Sunday, 30 May 2010

Making life simple

I recently bought the new Apple iPad for my wife. She has never been a fan of computers. They are too logical and cold for her. Usually, when she writes an email, I have to stand at her shoulder and advise her. You can see the unease that creeps up every time she gets near a keyboard and mouse. I have a computer in our living room, and she won't sit near it.

Now I am guessing that there is a whole chunk of society who feel exactly the same as my wife. To them, computers are confusing, irrational and frightening. This fear is so bad that they make a thousand excuses why they should not use one. I've heard every little argument.

But something really interesting happened when I gave Claire her iPad. She ENJOYED using it. My self-confessed computer hating wife not only smiles when she uses it, but she is now asking me "Will it do this" or "will it do that". She WANTS to use it more. Possibly for the first time, she sees a computer's potential.

Everything wooshes around at the flick of a finger. The whole package is so slick and capable that using it is instinctive. There are no instruction manuals. You don't need one, because it's all common sense. When my four year old daughter was allowed to have a go, she picked it up straight away. My one year old daughter also understood the interface without any prompting.

This is the way computers should be.... clear and simple. Why make them complicated? Why do you need a million different configuration options? It keeps software engineers and computer companies in money, that's why. Most people don't want to be computer engineers. They just want to get on with their lives with the minimum fuss. Apple understand this more than anyone, and in the iPad, they have delivered a computer tool that understands how people work and delivers simple, effective services for them.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The teacher's teacher

For the past two weeks, Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei has been in the UK conducting seminars for a wide range of abilities. The class I attended was the advanced Laojia Yilu. In the picture opposite, he is demonstrating wrist locks to an eager group of students. Special thanks to Master Liming Yue for bringing Chen Zhenglei to our shores once more.

This time Chen Juan (CZL's eldest daughter) ably assisted in the classes and provided additional tuition and support to the students. It is good to see the Chen lineage coming through strongly in this excellent, spirited Tai Chi player.

While training is of paramount importance to me, these classes are also a great opportunity to catch up on old friends and make new contacts. After the first day, it was clear that the large majority (if not all) of the students in Master Chen's class were Tai Chi teachers in their own right.

This made me think about where do teachers go to continue learning about their art? It is important to keep your skills relevant and improving, so how do you know that you are learning with the correct teacher?

Many traditional martial arts place great importance on lineage. Lineage is the way you connect yourself to the inventor of your art and their direct inheritors. For example, my lineage is that I was taught by Master Liming Yue, who was in turn taught by Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei and up through the Chen Family history to Chen Wang Ting who invented Tai Chi. Your measurement of success is how few the degrees of separation between yourself and direct lineage (in this case, the Chen family). While lineage is one way of assessing a teacher's knowledge, it is not always a guarantee of quality.

There are other ways of proving worth. One way is through competitions. You can perform your movements and have them judged by a panel of officials. This kind of marking is subject to interpretation, and external appearance is no guarantee of martial skill. Cage fighting and Mixed Martial Arts tournaments are becoming more and more popular as a way of proving self defence skills. Other martial arts have simulated combat competitions (Judo, Tae Kwondo, Tai Chi push hands etc.) But many of the most effective traditional martial arts techniques are banned in modern tournaments. So while tournaments are a good barometer for isolated requirements, they are not necessarily a guarantee of a teacher's fighting skill. Also, they are not a guarantee that the teacher can teach. There have been many naturally gifted fighters who have surrounded themselves with students who have learned very little.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself after attending a martial arts class for the first time:
  1. Did the lessons make sense?
  2. Were things demonstrated slowly and clearly?
  3. Are you happy with what you have learned?
  4. Was your health and safety considered?
  5. Did your skill and understanding of the martial art improve (or did you just learn how good at martial arts your teacher is)?
If you can answer yes to all these questions, you are in a good class. Finally, have a good look around at other students. How good are the more experienced students? This is a guide to your future.

At the end of the day, it is about trust. Who do you trust to correct your technique? I personally know I have made the right decision to learn from Master Liming Yue and Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. The content of their classes is outstanding, they give clear instructions, they have everyone's safety in mind, and taking a look around their classes - I see so many other teachers there, so I know I have made the right decision.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Tai Chi and Meditation

@KarlRichard (His website here) asked me the following question:

"Can you explain how meditation and Taiji work together as one? Not an easy task, no doubt... Coming from a Buddhist perspective!?"

Many Chinese martial arts (including Tai Chi) were influenced by the Shaolin monks' training, which was taught to them by Indian Buddhist monk - Bodhidharma. He was disturbed by the monks poor physical health, and showed them "tendon changing" exercises (Yi Jin Jing), which were later adapted into the self-defence forms and skills we recognise today as Shaolin Chuan (Shaolin Boxing).

Bodhidharma was responsible for introducing meditation techniques to the Shaolin and he is associated with the idea that spiritual, intellectual and physical excellence are an indivisible whole necessary for enlightenment. It is this ethos that has cascaded through to many of the modern Chinese martial arts today - including Taijiquan.

To delve a little deeper and understand Tai Chi as a meditation, we have to understand the concepts of Wuji and Taiji (Tai Chi).

Wuji is the fundamental principle of stillness. It is a quality that is - in essence - empty and non-polar.

Taiji is extreme opposites (or supremely polar) and represents the interplay between yin and yang. (incidentally, it is this concept that was mis-translated for many generations as "the Grand Ultimate", which fuelled the fires of mysticism and bad teaching that is being corrected by better modern understanding). It is dynamic and polar, and represents the substantial and yielding qualities that are required for self defence.

Now - to attain Taiji (dynamic, polar) gongfu (skill), you must first attain wuji (stillness and emptiness). Meditation is merely focused consciousness. When practicing Tai Chi, the consciousness, movement and breathing are co-ordinated and can be interpreted as a holistic meditation. There are also meditative postures like Zhan Zhuang.

For further reading on Tai Chi and consciousness, try here: