Saturday, July 30, 2011

The man who wasn't there

Mr Zhang is a regular down at the park most mornings. Looking at him you wouldn't give him a second glance; skinny, almost gangly to a degree. About 65kgs soaking wet. But he is probably the most skilled push-hands exponent that i've crossed hands with. "Ethereal" comes to mind. He is most skilful at controlling your root so you literally don't have a leg to stand on - he has pushed me off my feet a number of times. Another sensation you get when playing with him is that he's there one minute, and in an instant his hands or arms are gone and you're pushing into thin air. He is also very open with his teaching and is quite unconventional. For one, he doesn't advocate long, extensive practise of forms. One of his mantra is "qing, qing de" which translates as 'lightly'. When asked how he developed this amazing skill he smiles and says "Just relax". I asked him about forms and the style of tai chi he practices and his response was "I don't have much time to practise forms. I just relax". One other noticeable thing about his push hands is that he doesn't use any fancy hand methods or techniques - it's all just push or pull and it's devastatingly effective.

Famous xingyi master Guo Yunsheng and students

This morning I had the opportunity to speak to him at some length about his opinions on relaxation, on fighting and his opinion on internal vs external martial arts. When asked about using his push hands for fighting he replied "You can use the same principles. When you're relaxed you can respond quickly and effectively without any tension in the body". He continued "We practise slowly. See how when I push with you I don't move fast or use many hand techniques, but you can't balance. It's simple. Relax your kua and the rest will follow". In English the translation for kua is most closely the hips or hip crease. It seems my kua are way too tense and tight and is the reason I cannot 'root' to the ground effectively. I could blame genetics but they tell me it isn't so. On forms I asked how many years he has practised and with whom did he learn this from - surely there must have been someone with a white beard who taught him this?? His reply "I haven't been training this for as long as you think. You might think I've had to practise this for many years but not so. Once you have the correct alignments and softness it will come". On teachers: "I've practised under many sifu (master) but not a disciple of anyone. Many teachers would not pass on all their knowledge to their students. But I don't agree with this. I teach everything and anyone".

Wang Xiang Zhai, founder of Yiquan in standing posture

On external vs internal: "In external arts there tends to be a 'one, two' punch (he demonstrates a reverse punch with pullback) but with what we do you can strike or move from any position" (he then demonstrated a palm strike from above his head, from underneath and from the side). I asked if he thought that in both external and internal martial arts if we are trying to reach the same end point, his reply "Yes, I think so. But I think the internal way is faster. You see old kung fu/karate masters and they seem to be more relaxed later in their years - they are using internal power". On health: "By pushing hands it's like receiving a massage; you find your tight points in your body and work on relaxing them. You can cure many things by pushing hands". This was obviously of interest to me considering my line of work. Various bodyworks like yoga and other taoist qigong systems must work in similar ways. He left me with this gem "Look at me. I don't look very strong do I? But can you push me?" I concurred. He then asked me to try to push him while he stood on one leg. I tried but the same thing happened; his soft, springy arms easily countered my pushing. I just scratched my head. He pointed over at a small fern on the ground. "Be like this plant" He pushed the frond and it moved but sprung back to position as he let it go. "Be springy, responsive - be like the fern".

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Humble as Pie - Part II

Yang Cheng Fu, creator of Yang style tai chi

I kept a mini-journal of sorts of my training over the last few weeks. Here are some snippets...

Sat 9 July 2011
8am - I tried to get down earlier today to see what the lay of the land was like.
It was certainly cooler earlier in the morning although the humidity is still ever-present; it was also quieter in the park at that time of the morning. Mr Tang - a locquacious gentleman with silver hair said "Jintian ni lai zenme zao" - today you're here so early! A reference to previous days me coming at 8.30am or later. There were a few men practising I hadn't seen before; some younger men - well, around my age - middle-aged I guess!! Ben suk was there hovering around the guys practising and correcting form as needed. Mr Tang invited me to push hands with him using his broken English. He said to push him as hard as I liked - he evaded me simply as all the others had. Try to relax. Again the tenants were the same "Our tai chi is soft, try not to use force". He said "Ben suk taught us this - you should learn from him" and led me over to him. Uncle Ben again laughed dismissively, with a "Who me?" gesture. He asked me to assume the tai chi posture "Strum the lute" seeing if I remembered his teachings from the day before. I tried to get my root together from the ground, relax into the hips as he pressed into my forearms. He slapped my shoulders "fang song" - Relax!! And I thought I was so relaxed!! I tried to let myself go even more. He said "Look at me, i'm over 70 years old and look at you, you're so young. But still you can't push me". It's not strength - you're stronger than me - it's the qi. It's all about the circle - rounded shoulders from the dantian and hips". He corrected my pelvic tilt to slightly anteriorly tilted; like a small "shime" in Japanese Karate or a very mild hip forward thrust.

