January 30, 2008

Different Strokes...

I've had a change of heart. The Carradine DVD got me turned on to the idea of doing tai chi again (see previous post), and it was cool trying out some of the moves his sifu teaches. I even learned some nice warm-ups and stretches I never knew before.


My years of being a dedicated martial arts student, although over a decade ago now, left an indelible imprint on me. As I tried to practice the form every morning, I kept coming up with more and more questions. "How do I get from this posture to that posture? Is that accompanied by an in-breath or an out-breath? Which way is the left foot pointed at that moment. How are the hands held when you do that motion." So, on the weekends I would pop the DVD into the computer and study what the sifu does as well as I could. And I got frustrated. Not enough clarity. I had an approximate idea of how it's done, but not close enough.

I kept looking at video clips on the internet of Chen style tai chi sets. Beautiful. Smooth. Stunning explosive strikes (fa jing) that erupt out of slow deliberate motions. I got some pointers, but... still not enough.

And I realized there were some things about Chen style that I just couldn't understand because they seemed to contradict what I'd learned in Yang Style.

Then one day I stumbled onto this video. And I was immediately drawn to this man. (First of all I love the Australian accent, since I had a close "mate" from Australia for several years. But that's beside the point.)

His name is Erle Montaigue, and once I looked into his background, it turns out he's a martial artist's martial artist. Mr. Montaigue is a proponent of teaching tai chi as a serious (and potentially deadly) martial art, as opposed to tai chi-as-new-agey-fitness workout. Now I have the greatest respect for Arnold Tayam. What he does on Carradine's DVDs shows that he is a serious martial artist, but once I started watching Montaigue, I realized that this was the genuine article, and the Carradine material was designed to tap a certain market, which doesn't necessarily consist of serious martial artists.

What I like about this video, as opposed to the Carradine video, is that it's so un-Hollywood. Just a guy standing in front of a camera carefully demonstrating martial arts moves and explaining vital details as he goes along. This is what sitting in a martial arts class is like. No slick production values like music and a pretty set. Nope. Just tai chi instruction. If that's what you're there for, that's what you get. And very precise instruction at that.

I started doing the Yang Cheng Fu set again, adding one move a day. It was a bizarre experience when I executed Push Left and then flowed into Ward off Right for the first time in twenty years. Synapses fired in places in my brain I forgot I had synapses. My body had that sensation of getting on a bicycle after not having ridden one for years: that odd but delightful feeling of familiarity.

I cruised on over to Erle's website. Can you believe he has over 300 instruction DVDs for sale? Not to mention free e-books. And an interesting marketing strategy. A great deal of his instruction DVDs are available on his website in Windows Media format. If you can't handle the small image and the compression distortion, then you can buy the DVDs for £ 33 each. That's steep, but you have to consider that he gives you the opportunity to see them for free if you want. They'll mail anyone all the clips (in Windows Media format) of the Yang Cheng Fu form for free, so I ordered it. (You can see the whole Yang Cheng Fu set on his website, too). I know very well that a year or two from now I'll want to shell out full price for the DVD of the Yang Lu-ch'an form (the older, more difficult Yang style), but that's fair enough. Good marketing strategy. And good karma, too, since he's not selling worthless trinkets.

I've learned something important about myself. If given the choice of how I want my tai chi, make mine a serious martial art.

January 23, 2008

Goin' to the Dogs... Chinese Style!

Folks, it's confession time. Remember how enthusiastic I was about The Five Tibetans? Well... er...

You see, there I was: out doing some family shopping with my wife and our one-and-a-half-year-old son during my long vacation at the Christmas holidays. I was wandering down an aisle of the drug store, pushing a shopping cart with my adorable son in the seat (the mention of the adorable son is supposed to elicit sympathy, you should realize), idly looking at this and that while Szilvi grabbed diapers, body lotion, whatnot. I was just minding my own business when all of a sudden I was ambushed, and ruthlessly attacked by a DVD, and it twisted my arm behind my back until I went to the cashier and bought it! Well,... Ok, wasn't quite like that. The end cap of one aisle had a small pile of discounted DVDs on it, in which I found a Hungarian-dubbed version of David Carradine's Tai Chi for the Body. It was ridiculously cheap. So I said to myself, why the heck not. I watched the odd episode of Kung Fu when I was a kid. Carradine's been practicing martial arts most of his life. He must know what he's doing. So I bought it.

I wouldn't have dared to attempt learning tai chi from a video, if it weren't for the fact that I practiced aikido for eight years and did some cross-training in tai chi during that time. When I was a brown belt (second and first kyu) I decided that tai chi would help improve my technique. I took a class in which I learned a 24-move Yang-style form. It took me days of searching videos on the internet to find the form I learned, because there are so many, but when I was just about ready to give up I finally discovered it. If you look at the top video on this page, you can see the form, although I could never do it as smoothly as this guy. It did really improve my aikido, too. I can't resist a little digressive anecdote. At maybe the second or third tai chi lesson, the teacher asked me if I practiced aikido. When I confirmed her suspicions, she smiled and said she could see that I moved like an aikidoist the moment I started doing tai chi motions. It was like I was speaking a foreign language with a heavy accent.

