New country, new me. New sports, new food. New people, new office, similar routine. New bars, new beers, still get drunk, same old hangover. New job, same mission. Same blog, but from Canada.
Having finished wandering through Morocco, Spain, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and India, I am now becalmed in Southern Ontario, Canada. I have a new job, a new(ish) culture to learn about, but more importantly I have new sports to take in! Wintry, white framed sports. Apart from a minimum of skiing on a glorious and impromptu day in Iceland, and the compulsory skidding down a hill on a farm fertiliser bag in my childhood, I’ve never really dabbled in winter sports. The same is true for the vast majority of the world’s population, which does make me wonder whether they can capture what makes sport such a global phenomenon. But a Miracle on Ice, Eddie the Eagle and Jamaica’s bobsled team, these titular tales suggest the medium of movement, the degrees of the air, may not matter. But currently its summer, the ripe Ontario peaches fill the punnets of the market traders, and I have to find something else to talk about.
So Xingyi it is. A relative of Tai chi and Bagua in the Chinese martial art family, it is an “internal” art. This means that the focus is on activating body structures such as the ligaments, tendons and the skeletal system, to generate powerful motions and strong positions rather than the big muscle groups used more heavily in the “external” arts such as karate. It is part meditation, part fighting skill, and, perhaps because I get to wield a spear some of the time, I really like it.
Despite years of rugby, drinking in pubs, and being ginger, I’ve never got into a proper fight. So I’m not dreaming of cutting foes down or being admired for my prowess in the ring. Was always probably a bit scared of getting hurt. Probably afraid of getting knocked down by someone I didn’t expect it from. Probably just didn’t care about anything enough to want to fight someone for it. But I digress. For now, what I’m really loving is the constant, near mindless repetition. Now that sounds daft, so let me explain. Learning is enjoyable, new things are enjoyable, and James Saper and the others at Stone Lantern are enjoyable company. Buts it a different aspect to it that I’m enjoying. You do an action: a cross-cut or a drill or the dragon, and then you do it again. Again. You or someone else tweaks it, and you go again. Something else now goes wrong. Tweak it, go again. We march relentless up and down (or for Bagua, step in endless circles) towards some distant ideal of the perfect form. The after work squat merchants grip, clean and jerk after us, they too in search of it. Dancers like us stare at the mirror, move, assess, criticise, and go again. Until skin chafes and blisters pop and blood seeps into seat-soaked socks. Have you ever been doing something and thought “nah that’s not what I wanted, I need to do that again”. Scoop up the can and aim for the bin you’ve just missed. Go for that keepy-uppy record again. Delete that last line and write it again.
James Saper (the boss, sensei, coach at Stone Lantern) set me up, going up and down with the crushing fits, or perhaps the pounding fists, and then went to help someone else. I stepped up and down, squeezing my punches closer to the midline of my body, or trying to spring off my back foot a little sharper each effort. James came back after a time, to see how I was getting on. “Fine” I remarked, and carried on. “Oh yes” he said, “you’re a rower aren’t you. I had one before, very happy with the repetition; just leave them to it”. I stopped then, as that link hadn’t occurred to me. In the year before leaving for Canada, rowing, specifically gig rowing had been my main sport. Now I was out of a boat, on land, learning some relatively obscure martial art form. They hadn’t seemed connected to me at all.
But the link is of course repetition. When rowing, our mantra was “every stroke better than the last”. A straighter blade, a cleaner catch, a smoother exit, neater returns. Every time, again and again. Describing it now, it sounds mind-numbingly dumb. Surely something like football or ice hockey over here where the fluidity keeps you permanently on your toes and so much more mentally stimulated was more attractive. As a spectator sport, the numbers speak for themselves. But participation wise, martial arts are extremely popular. Do we all really like fighting, or is it some aspect of the repetition? Even other incredibly popular past-times such as fishing have the same element of the simple repetition. Cast, reel. Cast, reel. No fish? Never seems to stop them going back. Now any fisherman will tell you this is relaxing, not mind-numbing. Rowing; its not dumb, its intense focus. Those martial art routines aren’t stationary repetitions; you’re constantly moving towards your inner goal. Call it centring, zen, relaxation, it doesn’t really matter. The point is we seem to achieve an inner calm, a stillness, when focusing on some repetitive action like this. Not just repeating it, but striving over and over again to make it better. In these modern times of shares and likes and retweets, there is still clearly plenty of room for the individual road, the long journey towards some pointless but simultaneously essential perfection.
Make that reflection in the mirror that bit taller, that bit brighter and that bit closer to your perfection. Smile. But you’re only one step of many, many closer. Step up. Go again.