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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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Small steps of progress


Perseids and stars

Take it in small steps. Don’t run before you can walk. Two steps forward, one step back. In it for the long haul. All useful phrases, especially this week.

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Monkey see, monkey do


Monkey

Just to keep you up to date with what’s happening…

The school’s website mentions that they teach Shaanxi xingyiquan, of the Song family lineage. Tom from the Rum Soaked Fist was kind enough to fill me in on the style and its background, and mentioned that it’s the form of xingyi practised by Alex Kozma – who I know from attending a bagua workshop he put on many years ago in Singapore. Much water has passed under the bridge since then! Still, it just goes to show that the world of martial arts can be small indeed…

I’ve been to two more classes: Thursday and yesterday (Saturday). With Vladimir on holiday, both were run by Dima.

On Thursday, there were the same other two students as on Tuesday, ie the two of them plus me plus Dima. We ran through a dizzying variety of exercises: the five element fists, dragon and tiger movements, spear-shaking, stepping, partner forms… Almost all of this was entirely new to me, so by the end of the lesson, my brain was in full meltdown!

Yesterday, in the school gym, it was just me and Dima, and we covered pretty much the same material. He spent a lot of time correcting me on details, but once again it was a lot for me to try to absorb – especially the partner sequences, which for some reason simply won’t stick in my my memory. He also demonstrated a lot more of the the spear steps (6, I think) and more from the 12 animal forms.

We had time to chat; him recalling very rusty English, me trying some faltering Russian. He told me about his time as a conscript soldier; he was sent to Mengistu’s Ethiopia as a ‘military advisor’, where he (if I understood correctly) was  radio operator in a combat unit. Now he’s in the construction line, possibly a roofer, though we couldn’t quite find the right word. He told me about being attacked by an angry monkey while he was in Ethiopia, and how that’s deepened his understanding of the monkey form 😉

Basically, all I can say at this stage is that these guys really know their xingyi. This looks like it will be interesting.

 

 

Image credits: Angry Long Tailed Macaque – Penang, Malaysia by user Crystal Patsalides on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.


Broken heart

I described in my last post how moving to a new apartment suddenly enabled me to start meditating again.

As my practice resumed, I began to get back into the mindset I last experienced in Beijing, four years ago, in which vipassana meditation and yiquan complemented each other, leading to a range of benefits – mental, spiritual, health, and martial. I realised how much I missed yiquan.

When I came to Russia, a big part of my ambitions for my time here was to learn systema – which I’m writing about on another blog. It’s been great – but I didn’t have the opportunity to learn very much before the summer arrived and most of the schools shut down until the autumn.

So, given that I have time available, and the realisation that I wanted to get back into the Chinese martial arts, I Googled for yiquan in St. Petersburg. I knew that my teacher’s brother has students in Russia – but none of them are here by the Neva! However, the search did turn up a St. Petersburg Wushu Institute. They offered taijiquan, baguazhang, and xingyiquan.  Well, that looked interesting…

So, I got in touch. Short story: there’s only one bagua class a week, and it clashes with something else I’ve got on. There are three xingyi classes a week, and I can get to them all, at least at the moment.  I also fancied studying xingyi – which, of the three, is the one I have least experience of. Partly it’s because yiquan is based on xingyi, so there’s a link there. Also, xingyi is the most aggressive and linear of the arts, and has the effect of raising the practitioner’s confidence and determination. In the past, when I was in Singapore and Asia, that was the opposite of what I needed: I wanted taijiquan and bagua to moderate my energies. Today, coming out of three very bad years, it seemed just the thing.

So, I’ve signed up and started attending classes.

The first class was on Saturday, and was in a school gymnasium near Mayakovskaya metro station. There were only two other people there: Vladimir Soloshenko (who I’d spoken to on the phone), and a big guy named Dima. Vladimir speaks excellent English; Dima understands some.

This is Vladimir:

 

In that first session, we went through warmups, the santi standing position, and some stepping. We also did some power-generation exercises using the da qiang, ie a 3-metre long spear.

