Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mud Walking

There's a way you walk in Bagua - kind of a glide, pushing off the back foot, making contact with the ball of the front foot, rolling on to the whole foot, shifting the weight forward, and pulling the back foot in, that's called 'mud walking', and though not a necessity - you can quite legitimately walk Bagua heel toe - it is found as a standard practice in many schools.
The soles of the feet stay parallel to, and only just above the ground, and to open the lower back up, you can practice trying to pick the ball of the back foot up before the heel as it steps in. The other key element is noticing the moment the feet are right next to each other, kind of a balanced 'neutral point' where changes of direction can occur.
Walking this way certainly does open up your back, gives you good balance, connects the lower and upper halves of the body, and generally keeps your center of gravity low.

The name 'mud walking' implies that it's for walking through mud ... OK, maybe, but a more inclusive theory is that it is for walking across any uneven terrain where you have to be certain of your footing but cannot necessarily keep looking down - battlefields and blood were mentioned, and this make better sense.

What I do know for sure is that it is a very natural way to move when you are continuously cutting with a large blade whilst trying to move fast - I was practicing moving with a Katana the other day and cutting with each step, and ended up mud walking without even thinking about it ....
I also know it bears a resemblance to the step you use when you are trying to creep up on something, and it's certainly what happens in the dark of night trying to detect and avoid sleeping black dogs and cats camouflaged on dark carpet.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Romance & Reality

"It is a principle of the art of war that one should simply lay down his life and strike. If one's opponent also does the same, it is an even match. Defeating one's opponent is then a matter of faith and destiny.

".. Every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai."
The Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai:

"At night we don't shoot, we use (our) Bolo knife. When the crazy Japanese start charging without concern for their health, they are easy to chop down. Because they are not concerned about death".*
Leo Giron founder of the Bahala Na system (describing fighting the Japanese in the PI during World War II):

* - From The Dog Brothers DVD: The Grandfathers Speak Vol I

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

'What's the Damage'?

In England this is slang for 'what'll it cost me'?

The damage of conflict through history has always been great, but one has to imagine that at some point, some clever warrior started looking at better ways of gaining resources than just running head on at the enemy and seeing who came out on top. Ways to lessen the damage, yet still win the fight.

Stealth and ambush come to mind as very ancient hunting tactics, as surprise stacks the deck very much in your favor. Fighting with a plan, in units, as pairs or more, also highly effective. And of course deception - using guile and understanding of human psychology to manipulate your opponents into traps of your making.

Dueling with swords is in essence a Monkey Dance not resource predation, but fails that description in one crucial way - Monkey Dances are not meant to be fatal, they are about status.
George Silver in his 'Paradoxes of Defense' in 1599 bemoans the deaths caused by dueling. Kings and military commanders have banned it over the centuries due to it's high casualty rate as the confusion between wanting to fight 'for honor', but making the mistake of using lethal weapons has killed off many of the best warriors of each generation.

You still see this confusion nowadays in the sword play martial artists do, as we try to understand the blade - most fights end up with both people damaged or dead.
I personally think this is a problem, this 'learning to die' thing. It is certainly a step on the way to understanding, but there is a step beyond that, the hardest one to reach of course, and that is the one where you get to walk away afterwards.

I see very little in systems about the 'exit'. A great deal of time is spent on the stuff in range - what to do after engagement, some time is spent on entries, but where is the part about 'getting away'?
I know it's possible, Musashi showed that it was about 400 years ago when medical help was not an option. You may say that he chose his opponents so he always had an advantage ... but maybe that tells you something ......?
George Silver himself lived to a ripe old age, as did plenty of skilled warriors back in the day. Who did they fight? How did they win? When did they decide not to fight?
Obviously hard to say, but I suspect this idea of walking away afterwards played into their tactics as much as how to enter, and how to engage.

What'll it cost me? - As little as possible please.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Defining The Win

Putting this out there as a question -

In a confrontational/fighting context, how do you define a 'win'?
If there are multiple parts to your answer, which is the most important?

