Friday, December 28, 2012

Form Follows Function

A bit of construction know how first ....

Back in the day there was a thing called a window sill. The window sill was the part that you could lean your elbows on and stare out into the wide blue yonder on a lovely summer's day with the window open.
The sill spanned the depth of the wall, from the inside to the outside, sloping down and out at a slight angle, and overhanging the wall a small amount, often with a groove cut along it's length on the underside.
It was designed so that when wind blown rain struck the window panes and ran down onto whatever was below, the sill was there to catch it all, preventing water from running down into the wall, and because it sloped outwards, diverting the rain away from the house. The groove on the underside of the sill, also known as a drip edge, prevented the wind from blowing the water back up the underside of the sill towards the wall again. The groove forced the water to drip off.

Pretty smart really. Form follows function.

Fast forward to the modern day and the 'ready to install', single unit windows which come in a pack that inserts straight into a framed opening in a wall, they have weather strips and flashings to prevent water from seeping in, and sealant is inserted into any gaps to keep water out. They also usually have some kind of dam or plastic strip to keep water from getting in under the window.
No more need for a traditional window sill any more.
Thing is, we are used to seeing window sills on a house, and I guess people think walls look weird without them ..... so rather than leave them off, we now add them, purely as decoration.

I could rant a great deal about the decline of window design, the cheapness of the materials used and their short life span ..... but .... the point of this whole, long, story is that now instead of window sills we not only have this new method of sealants, dams and flashings to keep the water out of the building (which inevitably fail), we also have the ridiculous addition of fake, stick on, 'window sills' which are really just a piece of wood stuck on to the face of the building where the old style window sill used to be, so it will LOOK the same.

What's wrong with that? Well, now, not only does the piece have no real meaning any more, it in fact adds yet another weak joint on to the face of the wall where it is stuck on, and it will in all probability cause rot, trap damp and mold behind it and create all kinds of maintenance problems the window sill in it's earlier incarnation never did.

So, to Deer Horn Knives ....

Over the years I heard many explanations for what they are for and how they are used, but I could not agree with any of them. I came up with some ideas of my own, but it was only last year when I finally got confirmation. Now I'll admit, it's hard to truly understand historical stuff when you do not have the full picture ... but for the life of me I could not invent a reason to carry around blades shaped like this.
Surely, if there is any tool in the world that should be as practical as it can be, where form really does need to follow function ... it is a weapon that is meant to save your life? And these are hugely impractical.
If you don't believe me, try them - They are unstable to hold, don't take contact well, and none of the cut angles possible with the blades make any sense.
My initial thought was that they were just training weapons to accentuate a certain important parts of the Bagua forms .... and in some respects this is correct, but it turns out, they are actually based on a real weapon .. well actually 2 or 3, and are not just fantasy.

The original, real, weapon was just a dagger with brass knuckles, with a second, smaller, dagger also held in the hand held with the tip pointed backwards (also possibly a single, double ended blade).

Now that makes sense to me.

Why did they evolve into what they are today? Best guess - Aesthetic reasons (though one can never rule out the political, or the theatrical).
But look at what strange rationalizations about usage and method have resulted! I suggest it is much easier to understand form if you truly understand function ..... but perhaps not the other way around.

Who knows what future generations will make of fake, stick on, window sills ....

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Asymmetric Play

 There is nothing like narrowing the parameters of the game, or adding a layer of asymmetry to force you to be more mindful and creative. We did it dueling by flowing short against long, or 2 against one, and all kinds of combinations and handicaps we could think of.

Here is a great clip of a grappling version, hopping vs one leg planted.

Taken from:

Thursday, December 20, 2012


As neither the strongest nor the fiercest animals on the planet, our ability to share and pass on information that makes us smarter, quicker, is what has (in large part) paved our way to the top of the food chain. We have brains and opposable thumbs, we are adaptable, can communicate complex ideas, and work well in groups.

For many 1000s of years this communication was done orally, through story telling, theatre and song, alongside learning necessary physical skills directly from family and tribe.
Then, we discovered writing .....
For a long time, of course, reading and writing were the exclusive province of the highest echelons of society - the priests and kings - and access to this powerful medium and the knowledge it held was strictly guarded, through caste and taboo. Only after the invention of the printing press in relatively recent history, along with translations of texts into the vernacular, did it really become the province of the masses.

Now, in the day and age, through blogs, tweets, and almost universal access to media, we are all sharing our insights, our opinions, and our critiques to anyone who will listen ... and it has become a vast flatland of information, way too much for one person to ever assimilate.
On the one hand this is great, so many connections to knowledge and skills from around the globe, coupled with the ability to comment and refute, improve and disseminate ideas. On the other .... a morass of half truths, unsubstantiated rumor, and a vast amount of wasted breath.
It's a noisy world out there.

So, I have been working on a book, a tactical thinking book, based on dueling and deception. It's what I know, am interested in, and feel I have something to say about .... but I have come to realize I hate martial art books, and whichever way I try to present the knowledge, it turns into one of the books I hate. Not the cool historical stuff, or the cultural stuff, or the stories and myths of the characters that populate this world, the 'how to' books, with the awful descriptions and the bad still photography ......
Don't get me wrong, I truly believe there is worth in the written word, after all, those folks researching old Renaissance and Medieval fighting technique are able to read about them and see drawings from 500/600 years ago, because someone back then decided it was a good idea to preserve them in a book. Had he not done so, the knowledge could have been lost for good once firearms changed what fighting was, (and some say that would have been OK) but the knowledge survived because of books.

My question is really this - Are the books I dislike so much the best way to communicate ideas? After all this format has held it's ground for a long time now (Yes, yes, I know there is video too but they often irritate me too). Or is the reader actually unimportant ...... ? Should the writer just put down what they have in their heads with no thought for the reader and leave it at that? Or do they bear a responsibility to try to actually communicate in a way that someone else will understand?
The same question could be asked this way - Does an artist make art purely for themselves? Or does it only become 'Art' when someone else looks at it? (I mean, why write it down unless you want to share it ....?)

Over the centuries writers on martial practice developed many devices and voices to talk through, some purely catalogued techniques, others wrote poems or songs that retained only the important principles, others held conversations with Tengu (mountain demons) or debated over cigars and brandy at a country house. Some were more oblique than others - Musashi's "Practice this well until you understand" comes to mind for instance, others liked to break things down into practical detail, yet others got so complex that the instructions and diagrams became closer to an esoteric book of magic than a practical guide .... but which is most useful ...?
Is any of it useful at all ....?

The more I read, the more I have come to realize that probably everything has been thought and said before - it really has! What we think of as innovations and insights, someone probably already had, and the proof can pretty certainly be found in some old book, painting or story, if we care to look.

But ....... I am not talking myself out of the exercise altogether despite my dislike, because the other side of the coin is that much has also been forgotten, and that is why those that feel the compulsion to share really should do it, should give it their best shot and let their point of view out into the universe.
I'm not as yet sure what 'device' I myself will attempt to communicate through ... and it may still be misunderstood or misinterpreted, misquoted or just plain ignored, but who knows, one day in the far distant future, someone might even find it useful .... and if not useful ... at least a worthwhile diversion.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Space is Time ... And Other News ...

I guess I was going to post this earlier ... then forgot ...

I'm teaching tomorrow, at Soja Martial Arts in Oakland, 3pm to 6pm ... and a bit over if folks want to keep flowing.

Not sure exactly which direction we will go in, though I do know we will start with the 'pendulum' practice as it is the foundation upon which everything else mounts. Sonny emphasized it's importance from the beginning, and I have known it in an intuitive sense for a long time, yet it was brought home to me very clearly yesterday how it makes sense of material much faster that drills done with no movement .... which makes little sense at all.

I'm in process of writing this work book on dueling, and how to learn all the elements you need to put together for successful faking, baiting and freezing your opponent. It turns out you have to know many things before you can be successful at it, one of which is understanding timing.
This week in class I was running through a series of drills I've put together to teach timing, starting with some blade manipulation and cuts on a static target, then moving on to a swinging target and then partner practice.
As it turns out, the manipulations don't make sense standing still, and are in fact harder to do with a non moving target - they are there because of the movement, not separate from it, and it was only when I watched other people doing the drills that I realized this. When I had been doing them by my self, I had always instinctively moved a little, weight shifted and moved off line, to make the range correct ..... nothing I noticed I was doing, yet obvious when watching someone else try and fail to do the drill as I had pictured it.
A static target gives you no sense of targets appearing and disappearing, of the range changing, or of the idea of being on or off line. Add movement to the target, and much of this becomes clear.

