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

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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.