Well, Why Bother Then?


By Alix Lee

Martial arts -- and the reasons people practice them -- are doomed to remain beyond the ken of those who haven't at least at some time had some peripheral contact with them.

Occasionally I have mentioned to non-martial artists the fact that while I often used to get into fights before I began martial arts training, within only a year or so of beginning martial arts training, those 'incidents' ceased to happen. The usual reaction has been words to the effect of: 'Oh! Then you needn't have bothered', or, 'Ha! So learning martial arts was all a complete waste of time, after all!', or even (perhaps jokingly, with a knowing smirk), 'you should go back to your martial arts school then...and ask for your money back!'

For those who have never learnt a martial art, the one and only logical reason for learning a one is for self-defence. If you tell an 'average Joe' in a non-Asian country in the developed world that you studied martial arts for self improvement, they will probably think you are having them on, and give you a pause to tell them you're only kidding.

But if its obvious you're not joking, they may even look at you as if you've lost your mind.

In this article, I want to touch on a few of the many benefits of learning a martial art, apart from self-defence. Here are some of the more obvious ones which come to mind:

BENEFIT ONE: The Right Preparation for Street Attacks

As I mentioned already in a previous article, there is a big difference in the traditional martial arts instruction of east Asia, and the more commercial model widespread in Europe (though admittedly growing worldwide).

Browsing through the English-language martial arts publications of the UK, it is obvious that most martial arts instruction is 'street self-defence'-oriented, and if a martial art can't somehow prove its worth according to those parameters, then it's hardly worth bothering with. This is only one step up from the above-mentioned 'average Joe's' understanding of what martial arts are all about.

Martial arts are, of course, fighting systems, and their effectiveness in this respect will always be the first measure of their value. But the need for 'real street self-defence' skills are overstated, to say the least. The reasons for this are easy to see -- most people can't move beyond this consideration to think of any other reason why anyone would want to learn a martial art. Thus, the various schools of the major east Asian martial arts, as taught in Europe, have to continually prove their worth as 'real street self-defence' skills to remain commercially viable.

In fact, it isn't necessary to go as far as learning an entire martial art to protect yourself on the streets. There are plenty of self-defence courses -- often also taught by a formal martial arts instructor -- which can provide for that. But beware. These courses may be simpler than a full martial art course, but they can no more teach you to prepare for any self-defence situation you may meet than a martial art training can.

Sure, there may be some value in pointing out the strong points of these self-defence systems and how formal martial arts may fail to match them in certain respects, given a certain set of circumstances. But that doesn't mean there are not other -- unmentioned or un-emphasised -- circumstances, in which a formal martial art would provide you with better protection than the 'street-wise self-defence' system would. It simply isn't possible to prepare for all eventualities when you are talking about unexpected threats or violence from attackers you don't know beforehand, which is the focus of most of these systems. However, the possibility of this kind of attack is small to begin with, certainly on any streets in the developed world. And exercising a little caution and common sense would probably come in a lot more useful than any amount of combat training, regardless of how these courses advertise themselves.

There are dangerous urban environments, particularly certain districts in some of the cities of various developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa, where the chances of random violence are relatively high. By 'relatively', I mean higher than the rather low chances of being attacked on the streets of a city the developed world. By 'random', I mean that the attacker/s and the victim do not know each other prior to the attack.

However, generally speaking, the cities of developed countries, even including the United States, are not in that risk league.

Even in those cities of western Europe where the chances of becoming separated from your purse or wallet are (or at least have been, traditionally) highest, such as Rome and Amsterdam, generally speaking you do not need anything other than to have your wits about you to avoid that possibility becoming a reality. Speaking as someone who, during the time I lived in the Netherlands, regularly emerged from Amsterdam and Rotterdam Central Stations, both of which were -- at the time, at least -- infamous for pickpockets, including some very sophisticated ones, I can (pardon the pun) safely say that even if I were female, or were otherwise more vulnerable, I would not have been in any more danger of losing my money I was in reality.

The real danger is not having your wits about you, or not knowing that the area in question is rife with muggers and pickpockets, or else being temporarily distracted by some unforeseen event. But I don't think having a martial arts, or a self-defence training would really make much difference in such a scenario. In fact, many of the pickpocket techniques commonly used (and I was personally acquainted with a professional pickpocket who worked the area then; he used to share my squat with me) in or outside the train stations at the time depended precisely on creating such unforeseen events (ie., distractions). For example, a pickpocket would pose as a beggar, and very often his unsuspecting victims would actually bring out a purse or wallet -- if only for a moment -- or at least reveal precisely where on their persons their money was. Whereupon, an accomplice would zoom up from behind -- some, even on roller skates -- snatch the purse and make off with great haste! The beggar would pretend innocence, even commiserate with his victim for a few moments.

True, if you had a martial arts training, you may have been better able to pursue and capture the guy who stole your wallet. But the precise reason people fell victim to such an attack was that they were not expecting it. By the time the victim realised what had happened (and some of these pickpockets were extremely light-fingered) and decided on such a course of action, the pickpocket would typically already have put a good distance between himself and his victim.

Muggings are the kind of attack that many of the self-defence courses advertised in the pages of martial arts magazines supposedly prepare you for.

There are a few things I want to say about these kinds of attack.

First, as with the possibility of falling victim to pickpocketing, generally speaking, having your wits about you is far more important than having a training in hand-to-hand combat.

If you avoid letting strangers get too close to you, then you have already reduced the chances of a successful mugging considerably. You can usually do this without making yourself look ridiculously stand-offish in a mugging situation, because unlike pickpocketing, which works best in very crowded situations, muggings are an overt threat of violence which can easily attract the kind of attention that the muggers don't want.

It really is true that the proverbial dark alley is the best place for a mugging; preferably one close to streets where there is a high level of background noise.

Second, you would not need the kind of skills advertised in self-defence courses to meet the threat of a street mugging. You don't need to be able to 'floor an experienced karate black belt in seconds flat', because your mugger is not likely to be an experienced black belt in the first place. It may sound like a self-flattering excuse, but the fact of the matter is, mugging is not the line of work that tends to attract self-respecting martial artists.

And even if your attacker (or attackers) is an experienced black belt, if he is a mugger worthy of the name, he isn't about to pit his fighting skills against yours, regardless of what you look like. Circumstances like that are precisely what he would want to avoid if he takes his 'job' seriously. He wouldn't be any more interested in proving his fighting skills than he would be in seeing yours. If he takes his mugging seriously, then he's after am easy meal ticket, given with the minimum of attention-attracting fuss, not a sparring match. He isn't out to hurt you, because even a successful mugging carried out against physical resistance may leave him bloodied and bruised, and that alone can be incriminating evidence if he is caught. That's why any serious mugger would be threatening you with a knife or other weapon; in the hope that that weapon will be enough to convince you not to consider resisting. But again, the last thing he wants is to use the weapon -- the chances of what's in your wallet being worth the risks are very low.

Third, being that a mugging is the main kind of threat on dangerous streets, the scenarios many martial arts and self-defence courses prepare their students for are just not realistic.

For example, I recently saw a promotional film about Steven Seagal's aikido dojo in Osaka. In it, various students and ex-students talked about how practical the skills taught there were. 'Real street combat skills' was the term which came up again and again, the same term found throughout the pages of martial arts magazines.

It seems to me that, far from being practical self-defence, it's completely impractical to waste years training for a certain type of street attack. Or even for any type of street attack. The chances of being attacked on the streets (for no reason) by several unknown assailants are low anywhere, especially according to the scenarios shown in that promotional film, in which groups of unknown assailants suddenly come running out of nowhere, shouting at the top of their voices, arms held high as if holding a knife.

Seriously, except for youth gang 'warfare', how and why would this happen? In my own youth, I spent a good deal of time in London's Brixton, and the East End, both of which were regarded as 'rough' areas in those days, though perhaps not so much now. A few years prior to that, I lived in an adjacent district to Manchester's Moss Side, which was also thought of as a rough district in those days. In all cases, living in adjacent districts meant I often had to walk through those areas, sometimes late at night. In the case of Brixton, I often even went drinking there on Friday nights. Never once, in any of these places, was I accosted by groups of unknown assailants springing out of nowhere, nor have I ever known anyone who has been.

