Monday, August 21, 2017

Make war the Roman way.

Bellum Romanum
All-out war without restraint as Romans practiced against groups they considered to be barbarians.

Last week, I shared a video by Master Chim (linked below) about ineffective martial arts techniques and no matter whether you like, hate or don't know who Master Chim is, he raised some valid points about the way that martial arts are taught in modern times.  He asked good questions about the techniques being taught such as the double handed wrist grab or lapel grab and why students are taught ineffective, time consuming and often silly responses to situations that almost never happen and it got me thinking.

It's true that too many schools teach these techniques but I think it's also true that most students and even more teachers know that these techniques are pointless because it's VERY unlikely that a student would ever see these set ups being used in real life.  So why learn them?

I think the answers from teachers would be that "It helps the student get used to being grabbed" and while that is a nice sentiment, how does it really help students if they are learning things that they will never actually use?  Why not focus the student from the beginning on attacks that actually will happen such as a haymaker, shove, front kick, etc?

I was lucky enough to spend a long time as a bouncer at several different clubs and country bars and I have to say, the fights I saw never started with someone grabbing another person by the lapel or taking both of their hands to grab a single wrist of their opponent.  Fights usually start in a couple different ways and it's rare that they start with any of the attacks that students learn in most martial arts schools.  To further explain this, we have to understand that the majority of people who pick fights on "Da streetz" or in a bar aren't trained martial artists and often will use incredibly simple attacks simply because they are natural and the person doesn't know any better.  So why would we as teachers show anything but these in the beginning?  Why show students techniques that we know they aren't likely to face instead of the attacks we KNOW are most likely to happen?

I think it comes down to filling up time and keeping the students interested.  Traditional martial arts are very simple, that's why they are effective, so there is a limited number of things to fill up time during a students contract, leading the teacher to create situations just to keep the students engaged.  Most students don't want to hear that they should put in a thousand more reps on a basic technique and instead complain that they aren't learning more and teachers weakly give in to those complaints instead of teaching their students discipline and single mindedness during training.

You may be saying "That doesn't seem like such a big deal" without considering how wild some of these elaborations become.  Have we not wondered where people get ideas about secret dim mak techniques, qi projection, Lin Kong Jin and how they become so popular?  The simple answer is that those "practices" come when teachers want to keep their students entertained and paying tuition so they expound on mystical ideas that devoted students lap up because of the mystery.  Here are a couple examples, hope you laugh your brain out at how ridiculous these are

OK, so the last one I had to choose because of the music, gets me every time.  Please understand that these are both men who found fame in the past because they, some damn way, convinced students that their methods were effective and worth investing money, and most importantly, time into.

Great, so now that I have gone on a rant, let me tie this back into the title of the article and my feelings on martial arts.  I was listening to Dan Carlin's 'Hardcore History' podcast and he mentioned making war the Roman way and it perfectly fit my beliefs about self defense and how martial arts have been used throughout history.  He summed it up with a perfectly short statement of how the Romans would fight other groups who didn't play by the normal rules of Roman war and that was 'Bellum Romanum" or total war.  No stone left un-thrown, no house left standing, no resistance left to rise up again.  Individual fights would often take the same path as anything else would allow your enemy to get revenge down the road.

We look at traditional martial arts from a modern perspective, thinking that olden times must be SOMEWHAT like today in that most people aren't likely to experience life or death situations multiple times in their lives.  We view the past through our comfortable, plush lens and forget that several hundred years ago when our arts were developing, the world was a savage and downright scary place to live and you had to be ready to fight or run at a seconds notice.  The martial arts of the time were a response to that in that they taught how to fight and kill as quickly as possible, with no extra movements or fancy poses.  They trained to go from neutral to overdrive in a second because that was the only thing that kept them alive.  Gong Fu masters, along with masters of other Asian arts, where often brutal fighters and when I say brutal, I mean truly brutal in a way that few people today can imagine.  This isn't a reflection of their character but a needed response to the times.  We forget that fighters actually died regularly and while not every teacher engaged in Kumite style death matches, if they weren't prepared, someone who was could come and take everything anytime they wanted.  This led to a very high level of preparedness among real masters.

The last large scale use of this mentality was by Indonesian Silat fighters during World War 2 against the Japanese occupation.  Silat fighters didn't line up in rows and columns against the technologically superior Japanese military, instead they fought un-orthodox battles against the Japanese and it often looked like a hurricane of blades went through Japanese patrols.  This method of total war was so frightening and damaging to the Japanese that they were eventually driven out of Indonesia. 

So how does all this talk of war relate to how modern martial artists should prepare?  Well, it's simple.  You need to prepare for a situation where you must go all out to defend yourself against an opponent that won't stop if you stomp their toes or apply a wristlock against them.  You have to prepare for fights that aren't one on one.  In those instances, striking a fearsome Kung Fu pose or using the delayed death touch won't stop the bad guys from applying an instant death touch via stomp or stab  

It's a hard pill to swallow that all of our training will be properly expressed in a second or two of strikes but that is reality.  We don't get long, drawn out battles where we can suddenly turn the tables once the bad guy has stopped to gloat or the orchestra changes their music (my Kung Fu fights have professional music playing to keep the suspense up, I'm sure yours are the same way).  We have to respond with full force once we know that we can't walk away.  I think most people know that point, the point where things have gone very badly and there is no saying "I'm sorry, here is my wallet".  Some people will respond with "But that's illegal" but it's simply not when you can truly show that you tried to walk away but your life was threatened.  Another example could be the recent attacks in Europe.  During the stabbing attacks in London, no one would say that responding with full force was inappropriate, and since those situations are the most serious and life threatening, why not train for those and know that you don't always have to go wild if your brother in law gets drunk at a family Thanksgiving?  (Related side rant that relates here)  It always amazes me when teachers say their arts are too deadly to use for sparring as it's an admission that they aren't in control and don't chose the way they fight.  If you can't chose your level of intensity, you aren't in control.  

