Sunday, February 28, 2010

learning how to learn (2)

Spend some years with the same group of people and it is soon clear that some people are always getting it and some people are just not. Part of this might be because I mostly practice with somewhat older people. People who are already largely set in their ways, who nod their heads during class but don’t actually change how they move or think.

But there are plenty who do get it. When corrected one week, they come back the following week with different motions and changed ideas. They make progress, short-term and long-term. They seem more open and flexible in all areas. There is one woman who I immediately noticed is very good with children – she tries to enter their world, to see things from their perspective. And, a seasoned grandparent, she asks the parent about how to best interact with each child. This feeling really seems to cross into all areas of her life.

It is a softness of mind, an open welcoming of new ideas and adaptation to changing circumstances. These are the same people with whom it is easiest for me to communicate in Japanese – they actively listen to what I say and, if it comes out unnaturally, they softly rephrase with corrections, while keeping the conversation going. (Maybe it is that experience with children…)

They are also usually the ones who are listening and watching carefully when the teacher is demonstrating something, even if he is across the room at the time.

Then there are the others. Not listening to the teacher, or beginning to tell other people what the teacher just said when they think they understand it. These folks don’t make much progress. They have reached a certain level over the years and that is about as far as they are going to go. Maybe that is why they are driven to “instruct” others, to assure themselves of the progress they think they have made.

As for me, recently have begun some new activities which are challenging my sense of what it is to learn. At age 42, I have finally begun a heart-rattling challenge – to ride my bicycle without hands. (Do recall, I am the one who was reading books while standing out in right field during the baseball game. Old news for many people, this is a big step for me).

My neighborhood is filled with twirpy little kids effortlessly zooming around the block without hands. Meanwhile, I stretch it out a few extra meters each day before nearly careening to certain death by bouncing off a concrete wall. Laugh not at my middle-aged foibles, oh reader – my efforts have helped me realize how tough it is for my daughter, learning to ride her bike just these days.

She’ll be zooming around with no hands too before long, I suppose. I’m not a quick learner, but I don’t give up. And I’ll be watching her, trying to figure out how kids learn things so quickly.

Friday, February 19, 2010

xing yi quan form of the month: chicken

xing yi quan form of the Month (2): chicken 鸡形

Why bother learning animal forms these days ?? They seem quaint and old-fashioned in the face of UFC, K-1, and other almost-full contact tournaments filled with brawlers and martial artists both (not many of whom I would like to face in the ring, mind you).

In xing yi quan (hsing I chuan) we have a set of 12 animal forms (10 in some systems). We are not meant to mimic the actual motions of animals, as in some other Chinese martial arts. Rather, we should find the essence of certain kinds of motions, and bring this essence into our fighting style.

Anyway, this month’s focus is the chicken in our class, so it will be so here in the blog as well.

Maybe the chicken not the first animal that comes to mind when thinking of awesome attacks and fierce fighting ability. But recent classes have helped me find many good principles in the motions of the chicken form. And hey, there is a tradition of having roosters fight each other, after all.

Movement names drawn from the chicken appear throughout the Chinese martial arts. Maybe the most common is Golden Cock Stands on One Leg, which seems to be obligatory in every tai ji quan form. Curiously, there are very few movements in which you stand one-legged in this xing yi quan form: a front heel kick, preceded by some rising knees (blocks?) as hands drive up the middle.

So what can we learn from the chicken? The upward wrist strikes in the opening sequence work nicely as blocks. What appears to be a punch under the left palm with the right fist is of course a block-counter combination. And the “chicken spreads its wings” move, about which I had doubts, works nicely as a strike to the opponent’s kua or inner hip/thigh/something joint, while blocking or grabbing and pulling across overhead. And so on. More than met my eye, anyhow.

Last month was the swallow (燕形), a bird even less known for its fighting abilities. Yet the form offered many insights into quick up/down changes and the like. This month the chicken. Next month? Who knows, there are several more birds in the xing yi quan flock.

Monday, February 15, 2010

more worn shoes

yeah yeah yeah more mandatory worn shoes pictures. It helps that I work out on concrete more than dirt lately. 10:30 PM, back to work for me.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sha Family Taiji Quan in the Snow

First snow in a couple years in Tokyo, and it just kept coming, actually accumulating for a change.

Almost ready for bed, I snuck a peek outdoors and my fate was sealed. Illuminated in the lights of night, the falling flakes called to me.

Some work on the Sha tai ji forms was long overdue, as I have been heavily focused on the arts I learn from Liu Jing Ru as well as a nanquan form. All the more so, since tomorrow night is the first of a new once-a-month class on the Sha tai ji forms (not usually taught anywhere around here). We have a twice-a-month class for the tai ji jian sword forms, but are pretty much on our own for the Sha family tai ji quan – once we learn it (usually over there in Kunming, from the family), that’s it. We are expected to remember it and cultivate it on our own.

