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.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Ch1 "The Elders can train martially too"-where the author tries unsuccessfully not to offend

Let's get this straight. I love tai chi. I've enjoyed it for years, and being someone of a relatively short attention span, this is miraculous in itself. We practice in the rain, the snow: the delights of the British weather are our constant companions, and this doesn't dissuade me one bit. Tai chi has saved my arse definitely on one occasion, and provided me in general with good health, friends, and the excuse to own a sword. Wonderful.
But, well how can I put this...? There is something rather staid about it. Out-of-condition,late middle-aged people milling about dressed as though someone's throwing a Chinese-themed fancy dress party. This is the image of tai chi. Throw into the mix some stuff about healing, and maybe calligraphy, make some comment like "well it used to be a martial art you see...", and you have the whole package. This picture represents half of the scene. The other half is composed of vigourous men and women of a range of ages enjoying and training in an effective martial art which contains qualities as impressive as any of those found in aikido or ninjutsu classes. Yet this side of tai chi is rarely seen in the magazines, and never in the books. The sad thing is, tai chi would be the perfect martial art for those out of condition, or who are weak or have injuries. But such people are sucked into merely doing Handform, which has become the bugbear of the style. As Handform competitions become more popular (and more Wushu-like by the day...) and as the Contact events are filled with competitors from other martial arts, what will be the future for the unique martial way of tai chi?
Don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm ageist or anything. But the fact is, when you look at all the other martial arts, many of them have practitioners of all ages, engaging in a martial syllabus. This to me is the real spirit of training. I think more older tai chi people would train this way, if only their teachers were brave, or knowledgeable enough.

Monday 13 December 2010

The results of my Herculean efforts

Boo, and again boo I say. Competitions and me, we don't seem to get along. First round, the guy was no problem: a few solid pushes, a few quick pulls, 20-8 in my favour. The muscled, tattoed ones look the part but it doesn't mean much...
Second round, and this one was much closer. But quite frankly, the dude was scoring because of my penalties. Moved my back foot when pushing him over, he gets the point. That one I can understand. At 6-6, I get annoyed because he's not doing much, and matching me point for point. I give him a good shove, and he's hanging time like a human windmill, not quite going over. So I give him an extra shove, and over he goes. Two penalty points to him because apparently it was a strike not a push, time up:  he wins 8-6. Boo.
I hate competitions. Well done I suppose, Danish dude whose name I know not. Jammy bugger.

Friday 10 December 2010

It's competition time....

Tomorrow is the European Tai Chi Championships, held in Blackbird Leys,Oxford. I, and a fellow Brighton Wudangist, shall be making our way to the tournament, there to Push Hands with all-comers of a European bent. Preparation has been minimal, having only decided to enter about five weeks ago. If I can get through the first round, I'll be happy. I have an astonishing ability of giving away penalty points, and generally pushing the boundaries of what is strictly allowed. I am not proud of this, it's just something that seizes hold of me. Rather like what happens to some people when they're allowed to play Monopoly, who suddenly become hand-rubbing, throat-cutting capitalist fat cats, I become a cheating, dirty-fighting ignoble bum. I daresay these antics will do me no good.
In order to meet the rather optimistic start-time of 0900 hours, my companion and I have to leave Brighton practically in the middle of the night. We are going to pretend that we are going on holiday. I shall post our results (hem hem) and reflections upon our return. It was nice knowing you all...

Sunday 14 November 2010

Review: "Meditations On Violence" by Sgt. Rory Miller

You can't doubt Sergeant Miller's credentials: as a Corrections Officer of wide experience, he's spent quality time dealing with some very violent people and situations. His general theories about violence, and his ability to point out weaknessess inherent in  martial training are perceptive and thought provoking. He is also excellent on both the legal ramifications and the "after effects" of violent confrontation, topics often conspicuous by absence in martial writings. Finally, his idea of giving yourself permission to use force or aggression is something I've not seen before, and poses intriguing questions. 
I can't help feeling however that this book is pitched way above what is useful for most people, and perhaps that is the intention. I would have liked to hear a lot more about "street" experiences rather than instances in jails and institutions, for the simple reason that it is unlikely (I hope)  that I will ever find myself cooped up with an armed criminal high on PCP. His vignette of his encounter with the two assailants on his way home was illuminating and instructive, and perhaps I wanted more of the same. I appreciate however that  it's only possible to write about what one has experienced. All martial artists could learn something from this book, and will appreciate Sgt. Miller's efforts in laying his own physical safety on the line to perform dirty, but necessary jobs. Those who enjoyed this book would do well to seek out the excellent "The Fighting Edge: using your martial arts to fight better"  by James La Fond, on Paladin Press, though it isn't easy to find.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Wordsworth look out...