And of course, the swing of the pendulum creates a natural metronome to practice half and third beats, cutting time, and hanging time, whether it be in the form of a swinging target or a moving partner .... something a static object just cannot do.

Time is space.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pattern Interrupt

You don't have to be faster .... Just be unexpected ...

(Thanks Richie for the find)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

More Rhythm

 It is much easier to teach timing to those that have done some hard physical labour and have worked with their hands .......

There is no movement without rhythm:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Doors Open ... Doors Close .....

Talking with R the other day about various types of opponents - and discussing solutions. Every one of them presented a different problem to solve, but perhaps a coherent underlying concept that linked them together.

The purpose of the exercise was 2 fold -
1) As a potential direction for personal development, and
2) To see what was important in our understanding of our 'Art', what was useful to us as individuals, and thus worthy to pass on.

All these hypothetical opponents presented difficult problems, generally of the 'he's talented and fast, strong and skilled', or 'he's got fantastic spine control, once he touches you it's really hard to escape'. That kind of thing.

OK, so, nightmare opponents - powerful, skilled, technically gifted, or superior in some way.
First question - why are you engaging at all?

This may seem like an odd question, but it's an important one and worth thinking about, because it sets up context and thus your options for what happens next.

Remember, in any system, all the pieces should fit somewhere in the whole .... should. I can say that every piece that I teach I can justify, and give an example of WHEN and WHY it is a useful thing to do, along with when and why it is not. There is a chain, a 'kadena' if you like, of events that create moments where certain things become good ideas, and knowing these things opens up your options.

So back to the difficult opponents .... For the grappler who waits - the biggest question is why are you entering when they can see you coming and know that you will?
If they are more skilled and are relying on you to choose the time when you close, then you have to surprise them, and I mean do something, or a string of things, that they can't follow or predict. You can certainly play psychology to create an error, and you can use the fact that they think of themselves as skilled to trap them. Or, perhaps, just walk away 

With the fast, big, strong guy ... same thing - why? Say engagement is inevitable, then here at least you have the advantage of knowing they are coming for you (if you have no escape option), but again, if they are fast and skilled, and stronger than you, it is very dangerous to let them choose when and how.

Barring environmental props, helpful friends, projectiles, luck, natural disaster, you are left with only certain areas that you can play with, and certain laws of physics that are unavoidable.
For instance, if they have more power, you can still play with timing, use weak angles to your advantage, use psychology to force errors, play with range to put power into the system that you can use to your advantage, and use the knowledge that there will always be a target open as soon as they commit to an attack.

In the mean time .... you have to avoid damage .... physical and psychological.

These places are where most of the important pieces of a system live - the physical deception, the traps, the psychological entrapment, the evasive skills, the range stealing, the short power, the freezes and surprises .... all of it to buy you time and help you set up your moment. And when that moment comes, you must be ready to take full advantage of it, it may be the only one you get.

... And here, finally, you get to use all the technical material you have been taught.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


The process of discovering who you are is fascinating, and often easier in review than in the moment.
I think there was probably a phase in my early 20s when I thought I could be any kind of person I wanted to be, but that belief did not contunue into my 30s when I started to notice that I had edges - things I was drawn to, things that make me happy, and things that make me angry and upset.
Who knew?
As I get older, these edges become a little harder and narrower, my patience for many things has worn thin and I find myself concentrating more and more on that which has held my interest over these many years - martial arts and the art of the sword.

Nothing wrong there .... Follow your passion and all that ....

But I was struck by a couple conversations recently, on line and in person, about this apparent 'self discovery' of individuality, and what that means.
On the one hand it is good to 'know yourself' your strengths and weaknesses, and particularly what you can give back from your unique point of view, as a teacher or whatever ...
On the other hand, this definition builds rigidity, in the same way that we walk a certain way that makes us easy to pick out in a crowd of strangers, we dance how we dance, and we look out of the eyes we have seen out of through many many decades of habits and tendencies. We all have a 'schtick' if you like, a thing we do, a role we play, and at this point in life, I am not sure if to view this schtick as a gift or a hindrance ..

Specifically in the context of dueling, this 'schtick' is your fighting personality, your tendencies and your glitches, and having one limits you in two ways - first in that you are predictable to those that can read you, and second, and more corrosive in my mind, in the natural ceiling this sets up as to how much you can improve.

There is a limit to every game, how fast, subtle, or even slow you can do what you do, accuracy has a finite quality to it after all .... So this may be splitting hairs, I mean after all, enough is enough, right? Surely we should be happy with who we are, and accept what we can do, including our limitations .... But, this tendency as we grow older to close in, and narrow down our comfort zone, is starting to feel claustrophobic to me. It seems natural, but that just makes it more insidious.
Improving yourself gets harder with age, I suspect mostly because of this 'edge hardening' of our personalities and self identities. Some may point to physical diminishment, but if the most highly skilled fighter I learned from was a skin and bone, chain smoking, cancer sufferer, then I don't think I can agree with that. I think it is because at some point you have to look outside yourself to do this, and often that is not so simple, it involves the possibility of change, and the older we get, apparently the less we want to do this. It make us vulnerable and uncomfortable, two things that we tend to avoid as we age.

So, to those out there feeling the same claustrophobia, here are a few things that I've come up with that seem to help -

Play outside your system
Work with different weapons, different, and new people.
Try absolutely different pursuits.
Particularly look for resistance to certain things and go do them.
Keep your eyes open and you will see the links and the patterns without forcing them, and remember, the most potent place for improvement are in mistakes, errors, close shaves .... and losses ...

Other suggestions welcome.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Music Improvisation, Conversation and Creativity

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, or the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change." - Darwin

Listen to this:

I've been thinking for while about how dueling involves 2 distinct, yet parallel and interactive, brain functions - the one that 'does' and the one that 'plans'.
The above link is a radio interview with a neurosurgeon and his work with Jazz musicians.
It's fascinating to hear that the experience of playing improvised jazz with another human is the same as my experience of free sparring/dueling with an opponent. I mean, it is not surprising in the least, the first article I ever wrote about Eskrima was called 'The Art of Conversation', but still most interesting to hear it talked about in these terms.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


My system of FMA assumes the sword is the first, and primary, weapon. Learn the sword, and everything else will follow.
Other systems leave the sword until last, or separate it into it's own special section. Most FMA styles start with stick, move from there to empty hand, and then to edged weapons, maybe, last of all.

There are many reasons for the order in which things are taught, and each series has it's pros and cons. It's taken a long time, but I can understand, finally, why it is the way it is in my style - sword first .... well I should say I 'might' understand, after all it is only my opinion ....

I've written before that the sword is a singular weapon, it really is! Disregarding all the variations in usage due to shape and size, edged weapons have one thing in common - if you are holding one, your opponent will think twice before entering into your space. Even if they are twice your size and they can break you like a twig, even if there are more than one of them, you still have time, and the possibility, of averting taking damage if you are skilled enough and smart enough.

So, it follows that if holding a sword takes power and force out of the equation ..... what else is there?
Well, obviously a more tactical game, and given the presence of swords there is now the space to explore these other universes, a space much harder to find when there is no real threat to keep an aggressor out*.
So, a place to discover tactics for when you are faced with an overwhelming force, when you are at a disadvantage, or seem to be facing loss.
A space to learn about psychology, hooks, triggers, and threat, of danger and cost and the price of victory. None of which is possible if you are too big and strong to contemplate needing it, or too small and weak to even imagine that the possibility exists.

Sonny said: "Accuracy first, then power, then speed" - A recipe for upping anyone's game, even those who rely first and foremost on power and speed, but especially for those that have neither.

*The other great forum to practice tactics without power and speed is in the grappling arts, but they are limited to the tactile variety as they work from contact.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The First Problem

Every time you attack, you are open ...
Put another way, if you can get them ... they can get you, and the thing they can get most easily is the part of you that is closest to them, which, in all probability, is your weapon hand.
Sword designers know this of course, so any weapon designed for combat usually has some kind of hand protection, a guard of some kind. This can take the form of a cross piece, a basket, a cover, a thumb guard, or a curve in the blade that deflects cuts away from the hand.
(Of course even with a hand guard the arm is still a target, it's just a little harder to get to as it is further away and behind an obstacle (the guard itself).)

In the Visayan style I practice, the weapons generally have no hand guard at all, because it is a system designed for 'daily carry' blades - Bolos, Goloks etc - and these are utility knives/tools. What this means is, because the piece of kindling, coconut, or chicken you are cutting is not going to cut back, they are deemed unnecessary.
This means that when you use the same blade in a combative setting, the first necessity is to protect is the hand, because basically, no hand = no weapon.

