The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Background and Founding of Kyokushin Karate

The Kyokushin Karate of Mas Oyama is considered to be truly hard core. Below are excerpts from a post at The Martial Way, which gives a history of Mas Oyama's training prior to, and the founding of, Kyokushin Karate. The full post may be read here. It's very interesting reading. Enjoy.

The Early Martial Arts Training of Mas Oyama

As I research and go deeper into the history of Kyokushin Karate I become even more fascinated. Between legend and story, somewhere lays the truth. We may never know fully, but it is wonderful to speculate, learn and share.

This happened recently, when a reader, Terry Birkett, 4th Dan Kyokushin Karate, of Ronin Dojo in Wales, was asking me about Sosai Mas Oyama’s rank in Goju-ryu. I knew it had come from Gogen Yamaguchi, based on an interview Graham Noble did with his son in 2013, so I assumed that is where Sosai learnt Goju. I was wrong. Terry pointed me in the direction of Nei-chu So, which then led me on a path of researching Sosai Mas Oyama’s training in martial arts and here now lies what I have found out so far.
...
Judo:

Though I could not find much information, Oyama took up Kosen Judo during his teens in Japan, which was extremely common at that time.  First at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo and then in the studio of the father of Koji Sone, who was Judo Champion of the World from 1959 to 1961.

It is also said that  Masahiko Kimura, a famous champion of Judo, considered one of the greatest judoka of all time, who defeated He’lio Gracie of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, encouraged Oyama to take up Judo so that he would have an understanding of the art’s ground techniques. Besides Judo, Masahiko Kimura studied Goju-ryu under Nei-chu So, eventually becoming an assistant instructor. Kimura introduced Oyama to the Sone Dojo in Nakano, Tokyo, where he trained regularly for four years, eventually gaining his 4th Dan.
...
Shotokan:

In 1946, Oyama enrolled in Waseda University School of Education to study sports science. It is here that he began studying Shotokan karate under Gigō (Yoshitaka) Funakoshi, the second son of Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi.

Later Oyama attended Takushoku University in Tokyo and was accepted as a student at the dojo of Gichin Funakoshi. He trained with Gichin Funakoshi for two years. Oyama progressed to 4th Dan, under Sensei Funakoshi.
...
Goju-Ryu:

Apparently Funakoshi’s training wasn’t enough for the young powerful Oyama, and so after the end of World War II Oyama decided to leave and study Goju-ryu under fellow Korean Nei-Chu So.

Nei-Chu So, an ethnic Korean like Oyama, was a senior student of Goju-ryu’s founder, Chojun Miyagi. So was extremely important in helping  Gogen Yamaguchi “The Cat” become established and in building his reputation in Japan, along with the karate style Goju-ryu. To this point, Goju-ryu was mainly an Okinawan system. Nei-Chu So kept Yamaguchi’s fledgling Goju school alive while Yamaguchi was stationed overseas during World War II and subsequently held as a prisoner of war in Russia. So remained a high-ranking official in Japanese Goju-ryu organizations after the War, even as Yamaguchi eclipsed him in fame.
...
Musashi and Mountain Training:

Oyama also met Eji Yoshikawa, author of the book ‘Musashi’, a fictionalized account of the life of Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s most famous samurai warrior. Thanks to this book and the writer, Mas Oyama begins to understand the profound meanings of the Samurai Bushido Code, and ultimatemly shapes his own philosophy on martial arts.

Influenced by Nei-chu So and the writing of Yoshikawa, Mas Oyama decided to withdraw from social life and live in solitude for a period of 3 years and dedicate his time completely to the intense training of body and mind, as Musashi did in his lifetime. Oyama traveled to Minobu mountain, the same place where Musashi created Nito-ryu kenjitsu. Mas Oyama was only 23 years old at the time. In his opinion this would be the perfect place to start his severe training of body and mind that he had planned for himself.
...
Taikiken:

Taikiken is a Japanese martial art, greatly inspired by Yi Quan (or dachengquan), a Chinese system of martial arts. Taikiken was founded by the Japanese Kenichi Sawai (1903 – 1988) after losing to Chinese Wang Xiangzhai (1885-1963) – the founder of Yi Quan. Impressed by the technique of Wang Xiangzhai, Kenichi Sawai learned Yi Quan with his student Wang Yao Zongxun and then with the master himself, Wang Xiangzhai.

Kenichi Sawai began transmitting his art at the end of his learning of Yi Quan in 1947 in Japan. Among his most famous students was his long time friend Mas Oyama, whose friendship went back to their University Judo days, as well as Oyama’s top student, Hatsuo Royama, who became one of Sawai Sensei’s top students as well.
...
Oyama Dojo:

In 1953 Mas Oyama started his first dojo in the outdoors in Mejiro, a suburb of Tokyo, but June 1956 is considered as the official start of the Oyama karate school, opening his dojo behind the Rikkyo University, about 500m away from the spot that would become the actual honbu dojo.

In 1957 there are about 700 members training at his dojo, despite the high attrition due to the hard training. Practitioners of other martial arts also came to train at his dojo, especially for the jis-sen kumite (full contact fighting). Mas Oyama observed these styles and adopted the best and most useful techniques into his karate. Doing so, his Karate evolved soon into one of the most impressive styles in the world of martial arts. Soon his style was known as “The Strongest Karate”, not only thanks to the skill and endurance of Oyama, but also because of the strong and strict discipline and the requirements for training and tournaments.
...
Kyokushin Karate:

In 1964 Oyama moved the dojo into the building that would from then on serve as the Kyokushin home dojo and world headquarters. The IKO (International Karate Organization) adopted the name of “Kyokushin”, or “The Ultimate Truth” as the name for Oyama’s karate. Before 1963 Oyama had called his karate Oyama Karate. From that moment Kyokushin Karate started to spread out all over the world.

In 1969, Oyama staged the first All-Japan Full Contact Karate Open Championships which took Japan by storm and Terutomo Yamazaki became the first champion, which have been held every year since. In 1975, the first World Full Contact Karate Open Championships were held in Tokyo. World championships have been held at four-yearly intervals since.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Cook Ding's Kitchen 12th Anniversary

Today marks the 12th anniversary of Cook Ding's Kitchen. We've had over 900K hits on over 1700 posts and there are plenty more lined up.

In case you are wondering who is this Cook Ding, he is a character in one of Zhuang Zi's (Chuang Tzu) stories in The Inner Chapters, a Daoist classic. It is one of the "skill stories" and it has always resonated with me. It goes like this:

Cook Ding

Prince Huei's cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every clink of the chopper, was in perfect rhythm — like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, like the harmonious chords of Ching Shou.

"Well done!" cried the Prince. "Yours is skill indeed!"

"Sire," replied the cook laying down his chopper, "I have always devoted myself to Tao, which is higher than mere skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me whole bullocks. After three years' practice, I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. My mind works along without the control of the senses. Falling back upon eternal principles, I glide through such great joints or cavities as there may be, according to the natural constitution of the animal. I do not even touch the convolutions of muscle and tendon, still less attempt to cut through large bones.

"A good cook changes his chopper once a year — because he cuts. An ordinary cook, one a month — because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. Indeed there is plenty of room for the blade to move about. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for nineteen years as though fresh from the whetstone.

"Nevertheless, when I come upon a knotty part which is difficult to tackle, I am all caution. Fixing my eye on it, I stay my hand, and gently apply my blade, until with a hwah the part yields like earth crumbling to the ground. Then I take out my chopper and stand up, and look around, and pause with an air of triumph. Then wiping my chopper, I put it carefully away."

"Bravo!" cried the Prince. "From the words of this cook I have learned how to take care of my life."

ZhuangZi (Lin YuTang)

I've been focusing on Taijiquan the last few years; that and distance running. I'd like to bring to your attention some Taijiquan books. A lot of Taijiquan books. Below are links to the "Books" page at Weakness with a Twist, which has a broader reading list for those interested in Chinese Martial Arts; as well as a post at Qialance, which lists all the books by or about Cheng Man Ching (Zheng Manquing). Please take a look! I am sure that you'll find something of interest.

