Monthly Archives: March 2012

Seeing stars


I’ve just come indoors after a session of zhan zhuang, shoulders aching…

It’s a lovely evening again; we’ve had a few in the last week. The sky is clear, and the stars are out, bright and clear. At the moment, Venus and Jupiter are visible, outshining everything else in the sky. As I stand, I can hear the waterlogged soil groaning and shifting; the warm sunshine has started it into a slow motion, rising and stirring the plants into spring growth.

Last week, I planted a Snowdon Queen pear tree, and an Abergwyngregyn damson tree – heritage Welsh varieties that should be well adapted to the damp climate. I’ve planted two climbing roses, both very fragrant varieties; one flowers in early summer, the other in late summer/early autumn, so we should get scent for a good half of the year.

I’ve had a few practice sessions with my new Weaponedge shashka now. The video I posted, Dance with a Shashka, has led me to adjust the way I hold the handle. In Beijing, I got into the habit of holding the handle high, right next to the pommel; the pommel effectively became the pivot as the sword swung around. After watching ‘Dance with a Shashka’ closely, though, I saw that she was holding it much lower, at the base of the handle where it joins the blade. Copying this, I’ve found that a finger on the ricasso becomes the pivot, with my little finger occasionally using the pommel to guide the movement. Doing it this way, I’m finding it easier to do a lot of the moves, and the sword swings much more freely. However, I still need to practice much, much more – even this evening, I managed to hack my leg just above the ankle, drawing a little blood. Good job the shashka is blunt! The other day, I even managed to smack the back of my head with a glancing blow…

Anyway, swinging the shashka, and transferring it from one hand to another, is really showing me that my shoulders have tightened up a heck of a lot over the last year; that’s the tension from work… I don’t have the endurance in zhan zhuang that I did, either. It’ll be easier to practice now that spring is coming, though – I’ll be able to stand outside in fresh air at last! Thank goodness for that, I’m so tired of winter!

Grafting on new rootstocks


This is another post with no real conclusion; I’m thinking aloud, wondering where a train of thought will take me.

On Monday evening, I was talking to Mark about the challenges of running a systema school. He’s trained extensively with Vladimir Vasiliev, who has authorised him to teach. So, he knows his stuff. The problem, though, is how to market systema. Awareness of the art is very low, to start with. More, a very substantial part of the potential market, ie almost anybody young, seems to want a school where they can get belts and other tangible signs of ‘progress’ – and, I suppose, bragging rights. Before he got into systema, Mark ran a karate school, and commented that classes could have really low attendance until a grading was announced. Then they would fill up but, once the grading was completed, attendance would fall again.

As I’ve commented here before, the exact same thing is happening throughout Asia. I saw it in Singapore, where there are vastly experienced teachers of traditional Chinese arts – but the young people are turning to tae kwon do. Even in China itself, the same trend is apparent, though nationalism and the success of films such as Ip Man are still keeping traditional arts fairly popular.

So how to market arts like taijiquan and systema? In the case of systema, there’s the special forces background, but Mark commented that this frightens off more people than it attracts, and I’ve read an interview somewhere with Vlad in which he says that he had to stop teaching in the way he was taught himself, as it was too hard for Westerners. It does seem to me that his later DVDs are quite different in style to his earlier ones, and to what I see of Mikhail Ryabko’s methods. ‘Western’ systema, as taught by Vlad, thus seems to be evolving into something new – effective, of course, but somehow different to its origins. Perhaps a ‘Yang’ style compared to the original ‘Chen’?

Still: how to market it? There are successful schools in the UK, of course, but they seem to be based around an urban core, ie London. That kind of concentration of interest isn’t possible for most parts of Britain. Another solution might be to identify a specific market, to whose needs the teaching of systema can be crafted. Not easy to do.

Obviously, I haven’t been involved with systema for very long, so take these comments with a pinch of salt; they’re the observations of a novice.

However, I think I’m on firmer ground with taijiquan, and Tabby’s post earlier today raises many of the same points.

I don’t disagree in the slightest with Tabby’s main point. However, the same problem exists: how can it be marketed, when it doesn’t use any external marks of progress, etc. There are even bigger problems for taijiquan, when development really requires some fairly deep knowledge about TCM concepts, qigong, and so on. The Yang family were experts, but the methods they used to try to popularize the art were being mocked in their own lifetime by Wang Xiangzhai; the simplification led to the problems we see today of students learning forms with no understanding of the purpose. And that was in China, while the originators of the style were still alive, or within recent memory. Transfer the style to the West, and the market doesn’t have the slightest knowledge of taijiquan’s cultural roots, while awareness of the art is indelibly marked now by its perception as a ‘health activity’, a ‘Chinese yoga’.

This is something I’ve talked about in the context of the names of the movements: the energy and power is quite clear once you know something of the actual source of the name (how horses behave; what it’s like to use shuttles in weaving), but very few people now have this knowledge. That’s why I would still support the discussion of alignment, fascia, and so on: it’s not the route to achieving the high levels of the art; it’s a way to build the basic understanding of energy and movement that the names describe, but coming at it from a different, Western, direction. Almost no-one understands why training is done slowly.

Even so… How to build a school? Tabby’s spot on in identifying some of the problems. There are people around, even here in Wales, who run schools but they’re tiny (the schools, that is. Not the people. Ahem). The distances in the UK are small compared to the US, but the taxes on petrol are far higher so, as the price of crude oil rises inexorably, driving any kind of distance is going to get less feasible for students and teachers alike. As we’ve seen, Mark’s having to stop classes because of this.

I honestly think that this the beginning of a new localization, when the expectations and abilities we’ve had for travel in the last 20 or 30 years go into reverse; people in Wales are already, it seems, cutting back significantly; we’re a poor nation, so it hits us early; I think that before long, much of the Western world will have much smaller horizons. That’s going to make it even harder to build a school.

Tough questions; I see no answers at the moment. Would I like to run a school, or teach? Yes. I’m about two years away from that, at least, though. Time to think about some answers.

Systema changes

I’ve made it to two systema classes in the last month. In the first, there were three of us there, and we worked mostly on ground techniques. In the second, I was the only student there; Mark took me through some groundwork, but we finished early. Mark works as a doorman in Swansea, and the preceding Saturday evening had, by all accounts, been a bit of a warzone; Wales had beaten England in the rugby, and the town boys were running wild. Marl had been caught up in it all, and he was feeling a bit weary….

In fact, he announced the next day via Facebook that he won’t be running the Cardiff classes any more. It costs him a lot of money to drive up from the west of Wales where he lives, and if there are only a few students then he actually loses money. It’s a big pity, but I can’t blame him at all.

So… Fortunately, there’s another systema class in the same location but on Thursday evenings rather than Mondays. These are run by Jeff Faris, whom I’ve met at one of Mark’s classes. It should be interesting; whereas Mark is very much of the Ryabko, and more particularly Vasiliev, school, Jeff has apparently trained with a number of systema people from different backgrounds.

A quiet day


Spring is definitely on its way, at last. In the last week, we’ve had some very misty mornings followed by cold, bright days. The earth is beginning to warm up; flowers are pushing their way to the light, and trees are beginning to bud.

I’m finally able to breathe a little; the last few weeks have been very, very hard work. I don’t mind working long hours when it’s constructive; I definitely object when it’s to clear up someone else’s mess, with no thanks for it.

Still, this afternoon I got out into the garden. I’ve got two more fruit trees on the way to me for planting – heritage Welsh strains of a damson plum and an ordinary plum – as well as two fragrant climbing roses for hedging.

I managed to get a few minutes with my new shashka – yes, I gave in and bought one! It’ll take a while to get back to the fluency I had in Beijing, and more to get to the standard of the woman in the video I posted, but I’ll get there. This Weaponedge shashka handles very well, I have to say. I suspect I’ll wind up with a second, to train double-handed.

In the late afternoon I walked to a nearby village (the one with the church dedicated to Hilarion). It was a beautiful day, with warm sunshine causing me to sweat as I walked along the Roman road, and through ancient sunken lanes. I had a couple of pints as I read the Times, and then came back the same way, the road illuminated by stars and a waxing moon in the cloudless sky. I found that yiquan’s mo ca bu worked rather better than bagua tang ni bu on the broken ground in the half-light…

Category: Gardening, Wales