I have just come back from a week in the beautiful countryside of Derbyshire, and I am full of reflections on nature...
On one hand, tai chi can be seen as a skill learnt, a technique or a craft, the refinement of which adds to one's skill and enjoyment in life.
Another way of looking, it could be argued, reveals tai chi as adding nothing in particular to us, but instead stripping away defective, inefficient, and unattractive movements. I like to think of tai chi chuan as perfecting our human movement, after a week in the dales and on the moors observing eagles, crows, sheep and other beasts playing out their own essences in movement. At some point, an eagle learnt its skill-at-flight, the sheep where best to graze and how to keep a watchful eye out and so on, but when we observe them now any sense of technique per se has disappeared. Something to aim at on my part.
We are upright creatures, and should express that. We haven't the natural tools such as claws or horns for the stand-up fight, and this we express also. We are capable of more than just a bloodthirsty fight-to-the-death, and tai chi chuan gives us this option. We enjoy play, and there is much of this in tai chi.
I wonder if it's possible to direct teaching along the lines of revealing natural movements rather than filling people up with supposed technique? Without losing the discipline and form of tai chi, can we convey its essence simply?
I shall be back to my normal less ponderous self soon I am sure...

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Martial arts for helping people?

So I've been thinking lately that tai chi is rather insufficient. Not the actual art, but rather the scope of its practice. You see, I rather think that tai chi chuan could be so much more, as could most of the martial arts. Rather than simply being engaging hobbies, could the martial arts not be used to actually help people, people who perhaps aren't willing to do the years of training that we have but nonetheless could learn or gain something as a result of our practice? I just don't know if its good enough these days to pursue such a time-consuming hobby without some reference to the outside world as it were, bar the odd scrap-avoidance or evasion of someone cycling on the pavement...
I know what you're thinking: that I'm on some mission to save the world, to help the dying babies and endangered animals and all...well, maybe I am a bit. But I'm under no illusions. Most of the world's ills would remain untouched by even the most liberal application of tai chi. But some particular ills...mishandling of temper, tendencies towards destructive violence, traumas from physical encounters...I have deep-rooted hunches that tai chi chuan could help in all of the above situations. I'm not sure how. And there don't seem to be many people out there finding out. But I think I'm going to start....anyone interested? Is anyone willing to stick their necks out beyond the usual parapet of martial arts schools, styles, techniques and whatnot and see if they could use their art to connect with the greater world and enrich it somehow? The Order of Quixote maybe... Yes, probably. Now where's my lance and helmet...?

Thursday 23 September 2010

News from Shangri-La, martial arts utopia

I sometimes muse what it would be like if everyone trained in some martial art or other. Maybe it would be part of the school curriculum....(cue wavy utopian dream visuals)

