Thursday, January 29, 2009

day 201: rain rain go away...

  • focus
  • opening up
  • trigger
  • bagua fist form
  • kyudo
today posed all kinds of issues, with intermittent rain that forced us to relocate class to the picnic shelter--noticeably smaller, and definitely harder to work in. the rain also posed some traveling hazards, with a good portion of us arriving late due to traffic problems caused by slick roads and obscured vision.

bagua fist form

Sifu decided to adjust the class today to just working on the fist form, with less in the way of applications, particularly since the concrete floor was rendered quite slippery by the rain. we took some to warm up with a review of the forest palm and the portion of the fist form we'd done to date. once we had done this to mutual satisfaction, Sifu then took the remainder of class to take us some more moves into the form.

at some point in the near future, i think i'm going to need to start recording the portions of the form we're doing. it is a very long form, and so it may warrant recording sections of it to help everyone remember the sequence of moves as we go along.


kyudo was noticeably drier. the rain had largely let up by the evening, and the class is held inside the gymnasium of the Japanese Cultural Center in Pasadena.

things were a progressive today. i say that to mean that Sensei asked me and Phunsak to shoot an arrow, except going all the way through the procedure, commencing with stringing a bow, putting on a glove, going through the form, and then shooting and exiting the dojo. we were also asked to store the glove and unstring the bow.

this was a pretty big step. we'd shot an arrow before, but today was significant in that we were asked to go all the way through the entire procedure that the other students went through. i noticed this, and made my best efforts to try and avoid any mistakes.

having said that, the big issue was still shooting the arrow. Sensei made a number of comments regarding my execution of the shooting form:
  • focus--he noted that i should focus along the arrow more and connect the target to the arrow. he also hinted that this wasn't just a literal act (i.e., concentrating on a specific target), but also metaphorical (i.e., concentrating the mind, along with the body, into a single act with a single purpose at a single point in time)
  • opening up--he commented that i needed to open up as i raised the bow and proceeded into the draw, reminding me to expand outwards, so that i was pushing out from the center to draw the bow, as opposed to pulling on the string
  • trigger--he said to treat the glove as a trigger, and to release when the timing was right. again, this wasn't just in the literal sense (i.e., at the end point of the exhale prior to the inhale), but also in the metaphorical sense (i.e., when the mind was ready)
Sensei had us shoot only 1 arrow each today, saying that this was plenty. i think he was right. and i can see why we've spent so much time on other aspects of kyudo separate from actually shooting an arrow. the act of knocking an arrow, drawing the bow, aiming, and then firing is a profoundly complicated procedure for the uninitiated, and provides plenty to worry about without the added burden of all the other elements involved in the art. it makes things much easier (in the sense that you can provide much more of the necessary concentration) to shoot an arrow if you have gained some measure of familiarity and comfort with the non-shooting aspects first.

i found today's act also really insightful on both literal and figurative levels:
  • there are many nuances to just shooting the bow and arrow. the arrow has to be knocked correctly. the glove has to be placed correctly. the bow must be drawn correctly. the string must be released correctly. and the slightest variation can produce significant differences in the result--and that includes the trajectory of the arrow.
  • posture is HUGE. just like the above, the slightest defect in posture can make a major difference in the arrow's path.
  • the release of the arrow has a psychological feeling that i can only describe as akin to the triggering of a rifle shot. i mentioned this to Sensei later in the week. i say this because the act has an immediate, intimate sensation (both a rifle shot and an arrow accelerate within millimeters of the ear, eye, and can literally feel them going past). this makes for a visceral experience. i found that it snapped the body and mind (just as much as it snapped the air), and crystallized the moment of release in the consciousness. the feeling is very much like being awoken by a sudden jolt, so that you switch instantaneously from a slumber to a state of alert. but just like the arrow hitting the target, the act of awakening serves to focus--except that the focus isn't just on the act of shooting, nor just the path of the arrow, nor just the point where the arrow hits the target, but also on the moment in time and space that the entire event unfolded...with you at the center.
this was good. i learned a lot. in ways that you can only learn by doing.

there's a joke from a poster of Frank Sinatra that i keep thinking about that i keep thinking about to describe this. it had a picture of Sinatra, with the line "to be is to do, to do is to be." it was promptly followed by the punch line "do be do be do be do." it was a joke, but i find it strangely taoist in a way, and in a manner that fits situations like this. because it's right: to be you must do, to do you must be. at least sometimes.

i'd like to do this again.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

day 200: starting shuai jiao

  • falling
  • rolling
  • leaning
  • basics
i should announce that we started shuai jiao classes at UCLA last week. currently, the classes are scheduled for every Thursday, 6:30-8am at the Wooden Center. it's a small class, with some of the people who had originally expressed some interest bowing out, leaving 4 students. it's being taught by Sifu, largely at my request, and fits in prior to his tai chi class in Kaufmann Hall.

