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Studying Liang-style baguazhang


Intermediate-Level-18 Palms











What can I say? I’m delighted with Liang-style bagua. As a system, it’s got everything I’ve been looking for. In fact… twelve years after I arrived in Singapore with a rudimentary knowledge of Cheng Man Ching’s taijiquan, a period in which I’ve always felt that I’ve been searching for something which nothing I studied quite gave me… this is it. This is what I’ve been looking for, the whole time. Wow.

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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.

Systema again

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. Lots of food for thought.

As I write, the muscles between and around my shoulder blades are only hurting a bit, having been very painful for the last couple of days. That’s the result of Thursday night’s systema class! As I wrote in my last post, I’d decided to get back into gear and start attending systema classes again, the classes this time being led by Jeff Faris.

When I went the week before last, Jeff was away, attending a seminar in Europe. Not many people were there: two of his students, myself, and a newcomer who’s never studied any martial arts before, but had got interested from seeing clips onYouTube. I gathered that the two students hadn’t been studying systema for long either, but we started off with some of the exercises that were familiar to me from Mark Winkler’s classes, and then moved on to striking exercises. This was very interesting: Nick, the student who’d taken charge, introduced this in terms of theory – looking at the position of your opponent’s feet, and directing your strike towards ‘the third point of the tripod’ to break your opponent’s balance. He also mentioned the helix and the wedge, which I’ve previously only heard mentioned by Matt Powell’s Pramek, though I know it comes from the Kadochnikov system. This kind of simple but effective theory is something that I haven’t encountered before, and is one of the things that has really attracted me to systema Kadochnikova.

Later on, another student arrived, and the session went up a few gears. This was a guy from Latvia (I’m guessing from accent etc that he’s one of the Russian minority population there), and has clearly trained extensively in systema. He got us working with exercises in soft power, unbalancing our training partner simply through redirecting their force. With my background in taiji and yiquan, I’m fairly good at this sort of work, but I have to say: this guy stood in front of me, put his hand very gently on my chest and, with very little pressure indeed, had me flying backwards. It was very similar to what you see taiji masters doing…

The same guy was there last Thursday when Jeff came back from his travels. Jeff had us doing a lot of hard striking work, using punchbags and pads. That’s why my shoulderblade and back muscles are hurting! We did quite a lot of work striking double pads; I did my best to use the big muscles of back and leg to generate power, and it worked fairly well. The muscles that are aching are those that are loaded when I’m standing in zhan zhuang properly, though I plainly haven’t been doing enough of that lately. We also did a lot of work on ‘crowd scenes’ with five-on-one work, either simultaneously or in procession. When we were all attacking simultaneously, it was interesting to note that the target rarely had to deal with more than one or two at a time, with the rest standing off to look for an opportunity and/or getting in each others’ way.

We finished with work on some of the more esoteric aspects of systema. Jeff introduced us to ‘social distance’ – for example, the space between an individual and a hostile group at which the individual’s actions aren’t yet definitely an interaction with the group (eg a change of direction, going through a shop door – is it an attempt to escape, or something that has nothing to do with the group?) He also demonstrated how to introduce a new social distance – eg, as members of the group approach, seeming to respond to someone in the distance behind them.

Very briefly, Jeff then mentioned distractions (eg clapping hands) and changing the rhythm of your movement to confuse an opponent; I was rather reminded of Piper by the way he showed this! I asked him after class, though, and he’d never heard of Piper, so there we are.

We then moved on to no-contact force, using psychological cues to get an opponent to stop, or even fall, through gesture, eye contact, and projection of will. This was right at the end of the session, so I didn’t get deep into it – but of course, the no-contact aspect of systema (not to mention taiji’s lin kong jing) is pretty controversial. I don’t think it needs to be, since it works according to fairly clear principles – but, I suspect it needs a great deal of self-knowledge and self-awareness before it can be used. My impression so far is that it depends on identifying where the opponent has mental and/or physical blockages. It’s easier to do this if you are aware of your own, and of how they were expressed in your movements and facial expressions, for example; have that knowledge, and you can spot it in someone else. The trouble is, it also works better when you are familiar with the opponent; in my case, if my opponent expresses the intention to punch, I’m much more likely to freeze up and respond (by stopping or, indeed, recoiling and even falling over) if I’ve trained regularly with him and know how much that punch would hurt! This is why we see ‘lin kong jin experts’ getting into trouble on YouTube when they face up to a stranger; they’ve become used to training with the same people.

