I’ve just realized that twelve years have passed by since my first ever visit to Beijing, while it’s nearly six years since I left to return to Wales, not knowing at that time if I would ever come back to China. These are significant numbers: 12 years is the time to complete one full cycle of the Chinese zodiac, so six years is also a half-cycle. It’s also a year since I did, eventually, make it back to China, in April 2015, after being head-hunted out of the blue. A number of signs and portents are suggesting I should take these signs seriously.
I celebrated the arrival of the Year of the Monkey, 2004, in Singapore, and then flew to Beijing for a few months’ intensive Chinese language classes. I also hoped to study some baguazhang, a martial art I’d read about, and which sounded intriguing. After that, I would return to Singapore to begin my MBA.
That period was a high point in my life. My bank balance was the healthiest it’s ever been, before or since, thanks to a moderate profit on the sale of my house in the UK, and a year working on a lucrative IT contract in Singapore. I’d been training intensively in taijiquan and qigong with Sim Poh Huat at the Nam Wah Pai Association in Lorong 29, in Geylang, Singapore. My dantian was full of qi, and physically felt like a cricket ball. A layer of qi infused the fascia under my skin, like a suit of armour. After training full-on, daily, with the taiji sabre with one of the school’s then instructors, Connie Tan, I’d developed a great awareness of my qi, something which I’m convinced helped me to have great breakthroughs in the vipassana retreat I then took with the Goenka school, immediately before moving to Beijing – breakthroughs which left me calmer and more at peace with the world than ever before.
I did indeed find baguazhang, which I would continue to practice for several years, intermittently. Those first classes were with Zhang Sheng Li, at the Beijing Milun School. Zhang was assisted by a Chinese-speaking Englishman, Will Yorke, who’d been in Beijing for years and was passionate about kung fu. One of Will’s mates, another Englishman called Matt, trained with me, though he was more interested in Chen-style taijiquan.
Six years later, in 2010, I was back in Beijing. I’d given up taiji and bagua a year before after seeing a film of myself and realizing that my fundamentals were weak, and instead was working with yiquan, with Master Yao Chengrong at the Beijing Zhong Yi Yiquan Wuguan. I was finding that this was giving me great results in improving my body’s structural alignment and postural strength. I was keeping up my meditation practice, and training in tui na, but my qi felt much depleted from where it had been in 2004; I’d never found another teacher or a gigong practice to match what I’d experienced at Lorong 29. As part of my search for something similarly effective, I’d recently joined the Small Steps Neijia school run by Liu Xuyang and Dalida Turkovic, which worked with baguazhang and xingyiquan as well as some qigong techniques that seemed promising.
Then my world changed. For personal reasons, I had to leave Beijing, and go back to Wales. I departed full of hopes for the opportunities that seemed to be opening up. I had no idea that I was actually jumping into an inferno.
The three years that followed were a catastrophe during which, for reasons over which I had no control, almost every aspect of my life was shattered. My timeline was reduced to one day: each day, my only ambition was to get to the end of that day alive and unbroken. That was it.
Eventually, I found an exit, and made it to Russia. The worst of of the pressure was lifted, but a lot remained. My timeline expanded; now I was able to think ahead in terms of weeks, and then months.
I think I came through this period with credit; I’m pleased to say that others who saw what was happening thought so too, and this all led to a deus ex machina conclusion: an approach from a recruitment firm, leading to relocation back to Beijing, for what is in many ways the best job I’ve ever had.
The past year has also had many challenges but now, with a renewed contract under my belt, renewed financial security for the first time in years, and no threats in any way comparable to the active and passive dangers I had previously been dealing with, I’m finally at a point where I can think ahead and plan in terms of years and decades.
The major turning point of the past year has been that I’m no longer broke. Until you’ve been to the edge financially – and I’m aware that there are readers who have been through bankruptcy and worse – it’s hard to imagine what life is like when you’re faced with the threat of completely running out of financial resources, of being absolutely, stony broke. I never quite got there, but there were long periods when it seemed to be a prospect.
That threat is now receding rapidly. However, to build up my war chest again, I’m working every day when work is available, so I currently have very little free time. This means making sacrifices, but I’m prepared to accept that for the time being. Most of 2016, at least, is going to be dedicated to restoring my financial health.