So the ability to target the hand and to not be a target is the first problem to solve, and the first game to play. It is part of our First Flow - playing at the edge of the range and 'picking' targets whenever they appear.

First lesson:

Learn how not to get hand tagged.
Learn to tag the opponent's hand.
Learn to not get tagged AND tag at the same time.

More advanced:
Learn how to use body angle and weight shift instead of stepping to play the margin. Also, learn the limits of this game - when to bait a tagger, and when it is too dangerous and what new game to play.

The most important pieces here are understanding range, but also understanding repetitive rhythm and the ability to mirror/read you opponent's patterns, whilst making your own movement as unreadable as possible. The ability to be accurate is also an absolute necessity.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Moment of Choice

There are certain moments that are more useful to you than others, especially if you are fighting from a position of disadvantage - in other words, you are weaker, smaller, or perhaps outnumbered.

If you constantly resist against what is going on (literally force vs force) you can get exhausted pretty fast. Direct power will not win out against a stronger opposition ..... But timing might.

You have to choose your moment, but the moments before the right one cannot be approached passively. You must use them well, and you must avoid taking damage whilst you are creating your own. You must also know when you need not do anything and retain energy, when you are not in immediate danger, when there is a status quo, or when resisting is a path of diminishing returns.
You also need to know how you can deflect, shear, and slip, and how to cause motion to your advantage, both physically and psychologically.
There will always be some kind of movement, but it may be just shifting your center, or going limp. It may also involve doing something counter intuitive like falling into your opponent or opening yourself up more. Perhaps changing your emotional output, or the words you are using ....
The only way to understand these moments, and learn to do the smart thing, is to find them, dwell, experiment, and see what is possible. It's a weird world with no right answers and nothing guaranteed, and to practice, you have to put yourself in vulnerable situations, play outside your comfort zone, and not rely on what you already have. But the pay off is good - and often with a much higher chance of success ... at least compared to the 'almost zero' of the alternative path .....
If there are situations where you always seem to lose, then perhaps you are not being creative enough in your approach? If you always have difficulty with a particular opponent or a particular series of moves always ends in your demise, why?

How early can you change the script?

How late can you save the situation?

PS: If you are always putting yourself in situations/duels where you can win ... you will never learn this.

Monday, November 12, 2012


In an adversarial interaction like a duel it's a pretty sure bet that your opponent does not want to do what you want them to, and will in fact avoid doing what you want.
But ....the only way to truly control the game is to manipulate your opponent, so how do you practice making someone do what you want them to?

First, you have to understand who they are and what they want.
The 'what they want' part is quite easy .... they want to strike you down and win.
The 'who they are' is a bit trickier, but essential to find out, because this will tell you what they are willing to do to get 'what they want' ... and also what they cannot resist.
Learning what they want to avoid is also a useful exercise, for instance, losing status can sometimes be way more of a motivator that protecting self. Also certain qualities of movements can disturb more than others.

Learning these things about another person involves watching them and trying to trigger responses. These responses will vary from person to person, and higher skilled players will probably be less 'reactive' than the less skilled which in itself is useful information to have.

Sonny used to say that 'In training you are immortal'. So this is indeed where you have to take the time and learn this ability, because it takes time to watch, and learn to see what's going on, and it takes time to create realistic triggers that create usable responses in others.

Many of us don't know what we look like to our fellow players and opponents, and this fact is compounded by the fact that each of our opponents will see us differently.

You have to learn what THEY see, and you have to SEE what they do ....

Possibly the 2 most important skills you'll need.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Acknowledging Hits

Interesting conversation going on regarding how to frame a set of rules for competitive sword sparring. In this case Bolognese style, which looks like great fun but I profess to know nothing about.

This post is inspired by the discussion about rules for competition, not as a critique about this particular set (that actually seems quite sensible), as I know nothing about their system, but more as a springboard to put forward my point of view on rules and sparring in general.

I for one am not a fan of rules .... the more you have the less realism and smart adaptation you get ... I mean you get adaptation ... but to the rules, and as the rules are there generally for safety, and dueling really is not a safe sport, the adaptions become silly, and purely focused on the rule-defined-win, which is often very far away from anything approaching realism.

For me, the first question, before any format is drawn up, should be - Why include free form sparring in the system at all?

My answer would be - Because what you train in a more formal/playful setting, should work, and be put to good use in a combative setting also. If it does not manifest, or does not work, the material should be revisited and perhaps revised. Sparring is a place to test this.

Sword sparring, in my opinion, should be integral to the learning process, the goal of which is to understand as closely as possible, the weapon you are using and the context you are using it in. Ideally, should some time machine or teleporter be invented that could throw you into a time and a place where you really needed to 'do your thing', the training should have given you as strong a chance as possible to prevail.
If this is the goal .... and for some it may not be (and of course there is also the debate as to the actual parameters of the skills we practice ..... but if it IS the goal) then the only rule I would want to instill in any free sparring scenario, is the acknowledgement of hits.
OK .... I also like The Dog Brothers - 'Be friends at the end of the day, and have both participants leave with the same IQ that they started with', AND 'Only you are responsible for you' ......
The safety requirements should be taken care of through the design of the training weapons used, and the protective equipment worn, which should be kept relevant to context, again to prevent stupid decision making.

But back to acknowledging hits ....
If you read the Facebook conversation linked to from this blog post, you will see a few different points of view on this.
Here is mine, and the reasons why I think it is a worthy skill, and an important part of sparring.

First off - Some strikes are more incapacitating than others, and I think it obviously valuable to practice fighting through hits, so I do not equate acknowledgement of a hit with stopping the play. It's perfectly possible to acknowledge with no break in play ... and if this is not possible, it means your forebrain needs more training to keep up, as it is what strategizes and makes the smart decisions, and SHOULD be on line and paying attention.

Some commented in the discussion that in the heat of the moment, you can't be expected to notice these hits, and leaving it up to the player can cause grief when they do not acknowledge being hit.
I understand this point, but would counter with the idea that the very practice of noticing should be part and parcel of the play.
IF, and I say again IF, the idea is to protect yourself and prevail with as little injury to your person as possible, the hits against you are hugely important to notice, acknowledge and work to try and avoid next time. I think that leaving the noticing to an external source ONLY hands over responsibility that should be yours and yours alone. By all means have an external observer as an extra set of eyes, or as a corroborating witness, but do not rely on them to stop the game or call the hits.
Acknowledge them, NOT so you can stop and run away/give up/roll over ... but because you want to avoid them in the future.

Another issue that came up in the discussion is what is disparagingly known as 'knife dancing' in some circles - This is when both parties dance about out of range and neither wants to enter. The feeling was that focusing on the taking of hits would prevent entries and 'real action'. Well, good. That's probably realistic. Who the hell in their right mind would want to engage an armed enemy if they did not need to?

Which brings me to ......
If you want to create a reason to engage, figure out a goal that is separate from 'winning' against the opponent. Perhaps there is an object that both sides try to get and take out of the arena? Or perhaps one is guarding the object and the other needs to get past them. Perhaps one has friends coming and one needs to escape before they show up?
Focusing too much on defeating the opponent is often a flawed goal. This "Monkey Dance" with lethal weapons is a mixed up set of circumstances, and the lethality of the weapons should dictate that this is a fight for survival NOT for dominance.
Learning how to do it better, and gaining this ability to prevail and get away, is far more sensible than the old Filipino story that describes the aftermath of a standard challenge match  ..... One goes to the hospital .... and the other goes to the morgue.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


So, yeah, 3 hours .... not enough .....
But maybe enough to fill the head and nervous system ...?
(All feedback gladly accepted)

From my end - Had a great time yesterday though probably talked too much. Really hard working, communicative, and receptive group ... and the first group totally outside my system to try out some of the drills progressions I'm getting together for an e-book/video on cheating ... OK, tactical thinking ..... ;-)
Ostensibly it will be a book about Faking, Baiting, Freezing and Looping, but the preliminaries to doing these successfully - an accurate understanding of range/space, threat/safety, time/rhythm, human tendencies - have to come first.
Yesterday was mostly about range, playing with the margins, and learning to experience and notice what is ACTUALLY going on.
We also looked at how blades work, how edged weapons are unique in how they move. How close you need to get to use them, and some of the counter intuitive things you need to do when facing them.
Looks like this may turn into a series of workshops, so with any luck I'll get to test out more of these progressions in the not too distant future.

