Thursday, February 23, 2006

Silly fingernails...

...hinging open is for doors!

Last night at judo during randori I pulled my partner towards my, trying to pull off an osoti gari (large outer reap), which is one of the fundamental moves, and apparently very good for tall, lanky guys like me. I guess my fingers were curled too much around his judogi lapel, so when I yanked, I felt my nails bend backward. Sure enough, when I looked, my ring finger nail was glowing in a halo of blood. Excellent. Tape it up, back in we go.

Sometime shortly before or after that, I was with the same guy and ended up doing an ouchi gari from behind him. Bad move. Not only is it illegal in competition -- it could break a guy's ankle -- but it's also not so good for the one doing it, as you end up crashing on top of the opponent and your legs snap up. Ouch, back pain. Before all this, in my first round of randori, my opponent's judogi ground into my right eye, so for the next ten minutes I sparred with a watering, blinking eye, looking like a drug addict in withdrawal.

By the end of my retreat at Jing Shan I had decided resolutely and gleefully that the following week was "martial arts week, no questions asked." During that time, God helped me come to terms with being myself -- very happy in Taiwan, athletic and intellectual, content living a "daily" life etc. -- and I think until I had attained that kind of humble honesty, I was too anxious about my every turn. More than that, for the past several months, at least since World Youth Day, God has insisted I slow down and "set my house in order" (cf. St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, stanza 1) before flitting into yet more activities. Now, however, I feel lighter in myself and yet heavier in God, so that I sensed Him nod and give me the green light to return to martial arts. They key, as always, is to maintain a living daily connection with Him, eve as I engage my providential surroundings with joy, hope, prayer and love. For example, earlier this week I got home and had three things ahead of me: pray, cook some black beans, and taiji practice. I fretted for a moment or two about whether I should pray first, then go to taiji and just do the beans later. But then I sensed God's tap on the shoulder: "Elliot, if you don't cook these beans now, you will push yourself to do it much later tonight; then you will go to sleep much too late and be weak tomorrow for teaching. But if you put the beans on while you pray, your mind will constantly be fretting about the pot boiling over or the beans burning, so you will not really be with me in prayer. Also, you have committed to taiji as an act of living the joys I give you."

"So...?" I wondered.

"So," I sensed Him say, "cook the beans and go to taiji. Be with me while you cook and while you train; for I am with you. I see your heart; I know you long to pray..."

"But I must cook these beans, Lord," I interjected.

"That's right! Now you are beginning to understand! You are a small man; you must eat; you shall eat these beans for days; all this is my will and my grace."

Praise God, I have the freedom to cook beans!

Walking in such spiritual freedom, I also decided to heed the counsel of one of my readers:

[I]t would also seem to make sense to learn a style which is particularly well-represented in the region where one lives. I'm surprised you haven't taken up something like Bachichuan or Baqua. I had heard that certain teachers in Taiwan still maintain these forms in their pure combative essence. I don't know whether it would be possible to study these elsewhere and it seems a bit, well, unfortunate (although highly focused) to ignore these while you have the unique chance to learn them. ... {He added elsewhere:} [H]ow is it that you could be in one of the heartlands of semi-fermented teas, where delicious gaozan 高山茶 is readily available, and yet you are apparently drinking green tea (unless of course, you have combined both categories--mistakenly). It boggles the mind almost as much as when one would ignore the hsing-yi, pakua, and bachichuan sifu to engage oneself in Judo.

The more research I did, the more excited I got about bagua. Not only do I love the concept of reversing the aggressor's energy against him, but I also enjoy bagua's fluid nature and its use of open palms versus hard" fist strikes. I originally planned going to bagua two nights a week at the Cheng Ming dojo here in Taichung, but then on Sunday I ran into an American professor at Dong Hai University who has studied taiji and bagua (i.a.) for 25 years. He quickly steered me away from Cheng Ming, though, saying their style was too hard on the joints, had little application in actual fighting situations and was too expensive, to boot. He goes to Taipei every weekend (or so) to train with a renowned bagua master. Then I gave him my card, and he not only invited me to join him for bagua, but also said he needed a training partner for white crane. "Interested?" he asked. I was simply flabbergasted. I had gone from literally zero knowledge of bagua and white crane to a chance to learn with two well experienced trainers. Unfortunately, the professor has not yet contacted me. (I suspect a mix of busyness, misplacing or forgetting my card, and then perhaps being alienated by my religious baggage, if he saw my blog, have all contributed to putting the ball in my court to further our contact.)

