Archive for the ‘Fitness’ category

Hiking the Chief

March 11, 2017

Last fall, in late September, I hiked the Chief in Squamish, which I try to make an annual habit.  The Stawamus Chief, as it is officially named, is a massive knob of granite overlooking the town of Squamish, BC.

Some claim it to be the second largest granite monolith in the world, after El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.

In any case it is an impressive hunk of rock.  I can see why the local natives might view it to be of spiritual significance.  In some sense it has become that to me: as I get older it becomes a measure of what I can do, and it has long been my favorite hike in the Lower Mainland.

Although steep and mildly challenging in a few parts of the ascent, getting up to one of the three peaks, and back, can be done in a long afternoon.

I’m talking here about the hiking trail; the Chief is probably more famous as a destination for rock-climbers.  I remember sitting up on First Peak with a friend having lunch near the rim of the cliff overlooking Howe Sound one day, when a helmeted head peaked up at us from over the sheer drop, shortly followed by another.  Two young guys clambered over the rim, gathered their ropes amidst the clanking of carabiners, said hi, and made their way nonchalantly to the trail we had come up on.

There are three main summit areas, First, Second and Third Peak, but apparently there is also a more distant peak called the Zodiac Summit, which I’ve never been to.  On the occasion of this hike, I decided to go up to Second Peak.

At 65, the steepness of the hike over the rocks, although occasionally arranged stepwise by those who maintain the trail in this provincial park, made me understand more of the reality of aging.  I had to stop and rest a number of times, but I was glad to see that many of the younger set also had to pull over for a moment or two to catch their breaths and allow their legs to recover.

I don’t know how many more years I will be fortunate enough to clamber upwards on the Chief, but I am grateful for all the the times I have done it.  To stand on the top on a sunny day and gaze over Creation with a friend or on my own lifts my spirits.


The Chief


At the Trail Bottom


A Steep Hike


Alternate Path to First Peak

Upwards to Second Peak

First Peak

From Second Peak, the View Over Howe Sound

The Way Down


Note:  Photos taken with my little Olympus XZ-1.

Adventures in T’ai Chi Ch’uan

May 3, 2008

I was bitten by the t’ai chi bug on the day I watched a demonstration by two men moving very strangely in an old church in Manhattan in the late 1970s.

I had never seen this before: two grown men moving powerfully, lightly, and slowly, separately yet together. The unison of their movements was complete, and each contraction and expansion of arms and torso and legs flowed into the next. They turned and shifted as one, their concentration palpable in the room.

I told myself, I have got to learn how to do that. So I did.

I was so keen on it, I can even remember bargaining with God. “Please don’t let me die before I learn this, God.” Apparently he heard me.

CMCI learned the short Yang form popularized by Cheng Man-ch’ing, who taught for a number of years in New York City. The fellow I learned from was a student of “The Professor” as many of his students called him, and of one of his senior students. The guys who put on the demonstration were also senior students of the Professor, who died in 1975, just before I became interested in t’ai chi.

Cheng Man-ch’ing was an accomplished man, an old-style Chinese poet, painter and Chinese medicine doctor, besides being extraordinarily skilled at t’ai chi ch’uan. You can get a sense of the man, the form, push hands and sword form from this archival video. When I watch him, I always get a sense of a penetrating softness, ordinary as rain, and as hard to avoid.

So what’s this t’ai chi stuff anyway? Is that dance, or Chinese yoga… How can moving slow be any kind of martial art? And the name t’ai chi ch’uan means Supreme Ultimate Fist or Boxing? Come on!

I will explore more of the martial depth of t’ai chi, and especially the Cheng Man-ching form, in another post. Practice of The Form (I’ve always thought of it capitalized) and, after a while, push hands, the gentle two person exploration of balance and posture, are incredible methods of training, if approached as a long-term study.

Tai chi without the martial aspect is pointless waving of arms, or some kind of lovely dance, but it is not tai chi ch’uan. Knowledge of the martial meaning of the movements keeps them true, even if The Form is practiced primarily for health, which is so important, or as a kind of moving meditation.

tc rulerOver the years, I learned long Yang form, various sword forms, a stick or flute form, 48-movement Combined (mostly Yang), Wu tai chi, both original Chen forms, pa kua (or ba gua), hsing-i, a variety of push hands, and at the same time kept learning and practicing aikido and western fencing. I kept myself busy. I became a kind of tai chi bum, playing tai chi and making friends in New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver parks and studios.

In the martial arts world, and especially t’ai chi, there are as many sects and factions and promoters of their way to the truth as you might find in Christianity, say, with the Mormons and the Presbyterians, the Methodists and the Catholics and the Baptists. It can be confusing. Everybody is always so sure their way is the only right way, although certain common principles do apply.

I always remember the well-known tai chi master I met in a park in San Francisco. He came over to a couple of us independents who had sat down on a bench near where his class was practicing.

He was very friendly and we were very respectful. We asked him a couple of questions about his style. He asked us similar questions about our background. We were proud about all the different forms and styles we thought we knew. He shook his head. “The best form is the first one you learn. You stay with it. It will teach you everything if you practice hard. Don’t practice a lot of different ones.” At the time, I thought he was being too severe, but I think now, there’s much wisdom in what he said.

At a certain point I realized that I didn’t have enough time in the day to practice everything I learned as it all deserved to be practiced, and still go to work and have relationships.

So in the tai chi and other Chinese internal arts realm, I cut back severely a number of years ago. I’ve returned to that first form I learned so long ago with new appreciation for its simplicity, softness and depth. That radical softness always reminds me of the aphorism: which lasts longer, the tongue or the teeth?

tc scenicIn conclusion, I thought I’d offer some of the more useful tai chi resources I’ve found on the Web. There’s a lot out there from the Pentacostals and the Episcopalians and the Amish, so to speak…

There’s Lee Scheele’s extensive compendium of tai chi resources.

Inner Balance Tai Chi provides a more selective list of tai chi sites.

Another index of resources is Michael Garofalo’s website, Cloud Hands.

On this site, you can watch videos of different styles, although you have to download the free Realplayer to watch them.

There’s some decent video and description of push hands at this Patience T’ai Chi Association site.

For more videos on Cheng Man-ch’ing form specifically, including more clips of the Professor, take a look here.

There’s a good article on t’ai chi posture and body alignment on another Every Day Tai Chi page.

For an informative discussion of the relationship of the Alexander Technique, a relatively modern system of postural correction, and t’ai chi, see Stacy Gehman’s article.

There’s an interesting and useful article on combat t’ai chi by Peter Lim Tian Tek here. That same author provides many other useful references on his Taijiquan Resource Page.

One tai chi and ba gua teacher whom I’ve come to appreciate from his web material is Australia’s Erle Montaigue, although he is highly critical of any shortened t’ai chi forms such as the Cheng Man-ch’ing.

He’s got a down-to-earth no-nonsense approach and a wealth of knowledge and is generous with what he knows, although one may not necessarily agree with everything he says. He’s got all kinds of articles on t’ai chi and related matters available for download, although sometimes they are a promotional device for the DVDs he wants to sell.

But he does provide all of his basic push hands video material and all of the authentic Yang long form on video for free download, as well as other free publications.

[Note — February, 2011:  Sad to learn that Mister Montaigue died recently.  See this blog…]

I tried to find an informative blog or two on tai chi, but most are diaries of practice rather than knowledgable or thorough description of methods or techniques.

But I did find this one, where this Chinese fellow obviously is quite experienced, and I picked up a pointer or two: The Secrets of Tai Chi Chuan.



Note on image sources:

The photo of the Professor is from Greenhouse Holistic.

The Tai Chi and Chi Gong Ruler image is from Michael Garofalo’s site.

The mountain and t’ai chi scene is from a San Diego Tai Chi site that’s no longer up.

By the Sword – A Book Review

April 19, 2008

By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions, by Richard Cohen, 2002, Random House, New York.


As a boy in northern British Columbia, we lived in an old log cabin on a section of hilly land with a creek and a river.

The first winter we lived there in the early 1960s, my mother and father and three boys endured each other in the original 20 x 30 foot building with its shingle roof. The snow was heavy that winter, and my father decided that among his many modifications to the cabin come spring and summer, we should put on an aluminum roof the better to induce snow to slide off.

Before the aluminum went on, thick tarpaper had to first cover the roof planks. And to keep that tarpaper there without tearing itself off the nails we hammered in, we put lath down, two-inch by maybe 1/4 inch slices of wood, perhaps three or four feet long.

Now you take a piece of that lath and hammer on a short crosspiece as a guard, and you’ve got yourself a nifty little sword. At least I thought so, and I managed to talk my younger brothers into a short period of enthusiasm about sword-fighting with these impromptu weapons as well.

bigswordfightingBy short, I mean perhaps less than half an hour before my mother discovered us and used that ultimate rationale of parental control: “Stop that, you boys! You’ll put an eye out!” A pause to see if that took hold, and when it didn’t, she took steps. “Give me that!… And don’t you do this again. You’ll put an eye out!!”

