Saturday, March 24, 2012


I'm in the UK getting ready to teach some privates and then to Switzerland next week for 3 days of seminar.
I always bring training weapons with me when I travel to teach. Sonny was a master craftsman at making aluminum swords and a myriad other kinds of weapons and training gear, and felt strongly that a practice sword should be as 'lifelike' as possible to prevent students from getting blase. The appearance and feel, he felt, were hugely important, so he designed practice blades to have similar characteristics to the real thing.
This included a blade that was thin, like steel, cut to closely replicate actual sword shapes from the Visayan region, with good handles, and occasionally guards and other features to play with. His preferred material was aluminium and he would cut and shape his own blades with a dremmel and a grinder, adding hand carved wood or plastic handles with leather and other materials for texture and grip.
I have a few of Sonny's creations that we still use in class - seems weird that something designed for use should gather dust on a wall, but I am leery of traveling with them.
Luckily I have a friend who has a full wood shop with a band saw who has been happy to make me copies of Sonny's designs that I also use in my own classes, and which go with me when I travel.
In addition to the metal swords, Sonny made foam practice weapons for full speed, contact flows and sparring. Again he wanted the blades to bear some resemblance to the real thing, so they are designed to be as thin as possible, shaped like the real thing, and often covered with gray/silver tape or 'pleather' to look the part also.
Sadly I am not a craftsman like Sonny, but when needs must, as they did today, I can approximate.
I needed to fabricate some soft trainers - and though there are plenty ready made versions out there to buy, Sonny preference for a particular 'feel' to the weapon meant I needed to find some kind of stiff foam, some kind of strongback, and tape to put together. The end product would be rigid enough to slice with ... but only when the angle was correct .... and something you could cut or poke with that had a little give, to prevent injury.
So it was off to the local hardware store, and I have to say that it's amazing what you can put together from memory foam insoles and duct tape :-)
......Sadly my cunning plan with the rigid laminate floor underlayment (only sold in packs of 16 which was way too much material and too expensive anyway) and the double BBQ skewers did not come to pass, but if you feel like experimenting, I think it will work great.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fear of Falling

Go force on force against an opponent who can absorb your force, whether due to size, strength or skill, then all you're doing is bleeding energy into them or through them.
If they give something into the system however ..... whether through momentum or because their center of balance is off, you have something to play with.
And there is almost always some kind of movement in the system ... they can't strike or throw you without moving, and if there is no movement in the system ... usually it means nothing is happening, so maybe nothing needs doing. Even if it is a very bad position for you, still you must create, or wait for, movement in the stronger part of the equation to be able to change it significantly.
Most martial arts talk about this - using the other person's force against them, but for some reason it's incredibly hard to access, especially if you think you are losing ....

Last weekend Rory Miller was in town again, and I got to play with a bunch of new people.
Because the drills, by their nature, are practiced in a non compliant manner, any disparity in size or skill becomes apparent quite quickly. The bigger the disparity, the more the above applies. Play with someone skilled at joint locks, twice your weight, 6 inches taller, with a great root ... and you better believe that it's better to avoid resisting their force, because whatever you give into the system they can either just absorb, or use against you, whereas you cannot absorb what they give to you. You have to go with it and wait for the right ma-ai when you can use the space that is available around what's happening to redirect, slip, trip, or counter.
The lesson is, tense up and resist what's happening and you will exhaust yourself pretty fast. Relax, notice the emptiness and the potentials, and you can prevail.

This same tendency to tense up and resist what's happening, occurs in dueling also.
New students tend to play with their blade out in middle ground, desperately covering and blocking anything that comes into view.
This of course seems to make a great deal of sense, but tactically it's a bad idea, mostly because you are behind the timing, and giving unnecessary contact over unimportant non-threats creates openings, or worse, just makes bridges to the target instead.

Purposefully seeking contact is, of course, a way to create potential opportunity for yourself. Bagua does it by forcing contact through offense or defense - you threaten or block, and work with the meeting force to create your attack - circle meets line.
Another example would be when one blade leans against another, and through the contact point manipulates the opponent into an error - I push on you, you push back, I slip under and strike the opening caused by the spring load - many applications of this in Toyama Ryu, Fencing, and Eskrima.

Of course if you don't want to be taken advantage of this way, you have to practice relaxing into the contact point, going with the force, reversing the advantage (often by taking center first), or not giving contact at all ... especially with swords.
Really, in dueling, the opponent should never feel your contact unless you have screwed up and are blocking, baiting to cause a reaction, or deflecting AS an entry. In other words 'with purpose'.

Sonny said many times - "Let them come. They are coming anyway. Don't push them/keep them out. Invite them in and control the game".

What this means essentially is being open, taking the weapon out of the game, away from target, seeming defenseless.
When I first tried this I thought, like most other beginners, that it was one of the most counter intuitive things I'd ever heard. But, as it turns out, it works quite well .... but only if you can exploit the potential reactions that manifest from what you offer, from getting your opponent to commit, and move.
The ability to be comfortable with this idea enables practitioners of throwing arts to do reversals and sacrifice throws. It enables practitioners of striking arts to fold joints, climb up, slip and counter, grappling artists to roll out and reverse locks, and duelists to become ghosts.

