I’ve long known I’m no good at paying attention to more than one thing at a time. Because of that, I try pretty hard to avoid even trying to multitask. Still, even having accepted that I’m crappy at this sort of thing, I’m a little frustrated at how it’s showing up in my longsword practice.
Generally I think I’m okay if I try to just do one thing. For example, I’d assume I could execute a single cut or a single parry. But, no. In fact, I can only do a piece of a cut or parry—because one of the things Meyer says is “Every cut gets its step.” So I’m not doing it right unless I do the sword action and the stepping action.
It’s not actually quite as bad as I’m making it sound. I can move into any of the guards. I can swing my sword in any of the principle cuts. I can step with proper form. I can even swing my sword and step forward. But as soon as I try to, let’s say, step to the side and swing my sword, my form tends to break down.
Longsword is called “longsword,” not because the sword is long, but rather because nearly all the cuts and parries are executed with the arms extended. (And this is actually crucial to being successful. If you have your arms extended and your body in the right position, you can parry any cut. Try that with your elbows bent, and you’re very likely to get hit with a sword.)
I can hold the sword in good structure, with my arms straight. I can execute a cut with it, with my arms straight. I can even execute a cut and step forward, with my arms straight. But when I try to do any specific cut with any specific footwork, my form starts to break down: I tend to pull my arms in. And if I focus on keeping my arms extended, I forget to take the step.
It’s very frustrating.
Fortunately, having learned taiji, I know the solution to this: Practice.
That is, proper “deliberate practice” à la K. Anders Ericsson, where you: perform an action, monitor your performance, evaluate your success, try to figure out how to do it better, and then repeat.
If I can only pay attention to one thing at a time, I need to break these sword moves down further. I need to practice keeping my arms straight during a cut, and then repeat that move (paying attention) over and over again, until I can do it without paying attention. Then I can add in the stepping, and practice cutting with a step over and over again until I can do both of those things without paying attention. Then I can start working on a longer phrase: cut while stepping, next cut while stepping. And so on.
I haven’t started practicing outside of class much yet. There are only certain things that can be done without a partner, but those things—stance, guards, footwork—are exactly what I need to practice.
And we will still be meeting over the summer, so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice the other things as well.
The most obvious goal for someone learning to fight with swords is to get good enough to enter sword-fighting competitions and do well against other sword-fighters. And, I suppose that is my long-term plan. My medium-term plan is less ambitious, but rather specific.
I’ve come up with this intermediate goal because I know that I am not a natural martial artist. My reflexes and hand-to-eye coordination are merely average. Besides that, I am well below average in my ability to watch someone execute a move and then do “the same thing.” I’ve written about this before in my post Learning movement through words.
I hadn’t realized it in advance, but the very nature of Historical European Martial Arts makes it especially well-suited to me: Essentially every HEMA practice is based on a text—in our case Joachim Meyer’s The Art of Combat. The text provides the verbal description that I need to be able to learn a movement practice.
Still, even with the text and the instructors showing us stuff (and correcting our errors) and classmates to practice with, I’m still the guy with merely average reflexes and hand-to-eye coordination (plus a lifetime of no experience with stuff like this, because I was in my 40s before I figured out that I could learn this stuff at all, as long as I have a verbal description to work from), so my expectations for developing the skills of an excellent sword-fighter are rather low.
That would be rather discouraging, so I’ve come up with my own personal medium-term goal. I’m going to focus on executing Meyer’s system very, very well. Success for me will not depend on doing well sparring with opponents, but rather on looking like—moving like—someone who has trained with the best teachers of Meyer’s system.
Expressed in aspirational terms: A year or two from now a modern expert in Meyer longsword will look at me and think, “Wow—this guy looks like he might have trained with Meyer himself!”
Knowing my own strengths and weakness, this seems like it might be achievable, with the bonus that it will probably be much more effective at making be a better sword-fighter than if I jumped right into trying to figure out how to spar well.
I had been waiting to get the new translation of Meyer that’s coming later this month from HEMA Bookshelf, but decided to go ahead and order a copy of the existing translation. It’s what everyone in the group has been working with for several years now, so the instructors and senior students all know it. I’m sure it’ll remain a useful reference even if everyone switches to the new translation as soon as it’s available. (And I’ll get the new translation immediately myself.)