The long and short of this article is that I don't teach my female students to try and joint lock someone my size.  I don't teach them to 'put their dukes up' when we talk about fighting.  We don't even discuss the old trope of "Stomp their foot and you can run away" as I've seen that not work a few times and more tellingly, most people don't use it because it's naturally not very effective with today's boots and cushioned shoes being something that everyone wears.  If one of my female students asked me "What do I do if someone grabs my neck?" my response is never some convoluted and precise pairing of shouting 'HELP' and twisting his pinkie to release his grip.  I teach what works and if a man my size grabs one of my female students by the neck, the only proper response (legal as well) is not to tie up her hands with grabs and locks but simply to use both of her free hands to strike and demolish the attacker by hitting the eyes and throat, a justified total war approach when her life is actually threatened.  Don't take this as me being overly macho or trying to turn my students into modern Berserkers but instead see that the only logical response to a smaller, weaker person being grabbed by the throat by a much larger and stronger attacker is to fight with everything they have to make sure they go home safely at night.

Silly techniques combined with a false sense of nobility that many Westerners use to whitewash the history of their arts in an attempt to avoid having to 'Put up or shut up' have made traditional martial arts look weak in our modern world.   False nobility is a shield against being called out for making insane claims of skill, ie "I'm a scholar boxer" or "That's not how gentlemen act" and I believe have also contributed to the rise of worthless martial tactics, as the teacher creating them hasn't had enough or any fight experience to draw on when setting up training scenarios.  

Look at what is taught in your school.  Are the techniques realistic to actual fights?  Do you emphasize training against rear bear hugs instead of rear naked chokes?  Why train it when only a strong and experienced wrestler or thrower would even attempt throwing from a rear bear hug and you aren't likely to get into a bar brawl with them?  Why train against lapel grabs when it's almost a certainty that the bad guy will start with a shove or wild overhand punch?  If you aren't convinced completely when you answer this, are you sure that you are learning the right techniques you will need?

I'm just asking for you to look at your art and ask if there are any worthless techniques that can be put aside in favor of more likely needed defenses.  We have to make the world see the relevance of traditional martial arts again before our reputation is totally gone.  

Train hard and be great.

Here is the Master Chim video I mentioned earlier.  Whether you agree with him or not, he raises good questions.

Jesse Conley is the owner and instructor at Stone Tiger Martial Arts,
located in Vancouver, WA.
For questions or more information, please email to
or visit us on Facebook at

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Is your teacher a fraud?

Is your teacher a fraud?

Many people believe that Gong Fu is dying and nothing can be done to stop it.

Not me.  

I'm a solid optimist when it comes to Gong Fu's future and I will explain why in a later article.  Right now, I want to address what I think is a real threat to Gong Fu and what is holding it back from regaining the respect it had in the past.

If you guessed from the title that I am going to talk about fake teachers, then you are 100% correct, give yourself a pat on the back!

Every good student should care about and respect their teacher, plain and simple.  But each student has a responsibility to ask if their teacher is being completely honest or not, as a matter of simple due diligence.  While new students are probably overwhelmed with the new culture they are exposed to, when they are adjusted, they should start asking if what they are learning is real and worth the effort they are about to put in over the years.

I've been training since 1999 and teaching since I came back from China in 2004.  I've been around the block a couple times and combined with years as a salesman, I have a pretty solid BS detector.  There are key things I look for and you can look for too that should indicate further questioning is in order.

Now, I'm going to start with something that is pretty common knowledge and that I've even written about in the past.  It still needs to be said for full honesty.  I had a completely fake teacher in the past that suckered me in like no one's business and after that situation exploded, I found myself trying to piece my sense of self back together.  I traveled all over the country, trying to learn bits and pieces of the art I loved so I could somehow salvage the "style" I had put years of training into.  No joke, I spent a couple years trying to rebuild an art I had never truly learned and my refusal to just cast the trash aside was completely due to my ego at the time.  

This is important mostly because as I tried to glue the pieces together, I had a lot of the same thoughts and impulses that I see well know frauds acting on today.  It kinda gives me a queasy feeling to write that but it's true.  Luckily, I met my Shifu, recognized his skill and made the right decision to throw all the previous stuff in the trash, to start over under him.  I may have thought in the past that I gave up years of training but in reality, I wasn't actually training an art, I was just prancing around and making sure to tell people I did Gong Fu.  

The first thing we have to understand is that fake teachers operate solely from their need for recognition and a burning desire to be unique.  Since they aren't willing to put in the time under an actual teacher to learn an established art, we can also assume they are taking the easy road but just making up whatever seems cool.  These things are important because they tell you what kind of person we are talking about and in the end, are you willing to fork over your money, safety and most importantly, your limited time on this planet under someone who has no issue lying right to your face?

I thought not.

Ok, so here we go!

1. They don't have any pictures or video with their teacher-   Fake teachers can't prove they learned from anyone. Guys/gals, this should be the first thing you look for when you start 'fact checking' your teacher.  In this day and age, video recorders, phones and even basic cameras are literally EVERYWHERE!  They have been super common for the last 15 years or so, at least in the West and since most fake teachers are younger, this applies directly to them.  If the teacher truly spent years with a master, are we really supposed to believe that no pictures were ever taken?  No videos to use as supplemental notes? Nothing????  Come on now!

2. The teachers' teacher is no where to be found-   This ties into the first reason obviously.  There is a potential that SOMEHOW, there was never a camera or video recorder available (No matter how unlikely that is) so a great way to check a teacher's validity is to just go meet and talk with their master.  My students can do it anytime they like and verify anything I have told them with my teacher (my Shifu is a completely amazing open book).  But when the fake teacher is asked about this, they either resort to saying "He died" or "He is extremely private".  And yes, many Chinese masters are private but they aren't hiding in caves or in attics somewhere.  My Shiye is private, I had to get a personal introduction from my teacher to train with him but he never hides that he trains Bagua to outsiders.  My teacher's old training ground is DIRECTLY in front of an apartment/office building, 15 feet from the front door.  This is a great example that even private teachers still operate in public, they just don't make a big fuss about it.  Why can't anyone talk to the fake teachers Shifu?  I think we all know the answer.  

3.  Their art is always expanding-    This one may be a little too subtle for some people but I think most can grasp it.  It's a simple fact that old school Gong Fu styles are finite.  They don't have 500 forms plus another 1000 weapons forms and even in the case of super old styles like Tan Tui, it's extremely rare to find a teacher who knows all of them.  Most people simple can't memorize and train a huge number of forms  In time, you will also find that a huge emphasis on learning new, exotic forms is a cover for not learning an art deeply.  It's easy to memorize a dance but extremely difficult to embody deep mechanics.  Beware of the teacher who somehow has oodles of forms that no one else has ever heard of or if they push forms that have no application in the main style.

