Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Training in the Time of a Pandemic

So, you may have heard, we've had this pandemic going on. And, despite the lockdown greatly shortening my commute, I've been busier than ever throughout. Including Tai Chi - lots and lots of Tai Chi.

At the school, when the lockdown was enacted in March of 2020, we moved all of our classes online and did our best to support and preserve our Tai Chi community in those early days. Since then, we've been able to expand our online community and, additionally, now offer some of our classes as a hybrid of in-person & online students. The in-person portions of classes are still very limited in size as we adhere to our local covid policies but our students have been really appreciated the option.

More personally, during the first year of the pandemic I used Tai Chi as a way to keep myself healthy both physically and emotionally. That year, I didn't try to expand into anything new, I just focused on practicing what I already knew through a lot of solo training and attending/helping with the online classes - that turned out to be a pretty solid approach and I learned a lot despite myself.

In the second year, I finally started training some Tai Chi weapons and, over the last year, I've studied Tai Chi Stick, Tai Chi Fan, and Tai Chi Sword (in that order). As I discussed in my previous post, weapons training has opened up a whole new dimension of Tai Chi to me and there's a lot more there for me to work on. The Tai Chi Stick has been my favorite weapon so far and I continue to train it regularly but each of the weapons have their unique challenges and insights. I hope to discuss my experiences with the individual weapons in future posts because there's a lot worth going over.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, I've started leading some partner training (push hands) with a very small number of advanced students (with covid protocols in place to make the training as safe as possible). Sifu Wu is not involved in the ongoing sessions but she is guiding me on leading the practice, which gives us a good balance of training and instruction. We've only had a few sessions so far but they've gone really well, which has been an auspicious start. Having good/dedicated students makes a huge difference. I'll try to discuss more about the partner training as things progress.

And that's it for today - stay healthy and keep training!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Weapons Training Redux

I've done some weapons training in the past (as described in this post) but eventually stopped because I didn't feel like I was getting much benefit from it.

Sifu Amin Wu teaches a number of weapons and related forms but, since joining her school, I've focused only on the chuan (empty hand) forms. Recently she suggested that I consider some weapons training so I told her about my previous experiences and that I didn't understand the point of it.

She explained that weapons training is a step towards partner training on the Tai Chi path. When you train the chuan forms you are, of course, training the hand forms for applications but they're difficult to refine without feedback from a partner. Weapons training provides an intermediate step because you have to grasp and move the weapon around in ways that harmonize the body's movements with the weapon's momentum, which provides the feedback you need to understand and improve the hand forms.

She went on to say that, traditionally, you start with shorter weapons (e.g. the Tai Chi Dao) and work your way up through longer ones (e.g. the Tai Chi Jian, Tai Chi Staff, and Tai Chi Spear), which requires better and better control. She also mentioned that many schools these days don't teach the staff or spear because it's difficult to find the necessary space.

Sifu Wu finally noted that weapons training will improve your chuan forms but you need to have a solid foundation before taking it on. When I learned weapons previously, I wasn't ready - I still had a lot to learn/refine with the chuan forms - I knew that at the time but tried them anyway because I was impatient/eager and, in retrospect, this cost me time.

I'm not sure when I'll take up weapons training again - I need to have the right class available - but, when I do, I'll know that I'm ready.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Stretching Muscles Stretches Time

When I first started training with Sifu Amin Wu, I asked her if there was any stretching that I should work on but she advised me to concentrate on zhan zhuang and stepping first to build up my strength and balance.

After about a year, Sifu Wu said that my strength and balance had improved to the point that it was time that I start working on stretching because flexibility was becoming a limiting factor in my progress.

She said I needed to focus on three particular areas - ankles, hamstrings, and hips (kua) - because I needed to improve flexibility in those areas for lower stances and higher kicks. She showed me some basic stretches to incorporate at the end of my solo training when the muscles/tendons are the most warm:
  • Ankle Stretch: Flex the foot at an incline by putting the ball of the foot on a higher surface (e.g. a step) with the heel on the ground. 
  • Hamstring Stretch: Stand on one leg and put the foot of the other leg up on a higher surface (e.g. a chair or a stair step), keeping that leg straight and lean into the stretch (originally, I did this stretch seated on but Sifu Wu says that standing is more effective - it certainly hurts more).
  • Hip Stretch: Put the middle of the front foot on a raised surface (e.g. a chair or a stair) with the front knee bent while keeping the back foot on the floor with the leg mostly straight, like an inclined bow stance.
Sifu Wu warned me that effective stretching is uncomfortable - to improve, you have to push yourself and it's not going to be pleasant. She was too right, it was downright unpleasant. Moreover, I didn't believe that a couple of minutes of stretching would make any difference - I've always been inflexible and that's just the way it is - so I skipped stretching at any excuse and, over time, didn't see any improvement.

