Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Two To The Power of ?

I wrote this post a while back.
I thought about it the other day in a context outside of training and martial arts, but it made me want to write about it again here.

Bagua Zhang has a very simple view of movement -
What you can do going forward you can do in reverse, closing or opening, clockwise or anti clockwise, big and small.

You get the picture. It's all about an idea and then it's opposites.

The fun part is when you realize that any human movement holds within it many different 'opposites'.
Take for example a simple shuffle step forward off a left lead in San-ti (left hand high, right low).

The opposite could be a shuffle step back to where you started. It could also be a right lead San-ti shuffle step forward ... or back. It could be a left lead shuffle step with right hand high and left low, or same reversed hands with right lead, or backwards with same.

And that's just one, single, moving part - pushing off the back leg and resetting.

Why is this useful? Because if you can only see in binary, your affordances are very limited.

The obvious 'opposite' is not always the most useful one to use in reaction to a stimulus, though by default this tends to be what we do - Push directly back against an opposing force.

It should be remembered that the more parts that are involved in the original frame (right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot etc), the more parts can become 'others' in the one labeled 'opposite'.

In even more complex systems, like people, where opposites can be physical, but also situational, psychological, and time related (now/not now).

Confrontation. Conversation. Conflict. Reverse. Inverse. Adverse. It's all relationship. What's the opposite? What's the opposition?

Precision of understanding the situation at hand is key, but just as important is a generous space left un-named for those 'opposites' that may in fact not be opposites at all.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Big To Do

Teaching basic cuts the other day I fell into one of the teaching traps I try so hard to avoid - I taught a fixed step set of strike angles. It's part of Sonny's older system from before he transitioned into flow teaching and he had left it far behind by the time I started. I learned it from other students mostly because it was an interesting part of his history, and we ended up doing it the other day because we were talking about solo practice and striking ideas. It's an engaging little set with many parts to it, and indeed is a great way to put sword, body and feet together .... Well, sort of ....

As a rule, I don't like teaching 'perfection' or taking actions out of flow. In fact, I much prefer having the skills come from giving people problems to solve than doing them as stand alone, repetitive, exercises. It means that there is nothing 'intellectual' being added, just the simple process of seeing a target and reaching out to touch it. Something even babies know how to do.

Of course, strikes need to cut, not just touch, so you need good targeting, accuracy of cut angle and blade angle, along with correct range. Of these, I would say that range is probably the most important, because if you miss, nothing else matters.

But how do you teach the dynamic quality of range from standing still?

Well, generally what happens is because you understand the range issues and thus footwork that the student can't, you start talking and fixing things for them. And before you know it, you have a student trying to keep their hands, their foot placement, their grip, their blade angle, their hip turn, all coordinated in their brains. And if that's too hard, you break it down even more to help students 'remember' all the parts that need to fit together.

*face palm*

How much easier would it be to invite the student to dance, and just say "Can you cut me from there? OK let's move around and only cut when you can reach me". "Oh, you just scratched me - too far away'. "Where were you aiming?" "Try the belly cut". "Ah, you plowed the blade into the target instead of cut it. Feel that"?

Doing the cuts in context makes all the parts that need 'remembering' unnecessary to remember! If you can do a good, clean, cut (blade angle and cut angle the same) from the right place (reach the target and use as much of the cutting edge as possible) and recover the blade easily. You are doing all the bits of blade manipulation, grip, hip movement, stepping, foot placement, and weight shift you need to!

Flowing DOES feel more hectic though, more difficult than the piece by piece version, and it's hard to feel so clumsy and uncertain, or deal with a the high failure rate that is inevitable when learning in real time trial and error.

But we know that it's far more productive to physically 'DO' than loop through 'THINK and DO' when actually in the fight, so if you can leave out the 'think' part in training, surely it can only be a good thing?

I think Sonny thought so, and this is why he changed how he taught. All the same cuts are still there, he just cut out the meaningless step of doing them without connection to purpose.