Famous Bagua master Fu Chen Sung

Tues 12 July
Today I went again to the park at around 8am. Ben suk, Mr Tang and some other regulars were practising when I arrived. Uncle Ben pointed over at a man seated in one of the chairs and said "Ahh, he is a sifu as well. He is my sifu! I'm a sifu and he is a sifu also. He can speak Mandarin - Go speak to him". I went over to the seated man and introduced myself - he said hello. Mr Tang later explained that Sifu Leung is a famous tai chi sifu in Macau and has many students. He teaches at the Xin li hua jiu dian - Sintra Hotel courtyard every morning. Uncle Ben came over and said for me to demo something for Sifu Leung. I started the Yang 85 form. Sifu Leung and Uncle Ben watched and interspersed in Canto at various things, pointing at my legs and feet. I finished the first section, not a very good demonstration I might add. Sifu Leung said "Ni da de hen bu cuo" which was very flattering - your tai chi is not too bad. He then got up and said "But your legs and feet are not very relaxed". He asked me to demonstrate the pose 'ward off' - I got into stance. He said "See - here - he applied some pressure to my forearm and pushed. I tried to root but was pushed off balance. "You see" he said "Your feet, knees and legs are not relaxed so you have no-where to go". You need to relax each of your joints - straighten the spine and extend from the top of your head. He demonstrated. I tried to push him again but he wasn't there and I pushed myself off balance.

Physical Culture Society, Taiwan circa 1957

Friday 15 July
Pushing today I was eager to show what I had learnt but this only ended up with myself thinking too much and getting too tense. Thus I was pushed around a lot more easily. One of the pointers from today I remember distictly was "Feel as though you are rooting 1-metre below the ground". This visualisation in itself I found gives you a more rooted and stable sensation. Another one was "Feel your qi coming out of your fingertips" This I found harder to visualise. "When pushing with your forward arm in peng (wardoff)use your other arm (while holding your structure) and you will push the person away". Ben suk also today taught "Yi lian - using your "intention" -use your eyes to push past or behind the person". Today they also saw my Taizu long fist form; they asked if I had been training it a long while and that I should try to use more 'soft force' when I do the form to help develop my qi. Another older man invited me to push with him. I found out he was 78-years old but didn't look a day over 60. Age didn't matter in the contest though, as he easily had the better of me over the next five minutes.

Tuesday 19 July 2011
The eureka moment I had today while pushing hands was Ben suk saying "Yong nide dantien he kua an wo, bu yong nide shou" - use your hips and centre to push me, not your hands. Using this method I managed to root slightly better. Another gem he shared was 'Use your middle leg' - less salubrius types might take this meaning somewhat jokingly but his meaning was to feel as you have an extra leg creating stability. He continued "This cannot be learnt over 2 or 3 months - it takes a long time". Probably reference to me seeming overly eager in my training. Finally one of the others came up and said "Mei you mimi" - translating to "There are no secrets". I looked around at the people training, laughing and joking and then down
at my sweaty t-shirt. Considering that only a few weeks ago I was an 'outsider' looking in, and given how open they were in accepting me to their 'group' I tend to believe him.

