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In the mind and the little details

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Yesterday’s yiquan rocked; lots of good things happened.

During the standing practice, I was working on my right ankle. In recent classes, I’ve noticed that if I make a slight adjustment to the angle between the foot and the ankle, a muscle (or something) that runs down the left-hand side of arch starts taking weight; it get sore quickly, indicating that it’s not accustomed to taking weight. The right foot is the one that always twists outwards when I’m training, both in yiquan and bagua – in fact, Kong Cheng commented on that a few times during our lessons. If I focus on the ankle, making sure that this muscle carries the weight it’s supposed to, then the foot stays straight. It’s amazing that I’d never noticed this before; on the other hand, I suppose it demonstrates that one of the benefits of training in an internal martial art is that it does develop this kind of sensitivity to little sensations in the body. In addition, it may be a coincidence, but I became aware of this after I started wearing my Vibram Five Finger shoes in class (to Master Yao’s great amusement!). I bought a second pair while I was in Singapore, and wore them during the retreat and in Bangkok (they got a lot of attention on Khao San Road, as did my Obamao t-shirts, hehehe).

Speaking of Kong Cheng, I contacted him after I got back from Thailand in order to start my bagua classes again, but the next day he was flying off to Europe again to teach there; he’ll be back in June.

The other thing that happened yesterday was the tui shou, where I got my groove back. I’d been mulling over why things went so badly last week. I recalled that I’d been doing alright for a while, and then everything fell apart, but why? I didn’t suddenly lose my strength or skill, so why the sudden collapse? It must have been a mental thing, a change in the mind. So, yesterday, I trained with two different partners. One of them, I’d partnered last week. I managed to hold my own this time, but realised that my arms and shoulders were hurting a lot. I focused on the arch of my back, trying to keep my tailbone tucked in and the connection strong between back and legs. Then I had an insight: my mind was in my arms; I was directing it towards the points of contact with my partner’s arms. That meant that I was primarily using the strength of arms and shoulders. I switched my attention to the line between legs and back, down into the soles of my feet; my arms became mere appendages to this, simply conveying and extending the movement there. In other words, I suppose, I really did visualise myself as a tree, swaying from the root with the branches moving in turn… Anyway, boom; I was in control. For a while, I carried on the tui shou with my eyes closed; I could feel exactly where my partner’s strength was and neutralise it, and suddenly it was much easier to spin or uproot him.

Next, Master Yao partnered me with a relatively new student, a short, barrel-shaped guy who was physically very strong. Here, I practised my footwork a little more, sliding away from his power at a slight angle, and retreating just in front of it. I worked on using ‘bouncing’ power here to uproot him. this worked, and I managed to get him ‘jumping’ with both knees up high. If I can work out exactly how I did this, and then do it consistently, I’ll feel like I’m making some progress!

Master Yao pointed out that I tend to keep my hands balled in fists during tui shou when I should have them as open palms; he demonstrated how the spread fingers help uproot your partner. My first partner also pointed out that I’ve got a habit of gripping his wrist to control him, which is bad practice.

Sorry, this isn’t going to be too interesting to anyone but me, but I feel like I learned a few things yesterday and I want to note them down!

Visualisation


It was a fresher day today, thanks to a cold north wind that made my nose stream. Not much to report, really: it was just walk, walk, walk, first in a straight line, then in circles. Sometimes I did it ok, mostly I didn’t.

I was thinking further on the same lines as yesterday: that getting this right is fundamentally a mental problem, not a physical one. I’m speaking from a learner’s point of view of course. As I was trying to walk the way Kong Cheng was telling me to, I was trying to hold my attention simultaneously in my feet, my hips, my pelvis and lower back, my shoulders, and my hands. Of course, I couldn’t do it, that’s too much! I realised that I was searching for the right vizualisation.

I’ve been wary of vizualisation, which comes from my meditation training. Vipassana involves using the mind to feel what is happening in different parts of the body; the danger is that the practitioner vizualises the body part, in other words creates a mental illusion, rather than stilling mental activity and simply sensing what’s happening in reality.

For martial arts training, though, it hit me today how useful visualisation is. Rather than herding cats, as my mind was trying to do this morning, the correct visualisation of an action or movement presents the mind with an activity it’s already familiar with, so that it knows exactly what to do with the body and doesn’t have to worry about it any more. Of course, this is precisely why the Chinese martial arts have such poetic names for their postures and movements: they are precisely describing a movement, energy and/or attitude in terms that would make a great deal of sense to traditional practitioners. Of course, they lived in a more unspoiled and natural world, and so were far more familiar with the movements of wild animals etc, that we are today. Working on the basic tang ni bu, I’m having to create a new vizualisation: “Cross-country skier holds down balloon”, but there’s got to be something better….