My short-term plan to support my medium-term plan will be to create my own practice sessions on the foundational stuff: stance, footwork, guards, and cuts. The classes covered stance and footwork on the first day (and then added a third stepping pattern on the second day), but hasn’t returned to those things since then. This makes sense: We’re practicing stance and stepping as we’re learning cuts and parries. But for my purposes, I think and extra 15 or 20 minutes each day specifically working on these items (which are readily amenable to solo practice) will do me a world of good. I’ll also spend a few minutes each day working on the German vocabulary, so I know the names of everything (and know what the thing is!).
One bright spot: I seem to be fit enough. The first week and a half I was just a bit worried about whether I could do a 2-hour training sessions and the recover enough to do the next one and then the one after that, but it seems that my fitness regimen of the past few years is standing me in good stead. I may not be as strong or as fast (or recover as well) as the fitter of the college-age kids, but I’m fit enough to see a practice session through to the end.
This week I attended my first and second HEMA classes, and had great fun. I am even (almost) in good enough shape to work out for two hours, although I’m certainly feeling it this morning.
The first class was half devoted to longsword fencing at a conceptual level, looking at key concepts from Joachim Meyer’s The Art of Combat (which serves as the basic text for the local HEMA group), with the second half devoted to stance and footwork.
The concepts section had to do with the “five words” of Meyer: Vor (= before), Nach (= after), Sterk (= strong), Schwach (= weak), and Indes (= during, or maybe between). Quite a bit of time was spent talking about these concepts, which nevertheless remained subtle and (at least to me) rather unclear.
The stance was kind of interesting, purely because of the modest difference between a longsword stance and santi stance.
In Tai Chi, santi stance is described as a spiral: Your back foot is turned out about 45 degrees, your front foot is turned in (that is, the same direction as your back foot) just slightly. Your hips are turned less, kind of between your feet. Your torso turned less. Your shoulders are turned still less, your head is turned only slightly. Perhaps only your forward eye is pointed directly at your “partner” (i.e opponent).
Meyer’s longsword stance is different: Your back foot is still turned out 45 degrees (or up to 90 degrees). But your front foot is pointed straight forward, as are your hips and shoulders.
Once we’d we practiced the stance (getting our front knee directly over our front ankle, making sure our back knee was modestly bent), we went on to footwork, learning the passing step and the gathering step. Passing step is just stepping forward, except of course, that changes which is the front foot (pointed forward) and which is the back foot (turned out). The gathering step is like an advance in fencing: you back foot steps up to about even with your front foot, and then your front foot moves forward to reestablish a proper stance. And, of course, you don’t need to be committed: You can move your back foot up, and then if circumstances warrant, simply put it back where it had been.
The second class began with a pretty extensive warmup. We did some mobility, and then some stretching, and then some practice stepping, which both got us practice and got our heart rates up a bit. Then—one part I had trouble with—a bunch of lunges: regular lunges, backward lunges, jumping lunges. (Click my “lunge” tag to read a bit more about my difficulties with lunges.) We also sprinted just a little, I assume primarily to get our heart rates up.
Then we learned one new step: Triangle step. In triangle step you bring your back foot behind the front foot, taking you off-line from an attack from the front.
We practiced something they called “dancing,” which is a variation on the introductory practice of push hands: you and a partner touch your hands together (finger tips, or fist) and then one leads, stepping forward or back, while the other attempts to remain stuck, by stepping back or forward, so as to remain at the same distance—while, of course, using proper Meyer longsword footwork.
After that we picked up swords for the first time!
We learned the four principal guards, and then four cuts. They all had names, but unfortunately the acoustics weren’t good enough for me to hear most of them. But there are extensive web resources (including translations of Meyer’s book), so I have the technology to track them down and learn them before Tuesday.
We practiced the guards and cuts quite a bit, which (after all the stepping practice) left me pretty tired, and rather achy this morning. Happily, I’m not suffering from any over-use injuries, just feeling like I got in a good workout. (The one exception is my toes, which were slightly strained from the lunges. Hopefully they’ll be all better very shortly. Henceforth I’ll remember to do some toe stretches before each the HEMA class.)
The steel club swinging I’ve been practicing for months now stood me in good stead: my hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders are strong enough and stable enough, which I don’t think they would have been otherwise.