Book Reviews at Weakness with a Twist


Cheng Man Ching books at Qialance








Saturday, June 24, 2017

Building Discipline

Having discipline is the core of practice. Below is an excerpt from a post at Building Leaders blog. The full post may be read here.

I’ve found too many people end up saying, “Well, I’m just not a disciplined person.” And they give up on a goal. May I suggest that they (and we) need to understand discipline better in order to experience it more consistently? Let me explain.

Raw discipline is challenging to build but satisfying once it’s built. In fact, once you become a disciplined person in one area, you’ll find the “bridge” can be built in a number of areas in your life.

But beware. It’s easy to confuse other traits with it.

Discipline Is Easiest to Develop in the Areas of:

1. Our Strengths

As a kid, I watched Pete Rose play baseball. They called him “Charlie Hustle.” He was very disciplined on the baseball field. He played in 17 all-star games at five positions in the major leagues, and he is the all-time MLB leader in hits (4,256), games played (3,562) and at-bats (14,053). Yet, Pete Rose is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame today. Why? His discipline was categorical. He was disciplined in baseball, but not in life. His gambling problem remained an addiction years after he left the game. It is easy to appear disciplined in an area of strength, but beware of assuming you’ve become a disciplined person. The key is to transfer the habits you’ve created in that category to others in which you have little talent or strength.

2. Our Concerns

When I’m operating in a subject I’m deeply concerned about, I find it easier to cultivate discipline. For instance, I have a keen interest in developing young leaders. I don’t necessarily claim I am the best ever at it, but my concern for this need is so great, I’ve developed lots of expertise on it. I have studied, I have practiced, I have observed, I have surveyed and I have written on the topic now for more than the proverbial “10,000 hours” that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book, Outliers. It’s been a central issue for me for over thirty years. When I reflect on the issue, I see that my discipline emerged out of concern more than anything else. It didn’t feel like work or like discipline. I felt compelled to pursue it.

3. Our Standards

This one is subtle but very real. People with certain temperaments have very high standards of excellence. Some of them are so high, they drive others crazy. These high standards are good, but can masquerade as raw discipline. For example, I know people who have such high expectations for perfection or performance, it drives them to . . . well, perform well. (Ever met a neat freak?) Yet, many are undisciplined in other critical areas they don’t find appealing. Why? It’s their standard of excellence that drove them to perform well; but without a standard they can’t seem to kindle any discipline or ambition to get going. At times the standard works against them. They feel if they can’t be “excellent” at something—then why bother to even get started?

4. Our Interests

It is easy for me to confuse the ambition I feel for an area of interest, with discipline. In other words, sometimes it’s our passion at work, not our discipline. For instance, my son has been challenged to cultivate discipline or ambition in certain areas of his new career as a young professional. But give him an assignment in screen writing or story telling or even creating environments to convey a message—and you’ll be amazed at how disciplined he is. It almost seems like second nature. The moment my wife and I gave him permission to turn one of the rooms in our house into a media room, he was on it in a flash, creating an inviting atmosphere. His girlfriend calls it “The Curtain Principle,” because he even hung curtains within an hour.

Six Tips to Building Raw Discipline

  1. Beware of categorical discipline. Don’t confuse any of the areas mentioned above with discipline.
  2. Read extensively on a subject before setting a goal. Build a concern before a discipline.
  3. Start with a discipline in a strength area, and begin those habits in other areas.
  4. Watch out for perfectionism. Learn to live with being in a process of growth.
  5. Cultivate new habits by placing them next to established ones in your schedule.
  6. Begin small; celebrate progress. Putting wins under your belt builds momentum.
As you begin this year, be wise as you set goals and build personal disciplines. It’s been said: “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all. Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There’s plenty of movement, but you never know if it’s going to be forward, backwards, or sideways.”

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The 48 Laws of Power, #21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. Among my favorites is about a scrap metal dealer thinking he bought the Eiffel Tower.

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today we have #21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker, Seem Dumber Than Your Mark.

No one likes feeling stupider than the next persons. The trick, is to make your victims feel smart – and not just smart, but smarter than you are. Once convinced of this, they will never suspect that you may have ulterior motives.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Martial Arts and the Delusion of Self Defense

Martial arts training gives many benefits. You tend to be more fit and stronger. Your reflexes and eye hand coordination is improved, as is your balance. You may learn that you will not disappear in a puff of smoke when struck, or that your opponent will either.

Still, for self defense, most of us would be better off putting our energies into other activities, like improving our financial situation so we could live in a better neighborhood in a safer city.

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kitsutoshi which addresses martial arts training and self defense for women in particular. The full post may be read here.

“I want to be able to protect myself.”  From the hundreds of fellow martial artists I’ve talked with about why they train, this phrase sticks out at the top of the list. Over the years, I’ve become less and less convinced that martial arts actually does relate to “self protection” goals.  There are ways in which almost everyone who does martial arts may be “safer.”  (Exercise is healthy, improving balance and learning to fall safely will protect against common accidents…).   Some people, like law-enforcement officers or people who live or work in really bad neighborhoods, may have specific risks that martial arts can help them address. For the rest of us…it’s a great hobby.  It’s nice to feel like a badass.  It’s good for bonding with people.  Discipline, strength, confidence…it’s a hobby (or lifestyle, or obsession) worth pursuing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Many martial artists train for those reasons, for sport, or just because it’s fun.  Wonderful reasons.

But the “self-protection” delusion is a problem.  I would like to see that delusion sliced open and its guts strewn in the dirt: in martial artists, in school marketing, and in the general population.  I would like to see women’s self-defense training that addresses the real risks taught more widely, and see things that are not women’s self-defense marketed accurately “women-only martial arts class” rather than “women’s self-defense” for instance.

It’s a big problem. Specifically, it’s a huge problem for women, whose risk profile is entirely different from men’s.  Women are led to believe and trust that by studying martial arts they will be safer from the risks they face, and that is at best a very small partial truth and at worst outright wrong.

When men come to martial arts to learn how to fight off an attacker, it’s an active shooter, a violent mugger, a carjacker, or a drunk in a bar.  Risks that (other than the aforementioned LE officers and people in sketchy neighborhoods) they are beyond unlikely to face. For most people those are some of the least likely actual risks in their lives.  Giving up fried food, taking a defensive-driving class, and updating an eyeglass prescription would eliminate more risk from most people’s lives than decades of martial arts training.

So the harm to men from martial arts training is that they get a great hobby with a lot of benefits, for reasons that are mistaken.  That’s even sometimes acknowledged among us, that we have to be crazy to do this stuff when it’s almost certain never to be needed.

When women, however, come with the purpose of learning self-protection, it’s sexual assault and abuse that they’re worried about.  “I want to learn to protect myself” means “I want to feel safe from rape.”   That’s where the delusion becomes a problem.  A big problem.

Martial arts training is a hammer, which makes every “protection” problem a nail.   Everyone has heard “the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the woman is acquainted with.”   But when women sign up for a martial arts program, what they’re getting is stranger-attack skills.  In the real world, women’s acquaintances are not hiding in the bushes or in deserted parking lots to leap out and subdue their friends.   Spending just a little time thinking about the on-the-mat skills taught in almost every martial arts school anywhere, and comparing with the scenarios encountered routinely by 1:4 women in their teens and twenties shows the obvious.  That isn’t training for the risks those women will encounter.

Assault by friends, boyfriends, husbands, co-workers, teachers, bosses, and relatives, the monumental majority of assaults inflicted on women, start with emotional manipulation.  Controlling behavior.  Envelope-pushing behavior. Boundary erosion.  Manipulation.  Creation of ambiguity.  Drugging of drinks. Encouraging of more alcohol or drug use than a woman intends.  Undermining confidence and self-worth.  A vast array of behaviors that can make an assault into a loathsome morass, a situation where punching and kicking are worthless. Different skills are needed.

