Friday, August 26, 2011

Simple, yet ....

Seems like everyone is writing about basics, fundamentals and simplicity right now, it must be in the air.
This morning, at the semi regular workout I get to do with my friend T and Sensei Mike E, we were working on the Kumitachi (partner practice) from the Toyama Ryu sword system.
Toyama Ryu is a military school system and as such shares the quality that many military systems, like Xing-Yi, have - simplicity and pragmatism.
'Simplicity' of course is a relative term and what struck me learning the techniques, I think we did 6, was how 'simple' here refers to the most direct approach ... which also means that you deviate from center the least you can with your sword, and move the least you can with your feet ... thus the price of screwing up the Ma-ai - range and timing - means eating the attack. These techniques are eventually practiced with the opponent running at you and cutting full power, and of course you closing to meet them also.
The technique works great IF your read of your opponent's intent is good, and you are in the right place at the right time, with good alignment, to do the thing, at the right moment, relative to what your opponent does. (OK, so there is some built in safety redundancy .... but not a whole helluva lot.)
So ... 'Simple' here means utilizing the quickest route between A and B with sword and footwork - not much choreography - but is also means you are on, or very close to the center line and the power of the incoming attack of your opponent, which means that if you screw it up any one small aspect - relative contact point along the sword, how rotation meets the straight line, your structure vs their structure, range etc - you are toast.
So simple, yet .....

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Here is a link to the first part of a 3 part talk about fascia and how it works in combination with muscles to produce power.
Really interesting, especially for the 'Internal' practitioners amongst us when comparing a western explanation of force transfer and physiology to the classically described alignment and movement principles of Bagua (and Xing-Yi and Tai Ji).

Monday, August 22, 2011


Saturday I went over to San Francisco to my friend Chris's new training space. He was hosting a get together to celebrate the opening of his school in conjunction with what would have been Leo Giron 100th brithday.
There was huge piles of Paella, fresh shrimp and the joyful banging of Rattan. Chris was a great host and I wish him all the best with his new place.
For those that don't know, Leo Giron is the founder of the Filipino style called Bahala Na, named after the motto of the battalion he fought with in WW2. It means 'Come what may' or words to effect.
Giron did not want anything to do with violence after the war, he had seen most of his action behind enemy lines working recon, often using the sword over the firearm as his weapon of choice, so up close and personal to say the least. When the war ended he hung up his Bolo and called it quits.
Many years later, he heard that a man with a knife had attacked a group of nurses including some Filipinas, killing several. Giron thought that if only the nurses had had some training, with their strength in numbers they would have been able to overcome the attacker and thus lives could have been saved. This convinced him to start teaching again, and the system Bahala Na was born.
Leo Giron died in 2002 at the age of 91.

This coming Wednesday will also mark the passing of my teacher in 2006. Another day when people came together to sit, remember and tell stories. I prefer to remember his birthday more than his death (though he himself hated it and tried to keep it secret), but I'll probably play some sword and burn a Winston all the same.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Gory Details

There's really no way round the gory details when teaching sword play. I forget this until new students come to class and I start to talk about the 'whys'.
So much of why you do what you do, especially the way you hold the weapon and the way it moves in space comes down to blade and handle design and how that 'interacts' with human anatomy.
The targets that you aim for, the cut angles, the blade angles, the retraction and recycle possibilities all involve explanations of blood, bone and guts, and this leads seamlessly to the reasons for evasion, body angle, and footwork (which by this point have become self evident to all that are paying attention .....) and thus the reason you do what you do.
I guess it's a good test of character to see how those new to the idea take in all the squishy information ...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Warm Ups

I'm not getting any younger, and though sword play is less hard on the body over the long term than many striking or grappling arts, I certainly pay attention to alignments and how I use my body to prevent injury and retain range of motion, flexibility and 'quickness'  (I was going to say speed, but this is better) as I would like to keep playing for many decades yet.

Most of what I know about healthy movement comes from the years I've spent studying the Chinese 'Internals' - Tai Ji, Xing-Yi and Bagua, along with their related Nei Gung exercises.
One of the most important things these systems pay attention to is how the weight is dropped into the ground through the weighted leg - knees and hips are notoriously prone to injury, especially for martial artists, so maintaining accurate lower body alignment is key to keeping injury free. Eskrima, Bagua, Tai Ji and Xing-Yi all emphasize the 100% weight shift thus making the alignments through the weighted leg particularly important.
Add to this Eskrima's emphasis on deception and evasion with it's quick direction changes, angle feints and weight shifts, and you get a recipe for soft tissue damage if you do not pay attention.