Being present


It’s been much warmer this week, but there is a price to pay… The winds have died down, so there’s no wind chill – but it also means that there’s nothing to blow the pollution away. Going to Zhongshan Park this morning, there was an acrid mist that caught at the back of my throat. As I entered the park, I could hear a distant booming that lasted for ten minutes or so; I wonder if the weather bureau was firing shells into the clouds to bring some rain…?

Sorry if these photos are getting repetitive, but I want to keep a record of what the scene is like every time I go to train; over the months, it should track the progress of the seasons – and, hopefully, remind me of progress in martial arts!

I’ve been practicing, and my mud-stepping is improving – Kong Cheng only had to kick my heels a few times. I did a few circuits under the eaves of a park office (where a thick-set Chinese gentleman of senior years was also practicing some qigong; we politely ignored each other). After that, it was circle-walking for two hours, winding up again with a bit of push-hands.

Such a simple description of the lesson but, internally, quite a lot happened. Kong Cheng had to remind me repeatedly about posture: leaning forward or to one side; wiggling my hips a bit too much; letting one arm (usually the outer) collapse in a bit too much… It’s all good; I think these are superficial issues that will vanish as I develop the internal work.

What do I mean by that? Well, as my stepping becomes less of an issue, my mind is able to move more freely around the body as a whole, identifying tensions. In particular, my shoulders, upper arms and upper back have a clear tendency to tense up, and only relax when I send my mind to them.Of course, once I do that, the lower back is free to sink in and under, the kua can move more freely, and the stepping gets more fluid and correct. So: it’s all in the mind – and, in keeping the mind present, calm, and aware of the body. Once the mind wandered (for example, ahem, composing a first draft of this post…) then everything tensed up again…

This awareness of tension is something I just wasn’t able to do before beginning yiquan, and the standing pole practice of zhan zhuang. As I mentioned before, that explains why my bagua before was so lousy – I simply couldn’t do it before because of the tension in the areas I just mentioned, so I guess I just compensated by go fast, relying on momentum and sloppy technique…. Kong Cheng mentioned that martial arts masters say “It’s easier to learn than to fix”, but there we are: I have to fix by bad habits before I can progress. Madam Ge Chun Yan often used to say that my root was weak, and I see clearly now why she said that.

If the zhan zhuang took me quite a long time to get into, the xing zhuang of circle-walking is tougher yet – maintaining mindfulness while walking is not easy! By the end of the session I was perspiring freely, and my ankles were aching from the unaccustomed strain; I lost a lot of weight when I first trained in bagua in 2004 – with luck, the same will happen again! It’s this kind of train of thought that makes me think that finally I am on the track for learning proper neijiaquan; above all, it’s the awareness that’s important, not the form. I didn’t have that when I was training in Singapore, or indeed when I first came to Beijing. Again, it’s only since I started the yiquan with Master Yao Cheng Rong that the penny finally dropped.

So, on the whole, I’m feeling quite positive about it all at the moment.

No balance, no power

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No balance, no power” – Kong Cheng’s comment on my circle-walking today…

Another early-morning session in Zhongshan Park. It was bitterly cold, with a wind to bring tears to the eyes, but I didn’t feel it so much. I’d like to say that my qi must be getting stronger, but it’s probably got more to do with the long johns.

Once again, I spent most of the two hours working on tang ni bu. I’ll ‘fess up and say that this form of stepping is much harder than what I’ve practiced in the past. I’m forming some opinions about it, but I want to work on them a bit before I write them here.

Eventually Kong Cheng decided I could progress from straight-line walking to a circle-walking… and, basically, I couldn’t do it. This is getting embarrassing. I am fighting not just a long period of inactivity, but ingrained habits. For example, I appear to have settled into the practice of swinging into bai bu and kou bu from the hip, with the leg moving in an arc, whereas Kong Cheng insists on the leg moving forward in a straight line, and only the last moment turning at the ankle. From what I remember of reading up on bagua theory, this is probably the traditional way, in which case where did those old habits come from?

We chatted a lot about the differences between Liu Jing Ru’s style and Sun Zhi Jun’s, but I’m not going to repeat that here – this being the internet, someone would inevitably use it to start a flame war, and I’m not interested in that.

Kong Cheng is off to Japan tomorrow, so it’ll be a week before our next meeting – I’ll need to train hard! We finished up once more with some tui shou, and once again a bit of tui na on my injured wrist.

Yesterday I splashed out on a fairly-good quality Yang-style taiji dao, which makes an approximation of a shashka; just for the heck of it, I’m going to work on some cossack-style swordplay.

