Eastern Exercises: Chinese and Japanese Exercise

Eastern exercise forms, such as Yoga and the various martial arts, have been practised in the East for thousands of years, but it is only relatively recently that they have become popular in the West. Regular practice of the Eastern exercise disciplines brings not only physical benefits, but also promotes spiritual benefits that are largely neglected by Western exercise disciplines.

A wide range of exercises from countries such as Japan, China, India and Korea are grouped under the term of ‘Eastern exercise disciplines’. In contrast to Western disciplines, which place a strong emphasis on cardiovascular and muscle fitness, Eastern disciplines focus on the spiritual benefits of exercise and place great emphasis on etiquette and respect. The flow of internal energy around the body, breathing techniques and posture are all fundamental aspects of Eastern exercise disciplines.


Most of the popular Eastern exercise disciplines originate from India, Japan and China. Many of the Japanese and Chinese disciplines are martial arts – combative techniques used for self-defence. Some of the martial arts, including Karate and Kung Fu, may be taught as self-defence techniques in the West, but others, such as Tai Chi Chuan, are practised mainly for relaxation. A third category of martial arts encompasses armed styles, using weapons such as bows, arrows and swords.

In martial arts physical strength and power is not necessarily the key to victory; older and apparently frail martial arts masters can often overcome younger, fitter and stronger opponents by anticipating their moves and outmanoeuvring them.


Many of the martial arts are rooted in Taoism (pronounced ‘daoism’), an ancient Chinese philosophy. The word ‘Tao’ means ‘the Way’ and Taoism advocates living in harmony with nature and practising everything in moderation. Taoism is based on the Tao Te Chiug, a seminal book written in the 5th century BC and attributed to the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu. The idea of Yin and Yang is central to Taoism. Yin and Yang are two opposing but mutually dependent forces that occur in every living being. Yin is dark, soft and feminine and Yang is bright, hard and masculine. Eastern exercises aim to facilitate the balance of Yin and Yang.

The Japanese martial arts are founded on the philosophy of Bushido, meaning ‘the way of the warrior’. This is a code of ethics handed down from the Japanese Samurai and not unlike the code of chivalry (encompassing notions of honour, bravery and justice) developed in medieval Europe. Bushido is rooted in Shintoism, the national religion of Japan, which teaches loyalty, courage and virtue.

Another major influence on martial arts from across the East is Zen Buddhism (the meditative school of Buddhism), which teaches the pursuit of self-mastery and enlightenment through meditation and ethical discipline and Zanshin – the transitory nature of life, oneness and total concentration on the present moment. Zen emerged as a result of the arrival of Buddhism in China and the strong cultural influences, particularly Taoism, that shaped it during the 6th century. In the 12th century, Zen was established in Japan, where it became popular among the Samurai. These warriors found that Zen philosophy and training helped them to face death with equanimity.

Eastern exercise disciplines have strong roots in religion and as such they are often perceived as paths to enlightenment. This path is facilitated by moving away from individualistic thoughts and trying to clear the mind using meditation. Eastern disciplines, such as Yoga and Tai Chi, place a strong emphasis on meditation, concentration and mindfulness.


Teachers of Eastern exercise disciplines teach the philosophy of an exercise as well as the technique itself. They also teach discipline, etiquette, respect and fair play. These are more formalized than the generalized concept of ‘sportsmanship’ in Western forms of exercise. The student of martial arts, for example, is taught discipline and total self-control, both to avoid the in-appropriate use of violence and to clear the mind should conflict become unavoidable. Being goaded into using martial arts skills is considered a sign of great weakness.

Martial arts are not designed to increase a person’s violent tendencies. Instead, a student should become less angry and less violent because opposing energies start to balance each other out. This balance is represented by the Yin-Yang sign of feminine and masculine energies. Like Qi (energy), Yin and Yang are concepts that are fundamental to Traditional Chinese Medicine.

A correct attitude is considered vital in the martial arts and various codes of conduct exist. All martial arts emphasize the importance of respecting your teacher and fellow students, even when you are more advanced than they are. For example, you should never be late for a class; you should always attend regularly; and you should always focus on what is being taught, even when you find it is already familiar to you. Many martial arts have a particular etiquette – such as bowing to your opponent – which students are taught, and to which they must always adhere.


At the heart of Eastern systems of medicine and exercise is the concept of internal energy. This is different from the Western concept of energy (burning calories from food to fuel the muscles and enable movement). The Eastern concept of energy is sometimes referred to as the ‘invisible life-force’. In China, such energy is called ‘Qi’ in Japan ‘Ki’, and in India ‘Prana’.

Qi is pronounced ‘chee’ and is sometimes spelled ‘Chi’. It is invisible, tasteless, odour- less and formless, yet it permeates the entire universe. A healthy balance of Qi inside the body is essential for physical well-being and longevity. Qi flows through channels in the body called meridians and when the flow becomes blocked, ill-health results. Chinese doctors attempt to maximize the flow of Qi through the meridians using herbal medicine, acupressure or acupuncture and by advocating the practice of martial arts. Qigong, in particular, is designed to cultivate the flow of Qi.

Among the Japanese, Ki is thought to be centred in a part of the body called the Hara (in the abdomen). All the body’s meridians are represented in the Hara.

Prana is thought to flow around the body in invisible channels called Nadis, and illness results from Nadis that have become blocked. In the Indian traditions of Yoga and Ayurveda, there are several ways of promoting the flow of Prana, including the Yoga postures called Asanas, breathing exercises, relaxation, meditation and a healthy diet.


Much attention is paid to correct stance in Eastern exercise disciplines. The emphasis is on balance, symmetry and alignment. Correct posture encourages the equal flow of energy on both sides of the body and enhances concentration and rootedness (feeling connected to the earth). Good posture while practising martial arts can also be the key to throwing off an opponent. From a Western viewpoint, good posture enhances breathing, balance and appearance, and prevents posture-related pain and injuries.

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