Thanks again to Peter and Soja Martial Arts for hosting, and the invite back. Next time, probably focus more on the hand as target, and take it from there ....

Monday, October 29, 2012

3 Hours

It has occurred to me over the years that there is much in common between learning dueling and learning life drawing (drawing from a live model). Many people say they 'can't draw', but that's only because they have not learned how to see what's there. Perhaps they have tried to learn by tracing other people's pictures, but once confronted by a real model they are totally intimidated. The whole process can seem a mystery, and some might start to believe that only artists with innate talent can do it ..... Of course, this is not true.

When you first look, you may not think that the hand, or foot, or ear can possibly be that big in relation to the rest of the body, or be able to perceive how one piece can seamlessly join to the next, but once you understand that the geometry does not lie and how to be part of it, your drawings start to look like real people.

First step is learning how to see what is actually there ... as opposed to what you THINK is there.
Of course there are many pieces to this 'seeing', and many things to be seen, but it is not infinite, and the first step is to learn HOW to do it, because it is a skill that needs training like any muscle in the body.

And what of individual style and artistic flair?
This is the alchemy that happens once the 'seeing', and the mechanical calculations are absorbed by the practitioner and are expressed through the drawing implement, and that is singular and not really teachable. What IS teachable is this seeing from which all else comes, and I'd much rather do that than handing out a color by numbers book and a box of crayons.

I only have 3 hours next weekend to introduce my view of sword dueling to a new group of folks. These are not necessarily people interested in learning my style or training for any length of time in the sword arts, but are mostly curious about the flavor of Filipino dueling and learning some more about edged weapons in general.
Generally my goal in these short introductory workshops is to open up imaginations and perhaps inspire a few to take up the engaging pursuit of working with swords, but perhaps more importantly,  to start delving into the fascinating world of tactics so they can troubleshoot themselves.

So, 3 hours .... not a great deal of time to learn or practice, in fact only enough to skim the surface and dip into a few of the concepts and play a little.

Here's what I think we will do:

Spend some time looking at how edged weapons differ from others, how they move, how they cut, and the different ways they can be used. Then talk a little about context, and narrow down the way the Visayan Style of sword use dictates the tactics and the flow.

Spend time with recognizing range, looking at the line between safety and danger, and playing with the margin. Also practice seeing planes and angles, and working with weight shift and body angle to gain advantage. Then move on to how to use this information to see the empty spaces, and use this to steal range and thus the timing.

We'll definitely look at hand targeting and avoidance, and the tactics this engenders.

From there, probably a deeper look at the space between the players, how to calculate the geometry, define center line, left right, and forward, back, look at the meaning of 'neutral' and start some basic flow with the pendulum stepping.

Play some 2nd flow within the pendulum stepping and half body pendulum and look at the 3 main openings possible + exits.

So basically we will be comparing pencils with charcoal and pen, and looking at their relative qualities, learning how to frame a composition, divide up the paper and understand how to use the body to measure the space we are drawing in, and the object we are drawing.

Perhaps even make some art ..... :-)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Tough Sell?

I was talking with a painting client today, a psychotherapist, and she asked me about my view of martial arts.
We talked about why people train, what I have personally gotten out of it, and how I pass the gift I feel I got from my teachers forward.
I think at some point I said something about how odd it is to have discovered so much cool 'life stuff' from practicing an out-of-context, esoteric, dueling art, and being the good listener and questioner she is, she managed to pin me down to a simple observation about why this practice is not more popular in the general community, seeing as my experience was so illuminating.
There are many reasons of course, but it basically boils down to this -

- It is hard to sell the goal of being comfortable in chaos and the ability to surf uncertainty when most people are looking for definitive answers and absolute certainty.

The gift I got, and how I teach now, is not a method that ends with the presentation of an ornate box of wisdom, with fear squashed into a tiny space beneath, it is a trip to a never ending masquerade ball where fear and ego are the dance partners ....

And there are swords ... lots of them ....

See, that sounds like fun to me .... but apparently this is not a view shared by the many ..

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Trust Your Gear

There are many pastimes that involve safety gear - rock climbing for instance. Rock climbing is absolutely possible without gear, it's just you better not make any mistakes, because the gear is what will save your arse if you do.
Every climber I know checks their gear carefully and thoroughly, keeping tally of how many falls a rope has taken, checking the webbing and stitching on their harness, the clips on their carabiners, and of course checking knots at belays.
Skydivers make sure their parachute is in good shape and packed correctly, and that their altimeter is working, divers check their regulators, tanks and watches.

Once it's time to lean back to rapel down the cliff face, jump out of the plane, or hit the water however, you go. At that point all the checking is done, and if it's all good, it's time to trust your gear.

Sword defense is similar. Instead of gear, you now have skills you have trained, patterns you can recognize, an appreciation of the link between space and time, a knowledge of human tendencies, an overall view of a situation. This is your safety gear, this is what will keep you 'alive'.
Now it's time to jump .... and trust it. There is too much going on, too little time to waste on worrying about it once it kicks off. Focus on the target, the win, let the defense take care of itself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sword Workshop - 3rd Nov 2012

Soja Martial Arts is hosting an afternoon sword workshop on November 3rd 2012.
We'll be looking at how weapon design influences tactics and movement, work on some blade manipulation and evasion, and run through some random flow drills that explore range, timing, and deception .... which is alot for 3hrs .. but it will give a taste, and Peter says we can run over ... :-)
More info - here

Sunday, October 14, 2012

I Want Never Gets ....?

In the same way that you can target fixate and get tunnel vision on real things in space, so you can with ideas and goals.
Nothing wrong with single point focus, pure intent, clear purpose. Very useful and effective ...... Unless the very fact of 'wanting' creates a bridge for your opponent - Want something too much, and you leave a hook dangling out in space for them to exploit.

Baits only look tempting to those waiting (hoping?) for errors, because that is what will appear.
Openings seem inviting if you really want them to be there.
It's a fine line between looking a gift horse in the mouth and seeing something that is too good to be true.
The only true way to understand the difference is to watch, experience, and learn to differentiate.
To keep with the theme .... There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but some are definitely more expensive than others.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Be Yourself

Good martial arts training should put information and skills straight into your physical body without having to pass through the cognitive functions of the brain.

I'm not saying you can't, or shouldn't think when you train - to improve your proprioception, or enhance skills by consciously modifying them - but what you really HAVE, what you really OWN, is what comes out when you do not think.
It follows therefore that this is where the skills should live - in the highly adaptable, reactive, part of your being, not the part that has to think about it.
This does not negate the need to strategize or rationalize, but this can happen AT THE SAME TIME as you are using your physical skills, and does not need to conflict.

This ability to truly 'surf' the moment separates the great from the mediocre, and is observable from the outside. Most would probably agree that it is quite easy to see a qualitative difference in a person that has authentic skills compared to someone trying to be skilled, because the actor is recreating a picture of the real thing, whereas the person that really knows .... is just DOING THE THING, not looking like the picture of it.

It's actually quite hard to 'just do', but it is a worthwhile practice, and seems to be trained most efficiently in a random play context (this is, I believe, why Sonny's method was so effective), often at a speed too fast for the cognitive functions to intervene and screw things up (though not so fast that the nervous system freezes).
Once you can trust your body to get on with it, it becomes easier and easier to leave it alone ... but you'll never trust it if you don't get to experience the feeling, and most of us have a really hard time letting go.

There are reasons of course why this is hard to do and cannot be 'willed', because all the parts of you that hold a self image, and words like 'should', 'perhaps', 'must', and 'technique', will try to prevent you from just letting go, even prevent you from acting all together.
Call it performance anxiety, or a desire for success, or a fear of failure if you like, but the part of your brain that lives there will screw up the physical part of you that is perfectly capable of acting without it, if you let it intervene. And trust me, it WILL intervene if it can, even if you think you are flowing in the moment and all is spontaneous .... and it will almost certainly happen when you are losing ... or any other time your ego/monkey gets to put an oar in.

So next time your brain editor tries to manage your actions, try to let it go, and if you need to trick yourself by rationalizing that this is a good idea, tell yourself to trust your body, because what is truly known WILL come out, and if worse comes to the worst, and nothing comes out, you are many steps closer to attaining true competence than if you continually avoid ever finding out what's actually living in there.

Thanks again to Rory Miller for a great weekend of conversation, of both the physical and non physical varieties.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


I wrote a post a while back called The Art of Living .... idea being that in dueling, there is little art in killing and less in dying, so ultimately the 'Art' in 'Martial Art' in concerned with getting away ....