So: my first two weeks getting into systema have been fascinating. I’m really enthused, and have learned a heck of a lot. Can’t wait for the next class….

The ol’ y ‘n’ y…


Yin and yang are funny things. Last weekend was really, absolutely, a low point – the sort of moment that wakes you up to the fact that things really need to change.

And so, I went back to the website of the Cardiff Martial Arts Academy, where I went to a few systema classes with Mark Winkler of Celtic Systema. As I wrote a while ago, Mark had to give up the class because of the distance, but it was due to be taken over by Jeff Faris. Where Mark is from the Vasiliev/Ryabko lineage, I get the impression that Jeff is more of the Kadochnikov/Retsinuikh school, whose approach is a bit more in line with the way I think. I’d wanted to start going to classes a while ago, but it turned out that Jeff was away for a while, “on a personal security job in Eastern Europe”. Crikey.

Anyway, thinking that he must be back by now, I checked the academy’s website for their timetable, to check when the systema classes were, and I noticed that on Monday nights there is a Cheng Hsin tui shou class. Well, I’d heard of Cheng Hsin; in fact, I have a copy of one of Peter Ralston’s books, which I bought in a second-hand bookstore in Singapore’s Bras Basah centre years ago, and have carried around ever since. (I’ve tried several times to read it, but always give up; it’s written in a dialogue style that I can’t get to grips with – by which I don’t mean to say it’s bad, just not a style that I find easy to read), and I’d really got the impression that it was getting to the core of some important elements of taijiquan…

… and in any case, although I am practising my zhan zhuang, yiquan shi li, xingyi 5 elements form, and CMC-37 taijiquan, it’s all solo work. I really fancied the opportunity to do some tui shou and partner work… and so, on the spur of the moment, I went along.

And hmmmm. Wow. It’s very much all about yielding, and softness, and all the elements that make taijiquan a badass martial art. I won’t say much, as I really need to go back for a few more classes in order to get my head around it. I really enjoyed it, though, I’ll say that much. A small class: the teacher (an Irishman, Kevin Magee), another Welsh bloke, and a German woman who, apparently, moved from Germany to Wales to learn silat, but then switched to Cheng Hsin. It was a really serious-but-friendly atmosphere. I’ll be going back for another taste, for sure….

Grafting on new rootstocks


This is another post with no real conclusion; I’m thinking aloud, wondering where a train of thought will take me.

On Monday evening, I was talking to Mark about the challenges of running a systema school. He’s trained extensively with Vladimir Vasiliev, who has authorised him to teach. So, he knows his stuff. The problem, though, is how to market systema. Awareness of the art is very low, to start with. More, a very substantial part of the potential market, ie almost anybody young, seems to want a school where they can get belts and other tangible signs of ‘progress’ – and, I suppose, bragging rights. Before he got into systema, Mark ran a karate school, and commented that classes could have really low attendance until a grading was announced. Then they would fill up but, once the grading was completed, attendance would fall again.

As I’ve commented here before, the exact same thing is happening throughout Asia. I saw it in Singapore, where there are vastly experienced teachers of traditional Chinese arts – but the young people are turning to tae kwon do. Even in China itself, the same trend is apparent, though nationalism and the success of films such as Ip Man are still keeping traditional arts fairly popular.

So how to market arts like taijiquan and systema? In the case of systema, there’s the special forces background, but Mark commented that this frightens off more people than it attracts, and I’ve read an interview somewhere with Vlad in which he says that he had to stop teaching in the way he was taught himself, as it was too hard for Westerners. It does seem to me that his later DVDs are quite different in style to his earlier ones, and to what I see of Mikhail Ryabko’s methods. ‘Western’ systema, as taught by Vlad, thus seems to be evolving into something new – effective, of course, but somehow different to its origins. Perhaps a ‘Yang’ style compared to the original ‘Chen’?

Still: how to market it? There are successful schools in the UK, of course, but they seem to be based around an urban core, ie London. That kind of concentration of interest isn’t possible for most parts of Britain. Another solution might be to identify a specific market, to whose needs the teaching of systema can be crafted. Not easy to do.

Obviously, I haven’t been involved with systema for very long, so take these comments with a pinch of salt; they’re the observations of a novice.

