Archive for the ‘Martial arts’ category

Thoughts on Aikido Promotion

January 17, 2014

I wanted to mark the occasion of promotion to 2nd Dan or Nidan in aikido by writing a few words here.

First, it’s an opportunity for a mild pat on my own back, and if you can’t do that on your blog, well, where can you?

Second, it’s led me to think more about why do I practice aikido, anyway?  What is the nub of it that has kept me at it over the years?  (Although I do practice less now than I used to.)

I came to aikido through t’ai chi chu’an (as a martial art, and some of which I’ve chronicled in the post Adventures in T’ai Chi Ch’uan).   I boxed – very amateurishly – and wrestled in high school.   I also did a little judo in university, and a lot of recreational Western fencing afterwards.

While I was in San Francisco for less than a year in the late 1970s and making like a t’ai chi bum in parks and various studios, I got a copy of the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere by Westbrook and Ratti.  Published in 1973 in hardcover, it was one of the very few books available on aikido.  It has the most wonderful, flowing diagrams of the art.  I still have that book.

aikidoI had to give aikido a try, so for about seven or eight months I joined the old Aikido of San Francisco on Turk Street as the rankest of beginners in the midst of what seemed like hundreds of students.  The dojo was run by three of the most famous non-Japanese teachers of their generation, although perhaps not so well known in those days:  Robert Nadeau, Frank Doran, William Witt, all sensei’s of the highest calibre and with different stylistic approaches to aikido.

Robert Nadeau was the most “California” of the trio, with some unorthodox training exercises and discussions of energy in the body.  Nadeau is featured in books related to aikido by human potential pioneer George Leonard such as The Ultimate Athlete and Mastery.

Frank Doran was a practitioner of almost magical technique, who could be quite severe in his teaching.  This reflected his background as a former hand-to-hand combat instructor in the US Marines.  He always moved and pivoted with such an erect, precise, and effective manner — watching him (as I’ve just done on You Tube), I’m inspired again by how he moves.

William Witt always seemed the most accessible to me, with his often humorous and down-to-earth straightforward way of teaching.

After I left San Francisco to return to British Columbia and resumption of life as a reporter and photographer for small newspapers, I wouldn’t practice aikido again for a number of years until later in the 1980s.  Even after that there could be interludes of a year or more between dojos and teachers as I moved around from job to school and back to work again.

I used to say, after returning to practice after being away for one of my lengthy periods, that aikido “gets in your blood.”  I’m not quite sure what that means, other than to indicate the attraction is not purely rational or intellectual.

In some ways, I am almost a reluctant aikidoist.  Japanese culture does not intrigue or attract me very much, although I fully appreciate the instructive helpfulness of aikido’s Japanese nomenclature.  Attending seminars now that I’m in my sixties is not something I push myself to do.

But I do enjoy teaching beginners which I’ve started to do on a more regular basis under guidance of my sensei.  I have no inclination at all to be a “teacher” but I do find satisfaction in helping people who are newer to the art than I am.

I am blessed to still be relatively light on my feet and with a range of motion only minimally curtailed as yet by sore toes and tight hamstrings at almost 63 years old.

I think the attraction of aikido comes down to interaction, which is a cerebral word for the very physical experience of throwing and being thrown, of understanding where the other person is in space by touch.  (This is a wonderful and subtle process of learning, one shared with t’ai chi — and even greater there.)  There is a great deal of satisfaction in executing a throw properly at speed, or even slowly, and in receiving one well too.

It’s something to do with that touch and relationship with the person you work with on the mat.  It can make you smile.

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Notes:

The illustration is by Oscar Ratti from the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere.

I’ve written before once or twice about aikido.  One such post is called “The Irony of Aikido”.  There are a number of aspects to that title, the main one being that my father fiercely fought the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII.  He died when I was quite young.  I often still wonder how he would receive my participation in aikido.  I like to think he would be okay with it.

Bruce Tegner and Self-Defence

November 16, 2012

“Self defence is Nature’s eldest law.”
— John Dryden

Bullying has become a hot topic of conversation in my part of the world in recent weeks.  Such a spike in interest and general pontification about its reality among young people is due to a recent suicide by a vulnerable teenage girl after she foolishly flashed her breasts on a social media site.

If it’s anything like when I was in school, so many years ago, being bullied is both a terrible experience and a pervasive fact.  People, especially immature kids, will take advantage of their larger physical size, higher status, or greater power of most any kind to wreak their will on the less fortunate, especially those whom they deem weak or undeserving of respect.

In the long time since my youth, or even five years ago, the sudden pervasiveness of social media, and the myriad avenues of communication they make available have provided more ways for the dedicated bully to make him or herself felt.

