Sunday, April 22, 2012

If you want peace, prepare for war


If you want peace, prepare for war- Si vis pacem, para bellum

This may seem a bit dramatic since we are only talking about martial arts, not international relations, but the core principle relates directly to our practice and the direction of our training.   If we are visibly weak, others will prey on us.  If we show that we are serious opponents and not easy marks, predators will keep away and look for an easier path.  I feel that peace in life can be easily achieved by the sheer physical presence of a true martial artist.  People are less likely to start problems or harass a fighter because the signs are usually very clear of their skill and abilities.  Some of these are seen in external signals like the confident walk,  strength in the eyes, calmness in most situations, a willpower of steel when dealing with various situations.  These are often mental attributes showing, but we can accelerate and make them stronger through proper physical preparation for combat.  Many people practice martial arts and don't show these signs, and I feel that increased physical training will bring them out, due to the fact that increasing health and wellness allows our true selves to show externally.  And for this article we are starting from the general agreement that martial arts are purely about fighting, and the excellent mental and spiritual benefits are a side effect, albeit a very valuable one.

I will address my personal thoughts and ideas about combat training here, how to structure a solid program for practice and how to measure the gains and refine the skills and abilities developed here.
The most important things a fighter needs are stamina, speed and power.  Only when you have all 3 can you properly refine your technique.  Many people would disagree with this, but not world champion fighters like Miguel Arrozal, my former roommate and boxing coach.  Being fast, strong and have the ability to outlast your opponent give you so many more options when it comes to fighting, rather that hoping that you might have a bit of information or knowledge that the other guy doesn't and praying that it works this time.  And those 3 areas of development also allow a higher level of refinement and perfection for any technique in any martial art.

So the first and most important aspect is stamina.  My coaches in wrestling trained us with the motto "You might lose to a more skilled wrestler, but you will NEVER lose because you run out of gas"  Physical stamina can be built in many ways, but the most effective are running and walking.  Personally I have trouble running, I shattered my left leg and broke my back several years ago, so running is often painful.  I do continue to run, but not as much as I did before, and I compensate by walking at least 10 miles a day.  This might seem crazy, but I walk to work and back, to practice and teaching as well.  I own a vehicle, but walking is so much more productive and healthy, plus I don't have to worry about the rising cost of gas anymore!  Running for 30 mins a day is a solid goal for a martial artist, in addition to their training, but I mean running, not jogging or fast walking.  Running will improve your heart, clear your mind and has a host of other benefits as well.  I recommend running before practice, to pre-exhaust the legs and help deplete the nervous energy we all have so our  practice can have greater focus.  Your gains in running can be shown in covering the same distance in a shorter amount of time or in being able to cover a longer distance at the same pace.  Both are valuable and should be experimented with by the fighter.
Speed is a combination of physical quickness and efficient movements.  If you use simple, straight movements in your applications, they will naturally be quicker than large, fancy attacks.  In my school we emphasize the 8 directional stepping to teach quick foot movement and dodging to the feet.  The body becomes quicker with muscle development, not training for size or power but through many repetitions of simple movements.  The more simple an action is, the faster it becomes.  The hands can be trained to become faster through shadow boxing or light weight training during martial arts practice.  This is a one great way to build speed- attach light weights to your wrists and ankles, many sporting goods stores have wrap around weights just for this purpose.    Speed can also be increased through developing sharper focus and relaxation, often the side effects of meditation or mental development.  All of these methods can be implemented into any martial arts program simply and easily and they yield excellent benefits when trained for any period of time.  We can see our speed increase through training when our applications become so simple and automatic that we don't have to think to apply them.  That is the most important speed attribute.  Often when a student commits to imporving his speed, he startles himself with how much faster he is moving and that is a great thing!  You know your body better than anyone and if you develop such an amount of speed that even you are surprised, you are on the right track!

Power is one of the easiest attributes to understand, but many people misunderstand how power is developed in martial arts and how to apply it in fighting.  A powerful fighter often looks nothing like Mr. Olympia and lacks the giant muscles of many actors in Hollywood.  Instead they are solidly developed and their body moves as one unit.  Traditional weight training is an excellent addition to training, but should not be the primary focus as many weightlifting movements are focused on single muscle groups and that works contrary to the goals of a martial artist.  Kettlebells are an amazing addition to training as they are multi-muscle in nature and also help to strengthen the joints and stabilizing muscle groups around them.  But most good martial arts schools have a wide array of bodyweight only movements that develop functional strength.  Some of these are using iso-tension in forms, twisting the body and stretching it to force tendon and muscle rebuilding in the body, and heavy weapon training.  And many schools add exercises like squats, push-ups, and pull-ups to assist in power training.  All of these are fantastic additions and add a lot of power to movements.  Our power development is measured through striking and kicking objects and applications.  As our power develops, we use less motion and achieve a greater result in our applications,  We have to use more caution when free sparring and what was a light strike before now knocks your partner down or hits much deeper than before.

Now many of the more experienced martial artists that read this might be thinking "No shit Sherlock, you aren't saying anything new".  That is true, but I am emphasizing things that you might not be doing now and things that could help your training if you only put a little more focus on.  And many new students of our arts might not know this and can benefit greatly from introducing some of these methods into their practice.  Remember,  there have been many skilled teachers and traditional fighters who have been beaten severely solely because the challenger was stronger, faster and could out-last the more experienced pracitioner.  This proves that as long as we want to be serious martial artists, we should always push ourselves to develop these aspects of our bodies to enhance the knowledge and skills we already have.  I have also been vague on purpose with these exercises since I am not a doctor and don't want to push a student to do something they are not capable of doing without injuring themselves.  I encourage everyone to research these ideas for themselves and develop their own personal programs for combat preparation.

If a solid program is developed and implemented for developing the things mentioned here, I think that we all can reap the personal benefits that come from combat preparedness.  I know there is a deeper sense of calm and I am able to be more confident and have greater self esteem in aggresive situations, which is often the deciding factor in how it turns out. I hope everyone can take something from this and use it to benefit their lives.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

TCMA is dead...............


TCMA is dead, long live the new generation!

We need to address a serious concern in the Chinese Martial Arts that many people are avoiding like the plague, because they are scared of the answer.  What has happened to the skill level of our generation?  Why did the masters from before have greater abilities and skills than we have now?  Many people train just as hard as those who came before, and they research and seek to understand everything about their art using modern science and physiological understanding.  The amount of information and knowledge about the human body and how to best train it has never been greater in history.  But even the hardest training of our time can't match the quality and skill of the masters from before, right?  This leaves only 2 possible answers...........Either the teachers that came before could not transmit their knowledge and they had a poor teaching ability, or the greatest masters were only human like us and didn't have the skills they were reputed to have.  Those are the ONLY 2 explainations available as to why the older generation is supposedly better.
Now for an deeper look at the answers and lets use Occam's Razor to make a selection as to which answer is more likely.

Option A- That the masters before were poor teachers.  This is the least likely explaination of the two, mostly because many times the greatest masters had many famous and skilled students.  Take Dong Hai Chuan for example.  He became very famous for his skills and his students also shared in that fame.  One of them even protected the Empress Dowager when she escaped Beijing.  So we can assume that they had great fighting skills, enough to be promoted into that position.  But what has happened today?  Why can't most bagua fighters move like Dong Hai Chuan was reportedly able to?  I have had the good luck to meet several excellent Bagua masters, and their years of effort have yeilded nothing compared to what Dong was supposedly able to achieve immediately after appearing.  He never gave an account of his training, or how long he trained for, but we should assume that he happened on a great way to train physical strength and movement and used those new abilities to power his martial arts training from before.  And he passed this training knowledge on to his students and they in turn passed it to their students and so on, even until today.

-Or-

Option B-  The Masters from before were the same as us, with 2 arms and 2 legs and fought just as hard to protect their families as any person in modern times would.  They trained very hard and reaped the rewards of that training and gained fame and fortune for their hard work.  We have to assume that people are all the same, even across time, so thinking that, we have to assume that there were MANY lazy martial artists then as well as now, and used tricks and intimidation to gain students.  And when they were forced to fight a great master like Dong Hai Chuan, they were thoughly beaten and the match was recorded as a legendary victory for the winner.  The stories and legends grew over time due to the human tendency to embelish stories if it makes them or their school look better. Another human foible is ancestor worship, and that can account for a lot of the reputation that the old masters have.  When people tell amazing stories about their teachers and grandmasters, they feel more special and important because they are attached to those great practitioners.  It allows them a shred of credibility as martial artists even when they haven't put in the time to earn the respect for themselves.  This was not only the students fault, many teachers used this tendency to increase their school size and maintain a solid hold on their students.  In essence it was a control mechanism mostly forced on students by insecure teachers and their lackey disciples.

Lets face it............the old generation is dead and gone except for a few notable and skilled masters.  Now we as their martial descendants must chart a new course for our arts in the modern world, we have to create a place for our arts that will continue after we are gone.  The masters before us left precious little of their knowledge written down, so much of it is passed down orally, and that method is notoriously unreliable.  If one idea, or one phrase is remembered incorrectly, then the whole meaning of a poem or song can be changed.  So we must save all the knowledge that has survived, but at the same time we must use modern science and logic to gain a deeper understanding of the skills that the founders of our arts discovered through trail and error.  They were correct in what can be gained through correct practice, but in many cases they were totally wrong when it came to WHERE the development came from.  We can't prove that many of their theories are correct, but we can show the physical progress, measure it and understand how to continue improving.  And most importantly, our biggest challenge as the new face of our arts, is to realize that we CAN match the skill level of our teachers!  We have the same physical abilities they had and we have the same drive to practice and learn that they did.  We use our arts to fight and protect our families the same as them as well.  If you believe that your art is complete and has been handed down in its entirety to you, then you HAVE to accept that you can attain that level of skill.  In fact a truly great teacher will hope and strive to make sure that their students surpass them in skill level.  If the students never match the teacher, then the art dies a little with each passing generation.  But if the teachers push their students to excell and the students pass the teacher, then the art will flourish and thrive for all time.  But even though we can match our ancestor's skill level, we still need to show appropriate respect and reverance for the sacrifice and care that was taken to ensure the art survived.

My whole point of this article is.........Have faith in yourself and your abilities, train hard, and you can become a master to rival any in your lineage.  So get to it!

Friday, April 6, 2012

The first steps down the Xingyi path


The First Steps on the Xingyi Path.