And such was her power, and the fear she instilled about our eyes, that we didn’t dare take up lath fencing ever again. And she was right, of course, although my dismay at this rude interference was long lasting.

Research indicates that there are real differences between the toys (and the activities they generate) of girls and boys. Boys prefer wheeled contraptions and weaponry, apparently. Studies of primates and monkeys leads me to think this difference is hard wired and not just socialization.

zorroIn any case, by the time I got to university in the southern part of the province years later, I hadn’t lost the romantic yearning to take up the sword. Years earlier, one summer after my father died, we had travelled to the States to visit a variety of relatives and for some reason watched a lot of TV with old black and white movies of Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and others bashing blades. Ever since, I ached to take some kind of sword in hand again.

fence4I joined the university fencing club and took lessons. Over the years, I went on to fence foil and a little epee in New York and Vancouver, and I still fence occasionally at a community centre in Richmond in the Lower Mainland. Fencing has always been a recreational pursuit for me, rather than a serious competitive one, but I’m experienced enough now and still spry enough to hold my own with most, at least with the foil. And it’s still fun and a work-out…

I Finally Get to the Book Review

bytheswordSo I come by my interest in Richard Cohen’s book By the Sword naturally. Cohen is an Olympic level sabre fencer (the third modern fencing weapon, after the foil and epee, and the only one that uses the blade edge as well as the point to score), who decided to write this history of sword fighting to tell how fencing became the sport it is today.

He quotes the 19th Century historian of the sword Egerton Castle on fencing: “… a superior kind of pastime, combining mental excitement and bodily exercise — the excitement of a game of skill not entirely independent of chance, together with the delight — innate in all healthy organisms — of strife and destruction — and an exercise necessitating the utmost nervous and muscular tension while it affords the refined pleasure of rhythmical action.”

The book’s subtitle gives the organization — and the omissions — of this history intended for a general audience. There is much on the Western history of swordsmanship, and a chapter on the Japanese and the samurai, but there is no more than that of the sword in the East, and many threads of its Western history are necessarily bypassed as well, as the author readily admits.

capo-smallThe beginning of the book covers much the same ground, although in more detail, as Barbara Holland’s Gentlemen’s Blood. There is something about fencing, and duelling, that often borders on the ridiculous, and collects to itself absurd stories. Holland’s book brought this to the reader’s notice again and again, and Cohen often bemusedly notes the same tendency.

There was that time, for instance, when duels were used by the courts to determine who had the right of the matter at hand.

“Before long, expert duellists were committing all manner of crimes, confident that they could ‘prove’ their innocence simply by defeating their accusers — for the right to call for trial by combat was not formally repealed in England until 1819.”

Fighting at one point became so widespread in England in the 1500s that one would find while walking the streets at dawn, “dead men, with holes in their breasts…, pale faces resting on doorsteps or merchants’ houses, or propped up and still bleeding, hid away in church porches.”

Ben Jonson, the writer and playwright, for instance, was working on a play when he killed a fellow actor in a rapier duel. He pled guilty and throwing himself on the mercy of the clergy, forfeited all possessions and was branded on his left thumb.

Shakespeare learned to fence under the tutelage of an Italian master. Elizabethan audiences took stage fights very seriously: it was not unusual for unruly members of the audience to join in the action on-stage, and eventually an ordinance was passed banning the wearing of swords to the theater.

FencingMasterCohen says there are 437 references to sword in the Shakespearan canon. Many of the Bard’s plays have swordfighting central to them.

Cohen’s book is full of fascinating detail, stories and photographs. Unfortunately I can’t even begin to cover many of them here. So I will use the shorthand of describing some of the highlights, and lowlights, that I found while reading Cohen’s work, before this post becomes like an oversized sword, lengthy and unwieldy.