if anybody reading this blog is affiliated with UCLA and has an interest in shuai jiao, feel free to join us. we'd be happy to have any company.

for those of you who don't know, shuai jiao (alternatively spelled in English as "shuai chiao") is among the oldest of traditional Chinese martial arts, stretching back approximately 2,000 years, with evidence of traces to even older styles that existed close to 5,000 years ago. it involves throws, grappling, and strikes. it shares many similarities in appearance and origin with Mongolian wrestling.

you can learn more about shuai jiao by referencing the following links:
i had asked Sifu to teach this, since it seemed to form many of the basics in methods and technique that were adopted and used by successive TCMA. i figured it would enhance my understanding of TCMA, and also of the physics in working with human bodies in hostile situations. in addition, seeing that the UCLA Wooden Center has a room with mats and that both Sifu and i are on campus, i figured it would be a waste not to take advantage of the opportunity (Sifu hasn't been able to teach shuai jiao at the park because the grass doesn't provide sufficient padding for practicing throws).

the other reason is that Sifu learned shuai jiao from Chang Dong Sheng. i've written about him before (reference: masters: chang dong sheng). i've come to admire Chang Dong Sheng for the seeming effortless nature in throwing opponents (check out the videos in the link, and note that he was in his 70s when the video was filmed--whatever he was doing, i want to do, cuz that old man was flat-out kicking ass), and also for his personality (at least, based on what i've seen of it in Youtube videos...he seems like the kind of personality i'd get along famously with).

the first class last Thursday was divided between logistics and lessons. the logistics was dealt dealing with class cost, uniforms, equipment, and books. we also discussed confirmation of the meeting time and room.

the lessons were focused on the basics. Sifu showed us 5 basic drills for falling and rolling:
  • falling forward from a standing position
  • rolling forward from a standing position
  • small somersault from a standing position
  • rolling sideways from a standing position
  • rolling backwards from a kneeling or sitting position
Sifu also showed us the 1st 2 basic lines in shuai jiao. he commented that unlike other TCMA, shuai jiao has no forms, at least not the same kind. the "forms" in shuai jiao are just lines involving repetitions of the same techniques over and over again. he said this shows just how old the style is--it's the fundamentals of combat, boiled down to the bare-bones practical components, and nothing more. it was (and is) meant to be used, and so is composed of only the useful. Sifu said that shuai jiao competitors can be effective knowing just a handful of techniques, and in reality, in fighting that's all you really need.

i have to say i liked this. it's different. and you can literally feel the age of the movements. and you can see just how they could form the basis for subsequent TCMA. a lot of the stances are similar, except with a slight lean of the torso, but with the center of gravity still kept solidly within the base of the stances. i have the feeling of seeing the thread of history through time. and i definitely want to see more.

we finished right on time at the 8am mark, with Sifu promptly going with Art to the tai chi class.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

commentary: sky lanterns

this is a cross-post from my other blog, jonathan in the distance.

this coming weekend is the lunar new year in the asian calendar (excluding a few countries, like Japan and Thailand, which don't celebrate the lunar new year).

to honor the event, i wrote a piece for new year's that i thought was relevant, particularly since it was based on the tradition of sky lanterns practiced in chinese culture:
happy lunar new year. cheers. and may the new year be good to us all.

day 199: kuen wu jian time

  • memory
  • kuen wu erlu
this going to be a short post. this Sunday, on a somewhat ad hoc request by the class, was devoted to the kuen wu erlu form. i think everyone felt we needed more time to practice the form, particularly since we were having trouble remembering all the changes that were incorporated in December.

it also turns that the video i made for the erlu form contained some errors. Sifu said he'd taken a look and found some mistakes, and that we should probably record another version. he, Lance, and Phunsak ended up taking some time to resolve some more issues in the form, and then decided to let Lance have some time to work with the form before we record it again, which will hopefully be next Sunday class.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

day 198: another day in the life of...