Beneath the grasp of Thetis

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I met Kong Cheng again yesterday at Zhongshan Park; it was cold again, but at least there wasn’t any wind. (Also: hooray for thermal underwear!).

Basically, I spent most of two hours still working on tang ni bu. I confirmed that there is a significant difference in stepping techniques between Sun Zhijun’s style (which is what I’ve practiced before) and Liu Jing Ru’s style. The former allows the heel of the rear foot to rise while stepping forward; the latter does not – the foot must be kept parallel to the ground, with the heel flat.

I asked a friend of mine, who’s a student of Sun Zhijun about this afterwards; they said that the heel-raise is part of the bagua qigong. Apparently, allowing the heel to rise stimulates the Bubbling Well Point, generating yin energy, and stimulating the kidney meridian.

However, Liu Jing Ru’s style, which I’m now learning, doesn’t do this; since Kong Cheng is a TCM doctor, I’ll have to ask him about this next time we meet. The fact remains, though, that I find it very difficult! Kong Cheng was kicking at my heel whenever it rose, trying to make the foot slip or twist, and I suppose from that I can see a combat application (though that’s just a guess). I have to say that it got very annoying – though the annoyance was with myself for not getting it right, not with Kong Cheng for kicking!

(I also have a feeling that there’s a difference in the way the two styles approach kou bu and bai bu, but I’ll leave that question for another time).

I found that I had to focus on two points. First, the Achilles tendon, allowing it to relax and lengthen; secondly, the muscles at the front of the ankle, using them to keep the foot raised. Essentially, that means that I was trying to keep my mind intent on a ring around the ankle. I’m still not sure that I’ve got this right. Well, since I can’t do it consistently, I obviously haven’t, but Kong Cheng does say that I’m improving. I’m going to make sure I can do it properly before I move on to any forms. Once that happens, though, I think I should progress fairly rapidly, since those are the forms I studied with Sun Ru Xian Lao Shi when I first came to Beijing.

I find that I have to concentrate on my feet so much that I’m not able to focus much on the rest of the body. Even so, I could feel that my posture is improving as I walk, and I was able to relax back, shoulders and tailbone more than in the previous lesson. Plus, my ankles are much more stable, and don’t wobble so much – this is definitely a result of the last year’s zhan zhuang, since before I started yiquan my ankles were very tense and rigid, which meant that they didn’t like carrying any kind of load. That, in turn, I think made my knees bear my weight, which wasn’t good.

We finished up with some more bagua tui shou, which is where I finally felt able to apply some of the insights from yiquan, specifically with regard to generating strength from the core back muscles, rather than the arms or shoulders. My right wrist hurt a lot during this, so Kong Cheng used some tui na massage on it, which helped.

By the end of the class, my thighs and hams really felt that they’d had a solid workout, and were tingling a lot!

I popped over to Wangfujing to do various tasks, and then headed back to Xinjiekou for the afternoon’s yiquan lesson. That went well, mostly practicing postures that I’ve done before but do need to work on much more. I was the only foreigner there, which hasn’t happened for a while. This class also finisihed up with tui shou, for about half an hour. This is the first time that I’ve done any serious yiquan tui shou since my accident, and I was comprehensively demolished by my partner – I couldn’t read his movements at all, or escape from any of the traps he applied to my arms. Ho hum, back to the beginning (again!).

In the evening S. and I went to the cinema at Oriental Plaza and caught the 3D version of Avatar. The 3D affect is brilliant, and the computer-generated world is stunning. The storyline is a bit hackneyed, and I’m too much of a cynic to enjoy the ‘happy’ ending, since you just know that the ‘Sky People’ will return in greater force, but hey, it’s a nice movie to watch with someone whose company you enjoy 🙂

Baby steps

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I was back in Zhongshan Park this morning, and oh my, but it was cold.

There’s something I want to get off my chest… I was checking one of the martial arts blogs in my RSS reader, I honestly forget which, and caught a reference to “keyboard martial artists”. I don’t know who the author was referring to; I’ve got no reason to suppose it would be me, but it still got me thinking. I’d hate to be considered one such, if only because if I ever considered this to be a martial arts blog, I certainly don’t now. In fact, I’m pretty sure I never did; as the ‘Jianghu’ name was intended to convey, what I’m writing about is the experience of being one of those following “a different drummer”. For me, that means martial arts, yes, but also (and perhaps, more so) meditation, and acting… In the zen sense, I’m trying to discover my ‘original purpose’. Martial arts is a way of doing that, but I could choose others. So… I appreciate everybody’s contribution – genuinely – and I’ve been lucky in finding that most of the people I’ve encountered in the ‘world of wushu’ to be very genuine, nice people. I’m aware though, that there are those who are snarky, who want to know whose style, whose teacher, whose skill is ‘best’…. I’m not interested. I’m doing this for myself and my own reasons, and if my slow progress bothers you, then too bad – my progress or lack of it doesn’t affect anyone else’s.

