Success

Determining what is successful or progressive is not easy even when there are tangible means of assessment, you can only look to yourself. The words of others may offer comfort and direction but only you can know for sure. For a warrior toughness should not be measured by physical prowess alone but by their mind intent and spirit. To trust, persevere and overcome in meditation of spiritual and martial nature requires diligence and discipline. I feel blessed to know and train with such a person, Michael Horley GB Judoka.

Press play, don’t press pause, believe, progress, march on. 

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The logic of foundation.

With knowledge of the fundamentals and a logical application we can build a solid accessible foundation. From this place we can develop key skills, tools and awareness to harness and develop our energy, discipline, intent and health.

Our foundation feeds into our understanding of exercise and the basic fundamental benefits that we can experience from meditation. Enabling practitioners to access a starting point, an anchor for initial study and for some a much needed justification for practice.

A solid foundation helps formulate a direction for progression, building step by step, block by block . Ensuring the ground work is laid for a healthy progression, whilst giving check points to help stabilise and reinforce development.

Simple exercises and datum points are always useful, not only in the initial stages of learning to meditate but also many years down the line. Both comforting and reassuring a practitioner in times of need.

Foundation building blocks and foundation exercises should by no means be considered basic. These skills are the most advanced you will learn, your context, understanding and interpretation will evolve, shaping, informing and facilitating practice for years to come.

Marital arts should be relevant to real life not ‘the street’.

More and more I see adverts for martial arts classes making reference to ‘the street’ and how this or that art is the best as a result. I appreciate real life plays out on not just one but many streets but it is the essence of the issue with which I I have a problem. A Martial Art should contribute to the development of a person to better help humanity, a vehicle for health, happiness, understanding and contentment.  

There is a key role of martial arts in history that should not be overlooked, but its’ physical relevance in todays society has evolved. A basic interpretation of an arts practicality ‘on the street’ is, I hope, one of self-defence. Interpreting, transferring and evolving a technique learnt from a form, or in a dojo, to be effective in a real life self-defence situation.

Many a martial artist seem obsessed with an Arts’ relevance on ‘the street’. What street? There are some extremely proficient martial artists who would be able to make most things work on most streets, however, the times I have heard a teacher pronounce ‘this is how it happens on ‘the street’ it has been clear they have never been on the street they are making reference to in anything other than a fantasy world they created in their head.

Everything in Martial Arts comes down to context and interpretation. The application of the physical self-defence element focuses on one small element of an art, which in many respects signifies the failure of all other aspects of a practitioners martial arts training.

Creating a relevant context for martial practice that facilitates intelligent thinking, feel, decision-making, contextual awareness and the application of relevant techniques poses a challenge. Life and times have changed, for some practitioners their lives still require and facilitate the application of martial physical skill but for most that is not the case. Teachers need a ‘hook’ to attract students. The biggest problem this creates is not weather or not a technique is relevant or ‘would work on the street’ but the creation of a fantasy world in which these martial arts practitioners reside and the resulting self doubt that dogs the few who question their Arts’ relevance.  

The idea of the ‘street’ and the way it is marketed is quite brutal. As a Martial Artist I went looking for the ‘street’, I found people of all backgrounds and outlooks, on the whole I didn’t find martial artists. Mostly, real proficiency on the street came from a type of person most would not like to associate with or be compared to. Fuelled by anger, drink, drugs, hate, a love of fighting and hurting others. These are not attributes of a martial artist.

The street can be organized, clumsy, inconsistent, unreliable, violent, friendly, cold, wet, hot busy, quiet, full of individuals or groups…

The safe navigation of which is all down to a healthy awareness, interpretation of context and knowledge of self. A full martial arts system can help you achieve this and become a better person. If you want to become proficient on the street you don’t need martial arts, the street is no different to any other arena; to be proficient takes time, experience and practice. As an individual you need to ask what you are looking for and as a teacher you have a responsibility to ask what it is you are imparting and advocating. 

Martial Arts are a powerful tool. Used for good or bad all falls within the realm of the Tao, but it is up to us to make a decision we believe to be in the interest of humanity. 

Practice: It’s not easy, if it was we’d all be doing it.