Classes take place in the Stock Pavilion, an old University of Illinois building (constructed over 100 years ago) originally built to support the Ag school’s mission as a place for students to learn about things like cattle judging. It’s a large space with a dirt (wood chip) floor and concrete bleachers, which suits pretty well for sword-fighting practice.
Next thing to do: buy protective gear (mask and gloves). I’ll also want to get a copy of The Art of Combat, which I understand has a new translation coming out next month, so maybe I’ll wait for that.
I have been surprised (and a little amused) by how difficult the first exercise in the Born to Run training guide is. It’s really just a combination of two exercises that I do all the time already, so I figured it would be pretty easy. But no.
Basically, it’s just single-leg standing with the heel raised. There are three versions with minor differences in what you do with the non-standing leg, to challenge your standing leg in different ways.
I have done single-leg standing for years as part of my tai chi practice. I also do calf-raises nearly every day, including some single-leg calf-raises. And yet. Put them together and things get dramatically harder.
With the single-leg standing exercises I do as part of my tai chi practice, I have my heel down—which makes standing on that foot much, much easier.
With the single-leg calf-raises, I’m only balancing on the standing leg for a few seconds, which turns out to also make a difference.
Standing on one foot with the heel off the ground, and then staying that way for tens of seconds, turns out to be much harder than I’d expected. But it’s harder in ways that I can already tell will mean practicing those exercises will quickly produce improvement not just in those exercises, but also in my running, and in my general foot strength and foot health.
In particular, I keep trying to jab the tip of my left index toe into the ground, when I should be using the pad of the toe. (Probably a left-over from decades of sometimes wearing too-small shoes. My index toes are longer than my big toes, which is not something that shoe salesmen in the 1960s thought about. Also my left foot seems to be a fraction of an inch longer than my right foot, so shoes that fit my right foot perfectly slightly constrained my left index toe.)
When I attended Clarion in 2001, Steven Barnes was my week-one instructor. Of course the class was about writing, but Steve talked quite a bit about martial arts in general and Tai Chi in particular—things that were important in his own life and in his own writing.
Although I had been interested in Tai Chi even before that, I didn’t get it together to find a class until 2009. But I managed to find a great class; one that made room for my idiosyncratic movement issues. It quickly became a daily practice that continues to this day. For several years I taught Tai Chi. I’ve retired from teaching it, but I still attend a group practice session in a nearby park several times a week in nice weather. (It’s free. Anyone is welcome. Send me email if you’re local or visiting and are interested in attending.)
All of which is to say that I was very pleased to find that Steven Barnes was teaching three Tai Chi classes at this year’s WorldCon.
Teaching individual Tai Chi classes is a fundamentally peculiar thing. I mean, if you’re trying to learn a Tai Chi form, you can expect to spend a year at it, if you take two or three classes a week. In that context, it’s kind of hard to know what to do with a single class, and the issue actually gets even more fraught if you’re teaching three classes, rather than just one.
Steve threaded the needle by focusing a large part of each class on talking about living well.
I started this post wanting to talk about all the great stuff that Steve covered—about movement and about life. But I hadn’t taken notes, and became somewhat daunted knowing that I’d skip all sorts of important bits. But, given the choice between documenting a few of the bits that stuck with me and documenting nothing, I’ve decided to go with the former.
I would like to emphasize that all these things are colored by my own thinking, so it is virtually certain that Steven Barnes would look at several of these things and go, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I said!” Don’t blame Steve for anything I get wrong. But this is how I remember it:
Purpose of life
On the first day, Steve mentioned that the Dali Lama said the purpose of life was to seek joy and to be of service. Steve used that statement to go on a short rant about being of service—how it’s the real motivation that gets most people out of bed in the morning. “Even if it’s just to feed the cat.” But on the third day he told a story that added some context.
Originally, he said, the Dali Lama said that the purpose of life was to seek joy. But people criticized him, saying that it sounded selfish to say that was the purpose of life. And the Dali Lama pushed back saying, “But as soon as you find joy, you’ll want to share it, and immediately find yourself drawn to be of service.” But people continued to complain, and eventually the Dali Lama conceded to the complaints and added the “and be of service” part.
And I think it’s good to tell the story this way, so that you get the context that “being of service” is an automatic urge, as soon as you find joy. It has certainly been my own experience.
