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Washing the hair

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Last week’s Tuesday night class was pretty cool. I started off with a bit of push hands, partnered with one of Eli’s long-term students. That was interesting; I found it hard to get back into the taiji spirit, being far more inclined to use yiquan’s more assertive methods. Got to remember to relax…

That was while we were waiting for Eli to arrive, after which we began the bagua class. We moved on to learn a new palm change; it’s one per week, no hanging about here. Which is not to say that we’re rushing, either, the hour is enough to learn the new move, and to integrate it with what’s gone before. Eli demonstrates a few applications of what we’ve just learned, and shows something of the difference between the form and the real-world usage. I’m getting happier with my stepping, and am finding it useful to visualize the various axes(as in: plural of axis, not hatchets – that would be weird!) around which the body turns during circle-walking. It’s all good…

After that, we go straight into the taiji class. We go through a section of the long form as a group, and then everyone practices the last thing they learned while Eli goes around giving feedback. Again, all good. I definitely note that I’ve got more tense since I moved back to Wales, but now that I’ve started practicing zhan zhuang again I hope that’ll sort itself out. I got a half-hour of that combined with vipassana fitted in instead of lunch this afternoon, and felt much better afterwards.

The following night, I made it again to systema class. That was a great session. The bulk of it was spent in two groups, with one group ‘assaulting’ the other with light slaps and punches to the face and head. To begin with, the people being attacked simply had to protect themselves by keeping their elbows up and their hands sliding around their scalp in a ‘washing the hair’ movement. Later, we moved on to moving around so as not to retreat, and then finally counter-attacking with elbows and kicks. We finished up with a pair exercise, holding each other’s right forearm, and trying to use our feet and legs, sensing where your partner’s weight was so as to uproot him. It was all rather cool; certainly the experience of facing someone wading in towards you as you take hits to the head (even if the force is pulled) is a very valuable exercise in maintaining calmness under pressure…

Unfortunately, the workshop I mentioned was yesterday, not next Sunday as I’d thought. I had a family commitment that took precedence, so I didn’t get to meet Mark; next chance will be in six months, after he gets back from Canada!

Good. I’m enjoying this mix. I’ve had to stop the kettlebell exercise temporarily since I’m not getting back from work until late, but hopefully I should be able to start again soon… Next target then will be to start the shanxi whipstaff again…

More on ‘end-of-the world’ planning; the economic news doesn’t look so good, so I continue to research ‘useful’ skills for when the world starts getting less flat… I should be going on my deferred blacksmithing course next month, and I’m looking into picking up tui na training in the UK. I’m not sure if I will be able to get the time off, but this anatomy and physiology class – a prerequisite for basic tuina training – looks like a possibility… Maria Mercati seems to be pretty well-known…

On moral and martial virtue

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Right then, back to the nominal topics of this blog.

It’s Monday night and I have a long list of things that I should be doing, but frankly I’m too tired. For the first time in ages, instead, I sat for a session of vipassana: not too successfully, I fear – the monkey mind is very strong at the moment! Never mind, keep going…

This weekend there was a change in the air; everyone could taste the Spring coming. Last Thursday morning, I left for work before dawn; before getting into the car, I took a moment to stand silent, listening to the birdsong build up. The air was very still and full of qi; it made me clap my hands and shout HA for the joy of breathing. As I had a bit of a time margin before I needed to be in the office, I stopped the car as I drove over the moorland towards the city limits, and parked on the side of the road. I’ve often meant to do this, but never actually did it. On this occasion, there was a heavy mist, fragrant with the smell of brine from the nearby sea. In the pre-dawn gloom there was nothing of the views that are there on clear days, but the sense of stillness and space was calming. Soon, it’ll be the end of winter; time for me to buy some hill-walking boots!

Since I last blogged about martial arts, Earle Montaigue has passed on. I gave my condolences to Eli, but of course I don’t know him well, and I never had the chance to meet Earle. I’m saddened by that. I suppose the best anecdote I can give is that I bought a copy of his dim mak book in Singapore. When I moved to Beijing, I lent it to a Shaolin-trained martial artist who was studying dian xue of the Yang taiji style; his comment was that “it wasn’t the real thing”… but he never gave it back, despite being asked!

