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

Friday, May 19, 2017

You're a Gong Fu man, huh?

My mother recently told me about a situation that really disturbed her and made her worry about the future.

My parents went for a walk on the Kalama, WA riverfront, it's a beautiful stroll and has lots of great places to relax and enjoy the view.  It was a beautiful spring eventing and as they walked they passed a playground the city spent taxpayers money to build and only saw one family there,  ONE FAMILY!  A beautiful evening and only one family came outside to play.

Later that night, on their way home, they stopped by the new Ilani casino in La Center to see what the fuss was about (They don't gamble but wanted to see what just moved into their town).  It's a reservation casino so there was the usual fanfare and everyone in town has been bombarded with advertising about the grand opening.

What they saw truly disturbed my mother and anyone who knows her understands that it takes A LOT to bother her deeply.  She had a very rough life growing up, served in the military and worst of all, raised my brother and I for 19 years each   Anyone who knows me or my brother knows that she deserves combat pay and some medals for that, maybe even her own holiday.

What they saw was a huge building crammed full of people, all taken in by the spell that casinos strive to cast, a timeless zone filled with lights, colors and sounds all mixed with alcohol specifically designed to keep gamblers going until they are spent.  When I was younger, I worked as a casino guard and even saw players pass out at the Pai Gow table after marathon stints.  They seriously just fell from their chairs and had to get taken by ambulance to get checked out since they were incoherent after such a long time focused on gambling.

My parents saw huge lines of parents waiting for the ATM, then running straight to the tables or slots and sitting there, mesmerized.  These people were so entranced that they even brought their children to check out the new casino.  These children were sitting at restaurant tables or in strollers, plugged into whatever mobile device their parents shoved into their hands so the parents could gamble without those pesky kids getting in the way.

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.

When I got home though, that was when the creative time management was needed to squeeze in more time.  If you are cooking a meal for your family, what are you doing while water is boiling or things are in the oven?  I had to guard the stove against baby invasions so I started doing post stance in the doorway to the kitchen.  My reasoning is that I take up most of the doorway and if my 3 year old could push past me, it was a sign I needed a better root.  LOL

After dinner, we usually let the babies watch a bit of television before we read to them (I know, I started this by bashing parents for plugging their kids in, the irony isn't lost on me).  Usually not much more than 30 minutes, but guess what can be done in 30 minutes of child free time?  That's right, a bunch of reps of something!

After reading is time for more training, mostly a cool down and completely relaxing workout to just chill out and prep for bed, again, mostly Qigong and breathing or meditation.

Please understand, this wasn't always how it is, this is what my training has morphed into since I came back from China recently and spoke to a couple people about what I felt was lacking in my training.  Since then, I quit my job so I had to re-program some of my days training but I didn't think most people would relate to that, so I left in the part about my day job as something people can relate to.

Again, please don't take this as me boasting, I am sharing what works for me.  I am, however, always interested in what other people do to squeeze more training time in or how you structure your days to maximize the amount of time you are able to train each day.  Please feel free to share your methods, I'm sure many people could learn from your ideas!

If you like this line of thinking but are stuck with how to make these changes in your life, here is a good thought that might help.  I think one of the best ways to fix things if you don't like the answer you give yourself is this.  Find your 'Why'.  Find your reason for training and when you hone in on it, you will find ways to squeeze in more training when you get laser sharp on your reasons for training.  My next blog post will be about how to find that 'Why' and how to become obsessed with making martial arts part of your everyday life!

Jesse Conley is an internal arts instructor in Vancouver, WA with Stone Tiger Martial Arts.  For any questions about classes or training, please feel free to send an email to and one of us will get back to you as quickly as possible.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lineage Snobs!!!

We all know a guy like this.  He spends his day on the internet telling and re-telling stories about how his martial ancestors were the toughest fighters in the world.  We hear a bunch of stories about the ancestors and they all seem to imply or outright assert that their awesomeness gives the lineage snob the right to talk trash about other arts.   These guys are universally despised and, as a general rule, suck at martial arts.  Too much time on the keyboard and not enough training. But what if we understood that, while those guys suck, the need for lineage is real and can provide fantastic yardstick to gauge a school or martial artist?