People almost always reach a point while learning something, where they perceive themselves as no longer getting better at that thing, even as they continue to train. Different people will keep training for different amounts of time before giving up, but most people eventually give up, before becoming an expert.
That has certainly been my own experience. There must be a hundred things—playing chess, identifying birds, gardening, StarCraft—where I did it enough to get pretty good at it, then found that getting significantly better would be hard work, and didn’t make the effort.
Steve suggested that 100 hours of study or training will give you a passing familiarity with some topic or activity, and 1000 hours gets you good enough to participate in a conversation about some topic with an expert. He also made a passing reference to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that it takes to develop actual expertise in something, but mentioned in an almost off-hand way the same issues with that idea that I talk about in my post on practice.
Three areas of life
One thing that I remember Steve talking about at Clarion was that he evaluated people as possible models for himself based on whether or not they were succeeding in each of three specific areas:
Financial success: Does the person have some sort of career or business that supports them and could support a family at whatever standard of living that person aspires to?
Family success: Has the person put together and maintained the sort of family they desire?
Physical success: Is the person fit enough and skilled enough to be able to do the things they want to do?
Steve specifically evaluates people on these standards when they offer unsolicited advice. If the person trying to tell him what or how to do or be has all three of these areas under control, then maybe their advice is worth listening to. Otherwise, probably not. (I gather he has a different standard for when he’s the one seeking advice or a service. He probably wouldn’t refuse dental care from a twice-divorced dentist or to fly on a plane just because the pilot was out of shape.)
When I taught Tai Chi I would begin the first class of each session by telling students that nothing we did in class should hurt. If anything hurt, they should make the move smaller, do a different move, and just wait until we went on to the next move.
Steve had a different perspective. He told students that any pain they felt while training should never go above a level of 3 (on a scale to 10).
I pondered that quite a bit since then, and I think Steve’s perspective makes sense in a way, especially for students who have chronic pain. I never meant to tell my students that they couldn’t take my class if they had pain; just that they shouldn’t do any move that made their pain worse. Another population for whom Steve’s standard probably makes sense is serious athletes or serious martial artists.
We probably spent half of each class moving, starting with a very nice mobility warm-up. It’s rather a lot like what I’ve taken to calling my morning exercises, but focused on working all your joints through their full range of motion, leaving out the muscle-activation stuff that I’ve added for my own purposes.
Steven taught us the first three moves of his Tai Chi form. The first move was roughly the same as the move called Preparation in the form I do, but Steve emphasized the breathing as the entry point into the move: You inhale, and the movement raises your arms (leading from the tops of the wrists), and then you exhale and your arms fall (leading from the bottoms of the wrists). The second move involved stepping forward, turning your foot, and then pressing forward with your hands facing one another (a move we call “ji” in our style). I’ve already forgotten the third move.
Martial art versus martial science
Steve made a distinction between martial art and martial science. Martial science is figuring out the best way to win a fight or battle. Martial art, like any art, is about expressing yourself, in this case through fighting or battle.
This is something I’ve just come to understand very recently—that the “best” or “most effective” martial art is very context dependent. If you’re going to be fighting a duel—hand-to-hand, with swords, with pistols, whatever—that’s very different from battlefield fighting, where you would find yourself with potentially any number of opponents, along with some number of compatriots.
As an aside, my own observation: Krav maga is an excellent choice of martial art, especially if you have a handful of opponents. It has downsides, especially if you have “opponents” who are not enemies. If your opponents are people that you wouldn’t be comfortable maiming or killing, Brazilian jiu jitsu would be a better choice, but perhaps not if you find yourself surrounded by four or five gang members on the street after dark.
The point Steve was making is that martial arts are only appropriate in the appropriate context. There are many circumstances where “fighting,” and “winning a fight” yields significant benefits, but they’re context dependent. He mentioned an important teacher he had who, upon being asked for instruction regarding the best move for some circumstance, said “You’re a primate. Use a tool.”
Being willing to die
Steve told a story about being bullied in school, about how when he was bullied to the point where he couldn’t take it any more, he crossed to the middle of the nearby busy street. Standing on the yellow line, with traffic zipping past in both directions, he dared the bully to come out there and fight him.
The bully realized that he’d made a mistake.
