Connections

It was in the mid 1990’s when Shifu John P. Painter introduced me to the Chinese art of Jiulong Baguazhang. (Shifu is a term that can be roughly translated as a combination of teacher/father/boss. Jiulong Baguazhang literally means 9 Dragon, 8 Trigram Palm). In the world of Asian martial arts he was and is internationally renowned for his skill, knowledge, teaching and rational approach to training. At the time we met I had already been a student of Chinese martial arts for about 20 years, starting when I was a university undergraduate in psychology.

He demystified traditional Chinese concepts such as internal power and Qi (or Chi), the mysterious force said to circulate in the body. Instead he often referred to neurological/physiological processes in his instructions. I was early in my career as an anesthesiologist practicing pain medicine and impressed by the level of his knowledge of mental and physical processes, exceeding my own in several areas of research.

As explained by Shifu Painter, a family of Chinese bodyguards who relied on combat skills to ply their trade devised Jiulong Baguazhang. The Li family used meditative techniques to develop powers of attention and mental imaging. They also engaged in repetitive physical training to develop strength, flexibility and endurance. Notably, they practiced combat movements while imagining the actual physical sensations that one might experience in a real fight.  To develop power they held relaxed postures while imagining the physical sensation of pushing or holding a great weight. This was in addition to conventional resistance training using weights.

This approach mirrors the now common use of mental rehearsal of physical activities that has drawn the attention of neuro-cognitive researchers. But it must be remembered that the Li family used these techniques well before the 20th Century. Furthermore they devised exercises in mental imagery that eventually could be used as one moved at full speed, pretending to fight multiple opponents.

Engaging the mind and body simultaneously and repeatedly to increase a skill – in this case the skill of dealing with physical violence – is an iconic example of what is meant by mind-body training. Shifu Painter’s training of law enforcement, security and military personnel speaks for its utility. As a pain physician I strongly believe this approach to developing physical and mental skills together has great relevance to the treatment of chronic pain.

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