Search This Blog

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