The line, as I recall it was, “You have to be ready to die, and ready to take him with you.” I think a whole lot of martial culture involves people who have reached that point.
Fighting to stay alive
One thing that got some pushback from one member of the class was the idea that anybody would fight to live: Even someone so depressed as to be suicidal, if you put their head in a bucket of water, would fight to survive. One member of the audience suggested that clinical depression was a matter of brain chemistry, which Steve did not dispute. But the student talking about it said that, when she was at her lowest, if you’d killed her she’d have thought you were doing her a favor. Steve suggested that, even if you’d think that way in the abstract, if you find your head thrust into a bucket of water, you’d do everything you could to to breath.
I have no doubt that Steve was right here. A person suffering from clinical depression might well wonder why they’d fought to hard to survive, but I very much doubt that they’d just breath in water and be glad to pass on, even if they were at the point where they might later that day have chosen to swim into the sea too far to be able to swim back.
Those are the bits I remember from Steve’s three Tai Chi classes. There was a lot more—probably other things that were more important than these.
I find myself a little surprised that the “three areas of life” stuff stuck with me the way they did. At Clarion I was doing pretty well in two of them—I had a career in software engineering that provided for my family, and I was in a successful long-term relationship with my wife. But my physicality wasn’t yet on point: I was somewhat fit; I could walk a long ways, I could even run a couple of miles, but I was overweight and unhappy about it.
I’m surprisingly pleased that I’ve managed to get all three under control. That same career lasted long enough (and I boosted my income enough with writing and teaching Tai Chi), that I’m able to support myself on my pension and my investments. I’m still married to the same woman I was married to when I went to Clarion. And since I was in Clarion I lost around fifty pounds while at the same time developing the ability to move in ways that would have been impossible when I was younger.
My Tai Chi practice was important to all those things. Perhaps it seems even more important than it was, because it was my entryway into moving better. Since stepping through that door I’ve explored a wide range of natural-movement practices. During the pandemic I (to an extent) switched back to an exercise- (versus movement-) based paradigm, but really just because exercise suited the circumstances. As the pandemic winds down, I expect I’ll switch back to movement rather than exercise as the focus of what I do.
Looking for a Steven Barnes link to use here I found this post in which he talks about the very classes I was in:
I was very pleased to be able to take another class—three classes!—from Steven Barnes. I enjoyed them, and I learned a lot.
If I’m serious about training to get better at everything—and I am—then I need to think seriously about how to fit in, and recover from, all that training. This post is my first cut at documenting some of my early thinking on how I might do that.
A plan to fit in everything needs to start with eliminating having whole days devoted to just one particular kind of exercise: strength days, running days, etc. Instead, most days will have to have at least two (hopefully complimentary) exercise activities.
I had already started work on thinking about the best ways to combine exercise activities in ways that would reinforce one another, based on the ideas of Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer). But more recently the work of Mark Wildman has provided what may be the solution: What he calls “the Tetris of training.” (That’s a link to the first of a series of videos where he talks about program design in those terms.)
The basic idea here is that you divide your workout into pieces: Maybe a kettlebell squat piece, or a single-arm club-swinging piece, maybe a running piece, etc. Then structure each piece as a specific block that can be done in a specific amount of time, and organize those those blocks into a sequence to make a workout that can be done in 30, 60, or 90 minutes (including a warmup at the beginning and a cooldown at the end), and lay those workouts out on a weekly timeline, with appropriate rest days.
Another key part of the idea is that each of those pieces should be its own progressive program, running on its own schedule, but arranged with the others so that they’re not all progressing upward at the same rate.
This can (and probably should) get pretty fancy, because there are all kinds of considerations. You want to:
Cover all the basic movement patterns (walk, run, crawl, lift & carry, climb, throw & catch, etc.)
Hit all the large muscles in your body (glutes, quads, hamstrings, pecs, lats, traps, etc.)
Work all the basic directions of movement (Roll, Pitch, Yaw, Heave, Sway, Surge)
Avoid working the same muscle patterns two days in a row (to allow for recovery)
Make sure the important muscle patterns get hit at least twice a week
Besides all that stuff, I particularly want to include some “skills” training, where I’ll work on things like parkour, HEMA, rock climbing, fencing, etc.
