Sunday, 24 January 2010

Lazy entry: second-hand Q&A

I'm on the mailing list of a few websites and was just sent a questionnaire by a fellow member of one of them as my profile mentioned an interest in martial arts and he's doing some preliminary research for a project. I've removed the gumph about 'have you used your skills in a fight' because the answer is 'No', but the rest is a tidy version of what I sent him.

Q: What is your age and physical condition?
A: 37 years old; condition isn't bad, by which I mean I'm one of the fittest in my peer group but I am not now nor have ever been in what I would call 'athlete level' condition. Being single gives me an advantage: I don't have to devote time or energy to anyone else

Q: What is your level of interest in martial arts?
A: I've been training for over 17 years and I can't imagine life without it.

Q What arts do you practice? Why? Was it what's available or does it fit a particular need?
A: I currently only practice Taiji - I feel very lucky to have found the system I train in as it has a clear and direct lineage straight back to the Yang family.

Q What arts have you practised, and which did you start out in?
A: My first martial arts practice was approximately 3 months of karate at the age of 12. I stopped because the class moved to a new room in the sports hall - one with a wall of mirrors - and it became immediately obvious that I would never be able to manage the postures or kicks properly (I have problems with both hips, the left being more severe, for which I spent a couple of years on crutches as a kid). I also took ju-jitsu during my first year of University, then switched to ki aikido in my second year and stuck with that, off and on, for 10 years. I also took one or two introductory classes in kendo and in 2-3 variations of wing chun. In my late 20's I developed a fascination with bagua zhang and attended a 2-evening seminar lead by a pupil of B.K. Frantzis, who told me I needed to do some chi gung to 'open the energy gates' before studying bagua zhang properly. I enrolled in a qi gong class a month later and after a year of that I reached a plateau, which is when one of the other attendees recommended the Taiji class. I started the beginner's class and within 3 months had dropped the qi gong. Over the next year or so I allowed the ki aikido to tail off.

Q: If you switched arts, why? Was the first not what you were looking for, did you move and had to switch to what was available, etc?
A: I answered some of this above! I started the karate because like a lot of kids I felt small and weak and was afraid so I wanted to learn to fight. I started the ju-jitsu because, having watched a Steven Seagal film and seeing that a person could fight effectively using a 'throwing' art that didn't require hip flexibility I could never attain, it seemed like a good chance to finally do some 'real' practice. It was also one of the martial arts on offer at University. I switched from ju-jitsu to ki aikido after the first year because I was tired of feeling like I'd been beaten up twice a week by people who were unnecessarily rough in their practice. After a few years (basically after attaining my first black belt) the ki aikido got to be less and less satisfying: the head instructor wasn't learning from anyone better than himself and he wasn't doing much personal practice apart from general fitness work, so we were all heading down a dead end! It seemed to try to be spiritual and practical at the same time, thus watering down both aspects so much that neither was properly worked on. The senior students fell into two camps: those who followed the teacher unquestioningly, thus learning his skills and also taking on his insecurities and faults; and those who could see the faults and became more uncomfortable with the degradation of the quality of the practice. I was in the latter camp. The qi gong impressed me in the first class and within a month of practice I began to notice improvements in the aikido due to its influence. However, after a year I realised that even if I kept going for a much longer time I wouldn't derive much more from the practice as it wasn't focused or disciplined enough to encourage further development. Within a month of starting the Taiji class I found another noticeable improvement in the aikido and dropped the qi gong class entirely. Gradually, the depth of the taiji practice became clear, as did the benefits of practising a system with a clear lineage and a teacher who is still learning from an even better teacher himself.

Q: What is the level of intensity you practice? I.e. how many times a week, in a class, seminars, or solo training?
A: I attend 1-2 classes a week (2.5-4 hours), do 1-3 solo practice sessions of 20-60 minutes per week and attend weekend workshops and other seminars as they become available (and as work and money allow) so that can be 1 weekend workshop in a year or 2-3 weekends plus an 8-day seminar with the head of our system.

Q: What martial arts would you like to practice if you had time or they were available where you live? Why?
Q: There is a bagua zhang school nearby where I intend to participate in one of their monthly Saturday classes to get a better feel for the art and to see if the martial aspects are stimulating (the taiji is not martial at all even though the push-hands practice is an important part of the class so an occasional workshop where I can allow my ego free rein would be fun!)

Q: Do you study weapon arts? As an adjunct to an unarmed art, or as a weapon-based art (Escrima, Kobudo, Kendo/Kenjutsu, Western fencing etc)?
A: I used to work with bokken, jo and iaito as part of the aikido as we had to learn some weapons kata, including iaido kata and partner exercises, as part of the syllabus. The taiji practice does not include weapons as the taiji is not a fighting system and weapons are therefore irrelevant.

Q: What other sports or exercise do you practice, and how do you feel they relate to your martial arts practice?
A: I go cycling once or twice a week for cardiovascular fitness and have just started following a callisthenics workout DVD 2-3 times a week as the taiji and cycling don't work the upper body at all. The cycling and callisthenics (and swimming and hiking during the summer) give me cardiovascular fitness, endurance, strength (especially in the upper body) and definition that the Taiji doesn't. My Taiji skills are not yet good enough to allow Taiji to be my only training - hopefully that will come in 10-15 years.

Philosophical questions:

Q: Do you feel there is a philosophical/spiritual component to your martial art?
A: Yes, very much so.

Q: Could you describe it briefly?
A: It's a little difficult as the system is a true system of inner development. My teacher reminds us that the form is there only as the foundation - he says it is (as is all real taiji) simply 'a framework within which to engage with the process of change'. The practice begins with work on the body, gradually brings in work with the mind, and encourages work with the emotions. We are aiming for a 'higher state' which can be achieved through working on any of the three aspects deeply but which is better when all aspects are worked equally. We constantly aim to go deeper so the practice starts with the external choreography then moves through muscle state, forces within the body, then the energy in the body, all the while working on deepening the mind. Before all these stages are completed, talking about anything 'spiritual' is mere lip-service, and these stages take several years to work through.

Q: How does it relate to your understanding of Objectivism/libertarianism?
A: The ultimate aim of taiji is to aid the individual in their progress from physical to spiritual, from profane to divine. As you are working on yourself, constantly challenging yourself, building on your true strengths, eradicating weaknesses, aiming for perfection, the art truly is about freeing yourself from the constraints placed on you by the conditioning of your early life and the society you live in. Taiji is about freedom.

Q: Where in the four-five focuses of the Martial Arts does your interest lie? (More than one choice is OK.)
1) Self-defence/professional use of force
2) Tradition/physical art self-discipline
3) Spiritual/health
4) Sport/tournament
5) Demonstration
A: 3, 2, 1 in that order. 4 and 5 are superficial nonsense

Q: Is there anything you'd like to say about the place of martial arts in your life?
A: I can't imagine walking any other path.

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