  • There is much here on the early history of the transition from the duel of law to the duel of chivalry and “honor.” Cohen, for instance, tells of the celebrated duelist, James Crichton (1560-1583) who by the age of 20 spoke eleven languages, sang and played all kinds of musical instruments, and had what we might call today a photographic memory. Crichton served in the French army for two years, and travelled in Italy, where he built a reputation as a great orator. In Mantua, the home of “a much-feared Italian bullyboy” who often toured Europe challenging all comers, Crichton came up against this fellow just after this worthy had killed three opponents in three days. Crichton so completely overwhelmed this opponent, while wearing a sweet countenance, no less, that the Duke of Mantua rewarded him by making him tutor to his dissolute son. Crichton was attacked by masked thugs one evening while making his way home. He disarmed the ringleader who, begging for his life, turned out to be the Duke’s son. Crichton apologized. He handed his sword as a peace-offering to his pupil, who promptly took it and killed Crichton, not yet 24.
  • “Dueling as a partial substitute for ambushes, gang warfare, blood feuds and assassinations was by now an accepted fact of life throughout Europe. No law had more than a transitory effect: it was like trying to ban adultery.”
  • The chapter on the great swordmakers and the famous swordmaking cities of the Middle East and Europe — Damascus, Toledo, Solingen — is fascinating in its account of the relatively advanced technology involved.
  • There was a time when swordsmen believed there might be a magical special perfect thrust that could win all their fights for them. Cohen gives amusing accounts of how certain fencing masters took advantage of this quest to gather students around them.
  • Also fascinating to me was the story of fencing and swordplay in the cinema. Douglas Fairbanks, the short leading man of five foot five, was apparently the best actual athlete to have fought with a sword in the movies. Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn may not have been very good fencers, but they knew how to look dramatic as they lunged.
  • Several actresses also have wielded swords, from Grace Kelly to Lana Turner to Catherine Zeta-Jones.
  • Presidents as different in temperment as Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman were fencers. Even Lincoln fought a duel.
  • And then there is the whole fascinating custom of the German Mensur: in secret locations, students to this day in Germany, Austria and Switzerland whack at each other’s heads with heavy sabres, and the scars are greeted with great pride.


  • Cohen’s account of the political intrigues of modern fencing bog down for me. His descriptions of the personalities involved obviously have meaning for him, as he fenced or at least knew many. But I think this is a case of a writer being too close to his subject and treating it as more fascinating than anybody reading is likely to find it. (Perhaps like this post!)
  • I was disappointed at the lack of a more technical history, which could have been done here or there without losing the intended general audience. I’m thinking about the importance of the measure, the distance between the fencers, which is left almost totally undiscussed, or more on the change in techniques such as the fleche and disengagement as we move to the modern weapons.

But on the whole, Cohen’s work is both enjoyable and informative. It left me, oddly perhaps, with pride that I too fence, and that I have participated in the mystique of the sword in the very limited way I have.

theatrical lungeMy relationship to the sword, though, remains that of a boy. When I once held an authentic samurai sword and struck experimentally through the air with it a few times, the experience of its stark killing menace disturbed me.

I much prefer to strike a pose and wave my lath in the air for fun.



Notes on images:

The historical images come from either this medieval martial art group or this gallery (which also had the Zorro photo).

The sabre fencing photo came from

The last photo by Merlin Hendy is from an online article about a ballet production showing Jonathan Byrne Ollivier in Northern Ballet Theatre’s The Three Musketeers.

Idle Video Tomfoolery

April 6, 2008

I’m reading an interesting book on the history of the sword, and I’m going to do a post/book review soon on that…

In the meantime, downstairs my wife is watching a Chinese TV series (on DVD), relaxing at the end of her week of hard work, and I’m at loose ends here on the computer.

Roaming around the web, I ran across a few odd, as in unusual, videos. Here’s one by the Leningrad Cowboys, supported by the Red Army Chorus, with their rendition of Sweet Home Alabama. The extreme hair, the girls, the middle aged men’s chorus, the army officer who looks a lot like Hitler… it’s perfect.

Still in the music mode, here is the astounding guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan, all of 8 years old and appearing with that great blues warhorse, Buddy Guy. Young Quinn plays like the reincarnation of Eric Clapton, and Clapton isn’t even dead yet. It’s a little long, and you may not go through all of it, but the little guy’s got the licks down.

As one of the commenters on You Tube put it: “It’ll be cocaine and hookers by age 10, rehab at 12 and a comeback tour at 14…” (I sincerely hope not, may he not have to earn the blues that way.)

I have an interest in exercising with Indian Clubs (as indicated in this post), and I found it intriguing that this antique training method is being taken up by some of those in the current fad of mixed martial arts. These exercises are all about range of motion, and maintaining and building joint strength.

Continuing in the more physical vein, below is a demonstration of good quality tai chi push hands. Push hands is the laboratory of tai chi chuan, where you explore your own balance, centred relaxation, and focused energy, and where your partner’s loyal opposition becomes entrained in your awareness: drawn in and then gently ejected. The object is to lead the partner off balance, and the subtleties are many.

We see in this video the master playing push hands in a park in Taiwan, first with another Chinese gentleman, and then a young westerner who is highly proficient in his own right, although you might not appreciate that from this.