  • turning
  • expansion
  • skeletal structure
  • bagua fist form
  • kyudo
things went a little bit better this week in the memory department, although i was still assembling my mind by the time the weekend arrived.

we began this Saturday with some review of the bagua forest palm, to help a few people catch up and to give the rest of us an opportunity to refresh our memories. Sifu used this as a pop quiz, having each person in class take turns leading everyone else through the form. i did okay, although i took the form a little slow just to make sure i avoided any mistakes.

bagua fist form

we spent the remaining class time working on the fist form. Sifu went through what we had learned last week, taking some additional time to demonstrate the applications. he then went a few moves further into the form, again focusing on the applications.

in all actuality, the majority of class today involved applications, with everyone taking some time to practice using the techniques and get a feel for the correct body mechanics involved in applying the proper physics.

this actually was a little bit more difficult than it first seemed (it always is), particularly with one move (suspiciously similar to techniques Sifu had shown me in the bagua leg form and in long fist) that involved turning the body to facilitate a throw of the opponent (the key, just like the other times Sifu had shown me, was to make the turn with the body as a unified structure...which is consistent with the bagua fist form's emphasis on visualizing the entire body as a single fist). Kieun pointed out the technique was almost identical to one in kali (an indonesian martial art), and demonstrated it for Phunsak and me (it is similar, with the major distinction being the addition of a joint lock).

this took quite a bit of practice. but i think people managed to get everything down by the time we ended class.


kyudo this evening was denoted by 2 major things:
  • there were many more people than usual (21 tonight, which is a big increase from the numbers i'd seen last month, which had been more around 10-12); and
  • people seemed unusually tense, with everyone seeming to share a certain level of stress (why, i don't know...i found it a peculiar temporary mass psychosis, of the kind my father has always claimed can be observed in human society)
the major focus tonight (at least for me) was a continued education in the idea of expansion from the body's center to properly draw the bow. Sensei had me and Phunsak follow Aaron through an iteration of the kyudo sequence from the beginning (entering the dojo), to shooting (on the line), to leaving (withdrawing from the line and exiting the dojo). afterwards, he pointed out to me the need to adjust my posture, and to get a feel of extending my arms and legs outwards, since this serves to align the skeletal structure of the body properly (in my case, the shoulder blades and spine...common issues Sifu identified a long time ago, and which he's been having me address).

Sensei also emphasized that drawing the bow is really an act of skeletal (and hence, structural) operation, and less an act of musculature. this makes it easier to draw the bow, and also allows the practitioner to do so in a way that is smoother and more stable, and hence more accurate. of course, this requires good posture and extension of the skeleton (arms, legs, girdle, spine, etc.) to properly employ the required physics.

we finished later this evening, but largely because i think there were so many people involved tonight.

Friday, January 16, 2009

day 197: starting the bagua fist & returning to kyudo

  • chan si jin (silk reeling)
  • body as a fist
  • entrance count
  • over the mountain
  • shooting form
  • non-federation styles
  • unified whole
  • sighting
  • bagua fist form
  • kyudo
today (Saturday) was the 1st day back for both kung fu and kyudo, and only my 3rd workout of any physical kind since coming back from the winter break. meaning that it was a transition back into the training mode--and a little bit of a kick in the pants to get myself into gear.

bagua fist

things started slow today, with people clearly taking their time getting into the park. Sifu waited as long as he was willing, and then instructed us to go ahead and start class. he had Phunsak lead us through tantui as a warm-up, and then review the bagua forest palm a few times.

after he returned from working with the baji students, Sifu said that he wanted to start the bagua fist form today.

he gave us a brief background, saying that the fist form is taught after forest palm in the curriculum because it is considered as containing more nuances, particularly with regards to internal dynamics not readily apparent from an external observer but which are critical to the movements in the form. in addition, it is also taught later in the curriculum because it is a challenging form to remember, with approximately 92 moves--a significantly greater number than forest palm or 64 palms.

with that, we began with the initial movements in the form. Sifu stopped after each move to stress the nuances in the technique. he pointed out that while externally the movements resemble those from other Northern TCMA styles (i.e., chang quan, baji quan, etc.), internally there are radically different dynamics. in particular, true to bagua principles, there is a constant emphasis on chan si jin (silk reeling)--even in movements that appear linear. Sifu identified and detailed the body mechanics necessary to integrate chan si jin, with many of the actions coming from the spine, driving both into the ground through the legs and outwards through the arms. Sifu stressed the following:
  • the importance of visualizing the twisting component of our body mechanics, not just in terms of individual limbs, but the entire body as a whole, so as to extend the chan si jin physics throughout our body
  • the importance of visualizing our entire body as a fist, which helps to 1) unify all elements of the body into a single structure, and 2) thereby project more power
we spent the remainder of class practicing the form, and experimenting with the chan si jin body mechanics. Sifu said it would take some time to learn the physics, and that we shouldn't hurry the form. he suggested that it would be helpful if we practiced the form like tai chi--slow, and gently, with the focus on feeling our way through the movements and silk reeling to better understand how to produce it.

we finished with the usual post-class lunch.


kyudo today was quite eventful. Sensei had the beginners (there were 3 of us) work on the steps in the entrance sequence, the shooting form, and on technique.