The Tuesday and Thursday classes are held in the school’s own premises, in a courtyard not far from Chernyshevskaya metro. This has quite a low ceiling, so they can’t train with weapons there, hence the use of the gym on Saturdays.

The class was short yesterday, because there was a celebration at the beginning of Vladimir’s birthday on Sunday. During the class, I worked with Vladimir, while Dima instructed three other students in Russian.  We worked mainly on pi quan, the first of the Five Element fists.

It all feels a bit strange to me. I’m long out of practice in the Chinese martial arts, and there are lots of differences to what I’m used to…

As for the post title, this was something Vladimir reminded me of about xingyi’s power, and about the nature of the strikes: keep the arms soft except for the moment of impact. You’re transmitting your power into your opponent’s organs, not breaking your way through the bones…

Vladimir is now away on holiday for a couple of weeks, so the next few classes will be with Dima, or another guy called Zhenya who I haven’t met yet. So, we’ll see how it goes…

Image credits: Broken Heart Grunge by user Nicolas Raymond on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

The Blue Room


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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.

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There really aren’t that many resources available about Yiquan, at least for non-speakers of Mandarin. I’m basically trying to acquire everything there is, to assist me as I train solo and build on what I studied with Yao Chengrong Lao Shi. So, when I saw that Bruce Frantzis had issued a new DVD set covering Xingyi and Yiquan, my thought processes were along the lines of:

  • I can’t afford it right now
  • Yes, but it’s on offer for a short while
  • I can’t afford it
  • Yes, but it’s Bruce Frantzis, dude!
  • Bruce Frantzis doesn’t know yiquan. Bagua, taiji, and xingyi yes, but he’s never indicated before that he knows yiquan.
  • But you’re trying to learn xingyi anyway, so even if the yiquan material is duff, the xingyi material should be worth it.
  • I can’t afford it, though.
  • Oh, sod it.

So, I put my order in late on Sunday night. The package arrived early Tuesday morning. Good start…. I had some technical problems downloading the free qigong mp3 files, but the customer support team sorted that out promptly and efficiently.

Now, I’m busy, so I haven’t had time to watch the DVDs properly. Instead, I’ve had them playing in a small window floating in the corner of my screen while I get on with doing other things, so I didn’t give them my full attention. Thus, these are only my very general first impressions. So far, I’ve watched all of the yiquan DVDs, and the first xingyi DVD.

The yiquan DVDs were filmed live as BKF delivered a seminar. The camera shots are almost entirely of BKF sitting in a comfy chair. Occasionally, a student is brought in to demonstrate a stance. Each segment begins with a short sequence of BKF demonstrating one of eight zhan zhuang postures, while a voiceover explains the health benefits in terms of qi and the internal organs. A few martial applications are mentioned here and there.

Overall, this covers only 8 basic static zhan zhuang postures from the yiquan syllabus. There’s no discussion of testing force, and no stepping. If you are a complete beginner, wanting to learn zhan zhuang for health, you would be much better off buying Lam Kam Chuen’s books and DVD. If you know some yiquan, and want to explore the martial side of it in more depth, there is nothing here for you. I actually am pretty happy with it; my classes with Yao Lao Shi didn’t include any kind of qigong, and BKF’s background in this adds a lot of value for me. It’s nothing immediately useful, but there are lots of pointers for where further research could be done individually. I have to say, though, much of the delivery is pretty dry and there’s a lot of what seems like filler. I still rather get the impression that BKF has not done much training in yiquan but instead is bringing his background in the other arts and applying them to a crash course in the basic health postures of yiquan. As I said, though, these are my first and imperfect impressions. Verdict: not really what most people would be looking for, but very useful for me.

The bulk of the DVDs, though, are on xingyi. As I said, I’ve only watched the first one so far, but on this limited viewing BKF is much, much better. He’s clearly far more confident in his delivery, and demonstrates far more himself; there are also more shots of the students in the seminar and what they’re doing. I really get the impression that there’s great material to come in the rest of the DVDs. Verdict: wow, cool.

