or most martial arts include the concept of ki (under various names, since martial arts include different countries with different languages). However some martial arts emphasize them more than others. I’ve done Taekwondo, Kempo and Aikido. Aikido is far and away the one that emphasizes ki the most (hell, it’s in the name!).

    My advice is don’t sweat the terminology unless they are very overtly religious about it, which I doubt. In fact, mentally visualizing flow of energy during martial arts can be very very useful. That doesn’t mean you have to believe that there is something supernatural going on, but I think that if you practice you will realize that whatever it is, it works.

    We should not underestimate the power that our brains have over our bodies. My feeling both as a scientist and as a martial artist is that “channeling ki” in its most simple and practical sense is centering the fullest of our mental and physical capacities in one or various areas of our body. If you are able to do that fully, you can achieve things that otherwise you might be incapable of doing. Nothing paranormal about it; greater neural activation, elevated blood irrigation and even adrenaline can all be controlled by the brain to a certain extent.

    If your masters insist that you accept the religious aspects of ki, or the basic tenants of the elements or chakra circles, I can see where that would make you uncomfortable, but if they merely ask you to “use ki” in ways that generally help your technique then I’d encourage you to exploit this visualization tool. The martial arts can be beautiful and very fulfilling, I wouldn’t let some ancient terminology get in my way.

  • I was fortunate to learn my moves from two MMA studios. They didn’t focus on Woo at all.

    I dabbled in Aikido, and while they used the terms, they didn’t use the mysticism.

  • I took Aikido for a couple years, and while the dojo I went to did tend to include vague mystic garbage, like most martial arts, it was mainly a way to explain physical things they didn’t really understand. I quickly became known as the “smartass”, trying to explain why what we were doing actually works, rather than accept the “spirtual energies” and such silliness. Or just laughing out loud when the Sensei talked about something that was completely bogus and supernatural without any actual benefit or effect. Most of the students didn’t take TOO kindly to my remarks/explanations, but enough people seemed to enjoy them that it was worth it.

  • cl

    Without making an argument for or against ki, I just find it interesting how the person who assumes ki might exist in actuality is “magical, mystical, full of woo, etc,” while the person who equally assumes ki does not exist is “rational.” It’s like it’s okay to presuppose negatively but not positively. How the hell do any of us know whether or not ki exists?

  • Carlos

    There are several martial arts that are not Asian in origin and don’t include the concept of Chi.

    For example, Capoeira is Brazilian and has a veneer of Catholicism and African spirituality but they are not central to the art.

    Savate is a french martial art without any religious component at all.

    I remember doing “Chairman Mao” exercises during my high school drama class in the 80’s. It was really a variation of Tai Chi however teaching Tai Chi would have provoked complaints from Christian parents so we got the secular-commie version instead.

    There are alternatives out there, but it really depends on whats available locally if you want to learn one.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    another vote for “find a new dojo.” I’ve seen all variations: those who shun the woo, those who use it metaphorically, and those who actually believe in the mumbo jumbo.

  • I used to do martial arts for about 10 years, and now I am getting into yoga. I have found that when I meditate and/or do prana/ki breathing exercises on a regular basis that I need less sleep, get sick less often, have more energy and am less depressed.

    Is there some sort of chi/energy? Or is the deep breathing just having these effects due to purely physiological reasons? I do not know. Maybe there is some sort of energy involved, but I know that if I do not perform the right activity, then I do not get the benefits.

    I doubt the stories about chi being transferred from one person to another.

    I like to listen to podcasts when I do the pranayama/ki breathing exercises. Today I listened to “Speaking of Faith”, and the guest was Mehmet Oz, professor and vice chairman of Surgery at Columbia University and director of the Cardiovascular Institute and the Complementary Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital (from his publisher’s website). He was talking about how he mixes alternative medicine and Western medicine.

    He did talk about energy. He pointed out that at the cellular level, we determine whether or not a cell is alive based on whether or not the cell has any energy in it.

    I think there may be something there, but not as much as some of the “woo people” that others have encountered.

  • A bus campaign:

    There’s probably no Chi, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.

    Oh and all that metaphor crap.. you guys are no fun.

  • 4oz of reason

    Most traditional (read: older than around 80 years) martial arts have some kind of spirituality thing going on. It really depends on the instructor and how they’re using the terms. I’ve seen a taiji master who does things that look pretty magical, and then they show you exactly how to do it with no “qi” talk at all.
    …And then I’ve met a woman who claimed her “spirit self” taught her the “highest form of taiji” (it was pretty crappy, no offense to the spirit planes).

  • Gribble_the_munchkin

    I trained in Bujinkan (Ninjitsu pretty much, a few other japanese schools thrown in) for a few years and it went both ways. Ninjitsu uses elements as a way of changing ones fighting style, water flows away from an attack and then comes back like a tsunami, fire attacks rapidly without relent, etc. There was a tiny amount of woo but mostly it was a good way to visualise the moves.

    We did an exercise around sensing your foes intent to strike you (while otherwise sensorally blinded) and dodging it before it struck. I totally sucked at it as i could never believe it, no matter how much i tried. Even our sensei got it wrong as often as he got it right.