However, I think I’m on firmer ground with taijiquan, and Tabby’s post earlier today raises many of the same points.

I don’t disagree in the slightest with Tabby’s main point. However, the same problem exists: how can it be marketed, when it doesn’t use any external marks of progress, etc. There are even bigger problems for taijiquan, when development really requires some fairly deep knowledge about TCM concepts, qigong, and so on. The Yang family were experts, but the methods they used to try to popularize the art were being mocked in their own lifetime by Wang Xiangzhai; the simplification led to the problems we see today of students learning forms with no understanding of the purpose. And that was in China, while the originators of the style were still alive, or within recent memory. Transfer the style to the West, and the market doesn’t have the slightest knowledge of taijiquan’s cultural roots, while awareness of the art is indelibly marked now by its perception as a ‘health activity’, a ‘Chinese yoga’.

This is something I’ve talked about in the context of the names of the movements: the energy and power is quite clear once you know something of the actual source of the name (how horses behave; what it’s like to use shuttles in weaving), but very few people now have this knowledge. That’s why I would still support the discussion of alignment, fascia, and so on: it’s not the route to achieving the high levels of the art; it’s a way to build the basic understanding of energy and movement that the names describe, but coming at it from a different, Western, direction. Almost no-one understands why training is done slowly.

Even so… How to build a school? Tabby’s spot on in identifying some of the problems. There are people around, even here in Wales, who run schools but they’re tiny (the schools, that is. Not the people. Ahem). The distances in the UK are small compared to the US, but the taxes on petrol are far higher so, as the price of crude oil rises inexorably, driving any kind of distance is going to get less feasible for students and teachers alike. As we’ve seen, Mark’s having to stop classes because of this.

I honestly think that this the beginning of a new localization, when the expectations and abilities we’ve had for travel in the last 20 or 30 years go into reverse; people in Wales are already, it seems, cutting back significantly; we’re a poor nation, so it hits us early; I think that before long, much of the Western world will have much smaller horizons. That’s going to make it even harder to build a school.

Tough questions; I see no answers at the moment. Would I like to run a school, or teach? Yes. I’m about two years away from that, at least, though. Time to think about some answers.

Systema changes

I’ve made it to two systema classes in the last month. In the first, there were three of us there, and we worked mostly on ground techniques. In the second, I was the only student there; Mark took me through some groundwork, but we finished early. Mark works as a doorman in Swansea, and the preceding Saturday evening had, by all accounts, been a bit of a warzone; Wales had beaten England in the rugby, and the town boys were running wild. Marl had been caught up in it all, and he was feeling a bit weary….

In fact, he announced the next day via Facebook that he won’t be running the Cardiff classes any more. It costs him a lot of money to drive up from the west of Wales where he lives, and if there are only a few students then he actually loses money. It’s a big pity, but I can’t blame him at all.

So… Fortunately, there’s another systema class in the same location but on Thursday evenings rather than Mondays. These are run by Jeff Faris, whom I’ve met at one of Mark’s classes. It should be interesting; whereas Mark is very much of the Ryabko, and more particularly Vasiliev, school, Jeff has apparently trained with a number of systema people from different backgrounds.

Go Warrior Oddity

On the topic of shashkas, there was a TV series a few years ago called “Go Warrior”. The host, a young American martial artist called Roland Osborne went around the world investigating different martial arts: Korean Taekwondo, Brazilian Jiujitsu… and Russian Systema.

At some point, someone uploaded the systema programme to YouTube in three parts, which is where I first saw it. I had only recently heard about systema and was trying to find out more about it. I had read in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition that systema had roots in Cossack dance, and these clips online showed me what that was all about. It was from the same segment that I learned that those cool Cossack swords were called shashkas.

There was a lot of really interesting material in those three clips; I would like to have embedded them here, but they appear to have vanished recently. They showed Roland training with Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev in Moscow – a very interesting session because Tabby Cat is there in the background, and because I hear that Alexei Kadochnikov came to visit; a meeting that I see described on some sites as being the only time that Ryabko and Kadochnikov have met, though with all the factionalism that afflicts systema, I have no idea how true that is. It shows cossack dance-fights, a relaxation exercise with a dropped knife, a fight involving a knout… Lots of really good stuff.