The other day I was working out with a friend, and we started doing a cooperative flow drill, and after a few minutes when it seemed like we both were moving pretty well, I started to talk tactics and how doing what we were doing could evolve into part of an adversarial duel.
My friend said ... 'But I'm just interested in the 'art', seemingly implying he wanted to keep doing the drill and not get into the messy section about competitiveness, winning and losing.
We started a discussion, and I said that I considered all the pieces of the system that are considered 'art' inextricably connected to the ability to prevail, that you cannot practice the artistry without keeping the goal in mind. In fact the art is not art if it does not work.

I know there does not have to be any 'art' for something to be deemed 'martial', but there is a certain elegance, effortlessness and precision that can give some solutions to conflict a sense of being more, better ..... beautiful, even.
The artistry can be creative, inspired or unexpected, though of course it can be destructive too ... a thing of darkness, it can also be breathtakingly cold, stark and amoral. But regardless of which part of the spectrum the artistry falls, it still has to work.
The art really is not separate from the deed, you can't gain one without the other ... and oddly enough, it only really becomes true art once it has an audience, even if the audience is your opponent, and they have no idea of what just happened.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Thought Experiments


You and another person are in a courtyard. At the far end is a prize. What this prize is, is up to your imagination, but it's important enough to fight over.
The first one to reach the prize, wins. The other pays a forfeit.

Imagine that you are faster than your opponent - Your ability gives you the edge, as long as you can get to the prize before they can reach you.
If you are bigger and stronger, perhaps you would choose to run at the opponent first, take them out of the game, and then go for the prize.
If you are equal, or lesser, to your opponent in all these ways, what would you do?
Distract them? Psyche them out? What?

Now imagine that both of you are armed with swords ...........

What if the prize is your life?

The prize is the goal, not the defeat of the opponent.

The opponent is an obstruction that must be overcome, but need not necessarily be engaged if you are much superior, either in speed or guile. If so, they are inconsequential.
If however they are superior to you, in any, or all of the ways they can be, and you are the inconsequential one ….. then what?


Same scenario

- If you are much faster you may not need to engage at all. If they are faster, you will need to stop them. How?

- If you are bigger and more powerful, it probably does not matter if they can catch you, but if they are more powerful than you, how do you engage?

- If you are faster, but they are more powerful, you should avoid them, or choose how/when to engage. How?

- If all things are more or less equal, how do you gain an advantage without taking damage ....?

Everything is relative, and your tactics must match with the opponent's strengths and weaknesses for you to be able to prevail.
It's not all about you .... it's about the "you-and-them-situation".

Monday, September 24, 2012

Losing the Plot

 There is a big difference between reading how to do something, being told how to do something by someone that knows, and finding it out for yourself through a 3 dimensional, real time, experience.

There are few places in the world where actual dueling with swords still takes place, and where learning how to do this is still regarded as a valuable skill set.
This means that we are all pretty much learning from books or from 'someone that knows', where 'someone that knows' tends to be someone that just knows the training experience, not the actual experience, of dueling with live blades. Some of us have been luckier, but the older generation will soon be gone, and what do we have moving forward from here?
Students that have no idea what they are doing, learning from people that have been told what to do from those that, perhaps, maybe, really knew, but were also perhaps fighters with no concept in their own minds of what it was like NOT to know ....

The risk of misunderstanding through just a few generations cannot be underestimated ....

However .... when you really look at it, dueling is not a great mystery, there are no big secrets or magic techniques, and the abilities one needs to prevail are purely a consequence of necessity. All the answers are there to see ... IF you can learn how to look.

So where to start?

By understanding the basic premis of what is going on - 2 people with lethal, pointy, sharp, metal objects are trying to prevent each other from leaving the field.
Why this is so is another question, but let us assume that engagement has become a necessity and one must defend their life against the other.

Given this scenario, what else do we know, and what can we assume?

- We can assume that at least one of the two wants to live, or at least get away as unscathed as possible (I know if it was me, I certainly would).

- We cannot assume that the opponent cares whether they live or not, but we can assume that they would like to prevent the other from leaving the field, and if we are lucky, that they too would prefer to live.

- We know that edged weapons cause severe damage with little power, so we can assume that at least one of the two does not want to be touched by the point or the edge if at all possible (That would be me).


Then there are some geometrical, physiological and psychological factors that are also useful to know.

- There is a safe space called 'out of range' the parameters of which can be practiced and understood.

- There is also a concept called 'Being off the line (of the attack)' which has the same effect.

- Each sword has a way of moving and cutting that can be predicted, and there is a certain time that cutting and recycling the blade takes. Each sword will be different, but each does have parameters to it's possibilities depending on length, weight, blade design, handle design, and these can be understood.

- Movement changes the range - time and space are interchangeable.

- The fact that humans have only 2 arms and 2 legs limits movement options, and these can be predicted over time with practice.

- The sword is held in the hand(s) and as such any cut that can reach a target will always expose the hand/arm to danger. A cut to the hand/arm, because it holds the sword, is to be avoided.

- Human are fairly predictable as we are social animals. We are not all the SAME, but we have general parameters to our interactive behavior that can be understood. The fact that an opponent wants something, in this case the defeat of the other, means that there is a point of contact that can be played with.


I will say that pretty much everything that I learned about dueling, and everything that I do when I practice is because of this list of parameters, possibly coming down to an even more basic overarching concept -

"Hit them but don't get hit yourself" or even better "Get away alive".
That's it.

That's the whole plot.

And how you do that is what a system is.

Now, how you teach that, the method that you use, is the tricky part. And in my opinion the method has to follow the plot to understand the system. Lose the plot, and it all becomes just disconnected objects. Keep the plot in mind however, and it all falls into place.

Of course, the only way to keep the plot the least bit realistic is to have the protagonist interact with the antagonist, with both playing their roles to the completion of the story arc. But ..... and this is a big BUT ....
REMEMBER ..... your opponent ALSO thinks they are the protagonist, and thus should win. 

Forgetting that is the downfall of many methods, regardless of the quality of the system.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Guy was on the radio talking about how to throw a knuckleball .....
Apparently there is a documentary coming out about this strange baseball pitch, and it has this great byline:

"To gain power you must first give up control"

 Check it out -

I have NO interest in baseball, never have, but listening to this guy talk about what he does, and watching the trailer, makes me want to see this documentary! There seem to be many similarities between the weirdness of the pitch, how it manifests in the pitcher, it's undoubted efficacy, and the public's reaction to it, that connect this rare ability with that of very high level sword players ...

Here's a quote from the radio interview :
"I really didn't have a need for a knuckleball because I threw the ball pretty hard and was going to be a first-round draft pick because I had the ability to throw the ball 94, 95 miles an hour, which usually puts you in as a top-round pick. And so I really didn't have a need for it. I could get guys out with the weapons that I already had. ...
"[Then, after] I had been a conventional pitcher for some time professionally and, you know, I had to come to terms with my own mediocrity. And that's a hard thing to do for an athlete. And thankfully I had shown the knuckleball enough in my practice sessions and occasionally when I threw it in a game where Orel Hershiser, the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, said I think you can do this the full time, because what you're doing now as a conventional pitcher just wasn't going to cut it anymore. And so I had to take that next step and I did that in 2005." R A Dickey

So ... unpredictability trumps speed and power eh ....?

Sounds like my kind of thing :-)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Luo Lessons

Reviewing physical events is hard to do in words - One can wax lyrical about an 'eye opening session' or the 'mind blowing week', but it never really means much to those that were not there.
This is particularly true of seminar reviews, and this is a pity, because it would be fabulous to understand a little more about others' methods, and the participants' interaction with them. But how to communicate 'experience'?

That said, here is my version - A review of this year's seminar series with Luo DeXiu:

"Lessons for 2012" :-

The best way to really 'get' something, is to attach as many adjectives in front of the movement, and play with it - Do it soft, hard, fast, slow, smooth, chewy, heavy, careless, backwards.
Then do it twice.
Then add people ..... and then go back.

There are as many differences between the Internal Arts as there are similarities.

How the hell did anyone learn any of this without being able to ask questions?

It's hard to be unpredictable if you don't know what is predictable.

You can develop 'sticky hands' to such an extent that they feel like a cat's tongue licking your arm.

The thing you do BEFORE the thing that issues power is hugely important. Without it, stuff does not work as well.

Patience and watching/listening, sometimes confused with 'waiting', is hugely important in taking advantage of a set up. It gives you the timing.