"Apparently, in the old days, people would start a fight just for bumping into one another or if one had cast an eye over the other's partner in an over-keen manner: imagine! Of course, people fight still. Traditionalists like the formality of an official duel with seconds and everything, but most people if they are going to fight just get on with it there and then. Often a curious crowd will gather to appreciate the spectacle, trying to guess the school in which the brawlers have trained, and to heckle them if they use any overly-dirty techniques, the sort that still hurt on a cold day many years in the future. 
Children used to be discouraged from rough and tumble, especially girls, but they say its good for them now, so long as it doesn't get out of hand of course. Folks who don't like contact with others are seen as, well, a bit strange: what with so many people about these days, you've got to get used to a bit of heaving and jostling!
We love to watch the boxers and those MMA fighters from the old fashioned telly programmes. Of course, you can take your pick from fifteen or twenty different pugilistic events these days, and the fighters do very well: look at old "Iron Fist" McGill, Mayor of London now would you believe...
The best fighters are sent away as kids to the big schools in Tokyo, Manila or Shanghai, that's where most of the telly fighters get trained...
I hear it's fashionable for younger men to take trips to rough cities like Rio or Johannesburg: "tag-team tourism" they call it, where they go and pick fights with the local gangs and whatnot, but of course many of 'em don't make it back alive. Stupid isn't it? Boys will be boys though.
Of course, the kids have all got their favourite fighters and styles, they're always bugging the parents for the latest action figure or computer game. 
Me, I still like the odd bit of recreational sparring, nothing heavy mind: me and the lads from work book a slot in the dojo of a weekend and give each other a mild going over. We can only really manage the softer martial arts these days: no spinning back kicks for us! It keeps you fit and healthy, and it's all good fun.When I was younger, I hated it, but mainly because it was teachers pushing you to do it. But as you get older, you see the worth in it. 
If I'd have had any sense, I'd have out some money into the Instaform mouthguard company a few years back,now they sponsor most of the big schools and events, but you can't win'em all I suppose.
Amazing how times change eh?"

Monday 13 September 2010

Gone fishing?

When the Autumn rolls around again, spreading its wan light across the lawns of St Ann's Well Gardens, a tai chi man's thoughts turn to spear practice, something vigourous to warm his bones and get the blood pumping. The spear is a bulky object, and when carried in its case, people often mistake it for fishing gear: "Caught anything today?" they say, "Not today" I reply.
I like that people don't know, that in a small way, I lead a double life. Ninety percent of the population seem to find the idea of combatic martial arts mildly offensive, and I also like that.I like tai chi for its secrecy, for its aversion to showiness. When they wanted someone to teach a self-defence course at work, no-one thought to ask me, despite the fact I already teach there. It just didn't occur. Now, I'm no Geoff Thompson, but compared to most of the mortals that inhabit my workplace, I'm Conan the goddamned Barbarian. But they just don't know. The great thing is, even people that do tai chi don't know. They've convinced themselves (someof them anyway) that it's all just a fitness, wellbeing thing. "Those bits that look suspiciously like punches, they're not...?" "No, absolutely not. It's good for you. Now stop asking questions ands wave your arms about a bit." Not for us the showy pecs and abs of the gym-bunnies. Not for us the flash uniforms and spinny kicks that others favour. Just pure, unblemished anonymity, quiet dignity, and no glory-seeking whatsoever. Sigh.

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Tai chi chuan in the home: simple steps to martial success

This might sound utterly mad, and in fact can look rather mad when caught in the act by those who share your home and/or workplace, but there's good training to be had in those everyday environments.
When doing washing up or cleaning teeth, I like to stand on one leg and practice balance, maybe even a bit of Kick Out Leg In A Curve. One can try climbing the stairs Nine Palace-style, and Seven Stars Stepping can be substituted for your regular technique of perambulation.
Your skills of control can be put to use when doing activities such as making tea or pouring cereal into your bowl, especially effective when you have a sleeping partner that won't appreciate being wakened. Catching closing doors with feet and hands is good for trapping-type practice (though watch your fingers and toes as screams aren't very ninja-like), whilst door handles, banisters and in fact anything solid make good targets for ultra-soft accurate punch/slap placement.
When bending low for pans in the kitchen or DVDs on the lower shelf, try a bit of Snake Creeps Down. Pencils, spatulas and any item of handy size can make a good sword, sabre or spear.
Lastly, upon proceeding through your homestead, it is possible to use all surfaces/objetcs in a kind of Wing Chun dummy way, with table legs becoming opponent's legs, banisters becoming arms and so on, so that you can thread a whole series of maneuvers together in a fluid way.

And,if you get caught doing it, I was never here and The Palace Guard Blog never existed...


Thursday 26 August 2010

Defending the No-Self; or keeping friends and others close...

