Turning obstructions into advantages

In her final blog, Stephanie Fowler tells us how to retrain the mind-body complex

If you take any sport, you will find that a large part of the training involves repetition and drilling. Constantly repeating certain movements so that they become instinctive. For on the playing field, in the thick of the action, you don’t have time to ‘think’.

You have to act — and fast. If you think first, more often than not, you will be too late.

Martial art training is no different, with drills – both solo or with another – as well as linking together various movements to create a form, that can be practised repeatedly. This system involves a fundamental rewiring of our instincts, and also our reaction to fear.

When we are afraid, our instincts take over from our conscious mind, propelling the body into action before we have a chance to realise what we are doing. This is known as the stress response, or ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

There is one more response which is potentially even more damaging – the ‘freeze’ response, when we become like a rabbit in the headlights, and find ourselves frozen to the spot with our minds totally blank and the body unable to do anything.

So by constantly repeating certain movements, we re-train our body so that we put in place a new ‘instinctual’ way of reacting. Many people wonder why in Tai Chi Chuan we train so slowly. I am often asked if it is to fight in slow motion. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a slow-motion fight.

One of the reasons for training in this way is that the bodily requirements in Tai Chi Chuan are very subtle, so if we train quickly, we will miss many of the principles. For example, try relaxing your arms and imagine the joints opening out. Now try moving, keeping that ‘feeling’ in the body. If you find it easy, you’re in the minority.

Gradually, through training, the body starts to absorb the many principles of Tai Chi Chuan. When we can maintain them as we move slowly, we can speed up. The very rapid movements in Tai Chi Chuan are unbelievably swift, using an explosive-like power from the body.

As I explained in my previous piece, we always try and use our opponent’s force against them. It would madness if we were to then use our own force against ourselves by tensing certain muscles, as tight muscles inhibit fast and efficient movement.

While movement is best practised in a solo setting, the correct reactions are best mastered in training with another person. Typically, when we are threatened, we will tense and react ‘against’ whatever we are afraid of. This process occurs in most disagreements as our instinctual reactions work at both a physical and mental, or sub-conscious, level.

When we get fired up and angry, it is often like something else takes over, and we start saying things before actually ‘thinking’ about what we are saying. It is as if fear, even at this level, pushes us instinctively into a reactionary stance that can be ever so damaging.

But when we learn to react with an incoming force, rather than against it, we simultaneously learn how to turn an obstruction into an advantage, and how to move with events and actions around us, rather than against them. This is the wisdom that Tai Chi Chuan brings.

Stephanie Fowler first began learning martial arts in 1992 at the age of 17. Her training in Tai Chi Chuan began a year later. She has trained with many top masters from all over the world, including the current Chen-style lineage holder Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. She has also practised Qigong and another internal martial art, Bagua Zhang.
Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge