Blog Archives

Arts and crafts

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Recently, I’ve been putting my tui na skills to use, treating a relative for sciatica and chronic lumbago. Of course, after only a couple of sessions it’s too soon to see lasting results. Even so, when someone who enters the room bent double in pain, holding on to chairs and tables for support, walks away upright with only a bit of a limp… well, then I really feel I’ve achieved something.

And boy, do I also feel that I’ve been working… It’s physical work, this tui na, and I soon find the perspiration running freely. I’m too stiff as I work; I do need to get into the practice of taiji and qigong again, as I’m using the muscles of my arm too much. Sometimes I get it right, though, and I transfer pressure to the patient without effort, using body weight and core energy.

This comes on top of reading Matthew Crawford’s book, The Case for Working With Your Hands, which I bought a couple of weeks ago. I find it hard to disagree with his thesis that there’s a satisfaction to be gained from using craft skills that is increasingly hard to obtain from the white-collar conceptual mind-work that I was always encouraged to pursue. Certainly, a lot of my work in the higher education sector no longer has the status it once had. Increasingly, the basic teaching of core concepts can frankly be done just as well, or even better, online; the offshoring and/or virtualisation of education provision over the internet can achieve results just as well as a lecture to 350 students. There is another side to education; the widening of horizons, the cultivation of human potential, the development of self-confidence. That’s the aspect that attracted me into the field, not being or wishing to be, a research academic. It’s getting harder and harder to do that though; the changing nature of the industry is bringing bigger and bigger classes, where it’s hard to make individual connections, while fewer and fewer students seem to want anything more than an easy path to a qualification that will help their career. I’m seeing complaints now that it’s unfair to expect the whole curriculum to be revised before exams, or to give them case studies without accompanying answers. Certainly, there isn’t the satisfaction to be had equivalent to taking someone’s pain away because you gave them treatment based on skills you’ve learned the hard way.

I was given a copy of 9000 Needles for Christmas, and I’ve watched it a couple of times now. In brief, it’s a documentary about an American body builder who is paralysed after a stroke. When his insurance runs out, he’s packed off home; his family decide to take him to China, after learning about an acupuncture treatment specifically designed for stroke victims. The documentary was made by the patient’s brother, who naturally enough doesn’t know anything about acupuncture; as a result, it’s a little frustrating that we never learn anything about the principles of the treatment itself. It’s fascinating, though, to see the huge improvements in his condition over a short period of time; it’s also very interesting to see the inner workings of a Chinese TCM hospital (the same one, as I’ve mentioned before, that runs a one-year, English-medium, acupuncture diploma course).

I have a few aches and pains of my own at the moment: a big black bruise on my thigh, and a sore hip. Yes, I went to my first systema class for almost a year last week, and had a great time. This was at Celtic Systema, the school run by Mark Winkler, who’s not long back from six months of training with Vladimir Vasiliev. We worked on breathing, ‘old man walking’, some falling and ground work (hence the sore hip: no mats), and breaking tension chains (hence the bruise on my thigh). All good fun: I’m looking forward to the next class. It was a small group, only four students plus Mark. What was interesting was that Mark and one of the other students speak Welsh, so the three of us spent a lot of the class yn siarad Cymraeg – truly, Celtic Systema!

On the old New Year’s Eve (ie, following the Julian calendar), I went out with the local Mari Lwyd, and not for the first time by any means. It was filmed, so here’s what I mean:

I arrived shortly after this, so I don’t appear in the clip. It’s important to keep traditions alive – and truly alive. It’s a danger that they lose their vitality, become relics that are paraded around reverently, no longer inhabiting their true role in our psyche. The thing is, the Mari Lwyd, traditionally, is a force of chaos, an element of Saturnalia when all roles are turned upside down. Read the folklore, and the Mari runs around, chasing women and making children scream in delighted terror, respecting nobody. Know this, and that mare’s skull is full of a potent personality, waiting for the right bearer through whom it can come alive. Keith Johnstone, in his book Impro, has a lot to say about masks and trance, and the ability of a mask to ‘possess’ its wearer (I’ve put my copy somewhere I can’t find it, else I would quote). Anyway, what I’ve getting to is that I wore the Mari to the next pub we visited and, as someone said to me with a raised eyebrow the next day, I was “in character”. Someone else told me that they laughed until they cried, and the manager gave me a free pint, that’s all I can say…

Right now, I’m working through Bella Merlin’s Stanislavsky Toolkit; there’s an awful lot in there about breathing and movement that can very easily be related to systema, a link I’ve made before…

As they say: never a dull moment…

Logjam

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Phew: I made it to the meditation group at work today. This is actually the first time I’ve been since… blimey… June? I always meant to go during the summer and autumn, but I was always just too damn tired. It was great: even after such a long break, I got back into it. I could feel myself getting warmer, and a bit sticky as my body started to detox – always a sign that the meditation is working. For a brief time, I got really deep in to it; the world vanished, thoughts were absent, and there was just the breath… Man, did I feel better afterwards!

Also back into the zhan zhuang these last few days. There’s always something new. One of my fellow-students on the tui na course had commented on part of my right foot being really stiff – and it was too, I just hadn’t noticed, and was unconsciously compensating with my posture. So, I’m working on that and, slowly, painfully, it’s stretching and opening up. The standing is generally going well, though the creaking of ligaments and popping of tendons (or is the other way round?) remind me of the ground I’ve lost. Not to worry, I’ll soon be back to where I was, and then onwards…

Might be an opportunity coming up to get back into acting; that’ll be good, I was really missing the creative flow of those improv workshops in Beijing. Couple of other things in the pipeline, too, but I won’t mention them in case I jinx them. Systema classes starting soon; that’ll be cool.

Wow, it’s like a logjam, isn’t it, sometimes? You need dynamite to clear the blockages but then discover there’s a lot of cool stuff waiting to flow down to you….

Some thoughts on a skill set

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These are some ideas that have been buzzing through my mind recently… To be changed/developed/abandoned as appropriate… Feedback welcome!

Element 1: meditation Meditation to calm and clear the mind is a fundamental first step. Body scanning to build awareness of physical sensations. Mindfulness.
Element 2: zhan zhuangBuild body awareness, correct posture and alignment. Strength and endurance. Addressing health issues and old energies.
Element 3: Voice training, public speaking, acting techniques. Better to avoid a fight through persuasion, psychology, use of correct tone. Defuse, rather than fight or flight. Six healing sounds. Leading eventually to use of kiai.
Element 4: shi li and stepping Increased body awareness. Mind-body unity in movement.
Element 5: tui na for everyday health issues Basic treatments for self and others.
Element 6: tui shou
Element 7: san shou

There are other things that could be included, but that’s a rough idea. Any comments? Does this sound like anything that’s already being used but I don’t know about?


Right, time for a random stream of consciousness post….

A recent post from Another Neijia Blog caught my attention when it popped up in my RSS feeds because it was talking about kettlebells.

Following that link, I wandered on to another, older, post on how to popularize qigong, based on yoga’s success.

Well, qigong comes in many shapes and forms. As I thought about it, my mind was drawn to the Five Animals qigong set that I briefly studied at the China Culture Centre in Beijing. In particular, the deer:

Now, I’ve got to say: this was on my mind because I’d been reminded of it as I watched one of Meyerhold’s biomechanics études on YouTube:

Also, I recently bought a book/DVD aimed at actors, The Vocal Arts Workbook and DVD – which contains a few qigong techniques.

So, I suppose, a way to promote qigong to a wider market would be to focus on actors and the media – many of whom, of course, are trendsetters. The focus would be on ‘breath’, ‘voice’ and ‘flow’…

…much of which sounds like systema, of course….

Why I changed direction

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Some time ago, I linked to the trailer of Banlieu 13: Ultimatum, and asked is this our future?

