Understanding the Tao

By Aaron Hoopes

The word Tao (pronounced daü) in Chinese means "way," indicating a path of thought or life that is the essential unifying force of everything that exists in the universe. Taoism is following the way. Many martial artists embrace the idea of the Tao without actually understanding the basic principles behind it.

m_taoThe Tao-te Ching is the earliest document in the history of Taoism. It is a viewpoint that emphasizes individuality, freedom, simplicity, mysticism, and naturalness. Considered one of the great philosophical works of ancient China, Tao-te Ching literally means “The Classic of the Way and Its Power.” The book is less than 5,000 words long and is very likely one of the oldest written texts in the world. Authorship of the Tao-te Ching is generally credited to a man named Lao-Tzu but knowledge of him is so scarce that only legends remain. Seeking to learn more about Lao-Tzu only distracts us from his teachings. His name itself, means “old master” or “wise sage” – which only leads back to his writings.

The Tao is all encompassing. Despite the appearance of differences in the world, within the Tao everything is one. Since all is one, matters of true and false or good and evil are irrelevant and only arise when people cannot see beyond their narrow perception of reality. Taoism is a system of philosophical thought that puts emphasis on the spiritual life instead of the material world. The Tao is considered unnamed and unknowable.  Followers of the Tao avoid wasting their energies on the pursuit of wealth, power, knowledge and other distractions. Instead, they concentrate on the reality of life itself of breathing, moving and living in harmony with the natural world. Because all is considered one, life and death merge into each other and immortality can be achieved.

Living the Way of the Tao can be expressed by the term wu-wei which means doing – not doing. This concept does not signify non-action, instead it hints at action without attachment to the action, action without thought of the action. Sounds a little like Zen, doesn’t it?

The roots of Zen are based in ancient Chinese philosophy. The Chinese word for Zen is ch’an. In Sanscrit, the ancient language of India, it is dhyana which can be roughly translated as pure human spirit. It can be imagined as the integration of the disparate aspects of the self into one complete and divine being. Zen was eventually brought to Japan where it was elaborated and “perfected” by the Japanese samurai. It is the foundation of the Bushido code, the way of the warrior. The samurai, who lived their lives at the edge of a sword and could die at any moment, were taught to concentrate on and immerse themselves in the here and now in order to connect with the fundamental core of their being. It helped them develop the powers of concentration, self-control, awareness and tranquility. If they approached each battle as if it were their last, they would be able to have every part of their being at their disposal.

Zen itself has no theory. It is not meditation. It is not thinking. It is not not-thinking. It is not something you learn. It is simply something you are. To practice Zen is to live fully and completely, not in the past or the future, but right here and right now. Zen is, in fact, the reflection of the moon in a mountain stream. It does not move, only the water flows by.

As with Zen, the power of the Tao is in simplicity, and yet it teaches one to become a master of all things by learning to go with the natural flow of the universe. Trying to walk upstream against the river is pointless. It is better to accept that change is inevitable, learn to embrace it and make the most of it when it comes.

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Stress describes a person’s physical or emotional response to demands or pressures that they may experience from time to time.  Common sources of stress include work, money, relationships, illness.

stressedStress can be a positive thing - helping an individual to grow, develop, be stimulated and take action.  However, if stress exceeds a person’s ability to cope it can impact on their mental and physical health in a range of ways.  Some research studies estimate up to two thirds of illnesses seen by GP’s are stress related.

In the days of the caveman, stress often came in the form of physical threats that required individuals to react quickly and decisively.  The body helped out by automatically clicking into high gear at the first sign of trouble, releasing a surge of hormones (notably adrenaline and cortisol) to accelerates the heart rate, raise blood pressure, increase blood sugar, and enhance the brain’s use of glucose.  This stress response meant the caveman was instantly ready to fight or flee.

Modern day stresses are more likely to be psychological in origin and prolonged in nature (work-related stress, financial worries, inter-personal relationships, chronic illnesses).  But they can still set off the body’s alarm mechanism and the associated hormone surge.  Over-exposure to those stress hormones can, in turn, have a range of impacts on the body’s systems - brain, cardiovascular, immune, digestive and so on.

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The 6 Life Principles

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by Michelle Owen
Corrective Holistic Exercise Kinesioligist (C.H.E.K L3)
Nutrition and Lifestyle Coach (C.H.E.K N.L.C L2)

Our health comes down to a combination of actions associated with the 6 life principles that we do everyday without being very conscious of them. These principles are the foundation for our health. Doing them poorly over long periods of time results in lack of health, vitality, energy, self-esteem, image and eventually disease. Improving any or all of these will significantly improve health and vitality and for us.