Flow training may cut out the certainty and the feeling of achievement that doing fixed step or patterns gives you, but that's a bonus too. There are no downsides to becoming familiar with uncertainty, or learning to keep a calm mind in the midst of the chaos of swordplay.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tactical not Technical

I was asked a question about how to transfer good footwork to sparring.

Most people have had the experience of learning stepping patterns in class, in solo forms, or as part of applications, but when things heat up ... It's all but lost. Start sparring, and all technique wooshes out of peoples brains as fast as you can say 'Monkey Dance'. 

But how to fix it?

The classic sparring scenario, which I have written about more than once, is two people facing off in protective gear. They might twirl their weapons, bounce up and down a bit, shuffle in and out on a line, get nervous - And then, one makes a break for it, entering with a quick strike, thus creating an opening which their opponent goes for, and both die either in a clash or on the retraction in a scrum.

There's plenty of examples of this dynamic on line, and as I only like posting good stuff from other people, I will leave you to find them for yourself.

Here however is a clip I do like, and for a very specific reason - It shows something important that needs to be noticed when considering the meaning of 'training for dueling'. And addresses what sparring should be more like.

This is what I see.

I know the guy in the suit is at the top of his system, and though I don't know the reasons for why these two guys are playing, I can tell that black-shirt guy is good too, but perhaps slightly lower skill level. There is of course the possibility that he does not want to embarrass suit guy by showing him up and winning, but let's assume that is not the case.

Suit guy is comfortable and confident, and though black-shirt guy obviously knows the style quite well, and is trying all kinds of stuff, he is not getting many hits (I think he tags an arm twice). Thing is, he's avoiding plenty too. There are very very few double deaths or examples of him entering recklessly to his doom. Each takes their time to assess openings and really spends time watching and looking for gaps.

Black-shirt guy tries to keep range and he plays as though he has an enormous respect for the lethality of the weapon in play. At this point suit guy changes things up by taking his jacket off to change the dynamic.

What I find interesting is that many people find this clip less satisfying than the clashing and the pokey stabby double death interactions you generally see. They say ... It's so slow. Nothing is happening. Boring. Why isn't there more attacking? It's not how it would be if it was real ....

So, sure, that's debatable, and obviously ... if you are outmatched and going to die anyway, then yes, take them with you. But what are you training for if all your test sparring is ending here?  We should not be training to die just to take someone out, and we should not be training to pick fights with the highly skilled.

You know what would have been a win here? Not picking the fight in the first place. That would have been the 'real' smart move. But not dying was smart too. Both were going to 'die' in this encounter, both knew it, and neither was willing to do so. That right there is what good training should give you.

But, but, but, you say, you should fight better people than you, to learn stuff. You have to put yourself in danger. Try things. Push yourself.

Yup you do.

And black shirt guy in this clip learned a bunch of stuff he can work on - He knows that his ability to create openings with suit guy is lacking, so he can work on ways to do that. He has to learn to move in different rhythms and with many qualities of movement. About being even more accurate about the edge of range .. and also that maybe he should wear a jacket too ...

Compare this to the double death brigade. Generally their whole game plan revolves around trusting to luck and speed, so what do they learn in comparison?

In all honesty? That they were not fast enough or lucky enough to win.

Add the weirdness of always sparring with apparent psychos with no concern for their own mortality, and the whole point of the training is ... what? Psychos may be 'real' in a self defense scenario, but in my experience, people that handle knives, and who face them, tend to be far more leery about getting cut than most students of the bladed arts I see on youtube.

It may seem more exciting to don the mask and throw yourself into the fray. More intense feels more real, right? But if you think about what you are learning from the experience, perhaps the 'less satisfying', slower, more mannered, clip, is in fact a far more useful training tool for upping skills?

Maybe you should stop looking for technical solutions to fix your problem, perhaps thinking tactically is better?

It will also help your footwork :-)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ukes and Intel

You have to present the right question to understand what a good answer is.

