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The Blue Room



I recently moved into a new place, as I described on my main blog.  It’s a small studio apartment slap bang in the middle of St. Petersburg. The walls are papered with a shimmery blue paper, and the curtains are also a pale blue. The windows face east and, as this is the period of the White Nights, when it’s only dark for a couple of hours, that means that the sun is shining into my room for much of the day. As a result, I keep the curtains closed, and the room fills with a tranquil blue light, as if it were an undersea cave.

My moving came just after the summer solstice when, by coincidence or not, I experienced a sudden new burst of optimism and energy. Consequently, all kinds of plans and practices which had been on the back burner have come back into play.

One of these is that I’ve started meditating again – for half an hour or an hour most days, using the mp3 files from my Vipassana retreats in Thailand. I’m already feeling the benefits, though there’s a lot of lost ground to be made up.

I also realised that I needed to start practising Chinese martial arts again. I’ve been starting to practice the Cheng Man Ching taiji form a bit; I knew that my yiquan teacher’s brother has disciples in Russia, so I Googled to see if there is anyone in St. Petersburg. There isn’t, but I found a wushu group, so I’ll start training xingyiquan with them. They have a teacher of bagua, but her classes are at a time I can’t make, unfortunately. I’ll write more about this in another post, but it seems like it’s time to bring this blog out of mothballs and back into active use…

Image Credits: Curtain Call by user tata_aka_T on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

White nights ahead

This time next week, I will have just arrived in St. Petersburg, on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. I’ll be there for at least a year, and possibly longer – we’ll see how things go. I’m hoping that during my stay there I’ll be able to train in systema and other Russian martial arts. It’ll be a completely different experience to training in the Chinese internal martial arts in Beijing, so I’ve set up a new blog for it: Sing, Dance, Fight. I’ll continue to post here occasionally when I find, or think of, something relevant.

The Tea Road


I’m still reading the economic news, and crossing my fingers as the western economies creak and groan under vast amounts of debt. I hope that it will all work out and the world of abundance will continue as it has for the last twenty or so years – but I, like most of you, am old enough to remember how it was before, when flying to the other side of the world was only for the few, and stitching and mending and “waste not” were the rules we lived by, and so I can’t see how we carry on as we have been, living beyond our means as a culture.

So, sorry, I’m in a bearish mood still. (I never believed in “power animals”, even in the days when I knew lots of neo-pagans. I’m coming to suspect that if I have one, it’s a bear…..)

So, let’s talk a bit about what I’ve been up to.

Others are thinking along the same lines. Dave Pollard wrote about an article on Sharon Astyk’s site, which I liked very much. I recommend reading the original article, but Dave’s summary covers all the key points:

[Y]ou should move if:

Your mortgage is way more than the value of your house (especially since house values are likely to go lower)
You have young children or are elderly, and the people you’re closest to live far away
You have children you want to spend time with, or parents who need your care, living far away
You live in an extreme climate and are not adaptable to living without inexpensive heat, air conditioning, water, and imported food
You live in a community with people with mostly lousy (by your standards) values
You don’t think your children have a future where you live
You are planning on moving anyway (sooner is probably better than later)
You aren’t going to be happy or viable where you are if everything based on oil (transport, bought food, plastics, clothing, heat) gets much more expensive, or if your ‘commuter job’ disappears and you have to take (cheaper) employment locally
You live in an exurban area with no viable public transit, no locally produced food, and few close neighbours
You are not truly ‘native’ to where you live — never really fit in, called it home — and someplace else has always beckoned.

Now, I love living in Beijing; I love my work here, and there are very good people who share my values and worldview. Recently, I’ve been practising a lot in Zhongshan Park, and as I cycle beneath the walls of the Forbidden City with the morning sunlight and clear air making the red paint glow, or leaving the park at dusk with the air above me full of swallows flitting about and chittering as they return to their nests under the eaves of the watchtowers, or chasing insects amongst the willows that line the moat – well, I have to pinch myself to remind myself that yes, it is real, and yes, I am living in this amazing, fantastic city.

But I know that it won’t, it can’t, last forever. So, maybe it makes sense to think about how and when it ends – and a number of the points on Sharon’s list were already making me a little uneasy. I also got set thinking by a recent article on Afghanistan in the 1950s – a place of engineering success, rock and roll, and liberal values. I wonder if the people in those pictures ever suspected that within their lifetime their world would revert to being “a broken 13th century country“. Kyrgystan used to be a pretty well-developed element of the USSR; who, then, would have foreseen the ethnic cleansing and savagery that’s in the headlines this morning?