The thing before the thing before, may be the key to a successful set up .... that's 3 beats you need to keep hold of.

Always keep your teeth together and your neck open and your feet alive when teacher says "This one a bit hurt" and grabs you to demo on. (Actually I learned this a long time ago ... but it's still funny - And no there is never damage, just momentary disorientation and shock)

It seems impossible to get out of the first 'O' of the OODA loop once you are stuck there.

I don't think you can gain Luo's level of skill unless you find it fun. The relaxed and fluid quality of his movement, and the power that this generates, only seems possible if you can smile.

We all need feedback as to how hard/soft we hit/grab/yank. You can't tell on your own.

Tai Ji is by far the nastiest of the 3 'Internals' - Favorite Tai Ji quote: "Outside, so nice, so smiling, so peaceful ... but inside, my heart is dirty! It's truth!!"

Bagua uses movement and psychology to set up the opponent before contact in the same way as Visayan Eskrima does with swords.

Oh, and a small reminder to teachers that feel like they are repeating material, and saying the same things over and over - this is not true. The space connecting your thoughts, words, and actions to the student is long, and filled with black holes. The message may take years to get through undistorted even if you speak the same language, use everyday words and are adept at physical theater. You are basically teaching the blind about 'blue'. It'll take some time .....

Monday, September 10, 2012

One Hit Wonder

This is a clip, from a movie called Ame Agaru (After the Rain) that I came upon randomly. I have not seen the whole movie, but it won all kinds of prizes so it seems like it might be worth a watch.

What follows is a seemingly pointless exercise - a critique of a movie duel, so to get a couple things out of the way first ....
Yes, I know it's a movie duel, thus choreographed to look cool to an audience, and not much more.
And, yes, I know movies are not real.

But ..... in the same way that movies create fantasy expectations that are damaging to skill building, they can also point out more interesting things, perhaps about dueling or human behavior, that lie underneath the overt message ......

In this clip for instance, we have the common Samurai hero architype - cool, calm, collected, focused, efficient and spare.
We also have his opponents - portraying their lesser skill by emoting strongly, trying to unsettle our hero by using their intent (which can work on the weak), yet ultimately not knowing how to create a successful entry.

We have come to understand this contrast as a perfect paradigm for; one who knows, versus one who does not. And it's not too far from truth, highly sanitized and stylized for sure, but still containing some grain of authenticity.

Overtly, the movie seems to indicate that at the highest level you can stand in front of an opponent undisturbed, wait for them to make their move, evade, and counter perfectly. But what it really shows is something completely different that looks the same from the outside, yet is totally different from the inside.

Our hero is not waiting for something to happen, and blithely countering. He gets to look cool, calm and collected, because he actually DOES know what's going to happen next. He set it up even before he draws his bokken.
He knows, for instance, that one of the highest valued skills in the context of Japanese sword play is the clean, single, finishing blow, and that this pervades all levels of training. He has also noticed, I'm sure, that his opponents are all fresh faced and probably never fought outside the training hall.

I have to say that I kept willing his opponents to fake, either in timing or in doubling the cut angle ... but no, these tactics are apparently not taught in their system .... something that our hero takes full advantage of.
A risky assumption you say? Sure .... but not an outlandish one, faking is a higher level skill, and even in systems that value it highly, hard to pull off well ......

So, is there anything of use to take away?

I'd say yes - If you are facing someone who is very good ... DO NOT play a game they can predict, and DO NOT mimic what they do without first understanding how it works.

Here's a quote about predictability from John Boyd:  
“Understanding the OODA loop enables a commander to compress time - that is, the time between observing a situation and taking an action. A commander can use the temporal discrepancy .. to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most effective action. The enemy can also figure out what might be the most effective. To take the least-expected action disorients the enemy. It causes him to pause, wonder, to question.” Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

It is a good lesson indeed to remember that those tied to a way of thinking because of the system that they practice will be predictable to those who can see it, and thus doomed to lose.

So, again, what makes these guys so predictable?
Single entries with predictable timing.
Our hero knows he will be facing single entries, even if done in combination -
'One', 'One', 'One', 'One'. As opposed to
'Onenoit'snot'! or 
'O - ne', or even
'Onenoit'snot - yesitis'!
He also knows the cultural peer pressure to try to do well in front of an audience and impress the teacher and tribe. This means the opponent will want to enter, and be compelled to do so even if this means making a mistake ... and that when they do, they will be aiming for this simple, single, clean strike - because that is what will get the most 'points'.
Therefore all he has to do is - Seem open, invite them in, set them up for a particular strike by presenting a suitable target ... and there you have it. All he needs to know is when they are coming, and that should be easy to read because of the emotional tension caused by performance anxiety.

If you know all this stuff, it's easy to take advantage of it, you are already at 'A', whilst they are busy at O, O, and D.

So yeah, it's a movie duel, but still plenty to have fun with :-)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Burton Considers 'The Retreat'

 Following on from the previous extract from the book 'Sentiment of the Sword', some more wise words about the how to avoid taking hits from Sir Richard.

It's gratifying to note that way back from George Silver in 1599, through these words of Sir Richard, probably spoken in the late 1800s, and Sonny in the early 21st century, there is a continuity of thought in regard to the importance of evasion.

What I find most interesting, however, is how these swordsmen have found such resistance to their ideas, to the point that they all feel they have a fight to put their views across.
I think Sir Richard comes closest to understanding the reason for this - Basic assumptions on how one on one fighting is done 'right', tapping into all the unspoken rules of tribal culture we take for granted, and the deeply ingrained brain circuits that make it so.
As I have mentioned before in this blog, the problem with dueling with swords is that it is a lethal undertaking ... something that hierarchy fights (Monkey Dances) in nature rarely are .... and this causes the perennial problem of double deaths, or deaths from pride ... rather then the more attractive option of living through skill that seem to make way more sense ......
It's hard to train people past this tendency, but I guess this is not a new problem .....

Anyway, back to Sir Richard:

"To advance upon the sword is always the most dangerous action and the most difficult part of the Art of Arms.
"It loses time; it uncovers one side by covering the other, and it cannot be effected without somewhat shaking the play. It is only comparatively safe for a very short man against men much taller than himself.
"Nor must you think the retreat, as some do, injurious to the ripost; on the contrary, it makes the latter at once surer and easier.
"It often happens that after a lunge freely made the lunger remains for a time without recovering himself, attempting second thrusts, or remise de main, straight thrusts on one side where the parry took place. The two adversaries are now at quarters so close that the ripost can hardly be made without shortening the arm and exposing the breast. A step backwards saves all this.
"Nothing prettier, nothing more artistic, I freely own, than the parry and ripost, delivered with the feet motionless as a statue's. That tic! tac! movement is the height of art. But against fencers of different styles, perhaps dangerous withal, you must not often attempt such tours de force; otherwise, like the man who hunts for tigers on foot, your discomfiture is only a matter of time. You may do it, as you may not bet, only when you are certain of your 'coup'. To make it the systematic base of your play is, I believe, unreasonable as it is dangerous.

"And if" said Charles, laughing, "the adversary do the same, you'll soon find yourself not only out of sword reach, but out of pistol shot."