The tennis coach feeds the student shots that they have to return. They vary the shots to train different aspects of the game, and as the student gets better, these problems, or 'questions' that need answering get chained together to become more and more complex and thus create the whole. Each of the questions requires different body mechanics, movement options, balance requirements, alongside power and accuracy. Full body/sense training, and very straightforward - get the ball back over the net in the marked area, and prevent your opponent from returning it.

This is how technique based martial arts training is meant to work too - I throw a #1 strike, or a right cross, or whatever, and you respond. The difference, however, is that in martial arts the answer is given to you ahead of time, and it's your training partner's job to throw out the right question for this particular answer.

Perhaps you can see the potential problem here?

If your training partner gets sucked into the Monkey Dance game, whether they want to dominate you, or feel uncomfortable doing anything other than submitting, the question is in danger of turning into the wrong one. And keep on answering silly questions with inappropriate answers, and what are you really learning in the end?

What most don't understand is that this is as a 'wrong question' problem, not just an asshole/ineptitude problem. So you either try to force techniques or speed up to make them work. Or conversely do something totally half-assed and have your partner cave anyways. Basically you do something that teaches you nothing about the thing you are meant to be learning, just puts you smack into the middle of a fantasy monkey dance.

So how do you create the RIGHT questions?

Uke training.

People think it's easy to be the uke (the 'bad guy'), also known as the 'loser'. But losing by it's very nature is hard to do, especially when your have to calibrate the ease with which you lose to the skill level of your partner.

It demands an understanding of what is happening, what off balance means, what the strong and weak lines of structure are, timing, time, natural reactions to threat, range, targeting, and I'll say it again because it's so important - time.

I've started a conversation with some folks in other arts about coming up with a set of 'warm up' partner exercises to practice learning these things. How to calibrate to your partner. How to be appropriately difficult, yet not too difficult to move. How to listen to your partner. How to communicate with them.

Many grappling/throwing arts have these already, though some have been lost over the years ... but how about weapon and striking arts? How do you teach people who don't understand what they are really doing to throw out appropriate questions?

I think there's a way, and that way is to start learning how to listen, observe, and notice.

I think of it as 'gaining intel'. When you gain intel you let the other person speak ... in fact you let them ramble on to their heart's content. Your job is to stay present, connected, and throw out enough questions and interest to keep them talking whilst keeping yourself safe.

That's really what a good training partner does. And in the end, being able to gain intel is awesome for fighting too. I'm betting that 'asking questions' will up your skills faster than just learning to 'answer' them all the time ... And the beauty of thinking of it this way is that it should keep you out of your monkey brain, and that right there would be a massive leap in the right direction.

What do you think? Possible? Ideas?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Non Binary

I lost another teacher a couple days ago. He will be mourned and missed in the same way that Sonny was and is.

These two guys were very different from each other in character and life experience, but what they did share was a certain fearlessness alongside a willingness to risk loss and failure to learn to understand the universe in which we live.

They both seemed happiest discovering new things, being surprised, and most of all being able to pass on that wonder to the next generation. They also both hated hero worship or being put on a pedestal by their students.

There really is only relationship that defines us as human beings, between each other, and with that which surrounds us. Students may be less far along the path, but the teacher does not sit above. They are not there to merely 'feed' the student, the student brings food too, for both to eat.

The circle of giving and taking goes both ways - We 'do' because we understand. We understand because we 'do'. And 'doing' takes many forms. It makes mistakes, it misjudges, it can be crazy lucky, and very occasionally it can be true and good and perfect.

I have written before about Sonny, about his darkness, his temper, his mistrust. About how I believe it is because of these elements of his personality that are considered 'negatives' by many, that he was the truly remarkable man that he was. How these struggles made him more insightful, about people, and about himself. Not in an angst-y adolescent way, or with any great fanfare of overcoming trial and tribulation to a final happy ending, but as an adult. Accepting one's limitations and the consequences of one's choices is the best way to truly have compassion for others.