"Self Defense": It so commonly slips off the tongue of the average martial artist, but what really does it mean? Survival is the key flavour here. Survival at a physiological level, with one eye on the march of time which carries the body with it. Survival at the social level, that our lives are not forfeit to the first forceful person we encounter, as Cheng Man -Ch'ing said "The difference between yoga and tai chi is that even if you get it studying yoga , there's nothing you can do if someone tries to knock you off your cushion." (pp 81 "There Are No Secrets")
If we look beyond the self, at the wider picture, what do we see? Ecology, simply put. Interconnectedness. That youth that feels aggressive towards me is carrying that feeling from elsewhere; that drunken man who shoulders me in the pub is that drunk because of circumstances leading up to the drunkenness.
Obviously we cannot control everything; we cannot control much at all if we are honest. So an attempt to stem all violence at the source is impossible. But we should be aware of how our every action, our every small aggression streams into the ether, to reappear who knows where...
By the time violence reaches our bodily person, often it is too late. But a really strategic approach would see that violence comes from general suffering and lack of attention to others, and before the trouble gets near, we might do well to redress the balance in our favour. As the inimitable TT Liang wrote: "Make one thousand friends, but don't make one enemy." (pp.126"Steal My Art")

Saturday 12 June 2010

Top Ten Film Fight Scenes

Although obviously the Palace Guard is usually a fount of high and refined culture, every now and then I can't resist a good old fashioned list of things. So here we go. The best fight sequences of all time. Some are good because they're fun, or beautiful even; some are here because they're downright gritty and painful to watch. At this time I'm too lazy to embed all the clips. Hunt 'em down on Youtube yourselves: do I have to do everything?

10-  Last Samurai : where Cruise gets a drubbing
Short but oh so sweet and not just because the Cruise-meister gets a kicking. It's brutal, realistic and rainy. Oh and did I mention, Cruise gets a drubbing? Right.

9-   Kick Ass: scene where the chap gets stabbed
Okay, the rest of the movie kind of tails off after this, but this bit is spot-on, just what I would imagine to happen, and a shot in the arm for fantasists everywhere.

8-Saving Private Ryan: grizly knife death wrestle
This is literally painful to watch, close-up and very personal. Upsetting, and another brave inclusion in a film that didn't pull any visual punches.

7- Gladiator : the whole chariot bit? The fight against the german?
Really, one is spoilt for choice, with some amazing set pieces and duels. Everything, from the encounter in the forest with the would-be executioners, to the grapple with old Joaquin at the end, is amazingly well-crafted.

6- The Princess Bride: epic duel scene
You've got to love it. For sheer length and virtuosity as well as humour, this ranks alongside the greats.

5- 300: most of the scenes...
The sandals and swords theme provides another rich feast of martial excellence, as well as unfeasible abs and some kinky stuff reminiscent of the "earth-room" scene in the ever underrated "Zoolander"...

4-Bitter love sabre duel in House of Flying Daggers
At the time I saw this I actually was kind of engaged in a tricksy love situation, so this really hit me where it hurts, man. And them as well, what with sticking bits of metal in each other in a wondrous variety of ways whilst it snows.

3-Lord of the Rings: the Amon Hen bit in the wood with loads of baddies
This nearly came top for me: great sword action, thrown things, limb severances, and a Platoon-like death by multiple arrows. After this, the battles become epic and less personal, and involve buckets of CGI. Men in rubber suits hitting each other, that's the ticket.

2-Crouching Tiger: two women have multiple weapons
Aagh...Do I mean this one or the one where Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi first meet? No, I think the second, because by this time they really hate each other, and you can feel their venom through the medium of multiple, expertly handled weapons. Truly one to set your heart pounding.

1- The Bourne Identity: Biromania
Yes, yes, yes: truly the fight to end all fights. It's surprising, brutal and amazingly choreographed. At one point Damon is hitting the guy so rapidly with the aforementioned biro, you have to watch it back on freeze-frame. Improvised weapons, close-quarters grit, bone-breaking excellence: this one has it all. Then he leaps out of the bloody window. Hurrah for Matt Damon and his depiction of the confused yet deadly young man!

