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Monday, December 21, 2009

Can very young children learn martial arts?

Ninja Turtles. Power Rangers. Kung Fu Panda. Best friend Johnny does Tae Kwon Do. There are so many reasons why little ones want to learn martial arts. Can 3 to 4 year old children learn martial arts? Indeed they can....well...."martial arts themed movements", actually.

I have a class, called "Tiny Tigers", that is an activity that prepares them for the "Mighty Mites" class (5 to 7 years old). I've modified the curriculum so that the children are exposed to martial arts themed activities that introduce the following aspects of martial arts training:

- Taking turns, waiting for their turn at an activity
- Following simple instructions
- Raising a hand to ask a question, no interrupting
- Learning responsibility for their actions
-Self confidence
-Encouraging others

And.....its fun!

Notice that although martial arts techniques are indeed taught in the class, they are secondary to the above list. The class does not teach complete forms,....instead, I introduce movement combinations taken from our forms , and play a "follow the leader" and "what comes next?" type of game. The kids love it, and I venture to say that most times, the kids don't really realize they're learning martial arts. Its difficult for 3 year olds to remember 12 to 20 movment sets.....combinations work just fine for learning "sequencing".

Some teachers might say that "dumbing down" a martial art for very young children is not really teaching "martial art", but I beg to differ. After all, isn't it the job of any teacher to break down concepts of their curriculum into its basic elements, so that the student can better understand the concept? Not just memorize the concept or operation, but to really understand it?

We as martial arts teachers have a responsibility to not think of them as "little adults". Very young children are growing both physically and mentally. To put very young children through a very intense workout that is similar to an adults class and that is beyond a child's natural physical ability to "play", can be damaging to their growing bodies. Not to mention, an overly strict disciplinarian atmosphere that Adults would have to problem with, will turn off a child. There has to be a firm hand in the disciplinarian factor of martial arts for kids, (i.e. "you kicked Jimmy for no reason while I was talking. This is not allowed. Its time for a sit-out"), but to punish a child for not getting a technique correct is overkill. If a class for young kids is conducted like an adults class, many times a 3 year old will not understand why they're doing pushups for talking out, or why they have to do a timeout or a sit-out for trying his newly learned roundhouse kick at little Jimmy.

Another responsibility we have is to encourage less able children as much as a "gifted child". I once witnessed a coach pay more attention to a child that could do aerial cartwheel after only 2 weeks, and pretty much ignore another child that was working so hard at a regular cartwheel on his hands. I could see that the second child was trying to gain the approval of the coach, but the child was dismissed with a "Yes, great effort, but your goal is to get it down like Tommy".

One thing I always try to do all during a class, is make the expectations for the class known. At the beginning of a class, I might say "Okay, My expectations for today are: Try your best, Keep your hands to yourself unless I say its okay to work together, and no talking while Sifu is talking". Each class has a different set of 3 expectations.....I try not to list all my expectations at one class....they won't remember them. I then give 3 choices for the "timeout" activity (if someone breaks one of the 3 rules. After I give my 3 expectations and the children choose the timeout activity, I remind them throughout the whole class about the expectations. Most times, when a child does break a rule, they know exactly what the timeout factor is.....after all, they chose it!

One word of advice to teachers that choose to teach very young children. Speak to the parents beforehand to let them know that "side coaching" is not allowed. Explain that it will confuse the child if the parent is shouting "No!, use your other hand!" or "Timmy, listen to Sifu or you're going home!" The children need to learn to follow instructions from another authority figure, and to learn that the martial arts studio is a special place and martial arts classes are a privelege. Respect for the teacher is something we want the child to learn on his own, not just because the parent tells him/her to. If a parent shouts or attempts to coach the child during class, it tends to make the child think that the parent knows martial arts too, and is a martial arts teacher as well.....which sometimes, can lead the child to view the teacher as "bossy" just like the parent.

A word of advice to the parents of young children in martial arts: Now, as parents, we all want our children to do well in activities. But while we're on the subject, please leave the teaching to the teachers. For many children, this activity is something of "their own", and it gives them pride and self confidence to be able to do something on their own. Although I do try to teach the difference between "right leg" and "left leg", I'm not going to take it personally if they kick with a left leg when I ask for a right leg why should the parent? Parents, keep in mind, that your child's progress (or lack thereof) is not necessarily a reflection on you.....instead it just shows me their learning curve so that I can better teach them and improve my curriculum.


Funny story....a few weeks ago, there was a new 4 year old child trying out one of my classes. I asked him why he wanted to do kung fu. "I already know kung fu", he said proudly.

"Oh?? How so? Who is your Sifu?" I asked.

"My Mastersifu is Po".

"Oh....Kung Fu Panda. Did you notice that Po had to work very hard to get good at Kung Fu?"

"Oh I'm as good as Po. I've practiced for a very long time. Are you a mastersifu?"

"Um....yes....I'm a mastersifu." (I didn't have the heart to tell him that the term mastersifu was incorrect. Although I do see why the movie introduced the term as such).

The hard part for me was, to teach him for that introductory lesson without him feeling "less than" for not knowing what a horse stance was or what an instep kick was. He had such an expectation that my class would be like "Kung Fu Panda", that he would sit himself out when we saw we didn't say "Skadoosh" or have a "secret pinky technique". One of my kids asked him "Hey, why don't you do instep kick with us? Its like this", and proceeded to demonstrate. "Oh, I already know how to do that. Its easy."....he then walked up to my kicking shield. "Wait gotta wait your turn. Its Alex's turn right now". But he proceeded to kick at my shield with his toes. Ouch. That hurt. I could tell he kicked with his toes. He sat back down. "What's the matter?" I asked. "You did okay! Did you kick with your top of foot or your toes?" "My top of foot!" He rolled his eyes. Did a 4 year old just roll his eyes at me?

"Well good. You can continue to practice it if you'd like".

"Nah. I know it. And I'm tired anyway".

Definitely, this child NEEDS a type of regular activity and self discipline that martial arts training can bring.

Funnier thing is....sometimes I meet Grownups that are exactly like that.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"When you meet your antagonist, do everything in a mild and agreeable manner. Let your courage be as keen, but at the same time as polished, as your sword."
- Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Irish dramatist & politician (1751 - 1816)

Great quote, and great advice for all martial artists. To many people that are somewhat new to martial arts, this quote might seem as if it says to be "nice" to your opponent, stand there and take the abuse, be it verbal or physical, and to not retort in harsh words or violent physical defense.

However, I see this quote a bit differently. "Mild and agreeable manner" doesn't necessarily describe "how" you do something....rather, I feel it means that your mind-set must be "mild", and "agreeable". That is, without panicked reactions and without actions that go overboard and uncontrolled. This type of mind-set is a product of many years of study, practice, and dedicated tenacity.....this is where a martial artist can be considered as "mature".

I'm a firm believer in that just as much as we should keep a good sword well maintained, we too, should keep ourselves well maintened as martial artists. If we use a sword constantly but do not take care of it, what happens? The blade may rust, it may go dull, its fittings may get grimy and all value of the sword will decrease to un-usability, no matter how much it is worth or what famous Smith forged the sword.

"Let your courage be as keen, but at the same time as polished, as your sword." my Taijiquan Sifu once said...."practice well and the benefits are yours". Keep up on your maintenence....practice, practice....practice some more. Train. Read. Strive for improvement. Keep your "edge" keen, which in turn will keep your courage keen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Spear in Chinese culture, by David Mastro

Many thanks to David Mastro, who srote this article and has given me permission to re-print it. Wonderful information!

The Spear in Chinese Martial Culture
by David Black Mastro

The spear has played a huge role in both hunting and fighting arts all over the world, and China, with her vast martial heritage, is no exception. In his excellent article, "The Spear: An Effective Weapon Since Antiquity", author Robert H. Dohrenwend, Ph.D., noted, "The most important weapons in the Chinese military were the bow and arrow and the spear (qiang), and there were specialized bodies of soldiers trained to use each weapon." In our modern age, where so much attention has been given to the more fantastic aspects of the Chinese martial arts, we would do well to remember Dohrenwend's observation. Chinese warriors relied on the fundamental missile and melee weapons of the time, just like everyone else: the bow & arrow, the spear/lance, and the sword & shield.

Another crucial aspect to understanding the reality of Chinese martial arts (or any other martial arts, for that matter) in their proper historical context is knowing just what the term "martial art" means. The word "martial" comes from the Latin term martialis, which literally means "of or belonging to Mars (the Roman god of war)". Thus, a "martial art" is a "war art". The Chinese term wushu is synonymous with "martial art", though when used in the historical sense it should not be confused with the "wushu" of today, which is a type of performance art that was developed during the Cultural Revolution. In their useful text, Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals--A Historical Survey, Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo soberly noted, "For most of China's history, martial arts had one purpose--imposing one's will upon another by force or fear." The simple spear played a major part in this grim task.

According to Robert Dohrenwend, bronze metallurgy originated in the Mediterranean some 5000 years ago, and spread eastwards via Central Asia, and eventually to China. These early bronze-headed spears were effective, but the spear became even more durable and lethal, with the advent of iron working. Dohrenwend wrote that iron metallurgy began with the Hittites some 3500 years ago, and spread around the world from there. Such technology reached China about 2500 years ago.

Unlike the Japanese yari, the qiang of the Chinese most often featured a socketed spearhead, like Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and European spears. While the Japanese preferred their white oak for the shaft of their yari and a composite oaked-cored & bamboo laminated shaft for their nagae-yari (long spear/pike), the Chinese apparently used white wax wood, which is a species of ash. Europeans also generally preferred ash for their polearms, as it is lighter, stronger, and more flexible than oak.

Chinese military practice resembled that of Europe to some degree, in that spearmen often operated in cooperation with troops armed with sword-and-shield, and gave each other mutual support. In the West, this integration of spearmen and swordsmen arguably reached its height with the Spanish colunela (lit., "little column"), which featured pikemen, arquebusiers, and rodeleros aka targetiers (sword-and-shield men), in a ratio of 2:2:1. The pikemen were useful against both cavalry and other pikemen, while the swordsmen provided close support. In the Chinese military, the preferred weapons of the sword-and-shield troops were the single-handed saber (dao) and the round rattan shield (tengpai). At around 29" in diameter, the tengpai was similar in size to European targets (or targes). The saber type used most often was the willow leaf saber or liuyedao, which featured a single-handed grip, a disc-like handguard, and a slightly curved single-edged blade of uniform width. It was a light and handy weapon.

The integration of the spear and sword was manifest in the celebrated "Mandarin Duck Squad" unit/formation, created by the great Ming general, Qi Jiguang. During the mid-16th century AD/CE, the southern Chinese coast was ravaged by Sino-Japanese pirates (wokou in Chinese and wako in Japanese). In Late Imperial Chinese Armies 1520-1840, Chris Peers pointed out that, at that time, the manpower of the wokou was 2/3 Chinese--however, even some of their Chinese warriors used very long Japanese swords (no-dachi, which led to the reintroduction of two-handed dao into the Chinese military) and the corresponding method of kenjutsu. In General Qi's "Mandarin Duck Squad", four men were equipped with long spears, which outranged the no-dachi of the enemy, but they were nevertheless supported by two sword-and-shield men.

The overall impact of the spear on Chinese martial culture can be seen in the legend regarding the origins of the internal art of Xingyiquan; according to the legend, Xingyi was created by General Yue Fei, sometime during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D./C.E.). According to Kennedy and Guo in Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals, Yue Fei based Xingyi "on his mastery of the spear". Even if we question the reality of this story, it reveals much about how highly regarded the spear was, as a weapon.

Chinese spear technique was similiar to that of other cultures, and one of the most noteworthy tactics is the dreaded "slip-thrust", where the weapon is driven by the rear hand, as the shaft slides through the forward hand. As noted in my previous essay on Japanese spears, the "slip-thrust" gives the spearman a tremendous advantage against users of shorter weapons like swords, since it is so difficult to properly gauge distance.

The spear continued to be a primary weapon, into more modern times. In Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, Draeger and Smith pointed out that, during the Opium Wars, the British acknowledged that the Chinese spear was "far superior" to their bayonets. This should not surprise us--the spear is a purpose-built polearm that is comparatively light and maneuverable, whereas the rifle-and-bayonet is, at best, an improvised polearm that is both shorter and clumsier than the vast majority of spears. The Chinese predilection for spears and sabers might be one reason why American and European military forces retained not only bayonet work, but saber & cutlass drill as well, right into the beginning of the 20th century. One can see old photos of cutlass practice on board American vessels like the armored monitor, U.S.S. Monadnock, which was often stationed in China, and cutlass practice was also carried out on the Australian monitor Cerberus, which was involved in the supression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The retention of bayonet and sword technique in these modern Western militaries was quite likely a functional reaction to unpleasant experiences against Asian foes armed with traditional edged weapons, like the Chinese, the Filipinos, the Moros, etc., and it reveals much about the respect that modern soldiers had, for such warriors and their skills.

For Further Reading:

Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts by Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith

Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals--A Historical Survey by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo

Chinese Swordsmanship--The Yang Family Taiji Jian Tradition by Scott M. Rodell

Ancient Chinese Weapons--A Martial Artist's Guide by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming

"The Spear--An Effective Weapon Since Antiquity" by Robert E. Dohrenwend (from the Volume 16 ~ Number 1 ~ 2007 issue of Journal of Asian Martial Arts)

Late Imperial Chinese Armies 1520-1840 by Chris Peers (Osprey Men-At-Arms series)

Warriors of the Steppe--A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. by Erik Hildinger

Pavia 1525 by Angus Konstam (Osprey Campaign series)

A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century by Sir Charles Oman

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Boldness does not necessarily mean Victory...

Many thanks to my friend David Mastro, who shared this book excerpt with me....

--The following eyewitness account of an actual samurai duel comes from Sakujiro Yokoyama (1864-1914), who was one of the greatest jujutsuka/judoka of his time. The account originally appeared in E.J. Harrison's classic text, The Fighting Spirit of Japan (1913):

"I can carry my memory back to the days when all samurai wore the two swords and used them as well when necessity arose. When quite a boy I accidentally witnessed an exciting duel to the death between a ronin (an unattached samurai) and three samurai. The struggle took place in the Kojimachi ward, in the neighbourhood of Kudan, where the Shokonsha now stands. Before proceeding with my narrative I ought to explain for the benefit of my foreign listeners (there were two of us present besides another Japanese gentleman) the usage that was commonly observed by the two-sworded men of the old feudal days, in order that the incident I am about to describe may be better understood. The sword of the samurai, as you know, was a possession valued higher than life itself, and if you touched a samurai's sword you touched his dignity. It was deemed an act of unpardonable rudeness in those days for one samurai to allow the tip of his scabbard to come into contact with the scabbard of another samurai as the men passed each other in the street; such an act was styled saya-ate (saya = scabbard, ate = to strike against), and in the absence of a prompt apology from the offender a fight almost always ensued. The samurai carried two swords, the long and the short, which were thrust into the obi, or sash, on the left-hand side, in such a manner that the sheath of the longer weapon stuck out behind the owner's back. This being the case, it frequently happened, especially in a crowd, that two scabbards would touch each other without deliberate intent on either side, although samurai who were not looking for trouble of this kind always took the precaution to hold the swords with the point downward and as close to their sides as possible. But should a collision of this description occur, the parties could on no account allow it to pass unnoticed. One or both would at once demand satisfaction, and the challenge was rarely refused. The high sense of honour which prevailed among men of this class forbade them to shrink from the consequences of such an encounter.

So much by way of introduction. The episode I am going to describe arose in precisely this fashion. The parties to the duel were a ronin and three samurai, as I have already said. The ronin was rather shabbily dressed, and was evidently very poor. The sheath of his long sword was covered with cracks where the lacquer had been worn away through long use. He was a man of middle age. The three samurai were all stalwart men, and appeared to be under the influence of sake. They were the challengers. At first the ronin apologized, but the samurai insisted on a duel, and the ronin eventually accepted the challenge. By this time a large crowd had gathered, among which were many samurai, none of whom, however, ventured to interfere.

In accordance with custom, the combatants exchanged names and swords were unsheathed, the three samurai on one side facing their solitary opponent, with whom the sympathies of the onlookers evidently lay. The keen blades of the duelists glittered in the sun. The ronin, seemingly as calm as though engaged merely in a friendly fencing bout, advanced steadily with the point of his weapon directed against the samurai in the centre of the trio, and apparently indifferent to an attack on either flank. The samurai in the middle gave ground inch by inch and the ronin as surely stepped forward. Then the right-hand samurai, who thought he saw an opening, rushed to the attack, but the ronin, who had clearly anticipated this move, parried and with lightning rapidity cut his enemy down with a mortal blow. The left-hand samurai came on in his turn, but was treated in similar fashion, a single stroke felling him to the ground bathed in blood. All this took almost less time than it takes to tell. The samurai in the centre, seeing the fate of his comrades, thought better of his first intention and took to his heels. The victorious roni wiped his blood-stained sword in the coolest manner imaginable and returned it to its sheath. His feat was loudly applauded by the other samurai who had witnessed it. The ronin then repaired to the neighbouring magistrate's office to report the occurrence, as the law required...."

Boldness, over-confidence (three on one), highly volotile and easily offended combatants learned the hard way, that boldness does not necessarily mean victory.

The Ronin, being older and more experienced (and most likely, beyond the "young & full of piss n' vinegar" stage), attempted to prevent bloodshed, but defended himself with a calm mind and effective technique.

It takes a lot of training and self-understanding to gain similar skills as this Ronin. Train hard, and train well!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Drive Thru: You want fries with that?

The other day, I went through a drive thru to get a quick bite before my kids kung fu class. I was running errands all day and rushing around, and lost track of time. I realized I was very hungry because I felt a hunger headache coming on. I turned into the restaurant and placed my order.

While waiting in line to pick up my food, I checked my phone. "Wow, cool, emails about class inquiries...I better get on that later!" I thought to myself.

I received my food, drove all the way back to the studio, opened the bag, and found that my order was completely wrong. The drink was the only thing correct. "Wow, I wonder if someone else got *my* food and I have theirs..." I wondered.

By that point, I was past the hunger stage and the headache had already set it. My appetite was gone, and the aroma of the food made me want to gag. I took a couple of ibuprofen and decided to sit on my meditation bench and try to breathe off the headache before the little kids arrived for class......

As I sat, it hit me. I was so busy "driving thru" my day, just trying to get things done, assuming everything will go as planned. I expected my food order to be correct, and by honest mistake, I got the wrong food order. I didn't even pause for a second to check if I had all my stuff....I just drove off....expecting things to be the way they should be. If I would have just took the time to pause for a bit to check, the situation could have been very easily corrected.

As I came out of meditation, I was happy to find my headache gone, but the lesson ingrained on my brain. "Don't just 'drive thru' your everyday life....pause a bit and check-in with yourself. If you always expect things to just fall into place on its own, you get complacent and won't check-in with yourself.

"Checking in" doesn't have to be a can something as simple as enjoying a view, sitting quietly for a moment and reflecting. Not reflecting on the to-do list....I mean "reflecting" on how you are this moment, at this place in space. No worries of trying to control everything in this point in time.....just being there, checking in, and acknowledging the experience so that your mind can ease up enough to make the rest of your day a bit less hectic. Hopefully, you can get back to your to-do list with an organized, more relaxed viewpoint, instead of rushing around like a headless chicken like I did.

Because of my rushed, stressed state, I didn't get the tater tots I wanted with my lunch. Darn it. Next time I'll go inside to order least I'll be able to see the order being bagged.

And for you, dear reader....."go inside" sometimes!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Edge alignment: The art of "cutting" through ego

When I teach Tai Chi or Kung Fu students broadsword or straightsword routines, I always try to make a point (no pun intended) to explain the details of sword handling, such as "COP" (center of percussion), "POB" (point of balance), and edge alignment. I want the students to understand their swords as well as their movements and form....that way, they are not merely waving their weapons around aimlessly.

Another thing I like to share with students, is the concept of "why" we train with swords. Its not so much that we aim to actually fight with swords, but rather, using the blade as a means of "cutting through the ego". Many sword systems teach this concept, however it does take time to get over the "coolness factor" of working with swords and blades. As I explain the characteristics of their blades, I explain the concept of "cutting through ego" in this way for students:

"COP", Center of percussion: On a well made sword, the center of percussion is the place on the blade that does not transfer vibration to the handle when the sword is used to strike or cut an object. One way to find the COP is to hold the sword in one hand, and use the other hand to tap the hand on the the sword wiggles and vibrates, look for the space on the blade that wiggles much less or doesn't wiggle at all. This is the center of percussion....the "sweet spot" where you'd want to cut with. If you cut correctly at an object, hardly any vibration travels to the hand through the handle. Just like the sweet spot on a baseball bat, the COP is where you want to focus your strike or cut. Easier said than done. After very many practice sessions at target cutting, I can only say that I can count how many times on only one hand where I've cut with the perfect COP. Its an ongoing process of adjusting the cut throughout the swing, without interrupting the flow of the cut. Yes, the targets will cut even if I don't hit the COP on the button, but I feel it in the handle, and the cut, most times, is not as clean as it could be.


Practitioners of any martial art will typically go through these periods of "vibration"....tough times where we might feel we are not progressing, sore muscles, bruises, injuries, etc. Although we might know what our true purpose of our training is, it definitely is an ongoing adjustment throughout our training. The key here is to keep plugging along until things become easier and better ingrained. The COP in martial artists, is the place where we feel that our skill and body coordination match. Knowing how to do a form is not should know how to coordinate your whole body into the movement and know the "sweet spot" of balanced relaxation and tension through a technique. This results in effective movement with minimum effort.

"POB", Point of balance: To find the point of balance on a sword, you would find the place where the body of the sword balances on the edge of a finger. Ideally, the closer to the handguard, the better, so that fine maneuvers with the sword is easier. However, POB is a personal preference. Some people like the POB to be more toward the middle of the blade, other prefer the POB to be near the hand guard. Very well made, balanced blades undergo very detailed workmanship methods by the swordmaker....a skill gained only by dedicated practice in his or her craft.


In martial arts, we should always strive to find our "point of balance". Not just our physical balance...that's a relatively easier skill to gain by constant practice in one's movements. Instead, we should strive for the perfect balance of mind/body/spirit. As with blades, some people prefer to be a little more physically tuned than mentally or spiritually tuned, and some prefer to be mentally and spiritually tuned a bit more than physically. Either way, this slight imbalace will show its results as time passes by. If we concentrate too much on the mental and spiritual, but neglect our physical body, our bodies will "feel" our age as we get older....the nagging aches, pains and physical complaints. Or, if we concentrate too much on the physical aspects and neglect some of the mental and spiritual, we become strong bodied, but prone to things like confidence issues, anger, contempt, fear of things other than martial arts, etc. Train both the body AND the mind, and we learn so much more about ourselves and how we relate to the the physical world and the Universe.

"Edge alignment": To cut properly, keeping good edge alignment is the to a clean cut. If you turn your wrist or drop your elbow in the wrong direction, it will affect the position of the edge, resulting in a botched cut, missing the target, or batting the target off its platform. To keep good edge alignment, students must practice each cutting angle diligently and follow good cutting procedures (proper posture, positioning, transferrence of cutting power from legs/hips to arms, etc). It looks so easy when you watch an expert do target cutting, but it is a little more difficult than it looks....the idea is to cut, not hack.


When a swordsman/swordswoman knows their blades and trains hard in their art, the sword becomes an extension of not only their arm, but an extension of their whole being...mind-body-spirit. During this arduous training, a sword player may get callouses, sore palms, maybe even smack themselves with the handle sometimes or even cut themselves. But the training, practice, and high awareness needed for sword work conditions the hands, strengthens the body, and reduces the likelihood of injuring oneself.

Keep in mind however, that good technique is useless if the blades are not kept to a fine edge. Maintaining one's blades is part of being a sword player....neglect the blade, and it will rust, get dull, and eventually become useless unless much repair work is done. Its so much easier to maintain the blades on an ongoing basis.

Put the training of POB, COP, and edge alignment together, and train hard. That's the way to get good at swordplay or any other martial art. No shortcuts. The techniques themselves, such as parrying, thrusting, cutting, point work, etc, are just the base on which to build the foundation of your training. Finding one's balance, one's "sweet spot" in their practice, maintaining a finely honed "edge" and knowing how to keep the edge on track.....that's what makes a great martial artist. The journey in finding the POB, COP, and edge alignment.....that's the fun part. As we discipline ourselves in our martial art journey, we find that Ego hinders our progress and actually degenerates our skills. Through consistent hard work and with quality instruction from a good teacher, we gradually cut away the Ego that binds our strength and sight, leaving full strength for the training and physical/mental/spiritual journey, good sight to see the way along the journey, time we expose the true self.

And......the "true self", it is said, is "one with the Source".

Train Well, Train Hard. JIAYO!

My missing coffee cup: Blindness with eyes wide open

This morning, I made myself a cup of coffee, warmed a pastry and sat myself down at my computer to answer emails, update my task list, and other work related stuff. By habit, I always have my coffee in my favorite mug that has a yin-yang symbol on it. However this morning my mug was nowhere to be found, so put my coffee in a different mug.

After writing a couple emails, I put some eggs in water to poach, and looked for my archery equipment. I sat back down in front of the computer, and realized my coffee wasn't there. I scanned the desk...nothing. Looked in the kitchen. Even looked in the bathroom. Looked downstairs...nothing.

"Mom!" I called out. "Have you seen my white coffe mug? I misplaced it."

"is it in your office?" Mom answered.

"No, it just got up and walked away!"

I made another cup of coffee. As I was in the kitchen, I heard my Mom laughing. I walked to where she my office, pointing at my computer desk..... and there was my first coffee cup. Still warm. "What the hell?" I thought. What the hell am I going to do with this other cup of coffee?

Mom walked away laughing.

It was then I realized that when I was looking for my coffee, I was looking for my favorite Yin-Yang mug, not the brown mug I initially had the coffee in. Blind with eyes wide open. Because I was so intent on looking for a white mug, a different mug just disappeared on my desk because my mind didn't "see" it. There it sat, waiting for me to enjoy it and I was scrambling around the house foolishly looking for it. I had to laugh at myself after feeling silly.

In a martial arts sense, this "looking but not seeing" sometimes happens to us as practitioners. When we are beginners in our art, we tend to look at each new technique with a motivated mind...we want to master it, we want to practice it till we get it down. (Sound familiar, martial artists?)

However, sometimes, as experienced martial artists, we tend to look only for the similar skills that we're habituated to. The different flavor of the new art is ignored, and sometimes we don't even hear corrections from the teacher because we might assume we already know the skill set of the similar movements.

As a result, we miss the flavor of the new activity because we are so intent on seeing "our own mug"...our own "coffee". You keep going to class but you still can't quite get the feel of it the way you expect to. Or, for some, they overestimate their skill, and see their skills as a bit better than it really is.

It is this type of "blindness with eyes wide open" that hinders our progress. We try to seek so hard for things that are already there...we try so hard to place value on our higher skills...our "favorite mug of coffee", so to speak, and we forget about the time when we had no skill. In this sight impaired state, we might even go so far as to denounce the simpler skills...sometimes putting down those with lesser skill because we avidly seek such higher skills and go out of our way to get that skill. "Baby stuff" is not in your think you're better than that.

Then, when we do find the things we look for that are right there in front of us, we wonder "what the hell am I going to do with this other cup of coffee??" After you've gone through all that trouble of manifesting that new skill that you gained so quickly because you thought you were so good, there will come a time where you'll wonder why you went through all that trouble when the process could have been so much easier if your just saw what was really there.

In martial arts, I've seen this type of "blindness" many times...not only in some students i've taught in the past, but with me as well. I'll admit i've been guilty of thinking that I was "all that and a bag of chips", and would laugh at those with less experience when they are astounded with double-sword techniques or high jumps. "They're just impressed because they can't do it. They're like little kids impressed by a simple cartwheel" I used to think. How dumb of me to forget that I was once at their level.

My advice folks: When given the opportunity, learn to "see" not just "look". Remember where you came were once without skill, remember that. Instead of dismissing those with lesser skills, help them find the skills they're looking for if they're being "blind". Just don't laugh at them like my Mom did with me. :-)

Want to know where my yin yang coffee mug was this whole time? (the sole reason why I used a different coffee mug this morning).... In the fridge....where I left it the day before.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Three pillars for Gong Fu skills development

Although these are quoted in reference to Taijiquan practice, I believe these 3 key elements are applicable to all skill-arts......

  • 1) Practice in order to learn what tai chi is and make sure all the movements and and ideas are clear.
  • 2) Reach the point where one understands tai chi in one's practice.
  • 3) Use it freely and experience it at a mysterious and wonderful level.
    • Attributed to Chen Changxing - Chen Zhenglei quoted in Tâai Chi The International Magazine of Tâai Chi Ch'uan Vol.21 No.5, October 1997

I had also learned these 3 pillars as:
  • 1) Mechanical: Learning and struggling through the rudimentary and fundamental movements. The "learning to walk" phase.
  • 2) Technical: Reach a skill where the physical fundamentals and philosophies are understood, and works to consistently apply this Gong Fu in their practice. The student strives to practice, improve and refine their Gong Fu.
  • 3) Spontaneous: Skills have been mastered to the point where no thought is involved. Their skills are brought forth instantaneously with no thought of success or defeat. Skills are used freely without pre-planned attack or defense. This is what Bruce Lee describes as "It" hits or "It" moves.

Many beginners in martial arts will set their goals during the "mechanical" phase. While its great to set a goal for yourself in your training, don't try so hard to speed up the process. That would only be like trying to pull up a plant to speed its growth....oh sure, the plant looks taller each time you pull it up to rush it....but eventually you'll pull that plant's roots right out of the ground. 1 While its true that some people are "naturals" in athletics or martial arts, there does come a time where these "prodigies" slow down for a bit as they hit their plateau. By working diligently to plow through the plateau, these skilled people break through a barrier that knows no bounds......where not only their physical skills grow exponentially, but their true understanding of the art as a whole.

Many times, beginners in martial arts are so excited and "Gung Ho" in their first few months of classes. They show great potential, they have the desire to be skilled, Some in fact, become "Dojo gym rats"....always on the training floor, coming to as many classes as they can. But be careful....when burnout hits, it can hit hard. Make your goals realistic....if you're putting aside other important priorities for training, its a possible sign that your goal of gaining skill has turned into a spiral that could possibly smack you into the ground like a tornado if you don't check it.

The hard part for hard-core beginning students, is actually the quest for knowledge. I've been there....checking out all the martial arts books in the library, buying books, magazines, movies....anything that would fuel my hunger for martial arts information and martial arts techniques. I soaked up everything.....But, I didn't get good at Ninjutsu even though I read about it constantly and memorized techniques and terminology. I didn't get good at Tae Kwon Do by merely reading about it. The only way to gain the knowledge, I found out, is to apply your training earnestly.....after a time, the concepts of the other knowledge you've gained will make sense. Academic "book learning" does not put the skill into your body....instead, your blood, sweat, and tears do that!

Students have asked me "How will I know if I'm getting good"? I answer, "Honestly...I think you won't know it when you get to those points." Then they wonder "Those points??" Yes, "those points"...."skill" is a relative term. Once your skill improves, your sights are most likely set to higher skill. You still see yourself as unskilled when comparing to the skill you'd eventually like to see.....and many times you don't see yourself as much more improved now than you were 6 months ago. As those points in time come and go, your outlook of "skill" changes each time. From what I've seen, if you think you're good and are overly proud of how skilled you are, chances are your not all that skilled at all.

Intermediate and Advance students.....keep in mind that the minute you see yourself as "highly skilled", your progress will slow down. Of course you're better at push hands than the beginner...the beginner knows that and they won't be surprised if you find more openings in their play or defeat them in a push hand session. However if you play to just show your skill, you're're progress will be stunted unless you snap out of it and learn to bring the younger student along the "progress path". Remember that "skill" is relative. You were once at the same level as the beginner....and I'll bet you thought you were skilled and much improving back then as well!!

Regardless of where you are in your training, each pillar must have a strong base on which to stand.....only then will the building that is supported by the pillars, stand on its own for years to come.

Study hard, Play Gong Fu well, Be well.

1. "Pull the crops to help them grow" fable

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Random thought: "Why is it??"....

In this post of "Why is it?", I'm going to ask some questions that I've wondered about for quite some time, but has nothing to do with my usual Martial Arts subjects...

Why Is It......

....(Help me out here, guys)....why is it, that some guys that are shirtless (or wear tank tops) on warm days, feel themselves up over their torse frequently? As I drove to the studio this afternoon, I saw 5 guys walking down the street at different times, all shirtless, using one hand to rub their chests or abdomens. It just looks funny. I've noticed that guys with tank tops do it too....they'll put their hand under the tank top to feel their stomachs or chests. I've yet to see a gal in a tank top or bikini do that (although I'm sure some guys wouldn't mind, eh?) Is this a "guy thing" only? Are they checking to see if their pecs and abs are still there? If so, why are they worried that their pecs or abs would all of a sudden disappear? What gives??

....Why is it that Cruiser motorcycle riders prefer to wear t shirts on warm days, and sport bikers wear their jackets? I'm an avid motorcycle rider (cruiser), but I prefer a full face helmet instead of the "beanie" style helmet, and ride with full armored leathers. I've tried to ride with a t-shirt, but it scares the bejeebers out of luck, the only time I ride without leathers is the day my rear wheel kicks out on a small pebble. Should I be a sport biker instead? :-) Is it more of "cruiser fashion" or "sportbike fashion thing?

...Why is it that people crossing against a walk light, tend to walk *very* slowly across the street? These are able bodied people...nobody in a wheelchair or walker or using a cane. Teenagers and adults crossing against the walk light, walking very slowly, oblivious that there are drivers trying to go through the intersection or turn right.....same people that tend to flip drivers the bird if drivers honk.

....Why is it that bill collectors call every 3 to 5 minutes? Is this a computerized auto-dial thing, or do these companies actually think that if you don't answer the phone because you're in the shower, that you're going to be done 3 minutes later? Is it so the nagging calls force you to answer? I spoke to a credit card rep today, arranged for sending a payment, and the calls kept coming. Uh, is that my phone ringing?

....Why are there so many so called "experts" in subjects that these "experts" have never experienced? The other day I was chatting with a guy in a long line at Sam's Club warehouse store. I only had a few items, and he noticed my chaps and boots (I had taken the motorcycle to the store). We got to talking, and somehow we got on the subject of effective braking skills.

"Ya know, gals tend to use the front brake a should never use your front brake that much because you can throw yourself over the front of the bike that way. Are you a front brake person?"

"Uh, yeah. The front brakes provide around 70 percent of stopping power.....I've been taught to squeeze the brake, not grab at it". Use of both rear and front brakes is effective for quick controlled stops as I was taught in motorcycle safety class."

"Hmm. Well I guess if you think you know what you're doing...And people that are at stop lights with only one foot on the ground...that's idiotic, don't they know they're supposed to have both feet on the ground?"

-inner voice: "WTF?" "Um....maybe you only caught these people with one foot on the ground, at a stop light on an incline. Its common to use the rear brake to hold the bike so they don't roll backwards while they engage the clutch and throttle waiting for the gear to catch in."

"Its always the gals that think they can ride those big twins, they should stick with scooters".

-inner voice: "you gotta be kidding". "Do you ride?" I asked

"Nope. You'd never catch me on a two wheeled death trap".

Okay then. Oh, my turn at the checkout.....get the heck outta there!

Only gals use the front brake or put their (left) foot down when coming to a stop? I guess my guy friends that ride are secretly gals??? :-)


Do any of you out there have any "why is its"??

Post 'em up here in the comments!

Top 5 reasons why martial arts students skip out on class....

(image courtesy of Tyler Roberts &

In our busy lives, its perfectly okay to miss class every so often....i'm not here to bash on students who miss class due to legitimate reasons. Instead, I'd like to pull the rug out from under the excuses and justifications. As martial arts instructors, we know that life's responsibilities sometimes interfere with our desires to pursue our interests, and we'd like to be understanding of that. However sometimes, skipping out on class has nothing to do with prior engagements or appointments, but rather, *lack of motivation*.

Now, this is based on the assumption that one's schedule does indeed fit their martial arts classes.

1) Found a boyfriend/girlfriend, or broke up with a boyfriend/girlfriend: I once had a gal call me and say "I feel awful, my boyfriend broke up with me, so I won't be in class today". That's fine....we all have to go through the grieving process. But for 8 months?

When people find a new significant other, I find their class attendance start to dwindle. Distracted by the prospect of being around the object of their affections. Distracted by what they'd much rather do in the evening rather than practice forms or self defense. :-)

If martial arts are indeed important, let your new boyfriend or girlfriend know about it. Spend time with them and spend time with your chosen art form. And...don't spoil the wonderous experience of new love by hanging out with each 24-7 for the first 3 months. Things will get old a little quicker, by the way!

2) Money is the issue here....Many times (in my experience anyway), when people are having money problems, they just stop coming to class. Why don't these people come up to me and explain the situation? Just be up front, and say "Ya know, I can't afford classes right now". If you really want to keep coming, I'll figure out something....a discount, suspend your tuition....I'll figure out something so you don't have to worry about money but still gain the benefits of martial arts. Don't think I'll judge you.

3) My parents say I can't come to class anymore. Um....I need to talk to your parents, and we should set up an exit interview. I once had a set of brothers tell their parents they were going to martial arts class, when in reality, for 3 months or so, they would take the cash that the parents would give them to pay class tuition, spend it frivolously, and skip out of class so they could skateboard or bmx bike with their friends. After 2 months of no tuition and $40 in late fees, I contacted the parents. The parents believed their kids were walking to class as they always did, and I got the "we can't come to class anymore" excuse. What were these kids thinking....that we wouldn't find out??? Parents....if you'd like your child to stop classes, I need to talk to YOU, not the child. And also...please be upfront with me. If Johnny didn't like the fact we don't play as many games as the younger kids class, I'd like to know.

4) The "pull of the couch" syndrome: You get home after work, have a little dinner, sit on the couch....and that's it. The couch pulls you in. You become stuck in the couch. You say "This is soooo comfy, and I'm sooo tired. I won't hurt to miss out on *one* class, will it??"

One class turns to two. Two turns in to four, and so one until your teacher and classmates don't see you for 3 months. The truth is, for the first few times you miss class, you feel that guilty pang, saying to yourself "I'll go to class on Wednesday". Wednesday comes, but the pull of the couch doesn't know what day it is, nor does the couch care. The longer you skip class, the easier it becomes to not attend. You hope the teacher and classmates will forget you haven't been around. In the back of your mind, you hope your teacher or studio manager doesn't call you....but on the other hand you don't call them either. No contact is so much easier, isn't it??

5) Since I've been away for awhile, I won't show up so I don't hold back the class. When I hear that, I really hear "I don't want to show back up and have my former same-ranked classmates out-rank me". I hear "I don't remember much of my requirements, and I don't want to work on them again to get back to my current rank". I hear "What if people judge me?" I hear time and time again "I don't want to hold back the class".

Well, the class won't be held back.....your attitude, however, will indeed hold YOU back.


The next time you skip out on class "just this once".....think about the reason you joined martial arts in the first place. Was it for fitness? Weight loss? Discipline? Self protection? Then think "Am I receiving these benefits?". Then think "I'll miss out on those benefits today if I skip out for no good reason."

The above reasons are just fancy ways to describe a lack of motivation. Not necessarily a lack of wanting to workout. Many times people will "drag" themselves to class knowing it will be good for them....and they leave refreshed, happy, and thankful they came to class. It is getting past that hump of non-motivation. Its getting off that couch. Its putting down the video game controller. Its spending only 90 minutes away from your new boyfriend or girlfriend . That couch, video game or new flame arent going anywhere for 90 minutes! Why spend so much more energy trying to justify your lack of motivation? Is it because if you find the right justification, it won't make you look bad or lazy? work so hard to keep a reputation when it would take less effort to get to's beyond me how some individuals can do that.

Now get to class! :-)

Fellow martial artists...Raise your hand if you've been very familiar with lack of motivation. *raises own hand*. If so, what got you motivated to get to class that day? What other things about martial arts motivate you??

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The secrets of heaven and hell...

I've read this story many times, and still amazed at the lesson it teaches....

The old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, he sat. In deep meditation he sat.

Suddenly his zazen was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior. "Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!"

At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.

"You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?" replied the monk at last. "You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is all rusty and neglected. You who are ugly and whose mother dresses you funny. You would ask me of heaven and hell?"

The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high over his head. His face turned to crimson, and the veins of his neck stood out in bold relief as he prepared to sever the monk's head from its shoulders.

"That is hell," said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent.
In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared to risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-flight and his eyes filled with grateful tears.

"And that," said the monk, "is heaven."

And you, dear reader....where is it that you find your version of "Heaven"? Or "Hell"?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thoughts on "Ting Jin-Learn to listen"

In my previous blog post, I transferred an archived post from my old version of my blog on to here on Blogger --- "Ting Jin-Learn to Listen in martial arts".

Funny, as I re-read my old post, I remembered an important lesson I learned from a situation I was in recently.........

The other day, a good friend called me to catch up on things, as we hadn't seen each other in a while. During our conversation "Anne" told me about a stressful and emotional experience she encountered over the past weekend. It was indeed a stressful story she told me, as I felt myself crying on the inside as I heard her story and put myself in her shoes. I could hear the pain in her voice and it saddened me deeply as I'd been in the same situation many times before.

As Anne continued into a very emotionally trying portion of the story, suddenly, I felt sort of awkward.....I didn't know what to say, I didn't know what to do. I felt a sense of urgency in trying to cheer her try and divert Anne from recollecting such painful memories, but I felt sort of helpless and awkward, as if I couldn't help. I felt like she might as well be talking to a head of lettuce, because I just sat there. I remember thinking "I gotta do something other than just sit here and empathize...what do I say? What do I do? I don't want to sound stupid! What can I do to distract her from this?" I almost....almost....felt as if I was being "useless" as a friend to lean on. I felt there was nothing I could say to help as I heard her voice break over the phone, and I felt so badly that I didn't know what else to do to be a good friend to her at that time.

I managed to snap out of it, remembering "That's what friends are listen. Just as in martial arts, to feel the conversation, no thoughts of attack or defense, no thought of direction or placement....just listen and be with the moment". So I sat and listened.....I tried to really listen to the 'now', not just hear the words. I empathized with her situation, connecting with the same stress as I too had been in so many times before. I just listened....and felt my eyes tear up every so often. Every now and then I'd throw in a funny remark to lighten the load, but other than that I tried to allow myself to listen and not go into my "martial arts teacher mode". She didn't need to hear about ways she could have-should have-would have fixed the situation.....she didn't need to hear how awful some people are.....she didn't need my personal opinion on the matter.

In a lull in the conversation, however, I briefly thought about the evening prior, when I was in "teacher mode" as a student asked me for advice on a personal matter...I felt myself go on tangents about "how to deal with this", or "how to fix that"....blah blah blah. In situations like that of the student's, I'm sure the advice was well taken. However, in Anne's case, I felt she needed an ear, a shoulder, someone she trusted to unload on, someone that wouldn't judge or be biased. Yes, that's what friends are listen.

I'm hoping Anne is feeling a bit better and has moved forward from that awful experience. And I thank Anne for reminding me of one of life's important lessons on how to be a good friend. I'm honored that Anne felt comfortable enough to share her innermost thoughts and remind me that its perfectly okay to lean on others sometimes, as much as being the one leaned upon. This lesson was one that truly melds Martial theory with life, and I felt great that I was able to practice being an "Uke" (Japanese MA term-"one who receives"). I can only hope that Anne and my other good friends will be "Uke" should I ever need one.
Thanks, Anne!

From the Archives: Feb 14 2008: "Ting Jin"-Learn to listen

From the archives of "Don't fight the Tao", on I am slowly moving my old blog post from there to here on Blogger.

Feb 14th, 2008
Ting Jin: Listening Energy

In Taiji push hands, "Ting Jin", or "listening energy", is one of the concepts practiced. The idea here, is to utilize the whole body as a listening device. I guess "listening" is the wrong work to use, but I can't think of another word! As opposed to listening with only our ears, or reacting to something based on sight alone, we try to train the whole body to "listen" or feel to what really is being "said", and not merely hearing what we want to hear, or misunderstanding the "speech".

One of the hardest things to do in push hands, is to not plan our our attack or defense, but rather, to let go of preconcieved notions of our partners and to move with what is going on "right now". Easier said than done. With any martial art, "what happens in drill, happens for real". Isn't it ironic, that we have to learn pre-planned drills in order to learn how to act instinctively and with no thought?

A friend of mine (who does fencing) called me yesterday, and said "You know how you're always talking about having 'spirit' when practicing martial arts? I was watching my fencing class today, and now I think I get it".

"Its true", I said. "One should have spirit while practicing...without it, I would imagine that a fencer would only merely be holding a sword, instead of skillfully wielding it."

She talked about the drills they do, and spoke how difficult it can be sometimes to have one's spirit reflect the martial intent of the 'fight'.

"Sometimes," I said, "....they're too busy talking to themselves, instead of allowing their bodies to listen to the opponent". For me, I believe that "ego" has no place in a fight or a duel, especially when blades are in play. Looking good or winning is one thing.....getting skewered is another! I surmise, that mindset too, is a factor. In fencing these days, some schools use"bird blunts" (rubber tips) on the ends of blades so as to not cause severe injury to other players. Protective equipment is also used. My theory is, that with all the safety precautions, the reality of swordplay is lost with some people, and that some players will only look for the sound of sword hitting mask or the 'thwip" of the bird blunt hitting vest......hence, not learning the ability to listen, feel, and pay attention to not only finding the opening, but also keeping one's guard.

So how do we effectively "listen" in martial arts? First....get your ego or pride out of the picture. Honestly...and I don't mean to say this is a rude fasion, but no one else outside your choses art know or cares if you're a black belt or great fencer or a popular figure or celebrity. The only people that would really know or care are people associated with what you do, and that's about it. In short, if you think you're "all that", you'll carry alot of pre-conceived notions that will hinder your ability to effectively listen to people outside your space. We have to remember that although there are techniques and concepts universal to all martial arts, there are variations of these concepts from school to school, and from art to art. To assume that another player from another system is lesser skilled or not good at their art just because they don't do the same techniques or their variations look foreign and "unusable", is a very egotistal and narrow minded way of thinking. Sorry to say it folks....but "YOUR ART IS NOT THE ONLY ART, AND YOUR WAY IS NOT THE ONLY WAY". So keep the ego, smirking at other, or turning your nose up, OUT OF IT.

Also, pay attention to the big picture...don't just hear the "words" (techniques and concepts)....understand them. Ask for clarification if needed from peers and instructors. Pay attention to body language if possible....body language many times speaks louder than words. "Feel" the conversation.

Understand that engaging in a physical bout or even a conversation, is a very intimate thing. Whether you're in a fight or in a heartfelt conversation, the intimacy of the situation is there. In order to win a bout, survive a self defense situation, or talk about a difficult subject, we have to keep our emotions in check yet allow ourselves to feel the emotions of not only ourselves but our opponent or partners. Martial arts combat, just as much as deep conversations with another person, are indeed some of many true forms of interpersonal communication. The connection one makes with the opponent (or person you're speaking with) has to be a committed effort if you really want to "listen" effectively.

Listen, feel, understand........see what your sense of "hearing" can allow you to gain.....

Monday, August 10, 2009

Life, a perpetual state of falling.....

Image: A. Westbrook & O. Ratti (1970) : "Aikido and the dynamic sphere".

This blog post was originally posted on April 27th, 2008 on my version of this blog on WindowsLive. I am in the process of moving all posts to this Blogger location, so for its 2nd debut, here is "Life, a perpetual state of falling"

Ukemi (Japanese): "Receiving", "To receive or absorb", "To turn away (from a strike)"

On my news feed today, I came upon a story about a performance artist that takes pictures of himself falling from trees, buildings, etc,....for Art. (Check out the story and pics here According to the story, Kerry Skarbakka was inspired by Martin Heidegger's description of "human existence as a perpetual state of falling".

I had stumbled upon (No pun intended!!) Martin Heidegger's philosophy of "falling", and was impressed by it. Our falls are long ones.....ones where we have to twist and turn to manipulate our bodies to avoid the obstacles in the way during the fall, or at least position ourselves such that impact with an obstacle does not kill us! Or, sometimes our falls are short and painless.

While thinking about this today, I've found that in comparison there are several things in Martial Arts that might result in us falling (there are more, I'm sure to add your additions in the comments section of this blog entry):

1) We trip over our own feet (i.e. "we have no balance or coordination").

2) We're taken off balance and thrown or swept.

3) We attempt a sweep, throw, balance maneuver, etc on someone else, and lose our balance in the process.

4) Our terrain (floor, mat, grass, ground, etc) may be uneven, slippery, or gravelly.

5) We attempt a technique, jump, throw, sweep, etc. without being formally taught it, and losing balance due to faulty understanding of the core concepts (i.e. "trying to imitate a book or a video")

6) Our own attempts at attack are neutralized and redirected to the ground.

7) We are too overconfident in our abilities, and maybe overlook safety precautions or proper execution of technique.

Let's explore this further, shall we?

1) In my years of practicing martial arts, I've found that there's no such thing as someone who's is truly "uncoordinated". Instead, I found people gain coordination for activities through experience, surroundings, and even social interaction. When people say "I can't dance", I hear "I haven't yet gotten skilled at coordinating music, movement, rhythm, synchronization, and expression.". We are all coordinated in certain ways.

2) We're taken off balance: Sometimes, in martial arts, if we space out for just a second, we are able to be pushed, pulled, or directed off balance. Sometimes we get momentarily startled and it allows for a lapse in judgment, distance, and timing.

3) We attempt a throw, and lose our own balance. This may be due to a good counter-technique by our opponent or training partner, a faulty technique on our part, or not getting proper instruction. Sometimes we try too hard at a technique or a throw, and even though it doesn't work we sometimes just keep trying....unaware that our opponent is already countering our technique.

4) Uneven terrain. Sometimes, yes,....terrain will provide an element for surprise, even with skilled practitioners. If we always train on perfect ground, we'll never learn to adapt to bumps, potholes, slippery spots, or other obstacles

5) Attempting a technique without fully understanding how its done.
What amuses me most, are those that watch videos on YouTube or buy videos on the Internet, then claim to know this or that. Come on folks....videos and books are wonderful as reference aids....assuming you've got some experience in the art to begin with. Gosh forbid if I want to learn open-hear surgery by watching YouTube videos and checking out medical references at the library.

6) Our own attacks are neutralized.....our opponent sees right through our technique and arranges for our attack to have no effect. It is considered a great skill to be able to neutralize an attack (instead of only blocking it) and redirect the energy back at the attacker. Although many arts are more well known for this (Aikido, Tai Chi, Judo, Jujutsu, etc), ALL arts carry this concept.

7) Overconfidence, and the tendency to not heed cautionary advice, safety precautions, etc. Come on, folks, we've ALL done this at least once or twice. Sometimes you overconfidence can be the biggest insult to a superiorly skilled opponent, or your undoing against a lesser skilled opponent.

Regardless of how we fall, it is a matter of how we control our perception and reception of the attack (i.e. force that causes a reaction), descent (i.e. positioning) and landing (i.e "receiving" the ground"). Ukemi, as these types of skills are called in Japanese arts, is truly an art in itself. Years ago when I took Aikido lessons, basic Ukemi would never really prepare you for when you're taken on a throw. Being thrown by a beginner Aikidoka, was a whole heck of a lot different that being thrown by a black belt. There is no cookie cutter way to fall when thrown by an just have to really understand the concept of Ukemi, and adjust accordingly in real time......a tough thing, sometimes. "Ukemi" itself, is not falling...its about learning to "receive" an attack, either by blending with it or redirecting the full brunt of impact.

When we become blinded by our own preconcieved knowledge, no wonder why we lose our balance and fall. I read somewhere long ago, that binocular vision is aided by our nose being on our face. Why is then, than some people choose to cut off their own nose, and put out one eye with all their "know-it-all" knowledge? I can't help but look on in disapointment and contempt when I hear martial artists say stuff like "Oh was a great seminar with Master so-and-so, but it wasn't anything I didn't already was soooo boring. Why couldn't they teach anything new?" I just want to say to them "Well, looks like you're stuck with your old techniques then, even though you think you know won't attain anything new at that rate".

I've also seen people get thrown during sparring sessions, then get upset and blame their partner. "I wasn't ready yet, damn it! Why did you sweep me like that?". Come on.....bitching and moaning isn't going to change the fact that you were taken off balance! Why be mad at your partner for doing a sweep or throw correctly? In those cases, the real cause of your ire is that you think you might appear less skilled or afraid of looking stupid. I've met many people who vehemently refuse to learn any new skill in front of people, for fear of looking "stupid".....this is where ego can mess up our training in ANYTHING. I mean, what are they afraid of....losing their reputation? Its not a reputation if the people around you don't know who you are!!

Learn to fall without hitting the "pointy spots" (elbows, knees, shoulders). Fall with a sense of intent not to hurt yourself, but to follow gravity's pull safely and get back up again. That's the key....GET BACK UP AGAIN. Learn from the reasons why you fell. Don't blame the ground for causing you an injury.

How's your Ukemi? Do you practice Ukemi? Or do you just keep it on the back burner hoping you don't trip and no one throws or sweeps you? Feel free to add your 2 cents.

See here for a great definition and description of "Ukemi", by Brad Ellin, Nov. 2002: "Ukemi- Recieving with spirit"

Why Is It....???

A random thought from left-field.....Sometimes, we just have to ask, "Why is it....?? Some of these are martial arts related, some are not.

1) Why is it that when people learn that you're a martial artist, they have to make the usual "Oh, I better not make you mad or you'll kick my butt" comment?
- As if we would hit you if you made us mad? Come on, that just makes us look stupid and out of control.

Last week I ordered lunch at Taco Time and the cashier said "Oh, I better make sure the kitchen makes your burrito right, because we know you can kick our butts!"

"What? Pardon me?" I asked with a dumbfounded expression. It was then I realized I was wearing my "Eat-Sleep-Kung Fu" t-shirt. :-)

2) Why is it that when people learn that you do Tai Chi, they ask if you're Taoist, Buddhist, vegetarian, liberal, a pacifist, or if you've been enlightened yet?
- I wonder where the stereotypes came from! These same people will be shocked and appalled when you tell them Taijiquan is a *martial art*. I've had people quit classes when they found out we did push hands and application drills in my Taiji class. This, after I told them that we do contact exercises in the classes....makes me wonder what they thought Taiji was.

However....I do find it funny when people are surprised when they find out I'm not vegetarian.

3) Why is it, that if you're in your car and waiting at an interesection to turn right while people are crossing the street.....why do they not step up directly on the sidewalk?.....instead they turn slightly to walk down the street *that you're turning onto*, in your car's path.... meaning you cannot really turn right anyhow.
- Baffles me. Moreso when they wave and acknowledge us waiting for them to cross, but end up walking down the street in front of our cars anyway.

4) Why is it that most of the people I see illegally parking their cars in handicapped spaces at the store, are obviously fit and healthy, running out of their vehiciles, and usually wearing an athletic warmup suit or similar?
- I've seen this happen at every store I've been to for the past week. I just don't get it. Do they realize how dumb it looks to be jumping out of their big 4X4, wearing Addidas warmups and literally jogging to the front door? What, they've done too many miles on the elliptical that they can't park another few spaces over in a non-handicapped space? They're not handicapped....they're just freaking lazy.

5) Why is it that people feel compelled and so self important as to cut in lines?
-I waited in a long line to get checked out, only to have a young couple put their overfilled cart directly in front of me. The woman looked at me, looked at my cart, and turned back around. Before I could say anything, the guy behind me said "Hey ma'am, the back of the line is over just cut in front of this lady". To which the Woman said "And excuse me sir, you can mind your own damn business". So I piped in, I've been standing in this line as long as everyone else...last I checked, you don't seem to be a celebrity I recognize!" "You can mind your own damn oriental business too" the woman said. I retorted "It becomes my business when people are so ignorant they don't even know the difference between oriental, Asian, or Pacific Islander."


Another cashier opened up and offered the 3 people behind the rude couple to get checked out. When I left, The couple was still waiting behind other full carts. Touche!

6) Lastly, why do people sometimes use the word "motivation" when they really mean to use the word "ulterior motive"?
- I love speaking of motivation and goal seeking to my martial arts students.... Motivation is wonderful, and is a definite building block to attaining goals and intentions. However, keep in mind....are you doing this or that for some type of greater good, or only doing things primarily for your own selfish gain? Don't disguise your deeds as all wonderful when you are really justifying (or convincing yourself of a) reason that its okay to do what you're doing or okay to manipulate others for selfish, self-absorbed, self-serving gains. "In the end, after the game, the King and the Pawn go back into the same box".

Looking forward to seeing what you all would be interested in adding to the "Why is it??" list. *Feel free to comment and add your own*, and I'll try to compile your answers into a new list for a later blog post.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Interesting article on the "Spear in Japanese Martial Culture".

Friend and fellow sword enthusiast/practitioner, David B. Mastro, wrote a very interesting note on Facebook about the Spear in Japanese Martial Culture. Upon getting his permission to share the article, here it is.

The spear in Japanese martial culture

by David Black Mastro

In various martial cultures around the world, the sword is held in the utmost esteem--it is a weapon that has transcended its original role as a tool of war, and it is thus also seen as a symbol of power, justice, and so on. As the great European swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton once wrote, "The history of the sword is the history of humanity".

That being said, the aura of romance surrounding the sword has done much to cloud the fact that there are, in fact, many weapons which are more formidable than the vaunted sword. Among the numerous hand weapons which fighting men have developed over the centuries, the simple spear is perhaps the greatest, and most misunderstood.

The Japanese have always had a very strong martial culture, and they did not ignore the development of the spear. Early Japanese spears were of the hoko type, made with a metal socket which the wooden shaft fitted in--much like Continental Asian and European spears. According to Donn F. Draeger in his classic text Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, the hoko remained in use from c. 200 B.C./B.C.E., to the late Heian or early Kamakura period (c. late 12th century A.D./C.E.). Then, the Japanese developed their distinctive yari, which featured a spearhead with a very long tang, that was fitted into a hollow-out portion in the shaft of the weapon.

From a purely combative sense, the great advantage of the spear was obviously its superior reach. For a swordsman, facing a spearman is a daunting prospect. Draeger's protege, Hunter B. Armstrong, commented on this in his excellent article, "Owari Kan Ryu Sojutsu--Classical Japanese Spear Arts", which appeared in the February 1998 issue of Exotic Martial Arts Around the World. Armstrong correctly noted that "it was the spear that dominated the battlefield," and, "In a one-on-one combat between a spearman and swordsman, the sword had little chance."

Other martial cultures have noted this truism. In his Paradoxes of Defence from 1599, the great English swordsman George Silver wrote that, "The short staff (quarterstaff) or half pike (spear) have the vantage against the... two hand sword, the sword and target (round shield), and are too hard for two swords and daggers..." In other words, a spearman could safely engage and defeat two men armed with sword-and-dagger, facing him at once!

The great difficulty for the swordsman in facing a spearman lies in the fact that the spearman can make what are generally referred to today as "slip-thrusts"--i.e., a thrust delivered with the rear hand, where the shaft of the spear slides through the loose grip of the forward hand (similar to using a pool stick). The use of slip-thrusts makes it extremely difficult for the swordsman to judge the ma-ai (combative engagement distance, what Western swordsmen refer to as "fencing measure"). The spearman can thus make feints high and low, to the outside and inside lines, and is himself safe from counters, since the swordsman cannot immediately reach him.

The Japanese took the slip-thrust concept & technique to its most extreme, by sometimes making use of a small metal tube (kuda), which fits around the spear shaft, and is held by the forward hand of the spearman. With the kuda, the slip-thrusts can be made with even greater speed, due to the reduced friction. Kan Ryu sojutsu--which makes use of a yari nearly 12 feet long--features the use of the kuda.

Another advantage of the yari--one not featured on all spears around the world--is the fact that it also has functional cutting edges. Yari heads are typically of a stout triangular cross-section, and have two edges. The spearman can therefore make sweeping cuts to various parts of the opponent's body, in addition to thrusts.

Yari were available with a variety of spearheads. In addition to the conventional head described above, there were some yari that featured a crossbar called a hadome at the base of the head (similar to the crossbar or toggle seen on European boar spears), which could be used for parrying and trapping. In addition, there were yari with more elaborate heads, like the magari-yari (also known as the jumonji yari), which side blades more or less perpendicular to the main blade. These side blades apparently could function like the hadome, but they were also sharpened, giving the spearman more cutting options.

During the 16th century, when the Portuguese arquebus (a type of matchlock musket) entered the Japanese arsenal, the nagae-yari or long spear was developed, which, at some 16 feet or more in length, was akin to the European pike. The nagae-yari was used by the ashigaru (lit., "light feet"), the footsoldiers of peasant stock who served as pikemen and arquebusiers. These organized infantrymen represented a Japanese parallel to the rank-and-file Swiss reislaufer and German landsknechts--low-born footsoldiers who could use the reach of the pike and the even greater reach of the arquebus, to down their social betters (the samurai and knights, respectively).

A weapon as devastating as the yari was naturally bound to produce its share of legendary users. Author Anthony Bryant, in his Osprey book, Samurai 1550-1600, noted the great Watanabe Hanzo, who was one of Tokugawa Ieyasu's retainers. He was so skilled in spear-fighting that he ultimately gained the nickname "Yari no Hanzo" (lit., "Hanzo of the Spear"). Another famous spearman was Kato Kiyomasa, one of the commanders in Hideyoshi's army that invaded Korea in 1592. During lulls in the fighting, Kiyomasa was known to hunt tigers, using only a spear. This was yet another example of professional fighting men hunting and/or fighting big, dangerous game using spears, as an adjunct to their military training. Northern Europeans often hunted wild boar with spears, and Spanish knights engaged in bullfighting with swords and lances. While such practices may seem repugnant to the modern mind, they nevertheless require substantial skill, and a great deal of nerve.

Even after the demise of the Feudal bushi in the mid-19th century A.D./C.E., spear technique did not die. Just as European pike and half-pike technique survived in the use of the bayonet, so did Japanese sojutsu contribute to juken-jutsu. And so the spear--one of Man's earliest weapons--tenaciously refuses to be forgotten. Though it lacks the popular mystique of the sword, its sheer effectiveness and practicality cannot be denied.

For further reading:

Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts by Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith

Classical Bujutsu--The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan Vol. One by Donn F. Draeger

Samurai 1550-1600 by Anthony Bryant (Osprey Warrior Series 7)

Samurai Warfare by Dr. Stephen Turnbull

Samurai--The weapons and spirit of the Japanese warrior by Clive Sinclair

"Owari Kan Ryu Sojutsu--Classical Japanese Spear Arts", by Hunter B. Armstrong (from the February 1998 issue of Exotic Martial Arts Around the World)

Paradoxes of Defence by George Silver

The Book of the Sword by Richard F. Burton

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"How to frustrate your Martial Arts students"

In a previous blog post, I took a tongue-in-cheek look at how martial arts students can frustrate their to frustrate your martial arts coach
Let's turn the tables and look at it the other way around....

Now granted, most Martial Arts teachers will indeed put their student's goals and progress on their priority lists...but unfortunately there are those few that make martial Arts training very unsavory, leaving a bad taste in student's mouths, and maybe affecting a person's outlook on martial arts training as a whole. If you're a martial arts coach or teacher and you're looking to rile your students, this guide is for you.

1) Charge exorbitant fees, make contracts impossible to get out of, or drop a 'bait and switch':
--- As professional teachers, we know we should charge what we are worth....after all, we are sharing our life's study with people that (most times) join our classes without any martial arts experience whatsoever, right? While I believe its fair to charge class fee based on the quality of our classes, let's not get unrealistic. I mean, unless you are a well known Master, $200 per month for 1 class a week, sounds a little steep to first timers. Why, that's $50 per class!...I charge that for *private* lessons! Anywhere from $65 to $95 per month for once a week attendance sounds fair (depending on subject matter and class length), as does $85 to $140 for twice a week(again, depending of subject and class length). Family discounts, cross training discounts, and referral discounts are good ways to make it affordable for students, families and friends to gain the benefits of martial arts training.

Contracts are great tools, but to make it fair, do include a way to break the contract, and if you do include clauses for students to cancel the contract, honor it and note it in writing, for gosh sakes. Some contracts will require and early termination fee, and that's fine so long as you honor the termination of contract. It doesn't look good when your automatic draft service keeps charging a student who quit 2 months ago, and it also doesn't look good if you use the non-modified contract as an excuse to keep withdrawing fees from a former student.

Students, stay away from "bait and switch" tactics. I've heard horror stories of people that join clubs, then 1 week later, being told that the school's Headmaster thinks you have great potential (although you've never seen the Headmaster yet), and that you've received special invitation to the "black belt intern's club", whatever else its called. Nevermind that the club is a separate fee from your regular class, and that you will be required to attend monthly mandatory workshops at high prices...don't attend the workshops, and you're disrespecting the school and headmaster. Next thing you know, your automatic bank payment for classes is hovering over $300 per month, not including workshops.

There's nothing wrong with teacher's seeing potential in you and offering the suggestion that you join a special class, but in the end, its your decision...don't let the claim "we need your answer in 2 days, or headmaster will revoke the invitation because you'll appear indecisive...and our black belts are better than that, we need an answer now", be the determining factor.

2) Keep classes the same, day after day...students won't understand anything about your art if you do fun, interesting and novel activities. Stick to predictable rote exercises.

---While I think its important that students observe the traditional aspects, drills, and ceremony (for traditional arts), I believe its important to keep classes unpredictable, interesting, and to include activities that are fun. Bring in a guest teacher from another art to teach something interesting or different. Invent fun ways to use your equipment. Invent games that allow the practice of your required techniques but are fun and promotes classmate comraderie. Keep things fresh, Keep it interesting!

3)Dole out punishments to new students for minor infractions
-- I'm a supporter of discipline in my classes, however I will not give a 1st day student 50 pushups for not saluting at the door properly. Nor would I have a senior student show a new student just how tough we are by having the senior smack the student really hard at self defense drills. Yelling at new students to move faster at a technique they learned 5 minutes ago probably isn't going to endear me to them. Show patience in teaching the rules and regulations of your school, and have your senior students show the same patience while showing newbies the ropes.

4) Refuse to answer questions, or not help students if they ask for assistance.... because they should be practicing not asking questions! Weren't they paying attention while I was teaching??
-- "Sifu, can you help me with this technique? I feel like its not working right, can you help me?"

"What? You don't get it? Keep practicing, you'll figure it out"

-- The quickest way to get students to quit, is to not help them. Most people don't come into class already knowing martial arts. Even if they have previous experience in another art, chances are their techniques might be a little different than yours. Explain the differences, point out the similarities....let the student of prior experience know that their experience is helpful in their learning. Let new students ask questions. Of course, if you're a teacher, keep a handle on the atmosphere....if students think they can talk and discuss and ask questions all day, they won't practice anything. Part of discipline is to have students practice to see if they answer their own questions....if still confused, then they should not be afraid to ask you for help.

Many people in the USA, are used to question/answer, and academic information....some people want the "who-what-when-where-how" right NOW....a difference from many Asian arts, where you practice and practice until you feel the technique mature and start to work for you. The teacher will help you, but not hold your hand and coddle you.

The key to mastery, I believe, is in self discovery, self research, and most importantly, self practice. However, it IS indeed helpful to have your teacher answer a few of the obvious questions. The other fine points, you'll discover if you trust your training and teacher. Don't disrespect them by asking "too" many'll miss out on the self discovery if the teacher hands you everything on a silver platter. Besides, even if they answered every question for you, you'd never understand the answers until your put in the practice!

5) Make classes too long.
-- Not everyone can attend a 3 hour class. Its one thing if a student stays for one 90 minute class, then decides he/she has the time and energy to attend the next 90 minute class, but regular classes being 3 hours? Come on....leave those kind of classes to high intermediate and advanced students. Keep class times age appropriate.......a 90 minute class for 7 year olds just won't cut it. An adult's attention span does fine in 60 minute or 90 minute classes, and 2 hours is almost pushing it....anything more than 2 1/2 or 3 hours on a regular basis results in mere imitation of techniqe or brain drain. Have you ever attended an all day seminar? After lunch, what happens? You're still excited about the seminar but your mind is getting tired, you're not retaining information, and you're hoping to remember just enough to write in your notebook when you get home.

6) Don't teach according to rank levels.
-- If your intermediate or advanced students are doing lower level routines or techniques all the time with the beginners, their interest will wane. In mixed classes, it can be sort of difficult to get all ranks their appropriate routines and rank requirements, but it can be done with proper planning and with senior student assistants or black belt assistants. Periodic "intermediate only" or "advance only" sessions are helpful, if you don't already have those as regular classes.

7) Treat students as income, not as people.
-- You've worked hard to do your hobby and passion as a income generating job, but don't sacrifice customer service and human interaction for the dollar signs. Marketing your business is good, but don't make it so much of a priority that you forget about your students.

Many schools use martial arts billing companies for this reason....the billing companies take care of collecting monthly tuition, and the teachers can concentrate on what matters most...teaching good classes and focusing on the student's progress. Remember birthdays, kid's parent's names, even pet's names and what foods or things they're allergic too. I make it a point to remember people's food allergies, so that if I hold a special event for kids or adults, there's always something available safe to eat or drink, and labeled clearly if it has allergens.

Give students a pat on the back if you notice them trying hard in class. Congratulate them on getting that elusive self defense technique down pat. Genuine concern for your students progress, and speaking to them as people, as well as students, will result in long standing students. This, in turn, will help grow your business.

8)Be serious all the time. Smiling is an infraction worthy of the bamboo spikes torture.

-- Each martial arts instructor has their own ways of balancing discipline, hard work, and fun into their classes. Many colleagues of mine, say that if the class doesn't smile at least once during class, they wonder what they've done wrong in teaching that class. Personally, I love hard grueling workouts, but I also enjoyed it when my teachers and classmates would be able to put in a lighthearted fun comment or two. Laughter or a smile breaks tension, it frees the mind from "I gotta do this right or Sensei will give me pushups", and it allows corrections to be taken and retained more readily.

So....if you really want to frustrate your students, or if you want students to quit, charge outrageous fees, don't have fun, and force them to attend 5 hour classes. Its the "tough love", right? Or, if you want to be a "wimp", grow your business, have loyal longstanding students and strong black belts, just wimp out and have fun, teach them accordingly, be patient but with a firm hand, and be fair in your monetary practices.

I was a toughie at one time early in my career....but I "got soft", and now I have strong, loyal students that have been around for years, if not decades. I'm not saying that we should dumb down our art or be too lenient just so students don't quit...what I'm saying is that too much punishment, too much hard discipline, and too little carring, will result in the student not learning the art you so love and value. If you value your art, value your students.