11 minute read

In part 1 of this interview, we talked to Dr. Mark Cheng about how his background as an acupuncturist, martial artist, strength coach and PhD in Chinese Medicine has shaped his point of view about the broader subject of fitness and wellness.

Now he's going to explain his thinking behind developing a project, called Tai Cheng, which aims to introduce Tai Chi to a much larger fitness audience.

Here is Dr. Cheng's introduction to Tai Cheng:

Tai Cheng aims to synthesize his various perspectives and present Tai Chi in an accessible way to an American audience.

Originally the CEO of Beachbody had the idea to call the program Tai Cheng, as in Cheng of my last name 鄭. That didn't make sense to me, so I kept the spelling but changed the character & the concept. So, if you look at the pinyin C-H-E-N-G, and if you look at the logo, and if you understand Chinese, you'll be able to understand that the 成character actually means “achievement” 成功 or “evolution” or “change” 變成. You know how Tai Chi 太極 literally means “supreme ultimate?” Tai Cheng means “the supreme change” or “the supreme evolution.”

I'm not reinventing the wheel, as much as going back to what Tai Chi was supposed to be originally. From what one of my teachers said, Tai Chi at its inception was taught so that you understand that all the basics, all the fundamentals of movement, all of the baseline of skill that we're supposed to be laying is actually the secret to high performance. If you want to perform well, if you want to build skill, but you don't have that solid foundation, in Chinese, they say, “lian wu bu lian gong, dao lao yi chang kong” which means, “if you train martial arts, but you don't establish a foundation of functional movement, as you get older you're left with nothing.”

Tai Chi is like a really well-cut diamond. I mean, to look at it from only one perspective, you're really robbing yourself of the richness of the experience. I'm not saying that you have to fight or that you have to be into combative martial arts or that you have to be into some esoteric meditation or anything like that. If you don't come into Tai Chi with health issues you may not appreciate the restoratives that you're getting, and in that case instead of rehab, it's prehab. If you're coming to Tai Chi and you just enjoy this as a rejuvenative exercise, you may never care about the self-defense aspect of it.

This is what Tai Chi can be. It can improve how your body functions. It can re-center your spine. It can improve your posture. It can dramatically lower your stress levels by virtue of teaching you how to control probably the most necessary vital process and probably the only vital process that you can control volitionally, your breathing. It can heighten your awareness of tension in your own body. It can point out to you how your body reacts to stressors both physical as well as mental. Those things are very important for anyone wanting to get the most out of their lives.

Our lives are full of factors and stressors that can compromise optimum functionality. So I made sure that Tai Cheng began with a “neural reboot”. Because neurologically or neuromuscularly, there's so many people who have neuromuscular systems that have gone afoul from hours and hours of sitting in spinal flexion or from funny exercise patterns or what have you. Let's take that whole system and reboot it and say, "instead of trying to debug every little thing, let's just reboot the whole system and then give you a fresh start in movement."

But the thing is that most Tai Chi products are taught out there in a monkey-see-monkey-do fashion. Emulate these movements. There's not a whole lot of explanation why and if you teach Tai Chi using the language of, "Stroke Peacock's Tail” or “White Crane Cools Wings” or whatever, the average American is going to look at that with a certain degree of cynicism and go, "Yeah, okay, do you want me to get crystals and incense too?"

With Tai Cheng, I wanted to be able to show people that this ancient training method holds a lot of relevance to their modern lives. You just need to be able to see it in a way that makes sense in terms of sports medicine, in terms of self defense, in terms of restoring the body, in terms of preparing you for high impact, interval training. And that's my forte.

One of the things I talk about in Tai Cheng is how you would be taught Tai Chi in its most traditional fashion. When you first roll in to find an old school Tai Chi master, the last thing that he has you do is the form. He or she I should say. The most essential part of Tai Chi training, as I've been taught, are the ji ben gong or the basic training exercises.

If you're taught from the most traditional standpoint of the basics, of the ji ben gong, what are you doing essentially? You're doing exactly what we're taught to do in terms of sports medicine, in terms of functional movement by people like Gray Cook, who say that you need to lay a huge platform of fundamental movement, a baseline of mobility and stability.

That's the essence of what Tai Chi should be. What a lot of people are confusing for Tai Chi these days is just like, "Okay, come follow me as I do this pre-choreographed form. This sequence of movements is all of Tai Chi.” That's not Tai Chi.

Really, Tai Chi is a principle. As long as you understand the fundamentals of movement, you optimize your body for movement. And then, you understand ways of training those principles. Anything that you put in the machine comes out as Tai Chi.

The Tai Cheng project is designed to get these core concepts about what Tai Chi is, out to the widest possible audience.

I wanted something that would not just be for the octogenarian, not just be for the young kid, not just be for the martial art insider, and not just for injury rehab people. I wanted something that no matter who you are, you'll be able to look at this and go like, "Oh geez! This stuff is valuable to me!"