VCKE has a set of warm up exercises - The Moro Foundation Set - that work these alignment principles, with an emphasis on improving flexibility in the hip joint, the accuracy of hip and shoulder alignments, and the ability to pivot safely.
Pivoting requires the weight to be distributed mostly on the ball of the foot with the heel kept light so the heel is free to turn (heel pivoting is also possible of course but we focus mostly on the ball of the foot pivot). This ensures that the toes and the knee of the weighted leg are always facing in the same direction, and if there's one alignment advice I pay particular attention to it's this -

Those of you that practice Chen style Tai Ji or Silat will know that the 'one over the other' thing does not always hold true, and if you have developed the fascia, tendons and ligaments along the leg enough you can do this, but in general these are good principles to keep to, at least that has been my experience.
This then brings me to the importance of warm up sets. Most traditional systems have them, and I am reminded of what Luo De Xiu said - Don't dismiss the warm up sets as trivial and unimportant - Why does the teacher make you do them every time? Not because they are convenient or easy, but because they are the most important movements in the system.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Sonny had some great words for describing things that sometimes did not connect until you thought about it, for instance "Today we are going to work on rappelling" turned out not to be about ropes and rock faces, but "repelling", as in the thing that similar poles of 2 magnets do when they come close.
And what we were actually working on was disengagements where the moment of disengagement had a feeling like 2 magnets, very close yet repelling around each other at the last minute.

Yesterday Kev was talking about 'Sizing' in the flow, a word Sonny used for a way of moving with an opponent.
In dueling or empty hand sparring, there is some time spent working out how your opponent moves, their rhythm, their tendencies, some 'sizing up' being done. 
'Getting the measure of' might be another way of putting it, physically and psychologically ... and movement is the key.

To quote Steve Morris:
"... movement is the translation of our emotions thoughts and sensations [intero, extero and proprioceptive ] within the integrative action of the CNS."
Or S Higgin: 
"Movement is inseparable from the structure supporting it and the environment defining it."

So moving with someone can tell you much about them if you how to play it.

'Sizing' is a really important skill, to do it successfully you have to be in the moment, present and listening, but not hypnotized or frozen. You can't be grooving to your own tune as though no-one is there, yet you cannot be just following what your opponent is doing.
You can't be in range, yet you should not be too far away either as your opponent needs to have a reason to move - remember it's the movement that's key, however subtle.
Lastly sizing is not purely defensive, part of it is cutting off opportunities or intentions from your opponent. If they have an opening, they might attack straight away so you are instantly out of time, you have to learn to move so as to cut these off at their inception.
Of course in a duel you are not going to wait around any longer than absolutely necessary, but flowing helps build this skill set so increasing the flow time here is an advantage, and to do that you not only have to be able to cut them off, but at the same time invite them to keep trying, so you can learn as much about them as possible.

Sizing skill should be practiced with many different partners, though especially with someone that can change the flavor of their movement as the flow progresses. The ability to adapt through the changes is crucial.
Sizing is like learning to see the lines, but dancing in the gaps.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fulcrum Striking

There are a handful of power acceleration methods developed by Sonny that form part of the impact weapon skill set of Visayan Corto Kadena Eskrima.
For a style where mass, in the form of the size of the practitioner (Sonny weighed probably about 110lbs) or the weight of the weapon, is limited, timing and relative (between weapon and target) acceleration are king ... along with deception and evasion of course.
Yesterday I was playing with R in the back yard and we were exchanging what we had been working on. We talked about the parts of the style that personally resonate with us as individuals, and R pointed to the Bogsai. The Bogsai is a hugely versatile weapon and the 'fulcrum striking' power acceleration skills that are part of it's usage are certainly R's forte.
Fulcrums are achieved by pulling, pushing and twisting the hands and body relative to each other along the weapon, and with the correct timing can produce short range, high impact power at the tip with a very fast recycle to the next strike.
We worked on some mirroring + weapon manipulation exercises, worked some quite unusual combinations and angles, looked at still points, high, middle and low strikes, and explored climb ups and disengagements across the center line.
Very cool.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Sonny always played music when we flowed, perhaps occasionally it would stop, or the player would act up, but it was pretty much a given that there would be something playing throughout the workout session.
I think I've mentioned before how he used music to get the student outside themselves, to feel rhythms, relax, focus or wake up. He did not have a very extensive collection and consequently most of us came to know the selection pretty well, enough to have a somewhat Pavlovian response on hearing certain pieces.
The majority of the stuff he played was trance-y, mellow stuff, some had eastern rhythms, some were his own compositions which mostly had dance rhythms like the cha cha or the hustle, and then there was some pretty awful 'Eurodisco' that I am sure served it's purpose with it's generic thumping, but am happy that I never need to listen to again ...
So now it's my generation's turn to choose a playlist for teaching flow and I thought I'd share a few musical ideas that seem to work very well for me. If they have anything in common it's a fairly languorous back beat wherin it is possible to insert syncopations, counter rhythms and break beats. It's actually very fun to flow to Hendrix or The Prodigy, The Sword or the soundtrack to Sucker Punch ... but it just tends to get a bit exciting, so if you are teaching or trying to focus, here is a short playlist of rhythms that seem to fit the bill:

And for some local flavor :-)

Saturday, August 6, 2011


A successful attack works because the opponent is busy. Busy blocking or evading something that is not there, busy striking something that is not there, busy being frozen by something they think is happening, (or is actually happening) or just busy with the white noise in their heads ...

They have to be busy doing something other than dealing with what you are actually doing.
Don't be where they think you are, don't strike where they think you're striking and commit when they are busy dealing with your ghost.

Here's a great clip of Bernard Hopkins talking tactics with Rashad Evans before a fight. What he says about rhythm, timing, cutting angles, range and set ups holds just as true for dueling. Thanks again to Steve Morris for sharing:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Goal

I posted a comment on the previous post and at about goals.
People seem to forget that the goal is to get away. You may be unsuccessful in attaining your goal, but it's still the goal.
A while back I was chatting with some friends about how to build this goal in to dueling as it seemed that most training duels were ending in double death.  The last post looked at attribute training to get past this, here is a scenario option.
In fact I suggested 2 scenarios:
1) One person is guarding an object, the other has to get the object and exit the field of combat with it.
2) Both parties start from different sides with the same goal of getting the object and leaving with it.
The size of the 'field of combat' would be whatever was agreed.
The 'object' could be just something to touch, or something to really carry. Point is the importance of the exit.

As an aside, we did a very fun, somewhat related, drill once at Sonny's where both participants attached a post-it note onto the center of their T-shirts with a safety pin. Game was to grab the opponent's post-it without getting your own taken. This drill was about evasion, timing and range, and did not really emphasize the exit but certainly had some similar elements to it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ego, Death and Progress

There's nothing wrong with testing your skills against an adversary with the goal of winning - that's the point of dueling after all, but because of this natural tendency of our ego wanting to 'win', any free flow partner practice can turn into a competitive sparring match without much effort whether intending to or not.
If 2 people are free flowing, often one will enter when they see the first opportunity, and because entering itself creates an opening in the attacker, the other takes that as their opportunity, both parties end up attacking together and both generally 'die'.
A series of glorious double deaths is a sure sign that neither party is learning anything useful anymore, just how to throw their lives away. One is attacking rashly and trusting to luck, the other is only seeing the opening not the consequences. (Please read George Silver's rant about this all the way back in 1599 to see that it has been a long standing problem - Monkey Dancing with it's non lethal format + bladed weapons, which by their nature are lethal = not a good combination.)

But how to progress past this?
It seems like you need to create a format to practice in context, but without the need for the ego to always win. (Technically I would not call dying 'winning' .... but it seems that getting a first hit on the opponent equates with winning in our heads regardless of the consequences. Apparently the monkey ego is not that smart ....).
If you are familiar with Rory ConCom material and can 'de-escalate yourself first' from an interaction, you can pretty much play and generate progression with anybody, the problem is when neither party can escape from the dance.

I've found 2 ways to work past this (there are probably more) -

1) Assign different tasks to each party - one is the initial attacker, the other the counter attacker, let each person 'win' or succeed at their game for a while, then add a counter from the other side to the game ... then add another level of difficulty.
Example - A cuts at B who does not defend
                  B tries to defend against the cuts (without hitting back)
                  A adds faking and timing to trick B
                  B keeps trying to not get hit
                  B gets to counter, but after A's attack only
                  A tries to cut B then evade/block the counter
                  Etc .....
This game can go in many directions:
                  A cuts at B who does not defend
                  B hand tags A as they attack
                  A tries to avoid the hand tag and still cut to B's body
                  B hand tags but also tries to evade/block the attack
                  Etc ......

Narrowing the parameters this way focuses the game and seems to take away the need to impose status.

2) Start the flow with a question that needs investigating. E.g. "How does using a cane change the dynamic if you are fighting a short sword"? or "What happens if I only counter strike"?

Now both parties are on the same side trouble shooting a question, not adversaries in a contest.

Neither of these are permanent training formats, each individual has to learn for themselves how to not get caught up in their ego if they want to progress, but at least they can facilitate an exit from the loop.