You may have thought I was being dramatic, but the economic data keeps on suggesting that it may not be far off. The US is effectively bankrupt at every level; the Automatic Earth bloggers are pretty good at tracking the numbers, and yesterday’s entry is particularly sobering (skip past the first part about the Arizona shootings; the bulk of the post is about the financial state of US states, counties and cities).

There’s one report they reproduce that contains the following quote: “Clearly the markets don’t think we’re Argentina, but we should send them a signal that they are right, that we will address the issue.” That’s kind of on the money. I spent a week in Buenos Aires in the autumn of 2001. I loved it; it was a beautiful city, full of elegant people. Clearly, there was a fair bit of money around; the shops were packed, the tango was fantastic, and everyone was dressed to the nines. A month later, their economy collapsed. There’s an inhabitant of BA called Ferfal, who blogs about life following the crash, and a recent post of his is worth a read: Life in Argentina, 9 years after the 2001 Collapse. Remember, Buenos Aires was very definitely a first-world city.

Today’s headlines in the UK are all about the record, and unexpected rise in prices. They talk about ‘inflation’, which is a bit misleading, since inflation is caused by an increase in the money supply. Despite quantitative easing, that isn’t what’s happening here; these price increases are being caused by rising energy (read: oil) prices, plus expensive food due to climatic events. Unfortunately, these factors are only going to get worse. All the figures I read suggest that global oil supplies are likely to drop off a cliff around 2015; demand will still be increasing, so prices will go through the roof. That’s when we’re likely to get our ‘Argentina experience”…

Hence (one reason for) the new focus on systema: it’s easy to teach, it’s effective, and its links to theatre and dance make it accessible to a wide variety of people. Unfortunately, the Chinese martial arts would be harder to sell to a population undergoing extreme economic and social stress, whereas I’m convinced that systema, properly packaged, could become a social glue.

We’ll find out, of course. Perhaps I’m being too negative, and it would be far from the first time. However, if in 5 years’ time I’m right, then I’ll be ready. If not, I’ll still have lots of useful skills!

Movement


I visited my local second-hand bookshop yesterday. Over the years, I’ve got to know the owner fairly well; he’s a very nice chap. As I was walking in, we got chatting, but it turned out that he had to rush out, for a quick meeting with someone. Since he knows me well enough, he didn’t mind leaving me alone in the shop; as I didn’t want to leave until he got back (thus leaving the shop empty), I found myself exploring some of the stacks of books at the very back of the back room on the top floor – somewhere I haven’t reached before. Lo and behold, I found a few shelves of books on the theatre and, amongst them, two that I immediately bought: The Mastery of Movement by Rudolf Laban, and Meyerhold: A Revolution in Theatre about Vsevolod Meyerhold, a student and (later) collaborator of Constantin Stanislavski. There’s a lot here that’s very interesting, especially in that area where I see a crossover between acting, dance, and systema.

Feel the weight

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I was at a bit of a loose end yesterday. This period between Christmas and New Year is a bit of a dead time, especially when you’re newly-arrived in a country and don’t have strong social networks yet. To be honest, I would have preferred to be working, but the office is closed for the week, and the heating is off, so that wasn’t an option. I also had a bit of an urge to travel deeper into Wales than I have done so far; in my walking around the lanes I’ve felt something of the place, the qi of the land (which is very different to that of China), but I haven’t yet felt the deep connection with the earth which I used to have. Perhaps going inland, closer to the hills, would help re-establish the connection…

So, I headed off on impulse to Y Gelli Gandryll, otherwise known as book-town Haye-on-Wye. Not only would that take me through the Great Forest and the Black Mountain, it would lead me to a town packed full of bookshops… Perfect!

So, off I went. It was a good drive through wild country, with small hamlets huddled amongst the hills. There were some moments of great views, but to my great disappointment there was heavy mist most of the way, so I couldn’t really get a feel for the land. Never mind, it was nice to be travelling through winding hill roads with the steppe music of Hanggai as a soundtrack.

