Friday, June 29, 2012

Robbers and Thieves

Playing Katana this morning, and noting the similarities between Hsing-I's shearing angles and some of the techniques, and the more circular, perhaps Bagua-esque feel of others - the wedge vs the spinning top. (Some combined too, more like an auger perhaps ...?)
In Eskrima they would be related to the Wavecutter/wedge and Pandol/fulcrum.

Shearing and circling both require structure, angle and timing and are range and orientation dependent. They are also somewhat related the power input given by the opponent .. but they also have a mindset component, each requiring a focus and a kinesthetic feel - Do one with the feel of the other and you tend to eat steel.

Reminded me of my teacher's description of the difference in mindset between Hsing-I and Bagua - Hsing-I he said is like a bank robber - taking space, owning everything.
Bagua, however, he said is more like a sneak thief, stealing what it wants when you aren't looking .....

We probably all have a natural tendency towards one or the other, but both are useful and both should be cultivated, especially the transition between the two.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Here's the Sangot, or sickle. Started life as an agricultural tool, but has many lessons to teach about evasion, turning, and finding emptiness ... as in learning to be where it's not .....
Here is a design made by Sonny from a tool, with a handle fabricated from leather, sawdust, and crazy glue amongst other things.
The second is a training version of the same with a carved handle indicating different orientations of the hand.
The edge is on the inside of the curve.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lessons from Sparta .. and Beyond

Here is a video series by a guy called Kostas Dervenis (The first 2 of 5 parts are above, and I recommend watching all of them to get the whole picture) and his take on tactics and martial arts. (Thanks to MattR for the find :-)
Though I have disagreements with him about a few things, including his definitions of fighting as purely battlefield application, and his lack of consideration of how battlefield technique evolved into peace time ambush and dueling (the lethal kind as opposed to sporting kind), mostly I agree with his ideas ...

He is promoting his own school and their method of course, and honestly I have seen nothing of this and thus cannot comment on it at all. Also I cannot comment on his grappling ideas as I have little experience there, though his point about preferring his adversary face down makes sense to me ...

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to put his thoughts here as a comparison to what I was talking about in the "Cheat" post regarding the use of edged weapons and the importance of tactics.
He says that as soon as weapons enter the picture, the rules change completely, and I couldn't agree more. I am a bit more specific in my own ideas about HOW swords differ from other weapons, and how they free you to investigate tactical thinking in ways that empty hand and impact weapons training cannot with any degree of safety, however his basic premis that tactics are foremost in your ability to prevail, as a tool wielding, puny, human, resonate with me for sure. As does his emphasis on context when trying to understand meaning in historical systems.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Sonny's birthday is June 26th. He was not a fan of birthdays when he was alive, said it just reminded him of getting older, but since his death it's seemed like a nice thing to celebrate.
Sonny was quite superstitious, and I guess, growing up in the culture that he did, had a respect for the 'spirit world' which seemed ever present in his life, though just below the surface.
The most common example of this was when the video recorder glitched and would not record class. Sonny would smile and say "I guess the old men don't want me to show that" .... I'd smile too ... but even if the video started working again, we would switch to a different subject.

I suspect this acknowledgement of an 'unseen world' might have come from living a dangerous life, and probably also from a life surrounded by swords.

Throughout the ages swords have been closely associated with spirits and demons, with mystical powers either imbued by the maker or some ... 'other'.
There's a sword dealer in our area who was friends with Sonny, and sometimes gave him weapons as gifts, often older blades that needed repair. He himself had a large and varied collection of antique blades, and if you were lucky, he would let you handle and move with them when you went to his shop. He had a few mystical stories of his own, amongst which was one he told about how he started to have bad dreams and became unable to sleep. In the end he had to move his sword collection, as apparently the blades were in an inauspicious place in his house. After they were moved, restful sleep returned to the owner.

I have certainly been cautioned about buying used/old blades, and always to take a potential new purchase to be 'evaluated' by someone who could 'feel it's energy'. I was told that owning a sword equated to owning a guard dog. The dog had to like and respect it's owner, and the owner had to be in command of the dog. A dog that had got a taste for blood, for instance, needed much firmer handling than one untried, or was perhaps not even worth the trouble.