The last couple of weeks have been super-busy at work, combined with more than a little insomnia. I’ve made it to Eli’s classes; bagua followed by taiji. I’m really getting into this. It’s great to study the two together, which is something I’ve never done before, and I’m really getting my bagua vibe back! Plus it is just great to finally have an English-speaking teacher. I’m getting very excited about neijia again πŸ™‚

On the other hand, I’ve missed the last two systema classes; I’ve been too tired, and basically didn’t trust myself to drive there and back without falling asleep at the wheel (oh, and I needed to work late at the office…). I should be able to make it this week though. There’s also an all-day seminar coming up at the end of this month; I plan to go to that, so I’ll finally get to meet Mark in person!

As for the title of this post… Having had a great time in the last class with Eli, I asked him whether he’d ever seen wulin zhi. It turns out that he hasn’t, so I’ll lend him my copy when I go tomorrow. That has motivated me to watch it again myself; it’s playing as I type (the famous scene with the pole circle is on right now!). As always, I love it – and yet, I feel saddened.

Those of you who know me IRL know why I left Asia, and I still think I did the right thing. And yet… and yet… I keep on being reminded why I originally quit Wales, and why I didn’t think I would return – until suddenly I had to. Hardly anyone has asked me what my life was like in Singapore and China; what I valued, and what I did with my time, or who I knew and why I valued them. It seems to be assumed that it was just a phase, and now I’ve returned to ‘normal’ life.

Not so, though. As I sit here watching wulin zhi, I’m reminded of how much I have internalized the values of wu de. To quote from that link, wu de stands for:

  • Ren: benvolence and mutual love
  • Yi: righteousness, justice, judging with the heart, having friendly feelings
  • Li: respect, rules of conduct, politeness
  • Zhi: knowledge, reason, education and learing
  • Xin: trust, sincerity and openness, to truly believe in something, and also to keep one’s promises, be stable and engaged in things
  • Yong: courage and braveness

I think of some of my teachers, especially of the older generation: Yao Cheng Rong, Zhou Yue Wen, Sun Ru Xian… These are men; men to be admired, men to be respected, men to be emulated. It’s important to me that though I never approached anything like their level, I was at least taken seriously. I find none to match them here; indeed, even today, I found some of the values that they and I hold were mocked by a colleague. Don’t get me wrong; there are other values. In my home town, I more and more feel a part of the community; it’s no small thing to be greeted from all directions by people old and young, from all walks of life, when you walk into a pub. But, and but… when the darkness falls here, Asia calls me.

I won’t be getting on a plane anytime soon, unless it’s for a holiday. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing to be reminded of wu de, and that the values of the jianghu, the values of wulin are more virtuous, and more admirable, than those of the little people I sometimes have to deal with here.

Adding a bit more…

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Last week’s systema class went very well. I should probably give a little background about this. The classes are an offshoot of Mark Winkler’s Celtic Systema school, which has been going for a couple of years now. I haven’t met Mark in person, though we’ve spoken on the phone a few times, and he’s a really nice bloke. He’s super-into systema, and is currently working every hour he can get to save money so that he can go to Canada and spend 6 months training solidly with Vladimir Vasiliev. Now that’s commitment! Anyway, since he’s working, he’s not teaching, and the Carmarthen classes are being run by his long-time student, another very nice chap called Martin.

So, last week we went through rolls and ground work to begin with, and then moved on to partner work. This started with identifying chains of tension in the partner, initially with training knives, and then later on with fists. When we used the fists, we brought in breathing exercises to disperse the force of the blow (I’m not very good at this), and then added in a return strike, using the force of the blow received and redirecting it back to the attacker. This one was practised first on the ground, and then standing. Very, very, interesting. The class ended, as always, with us all sitting in a circle and contributing what insights we’d had during the class. I really like this aspect of systema: it’s very supportive and non-aggressive, and yet it trains with more use of actually receiving punches and dealing with the force than any of my internal martial arts training (but with less injury and attitude than the Thai boxing I trained in many years ago). This class is 90 minutes long, and the time just flies by.

