Welcome to The Palace Guard, the tai chi chuan and martial arts blog for intelligent martial practitioners. As the blog develops, I hope to feature other writers with a fresh take on the martial arts and related subjects. For now, I hope you enjoy my posts: feel free to leave comments, or email me at the address available on the profile.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Learning without learning

It is not always possible to train directly for what you desire. The whole premise of tai chi chuan is based on this quirk of existence. For example, if we want to be quicker than our opponent, we will need to train sensitivity to movement and balance. We can't just practice a technique more and more quickly, because more crucial than "mathematical" speed is our ability to read the timing of the opponent. We can make ourselves stronger in training, but the best sort of strength is not the kind that we deploy, as if we are lifting weights, but is rather more a habit. We don't want to "use" strength so much as have it appear as the result of good body mechanics and unified force. So to get usefully strong, we have to learn to relax in order to allow the body to work as a unit, and we have to have enough tactical ingenuity to get our feet, hips and the rest into the right position.
Tai chi chuan is full of this style of "indirect" learning, the sort of learning which Daniel-san went through in the Karate Kid with "wax on, wax off". On one level, it is quite useful to go through the motions, to repeat movements over and over with little regard for their context or use, because once the idea of a  martial application is brought in, people add lots of their own strange ideas into the mix. They also tend to worry too much about which foot to step with or how to hit someone, rather than just stepping and just hitting. This indirect learning can be a smokescreen for charlatanism also, where the teacher knows a lot of empty forms but hints at "secret" knowledge being imparted at some stage. This is how we end up with people who practice the handform, thinking that this alone will suffice in a physical conflict. Indirect learning must be complemented with a full and realistic view of actual martial situations.
Another sort of indirect has occurred to me, in the form of weapon practice. The weapons in themselves appear to be outmoded, and impractical: who's going to ever come at you with a sword? But the skills learnt in the handling and sparring with weapons feeds in directly to our pool of empty-handed skills, perhaps without us knowing: spear co-ordinates both hands together and informs our grappling. Sabre trains us to move directly in for the strike, thus closing distance with an assailant. Sword causes us to move hand and foot together, to turn aside force, and to keep moving with delicate footwork. These are all things which will apppear in our empty-hand work, so long as we know and practice the weapons forms sufficiently, and give a little thought as to how the syllabus all hangs together, and how all the disparate elements feed into the centre to create the tai chi chuan body.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Obsessed by the competition

In the latest edition of Tai Chi Chuan and Internal Arts, the official magazine of the TCUGB, there appeared a curious article, which perhaps I misread, misunderstood, or possibly both. It seeemed to suggest that there had been a competition for practitioners of Health Qi Gong.
Now, I don't wish to belittle the efforts of those involved. It's wonderful that people with a variety of medical troubles are training and getting benefit from it. But in what sense can anyone meaningfully compete in such a discipline? Is there a medical expert present measuring the metabolic rate, the heart rate and lung capacity  of each candidate? Or maybe they are interviewed to see which is happier or who has the most productive life? Is someone with, for example, IBS likely to beat someone with a congenital heart defect?
My understanding of Qi gong is that it is a personal practice designed to promote a health body and mind: a competition around it would be rather like a competition for painters to see who has the best brush or easel.
This competition seems that it would suffer from the same troubles associated with the Yoga competitions which are springing up in the States.  Why does everything have to become a contest? Why can we not just come together and enjoy what we do without feeling the need to have it codified in some way? It seems everyone is chasing credentials, and not only that, but that many people are making money from offering these credentials: teacher training courses abound in tai chi and yoga and related areas of interest. Of course, the more credentials that are given away meaninglessly, the more that particular art itself becomes meaningless. The amount of  medal winners that appear in the tai chi press is quite phenomenal, and one can't help but have the feeling that, if one is breathing, conscious, and makes the effort to show up, they will be awarded with something. There are of course, exceptions to this, but exceptions whose  very real achievements will be buried amidst the avalanche of certificate and medal -chasers.
The competition is against the vicissitudes of the unpredictable universe, whether it contains human foes or enemies to one's health and wellbeing. How well you played the game will not be determined by a slip of paper or a medal handed you by someone else. These Health Qi Gong people undoubtedly have put tremendous work into what they do, overcoming physical adversity with their inspiring practice. This is already a far greater achievement than any medal or trophy could reflect. What about those people who perhaps didn't win a medal? How are they supposed to feel about their practice which, though it has improved their health, doesn't look as pretty as another person's form? I looked through the rules to find any mention of a kind of "spirit" category for judging but found none (in fact I couldn't find any judging criteria...). I would suggest, rather than a "tournament", a kind of "Health Qi Gong Practitioner of the Year" where their character and commitment could be better represented. There might be less money in that, though...
As for tai chi in the Olympics, just don't get me started.