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.

8 comments:

Henitsirk said...

There is nothing worse than an unexpected DVD attack. I had no idea such gems as David Carradine were dubbed into Hungarian!

I think your perceptions of the Five Tibetans being "boring" and having negative effects are telling. I also wonder about a practice that requires equipment, for example, versus something that does not.

I tried to take a tai chi class once, but I was in a place in my life where I could not commit to attending something regularly. Some day I might take it up again...

Adrienne said...

When I ws in college, I took a tai chi class for a semester. We had a Buddhist monk who was living on campus, teaching a course of some kind...apparently he was also a seventh generation tai chi master or something of that nature...and he agreed to teach a tai chi class to whoever was interested on campus. So, I took the opportunity. I'd taken some yoga and liked it, and apparently my mom had taken some tai chi and she loved it, so I thought, why not? It could be great! This kid who lived on the floor below me in the dorm took the class also. On the first day, the teacher had us sit in a circle to introduce ourselves and describe any martial arts training or experience with other fluid movement related exerise, and discuss our views and experience on/with meditation. When it came to this kids turn to speak, he was sort of cocky about the fact that he'd been taking karate for 10 years. The tai chi teacher didn't respond, but just looked at him with an amused or knowing look of some kind. When we began learning the movements, this kid looked over at me and said, under his breath, "This is going to be a piece of cake!" Not even 20 minutes later, this kid was dripping with sweat and looked like he was going to die from hyper-ventilation. The next week, he didn't show up to tai chi class. I saw him in the mail room and asked him what was up. "I can't believe that I sweat so much and I was moving so slow!" It was hysterical. I never forgot that. He looked like a total wimp! Apparently it was too much for him, because he never came to class after that first day...

Theo Huffman said...

Henitsirk: Just to be clear, there is no equipment required for the Tibetans. I just happened to see those blocks with handles when I was looking for something else, and was intrigued that it was for people who were having wrist problems due to the "dogs". If you're talking about the -- now infamous -- chair exercise in one of my previous postings, that's something I added to compensate for the back stress that comes from the Tibetans. I've heard tell there are some people who do this exercise using a freshly baked loaf of Sicilian white bread and a nude GI Joe doll. ;-)

Adrienne: Great Story! Reminds me of the time some cocky judoka showed up at an aikido class when I was still in the lower ranks. He took the attitude that this was going to be easy whimpy stuff, since he'd heard aikido was all "passive" and "soft". He also left class half way through, with a face the color of ripe tomatoe and his gi (uniform) drenched in sweat. Never saw him again either.

I remember when you did yoga, but I didn't realize you've done tai chi before. Sounds like you had a good teacher. Hey! Doing some tai chi from a DVD could be good exercise for a stay at home mother.

Adrienne said...

I've been doing some yoga again lately from a hatha tape I've had for years. It's just a basic set that begins with various sun salutations and moves progressively through different poses and stretches until the crazy eight different variations of the warrior pose portion, which always kills me. Ha! I can do it without the tape by now, but it's nice to have a "class" feel while I do it. Tai chi is cool, but I'm not sure it's my thing. For some reason, I don't achieve the same level of mental relaxation and physical invigoration with tai chi as I do with yoga...

Theo Huffman said...

That sounds good! Keep it up!

Once you figure out what keeps your engines (physical, mental and spiritual) hummin', there's no excuse not to do it.

I think a lot of people can't figure out what suits them. You're blessed!

Hellibrarian said...

You write DVD reviews as skillfully as you wrote book reviews!

Theo Huffman said...

Hell: Aw... shucks! You're too kind.

Love your Opus avatar. That reminds me. It's Sunday. Time to surf to the Washington Post to read this week's Opus strip!

vero said...

I've just started doing yoga from a hatha DVD I've uhmmm, downloaded. If it works for me for more than a month, I will buy it... :)