As I wrote yesterday, I spent all of last week at my kungfu club’s summer camp (www.whitecranefightingarts.com) where the underlying theme was correct posture and the ancient Chinese theories behind it.
I wasn’t always well enough to go to all the sessions but I was kept informed by our instructor, well enough to know that it is both highly complicated and also poetic in the way it links the human body to the universal.
On a practical level it challenges you to new heights of physical awareness.
What is the ground like under your feet? Where are the little rises and falls? How do you support your back? Where do you position your head? What strain do you put on your thigh muscles instead of your knees?
Needless to say many of these positions are good for everyday life as well as for martial arts.
Having to be careful after my brain haemorrhage – I have to avoid any head impact – I have been trying to put some of these lessons into practice around the house.
It has been absorbing, in a nerdy kind of way, to observe just how clumsy most of our daily movements are – well mine are anyway.
I suspect we would avoid a whole range of injuries and just wear-and-tear if we took some martial arts skills into daily lives:
A straight back with the “sacrum” (the end of the spine around your ass) pushed slightly forwards. Try it and you will see how much more relaxed your torso becomes.
Your knees unlocked with the tension held in your upper thighs. Those thigh muscles are meant to be strong so that they can take the strain from not only knees but the back too when you squat to pick things up instead of all those round back bends that you see all around you.
Your feet should really doing the work that they were designed for – feeling their way to prevent you falling, checking the ground and supplying the data for perfect balance.
Your shoulders, so often the seat of bodily tension, should be loose and relaxed and to do this, you need your focus, not only on that correctly positioned back but also with your head stretched upwards with the crown pointing to the skies.
There are so many subtleties and my understanding is at best rudimentary but already, I can see that my kungfu training is not only deeply rewarding but it also bleeds over into my other life and is helping me to recover not just from that head injury and the fractured spine that it caused, but it is making me so much more aware of what our bodies really are for and how to maintain them in the best possible condition.
I was thinking about this when I returned home and saw in the newspaper that an old lady called Carola Grindea had died at the age of 95.
She was the widow of my first employer, the wonderfully eccentric Romanian emigre, Miron Grindea who employed me as an editorial assistant on his literary and cultural quarterly magazine Adam International Review which was written in English and French.
For me, a young and impressionable writer wannabe, they represented European culture at its finest even though Miron was also an often confusing mix of charm and bad temper, part intellectual and part charlatan – all the ingredients for a successful editor.
They maintained rambling, book cluttered apartments in Kensington, London and in Hove, Sussex and were an inspiration to me when the World could seem a cold and insensitive place.
What has this got to do with Kungfu, I hear you say?
Well Carola Grindea, who was also Romanian, was often around when I was working on the magazine and her reputation as Professor of Piano at the Guildhall School of Music gave me a near panic attack when she and her husband asked me to show them what I could do musically.
I had studied singing at the Royal Academy of Music and, unless challenged, thought of myself as pretty good.
So I stood there in the delightfully dusty living room of these people who had been on friendly terms with practically every named writer, artist, musician and composer of the 20th Century, and, with Carola Grindea on the piano, sang Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe – a cycle of songs that take nearly half an hour of controlled nerves to perform.
I was terrified, of course but I thought I did OK. Miron Grindea did too. “Very passionate” he said, “full of youthful eroticism too!”
I loved that but waited to hear Madame Grindea’s opinion.
The singing was fine, she said but your posture is all wrong.
“You are so physically tense that you are limiting your abilities.”
She then went on to show me how to use my thigh muscles, push in my sacrum and hold my head, crown upwards to support my back. No mention of Schumann at all.
She became well known as a pioneer in teaching the necessity of a balanced body for a pianist to reach maximum potential – a method that is now known as the Grindea Technique.
So kungfu and music, my two great passions, came together again when I remembered this old lady, who had perfect posture even in old age, and I thought that a lot of these techniques that we labour to perfect are really simplicity themselves if only we listened to them. One day I might even get it right.
Apart from the Grindea Technique, I also remembered fondly a day by the sea in Brighton where she had accompanied me and “Mr. Grindea” for a proof-reading session on the current magazine. I had the picnic table, three little folding chairs and a typewriter, he had bundles of papers in a bulging bag and Carola Grindea had towels and provisions.
It was mostly a battle between papers and sea breezes accompanied by some probably obscene Romanian swear words but we got the work done and it fell to me to accompany the Professor of Piano into the sea whilst her husband dozed off in his beach chair.
Sea-bathing has never seemed quite so civilized since.
Here she is in a video she made about her work for the International Society for Study of Tension in Performance (ISSTIP). I love it just for her presence and that voice which speaks of another century. Where it seems obscure just respect the straight-backed old lady who only retired from teaching the piano when she was 94.