Another development I should mention has to do with taijiquan ("tai chi"). Because I heard taiji is good for breathing, and because I have chronic nasal/throat problems, with occasional breathing difficulties, I was interested in any help I could get. Further, my limited research into bagua had led me to believe studying any of the three "internal" forms of gong fu -- bagua, taiji or xing yi -- overlapped and thus reinforced common, key principles and "instincts". Plus, my reader was right: I live in a country famous for its living legends in these arts, so I really would be a fool to miss the opportunity to get my feet wet in such a living stream of martial arts tradition. So, as it stands, I have had three lessons of taiji. Classes are free; we meet in the science museum courtyard about 1930, warm up, do a full form, get coaching on one or two key forms, practice for a while, and then finish with one or two more cycles of the full form. (Keep in mind I am a total novice, so my use of terms is idiosyncratic and most likely wrong. By "full form" I mean a complete set of moves we do, as in one "dance", before isolating and practicing moves within that dance. I've ordered a few books on the internal forms, so I can get the theory and terms straight.) We're done by 2040 or so. I go Monday and Thursday nights. I'm committed to at least 12 lessons before giving up or changing locales.

My return to judo was tragicomic. My original plan of doing bagua was foiled, so I jus did taiji instead -- simple enough. The problem of returning to judo was more delicate. I was still embarrassed by my awkward "disappearance" from my first dojo; I was also genuinely not excited about going back to it, as I felt it was too small and the instruction offered was too aimless. The only other option I knew of was the Xin Min dojo -- but then I heard that was a private school club. What to do? Add to all this that I was genuinely afraid of returning to judo. I won't bluff: judo gives me chills. It is demanding and intimidating. My books and Dane (and cooking beans) are so much more inviting. I put off my decision until last Friday, shuffling my mind's feet nervously all day; even when I got home, I was panicky about whether to do bagua or judo. (Talking with my buddy and fellow teacher, Jeff, who had studied bagua five years in Australia, I decided to try bagua at Cheng Ming, regardless what the Dong Hai prof had said to the contrary; you have to start somewhere, and my aims as a novice are totally different from his as an expert.) I deliberated until the last minute but then sprang into action: to judo! Not only was scheduling all three forms implausible, but, more important, I owed it to myself to try a new dojo for the martial art I enjoy so much.

Classes are scheduled on the Internet to begin at 1900. I arrived at 1910 ... and waited until 1940 for warm up to begin. Unfazed, I eased my way back into judo and, even in only one lesson, I was pleasantly surprised by the differences between Xin Min and my old dojo (Cheng Gong). First, the warm up was comprehensive and not as hasty as at Cheng Gong. Second, Xin Min's tatami area was twice the size of Cheng Gong's, so there was room for ALL of us to practice at once. Third, unlike at Cheng Gong, there weren't too many coaches on the mats, so that I wasn't left confused by three or four differing, even conflicting, corrections from each passing coach. More important, the coaches instructed me personally, specifically and clearly. "This is what I want!" I said to myself. I want to be drilled and drilled and drilled again in the BASICS. Maybe it's just "the grass is greener" syndrome, but I feel good about Xin Min. That first night in fact, during randori, my partner, a hulking black belt with iron hard pecs, threw me with, I think, an osoti gari. I hit the mat and stunned myself by smiling: "I love this," I said within myself. It felt good to get thrown; it felt even better to get back and try again.

(Incidentally, it occurred to me last night that doing judo in Taiwan, while not as "pure" or "orthodox" as doing it in Japan, is actually a decent opportunity. Taiwan, after all, was under total Japanese occupation for half a century. Hence, the stream of judo tradition I have waded into here is arguably the most purely Japanese exposure to it I can get outside of Japan, or apart from studying directly under a Japanese master who might happen to be where I live next. In other words, refracted "colonial judo" is good enough for me.)

The future is unclear. Should I do my 12 taiji lessons and then switch to bagua, or should I emphasize bagua while maintaining taiji one night a week? Should I do both and wait for judo in a different locale? I'm much more fascinated by bagua and I really enjoy judo, so...? Ah, the beauty of it is that now that I feel this divine calm about my daily life, none of these choices is a crisis. I enjoy my aimless amateur zeal. I enjoy being able to call myself a judoka. Of course, bending fingernails half-off I can do without.

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