Kayla Harrison is an example of exactly that.  She was already a gifted Judoka when she was assaulted.  If anyone could defend herself with martial arts, probably even as a small child, it would have been Kayla Harrison.  If martial arts skills are supposed to apply to acquaintance rape, and she couldn’t apply them, then people with no athletic skill walking in to a random school a couple of days a week surely can’t.  But that wasn’t the problem.  Kayla’s skills were not the problem.  Many women martial artists are raped every year in spite of their belts, training, and ability to put a foot directly through a man’s abdomen.   Martial arts skills are the wrong tool for that situation.  Totally and completely wrong.

Knowing what skills are needed starts with risk analysis.  Risk analysis is something woefully deficient in most martial arts training. Most martial arts instructors enjoy various combinations of: punching, kicking, grappling, throws, chokes, locks…they enjoy sparring, rolling, using various weapons, they enjoy winning.  This is what those folks are great at, they love it, and they teach it. Looking beyond that takes a lot of effort.  The easier thing for people who have a subject they love is to believe that it can solve all problems.  The hammer.

When it comes to studying, martial arts instructors might enjoy looking at old scrolls, or watching video of other martial artists, reading books about martial arts. When they research “modern attacks” they watch video of inmate interviews describing stranger attacks and how victims are chosen.  They watch security video of knifings and shootings.  Unless they’re the guy who wrote “The Gift of Fear,” (Gavin DeBecker…good stuff…read that) they rarely study the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” or study women’s risk profiles from other sources.

Studying martial arts the usual ways means reinforcing teaching martial arts the usual ways, and the delusion that martial arts can protect from “attacks.”  Regardless of the reality.   Delusion is like that.

But some martial artists are women.  And women are a great target demographic.  And sometimes, the need for “something else” breaks through the comfortable idea that if you are just good enough at punching and kicking, then all situations can be handled.

Enter “Ladies’ Self-Defense.”  Almost every martial arts school sometimes offers a women’s self-defense class.   Sometimes it’s even taught by women students or instructors.  And that’s where things get complicated.  Those classes are almost always intended just to bring in new students.  They serve a good purpose: an easy on-ramp to martial arts training.   We know that women often find it hard to walk in the door to martial arts, and such a ramp is a big help.

But it also reinforces the delusion.

Advertised as “women’s self-defense,” the classes generally just teach a women-only version of whatever the school usually teaches.  Maybe a pink-washed version.  Maybe with “make this a slap instead of a punch,” or a hair-pull tossed in.  But really, it’s just the same stuff.  No different in addressing real risk for women than for men.  Nothing “women’s” about the self-defense except that no men are in the class.

Sometimes there are classes in real women’s self-defense though.  That does exist.  Almost exclusively taught by women, and mostly not teaching any physical techniques at all.  Once in a while it even comes from a martial arts school.  Women who train sometimes go out of their way to learn women’s risks, to learn and develop curricula to address those risks.  Books and classes are out there.  But from the perspective of a woman with no background, there’s no distinction between a pink-washed regular martial arts class and a serious women’s self-defense program.

Women coming in off the streets with no expertise, and just a vague idea  “I want to be safer” encounter confident martial artists who think that their hammer can address any nail (pun fully intended).  Those women can spend years and thousands of dollars learning skills that don’t address their real risks. They may love their art, they may become Kayla Harrison, they may never regret walking in the door of their school…but they’re not learning what they came to learn.

The troublesome part of this is that many women who train in a martial art know all of this.  We have been saying this for a long time.   We care about women’s risks and the very alarming occurrences of those risks. (Comparing men who are unlikely to ever be attacked in any way with women who have a 25% chance of violent attack in their lifetime is stark).  We study, we read, we learn in other contexts.  In my case, I learned about women’s self-defense through a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum when I was 13, and again in my twenties when I became certified to teach that curriculum.  I learned more in training to become a Crisis Response Advocate for sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors.  I learned by reading real research and talking with real survivors (many of whom are fellow martial artists).  I know many other women martial artists and instructors who have sought out that information and those skills.  We learn that specialty, and we sound like broken records talking about the need to teach real women’s self-defense.

But schools still mostly don’t teach those skills.  The delusion of “martial arts makes you safer” persists.  One reason is that it is vaguely true that martial arts makes you safer.  The “learning-to-fall-safely,” the “longer-life-through-exercise.”  The reduction of already-infinitesimal risk of stranger attacks that apply to men and women.  Those things are real.  Not that important, not that useful, but real.

Also, it’s easy for the (mostly male) senior people who run schools and styles to pass off their female students’ concerns with an occasional seminar.  That feels like enough for a concern that doesn’t seem real to them.  They have no personal stake.  They’ve never guarded their drink like Fort Knox.  They’ve never known a dozen friends who have been pressured into sex by people they trusted and thought “that could have been me.” Never faced losing a job or a home if they didn’t sleep with someone.  Risks for other people are easy to pass off.

Martial arts Instructors feel like warrior protectors, who think that if they are with a woman she is safe.  Which is the diametric opposite of the real risk analysis which says that a woman is safer walking alone than with a male acquaintance (don’t take that as advice).  Those men can believe in their punching-and-kicking hammer, wholeheartedly, as a panacea, point at the “women’s self-defense” class (that isn’t women’s self-defense) and be annoyed by the insistent nattering of the women students or junior Instructors who say otherwise.  Badgered to think uncomfortable thoughts when they could stay on solid comfortable ground instead.

There are other reasons. Economic reasons.  It doesn’t pay for most martial arts schools to let students think too hard about real risk analysis.  Some places teach an art that is beautiful and has nothing to do with self-defense, and the school doesn’t pretend it does.  I’m guessing that a Zen Archery teacher presented with a prospective student who said “I want to learn to protect myself” would point the prospect in another direction.  But in schools purporting to teach modern defense…either the instructors don’t know what the real risks are, or they just don’t want to think too hard about it.  They want to cling to the idea that “martial arts makes you safer” and take the money. They probably even believe it and are just bad at math.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Hooked: To BJJ from Tai Chi Chuan

Today we have a guest post form Graham Barlow, who practice both Tai Chi Chuan  and BJJ in Bath, England. He is the author of Tai Chi Chuan Notebook

For myself, I think that Tai Chi Chuan and both Judo and BJJ are a great combination. I bet that both Graham's TCC and BJJ have improved on account of practicing both.



Hooked: My journey to BJJ from Tai Chi Chuan, in my forties


What it’s like to transition to BJJ when you’ve been doing Chinese Martial Arts for years.

By Graham Barlow

Seduced by the appeal of the Taoist philosophy I’d read about in a book by Benjamin Hoff called The Tao of Pooh, and buoyed by the vague notion that I’d like to be able to do something martial arts related, yet vaguely spiritual, whilst looking cool on a beach as the sun set, I sought out Tai Chi Chuan.

This was 1993 and I was in my early twenties, living in London and looking for my place in the world. I was a laid back, long-haired student into bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I had a penchant for Chinese philosophy (or at least the 1960’s California-influenced version of Chinese philosophy that we all know and love) and I wanted to be like David Carradine’s wandering monk from the ‘Kung Fu’ TV series I loved so much growing up, so Tai Chi Chuan sounded like the perfect fit.

Luckily the first Tai Chi class I went to turned out to be a genuine martial arts class, albeit an informal one which didn’t require silk pyjamas, bowing or shouting out strange oriental sounds. It was exactly what I was looking for: they actually used Tai Chi for fighting.  One of my first Tai Chi Chuan teachers hit me in the chest with a palm strike that knocked me back several feet, as if I’d been hit by a tidal wave coming up from the ground. It was freaky. It didn’t feel like normal strength. It was something else, and I was hooked.