Recognition of yiquan spreads


This came up in my RSS feeds this morning: Bruce Frantzis is bringing out a new product: Hsing-i Martial Applications.

I note that it actually says “In early August we are launching a Hsing-i Chuan and I Chuan product.” (My emphasis).

On the signup site: “In this illuminating and refreshingly honest, never-before-seen video, Bruce Frantzis explains the principles of of Hsing-i Five Elements, Santi and the postures I Chuan …… How specific standing postures open up your Yang merdians; the effect being both strength and health, even into old age.

The contents of the DVD set are listed here.

As I always say: yiquan absolutely rocks… and it looks like the word is spreading…

Through to the other side

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Well, I’ve just finished my intensive, 4-week CELTA course. When you apply for a place, you are warned that it’s intense; I was told that it would be best if I had someone else to do my cooking and washing for me, and that I could expect to routinely work into the small hours on assignments. As it happens, I don’t have anyone to do my housework for me, and I have commitments that sharply limit the hours I could commit… so it was a very hard slog indeed! I was routinely falling asleep at the keyboard, and basically only just scraped through. Still, a pass is a pass, and the qualification should be very useful indeed. I have plans… 🙂 I also met a rather special woman…

So, where am I at? I managed to get a few training sessions in with the spear. I’ve now got that xingyi spear set down, on a broad-brush level. I need to spend a bit of time now working on the fine detail, to make sure I’ve got that right. After that, I’ll move on to a bagua spear set. The Sun Zhi Jun spear form that I’ve been discussing with Kim here is pretty complex; the more I work with the spear, the more I realize how tricky that set is. So, I think that as an intermediate step I’ll work on this form:

I’m still really enjoying working with the spear; it’s been a revelation to me. So much so, I had to acquire a Hanwei Yari. Apparently there’s been a fire at the Hanwei factory and all their inventory was lost, so all of the UK retailers are out of stock, and I had to get it from Kult of Athena (who were great, by the way: HIGHLY recommended). It took a while but it’s arrived, and I’m really pleased with it. It’s not as flexible as a waxwood Chinese spear, but hey… On that note, two more clips:

Jet Li vs Donnie Yen in Hero:

Yari vs Chinese spear:

My zhan zhuang went completely out of the window during the last month; I was far too tired and pushed for time. I’ve started again as of today and will be very regular, if only because I have to complete a 6-week diary of twice-daily meditation sessions. This is part of the ongoing requirements I need to fulfill in order to obtain the qualification as a teacher of meditation; you may recall that I went to Brighton in early June for the initial weekend training. At that time, I hadn’t even thought of doing the CELTA course, which was very much a last minute decision… Anyhow, the plan is, zhan zhuang standing meditation in the morning, sitting meditation in the evening. I also have to do two book reviews, which I’ll probably post here as well. That’ll take me to mid-September, at which point I’ll be off to Switzerland to visit the aforementioned young lady… After that, in October, I plan to start that course in tui na – weekends in London for so months or so…

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…

The virtues of a long memory

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Well, things have been a bit intense lately; lots happening at work. We’ve also had a month of absolutely horrible weather, with unseasonable cold, strong winds that have seen off a lot of my recently-planted veg and flowers. Combine the two, and I’ve been very slack in my practice again. Thankfully, we’ve got some sunny weather again, and my spirits are rising: time to get out there and at it, there’s no time to waste now.

I should say something about what’s been going on in various spheres….

