Tai Chi Internal Strength is a practice that isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s a tough discipline which requires time, commitment and effort. The Chinese called this ‘Kung’ training, as in ‘Kung fu’.
The resulting benefits however are varied and very substantial, from the perspective of wellbeing, martial performance and skill, as well as fitness and conditioning.
One thing which some people have a hard time with is the difficulty of holding the postures and performing the required number of repetitions of the exercises. For many people it feels really ‘hard’ and there are moments when certain postures will produce significant burn, as will many of the repetition based exercises.
Beyond training mental fortitude and building up your will power and spirit there are some significant health benefits that come from pushing through during the practice of these postures.
In fact in the traditional Neigong documents, from Cheng Tin Hung, there is the concept of three levels of practice, each level pushing the timed holds longer and performing greater numbers of repetitions. All of this would produce more ‘burn’ for greater duration, enhancing our bodies’ adaptations to it and physical development.
So what’s this burn during Neigong and how does it benefit your health and performance?
There are three energy systems your body uses to produce energy as you move through your life and exercise sessions.
When the intensity is low (sleep, walking, sitting, slow form etc) you are primarily using a type of energy production in which oxygen works with fats to produce a clean and efficient fuel for you to use, with little or no ‘waste products’.
When you do a more intense exercise or movements you may notice a kind of burning feeling. This is your body shifting into the glycolytic energy metabolism, which needs to burn glucose to meet them higher intensity demands of the exercise, so that energy is produced quickly enough.
The process of breaking down glucose invokes the appearance of a Hydrogen molecule, which creates this feeling of ‘burn’. It isn’t lactic acid, which the human body doesn’t create.
To counter this burn, the body sends lactate to the site, which begins to reduce the acidity and feeling of burn. It also acts as a secondary fuel source allowing the working muscle to continue working, if sufficient effort and mental arousal are on board.
This production and appearance of lactate has some beneficial effects for us, physically and mentally.
Lactate can act as a hormonal signaller, communicating to organs outside of the local working muscle. It sends signals to the brain, the liver and the heart, which improve their functioning. These positive effects will last for beyond the duration of the exercise session.
For the brain, lactate can improve the functioning of the neurons, through improving astrocyte function (Glial cells), which are involved in the clearance of debris and synaptic connection.
It has also shown to be neuroprotective, preventing excitotoxicity, which is responsible for a long list of problems including stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more.
When lactate is produced at sufficient amounts, through hard practice, to create a stress/adaptive response from the body, we see an increase in mitochondrial function within the cells. These mitochondria are sometimes known as ‘powerhouses’ within cells which produce chemical energy from foods we eat. They also clear waste and help regulate cell death (necrosis), which is an essential part of a healthy functioning body (big problems happen if this isn’t well regulate). So training in a way that produces sufficient lactate production to stimulate mitochondrial development is extremely beneficial to not just physical health, but sill also play a role in helping us to create more energy during movement and ‘sports performance/martial performance’.
Lactate apparently also increases norepinephrine, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for concentration, alertness and blood flow to the brain.
Scientific data tends to suggest that some of the best brain enhancement benefits we can get from exercise come form hormonal signaling, such as the lactate mechanism shown here, increasing the health of the connections between neurons and enhancing various growth factors such as IGF-1.
Oxygen needs to be present for these benefits to occur, so the neigong protocol of deep diaphragmatic nasal breathing (which enhances oxygen absorbs ion through nitric oxide production) is ideal.
The Golden Tortoise exercise, which is practiced at the start and the end of a Tai Chi Neigong session is specifically designed to not only increase the depth of action of our diaphragm, making it extend deeply towards the naval, whilst ensuring all breathing is done nasally. Breathing through the nose has a whole host of benefits, including the creation of a compound called Nitric Oxide, which helps the body to better absorb the circulating Oxygen. In addition to the deep breathing demands and increasing oxygenation, the posture also creates very deep burning sensations, signalling large amounts of lactate production. This increase in metabolic intensity increases the bodies’ drive to take in more oxygen, which further deepens respiration.
I’ve always found it fascinating that this particular posture was chosen to book-end the set of exercises and is the only exercise performed twice and is done every time you practice, in both Yin and Yang sets. When you set your mind to it practice time can be increased to up to 10mins per side (possibly more too theoretically). Lactate production would be very significant.
In fact many of the exercises in both Yin and Yang sets would appear to produce significant amounts, which as well as improving the health of certain organs, also improves your cognitive functions and mood. Additionally, the muscular endurance of the body will improve.