Thursday 27 May 2010

Time machine needed

I am a sucker for a sword-fighting film, always have been, and so the sword form has always been one of my favourite bits of tai chi chuan. When it comes to the actual use of the things, we have so many questions. Was the double-edged sword merely a duelling weapon, or did it see use on the battlefield? If the former, then how was victory decided, was it to the death or first blood or what? The typical sword applications that we are taught are so flashy, and involve such large movements that they can only be appropriate to battlefield use, but such a relatively delicate, double-edged number wouldn't have lasted long with hordes of hoi-polloi constantly trying to hew bits from one's aristocratic frame...The thing is that we'll never really know. If we  could just see one real chinese sword encounter, it would all make sense...all power to the reconstructionists I say. Sword geek out.

Thursday 13 May 2010

It was nothing like The Warriors

I have just returned from New York,a place which I was expecting to be intimidating, full of street gangs looking to relieve an Englishman of his hard-earned wages, and muggers on the prowl between the skyrises. Of course, it turned out to be one of the most affable and pleasant places that I have yet visited. I have always been a little paranoid , and training in the martial arts I think can really compound this (having been assaulted not so long ago probably doesn't help either...) I am always keen to stay aware in all situations, but I realise that, recently, I have been allowing this to get in the way of my enjoyment of things. I don't want to turn out to be like the fearful old gunslinger, back to the wall and one finger on the trigger: where's the fun in that? It's a question of trusting in your training, if only because when trouble comes, it will be your instincts that respond rather than your steely-eyed attempt at awareness. On the occasion when trouble came for me, I was totally off-guard, yet I responded in an appropriate way. You would think, being a tai chi afficionado, that I would have learnt the lessons of relaxation long ago, but I'm only just beginning. It's good to be back.

Thursday 29 April 2010

I'm on holiday for a bit...

Howdy martial arts fans! For the next ten days or so I'll be in the Big Apple, so you'll have to think of your own witty and trenchant observations about tai chi, thus making your own entertainment. You could even email them to me if you like, and maybe I'll post them, or maybe I won't. Bye!

Tuesday 27 April 2010

My favourite waste of time

"When I was young I studied books and
and rode off with a shout to the Capital,
where, I heard, the barbarians had been driven off
there was no place left for heroes.
So I came back to these crested peaks,
lay down and listened to the clear stream flow.
Young men dream of glory:
monkeys riding on the ox's back."
-Shih Te (8th century), trans. JP Seaton

Recently I have been pondering the great uselessness of the martial arts. However much we can say that they increase confidence, health, co-ordination and the like, this is all a smoke screen. We don't really know why we practice them. It is one of those Taoist truisms that the value of the vessel lies in its emptiness, but until now I've never really appreciated this. As I get older, I am guilty of using my martial arts to beat up one person and one person alone: myself. I have recently become atttached to training for some purpose: to become a better teacher, perhaps to earn a living one day,perhaps so I can write some killer martial arts book and become the big cheese. But this approach has caused me no end of strife. Basically, I need to lighten up, and remember that the martial arts at their best are play, mere play. A good friend of mine who is a Tang Soo Do practitioner, put it like this: "When people ask why I do the martial arts, I tell them that I do them so I can stand on one leg and do up my shoelaces, or so that I can place a mug on a table and have the bottom of it touch the tabletop all at once." How utterly useless the martial arts are. How lucky that for us there are no barbarians left to kill.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

22nd British Open Tai Chi Competition in Oxford

Mr Ricky Trott, a member of our Monkey Army, took a silver medal home from the 22nd British Open Tai Chi Competition in Oxford for the Fixed Step Pushing Hands: hurrah! Consolations to Mr Smith, no less deserving of a hurrah!


