As I mentioned in my 5th International Wudang Taichi Tournament post, traditional martial arts are undergoing a period of change. Well, more accurately, they are constantly changing, not only from generation to generation or year to year, but from moment to moment. I will not try to define traditional martial arts, because to do so would be to limit and diminish them. But I can talk about the faces the art presents, the way it adapts to narrow niches in order to survive in the material world. Survival means that the narrow but popular and materially viable niche thrives and sustains the art so that a new generation can be trained in the deeper traditions.
From the stories our Master has told us, kungfu schools here in Wudang a few decades ago resembled nothing so much as street gangs. I speculate, but it seems the art was still reeling from a loss of relevance. Individuals were still trying to exist as they had when fighting was the daily test of the art. But in truth modern combat, in warfare and elsewhere, had no place for them. Still speculating, but I think the turf fighting between kungfu schools that our Master has spoken of was evidence of Wudang kungfu’s displacement. While a few individuals kept the spirit of the art, its true face was lost behind an outdated mask. Kungfu schools attracted few students and slowly dwindled away. After all, why send your child to a school if the only future it offers is violence and eventual imprisonment?
More recently, traditional kungfu has adapted by taking on new appearances. It caters to entertainment, tourism, sports, and health. Each of these outlets are, as I said of the Taichi tournament, narrow but necessary expressions of kungfu. Movies and TV keep the art alive in the popular imagination, though they twist the image so as to be more attractive. Performing for tourists and teaching them for a few days at a time brings in a little much-needed money, and wins the support of political and economic leaders who also profit from the tourists. Making a sport out of the art provides an publicly acceptable competitive outlet, the same thing the old street gang kungfu schools failed to do. Kungfu also appeals to those who search for a well-rounded health practice, though this too is only a small facet of the larger practice.
But if the art only exists in these outlets, it is lost. No one of them (or even all of them together) encompasses the breadth and depth of the traditional teachings. Nonetheless, we who want to preserve the old ways must accept both the necessity of these outlets and the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of our practice. And hope that someday the world will once again value this hidden treasure.
What does it mean to practice Martial Arts in your daily interactions? The uninitiated might imagine this as fearsome, like a businessman using The Art of War to overwhelm rivals. Myself — years ago when I had only been training long enough to develop some arrogance and little else — I had to give a speech in front of a large group of people. I was nervous, so I drew confidence from my imagined superiority. They might not like my speech, but I could beat them up. Ha.
Aikido was my first experience of how martial arts could be applied positively when dealing with strangers, friends, and loved ones. Aikido’s philosophy separates the intent to do harm from the art of defending oneself. The goal is to use sensitivity to neutralize the conflict without harming either attacker or defender. While the principles of block and counter-attack would only do harm if manifested verbally in an argument with a loved one, Aikido’s methodology provides a healthier model for conflict resolution.
I found myself reflecting on these things this week after listening to an impromptu lecture from my master. I paraphrase, but he was discussing external self-defense versus internal self-defense. Imagine a punch to your nose. You block — you break the attacker’s arm. An effective defense, no? But what if the attack is verbal? Words that wound, that make you sad, or angry. Words that keep bubbling up in you, and each time make you sadder and angrier. That same attacker has now given you a festering wound that will take longer to heal than a bloody nose.
To take this seriously, you must accept that emotions have power. Negative emotions do violence to the heart and mind. Chinese medicine also links emotion to the health of the major organs. So an unusual mood might be a symptom of a developing illness, or conversely, learning to calm the emotions might bring better health. But I think what makes negative emotions so dangerous is the way they influence behavior. If they lead to self destruction, no one else can help you, and you yourself are already out of control and not well prepared to protect yourself. Internal self-defense means keeping calm and choosing happiness in every event. The more I train, the more important this seems.
As I start this blog, I want to try to give you a picture of my day to day existence.
A typical day of training looks like this. We get up at 6:00 (this and all times vary by season) and do an hour or so of qigong, taiji, or other internal basics before breakfast. At 8:15 we assemble outside the school, wearing our uniforms and carrying our weapons and other practice gear, and we walk alongside the wall of Yuxugong temple to the front gate, where we enter the temple and start stretching. After 20 minutes we begin warm-ups and basic exercises, which are usually low stances or striking combinations. After about an hour, we rest and then do some conditioning, usually sit-ups. After that, we go through our forms as a group — that is, standing in a grid pattern and practicing matching our speed and position to the students around us while trying to execute the movements clearly. Morning class ends at 11:00. We return to the school, eat lunch, and rest until around 2:45, and then we go back to Yuxugong. Afternoon practice usually includes kicking basics followed by more group form practice. At 5:00 we end class for dinner. At 7:00 we meditate for a little over an hour, and then we prepare for bed. Lots of rest is important for our training, so we go to sleep early and get ready to do it again the next day.
This pattern repeats Friday through Tuesday. On Wednesday we have a school performance where we show our master our forms and demonstrate our progress. Wednesday afternoon and Thursday we rest and clean the school.
We students are organized into 5 classes. There is the Open class, for short term students, and there are four Traditional classes. Class One contains the coaches. They are students who have been training with our master for 5 years or more and who teach the Open and Traditional classes while Master rotates between them. Class Two is a group of teenage Chinese students who have been training at the school for roughly 2 or more years. Class Three is the traditional class for non-Chinese; my class. Class Four is the traditional class for newer students who are not yet ready for Class Two. This hierarchy also represents a structure of command to some degree, whereby this large and energetic group of people is coordinated and disciplined.
Though we have fun, I think people who have served and trained in the military or similarly rigorous programs might best understand the discipline and structure of our lives and how that feels. Living this way for a day or a week was challenging to begin with, but it is the unrelenting structure that is the most wearing and ultimately works such amazing changes in the students here. This is the backdrop I hope you will keep in mind as I write posts about the special and unusual things that happen to me.
I would like to introduce the Balanced Life Skills community to Corey Hopp. Corey has been living in China for the past year and a half studying Wudang Daoist Kung Fu. He is preparing to return to China at the end of March, but in the mean time has offered our school the special opportunity to learn about Qigong (chee-gong) a healing art including deep breathing and meditation.
On the website linked here, Corey is the 9th student from the left. It is very cool to have a visiting instructor and we would like to invite any of the parents and others to come in during at the times listed HERE to for a demonstration class during the week of February 14th at no cost. Starting the week of February 21, there will be a small charge for the classes that will last one month – prior to Corey returning to China at the end of March for more training.
This is a great opportunity to learn about this art and health form that I am sure everyone who takes part in will enjoy.