4. Other teachers don't recognize them or what they are doing-  The martial arts community isn't as big as many people think and especially inside specific styles, the list of recognized and legitimate teachers isn't massive.  The movements within most styles are fairly similar as well.  Let's take Xingyi for example.  Within Xingyi, the elements and animals are fairly similar between established styles with only smaller variants decided by the personal taste of each teacher.  Like Hu Xing, or Tiger shape.  Across all the styles, Tiger is recognizable and has similar applications and intent.  If someone comes along and is doing a Tiger that has NOTHING in common with what the legitimate community recognizes, that is a very good indicator that something is amiss.  I know it rubs some the wrong way but logically, it's more likely than not that if the whole community doesn't recognize what the teacher is doing, it's completely new or fabricated by someone who doesn't understand the original concept.

5.  They exclusively quote commercially published manuals-  This one is a dead giveaway of a teacher who doesn't come from a martial family.  I give Sun Lu Tang lots of credit and respect although you don't see me or other teachers not in his lineage using his manual to back up our practices.  You may perhaps see it quoted as a secondary source but if the teacher isn't quoting his own teacher or using his/her own style manual to go by first, it indicates that there was never that guide to start with.  If someone asks me for backup references for a practice I use, I can go back and find material written by my teacher, grand teacher or great grandteacher, I don't need to use a manual that I bought at Barnes and Noble to prove my practice.  A common retort is "My family doesn't have a manual" but this is also somewhat suspicious as it was common practice for a style manual to be written and passed down to help younger generations.  This last example isn't bulletproof though, sometimes the manual legitimately is missing or destroyed.

6.  They are the only ambassador from their style-  This point raises eyebrows especially when combined with no evidence of a teacher and here is the simple reason.  You can't learn a martial art by yourself!  You can't learn combat just by waving your hands in the air without a partner to test movements against.  It's simply impossible to build reactions, timing and proper distance in the chaotic environment of fighting without another living body to work against.  A variant of this is when a teacher claims that it was just him and his teacher, no one else.  It's extremely unlikely that they fell into a Mr. Miyagi situation where the teacher only had one student his whole life and never had any other classmates to train against.  

7. If they go to the home country of their art, they have no one to visit-  This is another dead giveaway of something fishy.  Let's take Chinese Gong Fu for example.  The older teachers in China are very worried at how the younger generation of Chinese aren't interested in training anymore.  They love their arts and want them to be passed on so when a foreigner comes to visit, they are more than likely going to be very curious and at least meet with them.  On top of this, traditional Gong Fu is often taught in a family atmosphere, and the members treat each other as extended family.  It could be considered extremely rude if a foreign student of the art showed up and no one made the effort to visit them and make sure they were taken care of, not to mention train with them, possibly the whole reason the foreign student came.  Chinese martial artists take bonds in the family very seriously and wouldn't allow a member to just float around without introducing themselves.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list but these are some of the things that set off alarm bells for me and other teachers.  This is also not an underhanded dig at any one teacher.  I think if we look at the most well known frauds, like Jake Mace or Ashida Kim, we will see that they share many if not all of these markers in common.  

So to all the students out there, please take the time and effort to critically examine your teacher and ask if any of these apply.  It doesn't mean they are frauds if one or two apply but it should raise concerns and more questions.  

Train hard and be awesome but most of all, be honest with yourself and your potential students.

Jesse Conley is the owner and instructor at Stone Tiger Martial Arts,
located in Vancouver, WA.
For questions or more information, please email to
or visit us on Facebook at

Monday, July 3, 2017

The myth of the "Classical Mess"

Earlier today I saw a friend post about training and it mentioned 'non-classical gong fu' and just like many of you, I was kind of confused what that meant.  If that term doesn't ring any bells for you, let me share where it originated from.

Referencing new gong fu against old or 'classical' gong fu started with Bruce Lee before his untimely death.  He used the term to denote his art from what he saw were the issues of the older styles of Gong Fu.

Bruce believed that the older styles, for example, fought from fixed stances or were stiff compared to his new art and didn't hesitate to make the comparison at any chance.

Now, when I was looking into what "non-classical gong fu" meant, I found this picture and it only deepened my questions.  Which styles fight from fixed stances?  Which styles believe stiffness is better than fast and fluid movements?  Are there really schools out there who truly believe that you are supposed to fight the exact way you practice a form?  In the end, is there any truth to Bruce's claim about 'classical' gong fu or was it a clever way to promote his art?

Let's start with the first claim about stances.  I've had the honor of training with excellent teachers in many styles and I've never once found a instructor who claims you have to fight from a gong bu/bow stance or a cat stance.  I've never once heard a teacher advocating that the second a fight begins, drop into a twisted stance and wait for the opponent to attack.  Each of the teachers I have trained with have ALWAYS viewed stances not as a start of end of fighting but as a transition between movements.  Let's use a Pu Bu stance, pictured here.  Have any of you ever met a real, legit teacher who has a strong free fighting record that teaches to start your attack from here?  Neither have I.  This stance is used for exercise and in application can be found in throws similar to a 'Fireman's Carry' from wrestling, albeit not at this depth or stretch.  What is pictured here is a full depth stance used to help with strength and stretching, it's not representative of a combat stance, if there was such a thing.

Bow stances are another super common stance, but again, I've never met a teacher who told me to jump forward into one the second I felt threatened.  Although I have had teachers who compare it to a strong shove or a double leg takedown position.  You see, stances are meant to increase leg strength in martial artists so they don't find themselves to weak to push through areas that they might collapse without the extra training.  Let's use the Bow stance example again.  It's important because if I was going to transition through a bow stance while doing a high version of a double leg, there is a chance my opponent could counter while 'sprawling' and drop all his weight onto my shoulders.  Without the added front leg strength, it's very possible that could collapse my movement, see?

