Franz Kafka, the Archdruid, and the System

Another exercise session this evening, following the same routine as I listed before. Afterwards, I did a little body toning by hitting the body with a canvas bag full of soy beans (I got the bag from Nam Wah Pai when I was training with them in Lorong 29 in 2003, as it happens, and have carried it with me in my travels ever since. Pern Yiau’s branch of NWP doesn’t use this exercise, though). I finished up with a double-handed workout that is really a cossack sword exercise; however, I wasn’t able to bring my shashkas from China since they’re illegal in the UK, so instead I use a pair of Chinese brass maces, which are not illegal. Go figure…

Last night’s systema class was very good. We began by working on the ‘systema walk’, keeping the hips very loose and the pelvis tilted slightly. From there we moved on to evading slow incoming punches, always using only peripheral vision, and simply stepping aside to avoid the fist. After that, the same thing but evading slashes from training knives, which was much more difficult. Finally, we worked for some time on studying your opponent in order spot where the weaknesses are in their ‘chain of tension’. This is great stuff, the sort of thing that really attracted me to systema.

Until his recent death, I had never heard of Jack Lalanne; I read a number of martial arts blogs that have eulogized him, though, plus a number of UK papers ran obituaries. He certainly seems to have been a seriously admirable man. The most interesting comment I’ve read, though, is by John Michael Greer, who observed:

Lalanne was, rather, one of the very last great figures in what was once a huge and influential movement in American culture, and has now been systematically erased from our collective memory.

The phrase that was standard before that erasure took place was “physical culture.” From the 1870s until the Second World War, across the English-speaking world and in many other countries as well, those words conjured up much the same imagery that the current Lalanne retrospectives put back into circulation, however briefly, in the imagination of our time: a genial blend of robust exercise, healthy eating, spectacular feats of strength, and more or less colorful showmanship. Against a background of Victorian ladies doffing their corsets to swing Indian clubs, young men stripped to the waist hefting kettlebells full of lead shot, and circus strongmen challenging all comers to match them lift for lift, scores of figures now forgotten made their names into household bywords: Eugen Sandow, whose impressive exploits and even more impressive physique first made weightlifting fashionable in the Western world; Genevieve Stebbins, who taught exercise to three generations of American girls around the turn of the last century; Joseph Greenstein aka “The Mighty Atom,” the diminutive Polish-American strongman whose signature trick was tying a #2 iron horseshoe into an overhand knot with his bare hands, and many more – among them, and far from the least, Jack Lalanne.

One of the commenters links in turn to a Salon article about J.P. Müller, a Dane who in the first half of the 20th century developed an exercise routine that swept Europe, and counted Franz Kafka amongst its devotees. As a 15-minute routine for health and strength, it definitely seems to prefigure today’s trends! It’s interesting to watch; I suddenly feel an urge to grow a manly Victorian-style moustache…


  1. I suddenly feel an urge to grow a manly Victorian-style moustache…

    Ha, next thing you will be into Bartitsu!

    On qigong/chi kung, did you ever read this? Glenn told me he admired systema enormously. The stuff in that book is seriously worth a look.


    1. Yay for bartitsu! I find that sort of stuff fascinating; these are semi-forgotten parts of martial arts history in the West, like the Parisian Apaches… It seems that there are people producing DVDs of bartitsu – but even for me, that’s probably a step too far!

      I haven’t seen that book before – the writeup sounds really interesting. Not sure that I’ll buy a copy just yet, though; my next bit of spending is likely to be on fruit trees and berry bushes 🙂


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