OK, so that’s said. Now, back to normal programming!

So, this morning it was back to bagua. I’m definitely still back to the beginning, but with a bit more practice and thought, it was interesting to reflect on why.

I haven’t practiced bagua in over a year, as I mentioned. Thinking about it, I suspect one reason was watching the clips of my training when that TV unit filmed me in the summer of 2008; I could see that my posture was all wrong, that my tailbone wasn’t tucked in, etc etc, and I realised then that all my training hadn’t sorted my posture out.

That’s when I switched over to yiquan and, as I’ve posted since then, I’ve found that the zhan zhuang and other yiquan practices have made significant and lasting improvements in a number ways, including:

  • relaxing my shoulders
  • dropping the scapulae and rounding the back
  • getting my tailbone relaxed and tucking under
  • opening the kua and relaxing the ankles

That’s not to say that these are perfect, but I’ve made far more significant progress than ever before. As mentioned previously, it was noticing these changes that made me think I was ready to come back to bagua. What I realised today is that my muscle memory is trying to get me to stand and walk the way I always did before – so my shoulders were bunching up, my tailbone was arching the wrong way, etc etc, and that’s why I found the tang ni bu so difficult last week! I’m having to start again with a whole new posture…. Hmmm.

Of course, there are other things, like simply being out of practice, there being some small differences between the way Liu Jing Ru’s style steps and the way Sun Zhi Jun’s style does it, but those are minor. The main thing for me to be focussing on is awareness of body tension and posture at this point. I’m fairly certain that I’ll manage to get the tang ni bu right soon, and then I’ll be able to progress a bit further, and on to other things.

As for the tension…. I was very, very cold while we were training. Kong Cheng told me that this is because of my internal tensions, which aren’t allowing my qi to flow freely; that would fit in with what I was writing about recently. I’m aware that due to all of the issues of 2009 my triple burner’s energy is weak; getting that stoked up again is one of 2010’s tasks!

What else? Oh, we did a bit of bagua tui shou, which was interesting since I’ve hardly ever done it before – only once or twice with Master Zhou Yue Wen, IIRC.

All of the packed snow is giving me lots of tang ni bu practice, by the way!

A walk in the park

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Just got back from meeting Kong Cheng. We trained for an hour, and then he had to leave, after which I did some more work on tang ni bu, finishing up with some zhan zhuang.

My baguazhang has gone. There’s no other way to put it. It’s over a year since I did any training, and from today’s experience, I was probably doing a lot wrong anyway. All of my physical misalignments reappeared… it was awful! I couldn’t even do tang ni bu properly any more! Aaagh!

Still… a lot should come back, with practice. Plus, for the first time ever, I now have a bagua teacher who speaks English. That’s going to make a huge difference. I’m looking forward to this….

What’s also extremely important: it turns out that, with the new subway line, Zhong Shan Park is very easy to get to from my apartment. I’d never been there before, and it turns out that it’s really quiet and peaceful. It was fantastic to be standing in zhan zhuang, with very little noise to disturb me, facing the early morning sun as its rays lit up the yellow tiles on the roof of the Gate of Celestial Harmony… WOW! It was one of those “I can’t believe this is really happening” moments…

Finally, I’ve found somewhere to train without crowds of gawpers! I hope to go there a lot in the new year.

It was cold, though… Very, very cold….

Circles at the centre

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I caught up with Kong Cheng last night. We met near the Drum Tower for a couple of hours and chatted about his trip to Europe, and about mutual acquaintances. We also chatted about various books about baguazhang; it turns out that he’s got plans to write a book in English for more advanced practitioners. I was urging him to start blogging, so maybe he will…

I’m going to start training with him next week. It will only be for a few classes, as he’ll be away in January, and I’ll probably be in Singapore for a lot of February. That reminds me, I ought to say something about my plans for next year; never mind, that’s for another post. Anyway, as for the bagua classes, it’s more than a year since I trained in bagua, and I’ve had a lot of insights through my yiquan training, so I want to start again at the very beginning, with tang ni bu, and then build up again.

We discussed various locations for the training, and settled on Zhongshan Park, on the western side of the Forbidden City. That’s thematically appropriate, since it’s named after Sun Yat-Sen, who I was just talking about in my last post! Apparently it’s one of the most central locations of Beijing, so there’s a certain appeal to ‘circling the city’s axis’, as it were…

Category: Baguazhang, Kong Cheng