I have talked a lot about how Xingyi should be trained and now I think I should explain how I teach the first levels of Xingyi.  I feel that this method sets the student on a solid path to understanding the Internal Arts and being able to fully express all the different methods and techniques available in Xingyi.  This level is not centered around what is considered the traditional Xingyi first level of the Elements and Linking form, but instead we work on developing a "Kung Fu Body" and teaching the student the most basic techniques.  Also trained are basic applications and the idea of efficient movement is stressed.  This throughly prepares the student to begin practicing the 5 Elements and Linking Set and gives them enough knowledge to speak with any practioner and have a basic understanding in a conversation.
FIrst we start all our workouts with a stretching and warm-up routine called Si Ba.  It is 4 sets of movements that release tension and prepare the student for moving.  This is one of the MOST important parts of training, as I feel that many of the common aches and pains that people have could be dealt with by a good stretch when first getting up in the morning.  The Si Ba set stretches the whole body and also helps to understand opening and closing of the body.  It is a moving stretching set, the movements could be compared to Qi Gong,  After the muscles are warm and loose, then we stretch and open all the major joints, like the elbows, knees, ankles, etc.
After the body is loose and warm, we start out physical training from the ground up.  First comes the 7 stances most commonly used in forms and training, and we emphasize these for leg strength not combat.  In our school we understand there is a big difference between the two, but each has its place in a well rounded training program.  The 7 stances are Horse, Bow, Cat, Kneeling, Raised, Low Bow and Dragon Step, the same posture as the Dragon animal form.  These are arranged into line forms with hands involved to create a deeper stretch and build solid power.  When these have been trained and the legs are pre-exhausted, then we practice Tan Tui.  Tan Tui means springing legs and is a great way to build leg strength.   When Tan Tui    is finished, we practice our kicks.  Our style of XIngyi only focuses on 5 kicks based on practicality.  We don't say that other styles are wrong if they have more, but we only use the most basic and lower kicks.  These kicks are Front, Side, Shovel Kick (Toe turned out), Back Kick, and what is called a Mantis kick which is similar to the leg position in the Seven Star Stance from Mantis.
This process exhausts the legs, and places the focus of training first on the legs, since they are often neglected by novice students.  The second part of our sessions train the upper body starting with interceptions.  Many schools train hard, Karate style blocks which I'm sure are effective, but when the intent is to intercept and deflect the incoming attack, less energy is used and it allows for a seamless transition to attacking.  We use 5 basic Interceptions in our school.  A straight or piercing movement, Inside and Outside, Low and High of each.  This seems overly simple but they are all the new student needs to start learning applications and begin using a logical approach to self defense.  We don't believe that every attack has its own unique counter, rather that there are basic counters, and they can be applied to almost all attacks.  This reduces the amount that must be memorized and lets the student have a great variety of uses for each thing they learn.
Now the fun part!  We start our striking training here, and this is also where the student first begins to strike bags after they have learned the no contact training for each punch.  We use the Full Punch, Standing Punch, Palm, Spear Hand, Backfist and Uppercut.  These are not all the strikes we have but they are enough to provide a solid base.  This is also where we begin to learn applications against each of these punches.  We start to combine the stepping, blocks, kicking and punching together to tie everything together in a nice package for the student.  This also shows them that there is a method to the teaching, in case any get lost or discouraged, that everything is taught for a reason and it all is used as one.  I think its a good lesson, to be working on various things, then suddenly realize its all part of the same whole.  It makes the students look for connections between movements in the future.
 The last part of the physical exercise we do is forms.  I place a low priority on them at this stage, feeling that they are merely distractions and more fun that real value.  Later on they will have greater value, but for right now most students just like the fancy movements and don't know what the true purpose is for forms training.  We teach two forms here, one is Wu Bu, or 5 Stances, which combines stance work with strikes.  Next is La Ma Cho, a form from a Northern Shaolin friend of mine that works deep stances and moving between them.   I have contemplated adding more forms to this level, but it would only happen if they served a clear and simple purpose to this stage of training.
Now that the body is totally spent and relaxed from training, we begin our internal work.  We have a simple moving Qi Gong set and our Post stance training.  These are the foundation of good internal work and introduce the student to feelings of Qi and structural connectivity that they probably have never felt before.
This level lasts for about 6 months or longer until the student shows enough progress and understanding to move on.  If enough time isn't spent here, then no real strength has been built, and it would have just been an exercise in memorization.
I hope that this has shed some light on how I like to train and maybe there are other schools who do the same thing or similar.  I don't think that other ways are wrong, but in my experience this creates a strong student who is physically and mentally ready for the rigorous training to come in the second level.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Is the Devil in the Details?