I roughed out a plan along these lines, and gave it a try last week and this week. I have a couple of external constraints that I’m working around. One is that I want to be able to join my tai chi group in our Monday/Wednesday/Friday practice sessions. Another is that I want to include time each week for both a long run, and a long hike with Jackie—and both of those activities require flexibility related to the weather. Last week I ditched two of the tai chi sessions, but got in both a hike with Jackie and a long trail run. This week I couldn’t do one tai chi session because of rain, plus I had to take two unscheduled rest days because I tweaked something in my hip.
Today my hip seems to be recovered. I’ve done my heavy club swinging for the day, and I’ve gotten in a long run. Now I need to look at my draft schedule and see how to restart my workout plan, given all my many constraints.
Is it okay for someone who looks like me to seek or follow any sort of indigenous practice? Probably not? When a descendant of colonizers makes use of any indigenous practice it’s very likely to be an act of cultural appropriation. It doesn’t have to be, but to a first approximation, it probably is.
Even so, I find much that I like in various indigenous movement practices, which makes me want to find a way through this ethical thicket. And, I have come up with a couple of ideas.
First of all, my people have our own practices. Genetically I’m descended from people of Northwestern Europe—Scots, Irish, English, and Dutch that I know of. Just going by appearance, I conjecture that Celtic genes dominate.
There’s been an effort to recreate Celtic spiritual practices. I don’t know of any similar effort related to movement practices, but that’s probably just my ignorance. A single on-line search brought me to this page on Celtic martial arts which has a bunch of links to ancient sources, and to sources that are merely old, such as the fencing manuals I’ve become familiar with due to my interest in historical European martial arts. Finding that much so easily makes me imagine there’s probably more out there.
Culturally I’m descended from the broad line of Western culture going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who had very strong movement practices. Interestingly, our movement culture was largely crushed by Christianity just like cultures all over the planet. (The Catholic church believed that any effort to improve the body inevitably distracted from what they viewed as the much more important effort to improve the soul. There’s a nice discussion of this in Daniel Kunitz’s book Lift, which I wrote about here.)
There is a vast body of work on ancient Greek movement culture—ancient sources, translations, compilations, analysis, etc. In his book Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall discusses various aspects at some length. I wrote about that book here.
What started me down this path was discovering Well For Culture, which bills itself as an “Indigenous Wellness Initiative.” Poking around their website I found all sorts of messages that resonate with me. And yet, as I described at the top, I hesitate to simply appropriate their cultural knowledge for my own use.
Which brings me to my second idea, which is that perhaps it’s okay to examine those portions of their cultural knowledge that they choose to make public, and use that knowledge as a lens though which to examine my own cultural traditions. Where there is overlap, I can consider emphasizing those aspects in my own movement practice. Where there is divergence, I can consider whether the differences spring from different histories, different environments, different purposes, or some other source, and let that consideration inform my own practice.
I continue to struggle just a bit with this. Are these indigenous practices being made public with the goal of helping everyone? Or are they being made public—in English, on the internet—because in the modern world other ways of reaching their own people are so limited?
In some cases I’m pretty confident that my use of indigenous knowledge is intended and supported. For example, the tai chi that I have learned and practice used to be held very closely within individual Chinese families, but has for some time been taught much more widely, with the evident goal of sharing those practices with everyone.
As another example, I’ve started exercising with steel clubs, in the tradition of Hindu (and Persian) club-swinging training. Doing this for exercise is a clear case of cultural appropriation: the British colonizers of India brought the practice back to England in the 19th century. Perhaps—hopefully—the cultural appropriation aspect is somewhat mitigated by the fact that clubs (as weapons) were used by every human culture, going back 10,000 years that we know of.
I’ve looked quickly to see if there’s any evidence for the use of clubs as a training tool, aside from its use as a weapon, and found that E. Ferdinand Lemaike in 1889, in his book Indian Clubs and How to Use Them, had this to say:
The Greeks and the Romans made great use of them, and gave them a prominent place among their various gymnastic exercises….
Not definitive—he cites no source for his statement—but it at least suggests that people in England thought they were following indigenous practices of their own culture.
He goes on to say:
That the club is the most ancient weapon nobody can deny; it is also the most natural and handy that could be found, and consequently the first used by man, for we find that Cain slew Abel with a club. The ordinary weapon of the athletic god Hercules was a club; and though he also used the bow and arrow, he is always represented with his club.