As I mentioned to Kim in a comment, during my time in Asia I developed fairly thick tendons and a fair bit of relaxation, which allowed me to perform very well in, for example, yiquan tui shou sessions. This is how power is supposed to be generated in the internal martial arts, and is why neijia practitioners are able to stay strong into old age (I know, I simplify here, but you get the gist). On the other hand, I never really developed any muscle strength or aerobic endurance, which are also pretty handy things to have! (Sun Ru Xian was the only teacher I had who strongly emphasized that; plus, I suppose, Master ‘Blade Runner’ Zhang). Hence the pre-Christmas start to a fitness regime…. Last night, I did about six sets of Scott Sonnon’s Flowfit. I’m on level 2 (of 4), and it’ll be quite some time before I move to the next level. I can keep up with the ‘follow-along’ demonstration with minimal breaks between reps, although I’m gasping by the end. The main issue is that I can’t do the routine ‘elegantly’, so I now need to persevere with it and focus on doing it properly – which means focussing on foot placement, leg alignment, etc.

I’m also working on Scott’s Tacfit Spetsnaz Kettlebell routines. I’m now at the point of doing 6 reps of this: 2 reps at pre-recruit level with a 9kg kettlebell, 2 reps of pre-recruit with a 12kg kettlebell, and (for the first time last night) 2 reps with 9kg at the recruit level. This is working me very hard indeed, and exposing a lot of weak areas in my muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance πŸ™ On the positive side, the pre-recruit sequence with 9kgs is now fairly easy, whereas when I started, I struggled even with this – so I do seem to be gaining ground!

Thus, my routine on these sessions is Tacfit Spetsnaz warmup (about 5 min), 6 or so sets of flowfit (14 min), 6 reps of kettlebell (40 min), and Tacfit Spetsnaz cooldown (8 min or so). After that, I just have to lie and stare at the ceiling for a while πŸ™‚

Tuesday evenings are for training with Eli Montaigue. This evening was my second bagua class with him. It’s a small class, only 6 or so students. We worked on mud stepping – I still need to pay attention to my heels, as I haven’t managed to lose my bad habit of lifting them, but I am actually getting better on that, I think. We’ve moved on from the opening move and looked tonight at the single palm change. It’s unlike any bagua version I’ve trained before, but that of course is in the nature of bagua’s multiple forms! Eli teaches each element as form, followed by demonstration of application, and (in tonight’s class) incorporating body conditioning. So, all good so far.

Eli’s classes are an hour long. I mentioned before that I attended one taiji class, but since that was on a Wednesday, which clashed with the systema class, I didn’t go again. I’m glad to learn that there will be a new class on Tuesday nights, right after the bagua class. That’ll start next week, so Tuesday night will be neijia night!

So, there we are. After a slow start, my martial arts schedule is starting to pick up, and covering all the bases that I wanted.

Classes resume

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After a long period of terrible weather, followed by the holidays, things are getting started again.

Eli Montaigue’s bagua classes kicked off tonight. It’s the first time they’ve run in Swansea, so pretty much everyone was a beginner (I include myself, since it’s a different style to what I’ve trained before – though Cheng-influenced at the very least – and in any case it’s a long time since I worked on my bagua). It was a small group, with good people from what I’ve seen tonight.

Tomorrow, barring unexpected hitches, I’ll be off to Carmarthen to resume systema classes. Looking forward to that.

Last night, I did a few sets of kettlebell exercises, plus a few rounds of Flowfit.

Groovy.

Merry Christmas

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Well, season’s greetings to you all! I’m writing this from my parents’ house, while I digest Christmas dinner πŸ™‚

Apologies for the sparse posting; I’ve been super busy settling in to the new job, and still haven’t got internet at home – although hopefully that will finally be sorted out next week.

A lot’s happened since my last post, but it’ll keep until I have a bit more time. In summary, there were three things I hoped to get into after moving back to Wales: systema, taijiquan, and meditation. Classes are running in all three and, as you know, I went to a taiji class with Eli Montaigue – which I really enjoyed. However… that’s on a Wednesday evening. The nearest systema class… is on a Wednesday evening. The meditation workshops run by the New Kadampas… are on Wednesday evening. Bah!

So, the week after I went to Eli’s taiji class, I went to try the systema class. It’s an hour’s drive from my office, and is an offshoot of Mark Winkler’s Celtic Systema school. I really, really had a great time. It was my first exposure to systema IRL, and it lived up to expectations. Unfortunately, and completely by accident, I received a very solid knee-strike to my ribs, which is only now healing up… Even so, I could have gone back within a couple of weeks, but by then cold weather had descended upon the UK; the roads are bad enough in the area where I live that I opted to just get home as early as possible, so I haven’t been to any more classes yet.

I haven’t been completely idle, though. As I mentioned, I’ve fitted out a room in the house I’m renting as an exercise room, and I’ve been using it! I’ve been combining two of Scott Sonnon’s programs: Flowfit, and Tacfit Kettlebell Spetsnaz. I’m seriously impressed – although, they’re definitely highlighting my lack of physical strength… So, I’m going through the beginner levels at the moment, but very definitely seeing pretty rapid improvement. Once I get stronger and more flexible, I’ll start throwing in elements of Flowfit II.

What’s interesting is that with Coach Sonnon’s latest programs, he’s once again emphasizing his links with the Russian Special Forces (I got the impression that for some years he was playing it down). Flowfit II in particular clearly shows a connection with Spetsnaz systema. I’ve also bought a couple of DVDs about that: Internal Wave Energy, and Elements and Exercises Part 1. These are produced by Vadim Starov, if I have that right, but they are derived from Kadochnikov’s systema – which is also the root of the ROSS system that Scott Sonnon trained in… Never mind, the ins and outs of systema politics are hard to pin down! Anyway, Coach Sonnon has refined them into effective and easy-to-follow routines, while Starov’s DVDs are great for moving further into ‘proper’ systema – at least, that’s what seems to be working for me!

The ROSS curriculum is extremely interesting for me, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned before, given that it includes dance, etc…

So, anyhow. Systema is definitely going to be my primary focus now; I’ve always said that from the very first time I saw clips of it in YouTube (which was in 2007, before I even moved to Beijing), it ‘spoke’ to me – and having been to a class now, and started working with the DVDs, I feel even more that this is the style I’m meant to learn… I have big plans for systema…

That doesn’t mean that I’m leaving Chinese neijia behind! The clash of class times means that I can’t attend Eli’s taiji classes any more… but fortuitously, he’s just started a new class in bagua, which is on Tuesdays… I didn’t think I would be able to attend those either, but due to various circumstances changing, I’ll now be free to do so. Thus: a focus on systema, with bagua on the side. Oh, and I said something about wanting to revisit a weapon form, but I wasn’t sure what… Well, walking on a regular basis through country lanes to my local pub requires a stick (especially given all the snow and ice recently). So, it seems like shanxi whipstaff is the strongest candidate at the moment…

Also due to changing circumstances, my stay in the fishing village will probably be a short one; it looks like I’ll be returning to my home town next spring – I need to return to my tribe (see also this) before the economic storm breaks over our heads… but that is also for another post!

Anyway, I don’t want to end on a negative note πŸ™‚ I’ll just say that as we approach 2011, I’m really fired up about getting into systema; I think this is going to be a real blast, and the people I’ve met so far are great. It’ll be nice to be back into bagua as well. I have a feeling that the plans I contemplated, of combining systema, acting, and dance into other elements of community resilience a la Transition Towns, are becoming more feasible. That’s quite exciting. I suspect that this will form a major part of my blogging focus next year…

So, Merry Christmas!