I was told the power of the hit was wrapped up in something called “chi” and I spent the next 15 or so years trying hard to untangle that particular knot. In every class I went to there was some sort of epiphany, and it felt like I had got a bit closer to unpicking the answer, yet in a few days it had slipped through my fingers again, and I was back to trying to figure it out again from a new perspective.  (In fact, I still chip away at the fascinating puzzle that is Tai Chi Chuan today - I haven’t given up). But by the time I was 39 years old, I felt like martial arts had moved on and I wasn’t keeping up. I needed something... different.

I still enjoyed Tai Chi (and the other related Chinese arts I’d picked up along the way). They had made me healthy, but with my 40th birthday approaching and having a full time job, two kids and teaching Tai Chi more than I was training it, I wasn’t feeling particularly fit, and I was definitely on the wrong side of “tubby”.

I had also become frustrated with the Sisyphean task of teaching Tai Chi Chuan to people as a martial art when most of them didn’t really want to do it as a martial art, and the ones that said they did, didn’t really want to put up with all the physical discomfort that actually entails.

It was hard to find training partners in Tai Chi who had exactly the same goals as me. If I was going to switch to an art that challenged me physically I felt like the clock was ticking.

Looking around for what else was on offer I felt drawn to Brazilian Jiujitsu. I’d always been better at locking and throwing than punching and during the times I’d put on gloves and body armour to spar I’d always felt instinctively drawn to the idea of clinching tight to your opponent, so they couldn’t punch you in the head. I decided to try BJJ mostly because of simple opportunity - there was a local class in my city -  but what kept me coming back was something deeper, as I’ll discuss.

Youthful folly


 In my youth I’d outright rejected the idea of learning any martial art that came from Japan in favour of arts from China. As a headstrong young man I seemed to have a penchant for making these sort of ridiculous prejudiced decisions based on poor evidence, a snobbish attitude and a ridiculous ego - all things I’ve learned to keep in better check as I’ve got older.

 Having swallowed the marketing schtick of Chinese Martial Arts (and its implied superiority) hook, line and sinker, I naturally assumed all Japanese arts to be inferior versions of the original Chinese martial arts. I hated the idea of having anything to do with Karate particularly, which was derided universally by every Kung Fu practitioner I’d ever met, and whose adepts formed the main contingent of the white pyjama-wearing cannon fodder of every Bruce Lee film you’ll ever see.

My Tai Chi teacher had been a black belt in a traditional Japanese style of Jiujitsu before he started Tai Chi though, and always held the art in high regard, but to me the Japanese arts seemed somehow basic and rigid, whilst the Chinese arts were fluid, sophisticated and more effective. (At this point I refer the reader to my previous point about my penchant for making stupid snap judgements).

However, murky Japanese origins or not, it was hard to deny the effectiveness of the Brazilian brand of Jiujitsu, as evidenced by pretty much every MMA fight I saw on TV. MMA was a sport that was only just beginning to creep in to mainstream TV channels in the UK. Not really being part of the MMA scene myself, I’d completely missed the impact of the early UFC events, back in 1993, where style was pitted against style and Brazilian Jiujitsu wiped the floor with everybody.

When I watched MMA fights it seemed that any time the action went to the ground it was clear when one of the fighters had a significant advantage over the other, and that advantage turned out to be a background in BJJ. Besides, if it was Brazilian then I wasn’t learning something Japanese, right?

 Fortunately there was an official Gracie Barra Brazilian Jiujitsu academy in my town, so I popped along for a free first class, met the black belt instructor, who seemed like one of the most confident and relaxed people you’ll ever meet, got tapped out a million times by a blue belt who didn’t even seem to be trying that hard, and the rest, as they say, is history. You can think of it as some sort of midlife martial arts crisis if you like, (since it probably was), but I was instantly hooked on the art and jumped in with both feet. Today I’m a brown belt and I still get the same rush of excitement every time I step on the mats.

Informal formality


I turned 40 while I was a white belt and I got that milestone blue belt about a year later. Unlike some other martial arts, belts still mean something in BJJ, but at the same time the promotion criteria is utterly informal. Basically, if your black belt instructor thinks you’re ready for a blue belt, and feels the time is right to promote you to that level, then you’re a blue belt under that Professor and you have official rank.

Some academies have grading tests to pass, some don’t. Some require a minimum time training or competing, other don’t. Some factor in things like your character, and others don’t. If you haven’t received your belt legitimately (no matter what colour it is) then people in the BJJ community in the UK will find you and call you out. It’s a big deal. Frauds are very quickly dealt with. This way the standards are maintained.

Getting your blue belt is the major goal for anybody starting BJJ. As a rough guide, it takes about 2 years on average. There’s still a long, long way to go, but having a blue belt is a sign that you’ve got the basics down, you’ve become proficient enough in the art, you know what you’re doing and you’re ready to learn some more of the complicated techniques. Over the years I’ve seen so many people start BJJ and drop out before they get their blue belt - either life gets in the way, they find it just too hard, or they realise just how much work it’s going to entail and they give up. It’s definitely not easy.

It’s hard starting BJJ for anybody, but particularly so later in life. Your body needs to go through an adjustment period for the first 6 months. You go from being soft and squishy to toughening up, but that comes at a price; mainly aches and pains. Recovery time is important, especially if you’re over 35.

I remember being so stiff the day after training that I had to modify my Tai Chi practice because I couldn’t drop low in certain postures without my hips really hurting. No more super low ‘Snake creeps down’ for me! Over time my body adjusted, but it was definitely a painful process. Even your skin needs to toughen up because friction with the mats and gi leads to various ‘mat burn’ symptoms. Your grip strength is constantly trained, so your fingers ache. Stray knees and elbows are inevitable, so you get bruises and little cuts on your face and body.

Warm ups for BJJ involve things like press ups and sit ups, which Tai Chi isn’t particularly known for. You also need to get cardiovascularly fit, which is a bit of a challenge when you’re in your forties and especially because BJJ involved a different type of strength to anything else I’d ever done.

To this day I still see beginners in BJJ who would be considered “fit and healthy”, (maybe they regularly go running or workout frequently in the gym), having to sit out of rolling in BJJ after a couple of minutes because they’re gasping for breath so hard that they can’t continue. Being trapped underneath somebody and using all your strength to escape, and it not working, is absolutely exhausting. And as a beginner that’s what you’re faced with when you roll with a higher belt. BJJ conditioning is different. And so is the sparring, which is where BJJ really differs compared to other styles of Jiujitsu.

 Big in Japan

 In Japan, where tradition demands that they preserve their indigenous martial arts almost as time capsules, the art is passed on using devices like solo kata and partnered techniques, which are taught in a ritualised kind of way. (I’m generalising here - don’t get angry with me if your art is one of the exceptions).

One of the innovations that set Judo aside from traditional Jiujitsu was the adoption of a free sparring element using only techniques that were safe to train with 100% resistance, provided a ‘tap’ indicating submission was respected. BJJ comes from that particular line, but transplanted deep in the heart of the Amazon, without the need to respect Japanese tradition, it evolved even further. It focussed only on those techniques that worked in combat, in whatever environment and condition the practitioner finds him or herself in.

Jiujitsu was brought to Brazil by Mitsuyo Maeda, a student of Kano Jigoro (the founder of Judo). There are different theories about why he was sent to Brazil, one of which is that he was sent there to help prepare the ground for continued Japanese emigration. We don’t really know.

Either way, the heat, disease and conditions in the Amazon over 100 years ago must have been like hell on earth. He ended up making a living as a prize fighter and by teaching Jiujitsu. His Jiujitsu was therefore already predisposed towards “what works”. Here he met a Scottish immigrant family called the Gracies and Maeda decided to pass his art on to Carlos Gracie. The Gracies had even less respect for tradition and set about modifying the art further to create what we now know as Brazilian Jiujitsu based only on the idea of “what works”.

My first lesson

Coming from a Taijiquan background, people often ask me - “can you use your Tai Chi in BJJ?”, or, “does your Tai Chi help your BJJ?”.