Saturday 10 April 2010

spatial awareness vs MP3 (the rant remix)

Amongst my fellows I have a reputation as somewhat of a Luddite-technophobe: when I produce my mobile phone, people actually laugh, but she only needs charging once a week and you could bury her in the sand, dig her up three months later, scrape the gunk off and she'd work just fine...
Remember Walkmans (or should that be Walkmen?) and how cool they were? Generally, it was just your teenage music afficionado who was in possession of one of these, and quite frankly, they were so bulky that you had to really want to wear one, you know? Then came personal CD players which were actually rather worse because they skipped and were larger than their predecessors which again meant their use was fairly limited. Now of course, there are MP3 players, iPods and all those tiny gizmos...
You can tell when someone's wearing one. Not right away though. You're walking along the pavement, maybe in a bit of a hurry. Someone is dawdling in front. Normally, by dint of hearing, the slow-lane type is able to detect your coming, and can shift over a bit, I can nod and say "cheers" and on I go. But now,  you can practically be breathing down someone's collar, bobbing about behind them like like a wallaby looking over a high wall, trying to get past and of course the old "excuse me" goes completely unheard...
Spatial awareness people. It's necessary to our survival to be able to hear stuff coming along, muggers, big trucks, angry dogs and the like...and it's kind of nice to hear the world don't you think? Rather than being forever coccooned in noises of your choice on "shuffle"?  Unplug a while, I say, and give your ears a break. And me. Rant over.

Saturday 3 April 2010

A Touching Performance

"I might have a go at this tai chi lark" a prospective student said to me, "But I don't hold with all this touching business..."  I'd really never considered this before: having played rugby for years as a youngster, with my head stuck amidst the muddy posteriors of my team-mates, body-contact really held no fear for me (the wonders of an English boarding school education hem hem...). But it's true: some people are scared rigid of being touched. I am quite sure that this explains 99% of those bar-brawls which start with an innocent nudge whilst waiting for the barmaid. Those beer-fuelled lads who stalk through town with their shoulders wide and unyielding as moose antlers are just begging for someone to bump into them so they can get all, well, touchy.
Tai chi chuan is an instrument par excellence for the honing of one's sense of touch: through contact in Pushing Hands one can learn all sorts about the intent, skill and mindset of the opponent. We tai chi folk like our oppponents up close and personal-like, so we can feel what they are about. We listen with our limbs, with our very skin. Learning by feel is not  so popular these days: learning has become all about intellectualisation, but perhaps Tai chi chuan shows us that this is not the only way.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Competition Pushing Hands: all Bull and no Matador?

From amongst the Monkey Army,two or three young and not-so-young bucks are revving up their tai chi thing to prepare for the annual slogfest which is the Oxford Chinese Martial Arts Tournament in Blackbird Leys, Oxford. I think this year I'll sit this one out: I've never been much good at competitions...
The first time I competed in Fixed Step, my opponent outfoxed me with a bizarre tactic not seen before nor since: he would simply grab my hand and touch it on the floor. Completely unlikely I know. In the Moving Step I was unaware of the number of rounds and lost by a single point, thinking I had more time. For my second visit, I fared better in the Fixed Step, ultimately losing to a fellow who used the same technique on me sixteen times. In the second round, I got him back with one sole technique, but only fifteen times. In the Moving, the referee kept penalising me for grabbing the shirt, which, when someone's wearing a long-sleeved baggy jersey, is pretty hard not to do. The opponent even apologised to me when he won on penalties, having been thrown about like a small sack of potatoes for most of the round. Ah well.
It's good to put oneself under pressure in an event such as this. Quite frankly one learns that 90% of technique and skill goes out of the window, and that luck plays a leading role. I think to concentrate exclusively on competition-style tai chi can limit one's scope and deftness, and that the way the bouts themselves are structured doesn't help, but on the other hand  if you are looking for a good-old fashioned ire-fuelled ruckus, then weigh up and sign up. Good luck, morituri te salutant and all that.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

The Gloom is coming for me...

Friends have said that I've put on years, that I have about me the air of a lifer, like Red in the Shawshank Redemption only without the folksy charm (and the murder record...). Yes, I've joined the doomed ranks: on Monday I taught my first tai chi lesson, swiftly followed by another the next day. I am now (technically) a tai chi teacher. My merciful students as yet have spared me the Big Question: "What is chi?", but I know it's out there, further along the road, waiting for me. Amongst the Monkey Army we often like to talk about The Gloom, but always keeping it from the vulnerable ears of any brand-new neophytes that might be present. The Gloom takes a year or two to kick in, and is exemplified in the line from the Classics: "Do a bitter practice". The Gloom can be triggered by a number of things. The aforementioned question will do it. Attendance at any large tai chi gathering will also suffice. More often it comes when the full enormity of the tai chi task is realised, that no matter how many hours you put in, it'll never be enough...
The goalposts are not only moving; they are set in quicksand and made of jelly.
Make no mistake: there is considerable Gloom surrounding the practice of tai chi, despite the cheerfully Californian leanings of some of its practitioners. But I claim the right, along with footsoldiers of all ages past, to some quality grousing and moaning time. Secretly, I love the Gloom. Being British, if I do not spend at least two hours a day beefing about something, my head will implode.
Oh, and thanks to the poor, innocent students who showed up.

