Nim Tao & Proprioception
By Maksem Manler
In this article I want to explore the relationship between Nim Tao & Proprioception. Since I started Wing Chun in '04 and learned about Chu Shong Tin, I have looked deeply into a variety of fields to explore what it was that gave Grandmaster Chu his power - Rolfing, Alexander Technique, Kinesiology, Bio-tensegrity & Craniosacral therapy just to name a few. Grandmaster Chu is the sole reason I completed the diploma in remedial massage - not because I wanted to massage people, but because I wanted to understand the body's anatomical structure and function in order to understand just how Grandmaster Chu generated his power.
During my studies, I learned about the five basic senses - sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. Most people know that each sense has a corresponding organ that facilitates its function. For example, the eyes process light and give us sight, the ears process sound and allow us to hear. The information that the sensory organs receive is encoded in a nervous impulse and then sent to the brain, and then decoded by the relevant brain area in order to be responded to. During my studies we never went beyond the five basic senses though, in other words we never looked at the proprioceptive sense - a sense that I find particularly interesting.
Due to my motivation for studying (discovering the mechanisms that gave Chu Shong Tin his power), I became interested in finding out what facilitates our internal sense of our body in space. Considering we spend a lot of time standing and relaxing whilst moving in Wing Chun training, I was naturally interested in the organs responsible for helping me to sense my body with my mind.
There is a name given to the ability to sense our body in space - proprioception. Proprioception is facilitated by a complex network of proprioceptors found in the body. These proprioceptors provide the brain with a body schematic - an internal mind map of the body. This body schema is intimately related to not just our physical body, but our sense of self as well.
The term proprioception refers to your ability to sense your body's position in three dimensional space. To understand it better, if you close your eyes and touch your nose you will notice that you will be able to do so without using your eyes. Your mind can essentially feel what your limbs are doing without the need for sight. Your body's position can be felt by the mind. In other words, your mind can feel the weight of your body directly and how that weight is distributed and positioned. This is the basic concept of proprioception.
Your body has an entire network of what are called proprioceptors which are embedded in the muscles, tendons and joints. These receptors are constantly relaying information back to your brain regarding its position in space. It is this sense that detects change in joint & bone position, joint angle, muscular stretch, sense of effort, contraction and relaxation.
Here is an interesting podcast about proprioception that discusses in depth how we know who and where we are in space and time. The discussion goes beyond our five senses and into the realm of body schema, golgi tendon organs and out-of-body experiences if you're interested.
Proprioception is intimately related to our sense of balance as it monitors for change in the body's stability. This is important to understand because our sense of balance is what monitors our center of gravity, our center of weight and whether or not we are balanced. Without being able to feel our center of weight, we would not be able to tap into our center and control it.
So this brings up another question - just what is the relationship between our center of weight and the Nim Tao area?
When we talk of proprioception and Nim Tao we should understand the difference between the two. Nim Tao simply refers to the top area of the back of the brain - an area called the Posterior Parietal Cortex which is responsible for the coding of intention and planning of movement. Nim Tao is the control center for movement. In this context, proprioceptors in the joints and muscles will feed back information to the brain, not only to the Nim Tao area but to other areas of the brain as well, such as the Cerebellum.
Since our proprioceptors are relaying information back to our brain about our body schema, our proprioceptors must be highly tuned and sensitive to our center of weight. In other words, our Nim Tao must have a strong relationship with the body's centre of gravity in order for it to plan movement effectively.
If we consider that Chu Shong Tin said, "the purpose of Siu Nim Tao is to train the brain to accept the idea of not using force" and that we must use our Nim Tao to generate the Wing Chun power, this means that we should be doing Siu Nim Tao quite literally with our mind, with our Nim Tao.
Siu Nim Tao translates as 'Little Idea/Thought' and this should be taken literally. By performing Siu Nim Tao in our mind whilst simultaneously doing the form physically, we are actually training our Nim Tao to command our movement. In other words, we are reprogramming our body's ability to follow our intention. Therefore, the idea of not using force must be maintained with diligence during Wing Chun training. Each time the form is practiced with the right idea, you are actually strengthening your Nim Tao.
If you have been pressure tested, you will remember just how often your body tries to use force even when you don't want it to. The habit of contracting muscles to fight resistance is primal and very difficult to overcome. Siu Nim Tao is the key to retraining the brain and recalibrating your body's instinctual response to pressure.
During my 2011 Hong Kong trip, I was able to ask Chu Shong Tin if there are degrees of Nim Tao, to which he responded with a simple "yes".
This means that the activation of Nim Tao isn't just some nebulous idea that came about because Chu Shong Tin pioneered the execution of its power, but that it is absolutely essentially for training Siu Nim Tao in the most effective way possible. If we are to tap into our center of gravity and use its power, it helps us to understand just why we need to activate Nim Tao in order to do that.
Now, since Chu Shong Tin remarked that he wasn't able to find even one student who could activate Nim Tao by themselves, should we give up on the pursuit of Nim Tao? Obviously, since I named my school 'Nim Tao Wing Chun', I don't believe so. I do not believe that Nim Tao is reserved for a chosen few. In fact, I believe that since Grandmaster Chu did not notice for many years that he had activated Nim Tao or even knew why or how he did it, we should not worry.
It is important to remember that no one told Chu Shong Tin what he was looking for. Even he didn't realize how he generated power until much later in his life. He literally touched around the top of his head before he recognized that he was using the top of the back of the brain! This most likely means that you will not know if you are using Nim Tao or not too, at least not for a while. What is important, is that the idea of not using force, standing upright with minimal effort and moving slowly using the mind is what one should practice diligently. It would make sense that the degree of Nim Tao for most of us would be minimal at first, most likely barely noticeable. Just because the signal from the Nim Tao at first is weak, doesn't mean it is not active. In fact, if the Nim Tao was not active at all, we would probably be dead.
What I believe GM Chu meant when he said "he can't activate Nim Tao", was that the degree of activation was so low that he could not override his muscles...yet. In other words, the conscious control of Nim Tao takes a long time to cultivate. Nim Tao is active, but unconsciously by default. It is also worth mentioning that whilst Nim Tao is active, at first it is transmitting the wrong signal - the signal to tense up. The signal to relax and not use force is what it should be transmitting for Wing Chun.
Knowing that you are probably doing it wrong as I have said before is liberating. As long as you practice with the right idea diligently, with enough time it is inevitable that the degree of Nim Tao activation will be significant enough for you to override your muscles contraction response to pressure. This is really what we are training in Siu Nim Tao, hence Chu Shong Tin's words: "the purpose of Siu Nim Tao is to train the brain to accept the idea of not using force".
Understanding that Nim Tao codes intention and plans movement, we can see why Siu Nim Tao is executed standing still and the moves are performed slowly. When we move slowly, relax, and focus our Nim Tao, we are training the Nim Tao.
By Maksem Manler