Let's move onto the idea that the fact there styles existing is paralyzing to the arts.  Again, I don't see evidence of this in real legit teachers or anyone who has truly studied martial arts history.  Arts were constantly created and modified, even while Bruce was alive.  Let's use the art of Bagua for this example.  One teacher, Dong Hai Chuan, essentially created 8 different arts for his students, each different than his own.  As soon as those students started to share, the arts changed again with the introduction of Gao and Sun style Bagua, to name a limited few.  There was no animosity between the styles, which should exist if people truly were mentally paralyzed by their style.  Dong Hai Chuan would have been furious (if he was paralyzed by his style) that Sun Lu Tang or Gao Yi Sheng created their own versions of his art but no such anger is recorded anywhere.  The art of Xingyi also has a long history of changing and growing without any issues as well.  These art's are also incredibly fluid and responsive to change, another mark against the claim that the arts never evolved or grow.

The last and potentially most damning of the claims made is that the 'routines and stunts' trained will lead nowhere.  This might be true if there were teachers claiming that forms are literally interpretations of how fights play out but again, there are VERY few teachers who claim this and most of those can't actually prove they have ever been in a fight with their art.  All of the teachers that I have trained with have told me that forms are meant to develop fluid, connected power as well as train cardio for example, along with other great benefits.  The fight knowledge that comes from forms is the ideas for combinations given and the concept of how to link different moves while moving through complicated angles.  The biggest problem that can be found with Bruce's claim that the 'routines' are a problem is how after he started to become famous, he traveled back to his teacher, Ip Man, and offered to buy him an apartment in exchange for teaching him the 3rd Wing Chun form and allowing him to film it as well.  Why would a man who claims to dislike 'routines' be willing to pay for a training video of a form he never learned?  This claim is found in Ip Man's book on the Wooden Dummy set, another 'routine' with a ton of value that that still found in some JKD schools today.

So, many of you are wondering why Bruce made these claims.  Let me take a stab at it by reminding you to check the martial arts movies coming out at the time.  The martial movie genre at the time used all 3 of these stereotypes consistently and Western audiences wouldn't have had any other frame of reference to how real martial artists moved or how their art is trained, and I believe Bruce knew that as well.  I just came back from China again and while I was there, I didn't see any fixed stances or stiff movements, even from teachers who were teaching before Bruce made his claim.  Also, we can see the claim of stances and stiffness wasn't made before Bruce and each claim afterwards has just been mirroring what he said without providing any proof.

Let me share a video of my teacher as an example of how good teachers demonstrate fluidity without once referencing starting from a fixed stance or reliance on strict interpretations of form.

To show that this isn't a singular example, here are some other great videos that demonstrate real traditional teachers teaching combatives

These videos show teachers from different styles showing fluidity and the ability to react to an opponent without using fixed starting stances.  They show ideas pulled from forms on how to enter and strike and also how to counter those entries and I don't see anything related to a strict form interpreting mentality or any sort of constraint.  

My belief is that declaring that an art is 'Non-classical' is sharing that the art doesn't have any of the wonderful and unique characteristics present in true Gong Fu.  These methods are what inform each styles preferred way of attacking but aren't limiting in any way.  I've never met a good teacher who says "You can't punch that way, that way is from our arch rivals school and it's a sin!" The teachers I know say "Here is the art, use it however you have to so you are safe and make it home at night" and I generally believe that most teachers say the same.

The last objection some might raise is that the special Shen Fa or body method of each style is limiting which I also don't find to be true.  Each Shen Fa method is designed to amplify a certain way of moving, not in any way to restrict a martial artists ability to move as needed.  Xinyidao for example prefers to fight extremely close in and I've seen it used in bar fights with great effect.  This in no way means they lack the ability to reach out and touch an opponent from farther out, in fact, they are skilled in that range as well.  They just prefer closer in because they have developed a really powerful method of generating power from extremely close ranges.  How could preferring to use your strengths be considered limiting?  

I hope each of you thinks about the claim that Bruce made and really ask yourself if your teacher has ever told you to adopt a pre-fight stance like in the movies.  Have you ever seen videos of real street fights where two skilled fighters square off with one of them moving into a crane style position and the other dropping into a twisted snake style stance like the old Wuxia movies?  I haven't and I've been a bouncer for years.  On reflection, I think you will come to the same conclusion that I have, that the claim of a 'classical mess' isn't really founded on a true representation of  'classical' martial arts.

Jesse Conley is the owner and instructor at Stone Tiger Martial Arts,
located in Vancouver, WA.
For questions or more information, please email to
or visit us on Facebook at

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Do martial arts really help with confidence?

Everyone knows the old movie trope.  Boy/girl has a severe lack of confidence and gets bullied for not being cool.  Boy/Girl meets a wizened master of some esoteric form of martial arts and one 3 minute training montage later, they are confident and just skilled enough to beat the bullies while landing their secret love interest.  As a side note, I'm still a little miffed at my teacher because he made me walk the circle for years. It would have been so much easier to do the training montage and get it over with the first time we met, I even had the music for my montage picked out.

My personal rant aside, we see people all the time talk about how the martial arts builds confidence.  McDojo's use that phrase as parent-bait to get their children signed up but I've never heard them explain HOW martial arts builds confidence.  Not knowing how martial arts builds confidence and thinking confidence will just show up someday is a risky gamble and not very likely to pay off. This is proven by the hordes of gangly, black-belt-in-3-years paper tigers churned out by schools who lured them in with promises of confidence but spits them back out with a certificate and zero real world courage.  It's truly sad to see these kids come into the bar where I bounce at, they are bursting with pride at being a black belt but when they get rowdy a slap in the mouth and a good stare has actually brought a couple of them to tears.

So what is confidence and how does training increase it?  I say increase it because confidence and poise are internal characteristics and external training can only help bring it out, it can't create confidence from thin air.  That is the first thing to remember about it in my opinion.  You must understand that YOU create the confidence in yourself, it can't be given or bought no matter how hard you wish for it.

So with this understanding, let's explore how training can help build confidence.

The reason all of us started training was to become more physically capable and more in control of our own bodies, regardless of whether or not you want to use that for fighting, and that right there is really where the confidence is nurtured.  Confidence is the belief in your capabilities or the self assurance that comes from understanding your own abilities.  So we see that it's not the punches or kicks that build the confidence but the student being able to apply those strikes or kicks that can be the spark for building confidence.

So how do we help the people around us build confidence through training?

Easy!  After students get the choreography/technique right, they should be pushed into application as much as possible.  We don't have to try and turn everyone who walks through the door into killers but helping the students to understand just how amazing they can be through applying the art to whatever their goals are will undoubtedly build the confidence of every student.