 Let me answer that by describing my first BJJ lesson: After a short-ish warm up, that left me gasping for breath, we learned a technique from a position called “closed guard” where you are on your back, legs wrapped around your opponent’s waist. The technique we learned involved pulling the lapel of the gi out from their belt, passing it from one hand to another as you bring it up over their head, then securing a chokehold around their neck using it in conjunction with a particular set of grips. It was quite complicated. (It was only later I realised I should have started in the fundamentals class.)

The second half of the class (a full 30 minutes) was dedicated to rolling, which is sparring starting from sitting position or on the knees. These days we do it in 6 minute rounds with a 30 second break between them, but back then you did 30 minutes solid with however you were paired up with.  I was paired up with a blue belt who was about my size. In BJJ each roll is preceded by a strange fist bump and slap. (Hey, at least it beats bowing). After that it’s up to you how you fight, so long as there’s no punching, kicking or “playground stuff”, like bending fingers back or biting. Not really sure what to do I quickly jumped on top of him, knocking him over, pinned him to the ground and locked up his arm using a technique I’d seem Fedor finish Kevin Randleman with on YouTube - I later learned that this was called a Kimura. He tapped quickly, gave me a nod of approval and said “well done!”. This is going pretty well I thought, feeling confident my previous Tai Chi training had proved worthwhile.

We fist bumped again and went for round 2. He then proceeded to act out a BJJ clinic on me. He was tapping me out using every sort of conceivable lock or choke hold I could think of at a rate of one tap every 2 minutes. And worse, he wasn’t even trying. I quickly realised he’d let me tap him the first time just to see what I could do. This went on for the full 30 minutes. It wasn’t a matter of being out-muscled - it was clear that he possessed a knowledge that I didn’t. I wanted to lie down, curl up and die after about 10 minutes, but something in me refused to give up and I lasted until the end of the class. The black belt running the class was keeping an eye on me, and expressed some concern about the curious wheezing noises my breathing was making and asked if I’d like to sit out, but my pride wouldn’t let me. I kept going until the end. It took me about 2 days to recover fully. My next class was the same, but this time the blue belt I fought was a smaller female, who repeatedly jumped on my back and tapped me out with chokes until time as up.

 That was it, I was hooked.

 There was a type of knowledge here I could learn, and it worked in a fight, and it didn’t matter if the other person was stronger than you. There were no forms, deadly techniques or imagining ‘what if’ scenarios. You were hit by reality from the first fist bump.

Did my Tai Chi help me? No, not at all on that first day, but it has helped me in a multitude of little ways since then that are hard to explain. I think the biggest thing was that I’d spent a lot of time learning how to learn.

Learning Tai Chi is a constant process of having your mistakes pointed out to you, trying to correct them, then moving on to the next thing. The key to getting good at BJJ is similar - you don’t want to focus on winning, since you end up muscling things instead of being technical and correct. But just like in Tai Chi, it’s learning from your mistakes that matters.

 The techniques in BJJ are taught in a very precise and technical way - this arm goes here, your weight should be here, and you push there. But in BJJ I also found the freedom that Bruce Lee wrote about in his Tao of Jeet Kune Do, of being able to express yourself completely in your martial art.

Learning BJJ is almost a process of self-invention. You put out feelers and find the techniques that work best for you, and then build your game around them based on the live feedback of what works and what doesn’t in rolling. Different body types suit different techniques and strategies - long legged people quickly gravitate towards being guard players and catching triangle submissions and armbars off their back. Shorter people have more success with butterfly guard and hunting for submissions on top.

Interestingly, my Tai Chi teacher had encouraged a similar methodology in his teaching. He’d borrow animal styles from XingYi and Shaolin arts and use them as a kind of ‘coat hanger’ for hanging different techniques off in sparring. Different animal styles suited different body types, so I was already familiar with this idea.

These things are really only on the surface level of Tai Chi, of course. It’s only much later in BJJ that you can start to realistically create the head space necessary to try some of the more “Tai Chi’ ways of moving the body under pressure. But here you find that BJJ has it’s own set of ‘internals’ that are different to Tai Chi. It’s the sort of things that the legendary Rickson Gracie calls “invisible jiujitsu”. In each of the key positions there are little things you can do with your posture, weight distribution or grip that completely change the position. These are things you can’t really see, but you can feel them. One little change and suddenly your opponent is unable to exert any pressure on you at all, or you suddenly feel twice as heavy to them as you really are. It’s fascinating.

 Ironically, in BJJ I found an art that actually delivered on a lot of the promise of ‘soft’ martial arts like Tai Chi Chuan. Size and strength do matter in BJJ, but only when both people are equally matched in knowledge. A person with knowledge of BJJ against somebody who doesn’t have it usually results in what we saw in the UFC in 1993.

I got my blue belt relatively quickly, but I’d say that had more to do with having a good attitude to learning martial arts, and nothing specifically related to Tai Chi. I still practice Tai Chi and as well as being a great way of loosening up your stiff muscles the day after training it’s perfect for keeping injuries to a minimum. People tell me I move “different” to what they’re expecting in BJJ, but I don’t really know if that’s to do with Tai Chi training or just the individual expression that is encouraged in BJJ. I think that really there’s no time to think when you’re sparring, so whatever way you’re used to moving (i.e. whatever way you train the most) tends to come out.

I have asked myself many times since that first class why I’ve continued with BJJ. The answer is twofold, and was personified perfectly in my experiences in that first class: I love it, and I’m not a quitter.

With thanks to my Professor Salvatore Pace and my friends and family at Gracie Barra Bath - www.graciebarrabath.com


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Taijiquan and Perseverence

Below is an excerpt from a post at Tai Chi Chuan and Philosophy originally written by Dr. Zee, a long time student of Ma Lueh Liang. The full article may be read here.

Perseverance has the meaning of stamina. The five-point motto of Ma Yueliang finishes with perseverance. It says that while practising Taijiquan one has to have a long the four points of stillness, lightness, slowness and conscientiousness also perseverance. Only then Taijiquan can develop its effects.

Taijiquan is not a panacea, which works right away. Taijiquan follows the "laws of the nature", does search for "being conscious" and the endowed inborn root of the movements. The basic ability of the conscious movement is inborn, but "being close to each other by our inner nature, we separate from each other by our habits". Because of this one loses the inborn. So in physical exercises one does not develop one's original capabilities to the full extent, as it would have been possible, or worse, one develops unfavourable variances. When practising Taijiquan one goes through subjective efforts, but it is a process that changes the objective world and where one looks for the lost endowed inborn.

This process is long-term and life long. Though the Taijiquan movements should become part of daily life, at best a kind of key idea, which you are looking for in all movements, whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down. However, if you "diligently work one day, but there are ten days of rest" you are not following the five-point motto of Ma Yueliang. This also means that you do not prevent diseases or strengthen the body. The goal of Taijiquan, the long life and the eternal spring, will be a question.

It is unusual for young people to begin to learn Taijiquan. They often find not much joy in this kind of movement or even think they are boring. So at the start one should make an individual plan for each one. It is essential to fix the time frame and the amount of stuff to learn. This must be done consciously. But one must also decide with the whole heart to improve. It's like in calligraphy:

"Only after a hundred days of practice with the characters it shows effect."

When you practised Taijiquan three months, you can see the first effects. One can e.g. feel fine, the appetite is good, the limbs are healthy, and after a long time, chronic diseases can improve or the outbreak of them can be prevented. If one gets the taste for it, it increases the confidence and the resolution to practice Taijiquan.

The conditions of individual students are not the same. This must also have an influence to the character and the level of training. The old teachers demanded that one should do the form a ten thousand times in about three years. This shows that if you do the form just once a day, it is only enough to keep it. For today's people, it is certainly very difficult to do the form ten times a day. It would be best to do the form twice a day, because the first time is just to warm up. This is important, because you can't reach stillness by just pushing a button. Only at the second time you can achieve "The heart/mind (xin) leads qi. The qi moves the body.", because now the mind got still. Body and spirit are in harmony, what even increases the result.