    If you are enjoying the lessons stick with it an ignore the woo. If you aren’t enjoying the lessons or your rationalism is stopping you from being effective, try another martial art. Getting the right school and the right trainer for you is really important. I once did jujitsu under a guy who had trained the english olympic team but the guys style of teaching really rubbed me the wrong way. My ninjitsu class on the other hand had a really good sensei, relaxed, happy to explain moves or demonstrate them if you were stuck and friendly.

  • cl:

    Without making an argument for or against ki, I just find it interesting how the person who assumes ki might exist in actuality is “magical, mystical, full of woo, etc,” while the person who equally assumes ki does not exist is “rational.” It’s like it’s okay to presuppose negatively but not positively.

    Well, yes. It’s called the null hypothesis. When there is zero evidence in favor of something, the rational stance is to tentatively withhold belief in the claim until good evidence comes to light. In the case of ki or chi or prana or any other “life-force energy,” there is absolutely zilch, so a good critical thinker will hold to the null hypothesis.

  • Jason

    I have to agree with Philip from 3/20 10:25 PM

    I study in a Bujinkan school and some of it is full of mystical B.S. My teacher is very very skilled but he is a devout christian and he also subscribes to ‘chi’ energy and even talks about meridians in the body. At first I struggled with this mystical crap but have found that applying what limited knowledge I have of biology and physics I can discover for myself or translate their woo into an explanation for why certain techniques are so effective. By doing this I’m making what I learn ‘my own’ and I can appreciate it for completely rational reasons.

    I am, however, surprised to see so many responses that support the idea of chi or body energy flows or even the idea that this chi can somehow allow humans to do things that aren’t scientifically possible. I’ve got news for you. If you can do something then it’s not scientifically impossible.

    But this just reminds me that even though I’m both an atheist and a skeptic of pseudo-science and woo, not all atheists are. There is zero evidence for any type of chi or invisible energy existing. If it did exist then there would be a way to detect it and it just doesn’t exist. Believing it exist is every bit as irrational as believing in an invisible, intangible supernatural being.

    My suggestion is to not let the talk of chi get to you and if it helps to use it as a metaphor or to translate it into an understanding of the physics and the limits of human biology and body mechanics then do that. It will allow you to appreciate why the techniques of your particular training work the way they do.

  • I think the martial arts world is a wide open woo-field. In my experience Chinese arts are more prone to mysticism than Japanese arts. Tai chi, pa kua, etc seem to take chi power and flow for granted. In the Japanese arts aikido seems to be the most woo-y, probably owing to the education and religiosity of the founder, Ueshiba; judo is the least so owing to the education and western orientation of the founder, Kano.
    Most of the time, ki or chi should be seen as a metaphor for a gestalt of intuition, experience and technique. That really is the best way to approach it. I’ve seen a lot, but no real evidence that would point to the actual existence of chi, ki, or the Force.
    Minoru Mochizuki sensei used to say that ki was something used to fool foreigners.

  • RBH

    Claudia wrote

    My advice is don’t sweat the terminology unless they are very overtly religious about it, which I doubt. In fact, mentally visualizing flow of energy during martial arts can be very very useful. That doesn’t mean you have to believe that there is something supernatural going on, but I think that if you practice you will realize that whatever it is, it works.

    That’s my view. I took Shito Ryu from Japanese teachers who had zero woo and Tai Chi (with a dab of Xing Yi) from a Chinese teacher who had a modicum of woo but leavened it by telling us it could be thought of as metaphoric if we wished. Regardless, the visualizing that Claudia remarked on is a useful training technique, and IIRC there’s actually some decent research on the positive effects of visualization practice on skills. Those neurons have been long dormant, though, so I may be mistaken.

  • Adrian

    Nat Geo has a good tv series named Fight Science, where it shows how the Energy actually flows through your body. So it is not something mystical or supernatural, the chi actually exists, and now we have a better understanding of it thanks to the Science. So don’t worry if your master talks about Chi, just understand that not many people has a major in Physics, and they have to teach you the way they understands it.

  • Demyx

    I’m late to the party, but in case anyone sees this, thank you Hemant for posting my comment!

    To clarify, I’m taking a paid class and a free class right now. The paid class seems pretty mysticism-free, which is great. It’s the free class that’s been bothering me of course — if it were the other way around my choice of action would be way more obvious, hehe. I’m okay with “chi” as a metaphor but he’s made it pretty obvious that he takes this stuff wholesale and expects us to do the same! For example, he makes remarks like “science can’t explain how this works, it just does”. I just can’t stand remarks like that.

    Thanks for everyone’s comments!

  • Kevin

    I have been studying martial arts for almost two decades now. In my experience any school that mentions anything metaphysical in any way, even in passing, is not a school that you want to be in. You will not learn anything productive or effective in these schools. You will spend time waving your hands around rather than learning reality based techniques. You will know when you are in a good school because you will be making physical contact your first day. You will not question what you are learning because you will be testing its effectiveness and rejecting what doesn’t work.

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