Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Listening to the Wind

The Garden of the Gods is a beautiful park and registered national landmark located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It is swarmed with naturally-forming crags, outcrops and monoliths, that on a particularly blustery day, provide among the pinnacles a vast, open area for the gusts to swell unimpeded, and narrow channels along the ground that amplify the blowing power of the wind. 

It was just such a day when I visited this amazing place, and it was incredible. I don't know if it is always like this, or if I was just lucky, but in certain spots, grown men were literally being propelled sideways like children, and their children were literally toppling over. Naturally, I recognized the importance of the occasion and entered the park as if I were attending a lecture. The wind has something to say if you're willing listen. Here are the two key ideas it discussed:

1. The Idea of Absorbing and Deflecting

In Tai Chi Chuan, it is often said that one should practice the form as if moving through thick or heavy air. This sensation is clearly perceived when the air is actually offering this resistance. It becomes apparent that when expanding or contracting, stepping or rotating, the body must be prepared to experience resistance from any direction so that is able to absorb and deflect offending physical energy. 

To absorb a force is to align the body in such a way that it behaves like a supporting structure wedged between the incoming force and the ground; to deflect a force is to maintain that structure and rotate so that the force rolls off the support. By assembling random forms in the gales, the wind became my rival, and because it's further along the Way than I, it played the role sifu as well. Strong gusts into the structures I built demonstrated defects in my posture, which threatened my balance when I didn't correct. Untelegraphed flurries perpendicular to my stance kept me constantly turning my waist and arranging my footing to manage the spontaneous onslaughts. 

The tactile feel from a significant, invisible force offered new insight on my postural deficiencies, and provided an opportunity to experiment with idea of Absorbing and Deflecting physical energy in a turbulent environment.

2. The Idea of Following and Piercing 

The "Swimming Dragons" are set of chi kung exercises that move in a twisting and sinewy manner. The body, of course, is always governed by tantien, but many of the movements themselves follow and stay behind the fingertips. The concept is simple, but the actual practice is not trivial to coordinate. In free practice and push hands, I often use the Dragons to "swim" out of locks and throws.

When sparring with the wind, a gust would frequently manifest as a sudden sideswipe, or it would overwhelm my posture before I could erect a suitable support. In such a case, Absorbing and Deflecting cannot be performed effectively, if at all; collapse is much more likely. I experimented with two solutions to this problem, both of which where inspired by the shapes of the Swimming Dragons. 

If I was late to react to the wind's attack, I had no choice but to be blown in the direction it sent me. Why resist if such an act results in a clumsy saunter or a fall? Instead, it is better to Follow. When I was able to swim my fingertips in the direction of the gust and align my body behind them, it was as if I was riding on the current, and I was easily able to correct. 

If I was cognizant enough to anticipate the impending collapse, I could preempt it by swimming my fingertips into the gust. When I formed the Dragons correctly, they resulted in aerodynamic shapes that dispelled the gusts by Piercing through them, again allowing me to correct. 

I had never experienced the sensation of Following and Piercing like this before, and when I got it wrong, the wind chose the oldschool approach to teaching — which is to say, it knocked me over. I think it would be a very intriguing exercise to switch dynamically between Following and Piercing in a similar environment, but in this case, the gusts were too quick and unpredictable. I suppose next year I'll have vacation to Kansas to seek the tornado. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Misconception of the Significance of Belts in the Martial Arts

When newbies enter the dojo, chances are they proceed through the doorway with a preconceived notion relating to the significance of the martial artist's belt. This misconception is mainly a product of the media and pop culture, which have impregnated the minds of the uninitiated with absurd ideas that range from the silly to the inconceivable. Modern motion pictures suggest the black belt designates the wearer as a mysterious and lethal assassin, while the infamous Mr. Miyagi claims the purpose of the belt is to hold up the pants. 

Yeah, well, these concepts are nonsense. First of all, martial artists don't need belts to hold up their pants, because gi pants have either an elastic waistband or a tie, and think about it: No respectable assassin is going openly wear an accessory that marks him as mysterious and lethal. Unbelievably, even legitimate martial artists participate in all the hype by claiming the purpose of the belt is to denote the rank of the wearer. This is blatantly false. An outward affirmation of rank is entirely unnecessary. The various colors are just there to appease the children. The actual purpose of the belt is much more utilitarian. 

For starters, even if it's composed of cheap material, the belt can make a really good noose. A noose is one of the most efficient tools you can implement to convince your training partner to submit. The belt makes a decent trip wire too, although this requires some preparation. Either you have to tie the belt to something and lay in wait to pull it taught, or you have to employ the assistance of a kohai, and they are not always reliable. 

You can also wrap it around your training partner's ankle and run like hell. You should probably bow as you leave the mat, but keep in mind the more time you spend on etiquette, the more likely your training partner's going to grab hold of something, and that will make things difficult. If he's fastened soundly enough that a few robust tugs won't yank him free, you'll have to hurry back and hogtie his wrists to his ankles — which works well enough, but he won't be nearly as fun to drag. 

Folding the belt into halves or quarters allows it to be swung at high velocities like a horse whip. While on this topic, I'd like to mention that if someone is, I don't know, restraining you by your gi jacket while the rest of the class is flogging you with their belts because they found out it was your birthday, don't slip out of your gi jacket to escape. This is foolish. Belts on bare skin hurt.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit The Great Temple in Kompaneyskoye, where belts were originally invented. Let me tell you, the guys there are pros. They don't mess around. I saw an old lady take down a polar bear with her belt, which is amazing because she couldn't have weighed more than 88 pounds, and there aren't any polar bears Kompaneyskoye. I know there's a certain Guide out there which advises that you never leave home without your towel, but take it from me, belts are much more deadly. Don't be caught without one, and always carry a backup.