Eventually, I realized that I had to commit to stretching as much as the other parts of my training. I incorporated a timer to ensure that I 'd do each stretch long enough - one and a half minutes each for a total of nine minutes. That's when I learned about stretching time because those few minutes stretch on, particularly with the hamstring stretch where the last eight seconds can feel like an eternity of their own.

Stretching consistently, I slowly started to notice some improvements and I'm now the most flexible I've been in my adult life (probably my entire life). I still have a lot of room for improvement but the progress has been noticeable and encouraging.

I thought that, as my flexibility improved, my Tai Chi would improve naturally as a result - that my stances would become lower and my kicks higher - but it doesn't work that way. As my flexibility improved, my Tai Chi remained the same. To see any improvements, I've had to intentionally incorporate the improved flexibility into my movements.

For stepping, I have to take longer steps, lowering my stance and challenging my flexibility. For kicks, I have to raise my knee higher before I kick again challenging my flexibility. For weighted pivots, where I've always struggled due to limited range-of-motion in my ankles, I've had to realize that I can sink further and actually do the movement correctly. More generally, as my flexibility improves bit-by-bit, I have to continually discover what more I can do.

Sifu Wu has modified my training routine, shortening the amount of time I spend on zhan zhuang and extending the amount of time I spend on form training. She says that, as my form has improved through flexibility, it's become challenging enough to provide the muscle training that I could only get previously through zhan zhuang. But, not to worry, the zhan zhuang isn't going anywhere - it is, and always will be, a big part of my training.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

A(nother) Tai Chi Workshop with Adam Mizner

This summer, Sifu Wu was away once again for an extended visit to China so I decided to take the opportunity to find a Tai Chi workshop focused on push hands.

I figured I'd go anywhere I could find something interesting and, after looking around for a while, I found that the folks at Santa Cruz Tai Chi were hosting Sifu Adam Mizner for a four day workshop (July 14th-17th) just an hour away in Santa Cruz.

Some time ago, I happened into a workshop with Adam Mizner in New York City (described in this post) and, even though I was only there for a day, it was a great experience so I signed up for the workshop (which was good because it filled up quickly).

The workshop was 5 hours of training per day, split into 3 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon. The morning sessions focused on solo training with emphasis on loosening, qigong, and zhan zhuang. The afternoon sessions (after the first day) focused on partner training based on the secondary four energies: cai (pluck), lie (split), zhou (elbow), and kao (shoulder).

I got a lot out of the workshop - it's given me a lot to think about - but I think the most interesting part of the experience had to do with the solo training.

On the first morning, Sifu Mizner started with some loosening drills, including squatting down. Flexibility has never been my strong suit and squatting down is particularly challenging - after squatting for what seemed an eternity but was probably about 5 minutes, I eventually had to stand up and my legs felt like they were made of lead. It struck me that burning out my legs in the first few minutes of the first day was probably not a good way to start a 4 day workshop but I took a breath and squatted back down for another eternity.

We then went through much of the loosening sequence in this video, which involves standing still while being bent over for long periods of time and this effectively burned out what was left of my legs.

After that we did 5 postures of zhan zhuang:
  1. open stance, arms at side
  2. open stance, cross-wrists
  3. commencing stance (heels together, feet in V), arms at the side
  4. empty stance on left leg, strum lute
  5. empty stance on right leg, white crane
Sifu Mizner suggested that, in general, you should only practice zhan zhuang a maximum of 30 minutes a day and he recommended holding each of the 5 posture for 5 minutes. For the workshop, we held them a bit longer.

By the time we got to the zhan zhuang training, my legs were so fried that in the first posture they were burning and shaking but I somehow managed to hold the position. And I managed to do this for the next two postures as well but, when we got to the one-legged postures, that was it for me - I could only hold them for a short time before needing to take a break and move.

After the solo exercises of the first morning session, Sifu Mizner explained that the point when things are getting difficult and the mind is telling you that you need to move is exactly the point when the training really begins. He went on to say that the body can usually do more than the mind thinks and, at the time when you want to give up, if you can instead hold the posture and release the tension, that's when you get the real benefit of the training.

After the first day, I figured my legs would get more and more tired throughout the rest of the 3 days (which they did) and I didn't know how I'd be able to get through the stance training but, amazingly, each day I got a bit better and, on the last day, I managed to hold all of postures without taking a break. I hadn't expected that at all.

