Blog Archives

Twelve (years between) monkeys

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I’ve just realized that twelve years have passed by since my first ever visit to Beijing, while it’s nearly six years since I left to return to Wales, not knowing at that time if I would ever come back to China. These are significant numbers: 12 years is the time to complete one full cycle of the Chinese zodiac, so six years is also a half-cycle. It’s also a year since I did, eventually, make it back to China, in April 2015, after being head-hunted out of the blue. A ┬ánumber of signs and portents are suggesting I should take these signs seriously.

 

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China Daily recently ran a story on how the government is planning to replace lots of traditional squat toilets with Western-style porcelain thrones. This is a tragedy for Chinese martial arts, in my view. (I’m actually quite serious about that). What’s more, not squatting is a big reason why there are so many bad martial artists in the West. So, although a discussion of pooping is perhaps a bit too much for some readers, it’s a very good place to discuss being a good martial artist. Don’t worry about inadvertent offence, though: in this post, I’m probably going to upset lots of people with this one.

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What lies beneath


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I’ve been thinking a great deal about filters recently. By “filters”, I mean mental filters: the means by which we exclude information, and limit our understanding of the world.

This has been a really rather fruitful process, and has led to some useful breakthroughs in the spheres I explore in this blog – namely, martial arts, and spiritual development.

A conversation I was having with a colleague recently, the topic of Buddhism, meditation, and mental filters, turned out to have a real impact… on me.

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No ‘ski jump’ at the bottom

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I saw something on Facebook recently, which went along the lines of “The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t create cures, it creates customers“. This is quite true.

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China once more


Something odd happened recently during a work trip to Tianjin. I had a few spare periods, and I used them to practice my ZMQ-37 taijiquan form. Like most things that I write about in this blog, it’s been over four years (closer to five, in fact) since I did any work with this, but it came back surprisingly quickly. One set in particular went very well; I entered the flow state, with my mind quite empty of thoughts except for the feeling of my soles in contact with the floor, the movements of my joints and bones, and tendons and ligaments.

Suddenly, the room seemed to fill with the smells of a forest. There was the spicy fragrance of flowers, but also herbal undertones, and the richness of spring vegetation. It was quite inexplicable; I was on the eighth floor of a concrete monstrosity, in the middle of a dusty concrete campus on a very hot and smoggy day. There were NO plants anywhere nearby; the windows were firmly closed, and the aircon was blowing full blast. The experience only lasted for the duration of that set, and it was the only time I smelt anything natural during the two days I worked in that room.

On the other hand, although it’s not something I’ve experienced before, this is the kind of thing that is supposed to indicate a spirit presence. Even to me, that last sentence seems a bit far out but, after I heard the dragons singing in Qingbiankou a few years ago – when I was also in a deep meditative state – it’s an explanation that I’m open to.

Aaah. Yes, I’m back in China. There are different rules here….

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More Cheng Hsin

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Apart from the systema, over the past two weeks I also went back to the Cheng Hsin classes.

The week before last was my second experience of Cheng Hsin. Kevin, the instructor, was away; I gather he’ll not be around for a lot of the summer. The class was run by two of the students instead. We really worked on one of the key concepts of Cheng Hsin – for which I suppose I’ll use the taiji term of ‘investing in loss’. The exercises we used were focussed on non-resistance; offering no opposition to the other person’s force, and allowing them to ‘fall through’ into defeat.

I must say that, although I get the concept, and I understand it to be core to taijiquan, I struggled. Partly, I think it’s because my most recent neijiaquan is yiquan, where in the tui shou exercises there can be quite a lot of resistance involved, and so that’s what I’m used to. (To digress for a moment, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I get the impression this is what ultimately turned Tabby Cat off yiquan and back to Cheng Man Ching’s taiji. However, I’m not convinced that yiquan theory per se involves this resistance). More importantly, a lot of the issue is simply ego: a force is expressed against me and so I don’t want to yield, I almost feel obliged to push back. Dispelling this egoistic response is necessary to succeed through yielding…

Anyway, we finished up with a free-form exercise – maintaining moving contact with a partner, not using any deliberate strength but, if the movement should lead to pressure, seeing what could be done with it… Very interesting, and very unusual for me. It made me think of the expression “stick like fire”, which I think is also a concept from taijiquan….

Finally, there was a quick chat and, in passing, one of the guys mentioned ‘segmentation of the body’ – which is also to be seen as a concept in systema… As they say, the human body is the same in all arts; there’s only so many ways to use it or discuss it…

I went back for my third class last week…. but there was no-one there. The class had been cancelled at short notice, I learned… Hopefully there’ll be one tomorrow night!

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…

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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

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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.

Shaking power

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Wow, this is great:

Time has been too short in the last few days to do any work with the spear; even if I’d had time, it’s been raining too much (heh, so I’m wimpy – but even if I’d felt like practising in the rain, the ground is so wet that I would have trashed the lawn, so I needn’t feel bad about not going out!)

However… I’ve been getting a heck of a lot out of what I’ve been doing with the spear so far. As I mentioned in my last post, for someone without a training partner, spear-work really is a good test of whether or not the technique is generating power or not. In that video above, the key moment for me is at about 15 seconds in, when the performer starts full-body shaking, transmitting the power down the spear. Damn, I can’t do that! It really reminds me of a part of the longxing bagua form that Master Zhou Yue Wen taught, which also had a shaking move, very similar to what’s happening in the clip.

Looking at that, I think it seems to encapsulate the key element of what I’m striving to achieve; master that kind of full-body shaking power, and it can be applied in taijiquan, xingyiquan, or baguazhang… No problem. Again, and this is a purely personal observation, I have to say that the only path I’ve encountered that would lead me towards this is yiquan as taught by Master Yao Chengrong…