Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Martial Arts and Daily Living

A lot of people are put off by the idea of martial arts for a simple reason that you need to wake up early and practice outside during winter. In my opinion these are such minor components of the whole practice and if you do get into practicing at dawn and during the winter than you are already into it that much that it doesn’t matter. Your teacher may be flexible enough to assist you in learning whenever it is convenient for you, some teachers take it easy during winter and if you have a spacious apartment you can practice at home. So, first of all martial arts teaches flexibility.

Another simple implementation of martial arts in daily living is that you learn how to keep be focused, relaxed and under pressure at the same time. The pressure comes from the point of twisting your body in new directions, using muscles you haven’t used before, learning what ‘natural posture’ means in terms of martial arts. After a while your body becomes soft outside (for the observer) and hard inside (you experience the flow of qi in your body). Simply, if you manage to keep your body relaxed in strenuous exercise then in daily living you can maintain being relaxed in stressful situations. Needless to mention, daily practice enabled me to remain calm and focused despite the circumstances and the environment.

Many students ask – what do I do with my eyes? Where do I look? Regardless what the practice is – standing, walking, moving – eyes are looking straight but your mind does not register information taken by your eyesight. The gaze is turned internally, observing your muscles, your legs, your hands, scanning every single request with your mind. I used to go to crowded places to train for competitions – the more distraction the better it was. Well, no doubt, I learned how to focus and keep final destination constantly in my mind – perfection of the body posture, allowing the energy to flow freely like cleaning blocked pipes or dirty chimneys. Meridians are fresh, blood circulates to all parts of the body, there are no blockages and as qi starts in your dan tian it swirls through the whole body and is being released into the ground. To reach perfection you first hear about what it is that you are looking for and then step by step focus on each requirement until you get it and lift yourself up to new horizons. I take focus as another insight for daily living.

Recently I have been translating for Liu Shifu – he has new students who don’t speak much of Chinese and I am amazed (again and again) how much patience he has. Each student is treated in a new way, with new perspective, so much appropriate for their personality. I stopped asking how he does it, each time it is just as if he knows how nature works. Of course, practicing ba gua was helpful for increasing this insight (amongst other things). As I translate I keep rushing ahead, giving my perspective on what is being said, talking about my experience while he sits calmly and waits for me to finish. Never a single comment, never a single request. I look at new students practicing zhang zhuan (standing stance) and keep thinking: they must be bored, there is so much more to it! And yet, I realize – their mind is so occupied by simple standing stance (as it looks simple to an observer) and giving them more just takes them away from the final destination. I learned patience by living in China and I know that patience is part of every journey – accept the fact that beginning is slow and that some things you will do well, some will be hard. I accept patience as part of my daily living – with flexibility, calm and focus I look forward to every new challenge.
Copyright 2006 Dalida Turkovic

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Finding Shifu

When master and a disciple meet they are both ready for the exchange and mutual growth. In Chinese this is called yuanfen - destiny.

There is a perception that all good Masters have left China and now live abroad. Martial Arts are in China somewhat regarded as old school, tradition that society wants to break away from while embracing modern lifestyle. To certain extent this may be true however, Masters are still around in China, abroad – everywhere. Once you are ready you will look for one and he will find you.

Long ago, before I was looking for a Master I read that you can recognize one if they have great sense of humor, presence, calmness and wit. Avoid teachers that insist you should be practicing with them, those that speak highly of themselves are fake and avoid them. Real Master will speak highly only of their own Master and the practice itself.

I found my first teacher early in the morning in September 1999 (I believe it was 0630) in the nearby park (Temple of Sun) where I’ve seen people practicing taiji. I almost gave up after 30 minutes of looking for groups of people – it felt like it was a day off for taiji practitioners. And then, just at the tip of my doubt that I will find what I was looking for hundreds of people appeared before me simultaneously waving in small circles. I was enchanted and observed who amongst them could be my teacher. I wanted it to be a woman, I needed a role model and one quiet gentle woman drew my attention. When I approached her she pointed in another direction and suggested I talk to a woman who in quite harsh way required perfection from the group. She scolded people openly calling on their weird posture and laughed at them shamelessly. At first, I thought she was somebody I’d rather avoid but once recommended I accepted the challenge and agreed to meet with her the following day. Day by day I practiced every day with her for 5 years.