It seems to be part of being a social animal, unfortunately.  I remember seeing this, as a boy in northern BC where we had a lot of room, among the litter of dogs — perhaps six or seven — we once allowed to grow up together.  The puppies after a very few months had it in for one of their number.

He was just a little smaller, with perhaps more of a whiny disposition, and his siblings took to ganging up on him without provocation.  The poor thing couldn’t even eat without being set upon.  We tried to protect him and separate him from the worst of the rest’s attention.  But he liked to run with the pack, never mind the consequences.  We hoped the pack would grow out of this obsession towards the runt, but as the dogs grew, he got more savaged.  Eventually the others killed him.

I was fortunate not to have been bullied too much in school.  Although bookish with glasses, I was of decent size and prone to fight back if excessively provoked.  But I tended to hang out with fellow outsiders, you could call them, who did receive more than a little attention from schoolyard bullies.

Perhaps because of this, I did take an interest in self-defense at an early age, and being bookish, of course I looked for writings on the subject.  I also took up wrestling in high-school and built my own boxing ring at home, where, after taking off my glasses, I could spar inexpertly with my neighbourhood friends and acquaintances. So it wasn’t purely a theoretical pursuit for me.

Before Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris

In the days before Bruce Lee and the more mainstream acceptance of martial arts, there were very few books available on karate or judo or on self-defense in general.

One of the few authors who did write such books in the dark ages before martial arts magazines was Bruce Tegner.

He is little remembered now — there is only a very short article at Wikipedia — but in his day during the 1960s and into the 1970s he authored as many as 25 books on judo, jujitsu, karate and even aikido and savate.

Interestingly both his parents were professional teachers of judo and jujitsu.  Bruce Tegner was born in 1929 and his parents apparently began his instruction at the tender age of two years old.

There is a video available here of Tegner and his mother demonstrating jujitsu, although he’s much older than two!  (The other mustached participant in the video may be his father.)

He became California state judo champion by the time he was twenty-one.  From 1952 to 1967 he operated his own school in Hollywood, California and had a number of actors among his students, including Ricky Nelson, James Coburn, and George Reeves.

He choreographed movie fight scenes, perhaps most famously the one between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva in the Manchurian Candidate (you can see it here.)   Tegner has Silva using one of the common fighting stances from his writings.

He was also said to have taught military police and coached sport judo teams.  By the mid 70s he was teaching judo at several colleges including as an instructor for a criminology program, and continued to write books.  He died in 1985 of a heart attack at the age of 56.

You can read one of his early works, Judo For Fun, at the wonderful Sandow Plus website.

Tegner had a modernist attitude towards the martial arts.  He was more interested in effectiveness than tradition, and in keeping techniques simple enough to be employed by those who weren’t trained athletes.  He went out of his way to demystify the esoteric aura of the martial arts and to downplay any imagined superhuman abilities of black belt practitioners.

Between the popular nature of his books and his lack of awe about martial arts culture in general, he was largely ignored and forgotten by the martial arts community.

But for a teenager in northern British Columbia wondering how best to defend himself, if it came to that, acquiring Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Jukado Self-Defense in 1968 provided what seemed to me then, and still does looking at it now, a workable way to dealing with physically aggressive people.  “Jukado” was Tegner’s combined approach to martial arts with elements of Judo, Karate and Aikido.

Even now I retain some of his key concepts.  One is the ‘thoughtful guard’ as if thinking, one hand near the chin, the other in support at midriff, hand near the raised hand’s elbow.  This is particularly useful in ambiguous circumstances where an aggressive person may be shouting but not yet prepared to take a swing. The stance doesn’t show belligerence nor indicate a challenge.

Another concept that I still appreciate is the idea, especially if confronted by a baton or knife, of moving or even jumping to one ‘corner’ and delivering a serious kick to the knee.  This makes so much more sense to me than fumbling around with some ‘technique’ at closer quarters.

The other book of Tegner’s that I have is Stick-Fighting: Self-Defense which I found in a second-hand bookstore decades after the first one.  It covers use of the cane, the yawara hand-stick, umbrella and walking stick.  I must have got it in preparation for my elder years!

There is a place for books such as these on self-defense, but unless one practices some method in a regular way, and finds a way to bring it into your body, all of that information usually flees in difficult circumstances.

For those who may wish to investigate a more modern book on self-defense, I would heartily recommend Attack Proof, by John Perkins, Al Ridenhour, and Matt Kovsky.  This is a very thoughtful, insightful approach to self-defense with topics like “Guided Chaos Body and Mind Principles” and is endorsed by real world police and military types.