There are going to be 2 basic responses to that statement.  The first usually comes from people who have created their own arts or know that their teachers weren't totally legit.  Their response goes something like, "All you do is talk about lineage!  Why are you judging me??  Bruce Lee said to follow your own path!!" Etc. The other response is "I told you so!!!" and is almost as obnoxious as the first.  This response usually comes from the lineage snobs I mentioned before and, remember, we all hate those guys. But both of those people are wrong and both know it deep down inside.

Lineage in martial arts has existed for a thousand years for very good reasons.  It's a solid gauge of the effectiveness of the art itself and also proof that there is a complete method for teaching and transmitting the art.  Effectiveness in usage and proof that the method can produce a strong next generation are vital, obviously  and those are two really powerful reasons to care about lineage and they are also more laid back than a lot of people realize. Let's use medical care as a simile here.  If you had a terrible disease and you had to pick a doctor for treatment, would you care where that doctor's education came from?  If your options were a Harvard graduate who has done extensive post-grad education in an effort to be on the forefront of medicine, or someone​ who took some courses at the community college and then spent some time surfing WebMD, which would you pick? More than likely, you would pick the doctor most prepared and able to save your life.  He would know the latest treatments and the best medicines to use. A doctor that provides a cure for disease is in some ways similar to a martial arts teacher who provides a way for you to protect yourself and your family - you want to choose the best, either way (well, if you have any common sense that is).

Why is the Harvard doctor the wiser choice?  It has to do with his knowledge, the work he put in to gain that knowledge, and his ability to apply that knowledge to saving your ​life.  To obtain that piece of paper on his wall, doctors who graduate from Harvard have to complete years of incredibly intense education, a program that is so tough that only 3.3% of applicants are even accepted.  Graduates go through long, sleepless nights where they work alone or with their classmates trying to understand important ideas and learn how to apply them.  They make massive sacrifices, both in time and money, and understand that they will be responsible for other lives as a result of earning their degree.  This makes the guy that took a few classes at community college and surfed WebMD look like a ridiculous choice.  His education is directed by what disease catches his eye, not a master instructor who has spent years honing his ability to communicate important ideas and practices.  Because of this lack of focused instruction he is often unable to help at all, he just doesn't have the basic tools needed to begin.  

Let's use another example from the internal martial arts to see if we can clarify even further.  Everyone who has read any sort of IMA text knows about the Kua, right?  The Kua is also called the inguinal crease, the section of the torso between the lower abdomen and the thigh.  All IMA teachers talk about the Kua but the self-taught teachers don't know that they show their lack of knowledge as they do.  Teachers without a good lineage will talk about how it's the source of power in Gong Fu but can't explain how or why it works, or even what muscles are involved in using the Kua.  Meanwhile, properly taught teachers can explain exactly how the kua works and why.  They know that the muscles that run through the Kua tie directly to the lower spine and pelvis, providing a strong path for force generated from the core to travel to the ground and back.  They can also provide a plethora of smaller exercises to develop this area and can easily explain the concept without using a slew of esoteric terms that the student doesn't understand.

I could go on and on with different examples of how lineage provides a great indicator of the quality of both the art and the teacher but, instead, I would like to provide some thoughts or ideas from other teachers.  Here is what Byron Jacobs has to share, Byron is the top tudi for Master Di Guoyong in Beijing.  

"The name of any style of martial art is in fact referring to a lineage.  That art cannot exist or be transmitted in any way without a lineage.  If someone is saying that their art is, for example, Xingyi, but has no link from the teaching line to an official lineage, and I mean officially, then it simply should not be called Xingyi.  the name is referring to a system and set of principles someone or some line has created and handed down.  It literally refers to a lineage. Xingyi is what came from Li Luoneng  and if it didn't come through him and his descendants, how can someone be sure that it is Xingyi apart from external appearances?  To assume that it is Xingyi without the link to the lineage is insulting, and deliberately misleading to people.  Of course, one needs to remember not all people in a lineage are the same level of skill, or as deep or good teachers, so lineage isn't an automatic way to get skill just like not all doctors with a degree are the same level of expertise or as good.  That takes practice, study, and I hate to say it, a degree of natural ability, both physically and mentally."  