Fu Chen Sung with bagua broadsword

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Humble as pie

Moving over to Macau has been good to us for many reasons; cheap markets, myself getting fitter by climbing 4 flights of stairs at least twice a day (we now live on the fourth floor, no elevator) and the fact that I've started training martial arts again. There is a park across the road from where we've moved to and in the mornings a number of people gather to practice tai chi, chi kung and other forms of exercise. Over the last few weeks I've been heading there in the mornings to practice on my own. This is something I love about China - you can practice whatever you like anywhere in a park (or elsewhere for that matter) and no-one will bat an eyelid. Back in Australia I would have the police there in a matter of minutes due to public disturbance.

San Franciso gardens - you can actually see someone practising in the bottom right corner

San Francisco gardens are reportedly Macau's oldest garden and centrally located right behind the Grand Lisboa casino. The garden has grand old trees - Jacaranda, Mango (!) - which provide ample shade in the stinking Macau summer. Yesterday another man I had met and was training with told me to come earlier the next day and now I know why. I was going at about 8.45am the last few mornings but today I went at about 8am. A few people were there I didn't recognize and they were all doing push hands. Push hands are a kind of stand-up wrestling exercise central to the practise of the Chinese internal martial arts of Tai chi, Bagua and Xingyi.

I warmed up by myself, went over towards them and hovered - the eldest gentlemen looked over at me and then turned to his group and said something along the lines of "he wants to join, invite him over!". I said hello to one of the gentlemen from a few days previous that had invited me over. I pushed hands with a younger guy there who was very patient with me, push hands not being something i'm very familiar with. I said in mandarin "I don't really know how to do this" and he replied "no problem, just try". He pushed me around pretty easily and they kept commenting about my lack of centre and embarrassing.

I then pushed with an older man who was a bit more aggressive and pushed me around like a rag doll, commenting once again how I had "no centre, no root". An older man approached saying "Our tai chi, we don't use force. Our master taught us this way - he pointed to the older, frail looking man who had initially called me out. They called him "Ben suk" - kind of like "Uncle Ben" - he introduced me saying I wanted to learn their "zhongding" which translates as 'central equilibrium'. The older man joked that he couldn't speak Mandarin, only Cantonese - I replied "it's ok, I will try to understand". Over the next ten minutes he proceded to profoundly show me what his training is all about; learning this 'equilibrium' - he asked me to pick a posture from bagua (I had come to be known as the bagua guy with no centre...sorry my bagua brothers!!). The first morning I had been invited over one of them said to me "hen hao kan, buhao yong; buhao kan, hen hao yong" - "your gong fu looks really good but is of no use; our gong fu looks really bad but has use".

Famous Internal arts master, Wang Shu Jin, practising his root

I assumed the front-on guard position from bagua; he pressed into my hands and I felt resistance and myself tighten up - he said just 'relax'. He asked me to try on him...he held his hands up and I pushed into them. They initially felt very soft, relaxed. "An wo" - "push me" he said in Mandarin; his Mandarin turned out to be very good. As I exerted more force there was this hardness in his arms that felt like it was coming from the centre of his body and I couldn't push him, as hard as I tried. He then gave me a little push and I was pushed off balance. He gave me a smile as I laughed - this old guy was the real deal! (I later found out that Uncle Ben is 76 years old). He said "The power doesn't come from your arms - all your strength is coming from your arms - it comes from here (pointing to the dantien - a point just below the navel) and this transmits to the ground and then returns into your arm". He continued "But you should also focus with your eyes, and extend through the top of the crown of your head, pushing straight down your spine into the floor through the soles of both feet. Also your other hand - even though it is not in contact with anything - you should be focusing your energy through the other hand, out the finger tips. Your eyes should look past where you want to push - and relax your arms". This was going to be hard to remember I thought to myself...

Hung I Hsiang, of Taiwan, practising with a student

I tried again - he pushed into my forearms while I held the 'tree hugging' position. He said "Don't use force - fang song - relax". I concentrated, focused on my dantien and rooting into the ground - and he tried to push my arms - this time he said 'Ah, yes, a bit better..". In my 10 years plus of martial arts training this really felt like a 'eureka' type moment. By the time we finished 30 minutes later I was dripping in sweat; when it's 32 degrees and 94% humidity at 9am it doesn't take very long. "Man man lai" he told me as we were leaving, roughly translating to "It takes time". And with any great endeavour, to get to the end point (whatever that may be) we will learn along the way. To be continued...