Since the workshop, I've been pushing myself more in my own zhan zhuang training. I'm not doing half an hour a day and I'm not working towards that at the moment but I think it may be worth extending my zhan zhuang practice over time.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Pretzel Conundrum

This post is a little different from my normal blog posts but I think it's in line with the spirit of it.

Last Christmas Mindy and I went back to Florida to visit my family for 2 weeks (as we usually do). While we were there we took my mom to see Darkest Hour. After taking her to find seats, I told her I was going to the concession stand and asked if she wanted anything. She said she wanted a hot pretzel, which confused my because I couldn't remember her ever asking for one but I told her I'd see what they had.

So I went to the concession stand and asked the girl behind the counter for a hot pretzel. She give me a strange look then went on to explain that they had 2 pretzel options - either a box of "pretzel bites" or a made-to-order custom pretzel that weighed 1.5 lbs and cost $15. It occurred to me that $15 sounded like a lot of dough for a pretzel but, after a moments consideration, I told the girl I'd have to go with the 1.5 lb option. I felt a little bad because she had to go and prepare it herself, which took quite a bit of time (another cashier came in and took her place while she was gone) - when she finally came back she had a box about the size and shape of a pizza box with a very hot and fresh pretzel along with assorted dipping sauces.

When I returned with this monstrosity, my mom got a big laugh out of it but she also really enjoyed the pretzel. So I got to watch Darkest Hour with a pizza-box-sized pretzel box on my lap - I'd open it from time to time and give another hunk of pretzel to my mom and she put a pretty good dent in the pretzel by the end of the movie (which didn't stop her from eating a steak at The Outback afterwards, her favorite restaurant).

A few days after I returned from my holiday in Florida, I got a call from my sister saying that mom was in the hospital and that I should consider coming back. Mindy and I flew back the next day and I'm glad we did - I got to spend a day with her before she fell into a catatonic state and passed away a few days later on January 10th.

My mom's sudden, unexpected passing was  a shock to me and something I've been coming to terms with ever since. One of the (many) things I've thought about is that two of my mom's favorite things in the world were movies and anything related to WWII - so I'm really happy that I got to take her see her last movie she and it was one about WWII that she really loved.

I'm also really happy that at that instant of the pretzel conundrum - the choice of going the easy route and just buying the pretzel bites or getting the $15 pain-in-the-ass mega-pretzel - I made the right call. From my current perspective, I see that paying $15 to make my mother so happy was a real bargain.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 In Summary

I didn't blog much in 2017 -  just too much going on - but it wasn't because I wasn't training (on the contrary, training took precedence over writing).

I can't pack all of the year's experiences into one post so instead I'll do my best to summarize what I worked on and some of the highlights from the year.

Wu-Style Training

Last winter and spring, I learned the Wu 45 Form as a follow up to the Wu 13 Form I learned the previous fall (described here).

Sifu Amin Wu spent two months in the summer visiting Beijing and during that time I practiced the form and prepared to participate in a group competition with some other students from the school. At the end of the summer, Sifu Wu helped the group polish the form and we won for both the 45 Form and best group overall.

In the fall, Sifu Wu taught a class on refining the Wu 45 Form, which clarified a number of details in the form for me. She also taught a Wu 13 Form class at Google that helped me improve many of the fundamental Wu-style moves.

I'm still not as comfortable with Wu-style as I am with Yang-style but recently I've experienced having the form flow, so that's progress. This year, I'll continue to work on improving the 45 Form.

Wu 45 Group Competition Medal

Yang-Style Training

For Yang-style, in 2017 I focused on improving the 32 Form. In the winter and spring, I took Sifu Wu's Tai Chi Flow (Yang-style fundamentals) and Yang 24 Form classes. While these classes are not directly the 32 Form, they form the basis of many of the moves in the 32 Form and helped me to improve my form.

In the spring, Sifu Wu gave a 2-day workshop on Refinement and Applications of the 24 Form, which was fantastic - having 2 days of focused instruction on the advanced parts of the form gave me the opportunity to pick up a lot of details that I hadn't seen before (particularly the applications).

In the fall, Sifu Wu taught a 32 Form class, which was great opportunity for me to understand the form deeper now that I've been practicing it for almost 2 years - it was certainly a much different experience than when I learned the form in the winter/spring of 2016.

With Yang-style, over the last year the movements of my upper and lower body have become more coordinated and flow a lot better, which makes doing the Yang-style forms a lot of fun and I particularly enjoy the 32 Form now. I've also been working on stretching to increase my flexibility so that I can lower my stance - progress is slow but I have made improvements.

This year, I'll learn the 48 Form and, once I've learned enough of it, I'll stop practicing the 32 Form on a regular basis. I'm going to miss the 32 Form, I've really came to enjoy it, but I've been told that the 48 Form is even more fun.