Saturday 27 February 2010

Pushing Hands...like,cosmic dude. Really.

The captain of our fine Monkey Army is really coming up with the good stuff at the moment, and this new approach to pushing hands is no exception. The problem is, it's difficult enough to explain in the lesson, let alone in print. I expect you think that now I'm going to quote that Lao-Tzu thing about "he who knows doesn't speak" and all, but I'm not if only because it's becoming like a kind of disclaimer for wannabe -Taoist types trying to be mysterious. The idea is this (and it's not a new one,only to us....) you line up for Pushing Hands as per normal, except that this time you apply the bit from the Classics "Do not move befeore you oponent moves; when he moves, move quicker." And so you wait, and I mean really wait...
You have to keep your own intent and movements slight enough to catch the slightest whisper of effort from the opponent but you're not concentrating on what he/she is doing you are merely maintainng your own structure. You have the intent to push but you aren't pushing, you are letting the opportunity to push arise from , well, wherever it arises and then suddenly it happens, the push comes...
Bah, I knew it wuld be useless to try and explain. Give it a go. And don't come round here bothering me anymore, pesky kids...Try reading "Zen in the Art of Archery" by Eugen Herrigel overlooking his worrying later tendencies in life.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Procrastination rules...

Sorry for the lack of posts: I have been moving house and getting deeply involved with flatpack furniture. Normal service will resume soon...

Saturday 6 February 2010

Will the real tai chi chuan please stand up...?

Tai chi is known primarily for the handforms, for the particular way they look and the slow speed at which they are often performed. As I practise more, becoming ever more cantankerous and opinionated, I feel that this is one-hundred percent wrong. These aforementioned qualities are indeed part of the syllabus; but they are not the most salient characteristics of tai chi chuan: rather, it is the way we apply ourselves martially as guided by the tai chi ethos which stands out in comparison to other martial arts.
I have discussed before (see the post underneath) the notion of styles or trends of violence and of fighting, and part of the problem with tai chi chuan justifying itself martially is that few seem to be able to work out just what it should look like when someone "uses" their tai chi. This is how we end up with tai chi being tacked on to kung-fu syllabuses, or why tai chi-trained full contact fighters sometimes resemble bad kickboxers, or appalling wrestlers (there are of course many exceptions to this...)
The fact is that the competitions designed to showcase the art, by their very design, encourage training that is not particularly relevant to a tai chi syllabus. Pressure testing, conditioning and fitness aside, sparring on a large matted area with gloves and headguards on goes against the great majority of the skills we acquire in our training. The same goes for fixed and moving step competitions, if not even more so. The very movement approach of tai chi is unique: looking to close down the opponent, looking to make contact at the earliest possible moment, then using our sensitivity to spot holes, strike and go for the throw or sweep, all the while maintaining superlative evasion skills. I think I would go as far as to get rid of fixed step as an event altogether. Moving step would be amalgamated with the full-contact, with much smaller matted areas, the removal of gloves and starting from a non-contact position. This approach would allow grappling and evasion skills to come to the fore. Controversial or not? Give me your thoughts tai chi fans...
Here's a video of the late Chen Tin Hung showing us what his tai chi looks like...