However, now that I’m able to think clearly about the long term again, I need to urgently address the issue of my physical health, which has suffered badly during the past six years.
This is what constant stress does, and what I need to address:
How to do this?
- I need meditation;
- I need to work with effective qigong;
- I need aerobic exercise;
- I need to work with an art or arts that relax and soften the body;
- and I need all of this to be compatible with a lifestyle that currently involves a great deal of travel, living out of suitcases in hotel rooms around northern China.
The immediate casualty of this has, unfortunately, been my studies in yiquan. Six weeks ago, Master Yao gave me a rather bad-tempered scolding for not coming to class often enough. At that time, I was going about once a week, and struggling to do that. Since my workload was only increasing, and getting to more than the occasional one-off class isn’t really going to be likely until July at the earliest, I agreed with him that I wouldn’t go until I was able to commit to regular attendance. At this point, it looks like I won’t be going back for the foreseeable future.
Why not? I have the greatest respect for Master Yao and his art, and I enjoy the classes. But… there’s no qigong element to the zhan zhuang; the zhan zhuang and the force-testing positions are not aerobic; and… I’m spending a lot of time discovering things for myself and then subsequently finding that they’re well-documented in many books. There’s nothing wrong at all with working things out for myself… but re-discovering the wheel means everything takes much longer than it needs to, and I don’t have that time now.
This where the signs and portents are coming into play.
I’m back in contact with Will, and Matt is still in town too. Will has introduced me to an English-speaking Daoist monk, with whom we’ve started learning wudang taijiquan. This is relaxing and softening in a way that yiquan isn’t, while still being an effective martial art. The monk is from the White Cloud Temple, in south-west Beijing, which I visited back in 2009 – and saw monks practising zhan zhuang. Right now, zhan zhuang and taijiquan (with qigong included) taught in English will help me more than zhan zhuang without qigong, plus yiquan, with no mutual language.
I’m also back in touch with Dalida, who is now working independently and runs weekly meditation sessions. I’m successfully meditating for an hour each day when I’m on the road, but I struggle to keep the practice going when I’m working in Beijing. I’ve found attending Dalida’s classes to be important; not only is the meditation good in itself, I’m finding that my qi has started trying to move in very noticable ways, as if it’s waking up and letting me know where it’s blocked. Other people who were training with Small Steps Neijia, and who subsequently left China, are also returning.
So, between Will and Dalida, and the people I know through them, I suddenly, and once again, feel that I’m part of a community of shared interests – something that’s not been true for the past year, in which I’ve felt quite isolated.
More than that, I’ve discovered that the qigong practices taught by Master Sim Poh Huat at Nam Wah Pai are very, very similar indeed, perhaps identical, to those taught by Mantak Chia (who learned at least some of his arts in Singapore – there’s a shared connection with South-East Asia as opposed to mainland China). I’ve managed to acquire the materials I need, and will soon be putting together a qigong program from Master Chia’s basic qigong practices, which will replicate what I used to do on the rooftop in Lorong 29. I’m very excited by this discovery, because it really was so very effective. I’m hoping to use some of my war chest to get to Thailand for a course with Master Chia in person later this year.
I’m also hoping to return to Thailand for another vipassana retreat.
Finally, I need to be working on an aerobic program. I loathe the sad, sterile environments of the hotel fitness centres which most of my colleagues use. I also remember that I was overweight when I first came to China twelve years ago, and I lost a lot of that weight… by practicing baguazhang. By the time I started my MBA, I was healthy, lean, flexible, and strong – thanks to bagua. Now, of course, I know plenty of bagua teachers in Beijing from the years I’ve spent here… but I run into the same issue that I’ve had with Master Yao and yiquan: I’m not in Beijing long enough, or regularly enough, to commit to classes.
Fortunately, a solution is available: New York-based martial artist and TCM doctor Tom Bisio has launched an online bagua course based on the Li Ziming/Gao family styles. Bruce Frantzis recently met Tom’s teacher here in Beijing, and was impressed. It’s expensive as a lump sum, but compared to what I was paying for a few months’ classes with Master Yao, it’s reasonable. I’ll be able to access it from my hotel rooms, and, perhaps, arrange occasional classes with the Beijing-based teachers involved to brush up and fine-tune.
Image credit: Jakub Hałun – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11575614