Any martial artist that visits online forums or discussion groups about martial arts, especially the internal arts, has run into the Internet Master.  This person knows every detail about how the art should be practiced, and is very quick to point out how other people aren't real or traditional.  They say that if any of the details are missing, that its not pure.  Which may be the case, I'm not here to judge, but instead I would like to pose questions that might make people think.  Are the details important?  And how important are they?
For example, I was participating on a discussion on hip movement, and there were lots of great replies and comments on hip usage during striking, which is an important point to focus on and develop.  But I started to think when I re-read the posts, that maybe we are getting too involved with minute details and use the tiniest point to judge others, when instead we should understand that each person comes from a perspective that they have chosen a solid martial art and trained it hard, so we should try to understand why they focus on those points.  Often times its too easy to dismiss people based on differences that have no real bearing on fighting, and that is what the martial arts are purely about........fighting.  The health benefits are merely a happy coincedence or byproduct of this training, and should never be the focus of learning.  There are plenty of health only arts like yoga or pilates if that is what a student wishes to learn.
Another good example is when the discussion turns internal in nature, that is when the insults start to fly and judgements come quick and heavy.  Students will use ethereal ideas like Dan Tian rotation, something that can't be explained over the internet, only felt in practice, and they claim that they can see the lack of internal movement in forms.  How much more insane can it get?  The people that speak the most about internal ideas are usually the people who spend the least amount of time fighting, sparring or applying their art.  And their explaination is that they are too busy perfecting their chi power or some excuse like that.  Modern masters like Sifu Novell Bell or Sifu Tim Cartmell are often insulted online from behind the protection of a computer monitor because they stress the usage of the arts, rather than the ideas and history.  But none of these Internet Masters actually have the courage to challenge these fighters in real life, why is that?
  I know several martial artists that I like to call lineage snobs, they think that the sole measure of a fighter is who their grandmaster was, and they can provide many differnt reasons for why that is, but they can't answer a simple question...........Who was Randy Couture's Sigung?  Who taught the Navy Seal's secret breathing techniques to enhance their life energy?  These people are some of the best fighters in the world, but you will never hear them stressing tiny details, they focus on the concepts and blunt techniques because they understand that in a fight, perfection is impossible.    Discipline and hard work is worth more to them than all the little details in the world.
We need to get away from the idea that unless every ideal is followed, then its not a pure art, that is a very exclusionist way of thinking, and does nothing but drive wedges between an already fragmented community.  And really ask yourself, why do the proven fighters not speak this way?  Why do the people that constantly pressure test their arts NEVER whine and complain about internal power or the lack of internal mechanics?  Its because they are too busy applying their arts in combat to worry about the opponents lineage, or if they know all the forms in a given system.  The fact is that an average boxer or MMA fighter can easily beat most black belts in a fight, and that is because the focus of the martial artist is wrong.  They are worried about earning the next belt or learning the next style, not fighting perfection of one thing at a time.    The boxer or MMA fighter will spend their time practicing drills and hitting punching bags, not talking about how Chi flow through the body creates the ultimate fighter.  The professional fighter worries more about conditioning and stamina rather than if the Kua is sunken properly during movement.
Now I am not saying that these aren't important points, but I don't like how they are used to cut other martial artists down.  They are intended to help us train better, not be used as judging points.  And again I would like to stress the idea that the real fighters in the CMA community don't speak like this, they simply laugh and focus on their next match.  We need to spend more time discussing how to use our arts in full contact matches, not how to perfect no-touch forms that can't be applied exactly they way they are demonstrated, which accounts for most of the forms and drills in CMA.  They are exxagerated for practice, so what sense does it make to worry about details, when we all know the application done at full speed won't look like the drill done in training?  When you are dodging a knife, do you really have time to think about your Dan Tian? Or will fast footwork and quick hands be more valuable then?  I challenge the lineage snobs and the Internet Masters to go to tournaments like MUSU, held in New York and prove me wrong.  Don't just whine and complain online, if you feel like I am so wrong, then go and prove it, and I will apologize and retract this article.
I also would like to apologize up front for any times that I have shown this behavior, it's rude and low class, and not in line with the Wude that I was taught.   I am sure I have done that at some point to win an argument, and I sincerely regret if I have offended or insulted anyone due to my lack of understanding of what's really important.

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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.