Anyway, I thought I could learn from a DVD because I already had plenty of experience with such aspects of martial technique as moving from tan tien (center), extending chi, coordinating movement and breath, shifting weight from leg to leg, and relaxing while in motion.

When I got it home I popped the disk into the laptop and was seriously peeved to find they didn't keep the original English-language version on the DVD. (Usually I can buy any Hungarian DVD of an English-language film, and the original is still available in the menus. Must be a copyright issue.) But then I started doing the exercises, despite the fact that the voice-over was in Hungarian (instead of Mr Carradine's dulcet tones), and I really started digging it.

Carradine is at the front of a room with three other people behind him: a very young woman who moves like a beginner, a middle-aged woman who has more grace and confidence, and a middle-aged Asian man, who is suspiciously smooth. It turns out that the Asian man is Arnold Tayam, Carradine's sifu. He's a martial artist, ki gong master and physician, with decades of experience in each. As the video rolls, the camera concentrates less and less on Carradine, and more and more on Tayam. Star power sells the DVD, but Tayam provides the quality content.

The presentation is very well thought out. It starts with stretches, then moves on to stances. After that it demonstrates simple techniques that you can repeat over and over. In the end, it takes all the little pieces you learn throughout the lesson, and ties them together into a short Chen tai chi form (a routine, or as the Japanese would call it: a kata). I haven't started working on the complete form yet. I'm still practicing all the little pieces and stances.

I was so jazzed about learning this stuff that I began doing it the very next morning for my morning routine, and... well... I dropped the Five Tibetans like a rock.

Why? Well, for one, I just find getting back to tai chi to be much more satisfying. Slowly flowing through those graceful figures while deeply pulling air in and out of the lungs all the way down to the diaphragm is much more harmonious than doing what amounts to repetitive glorified calisthenics that just move from one position to another and back again. Despite the fact that the Tibetans have a positive effect, they become a boring chore after a while.

And another is that one has to weigh the positive effects of the Tibetans against the negative. I began noting sensations that struck me as symptoms of repetitive motion syndrome. The downward dog to upward dog motion was making the carpal area of my right hand sore. I've seen ads on the Internet for cork blocks with handles one can hold while doing those yoga poses to avoid this stress, so it must be a common problem. It also struck me as odd how much counter exercise was needed to strengthen the lower back muscles to withstand the stress of the Tibetans put on them.

It's true that I felt good after doing the Tibetans, but it was a sort of heart-pumping, muscles-throbbing, lungs-gasping kind of feeling. With the tai chi, after 45 minutes of smooth movement and deep breathing I have an energized "electrical" feeling. And it seems to last longer.

I may or may not experiment with the Tibetans again in the future, but for now I want to do something that's more interesting and fills me with a sense of cosmic beauty. Now pardon me while go reel some silk.

January 9, 2008

Back to Business

Well folks! I like Christmas as much as the next guy; probably even more, actually, since being a Waldorf parent has taught me valuable lessons about how to seriously tone down the commercial aspects of the season and to tune into the spiritual dimensions of the "festival of light." I had a great time. Szilvi had a great time. The kids had a great time. But once the noise and indulgence of New Year's Eve has passed, and the tree and decorations are whisked away on Epiphany, I really enjoy the feeling of rolling up the ol' sleeves and getting back to business.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a workaholic. When I say business, I'm not talking about professional life and what goes on in the office at The Firm (though that's part of it). I'm talking about the business of my life. The day-in day-out task of figuring out what my role is in this world and trying to be an effective player in the story of the human race. That business.

I've been observing how, despite the fact that I've generally become a calmer and more focused individual over time, reality still challenges me with little things like the traffic accident (fender bender) I had four days before Christmas, or the surly clerk I had to interact with at the post office today. There are just moments when I feel really uptight because I'm in a hurry and I have to get too many things done in too short a time and there's something in the back of mind that's bugging me and "Bzzzzzzzzzt!!!" something short-circuits and I yell, or I drop something in the kitchen and shatter it and scatter its contents all over the floor. I reflect on those moments and realize I still have a lot to learn about staying cool under pressure.

I'm much better about things I can prepare for nowadays. I can give a presentation at a meeting with minimal nervousness by meditating and visualizing. I can often recognize bad states of mind coming on and head them off in time. It's those sudden, unexpected challenges to my cool that still trip me up.

With that in mind, I'd like to give y'all a gander at a nice essay I read the other day. It's about maintaining stability in an unstable world. It was written by a raja yoga teacher who uploads material to ScribD. I have to admit that part of the reason I'm doing this is just to see what one of these things looks like on a blog when you embed it.

But I've been letting this stagnate long enough over the holidays. It's time to get back to business.