For example, say an elderly woman wants to learn Taiji for health.  She can build confidence in herself and her art by training and being shown how much her balance and stability improves.  She will feel some of her aches and pains vanish through training and be certain that she is moving towards her goals.  That right there is her confidence building.

Another perfect example is one of my students, Portia.  She and her husband have been training for a little over a year and when they started, I gave them a taste of old school training.  They spent 6 months just working on circle walking and the Single Palm change from Gao Bagua.  Both of them train very hard and are really dedicated but about 2 months ago, Portia started sharing her frustration that she didn't feel she was any more capable to defend herself than when she started.  This led to me walking her through what she had been doing for the past year and how she had unknowingly learned to generate way more power than she understood. She wound up actually knocking me to the mat a couple times that day (she is less than half my size).  The sudden realization that her training hadn't just been empty dancing in circles has sparked a huge turn for her.  She is much more confident in herself and what she is working on and she is more dedicated to training that before.  Hopefully she realizes that the more she trains, the more competent she will become and as long as she is aware of that, her confidence will always grow.

This leads to the question, 'Is it the punches and kicks that build confidence or is it a different, internal change that comes because the person feels better about themselves?'

I wanted to get another opinion on this from a friend so I reached out to Sifu Erik Oliva for his thoughts-

"A common idea in learning anything, especially a martial art, is one of failure. How many times has
a new student of a martial art thought about quitting? How many times have you thought about giving up when the going gets tough?

Historically in America, martial arts paved the way for the quiet introvert to develop a platform of emotional stability. We have heard the term “confidence building” used endlessly in the martial arts and are led to the idea that practicing a way of fighting will somehow refine one’s mind for the better. So, what is it in a martial art that actually builds character?

Let us look at the phrase “Planning to fail.” In the martial arts school, one prepares themselves on a journey of re-education. In learning routines and self defense applications, overcoming the inner voices of failure are ever present, and a scary one. In that, confidence is developed by persevering through difficulty in re-learning motor and coordination skills. Be it for health or self defense, a feeling of accomplishment overcomes a practitioner when they have performed according to the instructions given.

It is through this hard work, and the perseverance of overcoming emotions like aggression, overwhelming feelings of loss of control, fear and confusion which lead one to realize a state of confidence. The various practices within the martial arts through physical conditioning, form memorization and sparring offer a platform in which a practitioner can develop their mental and emotional integrity."

Peace and Blessing,
Erik Oliva / 林爱伟

That is very well said and I really appreciate Sifu Oliva for his help with this.  Let me wrap this up with this thought to take away.  If someone doesn't understand HOW their training works, can they ever truly develop to their highest potential?  I say no and I think the students graduating from McDojo's bear witness to that, in more than one way.  I would suggest that every teacher takes the time to reflect on their classes and see if they are truly explaining these topics to their students and helping them achieve their goals.

Jesse Conley is the owner and head instructor at Stone Tiger Martial Arts
in Vancouver, WA.
He teaches Gao Bagua, Xingyi, Taiji and Ma Tongbei
For more information, please feel free to email
or check out our Facebook page!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

If you aren't obsessed, you don't have Gong Fu!

Are you obsessed with your art?  To paraphrase Arnold, do you 'Sleep faster' so you can get up earlier and get back to your art?  What do you give up in your everyday life to reach a higher level of skill?  What are you willing to suffer through to learn more?

I get it, those sound like overly dramatic questions but when you get down to it, those are some real ways that people have changed their lives in order to reach skill levels that most won't achieve.  For this article, I would love to share some stories of how martial artists that many of you know live their lives in order to focus on Gong Fu.

Let's start with my good friend and Xinyidao/Ma Tongbei teacher, Sifu Sudan Jeffers.  He is a truly great friend and I thought of him first because he shapes his life around his training.  It's truly amazing to watch him go about his day, every little thing is centered around Gong Fu.  When he comes into town, he always stays with my family and I and every time, it's a shock to my system and makes me realize that as much as I train now, I can always do more.  From the time we get up until I go to sleep, he is practicing and teaching.  His messages and emails are 90% from Gong Fu students and family and  when we are going to sleep, he is just starting his evening practice.  He calls it "Cracking the Scrolls" and I've learned a ton from seeing him do it.  He will sit up late at night, watching video he took of his teachers and uncles in China and writing letters to martial family all over the world, just looking for any nuance or detail he can glean.  They are all videos he took or was the practice partner for, don't ever get the idea he is just learning off video, he actually watches videos that he took before over and over again to remind himself of his teachers words and how he moves.  It's truly incredible.

Another friend, Byron Jacobs is very well known but many might not know what he has gone
through to gain Gong Fu.  He lived at a school when he was younger, bathed out of buckets so he wouldn't have to leave.  When he found his teacher, he uprooted from South Africa to China to study with him, now living there full time just to be closer to the source of his art.  He is so focused on traditional Gong Fu that he is helping to reshape the Wushu scene in China to bring it back to it's traditional roots instead of the fancy dance that it's become.  That is truly obsession and it begs the question, would you do that for your art or teacher?

I'd like to invite a couple other teachers to tell a short part of their story to help illustrate this point.

Here is Sifu Neil Ripski on his experience-
  I have always thought that you could be rich in money or rich in time. It seemed to me that every moment I needed to spend making money at some job only brought me the bare minimum to live, made me miserable and constantly annoyed me that I had too little time to train. I tried to train at work but when I was manufacturing brackets for automotive running boards I kept getting weird looks and “talked to” about my odd behavior. How I moved around the shop, why I would keep bending things to shape with my hands instead of with the tools and so on. When the shop closed it was a blessing in disguise for me.
Monomaniacal behavior seems to be the path on which many people in the martial arts make their most progress. I used to skip classes at school to go out and train forms and such. Over the past twenty years of my training I have been working very hard to make my livelihood integrate with my training and although I have had to make serious compromises in my life about money and what most would consider being “successful” I have never been happier than being able to spend more time on research and practice than on chasing cash.

It started with learning how to integrate training into everyday life, how I would open doors, stand when brushing my teeth and so on but it became all-encompassing over time as I realized that I could train subtle skills throughout my day. Making people on the street pass on my right or left helps with body positioning and controlling anothers unconscious movement. The ten years I spent in the mountains of British Columbia allowed me to help farm, chop wood and carry water to the animals. Living close to the land like the “masters of old” let me see more of what hardship is.  Stopping working for other people has let me spend even more time on my training. Backpacking through Asia for months, crossing hands with people, training and observing with everyone I could and spending time in temples in meditation is what I always dreamed of as a kid. It has been worth it and the trip is certainly not over.