Although in this post I’m focusing on movement practice in particular, I should mention that Well For Culture emphasizes a more broad-based set of practices intended to produce wellness, including diet, song, ceremony, and much more. That fact makes me all the more inclined to look to my own cultural traditions for analogous practices and teachings.
I am bad at watching somebody move and then doing “the same thing.” This made it very difficult for me to learn any movement-based activity—martial arts, dance, parkour, gymnastics—until I came up with a coping strategy: Generate a verbal description of the move, then do the move by executing my verbal description.
As a coping strategy, this worked great—it’s how I learned my tai chi.
The downside is that it’s very slow. I have seen dancers who can look at new choreography and copy it so fast you can scarcely tell that it’s new, rather than something that’s been practiced hundreds of times. By contrast, I take almost forever to learn something like that.
First, I have to watch the move repeatedly, so I can begin to construct my verbal description. Then, once I have a framework for how it goes, I need to watch it repeatedly again so I can notice specific details and add them to the verbal description. Only then can I even begin to practice the move myself. Then I need to watch the move repeatedly yet again (now while trying to do it), because only then can I begin to compare what I’m doing to what the instructor is doing, and adjust my verbal description when I notice a discrepancy.
I end up with something like this (one instance of the tai chi move “step back and whirl arms”):
Shift your weight to the left foot
Turn your right foot in 4 or 5 degrees
Shift your weight to the right foot and close your step to the right
Step back with the left foot into santi position
Keep your left arm coming back, and your weight coming back until your arm is all the way back and all your weight is on your left foot
Step to the side with your right foot, so your right foot is even with and parallel with the left
Do a toe pivot with the right foot, to get it out of the way
Do a heel pivot with the left foot so that it is in the right position for santi on the other side
Step back on the right
Note that the whole thing depends on having previously established a bit of vocabulary—toe pivots, heel pivots, close step, and of course, santi position.
As I say, the downside is that it’s very slow. There is a countervailing upside, which is that by the time I have learned a move I have already pre-generated a verbal description of the move to use when I want to teach the move. Essentially, I already have the instructions for every tai chi move in my head. I run through them silently as I execute the move anyway. About all I do that’s different when I teach the move is say the instructions out loud. (I use the first few classes to establish the vocabulary—teaching toe pivots, heel pivots, santi position, etc.)
I realized a while ago that the fact that I need to learn this way was probably why I’ve been finding Mark Wildman’s movement skills videos so compelling: He was already creating these verbal descriptions for me, saving me a bunch of time and effort. But it was only today, after having watched probably two hundred of his videos, that I came upon this one, in which he advocates for the students to repeat the descriptions of the moves aloud as they practice them:
This is probably a great idea. It’s not one that I would have tried to impose on my students, but I think I’m going to start doing this myself, to remind myself of how a move goes as I practice it.
It’s a bit harder to put this past year in a tidy descriptive box than it has been the past few years. Probably the simplest description would be: The same, but less so.
Last year I did a great job of leaning into exercise as a way to cope with the pandemic. This year started with me feeling like I could imagine that the pandemic would end, and I was focusing of all the new things I could do, once I could spend time with other people—rock climbing, parkour, fencing, historical European martial arts (i.e. sword fighting), etc.
Except then the pandemic didn’t end, and I was left to carry on as best I could with last year’s exercises. I did okay, but not as well as I had done.
In fact, I’m perfectly pleased with the way I maintained my capabilities. Late last year I checked and documented that I’d pretty much accomplished the baseline goals that I’d set for myself (see Five years of parkour strength training). I just checked again, and I’ve not backslid on those.
Last year I didn’t even think about setting new baseline goals, because my plan had been to move on from these solo training goals to training with other actual people. This year I’ve felt like I needed to at least think about it, but so far I’m not feeling it. I do want to recover the ability to do a few pull ups (again!), but that’s about the only physical benchmark of that sort where I feel like I want or need specific improvement.
It’s not that I’m a perfect physical specimen; it’s just that I don’t have much attachment to being able to squat this much weight or deadlift that much. I want to be strong enough to pick up something heavy and carry it a reasonable distance, but I don’t feel much need to put specific numbers on that weight or that distance.