I only bought one book in the end, one for which I’ve had an eye open for some time. I’m dipping into it at the moment, and I’ve already found one quote that I wanted to share:

In talking about muscle relaxation, Tortsov told a story out of his own life: in Rome, in a private house, he had the opportunity of watching an exhibition to test equilibrium, on the part of an American lady who was interested in the restoration of antique sculpture. In gathering up broken pieces and putting them together she tried to reconstitute the original pose of the statue. For this work, she was obliged to make a thorough study of weight in the human body, and to find out, through experiments with her own body, where the centre of gravity lies in any given pose. She acquired a remarkable flair for the quick discovery in herself of those centres which establish equilibrium. On the occasion described, she was pushed, and flung about, caused to stumble, put in what seemed to be untenable positions, but in each case she proved herself able to maintain her balance. Moreover, this lady, with two fingers, was able to upset a rather portly gentleman. This also she had learned through study of centres of weight. She could find the places that threatened the equilibrium of her opponent and overthrow him, without any effort, by pushing him in those spots.

Sounds like a taijiquan manual! In fact, it’s taken from the chapter Relaxation of Muscles, in Constantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares.

It als reminds me of one element we worked on in the one systema class I’ve attended, in which we tried to find points on our partner’s body that would collapse their structure… I am convinced that somewhere in systema’s history one or more stage-trained people contributed insights from the actors’ craft!

OK, enough philosphizing; time to post this, have a quick lunch, and get out to enjoy the winter sunshine at the Worm’s Head

Learning to walk

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There have been a number of times over the last few years when I’ve thought to myself “How dumb can you be? How can you have reached the age you’ve got to without having learned to walk properly?”. I’ve actually been even embarrassed to mention it here! These moments came, of course, after yiquan training sessions, when I’d had some insight during the zhan zhuang, or the stepping exercises, and then I’ve spotted a specific postural problem that, when thought about, I’ve realized has been leading to me walking incorrectly for goodness know how long. I found it hard to believe that other people besides me also didn’t know how to walk properly…

I was rather glad, then, when I cam across this passage in Constantin Stanislavski’s Building a Character:

As I was walking home today I daresay the passersby in the street took me for a drunken or abnormal person.

I was learning how to walk.

But it was very difficult.

The instant when my weight was shifted from one leg to the other seemed especially complicated.

By the time I neared the end of my walk it seemed me that I had succeeded in getting rid of the jolt when I shifted my body from one foot to the other – let us say from the toes of my right foot to the heel of the left, and then (after the shifting movement had run along the whole plant of my left foot) from the toes of my left to the heel of my right foot. Besides, I came to realize from my own experience that smoothness and an unbroken line of forward motion depend on the correlated action of all the springs of the legs, from the harmonious co-operation of hips, knees, ankles, heels and toes.

I was in the habit of making a stop when I reached the Gogol Monument. As I sat there on a bench I observed the passers-by and their way of walking. And what did I discover? Not one of them took a full step right to the end of his toes nor remained poised even for the fraction of a second on the tip of the last one. It was only in one little girl that I saw a floating gait and not the creeping type of all the others.

Tortsov is indeed right, people do not know how to make use of the marvelous apparatus which is their legs.

So we have to learn. We have to begin from the beginning and learn – to walk, to speak, to see, to act.

I’m going to have a bit more to say about Stanislavski, his techniques, and his students….

What is ‘the system’?

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The list of things I don’t know is, of course, infinite; it does at least give a constant flow of little discoveries.

One of these was learning that ‘Russia’ and ‘The System’ will have meaning, for many, many people – but they will think of Konstantin Stanivlasky and his ‘Systema‘, not of Ryabko or Kadochnikov.