Everything is a gift.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


There's something very hypnotic about rhythm. Most have probably noticed rocking backwards and forwards as a calming behavior in themselves or others.
Music is another one, and has obvious affects on the emotional state, whether played heavy, fast, or slow.
In fact all things seem to 'breathe' or have a natural rhythm if you pay attention.
In humans, walking is an age old form of meditation - step step step step. Bagua circle walking is just another version of this. (Flow can be too.)

So rhythm and trance ... age old ways to alter state.
Trance can be good. Great stuff can come out from getting absorbed in the beat, not 'thinking' for one.
Constant editing and chatter often impede free movement, so changing states can help a great deal to find this 'natural' way.
Trance also has a calming affect on the mind - it's great stress relief.

On the other hand .... trance can also be addictive, you must watch yourself, and especially those that you teach that trance, as stagnation and addiction, has not overtaken practice.
Trance is cool, but it's nice to have a choice as to whether you want to stay with it or not.

Big sign that you, or others, are hypnotized and stuck (easier to notice in others)  - You/they can't vary their walking speed ... Even if prompted to do so, it either does not change at all, or it briefly changes and the original speed returns almost immediately. This one, same, unmodulated speed pervades everything.

I like how Yizong structures training, alternating precision with smoothness, slow with fast, loose with controlled, and often begins and ends practice with unfocused 'walking in the park'. The goal is not one thing all the time, and in fact encourages playing with opposite ideas.
Cool the emotions, relax, smile, focus the mind, yes, but remember that trance loves the repetitive and continuous, so also remember to keep the aliveness and flexibility (mental and physical) that change brings with it, because Bagua after all, at it's root, is ALL about change.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Art of Living

There is often this assumption that learning an edged weapon Art equates to the ability to be able to defend yourself with one on the street, and so, because I teach sword dueling, I get inquiries about teaching 'knife defense' or 'self defense with knife'.
Sometimes this means the person is interested in learning how to defend themselves against an attacker with a knife, but more often than not it means the person wants to learn how to use a knife to defend themselves

I think that smaller folks, and women in particular understand that size and weight matter, and that they are generally at a huge disadvantage against a larger attacker trying to do them harm. Logically they then look towards the blade as a potential equalizer.
I'm guessing that the picture in their heads of how this altercation will go down, presupposes some kind of threat, which they then counter by drawing the knife and because of it, stop the attack.

Though this is possible - Sonny had stories of pulling a blade when threatened, and dissuading the attacker just by flourishing it and showing his obvious skill and ability to use it - it rarely takes into account why this attack happened, or how it probably would (with little/no time to draw a blade) ... let alone how a knife works. How lethal strikes with a blade are rarely stopping strikes in the sense that the attacker may not bleed out for a long time, or even know they are hurt. Or that a non lethal cut may, or may not, dissuade an attacker.
This picture also does not address the surprise generally associated with an assault, or the other end of the spectrum, that a knife drawn mid fight is rarely even noticed ....
It also never imagines the repercussions, legal and emotional, of taking life.

I understand all this, and I guess because of it, do not feel comfortable saying that what I teach is 'self defense'. I have actually come to believe that there are no sure or easy solutions, and though I firmly believe every person has the right to defend themselves, I leave this area to those more qualified, and willing, to address those issues directly.

Thing is, and here's the part that makes it difficult to just say 'NO' ... I think the Visayan style dueling, and the method I learned, ARE useful in self defense, just in a bigger sense - Understanding people, psychology, space, safety, threat.

Working with edged weapons is perhaps one of the only ways to bring to the fore the necessity of skills APART from strength and power (which are also necessary for self defense of course), and as an added bonus, shiny metal has a fascinating way of connecting to our 'lower brains', creating authentic emotions and reactions beneath out logical fore brain's ability to fully control.

So Visayan style dueling can help with your people watching skills, learning about human tendencies, recognizing deceit and charm, and how to play them and use them to your own benefit.
It can help you become familiar with edged weapons - replacing panic, fear, or just being blase, with respect and precision.
It can help with becoming familiar with personal freezes and tendencies, and how to focus and control them.
Working in a chaotic, fast moving, fluid, situation, it can help you learn to understand range and possibility, time and escape.

All these can help build awareness, and the physical and mental adaptability necessary to improve your odds of protecting yourself from harm, experiencing why it is best not to be there in the first place, but if so, how to create chances to get away.

That's what I think training has given me, and this, I am more than happy to pass on.

I've talked before about Sonny's first rule - Don't get hit, and perhaps how this idea has been misunderstood somewhat. But I think it is a very important piece of the thinking behind the system, and underlies all that is mounted on top, and really why his method and real life self defense have something in common.
Sonny talked about how there was no 'art' to killing, or using a knife on another person. It really involved no skill or effort, given the opportunity and right psychological head space.
He also said that there was no skill, or art, to dying ... that too was far too easy.
MUCH harder is his thinking was to get away, especially from a disadvantageous situation.
And that's really where the Art is, the Art of Getting Away - The Art of Living.