Many of the drills they recommend have similarities to the essence of what is also trained in aikido and tai chi.

And I was glad to find their recommendation, for instance, of what they call the Jack Benny Stance, which is the same as Tegner’s ‘thoughtful guard.’

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Notes on photos from top down:

The first three are from an online obituary for Bruce Tegner.

And the last is Jack Benny of course, found of all places on a site called Gutterfighting….

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On Turning 60

April 30, 2011

“Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man.” — Leon Trotsky

At the aikido dojo recently, we got to talking about our ages. Sensei is 54, one of my fellow students just had his fiftieth birthday, and I turned 60.

The fellow who turned 50 allowed as how he was bothered by that milestone. Sensei asked me how I felt about mine. I said, “For some reason, I feel insanely proud….” The words just came out, but they’re true.

What am I so proud about?

Oh, I don’t have anything much to brag about. I’ve written no symphonies, no museums have hung my paintings, there are no patents in my name from these six decades. Objectively, I haven’t accomplished a hell of a lot.

Yet, here I am, and I feel immensely grateful to be up and around at all… I’m even swaggering with the joy of it.

All four limbs are working, I haven’t changed my glasses prescription for 35 years, and I’m closing in on being able to do 100 push-ups at once. Physically, I’ve been blessed. I’ve never been that much of a jock, just strong enough to do whatever I needed or wanted to do. I’m sure it comes from growing up in northern British Columbia. (My doctor tells me 60 is the new 40… I’m not sure whether I quite believe that.)

While my wife and I have occasional differences, I’ve been very lucky to have her for more than 20 years. I have a couple of old friends. Work relationships are good.

My mental faculties seem to be fully operational. Of course, one is often the last to realize in that realm…

It’s not that there are no signs of aging, there are. My stretches at aikido don’t go as far now. It’s a little easier for me to get tired. I’m not as interested in martial arts and other physical challenges as I might once have been. (Although I do have that push-up goal I’m going to accomplish.)

It is scary to realize that in 10 years I will be seventy. It’ll be a lot tougher to pretend then that I’m not so old, if I make it.

What do I want to do in the next decade?

Things to accomplish

I would really like to write another novel, of good enough quality that I don’t feel that I have to hide it in a drawer like the one I wrote in my thirties. I’ve got some more living under my belt, I know more about how people tick… I think I can make something of it.

My notes are finally coming together for it. Some more foundational work on characters and a little more background research, and I’ll be ready to try to lay out the scenes following the Butler strategy.

I love to learn blues and rock guitar. I’m studying with a working rock musician, teacher and music producer, and I’m slowly making progress. Maybe by the time I’m 80, I’ll be able to really rock out.

And painting… I still struggle with it, and still love it, especially when an image actually comes together for me… unfortunately not that often.

But in the end I will have as much time as I have, and not a moment more. You can take nothing with you. There is just this moment, and this one… I am so fortunate, and yes, blessed, to be here to witness as many as I can. And to meet a few people along the way.

I do sort of subscribe to the crazed Hunter S. Thompson take on the end, although in my own sedate and restrained way:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Pacing… That’s the thing.

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Choice Videos: Tai Chi, Aikido and Fencing

April 10, 2010

Recently I had a yen to see what good viewing I might find in martial arts videos around the web ( at least in the realms I’m acquainted with) and bring them back to this blog.

I’d like to start with a common perception of tai chi as a martial art in this presentation of …Tai Chi Masters!

I’m not sure what the mouthful of white milk is all about…

Moving on from the ridiculous to the sublime, here’s a video of Cheng Man Ching teaching and playing push hands many years ago in New York City. Senior student and teacher in his own right, Ed Young, stands by to translate with a microphone.

The video gives a sense of the Professor as not superhuman, but very poised and balanced.

I’ve admired other tai chi video chronicles of Mike Martello playing push hands with masters in Taiwan. Here’s one I hadn’t seen:

“Push hands” is really kind of a misnomer. It should be something more like “sensing hands” or “by touch I know you hands”…

In this next video, one can see power and relaxation working together. The demonstration does suffer sometimes from “too sensitive/anticipating” students.

It does bring up the matter of what push hands is for… it shouldn’t be thought of as fighting. It’s a kind of wonderful training that teaches your body and mind to listen and respond with right timing.  It’s a laboratory.