Liu Ming was far from perfect. He had within him a power and temper that belied his humble and cultured nature. He was indeed generous, funny, kind, and giving, alongside being considered what I would call 'enlightened' (you can tell people that are because of the mirth they radiate). He was precise, an aesthete, and learned in the arts and wisdom sciences of ancient history. He was also willing to voice his anger, piss people off, put himself in danger, get thrown out of school, and even get officially cursed (at least that's how the story goes).

So make no mistake, the earth from which the 'good' qualities grew had some dark depths. The pendulum does not only swing one way, and neither should it do so.

I hope all the hagiographers out there are taking note.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Edges of Safety

There's a whole science that is solely concerned with surfaces - between water and air for instance, or solid objects and the space around them. There also happens to be a bunch of really interesting mathematics associated with these surfaces, with limits, and the edges of things but that's not important.

In dueling, the most interesting and important edge to understand is the edge between safety and threat, and how this changes over time. This edge appears in the space in which you are playing, and is also related to the geometry and design of the sword you are carrying .... Because safety is not just about being out of range, but can also be anywhere off the cut line of the weapon.
I had the pleasure of playing a little with German long swords recently with a couple of friends from Valkyrie WMAA. It was just a mere dabble, but what came home to me from the few techniques we played with was how different the geometry of 'safety' is, just by adding a sturdy cross piece in front of the hilt of the weapon.

I am used to fighting with no hand guard, mostly because my art comes from a culture where daily carry blades used for work did not have them. Hand protection is much more common on weapons designed specifically for fighting because opponents often target the hand, but machetes, Goloks, Bolos etc generally do not have hand guards, because sugar cane, undergrowth, and coconuts, do not.

It's a whole new world out there with this one, small, added piece of steel. A parry or block that using a Pinuti would take your head off, is now safe (relatively), and traps and redirects take on a whole different meaning.

Any sword you use should become part of you, and through that, so should the experience of the space you 'own'. This takes time, work, and familiarity, and if you don't play enough near the edge, you'll never truly understand it's limits.

I would love to get to the stage where the mere feel of a certain sword in my hand would translate into the geometry of space, but because of the sheer variety of swords designs in the world, that sadly seems unattainable. Even getting to grips with the swords of the Philippines would be a lifetime of work.

However, this does not mean one cannot infer usage from design, and learn from different designs about the space you move in and the changing options each gives.

Sonny thought of every weapon as a tool that taught you something specific, and when we flowed we went form one to another to see how the concepts and attributes crossed over .. or did not.

The better you get at understanding this of course, the greater your movement options become, or the perhaps better said, the finer your angles get to become ... and in sword fighting that can mean the difference between a graze and being run through.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Crafty Observations

Below is an essay from Marc Denny from The Dog Brothers. It is one in his 'Rambling Ruminations' series.

In the last post I talked about how information is meaningless until you own it and make it yours. How secrets are nothing if you do not put in the work, and how time and effort are required to know the answers to the questions - Does it work? And more importantly, does it work for you?

This, in the end, is the reason that a martial art is 'martial', and is not just about dancing by yourself. There is always an 'other', a thinking, moving, adversarial, other, who's only motivation is to take you out ... and this must not be forgotten.

Thing is, we all have a different 'dance' and adapt and move in different ways, so do our opponents ... So where does that leave any 'system' of material? And how does it move through people and time when people and time change all the time?

Sonny said - I don't teach you, I show you what I do. It's up to you to take it and make it yours.

His emphasis on understanding self and connecting that to the job at hand instead of copying the past ad infinitum, was key to keeping his art alive, at least in my opinion, and should go for other arts too.

Of course he taught the principles that underpin technique - about spatial geometry, timing, physiology, movement, human nature, the things that are constants, but he really did want all of us to be ourselves, not try to be carbon copies of him ... which would be impossible. If we could internalize all this information and use it out of our own eyes and bodies, then we could be said to 'own' it. And owning it looks very different from one person to the next.

And that's OK. His Art carries on because of this, not despite this.