"The result will be three advantages to you, a thing certainly not to be despised.
"Firstly, if your opponent has had the same thought, or has received the same advice, it is testimony in favour of the maneuver.
"Secondly, his rapid retreat clearly shows you that he also dreads surprises and 'closing-in' movements, that his chances of success will not be sought in this order of ideas, and that his attacks will be prudent and reasoned.
"Thirdly, and especially when preparing for actual combat, these few seconds of preamble allow you to settle your equilibrium to draw upon your self confidence, to face without emotion that sword point which threatens you, and to allay the first involuntary movement of anxiety which, in such cases, the strongest nature must endure for a moment. Moreover you have been able to trap your adversary in a comprehensive glance of observation, and to draw your own conclusions from his position, from his handling of the sword, and from the general way in which he offers battle.
This renders it worth your while to stand for a few minutes even out of pistol shot.
"A low murmur received these remarks, so I continued them.
"My mind has long been made up to this point, and my pupils must perforce do the same. It is the more necessary for me to impress it upon them, because the masters are against me almost to a man.
The highest honour is justly given by them, as by myself, to the parry without retreat. The retiring parry, on the other hand, is unjustly regarded by them a a resource in extremis, as a last refuge, a confession that the action wants quickness, or the judgement maturity. And many professors would, I am certain, rather see their pupils "buttoned" than escape by a pace backwards.
"Perhaps there is a deeper cause for this prejudice than is usually suspected. In old duels men have been tied by the left foot, and even in parts of Europe, Heidelberg, for instance, a line of chalk marks the ne plus ultra of retreat. The idea of "falling back" is always distasteful, and the single step to the rear in the rude and instinctive judgement of men represents the premier pas of flight. I once made a man an enemy for life by simply saying during hand to hand "scrimmage", "Don't fall back".
Let me thus state my rule to the contrary:
"In general and on principle, accompany the parry with a retreat of either a full pace or a half pace, according to action of your adversary. Parry with firm foot only when, like a conjuror forcing a card, you have led the adversary to make the attack for which you are prepared.
"If you see in the opponent a disposition to attack with firm foot within middle measure, without either advancing or retreating by sudden and irregular movements, never attempting to surprise nor deceive by unforseen combinations, then a tic! tac! or two may be allowed. But beware of the man - especially if there is what hair cutters call a "thinness" upon the upper part of his head, or of his beard show a slight powdering of pepper and salt - who tries to shorten distance between himself and you by stealthily gaining ground under the mask of some well-devised feint.
Faenum habet in cornu.
"Finally, I am strict with my pupils upon the manner of their retreat. Some shuffle the left foot, others take a succession of steps, or rather back stumble, which seem really to be the beginning of flight. But, above all things, I warn the learner never to stand within measure - a position of endless and useless danger to himself or the adversary: perhaps I should say to himself and the adversary."

- Sir Richard Burton (Sentiment of the Sword)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Sentiment of the Sword

"The adversary attacks you; you parry; he doubles himself up, as it were, and your riposte touches his mask, his back or his arm. "The mask! the back! the arm!" says your antagonist, recovering guard indifferently, and airily denotes with his sinister finger tips the place of dishonour. And there are many who go on lunging as if nothing has occured.
"The mask, sir! But do you reflect that this thrust might have passed through your brain, which would have been quite as effectual as passing through your lungs? That other would have itroduced six inches of cold steel into your back. The third would have pinned your arm to your breast. You place your face, your back, your arm where your breast should be. I touch what is before me, and feel, you may be certain, amply satisfied with the result.
"Do you really believe that were the button removed from the foils you would consider it equivalent to parrying or to escaping a thrust, this substitution of one part for the another? That you are out of danger because you only expose your head, your back, or your neck to be drilled through?
"Certes, it is the height of desperation to risk blow for blow when both you and your adversary suffer equally. To use such means as those shows that you have no others at your disposal; yet it must always be borne in mind that you must use what you have ..."

From: The Sentiment of the Sword - Sir Richard Francis Burton for more on this fascinating gentleman, and his intrepid wife. Also for download options for the book

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Playing Footsie

The feet can be used directly for attacking - for kicking and throwing/tripping. They are also attached to the rest of the body to promote efficient power generation, leverage and strike angles, for whatever weapon(s) happen to be at the other end. They are also great for getting out of the way.

Unless you have already won, things are changing rapidly either to your advantage, or against. In other words, there is some motion in the system, either from you, or from your opponent, (it does not matter which) but seeing as your opponent's plan probably involves you staying where you are, or moving predictably ... best not do those.

So the goal becomes .... move towards your advantage.

Which in turn means -
- Moving off the line of attack.
- Moving to gain time/cut time.
- Moving to where your hands and body need to be to do something useful.

3 ways to move -
Turn/twist body or pivot
Shift weight/drop/raise weight
Move feet
Either individually, or in combination.

Here is a particularly wonderful Judo training clip, and a couple others, showing the beauty of footwork in different contexts. Enjoy.

Here's the random, footwork training drill from Judo with thanks to Erik The Strange for the find

Here's Jay working with a tennis ball hung from the ceiling  - fun and tremendously useful solo training if you have the imagination to play. 

Here's a nice Capoeira flow ... another partner practice, though in this case the line between footwork and handwork is a bit blurry :-)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Position Before ......

Apparently there are some out there that find footwork boring ...
Surely this is not so!
I can understand how, to some, patterns of movement out of context might seem staid and unnecessary to spend time on - Sonny certainly evolved from teaching preset patterns - but if you are learning a weapon art, especially one using edged weapons, you had better learn to move efficiently and surefootedly. If not, not only will you be eating hits, you will be unable to persuade the person doing the hitting, that they would be better served defending themselves than attacking you.
Of course there is always the option to run around like a rabbit with no purpose, or stand there like a deer caught in the headlights, or bullishly plant the feet to hold ground .... but none of these tend to work out very well.

I will admit to not being a fan of complicated footwork patterns and diagrams for gaining dueling skills, because without an opponent giving you a REASON to move, it all gets lost when things get exciting. I really think you have to learn with another person, within the context of the play, to make it accessible at all times.

However ......  I do think you need to isolate some important stuff, because without the ability to 100% weight shift, understand neutral points/moments within a step (where it is easy to change direction), and without the ability to pivot, switch feet, and use toe and heel pointing to gain balance and accelerate motion off the line (to mention a few), much of what you do with your sword is moot .... because you will more than likely be 'dead'.
The pointy metal object held in the hand might be considered to be the 'business end' in many peoples' eyes ... but it's really just the delivery tool. What lies behind it, all the way from the inner workings of the mind down through to the feet, plays a vastly greater role in ultimate success or failure. (At the very highest levels - more mind, less feet.)

If you do not have the accuracy and precision to put your body where it needs to be, and have multiple options on where it can go next ... it's all a bit pointless.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Luo DeXiu Bay Area Seminars 2012

Rather last notice, though I'm sure the usual suspects will have signed up already, having anticipated Luo laoshi's yearly visit ....

Here is the schedule for anyone else that might be interested:

Weeknight seminars -  7pm to 10pm ($65 or $85 after Aug 31st)
Weekend - Sat: 12.30 - 7.30pm  Sun: 10.30 - 6.30pm ($235 or $285 after Aug 31st)

Mon Sept 3rd - Tai Ji Push Hands
Tues Sept 4th - Hsing-Yi 5 Elements, San Ti and 2 Man Drills
Wed Sept 5th - Ba Gua Zhang Ji Ben Shou Fa
Thurs Sept 6th - Hsing-Yi 12 Phoenix Fists

Sat/Sun Sept 8th/9th - Hsing-Yi 12 Animal Forms and Application

Mon Sept 10th - San Shou (By Invitation Only)
Tues Sept 11th - Ba Gua Zhang 8 Big Openings
Wed Sept 12th - Tai Ji Da Lu

Call 510 527 7760 to register and arrange payment.

As always you can find videos of Luo's movement and method on Youtube. He is a great exponent of the fighting aspect of the Internal Arts - I have seen few with his level of understanding, and ability to teach what he knows - he is very hands on. My best description of crossing hands with him is like playing with an Anaconda in a blender ... or perhaps an electrically charged Tiger .... it's quite exhilarating.
He's also a really nice man, and is apparently getting younger every year.
Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Carenza Rant

A Carenza is a display, a flow of strikes and moves strung together to showcase ability and skills ... Originally, I'm sure, to put the fear of the gods into an adversary, and perhaps save having to fight them at all.
Just search on youtube and you'll see a whole bunch of them .... most of which, sadly, fail to put any kind of fear in me.
There are a few, a very few, which have the desired effect, that seem to come from a different place, a mind and body that can imagine a real adversary that they are trying to impress. There's a different will, a different intent, and it comes out in the movement in stark contrast to the rest. (And yes, it's usually in footage of 'the old men').
So how do they differ? Well, obviously real experience will change your intent and will manifest in the movement ... but what is there to see that makes it physically more believable?

Many people mistake speed and fast movement for skill, twirling and swishing the weapon really fast in endless combination as though that is intimidating ..... What they lack is the understanding that there is a natural rhythm to the thing - power strikes take longer that twirls used to distract, offensive and defensive moves occur at different distances from the body. Fakes, baits and inserts also have a rhythm all their own including enough time for them to work, or not, and sword edge placement, and cut mechanics, are important for each, and every, cut.
These changes in cadence, the body mechanics of power, and the difference in range and intent from offense to defense need to come out in a Carenza for it to be believable - it means you understand what you are doing and are not twirling your weapon round as fast as possible with no idea how it works or where the opponent is.
Oh yeah, and don't look at the floor or randomly into space whilst you concentrate on how good you look .... look at THEM, use your eyes to lead their attention to where you want it to go - Engage!
After all, a Carenza should not be for you, it is a message to someone else.
Make them believe it.
And to do that ...? Yes, sorry, you do actually have to understand, at least somewhat, the game you are about to play. Not only that, you have to understand yourself and your role in this theater.
My Carenza will look totally different from someone of a different size, gender and personality. It needs to make ME look like a threat, and it needs to make me look like a threat to THEM.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


I was lucky to have about the same size hands as Sonny, so any handle he made/redesigned for a weapon fit me too.
They are pieces of art ... not just because they look cool, but more importantly because of the way they feel in the hand.
Here are a few pieces of his work .... and remember, this was a man with no workshop, just a dremel and a grinder, and materials from the 99 cent store.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

3rd Flow

My teacher was very fond of the number three - The Trinidad he called it, and threes certainly appear as a consistent feature, not just in martial arts but in the whole human experience - waltzing, triangles, gua (trigrams), ba-DUM-cha ...... and on.