I’d heard of Stanislavsky, but only in terms of Method acting; I’m intrigued to discover that this is regarded as a distortion of his ‘system’. Stanislavski’s system means ‘an actor being “in the moment” but always staying one step away from complete belief‘. Stanislavski developed a method of physical action:

Training was highly physical and demanding, and Stanislavski’s respect for physical action brought his system to a point of apotheosis, a way of reaching emotional truth and psychological realism while maintaining a grip on control of the physical. Further: freeing oneself up for performing anything, be it Modern theater or Greek.

Late in his life Stanislavski put much faith in an approach he called the Method of Physical Action. (The use of the word Method, again, causes confusion with Strasberg’s Method.) This approach, Stanislavski surmised, finally dealt completely with the instrument of the actor and with a universality of performance.

The Method of Physical Action (hereafter, MPA) is complex. It requires an understanding of the significance of physical action, and in the performance of physical action. The idea behind the MPA is fairly simple, but its implications are profound. It is based on the idea that the only thing an actor will ever have control of in his life is “his body.” There is never a direct line to emotions in performance, only to the body. Emotions may be remembered and brought up via emotional memory, but Stanislavski generally considered this a rehearsal tool or technique of research, at best. There is, in the end, only the body.

Does this sound familiar?

One of Stanislavsky’s pupils was Mikhail Chekhov, who developed and extended Stanislavsky’s system:

In the late 1920s, Chekhov emigrated to the Germany and set up his own studio, teaching a physical and imagination-based system of actor training. He developed the use of the “Psychological Gesture,” a concept derived from the Symbolist theories of Bely. In this technique, the actor physicalizes a character’s need or internal dynamic in the form of an external gesture. Subsequently, the outward gesture is suppressed and incorporated internally, allowing the physical memory to inform the performance on an unconscious level.
[…]
[M]uch of what Chekhov explored addressed the question of how to access the unconscious creative self through indirect non-analytical means. Chekhov taught a range of movement dynamics such as molding, floating, flying, and radiating that actors use to find the physical core of a character. His techniques, though seemingly external, were meant to lead the actor to a rich internal life.

I first started sensing that there was a natural overlap between martial arts, meditation and acting back in 2006, and gradually I’ve become more convinced of that. It turns out, of course, that I’m far from the first to think that!

That brings me to some of the books that I bought on my last trip to Singapore. Phillip B. Zarrilli in Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski discusses his use of Kalarippayattu and taijiquan in training actors in mind-body unity (though he consistently mis-spells it taiqiquan, which gets really annoying after a while!).

David Zinder, in Body Voice Imagination: ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique also takes a deep look at the integration of body, voice, and imagination, including lots of exercises for improvisation.

I find it really interesting that all these ideas and techniques were emerging from Russia in the run-up to the revolutionary period.

Another book I bought – more in hope than anticipation of actually using it – was Jumping into Plyometrics. Plyometrics, a method of rapidly improving muscle and nervous-system performance is, it turns out, also a Russian innovation.

Whether any or all of this influenced the development of Systema or Sambo I can’t know; I just find it all very interesting. Plus, as someone I know said on Twitter, “US strategy too reliant on strength, firepower. What to do when you lose them? An individual’s mind is most powerful weapon“, and there does seem to have been this philosophy in the Soviet system to develop human performance rather than equipment systems (though no-one who has read Arkady Babchenko’s book or articles would say that the whole Russian army is efficient…..)

Just part of an ongoing thought process…..

Category: Acting, Russia, Systema

Books

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Here are some of the books that I bought while I was in Singapore. I don’t have time right now to write about them, but together they’ve kicked off a train of thought that I’ll go over in a post soon.

The Complete Taiji Dao: The Art of the Chinese Saber (Zhang Yun)

Martial Maneuvers: Fighting Principles and Tactics of the Internal Martial Arts (Phillips Starr)

Jumping Into Plyometrics (Donald A. Chu)


Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski (Phillip B. Zarrilli)

Body Voice Imagination: ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique (David Zinder)

The Six Healing Sounds: Taoist Techniques for Balancing Chi (Mantak Chia)