Alright, on to aikido, but first with a sort of push hands slant. An aikido group is using a kind of push hands or sensing hands to teach awareness of the other person’s balance:

I think they would benefit from a more standard form of push hands… the way they’ve chosen lacks connection, but you can see how much fun they’re having. The first time I did push hands, the laughter just bubbled out of me, the enjoyment was so huge…

This also highlights one of the difficult aspects of traditional aikido training. Typically, you pick up the sense of relaxed connection and awareness of your partner’s body only through many long hours of training as a kind of by-product of efficient movement.  It’s relatively easy to pursue the wrong path of using a lot of muscle; and bad habits are hard to change. The kind of sensitivity and awareness that push hands teaches is often left unspoken, although you see it regularly in the old senior teachers.

You won’t find undue strength at work in the next video, only a squirrel surprise:

Here’s a clip of O Sensei, the founder of aikido, moving very well at an advanced age. What I especially get out of this is how he immediately moves to blend with his partner as soon as his partner begins to advance.

You do have to remember that this is a demonstration and not a fight.

To show a little more of the dynamism of aikido here’s a clip that concentrates on the technique of irimi-nage (entering):

The demonstrator is Christian Tissier of France, considered a shihan or master teacher.

Moving on to my last martial art, fencing. Well, actually it’s nowadays more of a sport than a self-defence discipline, while also persisting as a theatrical art:

That has some of the best movie sword work I’ve seen. Basil Rathbone seems to actually be able to fence, although the script requires him to be run-through in the end.

Modern fencing has evolved (or devolved) into a kind of linear back and forth tag as the following shows.

Foil fencing in particular is so fast it is hard to follow and machines are necessary for accurate scoring of hits. As artificial as it is, though, I think it still can teach us martially, especially with respect to feeling the distance between the two parties.

There are those trying to return to the old ways:

There are a number of groups trying to revive aspects of traditional western martial arts.

Finally a comparison of the old and the new.

Unfortunately, human beings like to fight.

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Secrets of Effective Offense — A Book Review

May 20, 2008

Secrets of Effective Offense: Survival Strategies for Self-Defense, Martial Arts, and Law Enforcement, by Marc MacYoung, The Lyons Press, 2005.

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After scanning the martial arts section of our local library, my gaze slipping over the usual well-worn volumes on karate, jiu jitsu and taekwondo, I was surprised to find this fairly new hardback book by Marc MacYoung.

I was only very slightly familiar with MacYoung, recalling some street-fighting related books of his I’d once seen from Paladin Press, that survivalist, military and police tactics, firearms and shooting, or “action library” publisher (as they like to put it).

effectiveHe calls himself now an ex-streetfighter (he used to have “The Animal” in the middle of his name) and a martial analyst rather than a martial artist. He espouses no particular style or school, although he seems to have trained with a variety of fighters and masters. I was surprised to find how much of what he describes relates to my own experience of western fencing, aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.

That’s right, western fencing… One of his key concepts is that of fence: an effective defense which automatically means effective offense. You are in position to take action without being exposed yourself. Let me use an example from modern fencing, the envelopment, since that’s what I’m familiar with, although MacYoung is looking more at the life-and-death use of the sword from before modern sport fencing.

The opponent threatens with his blade. Its point is directed at your chest. You engage your blade with his, and maintaining continuous contact, rotate your wrist, turning both blades, until you arrive at almost the original engagement position. Except your point is now in a dominating position at his chest and his blade in contact with yours is, perhaps ever so slightly, deflected harmlessly away from you.

MacYoung isn’t talking about making this an unarmed self-defense technique, but about the principle of responding to an attack in such a way that you are free to take action without being exposed to the attacker’s retaliation.

He ties the importance of fence to the different levels of aggression where you might have to defend yourself or others. Most of us, unless we’ve grown up and developed our skills in more deadly streetfighting circumstances, have an unconscious assumption of a limited offense with its own standards. MacYoung makes the point that this is the level of all sports martial arts.

In real life, a physical altercation can begin with a limited offense and escalate into an unlimited offense, where there are no rules, and serious harm or even survival is at stake. Or, the passing meth addict or career criminal can go all unlimited on you immediately…

MacYoung’s criticism of “reality-based” fighting systems is that by adopting the unlimited offense mindset we set ourselves up for unpleasant legal and moral consequences.

At the unlimited offense level, fence is crucial. You have to be “concerned less with what you are going to do than with what he can do to you.” MacYoung says he likes to deal with people who rely on the axiom, “the best defense is a good offense.” They are always so focused on what they are doing, they leave themselves open.

He likens fence to a base for action that you have to develop in your opponent’s position.

MacYoung says fence can only come out of the three components of effective power delivery: range, structure and body movement.