And yes, this really is just a question - I know my answers, just curious what yours are ....

And PS: Quoting Charlie Sheen or Conan doesn't count ;-)

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Pen and the Sword, In Accord.

Spent an evening talking and a day doing Chinese calligraphy this weekend.
I have known for a long time that there is a link between sword play and doing calligraphy, I know of friends who have studied Zen where both calligraphy and sword practice are a part. I enjoyed the movie "Hero" immensely because of this element in the plot, and have seen, at least in books, the calligraphy of noted swordsmen.
But as with many things, it is only the actual doing of it that opens the door to understanding why.

The evening lecture started with a discussion about Asian art appreciation. From a traditional Asian standpoint, there is no distinction between art and craft - a soup bowl can be high art in the same way a painting can, and as can calligraphy.
What is of most interest in a piece, more than the content, is it's 'energy' - and before the eye rolling starts this is not some new agey fluff - what this means is that a piece painted say by a concubine, or a general, will look different because of the different lives the painters have led.
Even if the subject is exactly the same, the difference, or the 'quality' of the piece, depending on who made it, is what is most important. The ability to see these differences and understand what they mean is a huge part of Asian art appreciation.

These qualitative differences arise in calligraphy in the same way that western handwriting varies from person to person, and can even vary day to day in one person, depending on mood. Add a brush and ink to the equation instead of a ballpoint, and it is even easier to see, as every movement in the holder transfers directly to the paper in a much more dynamic fashion.
It is important to note that there is no 'perfection' or single place to aim for in this practice. In the same way that there are many beautiful yet wholly different pieces of music in the world, each individual can create a unique piece that can speak to an audience regardless of style.
Of course there is a lifetime's worth of study in the subtleties in how the brush moves on the page, how it is held, it's still points and flow, that all play in to this appreciation, and of course that takes practice, but understanding this, and every child does indeed start practicing at a young age, helps an audience understand the quality of the calligrapher.

But back to the links with sword play ....

Without going in to the details of what we practiced in the class - and one day is really only a scratch at the surface - the points that I found most interesting were to do with the relationship between freedom and control - you need space around you, and your body oriented in a way to give free range of motion front, back, side to side, and into and off the paper - much like connecting your body, arm, hand and fingers to the sword, and something at the other end of it.
You have to be precise, committed, and flexible, no vacillating, hesitating, or weak intent. You also always have to know where you are going next, but not get fixated when the ink starts doing something you didn't expect. You are creating the flow, but also going with it, trying not to get physically or mentally stuck in a corner, present and focused until the brush leaves the paper for the last time.
Hmmm .......

Also in the practice - it is not about repeating the same thing over and over again, trying to create perfection, but more of an investigation into the brush and how it works connected to you. Obsessive repetition often produces the same mistake over and over again, which shows up very clearly on a page of rote characters done too 'tight'. It is a stagnant way to practice, lacking 'qi'.
Better is freeing up the mind and playing, which also produces mistakes, but produces all kinds of different ones and so is a much more dynamic way to work and discover more.
Of course unlike dueling, the paper does not fight back ... but it is certainly a mirror to every glitch and gap you have, and as such, your opponent IS in front of you, it's just this time it's your ego.

Many thanks to Liu Ming for teaching. Ming is one of the most clear and interesting teachers of ancient Asian culture and science in the Bay Area, and as a side note to the 'Sound Effects' post  - demonstrated how he uses whistling as an aid to practice the different feelings of the individual strokes when writing characters.
All in all a fascinating day.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


This may sound obvious, but forms were created by people who knew what they are doing. What I mean is, a Xing-Yi spear form was created by someone that had 1) used a spear before, 2) understood how to use it best, and 3) knew the common errors/problems associated with using it wrong - lack of power, lack of balance, inability to transition through moves or move with the weapon smoothly, getting stuck, inaccuracy of targeting etc etc

Forms were invented as ways to solo practice and refine skills, and improve on and remove errors.
Great if you know what you are doing and have some 'raw material' to refine ... but what if you have no idea what spear fighting feels like? Have no idea how to visualize an opponent? Do forms help then?