Parks are a common venue in which to play push hands, whether in Taiwan, Shanghai or other Chinese centres.

The touch, pressure, and response begin to occur at a level that bypasses the thinking mind. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Since I’m reading a book about the history of swords, it’s only appropriate to include a video of kung fu movie sword fighting, although this is not covered, unfortunately, in the book. But this video displays what I like best about the old style kung fu movies. None of that impossible wire stuff, just martial artists doing a theatrical turn with wonderful fight choreography and all the appropriate, if exaggerated, sound effects.

I’ve noticed on YouTube that sometimes young guys get together with their buddies and, with nothing better to do, choreograph their own sword fights, and then put the videos up. Mostly awful, but there’s some surprisingly well done ones as well.

Still keeping with the physical dexterity theme but moving to the truly pointless although amazingly practiced, here is the seminal Billy’s Balls video… an inspiration for an entire generation of loafers and college students.

Let me leave you with an innovative music video that has been viewed, deservedly, over 32.5 million times. Is that fame or what?


Indian Clubs: The Next Fitness Craze?

August 26, 2006

clublady.jpgI’ve seen them all, and even done a lot of them. Rebounding: jumping around on the mini-trampoline.  Jogging.  Step exercise. Skip roping, although that’s never become really mainstream popular.  Inline skating. Boxercise. Taebo kickboxing with Billy Blanks.  Power Walking.  Yoga.  Pilates.  Not to mention watching all the wondrous exercise contraptions that can be seen promoted on late night TV.

But I figure the next fad, or maybe the one after, is going to be Indian Clubs.

They look like bowling pins, or juggling clubs, and for adults in the light club category may weigh from five to 10 pounds.  They are whirled or swung around the body in a variety of patterns.  The idea is to build strength and resilience in the upper body.

I’m occasionally running across references to Indian Clubs on the Web on martial arts and exercise equipment sites.  The clubs may well be turning into one of those darn meme things.  What was old is new again.

I’m intrigued as much by the cultural history of Indian Clubs as I am by their potential for exercise.

At the end of the 18th Century, British military officers stationed in India were impressed by the strength and fitness of the Indian police and soldiers.  The British discovered that the Indians’ excellent physical condition was based on training with a variety of clubs.  The training was traditional, based on centuries of practice.  (In fact, the tradition remains alive in India today.  One anthropologist in the 1990s noted that a modern Indian wrestler practised his swings with a 176-pound club.)

The British army decided to adopt Indian Club training as part of their physical regimen in the early 19th Century.  However, they modified the training to concentrate on the light-weight clubs for flexibility and quickness.

A man named Donald Walker introduced Indian Club training to Europe and North America in 1834 through his book, British Manly Exercises.  (Now there’s a great book title.)

He followed up that bestseller with a book for the ladies which included Indian Club exercises: Exercises for Ladies Calculated to Preserve and Improve Beauty.

In 1864, Sim D. Kehoe, a New York equipment manufacturer, began making clubs.  He promoted them by sending them to prominent people in hope of a positive endorsement.  Ulysses S. Grant wrote from Washington to thank Kehoe for a set.

In 1866, Kehoe published The Indian Club Exercise, a well-illustrated system of exercise for both men and women.

This was the beginning of the era of the “Physical Culture” movement in Europe and North America.  Indian Clubs were the essential symbol of this movement which was intended to provide physical and spiritual uplift to the masses.

The movement became an important cultural force and endured until well into the 20th Century.  Indian Club exercises were included in the US Army’s training manual in 1914.  US President Calvin Coolidge, besides riding a mechanical horse and pitching hay for exercise, also liked to use Indian Clubs.  Club swinging was a part of the Olympic games in 1932.

For a charming peek into a bygone era, take a look at Thomas Edison’s 1904 film clip of junior Indian Club exercisers.

Okay, you’re charged up.  You would really like to try these exercises for yourself.  But where can you get a pair of clubs and try to follow Kehoe’s book above?  There are places on the Web to order wooden Indian Clubs and even instructional tapes on the subject, but that may be unnecessary.  Tom Black in his article The Secret World of Indian Clubs gives some historical background and describes how to make heavier clubs (around 10 lbs.) from hollow plastic baseball bats from a department store, sand and epoxy.  They sound a little heavy to start with… I plan to look for smaller toy bats and build them around five to seven pounds at first. I may look strange, standing out in a playing field somewhere, twirling and swinging, but I’ll be having fun.

(Note:  Jan Todd’s article on the history of barbells, dumbells and Indian Clubs is a fascinating look at this part of human culture. That’s my source for a lot of the historical background. )