That is a fantastic quote and should cause everyone reading it to think long and hard about where they stand or how they are presenting themselves.  

I would like to close with a quote from Voltaire that shows how people with a good lineage view this entire discussion.  "Cherish those who seek the truth, beware of those who find it."   A martial artist from a solid lineage knows where they stand.  We know our place in our families and are willing to humble ourselves in front of another human to learn and develop ourselves more.  We show respect to the ancestors because they have illuminated the path for us and have left us guidance to reach the same peaks they did.   The person who creates their own style or isn't honest about their art is claiming to have found a final truth.  They declare to the world "I don't need a teacher, I already know all there is to know.  In fact, I know so much that I can wing it from here"  Their methods and thinking are a dead end for any that follow them.  Consider that.

Jesse Conley is an Internal Martial Arts teacher in Vancouver, WA.  His school is called Stone Tiger Martial Arts and you can reach him with any questions about classes, this blog or questions in general at 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Learn Taiji to increase your striking power!

I know, I know, that sounds silly since most Tai Chi classes are aimed towards your grandmother not fighters.  Tai Chi first began as a potent martial art but 90% of Tai Chi practitioners today couldn't punch their way out of a wet paper bag.  So what is missing that originally made Tai Chi a brutal combat art?article-2098643-11A65347000005DC-873_468x347

Well, it's not relaxation because that's all the most Tai Chi people talk about these days and they don't have the skills that the older generation had and it's also not moving slow because that has become almost a competition between modern Tai Chi people of who can move the slowest and the slowest movers aren't turning into the best fighters.

So what is it and how can you bring it into your training?
The answer is the complete opposite of what people naturally think of when they think about striking harder.  It has nothing to do with adding more flex to your muscles but instead, it's about coiling the body like a spring and relying on your connective tissues like the fascia, tendons, ligaments and aponeuroses to store energy by wrapping and twisting them and allowing them to snap back with a massive amount of force.

This sounds strange to a lot of people but if we start looking into the function of these connective tissues, we see they possess very interesting qualities.  When 'aponeuroses' is looked up in Wikipedia, this is what we see under their function  "Like tendons, aponeuroses attached to pennate muscles can be stretched by the forces of muscular contraction, absorbing energy like a spring and returning it when they recoil to unloaded conditions".  The tendon systems are very similar, for a really fascinating read click here.
The article I referenced there also mentions how tendons can grow or atrophy depending on usage.  In the so-called 'Internal' martial arts, there is a massive emphasis on stretching and twisting the connective tissues (by stretching I don't mean to the extent that damage is caused but stretching in the same way yoga or other movement arts would).  Just like bones and muscles, the connective tissues can and will develop rather quickly, some estimates placing the remodeling stage at 10-12 weeks.  xing-yi-quan
The image to the right is an example of great posture for stretching and developing connective tissue and comes from a sister art to Tai Chi, a style called Xingyi.  Notice how the head is lifted, the back is straight and the shoulders down and forward.  This type of posture is excellent for stretching all the tissues of the back and developing them.
When we start to understand what is being developed and how the mechanics work, we start to get a very clear picture of exactly WHY the postures are explained the way they are.  Flattening the lower back makes perfect sense when we see that the aponeuroses in the lower back engages in the posture and transmits the force from the lower body to the upper very efficiently, similar to how a transmission works in a car, sending power from the engine to the wheels.
Wu Meng Xia
With this understanding, it's very easy to see how to start working with this concept.  You start by relaxing, twisting and stretching until your body feels like a giant rubber band stretched to it's limits then allow the soft tissues to unwind with their natural explosive snapping power.  The easiest example is to reach your right hand across to the left side, sink into the left hip and stretch and twist without losing your structure.  Then once you get the feeling of a giant rubber band stretching across your back, from left hip to right hand, release the stretch and you will whip out of that position and unwind very quickly and with power.  You will be amazed how little effort is required to create a large amount of force and the more you train this way, the faster and more explosive you will become without having to rely on large muscle groups to power your movements.
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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.