But the way in which I taught it, I think, is probably is going to be challenging for some people. Instead of trying to dump tons of movements and sequences on them at a time, which is how many are conditioned to ‘learning', I actually dial them back a lot. I wanted people to see that I'm having them focus on the prerequisites movement rather than on advanced skillsets first. A lot of people think they'll buy an instructional DVD or DVD series because they want to just learn like a form or something cool and learn a lot at once. I'm dialing people back, and saying, "Look, you got tons of movements already. Let's see how solid your platform of movement is." So, that really was the big revolution in thinking that I'm hoping catches on.

One of the points that I tried to convey to the CEO of Beachbody (the company that produces Tai Cheng) was that, let's say you got someone doing P90X, something pretty vigorous like that and they're doing maybe like a cardio kickboxing classes or Turbo Kick or what have you, or someone that's an MMA competitor. If your body's only used to exercising one way all the time, your muscular system adapts to that. So, it stops experiencing maximum benefit after a certain point. If all your workouts are pretty intense in terms of like high speed, high load, high intensity, you will burn yourself out.

Just like the soil, if you farm only one crop on a plot of land all year round, you will strip that soil dead. It won't be able to support any another crops. With the field, when you rotate crops intelligently, you ensure the longevity of the soil. With your body, if you rotate different workouts schemes or if rotate different ways of training, you ensure the longevity of your body.

For example, in the first test group, we had one guy that was scheduled for a bilateral knee replacement, total knee replacement surgery. We had one woman who was drop-dead gorgeous, in rockstar shape who had been doing a lot of working out. We really had the whole gamut, and everybody reported improvement. We had one guy who was morbidly obese, and just walking from one side to the other side of the room, he would pant and start sweating. That guy that came in morbidly obese just ran his first marathon!

The gentleman who was scheduled for bilateral knee replacement, I think less than or maybe about half-way through the program pulled me aside to show me that he could climb up and down a flight of steps without limping along painfully step-by-step.

And then, the woman who is in rockstar shape yet couldn't even do one proper pushup started cranking out strict pushups with higher & higher reps. The thing is regardless of what you come to the table with, Tai Cheng will make you perform better.

There is a valuable lesson here for all movement instructors. If you get a roomful of people with a huge range of abilities and you're going to get them started doing some Tai Chi practice, how do you frame it? How do you set the expectation for what people are going to experience?

I guess part of it comes back to being a medical professional. My bottom line is do no harm.

So more than anything else, I want people to be able to push the envelope but not tear it. So I want them to push the envelope with their movement. I want them to push the envelope of their capacity. I want them to push the envelope of their ability and both their mobility and their stability, but I also want them to do so in a way that they will feel worked but still have more energy in the tank if they need it.

I don't want anyone to ever feel like, "I'm so thrashed that all I can do is just lie here in a quivering heap." And conversely, I don't want anyone to feel like, "I'm bored out of my ass. I need to go do something mindless and fast and hyper."

When you've got people that are expecting high volumes of movement and high intensity, the key is to instruct them and say, "Look, I understand your expectations and your habits, but what I'm trying to teach you to do is to pay attention to yourselves, to your body, to your movements, and to your performance in a far more attentive and productive manner. We have a society & a lifestyle that's mostly based on distraction over concentration. If you look at children these days, their parents never taught them to focus in.

You have kids that are classified as this, that, and the other, or diagnosed as having different learning disorders or cognitive/developmental disorders. While there are certainly some disorders or diseases that are genuinely medical in their nature, a lot of them are really social in nature. That kid won't make eye contact? Okay. Well, as a parent, did you consistently reinforce the necessity for eye contact from a very young age or did you just kind of ignore that?

In a situation like the one I just described, that's not a medical thing. That's a social thing. So, to be able to teach people or re-socialize people in a way to say, “I'd like you to slow down. I'd like you to concentrate on your breath. I'd like you to realize where the little bugs in your motor programming are and learn how to overcome them.”

There's a deeper level of understanding that's coming in Tai Cheng. I'm not saying you're not good enough, I'm not saying that your output is not good enough, and I'm not saying that your effort isn't good enough, but learn to refine. Learn to appreciate. Learn to drop the defensiveness, so you can continually and truly improve, truly move better, truly feel better, and truly train harder, longer, and more safely!

As you can see, the Tai Cheng project is at an interesting crossroads, bringing the traditional values of high performance martial training into a conversation with modern sports science and rehabilitative medicine. At the same time, Dr. Cheng is giving Tai Chi practitioners and other martial artists license to go out and test their training methods and practice principles in new arenas. It's going to be fun to see how Tai Cheng takes hold.

For more about Dr. Cheng's work and this upcoming project, visit: www.facebook.com/taichengworkout