It's really fairly easy to tell if someone doing a form has an idea of what they are doing and what it's for. A personal cringe for me is seeing sword work done by folks that have never used one or have confused how a stick moves with edged steel. Even then there are levels, there are those that have maybe practiced target cutting with live blades but have no context, or those that understand fight tactics but without bladed weapons. I am limited by never having had a sword fight where someone was actually wanting to kill me with a real weapon, or even a challenge match for first blood - and before you ask or volunteer, I'm absolutely OK with that :-) - so my movement will probably look different from someone that has had that experience.

Sonny believed that all preset patterns and forms have a soporific (hypnotic/feel good) effect on the body/mind, and because they begin and end, are inherently glitchy. He believed that patterns can override reactions, and like a song that gets stuck in your head, are hard to undo once ingrained. Which is why he stopped teaching them. On the other hand, he did practice alignment and accuracy a great deal, and used certain movement combinations to refine these, but never in a repetitive way, always using a basic idea and riffing off it.

Personally I love form work and get a great deal out of the practice (perhaps it's the soporific effect?), and think they are great for training full body integration and understanding wave and rhythm, but really they only start to make sense once you have felt the problem they were created to solve or the skill they were meant to refine. Practicing them without knowing the context, and I mean 'knowing' in an experiential sense, might be a head start for when you do .. but perhaps it's not ...?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sound Effects

Why is it that adding sound effects to movement makes them better?
I'm sure we all do it - we did it as kids, I do it quite alot when I teach, and I often do it either inside my head or for real when I practice certain moves.
Teacher Luo does it also, he is a very expressive teacher and uses his voice to create different sounds to give the flavor of the power he is using. He often uses his facial expression and body expression too to convey different feelings, but always sound.
Last night at the San Shou (Sticky Hand) class we were working on pretty small and subtle changes of angle. I started adding the same sound effects that he was doing to the scoops, hooks, wiggles, swings and catches we were practicing, and when I did, the movement got better.  I started experimenting with different partners, each of us adding the sound effects as we practiced on each other ... and yup, movement improved for everyone.
I guess until last night I just never thought about how doing it might actually create a different shape in the brain to improve physical movement, rather than it just being a dorky thing that's fun to do and seems to feel good.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tha Wave

 Luo De Xiu from Taipei is in town. He's been coming over to teach seminars for over a decade, I think this will be year 10 or 11 for me (sadly last year he had to cancel).
Obviously I think he is a great teacher and pretty much sign up for everything he chooses to teach in the 8 days he is here.
First evening was Tai Ji push hands, not really my thing but absolutely related.

Luo focused on the 3 circles that make up the movement - vertical (can be forward back, coronal plane and all angles in between), horizontal circle (at any height) and obliques circle (as many angles as you can think of) - Bagua has the same.
He talked about how in each plane of circle there is a part of the circle where power can be released, and part where it can be collected, dependent on gravity and movement (weight shift or step). Knowing where these places are in the timing is crucial, and push hands is a place to practice finding out.
He also talked about the properties of the 'wave', where instead of the rotation round a circle being the recycle mechanism, its a swing that captures the potential energy at the cusp of the movement and returns it back.

Training good body structure alongside flexibility and the ability to control one's movement in a way that is not overtly obvious to the opponent, means that the natural power of the circles, and the places where it can be used the best, can be altered to one's befefit, and this can be done by using 'the wave'.
In the same way that 2 waves (of light or water etc) coming from different directions can interfere to cancel out or magnify power, so can timing and tempo dissipate power or augment it's effect.
The wave can also change an incoming angle to another, conserve the power and throw it back.

This wave appears also in the '2nd flow' practice of Visayan Eskrima - the body pendulum and the stepping pendulum are just manifestations of the same concept and are integral to the understanding of how to stretch and compress the tempo, draw and bait the opponent.

The other big take away ... Movement is the generator, big and obvious at first, then smaller and smaller as skills improve .... where have I seen that before ..? ;-)