I wrote a day or two ago about how I gradually shifted to more running and less lifting, which has been great. But in the middle of the year I spent some months doing less of everything—I had a minor medical issue in the spring, then we took a vacation, then I went to visit my dad, then Jackie had her hip replacement (meaning that I had to pretty much take over running the household for a few weeks). I did okay in terms of not backsliding too much, but I didn’t make much forward progress, and it has only been in the last six weeks or so that I’m really getting back to doing what I want to do.
So, where to go from here? I guess I want to:
Continue to emphasize running, moving from two runs a week to three.
Let the lifting sessions settle in at just two a week, but amp up the intensity.
Get back to including a HIIT session every week.
Take Jackie for a walk or hike every single time she wants to go, even if it means delaying or canceling a workout.
I’ll aim to do something just like that in January and February. Along about March or April I will want to do the Superhero workout that I couldn’t do last year—that’ll be a brief interruption in my shift back to more running and less lifting, but just for eight or nine weeks. In mid-summer we have a plan for a hiking vacation in North Carolina, so in May and June we’ll want to gradually boost the amount and speed of our walks, and be sure to include plenty of hikes on trails, and to get in as much elevation change as possible in Central Illinois. I’ve got a couple more trips planned for late summer (assuming the pandemic allows), including attending WorldCon, but it’s only the hiking trip that will have much influence on my movement strategy.
I started practicing tai chi in 2009 with a beginner course at OLLI (the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute). I’d always been attracted to tai chi. I liked the way it looked—the slow, controlled movement. I was also interested in it as a martial art, and I liked the idea of “moving meditation.” Despite all that interest, I had not anticipated how transformative the practice would turn out to be.
Before I added the tai chi practice to my life, I was all about figuring out the “right” amount of exercise—and in particular, the minimum amount of running, lifting, walking, bicycling, stretching, etc. to become and remain fit enough to be healthy, comfortable, and capable of doing the things I wanted to be able to do.
Pretty quickly after I took up the practice, I found I was no longer worried about that. I found that my body actually knew what the right amount was, and that all I needed to do was move when I felt like moving—and make sure that my movement was diverse.
Because diversity was the key, I did a lot more than just tai chi. I continued running. I dabbled in parkour. I stepped up my lifting practice (and then shifted to mostly bodyweight training when the pandemic made gyms unavailable, and then continued with it because it seemed to work better). I went down a “natural movement” rabbit hole. I walked a lot.
In about 2012 or 2013 my tai chi instructor asked if anyone wanted to “assistant teach” the beginners class with him. I volunteered, and then did so. After six months or so he asked me to take over the evening class that he was teaching for people who couldn’t come to the early classes. I gradually started filling in for him on other classes as well.
In 2015 I formally took over as the tai chi instructor at the Savoy Rec Center. I really enjoyed teaching tai chi, although I found the constraints (having to show up at every class) a bit. . . constraining.
I did some tweaking around the edges (in particular, combining the Wednesday and Friday classes into a single Thursday class, so I could have a three-day weekend), which helped, but only so much.
Then a few weeks ago, the Rec Center wanted me to sign a new contract which would have required me to buy a new insurance policy, naming the Village of Savoy as an “additional insured.” I’m sure I could have done that—there are companies that sell insurance specifically for martial arts and fitness instructors. But as soon as I got set to research such policies, I realized that I really didn’t want to.
Instead, I wanted to retire.
I’d retired from my regular job years before, in 2007. And of course teaching tai chi four or five hours a week was in no way a career. The first few years I was teaching, I found the money I earned a nice supplement to our other retirement income. But with various improvements to our financial situation over the last few years, the money became pretty irrelevant, and the time constraints more. . . constraining. Especially with my parents facing various health challenges, I want to be able to go visit either one if that seems necessary, which has been difficult if I want to honor my obligation to my students.
So a few weeks ago I told the Rec Center and my students that I was retiring from teaching tai chi. My last classes were yesterday.
I’m sad not to be teaching my students any more, but delighted at losing the set of related constraints.
For years now, my students have been gathering in the park (Morrissey Park in Champaign, Illinois) during nice weather for informal group practice sessions, and I expect we’ll keep doing that. At any rate, I plan to be there, starting in the spring, practicing my tai chi. You are welcome to join us.