  • Taiji and bagua with Eli Montaigue: I put this temporarily on hold as I moved home, and ‘temporarily’ stretched to the point where the group would be so far ahead of me on the form that it wouldn’t be worth re-joining the class at this point. He does Thursday-night ‘application’ classes’ and that might be worth thinking about, but July is going to be frantic, so I’ll leave any decisions until August.
  • Systema: I was really enjoying the classes but, now that
    I’ve moved, they are too far away. The founder of the Celtic Systema school, Mark Winkler, is still in Canada, where he’s training for six months with Vladimir Vasiliev. He’ll be back at the end of August, and will be starting a new group in Swansea, where I work. I’ll leave the systema on hold until then.
  • Capoeira: Some of you will have seen on Twitter and
    Facebook that I’ve been attending capoeira classes. I’d realized that due to stress etc I’ve put on a lot of weight again; plus, for all the virtues of my hometown, it can be difficult to develop a busy social life. So, I thought I’d give capoeira a try again: very aerobic, plus lots of interesting people. It turned out to be true in both fields 😀 However.. I ran into the same things that caused me problems when I tried capoeira before: the principles of capoeira are competely alien to the principles of neijia, for one. That, I could probably adapt to; the other problem is that capoeira isn’t just a dance/martial art, it’s a lifestyle; the hard core expect you to get really into the music, the songs, the culture… and tend to get a bit pissy if you’re not as into all that as they are… In any case, as I say, July is going to be crazy busy, so I’ll defer any decision there, but I suspect capoeira is a non-starter. Pity, because there are some really nice people in that group.

Instead, it’s back to neijia… I’ve bought a wushu spear from Amazon, and have been moving from developing power with the zhan zhuang to testing it out with a xingyi spear form. This has been interesting; I can get the spear to bend more often than not; when I first bought a spear in Singapore, I certainly couldn’t, so there’s definitely been an improvement. I’m enjoying this, as with the spear the application of power is visible, so I know for sure whether or not it’s working.

In Jess O’Brian’s excellent book, Nei Jia Quan, there’s an interview with Tim Cartmell; he argues that there’s no difference between the three styles of taiji, xingyi, and bagua – they are just different ways of expressing the same principles. I’m going to go with that – I know for sure that in Beijing, my taiji improved dramatically after yiquan classes. So, I’m still focussing principally on yiquan, but I’ll be testing out the principles with the other three as well. Who knows, once I’m happy with my xingyi spear form, perhaps I’ll have a go at Sun Zhijun’s bagua spear form that Kim reminded me of recently 🙂

In other areas,I’m getting a real sense of urgency now. Globally, events seem to be accelerating towards a crisis. Greece and the Eurozone are staggering onwards, but the crisis is only temporarily contained. In the US, there’s bickering and posturing while the debt ceiling remains unresolved, natural disasters pile one upon the other, and state governments grind to a halt as their money runs out…

Here in the UK, there are also storm clouds building up. The government’s austerity program is just starting to be felt, and there are the first strikes and protests in response. There are also reports that crimes against property are rising again. The university sector, where I work, is heading for a pummeling as well, and there are rumours of redundancies coming…

So, dunno; I just get the feeling that bad times are going to hit soon; not this year, maybe next, or the one after that…

An anecdote: perhaps ten years ago, my parents and I were walking back home through a patch of parkland that lay between our house and the town centre. It’s unlit; not a problem for us, as we are so familiar with the path we don’t need to see our way. On the way, we met a rather jumpy policeman. Once he’d established that we were respectable citizens, we had a chat. He’d recently been transferred from a nearby large town. He was amazed; he’d been in our town for over a week, and nobody had tried to stab him… There are a lot of pretty deprived communities nearby, and nothing much has changed since then.

I also remember that in the last severe recession there were a lot of burglaries in our street. We didn’t get broken into – largely, I suspect, because we had a dog. I’m going to think a lot about defensive gardening now (don’t laugh!). Mmmm… time to plant sichuan peppers and roses… Spiky but useful…

Anyway, that’s why I refer to memory in the title for this post. I look at my students, and they’ve only ever known economic boom times; this downturn could be very hard on their age group. At least I have some memory of bad times to draw on…

Starting Monday, I’ll be working on qualifying to teach English as a foreign language. It’s a four-week course; very intensive, so expect radio silence here. It’s necessary for my job, but it’s also going to be really useful if things go pear-shaped at the university…