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Well, the trees have arrived, and have been planted in my parents’ garden: apple, plum, pear and cherry in one row, with a hazel tree starting a second row – which will probably be finished with a couple more apple trees, though that’s yet to be decided. I’ve got a row of potatoes dug, with a couple more to be done this weekend. Plus, I have packets of seeds to be started off: chili, four varieties of tomato, basil, and mushroom spores to be set in manure…

All very therapeutic, especially since spring is definitely here at long, long last and the weather has been wonderful lately. I can’t tell you how much it lifts my spirits to be going to work in sunlight, and coming home in sunlight too. Fantastic!

That aside, there have been some tough weeks lately. When I arrived at my new office, I was told “Welcome to the graveyard of ambition” and, in retrospect, I might have paid a bit more attention to that… Still, the change in season got me energized again and got me thinking… As someone said, if your environment stresses you, change your environment; if you can’t change your environment, change yourself. (I can’t remember who said that. Perhaps it was me). So, I’ll be leaving the fishing village in a few weeks; it’s very pretty but I’m not really getting to know anyone there. I’m moving back to my hometown, to a smaller place but at least I have a strong network there. I’ve started making changes at work too, so that should be less stressful.

When I was starting to sort my books for packing, though, I came across Bruce Frantzis’ classic book on the internal martial arts, and realized it was years since I last read it – and I’ve come a long way since then, so I took it to the pub to have a re-read. As I was looking at the section on the overlap between meditation and the internal martial arts, a lightbulb went on, and a big train of thought kicked off, the results of which are:

  • I remembered how much I enjoyed the tui na course I took in Beijing. I wanted to take it further then, but events intervened. However, having looked around, I’ve realised that there is an accredited course available in London that I could do on weekends that would qualify me to practice tui na in the UK with professional insurance. The next course begins in April; I was close to enrolling on that, but eventually decided that it was too soon, especially with the house-move still to come. Another entry point would be in October, running till January, which would be much more practical. It would also give me time to review all my videos, notes and books from the Beijing course.
  • Starting in October would also be a good idea, as it would allow me to take the anatomy & physiology course that I linked to in a previous post; it would make the tui na course far more rewarding if I started it with a good grounding in the physical structure of the body.
  • I mentioned how I have been attending meditation sessions at work, and had managed one session when the instructor was away. That got me looking for courses, and I’ve found a course in leading meditation sessions. Again, it’s accredited, so would allow me to get insurance and run classes professionally. I had a long chat on the phone last night with the trainer, and it looks like that would happen in June. It kicks off with a weekend course, followed by 6 weeks of home-based work.

This wouldn’t be cheap, but it is all certainly affordable for me, and is reasonable given the outcomes. If, by the time next spring comes around, I was able to run meditation sessions and tui na treatments, that would be a good thing to be able to do….

The week after reading Bruce Frantzis’ book, I was in a different pub – this one in my hometown, ie where I will soon be living again. I’d taken my copy of Sarah Pritchard’s tui na book to read through, and was reading through it slowly, when two girls sat down at the next table. I say girls, they were women, likely in their late 20s, early 30s maybe? Anyway, I could see them taking an interest, and eventually one came over and demanded to to know what it was all about. I explained, at which point she demanded a neck and shoulder massage. I pointed out that I wasn’t qualified, but to no avail – she pulled over a chair and sat down. What could I do, but obey? So, a neck and shoulder massage she got, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The other woman is a nurse, and was interested too. By the way, it says a lot about my local pub that although it was really busy, no-one batted an eyelid or even remarked at a massage being given in the middle of the room 🙂 I saw the nurse the following week and apparently her friend had felt much more relaxed the next day. I mention this because it was quite serendipitous, and showed me that should I get a qualification there is actually a market for the skills…

Martial arts: what with one thing and another I’ve haven’t been to classes for a couple of weeks. However, I’ve noticed lately that my back and shoulders have been getting stiffer, and realized that it’s probably because I haven’t been doing any zhan zhuang. Once I started again, and stepped up my practice, all my aches and pains went away, and I even got out of breath less on steep hills. So, I’m really making an effort again with the yiquan. After all, as I’ve often said before, yiquan rocks! I’m hoping I’ll be able to get back to Beijing again this year if money allows, in order to train again with Master Yao; that would be nice…. I’m also making slow progress, in fits and starts, with the shanxi whipstaff, which is a nice form.