With tomorrow night’s rare chance in mind, I hopped on my bike and rode through the falling snow to my favorite outdoor spot. Late at night, mine were the only tracks on the snow-covered road, and it was ideal.

I remembered late nights in Nebraska, riding a bike home late after closing down a bar and slicing through the still-falling snow, my bicycle tires leaving the only marks on an otherwise undisturbed road. And other days and nights, taking my karate practice outdoors in the falling snow.

This time it was only about 90 minutes but I wanted to stretch it out longer and longer. The flakes falling on my face, in my eyes. The night was mine and I forgot that I lived in a metropolis of over 10 million people. No big news to those living in northern climes, but this was a special night in Tokyo. And a full moon to top it off.

Mostly Sha family tai ji quan stuff indeed, but who could not resist cutting a few circles in that rare and pristine snow? I kept to the basics, just the 8 basic ba gua circles, and it was enough.

I trudged off to work as usual the next morning, returning to my teaching-the-salarypeople existence. The magic of the prior night faded slowly, but the remaining wetness in my gloves (not quite dried in front of the space heater) reminded me of the prior night.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Words That Hurt (1)

I have made a couple trips out to Kunming in Yunnan Province, China, to train in the Sha family style with my teacher here in Japan and a few other students/ teachers. Both trips were excellent in every way, with top-notch instruction from Sha Jun Jie (son of Sha Guo Zheng) and his wife Li Bin, among others.

On one trip I concentrated solely on the xing yi jian form (sword form for Xing Yi Quan) and made good progress.

On the next trip, I may have tried for too much, going for both a xing yi kicking form (形意连环腿) and a basic, 24-move tong bei quan (通背拳) form.

Let me explain – at my regular classes and on special occasions in Tokyo, I have been working on both the Sha family tai ji quan forms and two of the three tai ji jian forms for a few years. Initially, that was all I sought – my teacher here in Tokyo taught them, I learned them, nothing more to it.

But as I got deeper into the Sha family system – and especially after my 2007 visit to Kunming, when they had a massive celebration for the 105th anniversary of Sha Guo Zheng, I wanted to get more deeply into the Sha family style. They meld the three standard internal arts (tai ji quan, ba gua zhang, xing yi quan) with another art, tong bei quan.

And, in their family style, motions from each of these arts cross over into all the others. So, just by learning their tai ji quan forms, I had to learn the most basic elements of their tong bei, xing yi, and ba gua. So by learning more about these other arts, I could improve my Sha family tai ji.

It made sense to learn more about these other arts within their system. But I had already invested several years in learning the xing yi quan and ba gua zhang of my Tokyo teacher’s other teacher (one of them…), Liu Jing Ru. I didn’t want the interference of two systems of ba gua or xing yi, so I have largely avoided the Sha family forms in these arts. Xing yi jian and the xing yi kicking form are both exceptions, as there is nothing like them (so far, anyway) in the style taught by Liu Jing Ru. Thus no cross-over interference, no problem. And Tong Bei? Nothing like it in my repertoire thus far, no problem other than the division of time.

So there I was, getting intensive one-on-one instruction from the bosses themselves. The Venerable Tai Ji Ladies of Tokyo were off doing their tai ji thing, so I was getting a lot of attention. Xing Yi Lian Huan Tui was first and a lot of fun, great to finally do a lot of foot techniques in xing yi quan (which otherwise has very few foot techniques).

Then on into the 24-motion form of tong bei quan, also fun and informative, as some of its motions also appear in the Sha family tai ji forms. And there was my problem. One of those motions involves sinking into a cross-legged crouching position. The right palm stabs down across the left side of the body while the left palm guards up near the right ear. Then you rise and …

You rise and do one motion in Lian Huan Tui. And you rise and do a different motion in Tong Bei. (And still a different one in tai ji, though that was irrelevant at the time). So near the end of our visit, Sha Laoshi suddenly called on us to demonstrate what we had learned.

Damn, I really wanted just one more day, even one more hour to consolidate the just-finished form…the Venerable Tai Ji Ladies showed their new stuff and showed it well. I showed the Tong Bei form as it was the fresher of the two, and got stuck at just that motion described above, not yet having fully separated the two new forms.

“你忘了” were his only words. Ni wang le, you forgot it. Three short words and the look on his face - they cut like a knife. They were final, and I got little more attention on that visit.

I missed last year’s trip (finances) and may have only one more chance before relocating to the US. I know I will be going back to Kunming. And I don’t ever want to hear those words again.

(photo from 2007 Kunming trip, my Liu-influenced ba gua next to the big boss – or a photo of him)