As in the phrase: "Relax and stillness as the reaction", you will feel very comfortable now. Even if you want to stop, you can't do it and you feel like a third time. On the other hand, if you are to much distracted by the daily live and it is just hard to concentrate and you have to force yourself to do Taijiquan you should stop the training for a while or take a rest after the first irregularities.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Oldest Kendoka

Probably the oldest Kendoka of the 112th Enbu Taikai: Ota (Age: 102) and Takasaki (Age: 93). Ota-Sensei is one the very very few ones (only one?) who holds the title of Hanshi despite being 'only' 7th Dan. The requirement for Hanshi nowadays is minimum 8th Dan.



Monday, June 05, 2017

Friday, June 02, 2017

Tension and Relaxation

In martial arts, especially internal martial arts, particularly taijiquan, you are admonished to relax. It's sounds so simple, but the simple fact is that we carry around a lot of tension with us all of the time of which we are not usually aware. 

Below is an excerpt from an article at MoveWithLife that attempts to turn the picture around, by looking at tension as a way to learn to relax. The full post may be read here.


Chi Kung is training the proper use of tension!

Tension usually has a negative connotation in Internal Martial Arts. It is said that we must flow like water and “relax” into movements for the most benefit. The big question that runs through many peoples’ mind is HOW?!?

To turn the traditional teaching around, the main question to ask is not how do we relax, but rather, How can I use my tension more efficiently?

Truthfully it is tension that holds us up and moves us. Relaxation on the other hand is us letting go, it makes us heavy and connects the body as a singular unit. Relaxation by itself is a simple thing, yet putting it into movement requires a refinement of the tension needed for a task. In this post specifically we’ll focus on the use of tension which influences the efficacy of movement.

Tension in the sense we are talking about is the state of contraction in a muscle. For us to generate any movement we must contract our muscles, there’s no way around it. For us to do anything at all, our body must have some level of tension. To flow like water and relax into our movements we must pin point this tension to exactly what we want to accomplish.

Alignments and timing of tension are very important to refining our movement. Seeing as this is very much movement specific, today we’ll work on illustrating the basics of using tension with some simple examples.

Simply put, any tension that moves you away or holds you back from where you want to go is wasted effort. Keeping this in mind the use of tension in striking or weight lifting can be summed up in one phrase… Create a solid anchor for your force to launch from.



Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Cheng Man Ching Tai Chi Chuan Video Compilation

Angelika Frita over at Qialance did a very nice job pulling together an extensive compilation of Cheng Man Ching (Zhang Man Quing) Tai Chi Chuan videos. There are clips of CMC doing the famous 37 form, the sword form, push hands, teaching class, etc.

The post is simply too rich for me to show an excerpt. Please visit here.

Enjoy.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Do You Train Enough to be a Martial Artist

Jesse Conley at Stone Tiger XingYi has a thought provoking article on the time and quality that we put into our training. Do you train enough to be a man of kung fu?

When I was a  young man, it was a simple matter. I was marginally employed and lived at home. I simply went to every class that Kushida Sensei taught at the old Davison dojo, 3x per day, 3x per week; plus the beginner and ongoing classes at the Wyandotte dojo 2x per week, then any other class I could find anywhere. As an aside, going to the beginners class for years was one of the best things I'd ever done for myself.

As I got older, life became more complicated. A girlfriend became a wife. A job became a career. Kids came along. My parents grew old and infirm. I had to accommodate this.

These days at nearly 60, I run every other day. On work days, it's 4 or 5 miles before leaving for the office. On weekends, I have my long run. I'm planning on two half marathons this fall, so my long runs will be about 10 miles by August.

The other days, I practice the Cheng Man Ching Taijiquan form. On the off days from running, I practice in a "square" fashion, holding postures for various reasons; then whenever I have the time, space and opportunity, I practice in the usual round, flowing fashion. It works out to be about 50/50 square and round.

I like to think that I've learned a little bit about Budo from Kushida Sensei. What I do isn't exactly Budo, but it's close enough and meets my needs. I call my way of practicing "Budo with a small 'b'."

With regards to martial arts training, what are  you trying to accomplish and are you training enough to accomplish that? It's easy to fool ourselves and come up short. 

Am I a real martial artist anymore? Probably not, but then I am pursuing different things these days.

"Budo should enhance your life, not replace it." - FJ Lovret.

An excerpt from the post is below. The full article may be read here.

...When we were talking about what they saw, we started on a discussion of how the next big issue in society may come from parents choosing which social class their children belong to. The parents who take their children to the park on a spring evening stand a good chance to read with their children and encourage them to study for themselves.  These parents are more likely to emphasize physical health with their children and undoubtedly spend more focused, quality time with their children than the parents that only pacify their kids with entertainment.

I was relaying this to some martial arts friends and I had a realization.  This problem isn't just about kids going to the park or being online, it's VERY evident in a similar manner with people who call themselves 'martial artists'.

Think about it for a second.  Spending some time online or with entertainment these days is normal but how much time are you giving to mindless enjoyment and how much to training?  When do you train?  And please, don't give me the whole "I train all day every day".  Most of the time that is just an excuse for people to get out of the hard parts of training.  They think that picking the coffee pot up with proper shoulder alignment is training instead of just how they should always move.  So how much do you ACTUALLY train each day?  Have you ever actually written down how many circles you walk or how many lines of the elements you do?  How many times do you practice Pi Chuan each day?  And I mean how many times EXACTLY?  Do you keep a training log where you detail your practices and keep track of your progress, the same as any other serious athlete?

That is only one aspect to this.  What do you do when you aren't training?  What do you do when you are watching TV or cooking or cleaning to add to your sets and reps for the day?  I like the term sets and reps, I know a lot of traditional martial artists may not jive with that but before I was a Gong Fu guy, I was a wrestler and lifter and that is how I learned to measure training progress. It just stuck over time.

Some people may think that I am using those questions to set up an "I'm better than you" argument but that couldn't be father from the truth.  I want to ask these questions of everyone to get them to think exactly how they spend their time.  Time management experts have long said that we really don't know how much of our day that we waste with idleness and often, their best advice is to find all the times throughout the day that you aren't truly doing anything but just being idle.  So my question to you all is, what are you doing with all the time you are wasting by accident?  Again, this is not to castigate anyone but to get you to ask YOURSELF, are you truly as dedicated as you would like to be?

This is a question I had to ask myself a year or so ago and I realized I wasn't training nearly enough to really call myself a Gong Fu man.  I was putting in the time teaching and certainly did a good hour or so of training on top of that everyday but I had allowed myself to play to the certainly true but still bitch ass excuse of my injuries acting up.  I let myself slip into the delusion that since I was crippled in the past, that I couldn't push myself to my full limits or I would be too sore to teach my group properly.  I know, it sounds silly when I write it out but I think everyone here has given themselves similar excuses in the past.  So I made some drastic changes that I know most other people might find some use in and wanted to share them here.

When I get up in the morning, I start doing a light practice that is focused on waking me up, getting lots of oxygen going and just waking up my nervous system.  It's usually stretching and some Qigong and a little Taiji. The stretching is focused on getting my body open after 8 hours of sleep, it adds a huge boost to my morning.  This sounds common sense but how many of you actually do it everyday or at least five out of seven days consistently?

When I still worked a day job, I would take my 15 minute breaks and go do some light Tian Gan.  Just enough to make me breath a little heavy and get my blood going but not enough to come back in soaking wet.  Lunch time was taken to start some light circle walking or elements, again I was limited to not being sweaty when I came back in.  I ate at my desk after lunch while I was working to free up that time.  Last break was the same as the first but I pushed myself a little bit harder to really loosen up for practice right after work.

I own a school literally next door to my old job so the first thing I did was clock out and go straight next door.  I got into deeper stretching to work out any stiffness from earlier training and then got down to a solid hour or so until students showed up.  I taught my classes immediately after and then headed home after that to shower and eat with the family.