Our lives are busy and the constant gaze of society means it’s not even on the horizon of our thought process when we get up in the morning. For some an urge to do it makes a brief apparition before they snuggle in for another five minutes of warmth and rest, there are a select few obsessive compulsives who jump out of bed filled with a an overwhelming desire to practice. For most it’s buried so far behind the myriad of other things they need to do once they’ve had a coffee that it seems irrelevant.

For most of us we need structure and guidance to practice.

Despite much rhetoric, practice in meditation is neither easy or natural, but once it gets hold of us we want it in our lives. Like most forms of activity when we’re doing it we love it and appreciate how much we need it. It’s the doing it that’s hard.

I trained with a lot of people who, if their teacher was in residence, would fight to be the first out of bed to show how diligently they practiced. Their insecurity, form and application told the real story of their day to day, week to week training and development. The internal arts are so full of contradictions it is difficult for a student who has a goal of “improvement” to know what to do. The classics of Chinese Martial and Meditative Arts pave the way to more questions than answers.

You know you’ve cracked it when your art it is part of who you are, part of your essence, a feeling that moves with you, positively supportive. Different for everyone and evolving with time. Wanting but not needing, looking forward to but not feeling pressured, embracing and letting go of inner pressure. I’m guessing it’s nice, but it’s not easy. 

The Essence Lies in Rei

rei1

Rei   – Japanese – literal meaning salute, bow.

I am regularly involved in conversations relating to health and martial arts. I enjoy such discussions and hearing different peoples outlook on what is a diverse practical and academic subject.

One such conversation, with a practitioner of many years, left me a little saddened. They reflected on their practice in relation to one of their peers concluding they had been left well behind. Their words made me reflect on the essence of what I practice and why I practice.

The following day I was reading The 20 Guiding Principles of Karate, The Spiritual Legacy of the Master Gichin Funakoshi. The first principle underpinned my feelings.

“Do not forget that Karate Do begins and ends with Rei”.

In all martial and health arts as in life, without Rei and all it entails the fabric of society and human beings is eroded.

For those who believe their outlook lies purely in a Japanese or Chinese lineage it is worth remembering, as highlighted in this book, that before the name Karate Do (the way of the empty hand) was adopted it was referred to as Karate Jutsu (Chinese hand technique).  What’s more once you begin to read the principles their interpretation is clearly open to your understanding, context and art.

It is not always easy to recognise practitioners who have studied for many years and yet failed to grasp the concept of Rei, affording it little other than body and lip service. Humbly they move and speak as though they are all knowing, convinced by their own hype sure of their practical expertise, experienced based or otherwise they are, in their own opinions, experts. They can be so convincing that those around them believe them without assessing or questioning their behaviour.

“A persons deportment may be correct, without a sincere and reverent heart they do not possess true Rei” (P20)

The basic academic/linguistic assessment of the word Rei enables such individuals to tick a box. Believing that knowledge of techniques, forms or meridians somehow elevates them to a place where they can bypass the foundations to revel in what they consider to be the essence. Put more philosophically their lack of root and grounding feeds their belief that their expertise allows them to reside in amongst the blossom while their students and anyone else languish down below. The roots, trunk and branches analogy is relevant in all areas of practice.

If Rei does not relate to life and all that you do then you have not progressed in your art and your art will not progress. Amassing greater academic or physical knowledge does not reflect on an individuals ability to grasp, absorb and proliferate the real essence of an art, it is merely a reflection on their academic or physical ability.

There is no progress without Rei, no substance to practice, no nourishment of the art. Arts began with and evolve through Rei. Rei is the constant in all things and a true reflection of our nature and essence.

In our essence lies our Rei, in this we see a reflection of our progress in life.

Lineage, A Teachers Responsibility

The essence of the art lies with the individual, the history of the art lies in its Lineage. Highlighting lineage helps ensure respect is shown to teachers and those who went before them, those who committed time and energy to an art that you now enjoy.

Dedicating a life to an art has significant implications and should not be underestimated. I have heard stories of how teachers and their families were persecuted in China because they studied and taught, yet they continued to practice and impart their knowledge so that others could enjoy it. A short film I saw recently Be strong, Be gentle, Be beautiful highlights the dedication and challenges faced by Keiko Fukuda, in spreading her art of Judo, now enjoyed by millions.

A Teachers influence is far reaching, how they behave reflects upon their teaching, their art and therefore their Lineage. Reality often crushes our romantic ideas. The global development of Tai Chi Chuan, Karate and Judo highlight the intricate involvement of Martial Arts in the history of and politics of their birth nations. The survival of some arts and extinction of others has been decided by influential families with strong political and social ties.