A lot of people are talking these days about beginning to build your tribe – or, as military theorist John Robb calls it, a “resilient community”. I’m not sure that I see that happening for me anywhere but Wales…

So, what to do? There are perhaps two options.

One is to seek to retreat from the world and let it go on its way without me. That’s the route of the hermit or the monastery. I still want to write about people who’ve taken that way, in the much-postponed next post in the “What’s it all about?” sequence of entries here. That did seem a strong option for me at one point, to be honest. I’m very drawn to Plum Village, for example… 🙂 Still, starting from when I began dating the Siberian, I’ve been drawn back into the world of attachment….

The other route is to get involved in building a resilient community. The question is, what can I (or you, reader) contribute?

It’s a question that is provoking a new movement in my martial arts interests – and leading me along the Tea Road…. In other words, it’s why I’ve been posting a lot about shashkas and systema recently!

I’ve been reviewing some of the DVDs of systema that were given to me, and comparing them to the “Systema Spetsnaz” DVD on “Internal Wave Energy” that I recently purchased. I also bought Scott Sonnon’s “Softwork“; I gather that this isn’t what he teaches these days, being from an earlier period in his trajectory, but it brings together what he learned from ROSS and other Russian systems.

To be honest, I really don’t see any huge differences between the practices of the different schools. I really like the philosophy that they all seem to share, and which is outlined in an article that I’ve previously linked to:

The doctrine of Russian Martial Art is based on the concepts of non-violence, cooperation, non-resistance and conformity. The Russian Martial Art master absorbs blows effortlessly, contorts the body to accommodate the threat and maintains contact until the assailant is rendered immobile.

… which fits rather nicely with something I’ve also been seeking in my martial arts studies (see my post ‘The manner of victory is important‘).

So far so good, but if I can get this with the Chinese martial arts, why move towards systema? This is where community comes into the picture…. With the Chinese martial arts, I’m getting great results in health, mental calmness, and combative ability; yiquan in particular, as I’ve mentioned here many times, has been particularly beneficial for me. The thing is, even if I reach the level of being able to teach in one or more of these, I’m not sure how they help to build a community -especially back in the UK where they’re not exactly mainstream; in a community adapting to resource constraints, I rather suspect that they would be seen at best as “nice, but by no means necessary”.

The Russian martial arts, on the other hand, have elements that may be a bit more marketable. In particular, I’m thinking of its connection with Cossack dance and choral singing (hey, I am Welsh, after all!). These are elements that can be used to build a community – dance and singing could attract people of all ages when a lot of what has become popular entertainment turns out to be unsustainable, and people start working in larger groups again…. It is suitable for both genders and all ages… and inside the song and dance are health techniques and systema fighting methods… Add to that the connections with the theatre from Stanislavsky, Chekhov and so on, and you have a system that’s highly appropriate to community-building….

As an example, I’ve been following the “Siberian Cossack Group LAD” for some time; although there are some elements that make me wary – and I know there has been a falling out with Mikhail Ryabko, though I have no idea what it’s all about – they are doing a lot of interesting work in combining the elements I’ve been talking about, and taking these into schools, youth groups, and so on – take a look at their videos on YouTube. (And, as a point of interest, in a recent Yiquan class, we had a visitor from Hong Kong who trains systema there, and who has friends who’ve attended the seminar in Kuala Lumpur I wrote about before. We had a very interesting chat!).

Don’t take this to mean that I’m giving up on the Chinese styles – quite the contrary! I’m still really enjoying the yiquan, though I think this is something for me to work on in my original path of “martial arts and meditation” as opposed to ‘finding a role in a community’. I’ve also been training again in bagua, though for various reasons I’ve kept quiet about that; I’ll be writing about it soon, though.

I’d be interested to hear what you think about all this….

and maybe threw a bottle of whisky into the mix… it might look like this Russian dancer…

Joking aside: wow. Talk about fitness!

According to one of the comments on YouTube, this guy is called Alexander Medvedev. I Googled the name out of curiosity, and it turns out he’s one of Scott Sonnon’s instructors. Hm, interesting.

I’ve just ordered a couple of Scott Sonnon’s DVDs, as it happens, and I’m waiting for them to arrive. I’ve also been reading up on ROSS, and trying to get my head around the differences between that and the various flavours of Systema if indeed there are any differences beyond internal politics….

What is ‘the system’?


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