Spring, yeah! It feels good to have a plan. Meditation, yiquan and tui na make a nice triad, and one where I’ve already got a good base. Acting, Cossack dance, and systema are another interesting triad; I’ll need more time to develop these…

Tending seeds


Well, my fingers are healing up, which is good; the dressing was getting a bit stinky, so I took it off and replaced it with normal sticking plasters, which seem to be just as effective. My Chinese students have been very concerned, and offering health advice, which I find very touching. Hurrah for Confucian values! I’m reminded again about the aspect of China that I’ve always loved – especially as none of my colleagues have felt the need to ask what happened… Meh. Frankly, I’m finding UK culture a major anticlimax. I keep telling myself that there must be more to it, but it’s well-hidden if that’s the case.

Still, don’t get me started on that, or I’ll never find time to talk about anything else!

S. is coming to the UK! That’s something to be excited about. She’ll be in London on business in a few weeks, so I’ve booked some leave to go up to the Smoke, and we’ll chill out and catch up. Got to get in shape before then to look my best 🙂 (I haven’t exercised for a couple of weeks and the weight has piled on again. I was about to work out tonight, before some crappy bad luck intervened. Carlos calls me lucky, but I say I’m as lucky as the average man or woman; it’s just that both my good and bad luck are more extreme that other people’s! Anyway, that’s a story that will wait for another time).

I’ll be in London across a weekend so, Jiang, this also might be my chance to pitch up at a systema class there. (I’ll let you know once the details are a bit firmer). Furthermore, I’ve discovered that there’s a woman in Westminster who runs Cossack dance classes; I’ll try to contact her to see if private classes are possible 🙂 Yay yay yay! Hahahahaha…

There was no taiji/bagua class this week as Eli is in Norway, so nothing to report there.

I made it down to Carmarthen last night for the systema class, which was excellent, as usual. I was so tired that I was yawning all the way through class, but there we are.

Key points… We worked on a lot of exercises that were new to me. One was pairing up; one partner lies flat on the floor, while the other does pressups, fists on the first guy’s body. The partner doing pressups gradually moves around the other’s body, fists on shin, thigh, abdomen, ribcage, shoulder, and so on… A very interesting exercise, especially as my partner weighed around 120kg. Not that it hurt; fair play, he did ‘knee’ pressups so that he didn’t put his full weight on me. Also, I couldn’t stop laughing, which kind of put him off! I can’t explain it; it was kind of a ‘ticklish’ response, ie an interrupted defence response, I suppose.

After a number of exercises, we finished up with punching drills. These were also in pairs, just trying to punch using only the weight of the arm. I thought I would be great at this, since I completely get the concept. Instead, I was pathetic. Basically, I find it really hard to hit someone who’s just standing there, so my punches were constantly going in at the wrong angle and just skimming the surface… No power at all! It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and I don’t think I would have the same problem if I really wanted to hurt someone, but still… It just goes to show that my conscious mind is not completely in control of my actions!

Which leads me to meditation; I’ve managed to sit a few times this week, and went again today to the lunchtime meditation session at work. The regular teacher can’t be there next week, so I’ll kind of be in charge (though not actually leading the meditation, only putting a CD on, but hey! Got to start somewhere!). Anyway, so, I’m out of practice, but having started again I feel once more the ‘thrill’ of good meditation, which encourages me to try harder. I was looking again at Plum Village’s website this week, and I noticed that the upper age limit for joining them is 50; I’m sure that’s changed, as I was certain they said 45 last time I looked. So, that’s still an option! I’ll be moving house again within the month; as I look around at all my things, that will have to be boxed up yet again, I feel like just throwing them in the street. Why do we collect so many objects, and invest so much emotional attachment to them? Better by far to do without!

I’ve also be working on my yiquan zhan zhuang, getting back deeper into it, and combining it with vipassana. Not finding it easy, but always reminded at just how great it is for building awareness of the body as a unit. I always feel better afterwards…

I’m making slow progress again with the Shanxi whipstaff form, after a long break. I’ve reviewed what I worked on before, and have learned a couple more moves. Slowly does it, though, and I’m still only getting towards the end of the first quarter of the sequence. It is a really nice form, though.

