Thursday, July 29, 2010


1) Went to shiatsu today. I’ve been dealing with occasional extreme back pain in recent years, can’t bend / stand up, the usual complaints. The shiatsu sensei is the demon roller guy, dealing out exquisite pain on the way to glorious recovery.

I am not quick to go to the doctor but barely being able to stand is when things get a bit out of hand. A chance meeting and chance recommendation, he is a local guy and very flexible in scheduling, both big pluses for me.

He does the usual shiatsu therapy, pressing various points to stimulate qi flow, re-align the body, and so on. But he also uses rollers to get into the deep tissue. These torture devices are arranged on a small rack near the treatment table. They look like paint rollers but there is nothing smooth about their application. He begins by rolling them over the surface tissue, then works his way into the deep muscles and tissue, grinding and drilling all the way, muttering about my tight muscles at each point.

It is hard to describe, an unknown sensation somewhere between pain and being tickled. And yes, I pay to undergo this treatment.

One simple point: it works. The short-term relief is of course wonderful. But the long-term treatment is also quite good. That’s why I keep going back.

I know what pain is and I know fairly well how to deal with it. I could take all the pain dished out by this doctor and his demon rollers (strangely laughing at times), except for one thing – the wrist bend.

The back, waist, arms and legs were all finished. He nonchalantly began working on one of my wrists, observing how various parts of the body are all connected. Using two hands, he bent my wrist and brought my fingers back near the inner forearm. It was the only time I couldn’t take the pain and asked him to stop.

He is an aikido guy with super-bendy wrists. He knows I am a martial arts guy and probably expected me to also have super-bendy wrists. I don’t. No problem – he eased off, continued the treatment, and all was well.

2) One other wrist-related memory, some years back in Japan. A friend and martial arts senior asked me to join in a group practice and outdoor demonstration. People from several different training backgrounds had gathered and many of us were meeting for the first time.

During the practice time, we all took turns introducing key points from our various disciplines. All went well until I got paired with Mr. Pain. He was fairly deep in an Okinawan art which includes joint locks as part of the curriculum. He began demonstrating on me and all was going well, though I began to sense that he liked putting on a show.

Then came the wrists. Same position as above, bending my fingers back toward the inner forearm. I felt extreme pain (as opposed to the “normal” amount of pain one expects at such times).

In a close teacher-student relationship, there are times when the student is made to question how much pain they can take, how much is appropriate for the learning situation. The pain tolerance threshold can indeed be changed through exposure and repetition. But that is in a certain social situation, with a clear relationship built on trust.

This guy was putting on way too much pain. He may not have realized it. I asked him to ease up. He smiled and increased the pressure. And maintained it for some time. And looked around to make sure others were watching.

Maybe I should have just shut up and taken the pain? No. I know how and when to do that. This was not the time. His techniques were clearly effective. But as for his way of demonstrating them….

3) Last night’s tai ji jian (sword) class took an unusual and rewarding departure…to the wrists. Five of us nine students that night had also just been to a weekend seminar in Sun Style tai ji quan, or 孙式太极拳. During a break in the sword work, two of the students were talking about one of the characteristic Sun Style motions (开合), in which the palms are held vertically with the wrists bent back as much as possible. The palms are then spread apart and brought back together in front of the chest.

Our teacher (who had not been at the Sun Style seminar) suddenly took us on a lengthy tour of wrist flexibility and strengthening exercises. One of them is commonly seen in chang quan: with the arms extended in front, sharply flick the wrists up with the fingers pointing upward. Then flick the wrists down (finishing with the fingers down or in a hook hand / 勾手 position. Repeat this for a while with maximum wrist motion and you’ll get the idea.

In the middle of a seemingly endless introduction to such exercises, he began talking about a famous sword encounter involving, of all people, Sun Lu Tang 孙路堂, founder of the Sun Style. Someone had insisted on a match. Ritual denial and insistence followed, and then came the inevitable match. Apparently Sun Lu Tang simply and quickly did a beng jian 崩剑 technique, snapping his wrist down and popping the sword tip up under the opponent’s wrist. The opponent’s sword flew out of his grasp and that was pretty much that.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

xing yi quan form of the month: tuo

I think I missed another month somewhere in there – so it goes.