Martial arts are a metaphor for life and looking directly at reality and who we really are and how we fit into it. Becoming obsessed with martial arts is like becoming obsessed with trying to understand reality. It requires constant unending effort in order to work unraveling the most difficult of questions. Testing is the magic of martial arts practice. You cannot simply say you “are fully in the present moment” without being tested on it! There is very little lying one can do when the answer is simply you get hit or you don’t. Fear is the future, looking forward and dreading what is to come it is not real. A punch is only real when it is actually coming at you; to be anticipatory is to not be in the present moment and usually ends badly. Without constant obsessive work on the arts themselves they will never reveal anything but kicking and punching, the smallest benefits training can give you.

I was very lucky to also have another teacher, Sifu Adam Mizner tell me about his life as well.  Here are his words.

In the early years, rather than work to make a living and thus have little time to train my art, I practiced homelessness, training all day and sleeping in parks surviving off just a few pieces of fruit a day or the meal a friend would give me, I did this as a choice so as to allow me to spend all morning in meditation and practicing qigong and all afternoon and evening practicing kung fu. Later I did a similar thing living just under a mosquito net in the mountain forests of Thailand, bathing in waterfall and practicing all day and late into the night. I knew a local girl who would drop off some food for me each morning on a certain rock and I would go about my practice in solitude. Though I live and practice at a more leisurely pace these days, those years molded me and built foundational skills that serve me today.

Both of the Sifu's who were gracious enough to share their stories with me have an extreme level of focus and dedication to learning their art and it's truly rare to find people who train like this anymore. It's also one of the big reasons each of them has built such a large and devoted following, in my honest opinion.

Does this sound like the path you want to follow but are you confused as to how to start building your life around training so you don't burn out and instead become truly obsessed with your art? Let me share some of the things that did a lot to help me reach this level of obsession.

These things may sound silly, but they are recommended by many different business and life coaches and has helped millions of people around the world. First, start by writing down exactly what your goals for the martial arts are. It doesn't matter how over the top or far flung they are, just start writing. Do this in the morning as well as evening before you go to bed. You will find your goals change over time and what you really hope to accomplish will come to the surface. This is an everyday thing but it's vital, trust me when I tell you that this will focus you like few other things will and you will find your attention goes more towards your practice and reaching your goals than you did before.

The second thing I would suggest is filling up your day through scheduling. Oftentimes people don't realize how much time throughout the day is wasted with trivial things or things that aren't vital to their goals. Say you ride the bus to work and back everyday. What are you doing when you are waiting for the bus or while it's in transit? Are you studying your style manuals or class notes? Are you re-writing your notes in different ways? This is powerful because it makes you become creative with your understanding which in turns leads to new ideas for training. What do you listen to while you are cooking or showering/bathing? Are you listening to motivational talks or lectures about anatomy or training? When you are obsessed, you will be. When you schedule out your entire day, from waking up to going to sleep, you will see a hundred different opportunities to add more time to your training or researching. Over the course of the first few months, these two ideas together will bring about MASSIVE changes in your daily routines.

There are many different ways to shift your focus and create obsession but I would like to turn this over to a business coach and friend who has given me a ton of advice when I was re-structuring my daily life to focus on Gong Fu more. If that sounds strange to you, that you might need advice on how to train more, you are in for a shock. You have to build your routine and become acclimated to it otherwise you won't ever stick with it. Here is a great video he did on becoming obsessed.

Here is a follow up video whee he actually brings up a question I asked him (I'm the guy in the Northeast/Northwest). I asked him how to focus even harder on one thing without losing the ability to function with my other business or family.

The world needs more people who are obsessed with their chosen path in life. I think you can be one of them if you set your mind to it.

Jesse Conley teaches Gao Bagua, Xingyi, Taiji and Ma Tongbei in Vancouver, WA

at Stone Tiger Martial Arts

for any questions, please feel free to email him at

or check out the Facebook page here

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Having lineage doesn't mean you can fight!

Holy cow!  I had a lot of awesome feedback on that article on lineage but my teachers and friends that I consulted all gave me the same prediction......  "You are going to have a lot of people misunderstand the article and try and argue about how lineage doesn't mean you can fight".  And they were all exactly right.  It didn't matter that Byron specifically addressed it in his comment, people still had to build a strawman just to have something to argue about.

So let's say it again here, just in case anyone missed it.  Lineage is very important but it doesn't mean you can fight at all.  Sun Lu Tang may have created an amazing martial art style but his daughter isn't know for beating people up, does that make sense?

Let me sum up the last blog in a different fashion, maybe this will resonate with people better, Lineage is proof of an unbroken line of teachers.  These teacher each bring their own ideas and influences and that is how styles evolve and break off into different branches over time.  To claim a lineage is to claim to have direct, un-hindered access to the sum knowledge of a select group of people.  That's it, nothing more.  For example, I claim the lineage of Gao Baguazhang that comes through Bi Tianzuo and his student Yang Yusen.  That means my understanding of Gao Bagua is what was handed down from Gao Yisheng and Han Muxia to Wu Mengxia and Bi Motang.  They taught Bi Tianzuo and he in turn taught Yang Yusen.  To me, being part of this chain of amazing martial artists is a massive honor and I truly cherish being part of this group but in no way do I make the claim that I can fight as well as they do.  It simply means I have been handed the tools that these great men have proven in real life are effective.

Lineage CAN however be influential in the skill that students have at fighting, though.  Don't misunderstand and think they aren't connected at all.  In some ways, lineage greatly increases the chances that a student will be a skilled fighter but in no way is a guarantee.

The way this works is that teachers who receive excellent combat training from their teachers (lineage) are more able to pass on what works and what doesn't to their students, whereas the teachers with no lineage first have to log massive hours of sparring and actual fighting to find out what works and doesn't work from their art.  If a teacher creates an art but can't prove they have pressure tested it should be a red flag for most potential students.