Of course this stuff is totally irrational .. but I have to say I enjoy it all the same. Personally I have held swords that felt incredibly powerful, sung a pure and clear pitched note, and others that felt like I was holding a beautiful but very poisonous snake. I have also held many blades that felt like nothing at all.

Now whether you believe all that or think it just hooey, well, that's your call, though I'll note that Sonny refused more than one gift of an antique blade, and tied another up in a silk cloth, bound it to the sheath and placed it high in the back corner of the room where no one was tempted to interact with it, so there you go.....

Anyway ... this is all a long way around to saying that Sonny definitely had a relationship and a respect for the spirit world that went hand in hand with his pragmatic material and teaching style. So on Tuesday I will be smoking my annual cigarette, burning one for him along with some incense. drinking a good cup of coffee with probably a totally mediocre donut from the shop down the road from his old place, and hoping the smoke reaches across the worlds as a thank you from this side to the world of the 'old men'.

Monday, June 18, 2012


I look back sometimes over what I've written, and it seems I say the same thing over and over again, but in slightly different ways. It's funny because sometimes I think - 'Cool. My idea must hold water, as I came to the same conclusion from many different angles. Then other times I think ... 'Wow. I guess I have nothing else interesting to say'.

Usually ... Thankfully .... when that happens and ideas dry up, a question or a comment, a conversation or an off hand remark, will suddenly push the brain into gear again and the story continues.
Others are SO important to process, both as inspiration, but also as catalysts and checks. 
Conversation and debate are what feed thought and exploration. Playing by yourself, especially if you never get out of your own comfort zone, might be interesting, but by it's nature is limited by your own narrow experience and imagination. You don't know what you don't know ... and it takes an influence OUTSIDE to find those places you never thought to look.

I was having a conversation with a friend and fellow martial artist yesterday, who commented on how nice it was to throw ideas around with someone so open minded, how so much more was possible when no offense was taken in disagreement. I said he must be open minded too, after all it's a 2 way process, and truly, all that is required for good conversation is listening and thinking (and replying) ... Agreement is not mandatory.
Kinda like good flow training ..... ;-)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Juke 2

OK ... So this is a commercial and a joke, but ..... some nice examples of both physical juking skills and use of the voice and body posturing to get an opponent to lose focus and follow. Also 2 attacks from behind, one actual, and one sneak.
Great timing - Immediately when he has his opp following him (physically, emotionally, or mentally), sucked into what he's doing, he goes.
Nice set up too ... no one knows how to treat this 'old guy' ... gives him another advantage.
Thanks to RichB for passing it on.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


If you are playing someone bigger, better, faster, and more skilled, at their own game, odds are you will lose.
It makes way more tactical sense, if you are outmatched, to change the rules of the game, or better, play an entirely different game than what you opponent is expecting.
In fighting against enemies, this is called Strategy, use this thinking whilst playing with your friends however, and they'll call it something else .... cheating.

Most of us grow up playing games with our friends. Games have rules because we are ultimately all on the same side and groups work best if there is trust.
Rules generally limit the options of the players, either for safety, or, in the arena of sports at least, to create a spectacle entertaining enough to generate an audience (and, no doubt, a healthy gambling industry). Basically, it is in the interests of everyone concerned that the playing field be as even as possible, so the game is enjoyable (to the audience) and repeatable (by the participants). But rules condition you to behave like other people expect, and though there is certainly room for being tricky and deceptive to a point, both the expectation of a level playing field, and general rules of behavior, make invisible much of what is possible outside of a game.
Once the playing field is tilted against us, if we play the game as though it was even, we will probably lose.

I have friends who like to play push hands, but will complain bitterly when the game turns into a shoving match and 'brute strength' wins out.
Now I know there is stuff to be learned from using push hands as a training method to learn certain skills, but if you are playing with someone bigger, stronger and more skilled than you, who is unwilling to help you build skills ... strategically speaking, why are you standing in front of them letting them put their hands on you ?
Are you 'investing in loss' as they say, in the hopes of eventually gaining rooting and yielding skills? Perhaps. Might you also be conditioning yourself to lose because you would be crazy to try to fight someone with such disparity of size, strength and skill, face to face, and by their rules ...?

