Thoughts on Weakness

This is a rather personal meditation on the development of my martial arts practice as I get older.

As we age, we all have to come to terms with a reduction in our physical capacities. On the one hand, our muscle mass reduces and we inevitably weaken. On the other hand, various injuries and infirmities, such as arthritis and compromised joints, catch up with us and affect how we perform certain exercises. A major concern of mine for some years has been coping with the after-effects of a car accident I was in forty years ago!

Efficiency becomes an issue. One has to focus on how to engage in movement without any undue stress. Pain is a friend in that it directs us to those elements of our practice which must either (a) be corrected or (b) be modified. Modification may mean learning how to do something differently, perhaps using different angles and muscles. It may also mean adjusting practice routines so as to increase their efficiency while avoiding the perils of over-training.

My personal experience has also involved finding a middle way between slacking off (and getting out of shape) and neurotically harming myself by being a bit too bull-headed. I have acquired (albeit with difficulty) a bit of humility about what I can and cannot do.

Along the way I have experimented with different supplementary exercises. At various times I have engaged in weight-work at a gym. At others I've used martial arts training implements which focus on certain aspects of strength-training and joint mobility.

The aesthetic attraction of Victorian physical culture has had its appeal for me but I have yet to experiment seriously with medicine balls and Indian clubs (which are used by several of my students). However, that day is probably coming!

I do practise with traditional Tai Chi weaponry, principally sword and sabre. I find it particularly helpful to work with full-weight weapons which train, not only coordination and balance, but also strength and joint mobility. This latter particularly applies to sabre practice and shillelagh work (which I combine with shadow-boxing).

Two other training-aids I use are the iron tridents (sai / tieh-chai)...

...and the rolling pin (bang). Some years ago I developed a Cold Mountain Long Fist form combining elements of Yang-style and Chen-style Tai Chi with some Tongbeiquan learned from my Father when I was young. I then extended my practice of the form by adapting it to the iron tridents. I find that manipulating them and using them to strike has the effect of opening the joints and exercising my arthritic hands.

The rolling pin routine I use was acquired on-line from the late Joanna Zorya. It is a great exercise for the arms and has many martial applications. I highly recommend it!

Martial artists, men in particular, are attracted to weapons which are "strong". Few seem to be attracted to weapons which are "weak", such as the bamboo fan or horsetail whisk. I have perhaps ten students who study the fan, of whom only two are male. One other man has said he'd like to acquire a steel or iron fan, something assertively masculine. Confession: I went that way too, many years ago! I understand the attraction but now see the limitations of such weaponry.

Understanding and accepting the weakness of a weapon like the bamboo and silk fan has its lessons. Diverting the strong with the weak, a punch with a soft brushing movement, reveals the limitations of the strong and the advantages of weakness. Also, within the weak exists something strong - the effects of the folded fan to the opponent's throat or solar-plexus, the butt-end to the temple or sternum, the effects of the opened fan when raked across the assailant's eyes.... One learns to think of the opponent's weaknesses and vulnerabilities rather than his strengths. It is instructive that something so weak, soft, flowing, and graceful can conceal martial power. Many lessons there! As we ourselves weaken from age, may we be like a well-used fan!

Joanna Zorya's martial interests focused on practical self defence. She was not interested in qigong or the classical aspects of the internal martial arts, but on their defensive principles. She battled a rare disease throughout most of her life, eventually passing away from it at a comparatively young age. But during her life she researched, practised, taught, and produced a series of instructional videos in her basement with the assistance of her beloved life-partner. In the later of these, she is wearing an oxygen tank strapped to her back. One cannot but marvel at the power of her martial spirit!

It's to people like her that we can look for our inspiration.

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