That may be too ethereal for some so let's break it down a different way.  Having lineage means you have access to more tools than someone who just learns off video or creates their own style.  For example, many people know the Gao Bagua palm changes but it's VERY rare that someone knows all the Hou Tian or the Animals.  These are techniques/tools that lineage Gao people have access to that give them more options during a confrontation.  If they train hard and are able to use them on the fly is another matter entirely but they do start with a distinct advantage.  The tool analogy is good, I was having a conversation with Sifu Jason VanWinkle from Wei Yong Martial Arts about this post and he made the analogy of working on cars.

Most people start with basic tools like hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, etc.  (Hands, feet, head, elbows, etc).  People without lineage or who are creating their own art have to teach themselves to be proficient with the basic tools, what is used for which task, proper usage of the tools or what will damage the tools.  People with lineage have a leg up here as they already have a teacher who can give them the quick run-down on these ideas.  Lets use a martial example here.  Say a non lineage person is learning how to punch from watching others.  He has to figure out how to throw the punch from his core, where his elbows should be, the right way to hold his hand and how to line up his wrist.  We have seen LOTS of examples where teachers who don't have a lineage are demonstrating and they are doing some wacky things.  This is a result of the teacher having an idea but not testing it first to see if it's true.  (Side note, this applies to that Taiji vs. MMA fight that just happened.  The teacher had an idea and didn't test it to see if it was true and got beat up for it.).   People with lineage should have a teacher that teaches them the proper mechanics from the beginning so they are already ahead of the curve in this respect.

While the non lineage person is still struggling to figure out the basics on their own, the lineage person SHOULD be moving past that point.  They should be learning more intermediate or advanced concepts, things that will take many years for the person who is making up their own art to even start to comprehend.  This is akin to the lineage student having access to more advanced tools like electric drills and table saws where as the non lineage guy is trying to figure out if a screwdriver would work attached to the head of a hammer.  That may sound absurd but we all know there are a few teachers out there trying to pass off a screw-hammer as a viable tool.  LOL

Teachers with no lineage don't have the luxury of having the tools handed to them with instruction, they have to personally use each move/tool hundreds of times after they create it in real life to honestly say that they KNOW it works.  Each concept and idea has to be rigorously tested in real fights to know if it is functional.  And let's be honest here, 99.99% of the time teachers who create their own arts aren't using their arts with any regularity so how can they promise their students that the art works well enough to ensure their safety?

I think this presents a fairly solid argument that having lineage does give you a leg up and should by all means indicate you have a better ability to fight.  Whether someone follows through with that or not is another issue and truly not related to lineage, it's more related to if they have the heart for it or just want to rest on their laurels.

I invited Shifu Matthew Staley, a martial cousin in Gao Bagua, to add his thoughts to this.

As Conley Shifu said, lineage gives you access to better, more refined tools.  This is a double edged sword though. I originally started my martial career in Pai Lum,  a system with a very obscure lineage once you get past the Grandmaster Daniel K Pai, but in its prime produced a lot of rough neck fighters.  In my early 20's I transitioned to my internal master and gained a lot of depth with a classical lineage.  That being said, because of the time frame I spent under my internal master we didn't spend a lot of time on application or fighting.  This was because I had a very good rough background in Pai Lum so I was comfortable bridging and throwing hands.  
Both my internal and external masters were good at fighting and I received a lot of insight from them both, but we still threw hands frequently although less so in my internal training.  The risk with lineage is you assume that because you belong to this tradition you have gained the abilities of your ancestors,  which is blatantly untrue.  Those known for fighting prowess were thugs and roughnecks to some degree, they were unafraid to cross arms.  Modern people capitalize on that and believe because they are from a lineage of fighters that they too are a fighter.  You get out of the training what you put in, if you don't ever play drills with someone actively trying to hit you,  with no sense of reality or active engagement it doesn't matter how great your lineage is. If your lineage is good those drills can get more and more refined assuming your teacher kept the effort up.  
Case in point I had a senior student that talked about how superior internal was over every other art, but refused to train application or fighting because he was afraid to be hurt.  He still assumed he'd be amazing because he trained the internal arts.  He had access to a good lineage but never put the effort in.  Meanwhile some of my younger siblings in Pai could have murdered him with because they focused on fighting a lot and were not afraid to mix it up.  In the end lineage can and will make you better especially if you view it as something you have to uphold and live up to.  If you just want to ride it's coattails into history you are no better than any other hack or charlatan teaching no touch knockouts.

I think it's perfectly clear now how people with real lineage view the concept of lineage.  No real person who has a lineage is claiming to be the worlds deadliest fighter or that their art is superior to any others.  In fact, lineage holders are extremely cautious with their claims to greatness because if they are lying, their family bears the brunt of the shame. 
I would like to leave you with one final thought that I have seen is very true over the years and if you pay attention, will more than likely become apparent to you as well.  The people who make the case that people with lineage are automatically claiming to be fighters are more often than not people without lineage.  Often it's a strawman argument, created by people who don't have any martial family as a way of lashing out against others when they find themselves backed into a corner and frequently from the same people who complain about how lineage people are mean when they criticize fake teachers for making up their arts.  I believe if you consider it, you will see the connections clearly. 

Jesse Conley is an instructor who owns Stone Tiger Martial Arts
in Vancouver, WA.  He teaches traditional Chinese Kung fu, focusing on 
Gao Bagua, Xingyi and Taiji, with Ma Tongbei also offered.
For more information, please check out our website
or email him at

Thursday, May 25, 2017

What's your 'Why'?

"If you don't find your Why, you won't ever find your How"
-Grant Cardone

Why do you train?  What is it that compels you to spend 10-15 hours a week, at least, waving your hands around, getting all sweaty and performing the same move 10,000 times?  I mean, that's a lot of damn work, so do you have a real reason WHY you do it?  

Instead of just asking a ton of empty questions and expecting you to answer, let me share my story and how my 'Why' has changed over time.  If any of it mirrors your experiences, great!  If not, maybe it will help you figure out your own, personal 'Why'.

I started martial arts in 1999 after I got back from the Junior Wrestling Nationals.  I trained under some good and some bad teachers until 2007 when I got hurt at work. When I say I got hurt, I mean I REALLY got hurt.  I took a fall off a roof and went through some glass patio furniture before going splat on the patio.  Long story short, I mangled my body with that one and it took literally years to rehab from all of it.  At the end of it, I hadn't started training again but was at the lowest point of my life.  I lost my marriage, my kids and wound up couch surfing because my spirit as well as my body was broken.  A total and complete mess.  The reason why I trained at the time I got hurt wasn't enough to carry me through an injury, a sure sign that I was focused on the wrong things.