Jake talks about another dynamic, perhaps related to this, on his blog:
Could it be that the smaller fighter knows on some level that he is toast in this head to head, and through a deep seated fear keeps playing full contact? Surely he is not volunteering for a beat down ...? Who knows, perhaps he thinks the bigger fighter 'can take it' , and is taking advantage of the relative safety of the class sparring dynamic ..? In any case, as Jake points out, neither fighter is learning anything worthwhile here. But what should the lesson be?

Martial Arts have created many games to mimic pieces of a fight, that can be played in relative safety. Most wrestling and grappling arts come to mind as do many(most?) sports like fencing, judo, boxing. Also rugby, hurling and other contact team sports. All are safe(mostly), non lethal, and are governed by rules.
However, all of them assume trust between the parties, and lack, by their nature, the very core of Strategy - Deception, adaption, changing of the rules, of the game itself.
So how do you bring that piece back into the equation?

How do you learn to break the rules? Subvert them? See the hidden, unwritten ones? Perhaps transcend them altogether ....?
How do you get past (most 'good') peoples' natural inhibition to cheat?
Perhaps you choose to play completely without rules .... Can't cheat if there are no rules ....

But you still have to play with others, and what if they are your friends? ... And what then of safety ...? Friendship? Trust .....?

I have been pondering for quite a while now what separates sword play, and particularly unarmored dueling styles that are not governed by the rules of sports, from other martial games. (Thinking here of my style of Eskrima of course, though I'm sure there are others.)
And I think it's this ability to learn about strategic thinking aka cheating, with friends as opposed to enemies.
It's scope is not unlimited of course, but it may go further than other practices in allowing for playing outside the rules in relative safety, because of the particular nature of the blade compared with other weapons of combat.

The biggest key is that sword needs no power to do damage in real life. You can add power to it, but it is not necessary.

This is huge.

This means that power is not a factor in winning.

Contemplate that for a moment - Power is not a factor in winning.

Take power out of the equation and you have not only satisfied the safety requirement, you have done it without compromising how you would actually use a real blade. No need to pull punches, wear safety gear, or limit targets.

So what skills are you left with to use to your advantage?

Size and reach? OK, it will have a effect, but if the hand is a valid target, reach becomes less of a factor.
Agility - Physical and mental? Absolutely.
Environmental factors, and ability to use them to your benefit? Sure.
Psychology and ability to read your opponent? Indeed.
Cunning and deception?  Oh yeah, definitely need those.
Ability to gauge when you need to not engage, or exit asap, i.e. know the limits of your ability? I think so.

If power can win out (and don't believe anyone that says size does not matter) none of this list is important. It rarely comes up.
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and it only when the necessity exists, i.e. the playing field is not level, and you are at the losing end, that strategy has it's place.
Unfortunately, many do not even contemplate it's existence. It may even be completely invisible to those conditioned from a very early age not to 'cheat'.

But if you are interested in exploring strategy, here are the pieces of the puzzle that seem to create the best venue to do so:
You will need
- Edged weapons with no hand guards, long enough to be considered a sword and not a knife (length gives you time, so more space to play). And training versions of same with which you can make contact safely.
- Respect for, and usage of training weapons as though they are the real thing.
- No armor.
- A limited practice area necessitating that you must engage your opponent before you can escape (too big a space and you never really NEED to engage, just run).
- No limitations on how you move - 360 degree field (in 3 dimensions).
- No limitations on using all the tools at your disposal to prevail - arms, legs, speech etc etc
- Freedom to add hidden weapons, use of environmental factors (walls, projectiles etc), others, if wanted.
- Living as a goal.

This is an evolving idea in my head, and this post has taken a long time to settle itself into something even resembling coherent thought. It is far from finished I feel all feedback would be gladly accepted.