An honest Lineage should be underpinned by the integrity of the individual.

Unfortunately, many people use Lineage to achieve their own ends, to make them seem more credible, to fill in their gaps, to create a history, to justify the money they paid…. In short, to satisfy their marketing or personal ends thus neglecting their responsibility to both their Lineage and their students.

For the purpose of this blog, I feel compelled to draw a line between traditional martial arts and sports. For the latter the sporting and competition elements are the primary aims, where as in Traditional Martial Arts guiding principles are laid down as a way of life.

It is an important distinction because it cuts to the heart of traditional martial arts, on the internal, external and spiritual level. I always encountered less ego in a boxing gym than I did in a Tai Chi class. On reflection I think I encountered a greater manifestation of fear and insecurity in a Tai Chi class than I did in a boxing gym. The boxing gym was less academic and a more physically honest environment. In my twenties I spent a lot of time teaching martial arts, working in bars and clubs and practicing boxing and martial arts, the perceived and actual energetic differences were striking. Tai Chi classes often fed peoples insecurities, creating greater uncertainty and reliance on the teacher. Weakening not strengthening the Shen of students.

There is ego in all walks of life, sport and martial arts are no different you need a bit of it if you are striving to improve or be the best. It does not need to define you as a person, dignity and integrity shape how we live and how we behave as human beings.

A good teacher should want to develop their students – physically, energetically, spiritually, as a martial artist and person. A strong teacher/student relationship requires trust, this requires the student to open themselves to the opinion and outlook of the teacher.

How a person lives their life is a matter for them to decide but a person who chooses to teach and bring students into their life, as is often the case in Traditional Chinese Martial Arts, has a moral and ethical responsibility. Abuse of a position of influence or other people’s good nature lacks all integrity and contradicts the fundamentals of being a good teacher, person or martial artist.

During the last 30 years I have met a lot of highly respected martial artists, some briefly others I got to know well. Unfortunately there were those who spoke of respect, integrity and honesty but demonstrated little, teaching one message but practicing another. There often seemed to be a deeply ingrained need for manipulation and control that far exceeded any of their other responsibilities as teachers.

The philosophy of internal health and martial arts would support the idea that total unanchored dedication to any one thing is in itself unbalanced and therefore unhealthy. You see a lot of unhealthy, unbalanced individuals practising internal martial arts, unfortunately this is from the top down as well as bottom up.  All full time teachers have to balance paying the bills with class numbers which will at times affect who is being taught what but it does not explain deeper issues.

A friend made me laugh recently when he said he lost all respect for a Chinese Internal Arts teacher when he saw him smoking behind the bike sheds. This was a teacher who made all students promise never to drink or smoke, allegedly in line with his beliefs, yet it was the first thing he did when they got off the mat. Male teachers seeking the sexual attention of women in their classes is another example that can be levelled at many. It seems there is always a ‘get out’ clause when in pursuit of the Dao but regardless of how such teachers justify their actions, their behaviour reflects on them as individuals, the essence of the art they teach, and it’s Lineage.

The idea that martial arts informs a way of life means teachers should be good human beings, supporting and helping others develop and positively sustaining their Lineage. A teacher’s knowledge of form and technique is not an excuse for being a weak individual.

Martial, health, fitness and life knowledge go hand in hand. It is good to remember and think about those who have contributed to our life, whether it seemed positive or negative at the time it has helped inform us as people. I learnt as much about being a good person and coach from a man who fixed bikes in France as I have from many a renowned martial arts teachers. For the integrity of our Lineage it is worth remembering that we all age, it’s what we do in life that determines if it’s gracefully.

Health, Fitness, Happiness. It’s all Qigong!

In principle we are all keen to ensure we are healthy and fit. We can’t escape the basic fundamentals of life;

  • Consumption, food and drink.
  • Stimulation and engagement, of body and mind.

New Year brings with it a throng of resolutions to rejuvenate our approach to life. We are innately aware of our basic needs but achieving them poses us all different challenges. The pressure to be beautiful, fit, healthy, lose weight, be happy, earn more money, be a good parent, partner etc are significant and can at best lead us to focus on a specific area of health at worst lead to a feeling of total disempowerment and depression.