I was in constant pain but for some reason, I never thought to push past the pain and start training again until 2009.  I had told people for years about the health benefits of the arts but since I was lacking my reason for pushing myself, my Why, I didn't have the guts to start all over again.

One day, I was feeling particularly miserable and was trying to stretch on the floor when I started to remember my old training and how good I felt afterwards.  I hopped up and started to just move through full ranges of motion with some Qigong and while it wasn't comfortable at first, afterwards I felt totally loose and slept like a baby.  I had found my Why for the time, to stay out of pain.

This works great until you realize that a limited reason like pain relief doesn't give much reason to advance or learn new material, you just repeat what made you feel good over and over.

Over time, I started to miss the strength I had in the past, so I started pushing myself even more.  This was about the time I found Gao Bagua and it was a perfect vehicle to build my strength back up.  Gao practice, combined with my desire to get stronger, started to change my why of pain relief to a why for strength and control of my life.  

Now that why is very powerful.  It has an open ended goal of growing in strength, meaning there is no real end in sight.  Once you become stronger, you will ALWAYS want to increase that strength even more.  It was a perfect way to push past the doldrums of sedentary life and was a thrill to watch my power come back more and more each week.

Let's take a step back here and look at how the reasons changed and this changed how I approached training.  First I just started by wanting to be comfortable, so my training was basically stretching and breathing.  Like I mentioned earlier though, just wanting to be comfortable is a quick way to become lazy and not progress in training, the goal is attainable even after a few practices.  When my why morphed into becoming stronger, it started to get me back on the old path where I was constantly pushing myself to improve, the feeling of becoming stronger is incredibly addictive and a great motivator to get up every day and train.  

You will notice that I haven't listed self defense as a reason why, unlike a lot of people that come into martial arts.  I didn't think about it much at the time but I am very glad I didn't use that reasoning.  Running to a school to learn how to fight an enemy that may or may not show up someday is purely motivated by fear and I have rarely seen people who start with that motivation last, unless their reason why changes.  The self defense reasoning is rooted in fear and unless the student grows, that fear either starts to turn into paranoia (there are a few martial arts out there that train to this level, where it starts to affect normal interactions, ie Silat) or the students becomes comfortable with their body, the fear fading over time and the student looses their reason to show up to class.

Back to my story now.  Years passed and I became deeply in love with Gao Bagua.  When I say deeply in love, I honestly mean obsessed.  It's actually a joke for a few of my students, they give me a hard time when I haven't watched a movie in months or have no idea what is going on in the world (I look at them and think they are just as strange for caring about something other than Gong Fu, BTW). Here is an example to illustrate how single minded I have become.  Last night at class, a married couple that trains with me were sharing a story about how she was working on solid sticking connection while they were sitting at a stoplight.  I gave her a high five for taking every spare minute to train and they both exploded with laughter.  Apparently, when he was protesting about her fighting in the car, her response was "Jesse would give me a high five for extra training".  Apparently I have become so focused that people can now predict my responses to their stories.

My why started changing again as my passion for my art grew.  I still want to get stronger but I started to realize that the path there meant I had to really dive into the mechanics of Bagua and develop traits I hadn't focused on before.  Interestingly, at this time, I started to back away from a lot of online martial arts forums on the advice of good friends and teachers because I couldn't see why I was typing online instead of walking in circles. This is a result of my why becoming more focused and I'm started to weed out non essential things that weren't helping me train.

I also felt for a time that my why was learning all the material that my teacher has to share.  This is a good goal but can't be singular.  It's very easy to get lazy and just try to memorize a bunch of techniques just so you can say you 'Completed' the art.  If your motivation is to just gain information and not embody it, it's very easy to go down the road of a form collector or style collector.  Just bear that in mind.

Fast forward to now.  I've gained a place in my Gao family with a lineage name and my teacher told my training brother and I that he considered us his tudi when we went to China this winter.  I have been able to use the dedication and body skills I learned in Gao to re-open my studies of Xingyi  as well.  I use my arts every weekend as a bouncer at a roadhouse and I have really amazing students that I can share what I learn with.  But still, none of these are the reason I still train.  If you think about it, none of them are forever reasons to devote my life to something.  Each one of those reasons can or will fail someday so I can't base my life around them. 

So what's my why?   It's hard to put into words now.  I've been all over the spectrum, from liking the aggression of the arts to healing myself and becoming stronger.  My why was learning the whole art, it was becoming a tudi and even owning a school again.  But once I got to those points, I realized that they weren't enough of a reason to give the rest of my life to an art that most of the world will never know about.  

My why has changed so much over the years that sometimes, when I'm sitting outside at the end of the day thinking about life, I can't verbalize my why anymore.  I've just started to realize that it's who I am now and that is the most powerful 'Why' anyone can ever find and it's a sure sign that when I'm training or teaching, I'm being my most authentic self and no small coincidence, I am also at my happiest.  Many people may say that is their Why but they won't admit to having their reasoning change over time.  Every teacher has met a ton of people who claim that although they have never trained before, they just KNOW they are going to be black belts in the future.  I have never met a person who started like this and actually stuck to it, without changing their why.   In other words, unless you have explored every other reason why you train, you can't be sure that it's truly who you are.

Don't take this article as my boasting, I don't mean it that way.  This topic is rarely brought up in martial arts and truly explored so I needed to write about it but felt hypocritical for just castigating others so I chose to share part of my story to put some of my own skin in the game.

What is your 'Why'?  What has it been in the past?  Have you spent time thinking about why you do this?  I can promise you that if you don't figure out what your deep motivation is, your journey in martial arts will end faster than you realize.  

Here is a great video talking about finding your own why.  Simon wrote a book about it and I highly recommend it to others.  I would love for anyone who enjoyed this article to share their 'Why' as well.  The next article will be a follow up of this and the previous article and be focused on how to create obsession with your art to push you to the highest levels of skill.  

Jesse Conley is the owner of Stone Tiger Martial Arts in Vancouver, WA
For more information, questions or to visit the school and take a class, please email

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This is a blog devoted to the Chinese Internal martial arts. Our school is located in Vancouver, WA and currently accepting students for group classes, and limited private sessions.