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.

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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.