The only time in my life I thought I may possibly become the victim of an unprovoked attack by a group of unknown assailants was in about 1990 in a part of San Francisco I can't remember the name of (I think perhaps 'Western' district). I turned a corner and found myself facing a gang of about fifteen blacks coming towards me on the same side of the street, kicking parking metres and rubbish bins as they went. They were obviously looking for trouble. Staying alert to the possibility of some random move in my direction, I walked past them, giving them a 'wide berth' (no, I didn't zero in on them and accuse them of damage of government property; that kind of thing only happens in martial arts or action films).


Generally, even in the worse districts of the developed world, if you don't go around acting like you're looking

for trouble, it won't find you. And even if it does, it's extremely unlikely to be in the form of groups of unknown attackers suddenly running at you, shouting at the top of their voices.

I'm not saying this kind of attack never happens, but it seems there is nothing 'practical' about spending years of training preparing for such an unlikely event.

As I said above, one set of circumstances in which this may happen, is when a gang is attacked by a rival gang, which has been lying in wait. And while a mugger is unlikely to be an experienced black belt, it is common for police officers to have a fairly high degree of martial arts training. Which makes one wonder about the target sections of the population some of these 'floor a black-belt in seconds flat'-style advertisements are aiming for.

In any case, no matter your motive for learning street self-defence, there is no way to prepare for all eventualities, regardless of the course of instruction you opt for and how hard you train. Even someone who has spent years training hard in some paramilitary SAS-type self-defence, can still meet with defeat when the nature of the attack is completely unexpected. And while it may seem to some people to be practical, and worth spending years of training to defend against the unlikely event of an unprovoked attack by a gang of unknown assailants (especially when that training is shown to produce a fighter who can send his attackers flying in all direction as in the aforementioned promotional video), the nature of a random attack on the street is something which can't be prepared for.

Apart from the fact that a random attack is, by nature, unpredictable, your own circumstances at the time of the attack may be close to impossible to predict. For example, highly trained in street-style self-defence as you may be, it may also be the case that you don't happen to be in the same form at the time of the attack as you would be after a work-out at the dojo. You may have pulled a muscle, or even have your arm in a sling, or your foot in plaster. Or you may be carrying a bulky suitcase which you don't want to lose, or even be weighted down with a heavy backpack. Worse still, you may even be with your wife and baby, and thus have to protect them as well as fight on your own behalf. The nature of life is such that not many people can be as prepared for a street confrontation as they can prepare for a confrontation in the dojo.

This is why I think most of the 'real street self-defence' courses are not necessarily any better than learning a proper martial art. Given the choice, I still think it's better to learn a traditional martial art, and concentrate on learning all the skills therein, rather than obsess yourself with preparing for street attacks. There are many other benefits to learning a full martial art, apart from making you, in a general sense, physically stronger and mentally quicker (and thus more ready than otherwise for the unlikely event of an unprovoked street attack).

Even if you do not agree with all I have said above regarding the possibilities of street attacks, I would still say that you should learn a full, traditional, martial art first, rather than a more specialised self-defence system.

The reason is simple. While in recent years there has been a surge of interest in various self-defence systems, and some of them are, undeniably, effective combat systems, many of these systems were once the exclusive domain of some military or paramilitary organisation or other. They may not demand as part of their course, the kind of training in strength, speed and flexibility that martial arts aim to provide, and may even stress that the fact that no such training is necessary. But that's because these military systems assumed a certain degree of strength, speed and flexibility (not to mention mental alertness and quick reflexes) to begin with. Their practitioners -- usually fit young men -- would have got these qualities through the rest of their military training. Learning these self-defence techniques alone will not help you if you don't have the ability to carry them out effectively. The best way to develop these abilities (assuming you don't want to join the commandos) is to learn a martial art.

A newcomer to the martial arts may read this and wonder then, which martial art to learn?

The fact is, you can take a look at any of the major styles and simply choose the one you like the look of best. If, for example, you like the idea of using the opponent's own force against him, you can choose aikido. If kicks and blows are more appealing, muay Thai, or taekwondo, etc.. Then start looking for a school. All the major styles are still with us for a reason -- their effectiveness as martial arts has been proven. Most are well represented in any middle-to-large European city, although as I pointed out in my first article, east Asia is still the place of first choice for learning east Asian martial arts.

One other point about choosing a martial art to learn...the martial arts magazines in Europe are full of adverts for books and DVDs teaching you how to use one art against another. For example, how to use judo to defeat kickboxing opponents. If you are learning a martial art principally for 'street self-defence', this kind of instructional material is of virtually zero value. Their only value would be if you were to be taking part in competitive sparring with a practitioner of another art, and needed to know the weak points of that particular art when compared to your own (all arts have their weak points and strong points). Because it is only in a controlled fight environment that a martial artist will necessarily fight within the constraints of his art, even if you do know his art beforehand. In fact, it is only practitioners with a significant amount of sparring experience who even can fight within the constraints of their art at will.

In an uncontrolled fight environment (ie., one where there isn't an instructor or referee supervising), the tendency among fighters with limited training is towards a kind of panic-driven brawl, limbs flying everywhere, in the hope that intensity of brawl will decide the outcome. Often, when the martial arts student becomes aware that this isn't an effective fighting method, and certainly isn't what he is being taught, the result is he stands there deciding what to do while his opponent knocks him to the ground! Either approach is not particularly effective. When the time comes that, for example, a karate student can spar effectively at will, utilising only karate techniques, or at least mostly only karate techniques (even though he doesn't have to), then he has become a martial artist of karate. Until that time, he is not so much a karate martial artist as merely someone who happens to be learning karate. Martial arts take the messy brawl which is the typical -- even instinctive -- 'style' of the non-martial artist, and systemise it, stressing only certain techniques, and cutting out the rest.

At any rate, you shouldn't allow any of this kind of stuff to influence your choice of martial arts instruction. As mentioned above, all the major styles have their weak points and their strong points. Learn what appeals to you.


Apart from self-defence capabilities, there are so many possible benefits to learning a martial art, that it can be hard to number them, and also hard to predict them. A good illustration of this fact is provided by the case of Ah Han, a fellow student at my Shotokan karate dojo.

This is a benefit which will probably only interest men, but as most martial arts students are male, I thought I should mention it anyway. So, more about Ah Han...

Ah Han was a colossal man. And I can remember that from where he often stood, in the front row of students at the dojo, and directly in front of me, I could usually see his reflection in the wall-to-wall mirrors facing us. I could clearly see that Ah Han was slightly shorter than myself. And I am, at best, of average height.

If that sounds like a contradiction...well, of course it is. It is one that unfailingly sprang back to mind each time my eyes glanced over to the image of our class working out the basic stances or practicing a kata in unison. I just couldn't get over it.

Ah Han's shoulders seemed to be about a metre wide. His muscle-bound upper body stretched his uniform to the point of making it seem at times to be comically inadequate. But you could never smile long at this sight if you were facing off against the man in sparring, or even in a pre-set routine of moves. As the second-dan black belt closed in on you, he clearly gave the sense of being an obstacle impossible to bypass. You could, of course, strike him, if you were fast enough. And although Ah Han was heavily-built, and for that reason not as fast as most of his second- and third-level black belt peers, he could still dodge blows pretty damn quickly despite his bulk. But what if you did land a blow on him? He was, as a straight-talking former travel companion of mine from Australia would have put it 'built like a brick shit'ouse'. And in the same way as you may be able to land blows on such a structure, you could sometimes also have been able to land blows on Ah Han. My Aussie travel mate would have called that 'doing yourself in'.

Oftentimes, a few of the karate school's senior students would meet up after class at a night market stall across the street for a fruit juice or fruit ice (a cold snack especially popular during Taiwan's stiflingly hot summers). And occasionally this would lead to a few beers at one or two of the other market stalls.

On one such occasion, I suddenly noticed that Ah Han, who almost never missed a class, had been absent for several classes, and mentioned this. Xiao Jiang, also a second dan, told me that Ah Han's employers, a German engineering firm, had just opened offices in Manila and given him a post there for a couple of years. I joked that I didn't know how I had possibly missed the fact of his absence -- it should be difficult not to notice the presence or absence of such a fellow. Xiao Jiang and one or two of the others there that night smiled as if there was something they knew that I didn't.

'He hasn't always been like that', Xiao Jiang then told me, a smirk on his face.

After deliberately over-playing his hesitation to explain, Xiao Jiang told me what, it seemed, everyone else there was already aware of...

When Ah Han had first turned up at the dojo several years previously, Xiao Jiang finally explained, he had been not only skinny, pasty-faced and bookish in appearance, but positively effeminate.

Once, a few months previous to this evening at the night market, and on just such a night, Ah Han and some fellow students had gone for snacks at the same night market after class, and Ah Han had admitted that at first he had absolutely no interest in karate and had only looked in on a class to humour a couple of friends he was with. Paradoxically, his friends soon dropped out of training quickly, while Ah Han discovered he actually liked it.

Not only that, but his interest in karate inspired interest in other physical pursuits, particularly swimming and bodybuilding. Within a year, his appearance had changed so dramatically, that he would hardly have been recognisable by former acquaintances who hadn't witnessed this transformation.

After a couple of beers at the night market that night, Ah Han opened up: he confided that before he took up karate, he had even begun to suspect that he may not have been sexually normal. Although in reality he had never been homosexual, he could think of no other explanation for his effeminate nature than some sort of latent homosexuality. On the one hand, he had never had a homosexual thought, but on the other, how else could he account for his complete lack of interest in masculine activities?

Ah Han's father had died in a traffic accident when Ah Han was only a baby, and he had been brought up the only son of a doting single mother, who definitely spoilt him, even by his own admission. His over-protective mother, constantly worrying about her son's welfare, steered him clear of any activities in which he may have been hurt. She had already lost her husband. Apparently a reckless driver, and a heavy drinker, he had been given to showing off his physical skills in dangerous ways, and that is how he ultimately met his end. Ah Han's mother made sure her only child did not grow up the same. Ah Han had naturally been guided then towards safer, indoor-oriented pursuits, with the accent towards those typically favoured by girls.

Karate had changed Ah Han's life, and he was only too glad to admit it. It had opened up a whole new world for him -- outdoor pursuits like camping and mountain climbing, which had previously held no allure for him, took up all that was left of his free time after his karate training, swimming and body-building.

'Far from being homo', Xiao Jiang told me, 'Ah Han discovered he was not only perfectly normal, but in fact, able to 'pull' any girl he wanted! He hardly had to try.'


'All girls -- ' put in another student, whose name I can't remember now, 'even those who practice karate -- like a man who inspires confidence and gives them a sense of security. And Ah Han can definitely provide them with that.'

It seemed a couple of the dojo's female students were among those who had found Ah Han irresistible. In a matter of months, Ah Han had gone from being someone worried about his own sexual normality to a man who could 'pull' any woman he wanted. This kind of possibility was certainly not on Ah Han's mind when he decided to look in on a class with his friends, and I mention it here only as an example of the many unpredictable benefits martial arts practice can bring.

BENEFIT THREE: Rapid Recovery, and at Half the Cost!

The following is perhaps the second-most obvious benefit of martial arts training. Usually, if anyone is aware of any other benefits which come about through martial arts training, apart from better self-defence abilities, it is health and fitness. And anyone who pratices for any significant length of time could not help but be aware of this.

But let's put the focus here on health first, rather than fitness, as they are not exactly the same thing.

As I mentioned in the first article on this site, when I took my first class in taekwondo, it was such a shock to my -- supposedly already fit -- system that I almost didn't turn up for the second class. I was still aching from the first class!

Most of the time, the focus of my free-time training was -- naturally -- fitness. And fitness of a very specific kind. For example, I wanted my improve my stamina, so I could spar without feeling so exhausted afterwards. To this end, I took up jogging in the early mornings or late at night. I was also aware of the fact that jogging was good exercise for building up my leg muscles. And I knew too, that it was a good warm-up for a stretching session, and that these post-jog stretching sessions were one of the reasons I was making some progress loosening up my body and improving my general suppleness.

But what escaped my notice was that my general level of health had also improved.

Whereas the time or distance I could jog without feeling tired, or the degree of stretch into the splits I could manage could easily be measured, months went by before I noticed that I hadn't fallen victim to colds or flu. Previously, they had been so much a part of my life that each time one struck, it was a reminder that I must have been neglecting to look after myself. Now, I felt almost as if something was wrong -- why wasn't I getting colds, flu, throat infections or other minor ailments anymore? What was wrong with me?!

I soon found the answer. Most martial arts with a more direct Shaolin lineage feature stance practice as part of their training. However, on the other hand, there are plenty of martial arts which don't, and anything which puts itself across as a 'self-defence system' or 'combat system', being stripped of anything not related to easy-to-memorise self-defence applications, will unlikely include stance practice. More's the pity.

Certainly, I believe anyone practicing one of these arts can only benefit from adopting stance practice into their personal training routine.

I also believe that just regular practice of the basic stances typical of Chinese martial arts and their derivatives is enough to virtually guarantee good health. A lot of people find this hard to believe, but they are all people who don't practice the basic stances. Anyone who has practiced stances regularly for more than a few months would know this to be the case, even if that knowledge is not necessarily something they feel comfortable with, or something which compels them to practice stances regularly.

And if you find that to be an overstatement of the value of stance practice, get this: I also think stance practice is character-building and is one of the features of some traditional martial arts which lends martial arts a spiritual dimension.

Unfortunately, it is also one of the reasons classical martial arts lose students to more 'practical self-defence'-oriented systems. As I mentioned before, most people cannot view martial arts as more than self-defence systems, and it is very difficult to reconcile spending long periods of time stock-still in some stance or other with practical self-defence.

Typically, stance practice in a dojo will feature staying motionless, or at least attempting to, in some stance or other for at least two minutes. Some will practice holding stances for longer, or perhaps just the 'horse-riding' stance for longer and the other stances for two minutes, but as each stance is typically practiced in two directions (eg., two minutes in right-leg-forward bow stance, then two minutes in left-leg-forward bow stance), spending too long on stances eats into the rest of the class time.

When a newcomer to stance practice begin this, he or she will typically find, after a very short time (perhaps less than half a minute), that this outwardly unchallenging exercise is more difficult than it looks. After a minute or more of holding a stance, his legs will be shaking. Finally, these mild shakes will grow into violent spasms sending shudders through his -- now sweat-drenched -- body. The last few seconds spent holding a stance will seem infinitely longer than the first few. Then, with a sense of relief, the new student will hear the command to change stances, move into the next stance, and the process will begin again.

Thus, the new student has had his first encounter with his most formidable enemy: himself. His teacher will no doubt advise him to practice the stances every day, even on his own time. He will find excuses not to, even if it comes to a point where he only keeps those excuses for the teacher, and admits to himself that the real reason he doesn't practice the basic stances is that he finds them so tiring and so boring. Nevertheless, while the time allocated to stance practice in class is limited, after some weeks or months of regular stance practice, the new student will find that the once seemingly unconquerable stances have been, in some measure, conquered. The shakes have passed. He can now do all the stances for the required time without shaking. The pools of sweat below his body have disappeared, and at normal temperatures, stance practice hardly makes him sweat at all.

Now the student wants to 'move on' and put stance practice behind him, reasoning that these are exercises only for the beginner. But stance practice hasn't gone away -- it generally remains a mandatory part of classtime. The student's most formidable enemy hasn't gone away, either; he's still there, collecting his senses and looking for a new way to strike back, perhaps even through stance practice itself! As the student progresses through the art, learning things far more interesting than stance practice, he will begin to see stance practice as something to avoid if possible (perhaps by habitually arriving late for class, as this exercise generally comes early on in a martial arts class). The student will tell himself that stance practice is something he can do now, but doesn't have the time to, with so many more interesting things to learn -- many of which just as time- and energy-consuming as stance practice was at one time. Stance practice, never an attractive aspect of his martial arts training, will begin to seem inessential.

That's a big mistake. Stances are the foundation upon which everything else in the art is built. Without stance practice, there will come a time when the now advanced student realises that something is wrong with some moves in his katas, or that some of the moves he makes during sparring are dangerously poorly balanced. Eventually, there will come a time when he realises that despite the fact that he has progressed beyond first dan black belt, some of his stance capabilities have deteriorated and are now little better than a student with only a couple of months experience. An embarrassing thing to realise, especially if he happens to discover this when demonstrating what the basic stances are to others interested in the art .

That's what I mean about stance practice providing the opportunity for spiritual development in the student. Even after coming to realise how enormously beneficial stance practice is, the student typically has to fight to convince himself to dedicate the time and effort needed to practice them properly.


What about the purely physical benefits? Well, stance practice, if carried out properly, stretches and strengthens all the muscles of the legs and lower body. This is beneficial to blood circulation throughout the body. Another benefit is that it gives the student the ability to feel grounded, with a good centre of gravity and sense of balance.

Stances are normally practiced lower than a student would stand in sparring (and this is also one of the reasons many students regard them as 'impractical'). What this means is that, with all leg muscles stretched further than you may need them to be for actual sparring, you are able to more easily drop into a low stance without stumbling, falling over or otherwise losing your balance. Conversely, if a student never practices stances, he may himself be knocked into a position during sparring which he can't recover from, and consequently 'going to ground', when that was avoidable. Perhaps even worse, he may find that when he tries to drop into a low stance, to avoid a high strike for example, the fact that his lack of stance practice has now made this low stance unattainable, coupled with the forcefulness of his attempt to drop into that low stance (to avoid a blow), results in a searing pain as he pulls a muscle. To guarantee always being able to achieve a certain degree of stretch in any conditions -- even without a warm-up -- one has to regularly exceed that degree of stretch during practice.


A final benefit to stance practice worth mentioning, is that changing focus of pressure on the soles of the feet is, in essence, a kind of foot massage. We don't fully understand why foot massage is such an effective complimentary medicine, but we can nonetheless feel the benefits of it. It seems to make us feel more relaxed physically, while at the same time, alert mentally. A very desirable state to be in for martial arts practice.

Discovering all these benefits associated with stance practice did little to fire my interest in it. The problem with stance practice -- and this is another thing which gives it a spiritual quality -- is that it's just so bloody boring! When you practice stances, even in a class situation, you are, for the most part, alone with your thoughts. If you can't handle that, then you have a problem. On the one hand, you have to keep your mind occupied with your own thoughts, on the other, those thoughts can't be so engrossing that they make you forget that you are practicing your stances and are supposed to hold each one with very little movement.

So, like most people, I only practiced stances when I had too, or when I realised that my ability in this respect had gone downhill and I needed to work on them to bring them back to an acceptable level.

But another time I practiced stances was when I could find no excuse not too. After a few months martial arts practice, with my improved level of health, I rarely fell victim to colds and flu. But when these now infrequent events did occur, being that typically I would not be at work, and that I now knew without a shadow of a doubt how good stance practice was for you, I would have no excuse not to practice them.

And the result was always a confirmation of just how good stance practice could be for you. Even with the most awful colds, a full stance workout would leave me feeling that I had completely recovered in less than half and hour! That feeling may not have lasted long. But neither would the cold or flu. Each stance workout would strike a near-fatal blow to the cold/flu/throat infection that would leave me feeling good for hours afterwards. And I would have no excuse to practice my stances less than twice a day. Often, I found that twice a day for only a day or two was all that was necessary. I am convinced that if I hadn't practiced, some of these minor ailments would have dragged on much longer. And, I would have spent more money on medicine!

Once, in about 2003, I had a very vivid experience of just how beneficial stances practice can be. At the time, I was living in the UK, in Hove, which is an adjacent district to Brighton, on the south coast. I had a bunch of menial jobs which I did in the afternoons and evenings, and my weekday mornings where usually free. One sunny morning, I wondered down to the beach, to take a breakfast snack and read the paper in the sunshine. Approaching the promenade there is, or was, an area of public lawns called -- as I remember -- the Hove Gardens. These lawns are about two feet higher than the promenade at the point where the grass finishes and the promenade begins. Reading the paper as I walked across the grass, and engrossed in some news article or other, I didn't even notice the sudden drop down to the level of the promenade.

My right foot stepped out into thin air, and a second later, as it hit the ground, a searing pain shot up my leg. I remember that my right knee actually hit the ground. Thereafter, I hobbled over to a bench to nurse my ankle. At first, I thought that after some massage and gentle movements, I would be able walk back home, but after an hour, the situation was still the same: I couldn't flex my ankle the slightest degree without severe pain. Finally, I limped back home, dragging my right foot slowly with every step, afraid of any move which would cause me to flex my right ankle. The walk must have taken at least three times longer than usual, and at the end of it, all I could do was collapse on my bed, phone my various employers to call in sick, and fall asleep, hoping that sleep would have some healing effect on the injury.

When I woke, it was almost dark. The ankle didn't hurt any more if I didn't move it, but the slightest flexing action was extremely uncomfortable. I realised that the chances of me being able to walk normally by the next day were pretty minimal, and so called to cancel the next day's work too.

What was I going to do? When I had moved to this town, I had been unable to register with a National Health medical surgery nearby and had finally been introduced to one at the other end of the district, at least 20 minutes walk in normal circumstances, with no direct bus. The next day, I could either spend an hour hobbling there and an hour back, or I would have to call for a taxi, which would mean getting to an ATM first, as I didn't have any ready cash. That was something I would have to do anyway, as I had almost no food in, I reasoned. I had been planning to go to the supermarket that day, a place I normally cycled to. Now, cycling anywhere was out of the question. Just getting to the toilet and back in my little studio apartment was a major expedition! I began to realise how inconvenient life could be without the ability to walk.

It's unfortunate that sometimes things have to get to such a state before the basic stances start to have some appeal, but as I lay on my bed trying to think of some exercise I could manage, I could not think of any other exercise I may be able to carry out successfully. Could I even manage the basic stances? I had no excuse not to give it a try.

Hauling myself slowly to my feet, I gradually moved into a 'horse-riding stance' and found that as long as I didn't make any sudden movements, I could actually do it, although only for a minute or so. When I collapsed back onto my bed, I noticed my right ankle was tingling comfortably. After a few minutes, I tried again, this time for longer.

On my third session, I also slid gently into a bow stance. Like most stances practiced in both directions, I could only do one direction properly, but determinedly approximated the other as best I could. After this session, my right ankle was throbbing, but not uncomfortably. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to limp around my flat a little, and was almost astounded to find how much easier that was than it had been only a couple of hours previously.

The following day, I had four full stance practice sessions beginning with the first at 5.00am, and plenty of rest between them. By evening, I was already walking normally, if cautiously, for fear of over-flexing the ankle. By the evening stance session, I could already achieve all stances in both directions to the same degree of stretch.

I started the next day with a full stance practice session at 5am, and threw in a quick session in the late morning before work. After work, I cycled home at 9pm as usual, and went for a jog. In little more than 48 hours, stance practice had taken me from being almost completely unable to walk, all the way back to my normal level of strength and flexibility. By this time, after already having witnessed the full effects of regular stance practice on my general state of health and in curing colds and flu, I could hardly be surprised. The only two drawbacks to this stance therapy are, one, that other people (ie., people who haven't made regular stance practice a part of their exercise routines) generally find its effectiveness hard to believe. Thus, for example, my employers found it hard to believe that I could have been unable to walk two days previously -- and so unable to work -- and yet able to walk and work absolutely normally two days after my accident. And two, even though I had once again directly benefitted from stance practice, I knew that now I could exercise normally, they were not going to feature heavily in my workouts; once again they would slip into the background until needed.

The only way I've found to deal with this problem is by integrating just one stance practice (for example, bow stance, two minutes in each direction) into my daily workouts. This works for me, as I can't make the excuse that this practice (less than 5 minutes) takes up too much time, and also, as I practice a different stance every day, it is in fact less boring. In this way, I still manage at least one full stance practice session per week, spread out over the whole week.

Faced with the fact that stance practice is not something that most people -- including myself -- find particularly attractive, it may seem like a waste of time for me to advise martial artists of other schools to incorporate it into their own personal workouts. All I can say is that anyone who does will certainly feel the benefits of doing so over time and probably get to the point sooner or later where they are telling other people just how good regular stance practice can be for you.

BENEFIT FOUR: Calm in the Storm

A good illustration of this benefit that comes to my mind has nothing whatsoever to do with the martial arts, yet the benefit itself could only come through martial arts training.

At the time, I was trekking in the Helambu and Langtang regions of the Nepal Himalaya. My guide, Dawa, and I had lodged in a village on the edge of the Langtang National Park the previous night, and I was faced with several choices: the first was to take a route known as the Helambu Circuit (which we were already on); this would take us only briefly into the national park before veering east and then heading back towards the Katmandu valley, completing a circular route in a clockwise manner. The second choice was to head into the park and east on a route known as the Ganga La trek. The third was to head into the park and west on a route known as the Gosainkund trek, which had been my original intention.

Dawa was a mountaineering and trekking sherpa of the Sherpa ethnic group, which is concentrated in Nepal's Everest region. Though still in his twenties, he was already familiar with all parts of the country and had been on the Gosainkund trek several times before, but never in February. At this time of the year, the snowline was right were we were, on the southern edge of the park, at an altitude of about 3,300 metres. We would be dependent on the existence of lodges along the route, but didn't know if there would be any. Often, smaller villages at higher altitudes just shut down for the coldest months. On the other hand, it had been a very mild winter that year. The lodge owner, also a sherpa, suggested that some of the villages along the way may still be open as he had had a group of trekkers only a couple of weeks previously who wanted to take the same route. Eventually, we decided to take an exploratory one-day trek into the park to assess the situation. If the route was still passable, and there were still people in the first village, we could go back the next day. For now, I just stuck a few things in my day-pack; a packet of dried fruit and nuts, a flask of tea and a thin sweatshirt. While it was cold, we would be trekking uphill much of the time, and relatively quickly, so I didn't see myself needing the sweatshirt. Dawa took nothing more than a walkman-style cassette player another trekker had given him a few weeks earlier as a gift, and donned in a light windjammer.

The first couple of hours went fine. It was a relaxed hike; at the entrance to the national park we even stopped for tea, chatting for 20 minutes with the fellow who manned the entrance to the park. He agreed to let us in without a fee as it was only for a few hours, and confirmed that there had been a large group of trekkers less than two weeks previously who had been on the Gosainkund route. It was possible some of the villages along the route were still open.

I soon found myself regretting having come out unprepared, however. On a fairly steep climb, I heard a bird call. I had to be careful to keep my body close to the mountainside as there was as steep drop on my left. Craning my neck, I looked up and saw three eagles soaring only thirty or forty metres away. Dawa was a few metres above me. He seemed to read my mind: "Should have brought the camera!" he called down.

"I hope they're still here tomorrow", I called back. A short way further on, the route levelled out. I can remember taking in the spectacular scenery and because of my easy pace, falling behind Dawa. "This is how trekking should be -- light and easy!" I told him by way of explanation. "I think we don't need to go too fast; we have lots of time for an easy trek like this", I told him.

This trek was not the first I had taken with Dawa as a guide. The year before I had taken one in the Everest region with him and a Sri Lankan trekker named Sanjay. Sanjay was a powerfully built man, but had hired a porter nonetheless to carry the bulk of his gear, a diminutive, wiry 15-year old from Jiri, a town along the route. The lad, whose name I can't remember, moved with a surprising speed and agility, even though Sanjay's backpack was so large and bulky that he seemed from a distance -- and I was usually a fair distance behind him -- to be no more than a fast-moving backpack with legs. Dawa, on the other hand, apart from being a mountaineer who had been to the top of many of Nepal's 6,000-metre+ peaks, and who had trekked all over the country, was something of an all-round sportsman -- a keen footballer and a regular participant in the Everest Marathon. One thing led to another, and each time one of the three of us pushed ahead, and had to wait somewhere for the other two to catch up, it was taken as something of a challenge. Eventually, the three of us were literally running along mountain paths despite our heavy backpacks. Sanjay, with only a daypack, was not interested in this ridiculous race, but was nevertheless compelled at times to make an effort to catch up with us -- after all, most of his gear was with the porter, somewhere ahead of him, and far out of sight. By the time we all stopped, it was obvious that the porter was the clear winner. Dawa was in second place, but both him and myself needed an extraordinarily long time just to get our breath back. I put this down to the thin mountain air.

Sanjay eventually rolled in to the village we had stopped in, looking both relieved to see us and thoroughly exhausted. It was barely one in the afternoon, but we decided to call it a day and stay in the village where we were till the next day, when we could push on ahead and see how far we could reach in one day with an early start. It was the rainy season during this trek, and an hour or so would have to be spent sheltering from rain that afternoon anyway. On the other hand, Dawa pointed out, the rain was less certain at higher altitudes, and we may not have to stop for the rain if we could make good time the next morning. Spreading my oversize map on the ground in the sunshine next to the restaurant table the others were now eating at, I wondered aloud if we could make it all the way to Namche Bazaar the next day.

Dawa shook his head: "Not possible" I glanced at the porter. He didn't want to openly contradict the trekking guide, yet he smiled and nodded. I wondered what I was letting myself in for, getting into a race with this boy.

The following day, Sanjay had decided he could come no further with us; his legs were still in pain from the previous day's trekking. I later learned from him that the knee injury he had incurred prevented him from going back either -- eventually, he had to wait for a helicopter to take him back to the capital.

Now, on the Gosainkund trek, Dawa feigned surprise at my 'take it easy' attitude. "Are you sure?" he asked with a smirk. "You don't want to 'push on ahead'?"

I had to laugh at the memory of the previous trek.

Remarkably, however, this pleasant, easy-going trek in the Langtang National Park, seemed to undergo a transformation in less than half and hour. Although now well above the snowline, there had been very little snow on the ground up to this point. Then we hit a stretch where it had obviously snowed very heavily, perhaps only the previous day. At the same time, the sky in the direction we were going had darkened considerably in a very short space of time, and thick clouds seemed to be moving in from the mountains to the north-west. Dawa pointed out that the first village along the route was only one or two kilometres away. I told him I thought we should press on then, despite the fact that the going was getting progressively slower. A few hundred metres further on the snow became shallower; it seemed that the heaviest part of the snowfall had been very localised. Yet as it became shallower, it revealed ice in places from a previous snowfall. Soon we both walking at a snail's pace, but the image in my mind of warming up at some small lodge with hot meals and drinks before making the return journey made me determined me plod on. By now, I was of course, wearing my thin sweatshirt, but my mind was wondering to the possibility of borrowing some jacket or thick pullover from someone in the next village. After all, we were planning on coming back the next day.

Eventually we reached the village, no more than six or seven stone buildings. We checked both the front and backs of each house in the vain hope that someone was home, but had not yet opened up the front door. Suddenly realising how comical we must have looked, we both laughed aloud. Sitting on a stone wall fence, I sighed and pulled out the packet of fruit and nuts.

"Ah, well...not as large a lunch as I was hoping for!" I handed Dawa a half-full packet. "Maybe, that's good," he said, "because I don't think we would have time for a large lunch." He looked towards the cloudbank which seemed to be moving in quite fast. There was also a noticeable fresh coldness in the air, as if this front of cold weather was already upon us.

With no further words, we finished the nuts and the flask of tea and began moving as fast as possible in the direction we had come. Every several minutes, Dawa would repeat 'fast but careful', as we tried to walk as quick as we could without risking our lives. I felt the first of the snowflakes after only a few minutes.

Soon, however, we were on lower ground, the thick snow and ice behind us, and were moving more quickly. Whether because there wasn't enough moisture in the air for a heavy snowfall, or because we were managing to stay ahead of the worst of it, snow amounted to very little, and was not enough of it to imped our progress. In the more heavily wooden areas, I wasn't aware of the snow at all.

"It seems we beat the weather" I said to Dawa.

"It was nothing for us!" he agreed.

I began to feel quite proud -- after all, I told myself, not many people could move fast enough at this altitude to stay ahead of a snowstorm. We slowed down a little, but as was our habit, with nothing to discuss, one of us would pull some distance ahead of the other. Usually, this was Dawa. After all, he was a trekking guide, and there was always the chance I would take a wrong turn-off if I pulled too far ahead. But we were on a route we had taken before, only hours previously. Feeling confident I knew the way, I pointed out to Dawa that it was nearly four o'clock and we wanted to get back before darkness fell. He thought that was no problem, but I still decided to push ahead. After all, it was dark early at this time of the year, and neither of us had torches with us.

For some time, I was alone with my thoughts. How long would it take to cover the whole of the Langtang area, I asked myself? Probably months, to know every route well. It seemed like a great place to trek. The Everest region was to the east, and Annapurna to the west, both popular trekking destinations. I had done the classic Everest route, but on that route, other foreign trekkers were coming in the other direction almost all the time. It was only polite to greet people -- after all, it was not a road, but a footpath. Often the path was so narrow, one party had to stand aside to let the other past. Yet, at times on that route, I had found myself wishing it was not so heavily trekked. On this one, by contrast, we hadn't seen a soul all day. This kind of trekking was the way it must have been everywhere in Nepal two or a few decades previously, I reasoned. I definitely wanted to do some of the more popular treks, including Annapurna, but I considered the possibility of approaching the region via little-known routes after having come to know Langtang like the back of my hand. That would certainly give me something interesting to talk about when I did meet other foreign trekkers -- I would be an 'old Nepal hand' by then! Perhaps I could even write a trekking guidebook eventually. But how was I going to find all the necessary time and money in the meantime? Mmm, it was a problem...

Coming to an open area with an abandoned stone house standing on the edge of a short cliff, I was brought uncomfortably back to the present by the coldness of snowflakes falling on my face. It seemed that in the forest we hadn't been aware of the progress of the snowstorm. The snow still wasn't falling heavily, but definitely a lot more heavily than it had been before we shook it off a couple of hours earlier. 'We're going to have to go faster!' I called to Dawa behind me.

Then I stopped as an uncomfortable feeling came over me. I looked again at the roofless stone house on my left. It seemed like something I would not have failed to notice if we had come across it on the way up, but I couldn't recall having seen it before. I went over the events of the past few hours. No, I had definitely not seen it before, I decided. I turned to head back in the direction I had just come, calling out to Dawa as I did. Perhaps I should have called out every few seconds; sounds travelled well at this altitude and it would have let him know exactly were I was. But I pictured him only a couple of hundred metres back, waiting for me at the turn-off I had mistakenly taken.

I moved quickly along the heavily wooded path. Within the forest, it was becoming very dark; it would be totally dark in an hour or so, too dark to walk without torches. Making good time, then, was of the essence. Occasionally, I called to Dawa, but I knew he could be a long way in front of me by this time Despite the cold, I felt sweat on my back. Yet, I was pleased with my speed.

Preoccupied with the exercise itself, with the 'good time' I was making, and with the growing cold which I seemed to be racing against, I almost failed to notice when I entered an open area, with a roofless stone house at the edge, by a cliff. I slowed in my path with the demoralising realisation that it was the same stone house I had seen 15 minutes earlier. I had just wasted 15 minutes of precious time going round in a circle. Slowly, I walked over to the cliff edge and surveyed the scene below. Unfortunately, there were few clues as to where the path may be down there, and few features I could look for to guide me on my way. But that was the way I had to go: down.

I took stock of my situation, calmly at first, but with a growing sense of panic. It was becoming colder and the snow was thickening. I was above the snowline, in the Himalayas, and lost. Evening was closing in. The thickest piece of clothing I had was a thin sweatshirt; I could easily freeze to death if the temperature kept dropping and I had to spend the night here without shelter. And I had just spent 15 minutes or so going round in a circle; if I did the same again I could not but spend the night here.

My instinct told me to run, but I fought it. I glanced at the roofless house...a tiny piece of roofing did remain, and due to the that fact and the wind direction, part of the inside was slightly sheltered. Fighting my inner panic, I walked in, sat down cross-legged and told myself firmly: "I have at least five minutes."

But as soon as I was seated, I gave myself a little longer than this. I gave myself time for twenty breaths, each inhalation lasting ten counts, ten counts to hold the breath, and ten for exhalation. With each cycle, I repeated internally, "Breathe in for calm...dowwwnnn...breathe out for focus".

After only 20 breaths, I was sweating slightly, a reassuring phenomenon. I told myself that even if I had to spend the night there, it was big deal; I would practice chigung the entire night and stay warm that way. But I wasn't going to spend the night there -- I was going down. Calmly, I walked from the stone house back in the direction I had come, not allowing the growing wind and thickening snow to increase my pace one iota. I had to focus on getting down, not run like a madman in circles above the snowline.

With calm and focus, the rest was surprisingly easy, although I didn't let up with my 'calm and focus' mind-set for at least 20 minutes. After only a few minutes I noticed a turn to the right -- this was the path I had come in on 10 or 15 minutes earlier, and it met with another leading to the stone house. That other path was going down. That was the direction I wanted to go. I had a feeling of conviction that those two paths had to be part of a huge circle, which I had just taken. So taking this downward path was not the end of the story. There had be to some point at which this path met with the correct path back down to the entrance of the national park. If I missed that, I would stay on the circle, which would eventually bring me up again and back to the stone house. I had to go slow and look carefully.

Hardly any sooner had I had those thoughts, than I saw it: a few metres of ground which was barely discernable as a footpath forked off to the left of the path I was on. The path I was on was the clearer, hence my previous taking of it without a second thought, only to travel around in a loop. But the path this met with was, after only a few metres, much more well-defined as a footpath, even in the poor light. And if I took that to the left again, it went down. That was the direction I wanted to go. I now had a sense of certainty that I was on the right path, but even if I weren't, this path went down, which had to be more sheltered and warmer than where I had just come from. I resolved not to continue on the path if it went upward again for more than a distance I could see quickly was only temporary rise in the otherwise downward path.

After ten minutes or so, I could see a few distant lights -- I was almost home and dry. As the path levelled out and came out of the forest, I realised that it hadn't been precisely the right path: that was about 200 metres to my right and parallel to the path I was on. I could see the entrance to the park there, lights on, and a commotion of several people moving around with torches. Suddenly I realised it was Dawa, seemingly with another two people from the village who had perhaps volunteered to help look for me. I shouted to him, and the movement stopped. They had obviously heard me, but look around as they may, they could not see me. It was now almost completely dark where I was. "Just go back to the village!" I bellowed. "I'm OK -- I'll meet you in the village in ten minutes".

And I did meet them there, although it was a little more than ten minutes. It wasn't really important that I had not been on precisely the right path at the end. Perhaps there had been yet another turn-off from the path I had been on at the end, which led to the park entrance. Or perhaps it was a completely different path. But in any case, I had found it through calming my mind and focusing on the task in hand. This was something I could only do so effectively because of my martial arts training. And in this case, my biggest enemy was -- as is so often stated in the much-neglected philosophical side of martial arts training -- myself.


BENEFIT FIVE: Turning Fate to your Favour

Another benefit to learning the martial arts was most evident to me in someone who never really learnt a martial art, and who I regarded as one of the least likely candidates among my acquaintances to do so. But I have seen this benefit often in others, to varying degrees, so it is worth a mention.

Roger was a British guy I knew during my first few years in Taiwan. Polite but friendly, in that uniquely English way, Roger was regarded by myself and my taekwondo classmates, Canadian Paul and Swiss Karl, as just a little bit too much of an 'old-school' Brit for something like martial arts classes. It was hard to imagine Roger -- who never wore shorts or even short sleeves, even at the height of the steaming hot Taipei summer -- in our dojo, executing a jump kick or letting out a cry as his roundhouse pounded a kickbag. Thus, we never tried to persuade Roger to join our classes. He was, it seemed, just too reserved for something like that.

But he did have a good British sense of humour and was always a good drinking companion. Roger also had an excellent knowledge of Chinese language compared to myself and Karl, having arrived in Taiwan three or four years before us and set himself determinedly to the task of learning the language thoroughly, with a view to using it in a major way in his career. So, he was always a useful source of information in that respect.

However, by the late 1980s, it was also undeniable that Roger had, in some sense not easily defined, gone downhill. His sense of humour, though still sharp, had deteriorated, turning more biting and sarcastic but less funny. His comments on the 'locals' became less and less complimentary, more and more just plain racist. Roger had been in Taiwan about five years by 1988, without work. A couple of middle-management positions with foreign firms -- neither particularly well-paying -- failed to last more than a month each, and finished with serious disagreements. From a well-to-do background, Roger had originally turned his nose up at the idea of teaching English. I had begun taking Chinese-to-English translating work for an agency to supplement my half-day job at a language school, and suggested that Roger accept some translating cases himself. His Chinese was better than mine, as was his English. At that time, Roger was renting a room in my ground-floor apartment, which is where I was when I suggested to him that he take a bit of translation work while he was looking around for a more permanent position.

'No', Roger said to me after a moment's thought, turning from his desk to face me. He reached for a bottle of Chivas Regal and made a questioning gesture. I nodded. 'No, Alix, I still think what I'm doing is right. I think it's better if I just concentrate on my original goals. More and more foreign companies are opening branches here. I've got the Chinese. I've got the business knowledge. It's just a matter of time...'

'Time? You've been here five years, Roger. Don't put yourself out of reach of work if that's what you really want...'

'Well, I don't want to be just some...some jumped-up translator if that's what you mean!' Roger retorted, and downed his whisky in one. It was obviously a sensitive point for this jab. After all, I was a translator. I wanted to tell Roger to get off his high horse, but events of the previous week prevented me from talking too straight with him.

Those events had to do with Roger's girlfriend, Katie, a Taiwan-born second-generation Hongkong-Chinese girl. Only a couple of months before, Roger and Katie had taken a holiday in Hongkong together. They had seemed to have been seeing each other more often. A few days after the holiday, I had asked Roger, only half-jokingly, when they were going to formerly 'tie the knot'? He looked at me as if I had trespassed onto forbidden ground. It wasn't the kind of thing reserved Roger would normally talk about.

At that time too, I was in Roger's room, sitting on the only chair apart from his own, while he sat at his desk where he spent so much of his time engrossed in study. Roger had paused, turned back to face his desk and the window beyond. 'Well', he finally said, 'she is...ummmm, rather a nice lady.' This was a candid admission of emotions coming from Roger. 'But I think I have to concentrate on my career first, before I start thinking about things like that, settling down, family, and so on...'

'Well, you've been together for years now...'

'Not really...I've told Katie that we are not boyfriend and girlfriend.'

'C'mon, Rog! What do you take me for?' I asked, smirking.

'Yes, of course, for all intents and purposes, as they say. But I've told Katie not to think of us in those terms. When the time's right, and I've got everything else sorted out, maybe...'

However, just a couple of days after that conversation, my Canadian taekwondo classmate, Paul, told me of a conversation he had overheard in one of the bars we often frequented, popular with the English-speaking community. A couple of Australian guys in their early twenties were talking, almost out of earshot about a girl one of them had been seeing, named Katie. As Paul heard the English name Katie, he slid a couple of stools along the bar in the direction of the Aussies and caught something like: 'Jeez, mate,' from one of them, 'what a shag! I've never had anything like it in my life...no, can't see her again; she'll wear me out!'

At that time, I would usually see Paul almost every day as he taught English at the same school as myself, and of course, took taekwondo classes at the same school. Yet Paul didn't mention this to me, as he couldn't make his mind up if it meant anything. A few days later, though, he was sure it did.

Drinking alone at the same bar, Paul had previously overheard the Australians in, he then saw Katie walk in, arm in arm with a muscular, dark-skinned man. And Katie, who Paul had met on several occasions before, did not try to avoid Paul when she approached. In high spirits, she introduced the man with her to Paul as a Peruvian businessman, but after a few pleasantries, they moved from the bar to their own table.

At first, Paul could not decide how to react. Finally, he made up his mind that if Katie was two-timing Roger -- or 'three-timing' him as Paul put it -- then Roger deserved to know about it. Paul told me all this shortly before breaking the news to Roger, perhaps to gauge my reaction. I agreed that Roger should know.

It wasn't until late the next evening that Katie called Roger on the phone. Roger had been pensive all evening. But unaware that he was expecting a phone call, I was in the kitchen making something to eat, only a few steps from where the telephone was, in the living room. I couldn't help overhearing.

Paul told me after the event, that in his opinion, after hearing the Aussies' conversation, and judging from Katie's behavior with the Peruvian, that it was likely there were even more men she was seeing. This may have been a conclusion Roger also reached, and the reason why he decided to bluff her that he knew about all of them:

'What about the blond-haired fellow someone saw you with?' I heard Roger ask on the phone.

'Oh, I see, that's George, the German, but you've finished with him now. How am I to believe you, Katie? And the dark-haired one Paul saw you with? Who? Oh, Marcos! And where's he from? Argentina...I thought he was Peruvian...oh, that's someone else. This is beginning to sound like the United Nations, Katie...Germans, Peruvians, Greeks, Australians...what? Oh, I see, the Greek and the Australian are the same man, a Greek-born Australian, well, that is a relief, Katie, for a moment I was worried you had been having affairs with eight other men, not seven..!'

At that point, I heard the voice on the other end of the phone speaking so loudly it was evident she was shouting angrily. I finished fixing my meal as quickly as possible without making it inedible, and picked it up to take to my room.

As I passed Roger, he slumped back into the chair by the phone. 'I know I've always told you we aren't boyfriend and girlfriend, but I thought we were...the same'

I quickly got out of the way, closing the door of my room behind me. However, I had already heard everything. Roger's deliberate distance from Katie meant he had no right to criticise her for having affairs left, right and centre, regardless of how he felt.

That event had struck Roger a devastating blow, though he was not the kind of person to allow others to see that too clearly.

And that was why I felt unable to tell Roger straight to get off his high horse and just do some work. I thought he had had it pretty rough the previous few weeks.

After that, Roger, always a serious drinker, became a heavy drinker, often finishing half a bottle of whisky on his own, in his room. He ceased social drinking, and over the next few months put on a lot of weight. He stayed most of his time in his room.

The final blow to Roger's morale came one afternoon, after myself, Paul, and Karl had taken an afternoon taekwondo class. Usually, we didn''t have time to attend afternoon classes, but this time the three of us had, by coincidence, free time in the afternoon, and we decided to use it to get in some extra training. Our teacher hadn't minded us taking this extra class at no extra cost, and had even shared tea with us afterwards. For half-an-hour or so, we chatted with him about ourselves and our lives in Taiwan, about the school and how he started it, but most of all about martial arts in general. We were still on this, our favourite subject, when we left the dojo, and walked, as if by mutual, unspoken consent, in the direction of my house, perhaps making an unconscious decision to continue our discussions there. It was the largest of our three places of residence, and the only place nearby where all of us could sit and talk in relative comfort for free. In any case, it was still a little too early for an evening meal, we decided, so we had a bit of extra time to kill.

The ground-floor apartment I lived in was accessed via an alley. Like most apartments in the area, there was a separate entrance for the apartments on the floors above, and the front and back yards were for the exclusive use of the ground-floor residents. The high walls and sturdy wooden doors at the front of the house were good security, but on one occasion, having left my keys in the house, I had had to climb over them to get back in. 'Oh God, I hope I don't have to climb the wall again!' I said as I fumbled in my bag for my keys. Paul chuckled. As I continued my search, he pressed the bell. 'Let's wake up old Fatso! He's sure to be home; never goes anywhere these days!'

'The bell's broken', I put in quickly, 'and I think Roger's out in the afternoons. Hope I haven't left my keys at the dojo....'

'Let' s see if Billy Bunter's up for a drink', Karl suggested, making a reference to a ball-shaped schoolboy comic book character. 'If he's out, we can wait for him to get back before we hit the town.'

'No, he couldn't move his belly fast enough to keep up with us,' Paul put in, 'and I don't want to be the one who has carry the decrepit old ball of fat around with us'.

'Found them!' I exclaimed, pulling the keys from where they had lodged, inside a large textbook in my bag. 'We could get a wheelchair for Roger', I then added. I put the key in the lock, but the door was heavy, and actually had to be lifted slightly to allow the lock to open. It took a moment.

'We'd need a special, high-powered, motorised wheelchair', Karl put in with a laugh. "it would have to have a small jet-engine to shift that human fat barrel!'

I pushed open the door, and just as the three of us entered the yard, Paul, the last to walk in added: 'and the wheelchair would need some kind of frame at the front to hold Roger's belly, and stop it getting caught on the ground!' In the space of a couple of seconds, my head, then Karl's, then Paul's turned to the right, to face the shape in the corner of our eyes, but all of us were momentarily speechless. It was Roger. He had been standing in the yard, and had heard everything.

'Yes, old Fatso is home, Paul', Roger said with an accomplished smirk, 'he was just hanging his Billy Bunter uniform out to dry. Oh, do you think you can help me get this belly back into the house now, Karl; I don't think I can manage it up those three steps by myself! And Alix, call the wheelchair-hire company while he's helping me up the stairs, I think I will come out for a drink...I certainly need one!'

It was obvious that Roger had heard every word. We all had a good laugh about the comments, but any kind of explanation would have been a waste of time, and any excuse, unconvincing. Roger had, by coincidence, been hanging his washing out in the front yard, standing just a couple of metres from us, and now knew exactly how we saw his recent physical transformations. There was no room for misunderstanding.

Over the next week or two, Roger seemed to slip into an even deeper melancholy. But I was busy most of the time, and was in any case at a loss as to how to snap him out of his depression. Certainly, having a drink with him was not the answer; he was on the bottle most of the time as it was.

Then, one day, something strange happened. I returned home at around lunchtime, to find Roger, dressed in a suit and tie, on his way out. He explained that he had a job interview and had no time to talk, thus I was left alone, wondering why on earth there was now an exercise machine in the front room?

Beginning the very next day, and continuing on a daily basis for as long as Roger lived at that address, I heard him leave the house for a morning run. Sometimes, it was the sound of him leaving the house that woke me up; more often it was the sound of him returning. I also took a morning run occasionally, but my 'daily run' was only daily in principle; in practice I managed about jog a week, and never as early as Roger. When I did manage to force myself up and out of bed for a morning run, usually Roger was working out on his exercise machine when I left the house. Often, he was still working out on it when I got back.

I had to ask myself, what was happening? I was supposed to be the sportsman of the house. Of course, I gave him all the encouragement I could, but he hardly seemed to need it. His only explanations for the dramatic change in lifestyle were in the vein of 'might as well do something useful with my time while I'm waiting for gainful employment'. To which he once added the quip: 'keeps me on the streets'. Interestingly, where there had always been an empty whisky bottle placed by the rubbish bin at least every two or three days, there was nothing. What was he surviving on, I asked myself, if not a constant supply of Scotch? I noticed cans of sports drink in the fridge. When I related this part to Paul, he flatly rejected it as even a possibility. He believed my stories about Roger's 'miraculous transformation from Billy Bunter to Charles Atlas' to be a clever way of encouraging him to stop skipping his martial arts classes, and obviously didn't take them my claims seriously.

I wanted to investigate further, both to satisfy my own curiosity, and to prove to Paul and Karl that my flatmate's transformation was not something I was making up. I intended to get Roger down to one of the bars we frequented some night, and let the other two ask the questions. They were sure to be astounded by the change that had come over Roger, and would naturally ask him to explain things. But I didn't have time. Before I even had a chance to invite him out for a drink, Roger gave me a month's notice -- he needed a change of environment, he explained. Although in theory I still had plenty of opportunities to nab him for a drink during the remaining month, in fact he was gone in less than a week, and returned the keys a few days later. I wanted to pay him back at least half a month's rent, but Roger was adamant that the deal was a month's notice, and it was only fair that I had a month in which to find someone else for his room.

I insisted, however, and after a moment Roger suggested: "Use the money to buy me that drink, then".

"A drink?! It would have to be an expensive drink to cost half a month's rent!"

"Well, I don't usually stop at half a beer", Roger replied. "As you know, when I drink, I drink seriously."

It was a clever ploy. Roger knew I could hardly help but think of him as an almost incurable alcoholic. He knew that deep down, I could hardly believe the change that had come over him, and half expected the facade to fall apart at any moment. Like someone who takes a deep breath and pulls in his pot-belly but for a moment, I almost expected Roger's paunch to re-appear at any moment, the muscled upper body to return to its former skinny form, and his hopeless, biting sarcasm to return. Even his tanned skin was disconcerting, and his explanation that he had found an outdoor swimming pool near his new place was not a sufficient explanation. I wanted to ask 'How can you go swimming?' I had never even seen him in short sleeves before. But before I could think of a better way to word that question, Roger had suggested 'a drink', and his further remarks about drinking seriously made it clear that what he really meant, was 'a binge'. What a relief! It was still Roger, after all!

Roger had cleverly put my heart at rest. He was still Roger, and all would be explained in due course, over a drink, or ten. It was only after he left that I realised I did not have his precise address. I would be relying on Roger to drop by soon to take him up on that drink. That was something that never happened.

But I did run into Roger by pure chance one lunchtime, about two months later, near to his new apartment -- which turned out to be only a few blocks away from my own place. Casually dressed, but holding a briefcase, he explained that he had spent the morning 'in training' at the office of European electronics firm. I berated him for not being in touch, and told him Paul had accused him of having 'a strange idea of friendship'. After a moment's hesitation, Roger glanced at a coffee shop across the street. "Fancy a drink, then?" he asked, adding: "I suppose some explanation is in order..."

Roger had finally found work. He had intended to celebrate that with us sometime, but just had not had the time. "We will definitely have to meet up for drinks if I decide to leave Taiwan, though -- I will know in a month or so if I'm leaving."

"Leave Taiwan?" Roger had been in Taipei so long, it was almost unimaginable.

"I'm going over to Shanghai at the weekend, to take up a post there. I'll know in a month or so it's for me. If I'm happy with it, and they're happy with me, then I'll just be coming back to collect my things..."

I was speechless, and was probably staring, open jawed.

"Oh! If I do go, you're welcome to that exercise machine," Roger added.

'So...so, you're still using the exercise machine, then, Rog?"

"God, yes, that's changed my life! I don't mean the machine, I mean exercise in general. But I'll pick up another over there, its not worth shipping over -- you can have it, if you like."

I joked that he may never come back to Taiwan if he found an, 'umm...nice lady' there. I was, of course, quoting Roger's own description of his former girlfriend, and he knew it. "God forbid!" Roger said, with a heavenward glance. "Never again! I must have been so naive. No, I'm going to enjoy myself while I'm young -- well, youngish anyway -- and I've got a lot to catch up on! Now it's my turn to sample an international selection!"

And so we talked in that coffee shop for 30 or 40 minutes before Roger decided he had 'better get going'. The send-off binge never happened, but he did treat me, Paul and Karl to a Japanese meal before leaving for his new life in Shanghai. We all drank plenty of sake that night, but our efforts to entice Roger into his old ways one last time only resulted in the three of us getting almost legless.

That was the last I saw of Roger, so I have no idea if he was successful in his new job or not. I didn't take him up on the exercise machine, but when remember the way Roger changed his lifestyle so dramatically and so decisively took control over his own fate, that's what stays in mind most. That, and his comments in the coffee shop: "God, yes, that's changed my life! I don't mean the machine, I mean exercise in general."