Again, I don't say this to brag but on an average day, I was up to around 3 hours of training and teaching whereas a lot of people wouldn't have started yet.  It's not because I'm amazing, it's because I searched out every minute I could that was could be used for training.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Teaching Flow in Martial Arts




Today we have a guest post by Jonathan Bluestein. Enjoy.



The Secret Flow in Teaching Martial Arts

By Jonathan Bluestein

There is a hidden mechanism in the teaching of martial arts, which pervades everywhere regardless of school and style. This mechanism, I believe, is the key component in achieving success in the teaching of these arts. I will now tell you all about it, and how to put it to practice with ease. But first, let me have a short discussion with you, from one martial arts teacher to another, about the nature of what we do.

I personally am not fond of referring to martial arts as a ‘business’, even if teaching them is one’s means of making a living. But were we to equate the martial arts to some type of business, then what type of business would they be? I say we are in the ‘customer preservation business’. This is true for everyone who teach the martial arts. The goal of the martial arts teacher, whoever he or she are, is to gain a certain amount of students, and then keep them for as long as possible or required. This is the reality even if one does not charge a fee for his teaching, and certainly if one needs to earn money from this dignified profession.

Here is another interesting and related anecdote - you need to keep the students more than you need new students. Why? Because martial arts are always a small business venture. With 100 students, a martial arts teacher will likely earn a very good income. With 300 students, you can even become a rich man (not that this should be the goal of teaching martial arts!). Even the largest schools very rarely surpass 300 students, and I dare say that any school with over 350-400 students is no longer really in the business of ‘teaching’ – it is in the business of making money (for most schools, that’s true even when they cross the 200 student line). But in any case, the number of ‘customers’ one needs in this ‘business’ is rather small. Many will even suffice with as little as 10-70 students. A martial arts teacher who can get the number of students he aims for, and can keep them attending classes for years, does not need any new students coming, at least not on a regular basis. Therefore, mastery of the ability to conserve the student population will resolve almost completely the ‘business side’ of the teaching. A teacher who can keep all or most students, essentially has nothing to worry about but the teaching and the practice – this is what we all want.

There are unfortunately many things we cannot control. Disease, marriage, having children, injuries outside the school, moving far away, army service, major changes in personality and more… all of these will take students from us over the years, and there is little we can do about it. But there is the one thing we can control, and that is the quality and the nature of our teaching. Here we can do something, just one single thing, to make a tremendous improvement in our ability to keep the students with us. That one thing is no less an art than the other skills we practice and teach. That thing is the application of Flow Theory to the teaching of our martial arts. Bear with me now for a single paragraph, while I explain to you what this theory is, so you can later understand how it may be easily applied to teaching the martial arts.

Flow is a popular concept in modern psychology. It was ‘discovered’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was the first to make a science out of this common human phenomenon (no, his family name was not typed by my cat walking on the keyboard). Everyone who had ever lived have experienced flow many times in their lives. You know it too. Flow is the state you experience when you do something which is for you, subjectively speaking, the most difficult you can handle with ease, and you also really want to do it. When that thing you are doing is quite difficult but you can still handle it with ease, and you are also motivated to do it, you experience a blissful state of great joy and inner concentration which is detached from time and place. It is this ultimate moment in time when you do something and everything works exceptionally well. You feel uplifted, euphoric, and completely engulfed in the moment.
Although people who write of Flow often use examples from the lives of the very skilled and gifted, Flow can in fact be experienced by anyone – including each of your students, no matter who he or she are. We all experience flow commonly in play, whether it be football, baseball, soccer, box games, card games, sexual activities, handling a musical instrument we have some skill with, etc; Cooking, driving, gardening, singing, dancing, and countless more activities – even negative things like killing and waging wars - whichever things humans can find to be ‘fun’, they can achieve a state of flow while doing them. Flow can even be achieved by thinking challenging thoughts in your mind, without moving. Computer games especially are built to make flow happen. This is the reason computer games have levels of difficulty, and often many of them. The player, based on their skill, can choose how challenging the computer game is going to be for him. What the player actually does is to draw the line of flow for himself. He chooses a level of difficulty which is, for him, difficult but not too much, and that level of challenge, together with the player’s interest in the game, makes the experience the most enjoyable. Likewise, Flow can also be experienced through a wide range of human endeavors, including the martial arts of course, if the person is skilled enough. There is much more to this phenomenon with regard to martial arts practice, and I have written of it more extensively in my international best-seller, Research of Martial Arts.

Athletes often refer to flow as ‘being in the zone’. When in flow, one performs best with his set of skills. It is also the state in which we are able to absorb the most and learn best from what we are doing. It makes sense therefore, that as martial arts teachers we would want our students and ourselves to spend as much time in flow as possible. It would benefit all of humanity if that were the case. But here is the problem we face as martial arts teachers – although our martial arts can manifest flow like any other skill, their training methods were not designed to make flow happen immediately, but rather after a very long time. This all relates to our ability to conserve the student population, and I shall now explain how.


In the martial arts we tend to most commonly have two types of approaches to teaching people. These two approaches, put simply, are “take it hard on them” and “take it easy on them”.          
The first approach is embodied in the traditional martial arts schools, but also in the sports-oriented schools. In such martial arts schools, students are expected to work very hard to achieve skill. Their either suffer through painful training, a type of training which stresses their strength and stamina to the utmost, or both. This could be in the form of holding low stances for prolonged periods of time, placing the body in awkward and difficult positions, suffering a beating from others, exhausting their aerobic or anaerobic limits, etc. This is the Yang end of the scale – too difficult. With this approach, there is the underlying and often unspoken expectation that only the best (most fitting) will survive, and that indeed happens – usually fewer people tend to last and continue over the years than the teacher would have liked.             
The second approach takes the opposite route, considering the martial arts as a sort of pastime. The teacher does not believe the intended population has what it takes for more serious martial arts training. Therefore, the teacher keeps the training and curriculum at a low level of physical and mental challenge. This is fantastic for recruiting students. Many people come and within their first class already feel as if they have achieved something. Then this experience is repeated in many classes. But the student also senses quite quickly that the practice is not challenging enough. That is akin to a person who is ‘too easy’ when going on romantic dates with others, and because of this is eventually shunned by most potential partners. This person becomes that martial arts school teacher, and just as many come at his doorstep, sooner than later most leave. This is the Yin end of the scale – too easy.

As you may remember from earlier, I have asserted that Flow is found in the delicate balance between ‘too difficult' and ‘too easy’. Bringing the student into a state of flow again and again is, in my opinion, the most reliable way to keep that student interested and pursuing the practice for a lifetime. This is because the nature of Flow, being experienced as a blissful and joyous state which is self-perpetuating and addictive, all the while providing significant personal growth.       
Yet there is a reason most schools do not make the effort to keep students in flow. The Yang schools want a serious student who is hard-working, so they do not wish to compromise their teachings to ‘spoil’ the students (or, for that matter, to bend over backwards to make a student happy). The Yin schools wish to make money and fear pushing it in classes will drive the students away. What then can be done to accommodate for these challenges?

Well, I should start by saying that back in the old days, things were simpler. Just 50 years ago, people were overall far more physically hard-working and willing to take on challenges, and less likely to complain. Martial Arts were very new to the Western world and people did not have expectations of something they did not at all understand. Nowadays we have populations in the Western world which are, on the whole, high degenerate. In addition to that, the sophisticated brainwashing by the modern media had led people to believe that what they watch on the screen is not only reality, but something they can learn and apply in reality on all walks of life. This led us to this day and age, in which a new student attending our schools usually has two prominent qualities, regardless of age:

1.       He knows less than he thinks he knows, especially of the martial arts.
2.       He can physically do less than he thinks he can, especially in the martial arts.
Because of problem number 1, the student is often too quick to decide whether a martial art is right or not for him, before truly experiencing it. Because of problem number 2, the student will tend to have a disproportional response to his successes and failures in training. Put in other words – people today lack good body constitution and self-awareness of body and mind. This makes the challenge for martial arts teachers greater than before.