Saturday 30 January 2010

Barbarians at the gate of the Big Apple

Today I read that New Yorkers apparently are against hosting and promoting UFC fights in their city, an idea put forward in order to inject some cash in to the city economy. Critics of the "Ultimate Fighting Championships" argue that the sport is barbaric and brutish. I couldn't agree more; at the same time, as a martial arts practitioner, I find it to be compelling viewing.
Violence, like any cultural phenomenon, goes through fashions. Here in Britain, knife-crime is in the spotlight: youths that have confused notions about respect and esteem are bolstering their weak characters with easy-to-obtain, easily concealed and horribly deadly blades. Initiatives to fight knife crime in fact seem to have had the opposite effect in certain areas: the more exposure knives get, the more popular they seem to become. As far as the popularisation of violent trends goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Many people when it comes to street violence,  try to model their physical efforts upon boxing.In British pubs, or rather outside them, people don't square off for a wrestle or a capoeira match. They try to hit each other.  There is a notion that fighting should look a certain way, and the spread of UFC may result in copycat "ground and pound"-type attacks. The preference for discerning thugs at the moment is to apply the boot to the head, after accompanying flunkeys have knocked a lone opponent to the floor. I'm not sure where this delicate technique derives from: football hooliganism maybe?  At least ground and pound is one-on-one...
For the story: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/mma/2009-05-07-ny-regulation_N.htm

Saturday 23 January 2010

George Leonard dies at 86

I have just learnt that George Leonard, aikido pioneer and human potential movement writer, died on the 6th of January aged 86: an obituary was printed in The New York Times.

Friday 22 January 2010

The reactions of martial artists to an attack

Back in the summer months, my friend and I were attacked by a large group of young lads, who ambushed us on a dark street fuelled by alcohol and teenage hormones. Blows were exchanged and we punched our way out of the situation. A couple of them were felled, but no serious, lasting  physical damage was wrought upon them, nor indeed ourselves, though there was some psychological and emotional fallout on our part.
Unexpected, and perplexing, were some of the reactions that I experienced when recounting the incident to others.
One response came from a martial arts instructor of some twenty to thirty years of experience, who trains and teaches a "realistic" type of martial art. "I was attacked some lads the other night whilst I was out with a friend." "Did you take them down?" came his reply, and he was quite serious about that. Slightly bewildered, I answered thus: "Well, not really. We escaped without being injured, and without injuring any of them so...." To me, this seemed like an out-and-out victory. Sure, we had failed on awareness of the situation: we could have spotted our attackers if we had been more alert. But a victory, nonetheless...? "Mate, mate you want to do something a bit more aggressive, this tai chi's all very well but you need some proper training..." What did he see as a victory? Was some tangible sign of dominance was required? Perhaps breaking someone's limb? The courts tend not to look too favourably on grown men assaulting minors. I continued in a slightly different vein, because this conversation was beginning to tick me off. "It's lucky they didn't have a knife or else we would have been in real trouble" I said, thinking that one couldn't possibly argue with that. "You can train for that eventuality" he said, "Come and train with me, we do all that: I can show you how to deal with knives." Knowing him to be a doorman, I thought perhaps he'd had experience: "Oh, have you been attacked with a knife?" "No mate, but I've seen it a few times". I ended the conversation there.
Another martial artist, though not a teacher, had this to offer: "What I would have done would be to square off with them and say "get back or I'll knock you the fuck out." I could only nod in feigned agreement. I couldn't bring myself to tell him that, in the time it took him to deliver this monologue, the encounter would have been well underway. He meant well, and his re-imagining of the scenario was as much to do with allaying his own fears as actually advising me of a course of action. In the future, I might keep such things to myself. Unless it's worth sticking on the blog of course...

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Pat Morita spins in his grave..

The remake of Karate Kid: why? I could simply end there, but I need to vent spleen. Karate kid was a great, great film, albeit featuring some rather cheesy martial arts. It's the only film I've seen which manages to do something different with martial training other than the straight-up montage: wax on-wax off at least conveys some of the sense of the sometimes labourious nature of training. Quite aside from this, Mr Miyagi is simply excellent: Jackie Chan might have the moves, but he doesn't have the charisma.  The moves, as far as one can tell from the trailer, will be the usual overly-acrobatic Wu Shu nonsense that has bored us for the last decade or so. I say why not do a sequel where Will Smith's sprog is sent to a Russian gulag to learn Systema from a crazed ex-Spetnatz officer, ending up with a penchant for vodka and black market Rolexes? That I would watch.