End-of-the-world stuff: the news today from Bahrain scares the hell out of me (read the whole article). Well, this week, I bought an ‘orchard’ – ie, five saplings of various fruit and nut varieties to plant in my parents’ garden… and I’m looking carefully through the seed catalogues for veg to plant now that spring is coming…

Washing the hair


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…

Merry Christmas


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

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 🙂 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!

Mind and sinew

I’m just back from a yiquan class, and I thought I’d type this while I still have use of my arms: soon my hands and back will start stiffening up, and I may not feel like attacking the keyboard!

I’ll talk more about the vipassana retreat some other time, but there are two things to mention. First, I came down with a bad cold while I was in Singapore which stopped me sleeping so, combining that with the sleep debt accumulated over the past year, I was pretty groggy during most of the retreat. This made it really hard to concentrate during the meditation. Secondly, when you do these courses for the first time, you usually sit in a group in the main meditation hall, or in your room in the dormitory. Towards the end of the course, you are assigned your own windowless meditation cell in the main meditation building, next to the meditation hall. When you have already participated in one retreat, you get your cell from the first day. This was my third retreat.

I struggled. Retreats are always challenging, but because I was so tired going in, after a few days of rising at 4am I was really not keeping a clear or focussed mind! In one of the evening dharma talks, Goenkaji suggested that if you’re tired, you might leave the meditation hall, and try meditating while standing. Aha, thought I.

So, for the rest of the retreat I spent most of my solo meditation sessions in my cell, alternating between sitting and zhan zhuang. I tried not to mix techniques, so I didn’t really use the yiquan visualizations (springs/water/etc) but just held the posture while performing vipassana.

One morning, listening to the tropical dawn chorus, I had something of an epiphany when, for perhaps the first time ever, everything fell absolutely into place, and all my weight was being held and transmitted solely by tendons and ligaments, which creaked and cracked as I swayed gently like a ship under sail with no weight on muscle or bone.

Since I got back, that’s really been a guide for me, and I’ve found that I’ve really been noticing small things that make a big difference to posture. I’ve continued to do most of my meditation practice in a standing pose, often with steel rings on my wrists. I do a lot in my office when I need to take a break from the screen – though since my office has a glass door I don’t doubt that rumours and gossip are now rife in my department!

In class, I find that as my sensitivity to where my weight is being held increases, I’m finding it easier to see how full-body power develops – which is not to say that I’m achieving it but, for example, I’m maintaining my balance much more during some of the exercises. I’m also feeling how small changes in the position of my feet have big effects elsewhere.

Last week, during a tui shou session I really felt everything fall into place; my back formed a perfect bow shape, everything connected and transferred power and weight smoothly, and I was able to really control my partner, who I think has done a fair bit of yiquan training.

Pride comes before a fall, and in today’s class I was totally locked down by three different partners. It was very frustrating. Interestingly, they were all taller than me by at least a head; that’s unusual – I realised that until today I’ve almost always trained with partners who were about my own height or shorter. I came to realize that I now had my arms at completely the wrong angle, so there was no connection to my back and legs. No wonder they were able to overwhelm me! I’m going to have to think about that.

Still, I am more convinced than ever that yiquan training and vipassana meditation go together very well indeed. More on that soon.

Added later:

I think I may have reached the point where I’m ready to start taking an interest in yiquan applications. That may seem a strange thing to write, but it really hasn’t been a focus of mine up until now. Ever since I started blogging, I’ve been complaining about the tightness of my shoulders and lower back, and lack of mobility in certain ways, and I’ve mentioned several times that it’s only the yiquan practice
that has had a significant effect on them. As a result, my focus in my yiquan practice so far has been on the health effects more than anything else. I still have a lot of work to do here, but as you may guess from what I wrote above, I feel I’ve made immense progress, and I think now I can pay more serious attention to the combat side of it – which means getting started on strength and endurance training. More on that soon as well.