To make Flow work with the students we need to change our mindset. We have to decide and believe that the student, albeit being a novice, can genuinely reach flow or near-flow experiences, if we provide him or her the right conditions for it. Also, we have to realize something else which is very important: While it is true that we want only the best and most appropriate people as our students, going to extremes will not necessarily help us get these people. Just look at what I have written in the previous paragraphs. Most people are not ready for real martial arts training when they come at our doorstep. Neither should we expect them to be ready. We should make them so. By learning to accommodate our teachings to many types of people, over time a significant number of students will evolve their body and mind, changing their attitudes and seriousness about training. Were we to go by ‘only winners’ or ‘only losers’ approach, then we shall get very few winners (if at all) to remain after 5, 10 or 20 years of teaching, or rather thousands of students who came and went without many or any to carry on what we do at a decent level.

Coming from a background teaching the traditional Chinese martial arts, I would like to address the appropriate solutions for the more Yang-inclined schools – those in which the teachers tend to expect a hard-working mentality from the get-go.             
The most common problem I see today in such schools is that the curriculum is simply not well made for modern society. Often the curriculum itself is excellent, but it begins at too advanced a level, physically and mentally. The curriculum of such arts often assumes a population of students which has been doing tough physical labour, often in fields, from early age. This is not where we are at today. This was well understood by pioneers in Okinawan Karate during the 20th century, who were wise to accommodate for the problem by creating many kata to be taught even before the ‘beginner’ parts of the curriculum. This pre-beginner direction is the way to go. It allows a student to be challenged, but not too challenged, and then when this becomes easy, he or she can begin training the ’real’ art. Actually, it is often stated in Okinawan Karate and other arts, that true training beings with the first black belt. This is exactly because, everything before that was simply beginner-friendly material. Sadly, for Okinawan Karate and Japanese Karate, that experiment also failed miserably in many schools in which the beginner mentality was preserved in the long-run, and people could never get past that stage of training, even when they ‘earned’ their black belts.

But the undertones of this approach are valid. The teacher needs to create a version of the curriculum that suits the physicality and mentality of the student, and then from it slowly increase the intensity and difficulty until the ‘real training’ can begin. In this manner, the student can experience Flow or near-flow states, by keeping the practice challenging and difficult, but not too much. But where stands the limit between making it easier, and prostituting one’s art to accommodate for a student’s needs? From my personal perspective, I believe you can determine the limit by asking several questions:

1.       Does the student actually make progress towards ‘real training’ by doing this stuff?
2.       Will this type of training lead to the ‘real training’ within a reasonable amount of time?
3.       Is this level of training respectful of the student and of his honest wishes?
4.       Can this type of training yield any useful skills for either self-defense or health?
5.       Am I taking care to add difficulty when the practice becomes too easy?
Through these questions, you will know whether your attempts to help the student are alright. Remember though, that such modifications ought to be made on a student-to-student basis. The changes need to fit the special needs of each student, and what his or her unique challenges are. One of the reasons that the creation of ‘beginner kata’ caused problems for Karate in the long-term in many schools was that these kata were created for the masses, and not optimized for each practitioner. Not that creating new forms is necessarily the way to go, either. Sometimes single movements require changing. Other times the height of steps and stances or their length beg your attention. Rhythm is also an issue. Following a fixed rhythm of practice is not conductive to the individual. As in the teaching of music and language, each person needs to follow a personal rhythm before they can mold themselves unto the rhythm of the group and of the art. Forcing people to blindly follow rhythm before they can execute movements well is in my opinion, albeit a common teaching method, not a very effective one. The alternative of course, in the manner of more personalized teaching, requires more attention, effort and ingenuity of the teacher, which is why most teachers opt to forgo such an undertaking.

Keeping the student in flow has more to do than just the physical movement themselves. It is also affected by how said movements are perceived by the student. A beginner is strongly affected by his extreme feelings and reactions to the practice. This has to be controlled, through the use of physical and verbal language. A few examples:      

Smile to make the student relax when it hurts. Frown and make displeased sighs when the student fails to meet his and your expectations. But most of all – know when to quickly transitions between negative and positive feedback with accordance to the student’s actions. Do not forget to include both! Commonly a teacher praises too much or too little; yells too much or too little. Strike a balance in such things. The ‘carrot and stick’ method never fails. With children I make it even more pronounced. A child whose mind goes wondering too much and too often might get a gentle slap on the cheek and a moderate raising of voice to put him in place. Then 5 minutes later when he makes a sincere effort to concentrate, even if he does not succeed with the technique, I may give him a hug, and then at the end of class applaud his efforts in front of the other students. One must use both the carrot and the stick to help the student locate the right point between ‘too easy’ and ‘too difficult’, and this relies on the development of empathy and subtle skills for manipulating people.

Another thing I do is to suit the classes to the level of the people who attend them. I take advantage of the changing attendance for this purpose. When today’s class features mostly the less skilled or the more skilled, I will change the teaching content to ‘meet them at the flow point’. When the classes have people of varying levels of skill, I will teach one thing, but then as people work on their own or with partners, I will go personally to those more advanced and issue detailed modifications in their ear so they could increase the level of challenge to their flow point.

Then it is important to remember that once a student reaches a certain level, he needs to learn to ‘eat bitter’. That is, to practice by your order or through his own initiative exercises, techniques and methods which are not in a ‘flow state’, but rather challenging to the point of eventual physical near collapse and failure, involving much pain and duress. Eating Bitter (Chī Kǔ 吃苦), a Chinese term, refers to that substantial effort one needs to go through and maintain for years, against one’s own intuition, to gain higher-level skills. Eating bitter is torturous by nature, and therefore not suitable for beginners. But it is the only path to true skill in the martial arts. Then, fortunately for those who persevere, eating bitter for years on end eventually leads once more to experiencing the entire art in flow, without any suffering. All of the philosophy embodied in this article is meant for a teacher to be able to lead as many students as possible to the gates of bitter training, and have them arriving them ready and mature to accept that sort of challenge. Once there with all of one’s being, the way to excellence is almost guaranteed.

The Chinese understood this well for centuries, which is why their arts have the social model of ‘entering the gate’. In the traditional Chinese martial arts, regular students came for pastime classes in which not much was expected of them, and the higher methods, skills and techniques were also kept from them. Then if a student had proven himself in training and as a human being via various means, he may have been accepted into the inner martial arts family and ‘enter the gate’ of the family compound (a metaphor based on the fact that in the past many Chinese lived in walled compounds with gates, and family affairs would be conducted behind closed doors). This is a good model which helps distinguish those who still require special accommodations and flow-encouragement, and those who are mature enough to suffer of their own volition and accept the pain which will eventually lead them to true flow, in the manifestation of truly advanced practice and application.       
Here too however we have a challenge, in that there is a definite line between that regular student and the inner-family student. But people, sadly, are volatile creatures. Many can prove themselves to be worthy for a while, making great progress, and then later through life’s circumstances deteriorate and wither into a lower version of their former Self. Then, they may no longer abide by the standards of a student who had entered the gate. This is why traditionally, many Chinese teachers waited a long time, often several years, before admitting a person into the family. This was also a request which had to come from the student, and not the teacher.

Whichever teaching model and paradigm one chooses, Flow is the way to go. Do not be tempted to act upon your Ego, and expect the student to be this or that. As a teacher I take the greater responsibility for my relationship with my students. Although they have to meet me half-way, I can wait forever on the road if I did not provide them with a decent enough map. Therefore, make sure the students walk the right path, and be by your example their compass. Then you will find, that things tend to flow smoothly on their own.



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Shifu Jonathan Bluestein is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. If you liked this article, please ‘like’ the page of shifu Bluestein’s book on Facebook:

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