Wellness is an integration of body, mind and spirit;
Awareness that everything that we "think, feel, do" and "say, believe, value" impact on our overall state of health and wellness.

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Mindful Practice, Using Sport Psychology Skills to Improve Martial Arts Training

Challenging Perfectionistic Demands

The following article is part of a series of articles that focus on the practical application of sport psychology skills to martial arts training.  For a more in-depth look at the research upon which this article is based, please read: Performance Enhancement in the Martial Arts: A Review

generic_kungfuOne concept that I will revisit frequently in these articles is the importance of our cognitions, or thought process, to performance.  The thought process can make or break an athlete no matter how capable he or she is physically.  This article will focus on the perfectionistic thinking style and how it affects performance.  Our culture tends to cultivate perfectionistic thinking. This, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It depends on the specific nature of the self-talk.

Researchers make a distinction between a perfectionistic demand and a perfectionistic desire.  The difference between these two concepts is not in the behavior but in the thinking; in particular, the thinking regarding negative outcomes.  For instance, two individuals could have high expectations of success and attempt to achieve a task as perfectly as possible.  However, the individual with the perfectionistic demand would feel like a failure.  He or she would mentally berate himself and feel incompetent and worthless.  Whereas, the individual with the perfectionistic desire would assess the situation differently:  “I tried my best and can feel good about my performance.  I will learn from this experience and improve in the future.”

A person with perfectionistic demands hates failure of any type.  They will often avoid challenge that they determine as too difficult rather than take the chance of failing.  When my son competed in chess tournaments, he preferred to draw an expert or master level chess player as an opponent even though he was likely to lose to them.  When I asked him why, he said he could learn more losing to them than winning against someone at his own level.  I not only learned how smart my teenage son was but I realized this was a very important life strategy.  Seek out people who are better than you and learn from them.  Don’t dread a better opponent.  See it as an opportunity to learn and improve.  In the martial arts I’ve often heard of people who remain at the brown belt level rather than be promoted to black belt because then they can win at tournaments.  These people are losing the big picture.  They are making winning more important than learning.  Therefore, they will never be true champions.

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Performance Enhancement in the Martial Arts: A Review

By Monica A. Frank, clinical psychologist and founder of Behavioral Consultants.

Although sports psychology is still in its infancy, a tremendous amount of interest has been generated by the potential of psychological principles to enhance athletic performance. In particular, the dedication to empirical examination of the tenets of cognitive-behavioral theory has led to more effective clinical techniques which have been intuitively appealing to sport psychology consultants. As a result, psychological methods were implemented to enhance performance prior to solid research support. However, recent reviews of studies conducted in the last approximately fifteen years have shown the psychological methods to be useful in the area of sports performance enhancement (Greenspan & Feltz, 1989; Weinberg and Comar, 1994).

Much of the research in this area has focused on individual sports or individual skills for team sports as that allows for better experimental designs. As the research base has grown, it has become possible to select particular sports, especially those that are individually based, and examine the literature for the factors that influence performance. A number of studies have specifically focused on enhancing performance in the martial arts as the martial arts are conducive to empirical study given their nature and the reasons that individuals participate in the martial arts. Columbus and Rice (1998) examined written descriptions of reasons individuals participate in martial arts and found four themes:

  1. criminal victimization;
  2. growth and discovery including challenging self mentally, physically, or spiritually, and facing fears;
  3. life transition and wanting to get life in control;
  4. task performance and seeing martial arts achievement as contributing to achieving in other life situations and tasks.

Several of these themes involve a desire for life enhancement likely due to the view of the martial arts as a way of life rather than simply a sport. Many of the mental skills strategies used in sports psychology have been found to be effective in achieving peak performance throughout life’s experiences (Orlick, 2000). These strategies have frequently been used in the martial arts but may not have always been systematically taught.

For instance, Rodney Hard (1983) wrote a sparring principles manual based on methods taught to him by Joe Lewis, the World Karate Champion. He indicated that there were three stages of development to compete effectively in tournaments:

  1. physical skills training;
  2. application of the principles of sparring;
  3. the development and use of psychological skills to enhance performance.

The most important psychological skill according to Hard (1983) is focus, which he refers to as external focus. Generally, any internal focus on negative thoughts, future thinking, or fear will create anxiety and lack of confidence, which will interfere with competition performance. When an individual is externally focused, confidence and determination is more apparent and the individual’s movements flow without anticipation or conscious decision-making. The performance in the ring becomes automatic and focused on the present moment. The karate fighter is not focused on ego or self, but on perfecting skill and is detached from the outcome.

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