Hidden histories


Once again, I was up early yesterday, and met Master Sun Ru Xian for a 6:30 class. We worked on a couple of the bagua mother palms, using bricks this time to start developing palm and forearm strength. Next, we continued to work on the first three of the 64-palm sequences. I’m enjoying these – which is not to say that I’m remembering them… They’re gradually sinking in, though. Finally, we worked on the Shanxi whipstaff some more. This is getting more interesting – Sun Lao Shi was pointing out that this is a move derived from broadsword sets, this one is derived from a jian action, this one comes from a spear attack, and so on. The whipstaff is a chest-height staff; it’s what you would use as a walking-stick in the hills, etc. It made me think that this in many ways suggests so much of China’s history – a martial arts set using a day-to-day tool, incorporating the knowledge acquired by peasant-soldiers with all kinds of different weapons…

As with the bagua, etc, Sun Lao Shi teaches the staff to be used. His demonstrations of strikes are always precisely targetted at knee joints, etc – it’s not a ‘performance’ style by any means. Has he ever had to use this stuff for real? I don’t intend to ask him – not for a long time, if ever. Master Zhou Yue Wen, when I interviewed him, was really open about his past in the Red Guards,etc, but he was unusual – most people over a certain age in China have bad memories from a couple of decades ago, I guess. Most probably will never talk about them.

On the other hand, there are sides to the martial arts scene in China that I still have much to learn about. Last weekend, Dragoncache and I were chatting about a certain martial arts teacher, and how he is also extremely practical in his applications. Dragoncache said something like “Of course, he was really active in the underground fight scene”, just before the conversation took a different turn. Wait, though, what? China has, or had, an underground fight scene? Given who we were talking about, this must have been at least twenty or thirty years ago, I would have thought – surely not a period when I would have expected that kind of thing to have been tolerated by the authorities! Now I’m really curious. Not sure how to find out more, though.

After class with Sun Lao Shi, I went down to Jiushuitan to pay my rent. It turns out that the apartment complex I’ll be living in was built for long-time Shichihai residents when all of their ancient Siheyuan were demolished. Sure, the apartments are modern, with indoor plumbing etc… but my landlady is still sad at the destruction of her hutong, and all of the beauty, history, and community that went with it…


I’m counting yesterday as day 11, even though I didn’t go….

I was up at 5:30am; yesterday Sun Lao Shi and I agreed to meet a little later today, so I was there at 6:30. We worked on the 8 basic palms and their applications, and then reviewed the first set of the 4 palms in more detail.

After that, we went into the Shanxi whipstaff, and the time just flew by! Before I knew it, it was time to move on. He gave me a spare staff, but in the current pre-Olympics security climate there’s no way I could take it downtown, so I had to cycle back to my university, leave it at home, then cycle back to Wudaokou. I grabbed my usual breakfast at Lush, and then headed down to the Yiquan Academy.

I forgot my copy of the curriculum again, so I can’t tell you then name of what we did; essentially, it was uppercut punches – first of all singly, and then in combinations, all in a static position.

That was all I did until lunchtime, at which point I headed down to Jianguomen, grabbed lunch at Subway, and spent the afternoon in Starbucks at the Friendship Store. It turns out that if you buy Earl Grey you get two-for-one (don’t know if the other teas are the same) which was cool. I finished off Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, which struck a number of chords – I really can identify with the protagonist in many ways! I’d seen it in Singapore but never bought it, which was the right decision – I think I needed to read it now, and not while I was still in Singapore…

When I got back to the Academy at 5, there was another westerner there, an Israeli called something like Gil. I’m not sure how long he’d been there, but he waited until 5:45, and as Master Yao still hadn’t arrived he gave up and left. He’s apparently here as an Olympic volunteer, has studied some yiquan and Shaolin styles before, and found the Academy via its website. I gave him Master Yao’s phone number, so he may be back.

After trying the Shanxi whipstaff in the morning, I was curious about Yiquan’s staff techniques, so I asked if I could do some work on that – so that was what I learned this afternoon. Nothing very exciting, just one static pose, but it did actually give me some insight into posture.

Master Yao arrived with the Japanese student about 6:15, and corrected me a few times. Apparently he’ll be there tomorrow morning.

I was chatting to Carlos last night, and he’d got the impression I’m fed up with the Academy; I can see why my recent posts may have given that idea, but it’s actually not the case! Wait for my final roundup at the end of the week!