When asked most people agree the important things in life are health and happiness. Our actions tend not to support this idea and, our pursuit of happiness is often at the cost of our health and as a result our happiness. It’s is a cycle that is all too often repeated. We lose sight of what is really important in pursuit of other aims and ambitions.

Individuals often ignore their context when deciding what changes they want to make or achieve. We are contextual beings, with busy lives finding right type of exercise presents a real challenge. All changes take time to implement, a change in lifestyle is an even greater challenge. Finding time for something new can push us over the edge, resulting in us abandoning our health drive all together. Knowing what type of activity is best for you is key to enhancing and sustaining your health and well being.

Exercise is an umbrella word for a myriad of activity. Chinese Health Arts recognise two main forms of exercise, ‘internal’ and ‘external’.  Generally speaking external exercises comprising of high Tempo, cardio vascular exercise traditionally associated with gym and sports clubs, internal exercises constitute Qigong, Meditation, Tao Yin, Tai Chi, Bagua Zhang Taoist Yoga.

In Chinese martial arts circles there is a respected adage:

When you practice external exercise you must also practice internal exercise to create balance and increase your power.

Harmony and balance in all things is at the heart of Qigong. In deciding how best to achieve balance; all elements of your life and personality need to be to be at the heart of any decision you make. If you are able to look after yourself it better equips you to look after others.

We are often led to believe aerobic exercise is the answer to all our body and health requirements. I believe external exercise has many benefits and for some people it is an absolute must. However, there is a danger that for others external exercise further depletes their body’s energy levels, further limiting its ability to fend off illness and disease. The primary motivation for exercise should be to improve health and well being not to weaken us. Qigong and Taoist ‘Internal’ exercises develop and strengthen the body and mind, through movement, breath and intent leading to an increase in the strength and flow of energy, Qi.

Fitness does not always reflect health. There are lots of examples in sport where leading athletes suffer from ill health. Training to a peak for competition can weaken the immune system exposing the individual to illness and injury.  Conversely there are people who claim to be healthy but are not fit, or are overweight. In my opinion health and basic fitness go hand in hand, it’s when people over emphasise any one element of health or fitness that imbalance results.

Traditional Chinese Medicine equates illness and disease to a blockage within the body preventing the smooth, healthy flow of energy, Qi. In a healthy body Qi circulates freely rejuvenating and sustaining the organs, respiratory, nervous, circulatory and glandular systems, nourishing muscles, tendons, ligaments to ensure we are both physically and mentally healthy. With this in mind internal exercises have been developed to support and strengthen the body against attack.

There are elements where this approach is akin to a traditional western approach to fitness and areas where the approach differs. Poor circulation is a common complaint. Many advocate ‘external’ exercise to increase heart rate and therefore circulation. There is a tangible logic to this approach, however, there are many examples where people have poor circulation and high heart rates. Partaking in ‘external’ exercise for such people places the heart under greater pressure and does not address the cause of the blockage. Increased strain mentally and physically often results in further problems. With this in mind it makes sense to consider another approach to addressing circulatory problems. Similarly this is relevant to people who lead very active or busy lives, to introduce external exercise into their regime before making their bodies healthy and strong enough to benefit from it is neither sustainable or beneficial.

Internal exercises, as practiced in Empowering Qigong, relax, nourish and rejuvenate the person, body and mind as a whole to help alleviate the specific and associated problems. Taking into account the energetic, physical and psychological condition of the individual and providing a frame work on which to build. A well structured internal exercises programme helps our body to deal with the daily pressures it encounters, but can also optimise recovery from specific illness or operations.

I had a client in his 50s who used the methods of Bagua Zhang Circle walking to help him recover from an operation. Advice from a senior medical consultant outlined a specific heart rate to facilitate recovery. Running and other cardiovascular activity pushed his heart rate too high and he found it difficult to keep his heart rate steady, whilst walking normally did not get his rate high enough. 10 mins circle walking 3 times a day helped him achieve optimum heart rate and facilitate his recovery and help improve his general well being.

Health and fitness will always be relevant to us. How best we achieve happiness may well inform both areas. Whether you choose internal or external exercise to  help achieve your goals a proactive approach is a positive one. The most important thing is that you enjoy what you are doing. If there is no joy in what you do, change. Empower yourself to be happy and healthy.