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 rootedness...how 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...