I had some sad news in the mail today from my former publisher, Paladin Press, which sent letters to current and former authors saying they would be closing shop after 47 years in the publishing business. Another death-knell for small publishers in a world that values electronic convenience over the printed word. For anyone "of a certain age", particularly in North America, who has done martial arts for any length of time, it's hard not to remember the ads in martial arts magazines for their books and videos/dvds or to forget the legal troubles that they endured in the late 1990s when they were notoriously sued for publishing books said to have influenced some high-profile crimes in the USA. They survived that and, in more recent years, they tried to keep up to changing consumer demand by offering electronic downloads of their most popular films and publications through their website.
There's an Aesop's Fable about a King of the Bullfrogs trying to impress it's fellows by blowing itself up, bigger and bigger, to impress its subject amphibians after they described at length how big an ox was that had accidentally stepped on their nest. The King keeps inhaling more and more to try and seem larger than the descriptions it is hearing... until it bursts from its efforts to seem bigger. That Fable seems apt to me on days like today when watching many of the "experts" who have posted videos of themselves on sites like Youtube™. It's hard to avoid the feeling that many of them haven't bothered watching a lot of the clips of better experts to see what real taijiquan expertise [insert the Family style of your choice] looks like. Is it because they can't tell the difference between mediocrity and excellence or is because they refuse to see the difference between what they are advocating in their own clips and what is available around them? It also often seems to me that those with dozens or hundreds of clips on their channels are trying a little too hard to metaphorically blow themselves up in the viewers eyes.
Studying a recreational martial art of any kind is usually a game of chance in that the skills one gains might work in a self-defense situation... if one has the basic requirement which is the "Heart" for the fight. Or the Will to fight, if you prefer. Even with that being present during class time; there's no way of knowing how anyone will react to a real attack -- with or without martial training.
Experience builds ability as well as confidence; but it's also very true that mindset can change dramatically in that moment that you realized that you are not "training/playing" and that the danger is real. Some of us seem to be genetically programmed to keep fighting even while dying or being maimed; others go into shock when struck once; others surrender too easily.
It has also been my experience over the decades that many modern martial artists [not all by any means] assume that their deadly/"secret" techniques will guarantee survival "when the going gets rough". It might, it might not; as there are too many variables to anticipate for each such situation.
For example, not too long ago I misjudged my training partner's reaction to something he'd tried during some light sparring and flattened his nose accidentally; he stopped what we were doing to clean up his face and wipe away the tears. He said he couldn't continue as he couldn't see. So an observer with little fighting experience might be tempted to think that flattening someone's nose might be a good fight-ender [and it can be] but I know that partner well. If he'd been at real risk, he would have fought through the pain and the tears and the same observer might have thought "shit, that technique is useless."
Finally, from my days working for the police, one of my officer friends had been involved in a raid on a house where someone was shooting back. When the special tactics squad broke down the door, the culprit [who later died] was still firing at them even though he had already had been shot himself more than a dozen times by then. Life-and-death stress can do umpredictable things to the human body.
In the end, all the martial training in the world can't overcome the lack of will to fight. I once saw it well described by someone posting on a martial discussion board "You can arm and train sheep but, in the end, most will end up remaining sheep." A little harsh for those who choose some of the many other good reasons to do something like taijiquan or any Chinese martial system -- but, nonetheless true!
Copyright Michael Babin ©2017
Taijiquan can't turn us into supermen though I have met one or two experts over the decades who certainly seemed "extraordinary" in their body mechanics and martial abilities even though they were no longer young or even middle-aged. While having good genes, on-going hard work and plain good luck in terms of avoiding injuries are sometimes deciding factors as well, on-going hard work is probably the most important factor after competent instruction!
This attitude is still surprisingly absent in those who think they want to learn Yang-style taiji. For example, I was eating lunch with one of my senior students in a restaurant and the man at the table next to ours had obviously been eavesdropping on our conversation about taiji training. As we got up to leave, he blurted out "You guys do taiji? I just started taking lessons with so-and-so and love it but it's hard to remember the postures. Do you think I should practise on my own between classes?"
I let my student answer as he has been teaching Yang form to a small group of beginners as part of his apprenticeship for certification and it was good for him to have to answer such seemingly stupid questions. Besides I was choking from biting my own tongue!
After we left I told Lloyd "Now you'll understand how frustrating it can be to hear that same question as I did repeatedly during the years that I taught introductory classes in community centers."
Yes, you have to work on your own between classes. In the beginning, repetition and regularity of practise is the key; but as you get better and better, IMPROVING your performance of each such session becomes more and more the real secret of successful training.
Oh and if you want to study the martial side of the Yang style, learning some variation of the slow form is only the beginning and the most important aspect of any martial training is having good partners to practise with as well as competent instruction.
Copyright Michael Babin©2017
I think of myself as a Yang style "generalist" in recent years rather than someone who follows a particular teacher. Thinking that way can have its dangers and its limitations but so can being a devoted follower of a particular lineage or teacher. For someone who values history and archaeology as much as I do, somewhat surprisingly, I'm not interested in turning my taijiquan forms and martial methods into museum pieces or slavish copies of someone else's material. That kind of stuff is essential in the formative years but can easily become its own trap as the years and decades roll by.
On the other hand, I don't see the value of creating a mish-mash of ingredients so that my Yang taiji looks like nothing I originally learned much less like bad xingyi or bad bagua. Nor have I been a fan in the past of modifying the solo forms taught by the men and occasionally women with whom I have studied. Perhaps this is because I have an old-fashioned approach to copyright issues and don't want to feel as if I am radically changing someone else's interpretations just to pass them off as my own.
I watched a video today of the best of a workshop that Rob gave last year on close range tactics from the perspective of the Systema that he practices and teaches in the UK. I was reminded while doing so that we live in an audio-visual age which might well have made the founder of the Yang style Taijiquan, Yang Lu Chan, green with envy. For those who don't know the story, he was reputed to have learned the basics of his art by watching Chen-style practitioners practising while he hid behind a stone wall and watched them training night-after-night. What would he have thought of the modern opportunity to attend workshops, buy dvds, stream instructional videos or "shop around' at a variety of martial arts that teach openly to anyone?
I felt a little bit like I was "stealing secrets" myself while watching Rob and his students training on my monitor screen. Perhaps I'm only fooling myself as to the depth of my understanding of martial body mechanics but I saw much that I recognized and liked. I also saw much that was done differently or explained in ways that made more sense to me than the kinds of explanations I have used with my own students over the years for similar methods of standing and moving while delivering and receiving "discomfort".
43+ Years of Experience Training in the Chinese martial arts; 33+ years experience teaching taijiquan and 24+ years experience teaching baguazhang