Sonny broke training down into 3 main flows -

1st flow - mostly out of range and picking targets by momentarily jumping into range and out again - the target is mostly hand and arm.

2nd flow - all about bridges, fighting from contact, either from an offensive or defensive move. Target is now more body (and head), but arm and hand too, as secondary.

3rd flow - considered the highest level, and only possible to understand after working through the first two. The main target is the body (and head), but there is no blade to blade contact, in fact the blade is held purposefully out of play, either down, or back, never tip out between the players. The entry/opening is created purely from body movement and blade manipulation in space, and the blade purely used to cut. (There is sometimes blade to blade contact on the exit, but not necessarily.)

3rd flow, as an idea, makes a great deal of sense when you understand the poor quality of the materials used in some of the original Filipino weapons, though all swords, even of the highest quality, tend to eschew edge to edge contact to preserve the brittle cutting edge. It is, however, hard to achieve, and feels incredibly counter intuitive.
(Just FYI - Some FMA systems train using the flat or the back edge to parry or block. Sonny used them too, but often preferred the angle of the edge bevel. He also always 'rode' the power of the strike to lessen the impact, even force to force.)

I was thinking about this yestarday at Sabre class - a classic 1st and 2nd flow system - with the blade always held tip forwards, guarding the space between the players. I asked my teacher if the 3rd flow game makes an appearance at all in this context, and he said not really - not that it's impossible to hit with no contact, but that it rarely happens.

So .... what are the parameters of the 3rd flow game? What dictates if it is an option, if it makes sense or not?

Size of weapon? Space? Weapon design? Context?

It does not makes sense in a point sparring sport where double hits don't count or right of way wins out, and it has to involve weapons with an edge, not purely stabbing/poking weapons ... and there must be 360 degree possibility of movement ...

I've seen it in samurai movies of course, and the single clean cut seems to be held as a central aesthetic of Japanese swordsmanship ... and I was taught it as the highest level of the Visayan Corto Kadena game ..... so ...... between the Japanese and the Filipino systems we have single handed - single edge - short swords, and double handed - single edge - long swords, both possible, also in battlefield and duel. Cane seems to fit the bill, and perhaps shorter stick too .....

Outside the parameters I have tip only weapons and double weapon ... maybe.

What else?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Feed Me

One of the hardest transitions in training is taking the step from feeding, to something tactically more sensible.
I have noticed that this piece is rarely separated as a particular phase of training, there's usually feeding, perhaps multiple feeds (and working techniques off feeds of course)... and sparring, nothing in between.
I've been playing with this interim piece because it seems to make a more efficient segue to pure sparring because if you don't have an understanding of why and when something might work, there can be a tendency to 'trust to luck', and the competitive nature of sparring can make it difficult to keep focus and learn how to see this.

If 2 people are flowing, working on some aspect of the game, it obviously helps in the early stages of any new concept, for one to feed opportunities for their partner to work with. At first, just the very uncertainty of which side and what height a strike is coming from next, is enough to deal with.
After a while this becomes too simple ... so adding layers of uncertainty, through playing with timing and faking is a good next step - the 'when' and the 'what' if you like.
THEN ... and that's where the tricky part comes, the feeder needs to actually start to choose strikes, use the timing and fakes to create opportunities, real openings to actually go for
- NOT going for the side that is easy to defend,
- NOT cutting when the opponent can block easily, and
- ONLY cutting when they think they can reach the target ... thus adding the 'why', along with the 'when' and the 'what'.

That's the tricky transition, but super helpful if worked on consciously.
In effect what has happened is that the feeder is being fed a defensive line to breach. This is how it should be seen, and the better the defense, the harder the attacker will have to work. Even if the defender is a beginner and leaves obvious opportunities, the attacker should start consciously noticing them, both helping their own 'seeing' skills and the defender's. The defender still gets to defend, or practice other concepts ... just the feeder is now feeding more realistic 'questions' to answer.

It seems if there is not a transition at some point in the training to tactically 'sensible' behavior, both parties are at risk of wasting much time practicing entries that will not work, and defenses against things that are not true threats. The clanging and clashing may be fun and interactive, but it's not really helping build dueling skills.
Of course, the ability to lead and tactically choose is not a problem if you are the teacher, but this piece will help two people both learning how to see stuff when they are working together.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Here Be Dragons

We are in an era of 'Reality Based' martial arts, a necessary reaction perhaps to the fantasy version prevalent for so long - All those neat outfits, mysterious wise men, unbelievable feats, and unassuming, virtuous heroes with magical skills and mythic weapons .....
Romantic, exciting ... and ... fiction.

Now, however we are all about 'reality' ... right alongside the endless debate about what 'the real deal' actually is, and who it is that has it.

You would have thought that a good dose of reality would be a breath of fresh air after all that fantasy. That it would imbue confidence in people ...... real skills, real martial arts, real world application .... useful, pragmatic, realistic ....

But here's the trap - there is no absolute reality.

All knowledge is by it's nature limited. In the case of martial arts, this limit is set mostly by the person who experienced it as real.
Something they experienced may be absolutely, unarguably true in a certain situation ... but change the circumstances, the environment, the time, the people involved, and throw in luck ... and perhaps the truth is not so absolute anymore ...
Add personalities and psychologies to a situation and absolute truths becomes even more furry, and if reality is subjective ... where does that leave truth and certainty?
If you think about it, really, all we have ever had are probabilities, not certainties .... and that knowledge can be an unsettling thing.

So, if truth/reality is limited by experience, I would suggest that EVERYTHING outside our personal experience is, to a greater or lesser extent, a fiction from our point of view.
Fiction contains our imagination, and the experiences and imaginations of others ... all the way out into a larger space which we have not imagined yet, so large that we can never even be sure where the boundaries are. And that's where everything 'we don't know what we don't know' lives.
We can embrace this fiction, this unknown, or 'yet-to-be-true' space, either as a giant, exciting, playground to be explored, or a scary place to be avoided, even within the mind.

Truth and fiction are NOT separate before we ACTUALLY experience them ..... all we have is trust (of others/teachers) and probability (corroboration/evidence).
Those seeking certainty and answers will have little luck finding them through others' truths, if they too are relative and limited.
And if they became interested in martial arts in search of answers .. well I don't see this new found 'reality' as being much more helpful to their general well being than the fantasy crapola that's out there. Because it's the fear of the unknown that we are trying to calm .... and very very few reality or fantasy training methods address this at all. Both lean towards promoting certainty, and that seems to be a bad thing, as all certainty is fantasy in another context.

As far as martial arts are concerned, I would propose that along with physical skillsets, learning how to be comfortable with uncertainty, and learning skills that make us physically and mentally adaptable and agile, alongside learning how to really SEE our environment and those that inhabit it, would be far better goal than merely being possessors of a box of someone else's solutions to someone else's problems.

To be comfortable with the unknown is to make peace with the fact that all cannot be known, not everything can be predicted, and not everything is safe (though thankfully nature at least seems impartial).
Of course there are laws of physics, and some noticeable patterns both in the larger universe, and in the human condition, and happily, as we are part of this universe and it's mystery, not separate from it we can infer much.

Fixate too much on finding 'reality' however, and it too will become corrupted, as fiction has been, into meaninglessness. My worry is that this earnest new search will become a neurosis, narrow and downward looking, rejecting creativity, exploration, and critical thinking.
The inspiration will be gone, the urge to explore too, and perhaps the fear of what we don't know we don't know will drive us to put our faith even more in others, to seek even greater insularity and separation from life as it is ....

Confidence and balance come from looking into the void and admitting that we have no certainty what's going to happen next ..... and being OK with that.

It's worth remembering of course, that chance also favors the prepared mind ...