following the regular chanting of the heart sutra and meditation period, Sensei asked Aaron (one of the advanced students) to help us on the entrance sequence into the dojo. we had worked on this a little before, with Sensei having shown us the 1st person in line entering the dojo on a 9-count sequence and the following people in line entering on a 5-count sequence. this time, however, he wanted Aaron to let us practice, and point out some more details.

we practiced the entrance, with each person taking turns serving as lead or followers. Aaron also added a number of pointers:
  • the leader's count-9 (the point when the leader formally steps forward into the dojo) is supposed to be the next person's count-1 (the point when the person steps forward to bow before entering the dojo)
  • after the leader's 9 count, each successive person's count-5 is supposed to be the next person's count-1
  • the leader's path into the dojo is a clear progression of lines and 45-degree steps. however, as the line progresses down the row of archers, the path becomes more curved
  • inside the dojo, as the line moves along the firing line, every person is supposed to be synchronized in steps (i.e., everyone steps forward with the same foot at the same time), with only a slight delay between each person (i.e., the leader will be slightly ahead of the 2nd person, the 2nd person will be slightly ahead of the 3rd, etc.)
following this, Sensei had us actually take turns in the shooting line, following other archers and going through the entire shooting form. for this time, however, we held no bow or arrows, but instead were supposed to just focus on acclimating ourselves to following the line and going through the entire shooting procedure. Sensei made some comments to me:
  • do not squeeze back with the shoulder blades. the scapula aren't supposed to come together. this would be symptomatic of the back pulling the bow string to shoot. this is actually more difficult than the alternative, which is to push through the bow to shoot. this way is correct, and involves the shoulder blades flattening, so that they actually expand outwards, away from each other.
  • it's important to stay soft. tension only makes it more difficult to exercise correct technique.
  • it's important to visualize yourself placing your body structure through, or inside, the bow, since this helps to facilitate the form of pushing the bow out.
  • one mental device is to think about "going over the mountain." Sensei meant this to say that the act of lifting the arms with the bow should involve an entire movement of the body, so that the bow-and-arrow, when viewed from the front (facing from the target towards the archer) or back (facing from behind the archer towards the target), traces an arc (hence, "rolling over" an obstacle). this helps to bring the correct body mechanics.
a lot of this Sensei has told us before. but we hadn't had to work with them in the actual physical performance of the form, and doing so let get some insight as to what is actually going on inside the body.

we spent the free shoot period with Sensei in a free-form question-and-answer session. Phunsak ended up asking the majority of questions. my questions were largely concerned with more fundamental aspects (e.g., practicing ki-za and so-za), as well as with the various alternative styles of kyudo--it turns out that the styles endorsed by the international kyudo federation are only a selection of the many kyudo styles that exist, which makes me quite curious as to what the other (non-federation) styles look like. based on what Sensei told me, the only way to see the non-federation styles is to actually go to Japan, since they're not very widely practiced (and in some cases are disappearing altogether).

Sensei also discussed the nature of shooting, and connecting it with breathing and driving body forces through our centers, with the effect of unifying all the elements of archery--the archer's body, the bow, the arrow, and the ground--into a single unified system...of course, to really make this a unified system, i suspect we also have to include the target and our own mind. once this happens, it is only natural that the arrow will hit the desire target, because at that point the arrow is the target.

Sensei also talked about the alignment of the target on the bow and the hand, noting that the nature of sighting varies according to the person, with some sighting so that the target is a half-moon on the left side of the bow along the top of the bow hand, with others sighting so that the target is obscured by the bow along the top of the bow hand, and others more sighting so that the target is a half-moon on the right side of the along the top of the bow hand.

Sensei noted that these were all more advanced concepts, and not things that we needed to worry about for now, and that we should just focus on the basics.

we finished there, and ended class by cleaning the dojo.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

day 196: kuen wu erlu

  • differences
  • kuen wu jian erlu
i'm writing this several weeks late. i've been rather busy, and so wasn't able to get this in. it's also going to be a short post.

this post relates to the last Sunday before the winter break, which was Sunday, December 14. we had a small turnout today, since we were largely winding things down for the fall.

the focus today was on finalizing the kuen wu erlu form. as mentioned in previous posts (reference: day 194), there's been some debate on this, but this time Sifu decided we should try to produce a standardized version of the form, and then also record it so that everyone can reference it. as much as possible, it's based on the erlu form given in the book published by Liu Yun Qiao, and incorporates Sifu's memories of the interpolated segments not shown (i.e., missing) by the sequences of photos in the book. Lance took the honor of doing the form for the video, so credit should be given to him for performing it--as well as for being such an advocate for standardizing and recording it before people forget it.

you can see the kuen wu erlu form here:

you can compare this to the kuen wu yilu form:

we spent the entire class on this, with the bulk of time spent on finalizing details and going through several video takes. hope you enjoy.