2017 Amin Wu Spring Workshop

I Liq Chuan

Between Yang-style and Wu-style training, it's been difficult to find time to train I Liq Chuan as much as I'd like to, particularly solo-training. Still, I've been able to meet up with my ILC training partners fairly regularly and to continue my Student Level 4 training with them and by attending workshops with both Ashe and Katya Shestakova. In December, Sifu Chin came to Oakland for a workshop and I successfully graded Student Level 4.

This year I will start training Student Level 5 (fixed-step spinning hands). I'm not sure how well that will go, trying to train both Tai Chi and ILC. I've been able to manage it so far but push hands and spinning hands training emphasize different things, so I'm just going to have to see how things work out.

ILC Student Level 4 Sash

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Teaching Tai Chi

Last summer, Sifu Amin Wu went to China for an extended visit and, before leaving, asked if I'd be willing to teach a beginner Yang-Style 24 Form class in the fall. While I appreciated the offer, I told her I'd have to think about it.

I'd never intended to be an instructor when I started taking Tai Chi but, after having taken Tai Chi for a while, I thought I knew enough that I would have offered unsolicited instruction to other students if TToPA hadn't had a strict policy against it - at the school, only the instructors teach, you only help another student if they explicitly ask you to.

I got over that impulse once I improved enough to realize that I wasn't ready to teach. Since then, I've noticed this tendency in other beginner students - once they've taken Tai Chi for a while, they start trying to instruct other students, which is bad for them and the other students.

That's why, when Sifu Wu asked me if I was willing to teach, I had to think it over. While I had improved since since training with her, I still wasn't sure it was a good idea but, since she felt I was ready, I decided to give it a try.

In the fall, I taught a Yang-Style 24 Form class on Tuesday evenings. Sifu Wu arranged it so that I would teach an earlier class and then she would teach an advanced class afterwards, which allowed her to see how my students were doing and allowed me to take the advanced class.

It was an interesting experience. Overall, I'd have to say the class was decent but not great. I've taught academic classes and group fitness classes in the past so I don't have any qualms about getting in front of people to teach but there were a few issues with the class that I tried to learn from:
  • It wasn't clear from the schedule that Sifu Wu wasn't teaching the class, so people would come in expecting her and find it was one of her students instead, which made me feel a bit awkward the entire session.
  • Most of the existing students in the school weren't all that familiar with me. Up to that point, I had primarily worked one-on-one with Sifu Wu and, in the classes that I had taken, tended to keep to myself. I came to realize that, in order to be an instructor at the school, I also needed to be a part of the community.
  • Teaching Tai Chi is a skill in-and-of itself that takes time to learn. Instructing while doing the form is tricky, particularly if you're trying to watch students at the same time.
  • Sifu Wu would come in at the end of class to check how things were going and give corrections - this was good for the students but it set up a contrast with my teaching that didn't work in my favor.
My class ended up with 4 students who attended regularly. Partway through the session, Sifu Wu offered to let me cancel the class since she knew getting there on time to teach was a bit of a hardship for me but, even though I didn't have a huge class, my students were dedicated so I decided I'd stick with it as long as they did. And they stuck around for the rest of the session, which ended just before the Christmas holiday season.

For the winter session, Sifu Wu decided not to hold any early evening classes again because they hadn't worked out that well in the fall. She instead decided to open a new Yang 24 Form class on Saturday mornings. We discussed my teaching that class but ultimately agreed that she would teach and I would assist her.

The class started in early January. Initially, I just stood in front and she'd have me help demo postures and moves. As the class progressed, she had me take point so the students could follow my moves and timing while she led them through the form (up to where they'd learned). Later on, she started having me warm up the class, going through the basic loosening drills and zhan zhuang (stance training), which allowed her to observe the class and give individual corrections. Eventually Sifu Wu started having me lead the class through the form as well, which gave her the opportunity to observe the class and see where they were having difficulty (which is hard to do when you're teaching) and to observe me leading/teaching and work with me on that.

We finished teaching the form at the end of June and Sifu Wu went to China again for the summer. I took over teaching the class, focused on refining the form. Teaching on my own this time around was much different experience. I had 8 students in the class and they all knew me and knew it was going to be me teaching. I also felt a lot more comfortable with instructing and was able to start incorporating some of my own things into class to give the students a different perspective rather than just repeating what Sifu Wu teaches.

Sifu Wu will be returning from China soon and will start a new session of classes in September. She's asked me to continue teaching at the school and I plan to - I've found that I enjoy teaching and I feel like I'm helping people and making a positive contribution to our community.