Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Fighting Fool

One of the advantages of growing up in an academic household was that the family home was always full of interesting books. This was especially true in my late teens after my mother went back to university to study and later teach Eastern religions and after my parents came back from a year teaching English in China, when the family library took on a real exotic flavour.

One day while perusing the bookshelf in the living room I came across a Tai Chi manual complete with photos and English instructions. I'd been interested in the martial arts for years (this was back in the days of Bruce Lee, whose movies I enjoyed) but I'd been too timid to actually go to classes and learn. With this book, I thought, I could study on my own at home. And so it was that I took my first tentative steps towards learning a martial art.

Many years later, while living in Japan, I took up Shorinji Kempo, which I stuck at long enough to gain a first-degree black belt. Sounds impressive, but a first-degree black belt is really just a learner's license. It means you've learned the basics and are ready to begin mastering the art. I have many pleasant memories of those years learning Shorinji Kempo, of my kind and generous teacher and his wife, also proficient in Shorinji Kempo, and of my fellow adult students, some of whom were learning with their sons and daughters. But by this time Mrs Fool and I had decided to return to New Zealand, and although I could have continued with Shorinji Kempo here, my enthusiasm had waned to the point where I was no longer willing to put up with the niggling injuries that are part and parcel of martial arts training like blisters and calluses on the soles of the feet, twisted ankles, and stubbed toes, and the inevitable not so niggling injuries, which in my case included a cracked wrist, sustained in a competition when I tried to block a kick with my lower arm. I lost that bout but was awarded a cup at the end of the day for my efforts. I had to pose with the cup for a photo, which I'm pretty sure aggravated my injury.

Walking Fool with cup (c. 1993)*

Which is all by way of introduction to the announcement that, something like thirty years after my first attempt, I've started learning Tai Chi again, this time properly with a teacher. I'm taking a course called Tai Chi for Health at the WEA. It's based on a variation of Sun style Tai Chi devised by Dr Paul Lam, a physician and arthritis sufferer who took up Tai Chi to help his own arthritis and has since established what seems to be a mini-empire with DVDs and books on everything from Tai Chi for Diabetes and Tai Chi for Back Pain to Tai Chi for Kidz (there's no Tai Chi for Cats yet, but I'm sure it's not far away).

The course I'm taking is aimed at older folks (I'm pretty sure I'm the youngest student), so it's very easy on the body. I've been to five classes so far and have been practicing a bit at home using one of the DVDs. Although I'm skeptical about the whole concept of chi (or ki as it's called in Japanese), I'm already noticing some benefits in that I feel really relaxed and in a heightened state of awareness after a Tai Chi session. I think this is due to the slowness of the movements, which as well as strengthening the joints and muscles seems to have an almost meditative effect.

*Both left-facing and right-facing swastikas have been associated with Buddhism for many centuries. Shorinji Kempo has links to a type of Buddhism called Kongo Zen, and the left-facing swastika (omote-manji in Japanese), which symbolizes compassion, was attached to Shorinji Kempo uniforms in Japan and was part of the Shorinji Kempo logo until 2005, when it was abandoned on the grounds that it was hindering the growth of Shorinji Kempo overseas.


Mark T said...

Oh yeah. That was the cup for the skin-head with the shortest legs.

Walking fool said...

Try saying that to my face, four eyes.