It is in fact still available from someone else as one long clip:

Anyway, I do like to see people rewarded for their efforts so, having enjoyed what I saw on YouTube and learned a lot from it, I decided to buy the original DVD from (especially given that it was on sale!). It took three weeks to arrive, but when I eventually got time I put it into my Macbook, got ready to watch… and was very disappointed indeed. It’s almost entirely a different program – plainly from the same filming sessions, but incredibly lightweight, with almost none of the interesting material.

I simply don’t understand – how could the DVD be so different from what showed up on YouTube?

Think shashka


A couple of years ago, when I was first getting interested in shashkas, the Cossack sabres, I spent quite a bit of time searching YouTube for clips. I was using Google Chrome as my browser even then, and using its auto-translate feature to find Russian-language videos. I think I searched pretty comprehensively, and found most of what there was to see.

Anyway, that was a couple of years ago, and some good stuff has appeared since then. Here’s some of the clips that I’ve been watching recently:

Dance with a shashka:

Some work with a shashka from the ground:

Keeping the shashka close to the body:

Some basic sparring moves with a shashka:

As some readers will remember, I had some shashkas while I was in China: two stainless steel reproductions, and one ‘real’ shashka that could hold an edge, although I never did actually sharpen it. The first two were a make I’ve never seen anywhere else; very similar to the Denix model, but with big differences in the decoration of the hilt and scabbard. The other one was supposed to be an original Soviet sword, according to the seller, and came with a Moisin-Nagant bayonet attached to the scabbard, which was missing its leather cover. It turned out to be a fake, of a sort that was being sold in large numbers on eBay, but it handled very nicely all the same.

I used to take them to Zhongshan park – slung over by back in sword bags as I cycled through the Beijing traffic – and try out sword dancing of the kind shown in the videos above. I got reasonably proficient, although not to the standard of the women in the clips! Nobody ever gave me any problems, although I was a source of fascination to the Chinese squaddies marching out the barracks in the centre of the park, and on their way to train in the Forbidden City.

Anyway, when I came back to Wales, I decided I couldn’t bring my shashkas; it seemed that they would fall foul of very strict UK laws on the import or sale of curved swords (under the same laws, straight swords are fine, which makes no sense). So, with great regret, I left them with my friend S., along with my Chinese sabres.

Since I returned, I’ve discovered that I probably needn’t have worried; there are plenty of shops selling Chinese and other sabres. Nobody was selling shashkas, though. I found some sites overseas selling them, but they were either the Windlass version (which I wouldn’t buy, as the handle looks completely wrong to me), or Russian makers I knew nothing about. I also didn’t want to run the risk of buying one and then having it confiscated by customs.

However… last week, I found a UK-based retailer selling shashkas from WeaponEdge, an Indian-based manufacturer whose swords seem to get pretty decent reviews – and the shashka, in particular, got a very good write-up on the Sword Buyers’ Guide user forums.

I’m tempted. Very, very tempted…

Love the hit


So, just back from my second systema class, and in a thoughtful mood. Rather a frustrating experience, this one; through neglecting my zhan zhuang over the last few months, I’ve stiffened up a heck of a lot. We did a fair bit of light sparring tonight, and I was totally out of my depth. It’s OK, in a way. For one thing, as I’ve said frequently before, the training I’ve done in martial arts has never really been about the fighting. For another, I’ve learned a few things even so, but when you’re starting classes in a new style, you want to approach it de novo, with an open mind, rather than just breezing around with what you’ve learned elsewhere. So, there was an element to the sparring where I was holding myself back, trying not to apply yiquan or taiji techniques, and try to think about what a systema response would be. Nevertheless… just not at ease in the systema way of doing things yet. Hey ho, there’s only one way to get better, and that’s to practice.

Likewise with the hits… Boy, am I not used to taking punches, especially the deep, organ-level ones – the ones that you see Mikhail Ryabko demonstrating on YouTube… Ouch… Definitely, as I trained with the others – a bigger group this week – I found myself anticipating the shock, and tensing up. Something to work on…. The title comes from something Mark said during one of the exercises – to focus on the energy of exchanging punches with your partner, and to not worry about getting hit – indeed to love the hit, because when you get hit, you know you’re alive, you’ve learned something… Wise words, but not always easy to live up to!

One of the others in the group tonight is an instructor in his own right; he’ll be running Thursday night sessions, which I might try to get to from time to time.

Oh, and the chap who runs the gym knows Chris Crudelli, and thinks he might be able to get him to Cardiff for a seminar…

Arts and crafts


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…