The mysterious and mythical tuo – some kind of water-dwelling creature. No picture for this one, since it is after all an imaginary creature.

I have seen it referred to as being similar to any number of creatures in the past. My earlier conception was the alligator or crocodile, and the powerful swipe of its tail back and forth. Thus the zig-zag stepping of the basic form, and the hands grabbing and pulling across from side to side.

We are working on it this month in class and all references are to a water strider / whirligig or similar animal – gliding smoothly and effortlessly across the water surface. And we are edging our way into the longer, more complex version with a weird body-shaking motion – which makes more sense when stepping back to the side and slipping out of the grip of someone who has grabbed you in a bear hug from the rear.

This form has bugged and eluded me for many years, and I am glad to get a deeper look at last. It is one of the remaining animal forms Liu Jing Ru Laoshi has not taught us on his Tokyo visits. Nor will he be doing it this year, so I hope we make good progress in the form in the remaining month. Then we’ll have to wait until next year’s visit…

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dealing with fear

1. The other day, I took my daughter to her weekly swimming lesson. It is usually one of the highpoints of her week and she is always excited to go. But that day, there was an unusual heaviness in her step as we walked to the pool. Outside the building, she paused, then called me over to the side, tears in her eyes.

She has recently moved up into a higher-level class and is scared of one of the teachers, who is much stricter than her usual teachers. After several minutes I finally got her into the building – but then we had to sit down on a bench for a while.

I got lucky – she was stalling until she could see which teacher had her group that day. It was one of the less-strict teachers, so I got her down the stairs and toward the pool without much more trouble. But I also wish that she had had to deal with her fear more directly.

2. Back in my university days, I drove down to Arkansas with a friend and we sampled one of the heights of local small-town culture: jumping off a cliff into the lake below.

It didn’t look like that much of a jump as we looked up from below. But as we climbed closer to the top, the distance seemed to increase. Once at the top, I risked a life-threatening glance over the edge and it seemed we were impossibly high instead of the actual 50-or-so meters. Were I a less stalwart man I might have worried about oxygen depletion at such an altitude.

Like my daughter, I stalled a while but there was no one to comfort and encourage me – only the locals and their derisive stares. Somehow I got over the edge and was not splattered all over the rocks below. I landed safely in the water but made one fatal mistake: I had my arms extended out to the sides instead of raised overhead like those in the know.

Though it hurt like hell, my arms were not ripped out of their sockets and I climbed up for another jump. I was still struggling with my fear but I got over the edge with much less stalling the second time around.

3. I recall another incident, one from childhood, in which I did not overcome my fear. I was probably 8 years old or so. We lived in an apartment complex with a pool and a diving board. With a really huge bounce, you might catch one or two meters in the air. Nothing spectacular, in fact, but pretty good for an 8-year-old.

Once, we went with some friends to a public pool which had a high diving board. After some hours, I mustered the courage to climb the ladder. It must have been a mile high, up and up with no end in sight.

I couldn’t even get out to the end of the diving board. I might have eased about one step past the hand rails, but that was it. I had to climb all the way down. That meant that all the kids who had climbed up just behind me had to climb all the way down, too, to get out of my way. I caught some pretty mean stares as stole away from the foot of the ladder. The other fearless souls scampered right back up and launched themselves off the board without hesitation.

4. I was part of the university karate club for 7 years and sparring was a part of most practices. Some of the people I climbed up the ranks with really enjoyed sparring. Not me. It was an exercise in dealing with my fear every time, and it was very good for someone who had spent his entire childhood with his face buried in books.

Did I really deal with my fear at that time? Once inside the dojo / training hall, there was no time to think or worry. Every workout was full-on with no time wasted. By entering the dojo, I put myself into a routine that carried me through the practice, not giving me the luxury of thinking about it at all. But even so, there was no turning away, no climbing back down the ladder, and certainly no stalling.

5. These days, I am focused strongly on Chinese martial arts. In my particular case, none of my classes have any sparring activity or exercises with uncooperative partners. We practice applications, but only in an isolated manner. It is good for seeing how to apply the technique under the best of circumstances, but things never work out so nicely in reality, I think.

In the long term, once back in the US, I will have to graft sparring exercises onto all the things I have learned here in Japan. And I might need to hit the open tournament a time or two before heading back…