He Laoshe is a 7th generation Wu style Taiji (although she thought me Yang Style) and after bad press falong gong brought to Chinese energy practitioners she accepted modern style practice – forms approved by government, mostly focused on competitions (performance). She detached from traditional ways, didn’t talk much about qigong nor history. The base of the practice was to keep learning various forms and at that time I found it interesting, precious and soothing for me. I learned and grew, I conquered my fears in competitions, all very useful and applicable in my daily living, my memory and focus improved through memorizing all the movements and learning what ‘natural posture’ means in Taiji world. One after the other I learned forms: 8, 16, 24, 42, 48, 32 sword, 56 sword … each new form was helping me improve the performance of the old one.

After 5 years of practicing with He Laoshe one thing became apparent: I was getting medals on competitions, everybody could see that I mastered forms but I was ‘empty’ inside. Daily practice brought me insight that in 10 years I may get a grip on what my Qi flow is and how to work it out for personal benefit. It seemed like long time and my impatience triggered need to explore more teaching styles, to look for other teachers, compare what was out there and who was the best for me.

I met with 4 male teachers over next 2 years and each one brought something different into my perspective. The first one was young, also competing in Yang Style – looking back to time I met him I realize I wasn’t ready for him. From him I learned gentleness. The next one I met was a former soldier, he came to class in his pointy shining shoes and I thought he was all over the place. I didn’t find him grounded, he was too immature for my perspective of Master and how one should look like. From him I learned to appreciate calmness. Soon after that I met a teacher who was disabled, living in a poor neighborhood, who knew the theory, talked a lot but wouldn’t practice and didn’t require that I practice either. He required RMB500/month which would cover 8 classes and I could come more if I wanted. That didn’t quite work for me either, and even I saw him 3 times the connection faded away. From him I learned I learned the role of mind in the martial arts practice. The closest I got to change the teacher (Shifu) was when I met Chen Laoshe who had presence, posture, some charisma and strength that attracted me. I met with him 4 times, practiced for a bit and then found myself being dragged to dinners and gatherings where he wanted to show to others his new foreign student. As that was too much show off for my taste – so I stopped. From him I learned that the quickest way for worm to eat a wood is moving horizontally rather than vertically.

3 months later I had a privilege to meet with Liu Shifu, originally I knew him as masseuse. After inspiring massage session and few talks about Tao I was intrigued with his style, calmness and ease he was presenting life. After asking if I could learn massage from him he said I had to practice to attain gongfu (workmanship, skill, art). The way I understood it then is that I needed to fill my empty bones with strength and ground myself in practice. That is how I started practicing Bagua and Xinyi Style Martial Arts with Liu Shifu. Traditional ways of Chinese gongfu presented in the considerate way of learning how to act in harmony with Nature.

I can’t say I won’t practice anything else, I can’t say I won’t practice with another shifu. I am definitely not sure if I would’ve captured teachings of Liu Shifu if I met him 7 years ago but one thing I know for sure – after 3 months of practicing with him my Taiji improved significantly and I was able to sense the flow of qi.
For one year I didn’t learn any form, I was stretching my body, learning about Chinese culture and philosophy, sharing daily problems, talking about dreams and how they could be interpreted. Yesterday I had my first massage class – 1,5 years after I originally intended to learn Tuina.

In China I learn patience.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Martial Arts and Daily Living in China

When choosing a master one need not be hasty. Observe people around yourself with patience and understanding, teach them of yourself and understand inner path you are taking. It later allows you to look at your master’s eyes with humility, understanding and acceptance. Great masters have been but a few and only history keeps their records, few alive ones keep battling about own theories and perspectives being more concerned about claiming others being wrong rather than proving self being right. Considering the fact that training in martial arts partly requires imagining opponent (with an aim of being ready once it really gets to that point) I assume verbal dispute is a modern way of contemporary practice..

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“You are the sixth generation of Bagua Zhuang Style,” Liu says proudly. I try to hide confusion of my mind going through a Bagua genealogy calculation:
“If he is proud for me being the sixth generation, it must be even more special to be the fifth one!” thoughts are racing each other while hoping he doesn’t misinterpret my disappointment: I came in one generation too late…
I am convinced that karma carries something within my matrix which has distinguished code for martial arts. I start practicing 3-4 hours daily. There is some force that I like and follow in this instance. Projected initially through the energy of money I keep questioning decision to invest in myself and pay double of the fee to somebody I hardly know. There is something in his eyes that I want to get: clarity, calmness and depth. He keeps convincing me that it is just the matter of time.
Gentle strokes and testing of the physical capabilities are nothing but the beginning of the vast exploration of Internal School of Martial Arts. Taichi, Xinyi and Bagua. He is proud of his own way, as all the other masters (Shifu) are. I have not met many but can distinguish pride from arrogance.