1) Range

fencing duelIn fencing, of course, this is crucial, and the distance between the combatants is called the measure. One’s sense of this distance becomes increasingly refined as experience develops. But in general for self defense and other martial arts situations, any technique has an optimum distance where it is most effective. A skillful fighter understands the effective range of any technique he might use and won’t attempt it if he’s not in that range.

Often in sports martial arts, the techniques become distorted because of the competitive rewards, where an out-of-range strike, for instance, may land sufficiently to score, but lacks power and takes the sports martial artist out of his body alignment. Correct range is determined by the vertical axis of your opponent. Manipulation of the vertical axis is the goal.

MacYoung says, “What few people realize is that moving into range is also body movement. In fact, it is the main source of your power.” (His italics.)

I’m thinking of the relevance to t’ai chi push hands here. Take this early video of Cheng Man-ch’ing, part of a TV show where Robert W. Smith is interviewed. At the push hands demonstration, and along at just under two minutes where the same is slowed down for us, watch Cheng’s feet where he adjusts his distance to his partner for the right range, and that adjustment becomes part of the power of his push.

You can see the same, if subtle, distance adjustments for correct range in this video (which I like a lot for his infectious laugh) of Master Wang Chieh. Not so much in the beginning sequence with a Chinese partner but when he begins to push with westerner Mike Martello.

MacYoung points out, “If you are in the wrong range for a technique, any attempt to either compensate for it by adjusting your arms or deliver more force by using more muscle will almost inevitably destroy your structure. (His italics).

2) Structure

Structure here means correct alignment of the body to deliver power. MacYoung does not spend much time on body details but I think we can see how body alignment in both t’ai chi and aikido, where there is emphasis upon a straight carriage and an internal sense of the vertical axis, might serve us well here.

FrankPush055-532x720MacYoung states that with the right structure both the generation and reception of force seem relatively effortless.

“Amazingly enough, this is often misinterpreted by people who don’t think they did anything because it didn’t feel like hard work. People often will train themselves to hit incorrectly because it feels as if they are hitting harder when they don’t have structure. (His italics.)

My aikido sensei always tells us when practicing, especially when first learning a technique, to not apply intentional power. “Just practice correctly and diligently, and the power will develop itself.” This helps to escape this kind of problem. Focussing on the end result too much distorts the process. People will still be thrown hard without much effort as practice develops and you maintain the correct structure.

MacYoung goes on to reiterate: “My point is that the old masters move into range and their structure then allows that body movement to be turned into force that is delivered to their opponent. It also allows them to handle incoming force from their opponent without being knocked over, which is another wonderful benefit of structure.”

3) Body movement

MacYoung says there are five components to effective body movement: 1) moving into range, 2) weight transference, 3) eliminating unproductive movement, 4) coherent movement or right timing, and finally only if these conditions are met, 5) acceleration.

Just the simple matter of weight transfer is not so straight forward if you haven’t focussed on it. Fortunately, if you practice t’ai chi or aikido, you will have brought some attention to this.

female-aikidoCorrect movement brings you momentum. I think of the Cheng Man-ch’ing form I practice, which sometimes feels like one pulse of momentum carried from one end of the form to the other.

“What many people fail to realize is that the simple act of stepping into range is your freight train,” MacYoung reminds us. In effective offense you enter into range and continue to press attacks without stifling your momentum. This is also part of finding the positions to use your opponent’s momentum against him.

This is important on the defensive side as well: it is important to practice destroying an attacker’s effectiveness through movement. Many people, including martial artists, fail to move when an attack is incoming. They might block, but they won’t move immediately. This can’t lead to fence.

In aikido, we are taught that the first requisite of meeting any attack is to get off the line of the attack. Immediately improve your chances of surviving that first assault and begin to find the fence position where your counter cannot be met. (This video offers excellent examples of aikido movement, structure and range.)

There is more in MacYoung’s book, much more, with simple exercises, photos to illustrate many of his points, and chapters on blocking and deflecting, parrying and countering, and reconsidering what you already know.

But I think this gives you a sense of his approach, which I found refreshing. I’m not very interested in fighting as such but I’ve always felt that defending yourself and those around you is a basic right and obligation. In that context, I found it a valuable read.

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Notes on images:

The fencing image comes from http://www.thearma.org/Youth/rapieroutline.htm .

The push hands photo can be found at http://www.metal-tiger.com/Wu_Tang_PCA/NorthernWu.html .

That wonderfully photographed aikido image is from http://martial-arts-pictures.blogspot.com/2008/01/power-of-female-aikido.html .

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.

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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.

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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.

Highlights

  • 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.

Lowlights

  • 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.

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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 http://www.martinjdougherty.co.uk/fencing.html.

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.