Here is Crafty Dog's take on it -

Who is your teacher?
by Guro Crafty
(c) DBI

Woof All:
As is well known to all, my teacher, Guro Dan Inosanto, is an extraordinary martial artist. Over the years he has developed many people in many different arts who can replicate his curriculum in the art in question with grace and style.
I am not one of them!
Indeed I was always one of the somewhat awkward ones who had a hard time remembering things.
Still, I persisted and worked on expressing myself honestly and one day Guro I. asked me to cover for his Kali class. Of course I said yes, it would be my honor, but inside I was shocked. Who? Me? My self-image had a hard time imagining clumsy, awkward me teaching his class.
Came the day in question and rather than be a poor imitation of the real thing I decided to offer to the class how what I had learned from him expressed for me and for other people I teach Real Contact Stickfighting so the class could see how the Art expressed in the hands of real people in real time— so they could see that the Art worked. After all, this is what it says on my Guro certificate from Guro I.—that I may change the Art as I see fit.
People seemed to enjoy the class and Guro continued to use me for his Kali class when he was on the road during the week for a time. After one such class a visiting student came up to me and complimented me and the material I had taught. I thanked him and then he asked me “Who is your teacher?”
I was stunned. Was it not obvious?
“Guro Inosanto” I replied.
Obviously not-- he too was stunned.
On the drive home I took the route home that goes along the ocean behind the airport. Because of the airport there are no homes, only open space. There is a small road that cuts through this that has an ideal spot to park and look out over the ocean and this is what I did. As I sat there I wondered how someone could not see that what I do, what I teach, is not Inosanto Blend. I mean, just because I move differently, teach differently, , , what does that have to do with it? Ha!
Bruce Lee spoke of the whole idea being a matter of “honestly expressing oneself” and that is what Guro I. had always taught me. When he asked me to cover for his class, he had to know that that is what I would have to do—be myself. Similarly that is why my certificate from him says I may change the Art as I see fit—the Art is not a “style”, it is free and open.
As Time has gone by, this is what I have done in my teaching. It is what I expect of the people whom I certify as Guro in Dog Brothers Martial Arts.
Certainly this is not the only way of doing things. Certainly there are good reasons for a teacher to require that someone certified in a system teach the system as it was taught to him. Certainly for the student there is value in knowing what he will be able to learn when he comes to someone flying the flag of that particular system!
Even though I do differently, I respect this.
That said, know this: If and when you approach someone certified in DBMA assume nothing. This is not a franchise wherein no matter you go, the product or the service is the same. All of our people are individuals. Talk with him and get a sense of what it is that he does with the system. His interest may be in Real Contact Stickfighting; it may be in Kali Tudo; it may be in “Die Less Often”; or it may be in any combination of the three.
Are there risks to this approach? Of course! Just as the uniformity approach runs the risk of stagnation, so too the free approach runs the risk of entropy.
As Konrad Lorenz has written:
BEGIN" The culture preserving and, consequently, life sustaining function of this mechanism has, however, as a necessary precondition, something similar to a state of equilibrium between the immutability of old traditions and the capacity for adaptability through which throwing overboard certain parts of the traditional inheritance cannot be avoided. A preponderance of that which is conservative causes exactly the same result in the biological development of species as in the development of cultures-- the formation of "living fossils"; an overabundance of variability, on the other hand, causes in both the formation of abnormalities. Examples of such mal-developments in social behavior can be cited the emergence of such phenomena as terrorism and the current popularity of quite inept religious sects. , , , (However) , , , It is an error to believe that after the form and content of an old culture are thrown overboard a new and better, a ready-made one will quite naturally be brought into being to take its place instantaneously. We must seriously confront the sobering fact that there is no purpose oriented pre-determinism of what happens in our world to protect our culture. We must be clearly aware that we humans, ourselves, bear the burden of responsibility for preserving our culture both from erroneous developments and from rigidity." -END
In conclusion, when I certify someone I am simply saying that they have trained with me in depth, and that I trust them to act with humility and a basis in the research of their own experiences to absorb what is useful, to reject what is useless, and to add what is specifically their own. If they do that, they are Dog Brothers Martial Arts.
The Adventure continues,
Guro Crafty