Saturday, 21 November 2009

Chen Zhenglei Seminar

Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei is the 19th generation inheritor of the Chen Family, and the 11th generation direct-line successor of Chen Style Taijiquan. He has been officially recognised as one of China's top ten martial artists.

He started competing in 1974 and by the end of 1987, had won more than 10 gold medals in the Henan province & National China Martial Arts competitions.

I was fortunate to catch up with him for an advanced workshop in his family form of taijiquan. Master Liming Yue is a senior student of Grandmaster Chen, and has enjoyed a long association, bringing him over to the UK to conduct lessons.

I first met him in 1999 when he came to the UK for seminars in Manchester, and have learned from him in China, and in England many times since then. He as always delivered an outstanding class.

I think it was Barbara Raskin who said "When love & skill work together, expect a masterpiece." You can say the same about Grandmaster Chen's skill as a tai chi player and teacher. Every nuance of taijiquan is conveyed with a simplicity and power that eclipses men half his age. The energy in the room was astonishing, with everyone taking away valuable lessons in the art.

If you practice your tai chi seriously, I highly recommend a lesson from Grandmaster Chen. it also goes without saying that Master Liming Yue must be applauded for bringing him to our shores and providing translation. Long may it continue.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Culture Shock! - Tales from China

The first time I went to China (1999), I went with Master Liming Yue and a group of his senior students. (Incidentally, if you ever get a chance to go to China, GO! You will not regret it.) Many of us were students from different classes, so we did not meet until the airport.

One chap was a proper northern lad called Keith. He was a larger-than-life character, who had done a lot of martial arts and was discovering tai chi. Keith was a tough guy. He did not do breakfast. He liked to get up early and go for a run. Generally, we did not see him until after breakfast.

After staying in Beijing and Jiang Jia Jie forest park, we met up with Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei in Handan. We were to undergo a week of training in a hotel there.

None of the hotel staff spoke a word of English. Most of us did not know Chinese. Generally, we got through the language barrier well, until one morning. We were having our breakfast in the hotel restaurant, minding our own business, when there was a loud commotion in the entrance hall. The next thing we saw will stay with me for the rest of my days.

Keith was being comically dragged into the restaurant by five small chinese waitresses. The noise was quite amazing. keith was shouting: "Tell them.... will someone tell them I don't do breakfast..... I just want to go for a jog".

They just didn't understand. They were only worried that he was going to miss his breakfast. Liming hastily explained to them. They finally let Keith go.

I laughed so hard, my ribs ached for the rest of the morning.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

First Steps

Let me take you back to the middle-to-late 1970's. The Bionic Man, Scalextric and Evel Knievel were the number one boys toys. My first "best friend" was Paul. He was a whole year older than me and lived around the corner from my house. I attended the local state primary school and he went to the catholic school. We spent many good times getting into scrapes.

When I found out that he went to karate classes, I was intrigued. He used to show me his moves while I kept nagging my parents to allow me to go "Karate? What do you want to do karate for?". Finally, after weeks of begging, my father relented, and gave me the £1 for my first class.

The Roe Street Mission was a dark, dusty place. We would wait outside for our sensei, Brian, to arrive and open up. Once inside, the warm-ups would begin. But when his back was turned, we used to take it in turns to spin each other around by the ankles and let them go sliding on our backs along the polished wooden floor. Fantastic fun!

Then the classes would start. I don't think I was the best student Brian had ever seen. But I worked hard - press-ups on the knuckles, sit-ups, crunches, stretches - it didn't matter. I was so small and light, they were all easy. The sparring used to frighten me, but I gradually got used to it.

But good things don't last. Firstly, Paul's family moved across town, which may as well have been across the world for a seven year-old. Then we moved further away still. My peers changed for the worse, and my life changed completely. I looked at local judo and karate classes, but they did not have the spirit or character of Brian's class. I gave up martial arts completely.

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since my first Karate classes. The Roe Street Mission is now a fully-renovated, beautiful silk museum with a posh cafe and shop. It took twenty years to discover the richness of Chinese martial arts and taijiquan. I am now a taijiquan teacher and a father of two.

If there is anything that I have learned about martial arts from this meandering journey... there are a lot of things that make up a good class. It can be great friends to train with like Paul or charismatic teachers like Brian. But for a martial art to really catch you, to inspire you to improve, it has to be the content of what is being taught. It took me along time to find the right content, so don't be disheartened if you don't find what works for you immediately. There is a martial art for everyone. Just keep searching.

To those who have found it, you know how it feels. This article is in response to another teacher in London who has obviously found his content. You can view it Here. Thanks Neil for sparking off the memories.

Friday, 6 November 2009

My Tai Chi Experiences by Natalie Weiner

I am your archetypal ‘rubbish at all sports’ kind of person. I hated PE at school (yes, I was the one who always got picked last!), and have never enjoyed going to the gym or going to fitness classes. But I reached the point where I thought I ought to make some kind of effort at getting fit, and Tai Chi seemed to be a gentle way in. I think it appealed to my slightly lazier side, I thought it looked easy, gentle and effortless, and I reckoned that with my lack of coordination I wouldn’t last very long anyway!

I was so wrong.

Although it looks gentle, Tai Chi is still a martial art, and not only does it require physical exertion but mental focus too. As a result of going to classes for so many years now that I don’t even remember how long it’s been, I’ve realised that Tai Chi has slowly started to infiltrate my daily life. My posture has improved hugely. It seems that my coordination isn’t as bad as I thought. And the breathing exercises which help focus the mind have been invaluable - on my wedding day, in order to stay calm, I encouraged my chief bridesmaid to join me in some ‘Tai Chi breathing’, despite the fact we were both in our dresses, fully made up, carrying flowers and about to go down to the ceremony! I dread to think how it looked but it definitely helped me!

One of the key points for me about Tai Chi has been that you are never perfect, and that’s not a bad thing. You can learn for years, and still spend time refining your posture here and there, working on it all the time. It’s given me a huge sense of achievement to be able to say that I can do the first 11 moves, plus a chunk of the sword form (on a good day!). But it’s a work in progress, and an enjoyable one which allows me to switch off from the daily grind whilst also keeping fit. If only they’d taught this at school!!

By Natalie Weiner