Thursday, December 29, 2011

Touching Points

If my hand is touching your hand, my elbow can touch your elbow.
If my elbow touches your elbow, my hand can reach your shoulder.
If my foot is touching your foot, my knee can touch your knee.
If my knee can touch your knee, my hand can reach your head.

This goes for most folks unless they are unusually tall or very short.

So if my right foot is in contact with your right foot, and my left hand has your right elbow, what points can I reach with my right hand?

Consider that each contact point has weak angles you can effect to break the structure or cause rotation, and the real game begins.
And yes, you do have to move your feet.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Jamaica and Trinidad

Started workout last Thursday inspired by Chiron's post talking about smooth vs non smooth motion. One of my students pointed out that predators key on to prey through motion, and many types of prey do have jerky motion, especially when spoooked - think mice, sheep, antelope. Predators on the other hand tend to move smoothly so they can get in range to pounce - think big cats and wolves. Perhaps there is something primal in the way our eyes perceive motion that is clued in to this, both as prey and predator?
Anyway, what we ended up playing with was smooth vs not, being seen vs not being seen.
Fakes have to be seen - see the Buying and Selling post, and this is often achieved through a change in tempo (juke) to create a reaction, and therefore an opening you can take advantage of. A sudden motion is often key to making something happen.
OTOH a subtle tweak in tempo or smooth adjustment of angle can often be overlooked completely, and is most useful to take advantage of openings unseen by your opponent.
It is important not to confuse the 2, be smooth when you do not want to be seen, but be jerky when you do. Practice this. Sometimes you think you are moving in a certain way whereas your opponent can't see it at all.
Another point about fakes - Don't wiggle and juke more than twice, you are in danger of being caught if your opponent can read you. It's a binary system - the go, they do not. High/low. Left/right. And there's something about 'waltzing' that is innately human, so be very very careful if you can't pull something off within that timing.
Strike. Fake - strike/Fake - exit. Fake fake strike/Fake fake get the hell out of range. :-)
Happy Solstice.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Direct Transmission - Eskrima

I learned Eskrima from Sonny Umpad. Sonny was, and is, a huge influence on how I teach.
More than a couple of his students have called Sonny's style or training method their Rosetta Stone. I had the same experience. Training with him made many concepts and ideas fall into place, in Eskrima and in other martial arts. Many hypothetical 'what ifs', become 'ah, I see'.
But still, he died too young, the training left hanging as though there was so much more to do and see. We'll never know if there was a 'complete picture' or just an endless series of progressions and refinements, but that's OK, fitting even, as a legacy of how he was as a man.
I personally think he sits in the genius category with a mind perfectly suited to his obsession, which was to study the arts of his homeland. Don't get me wrong, the man was no saint, and he was certainly no role model for health and happiness, but he was a singular human being, hugely talented, humble, generous to a fault, massively creative, smart, focused and patient - Wow was he patient! Not having any Eskrima friends to play with, he started to teach so as to make some for himself! He wanted to create skilled practitioners that could push him so he too could keep his skills up. What a fabulous motivation.
So what made him a superior teacher?
Well apart from just being a very interesting person, he was highly skilled, obviously, and moved with an uncommon grace highly unusual in the field - this quality in particular drew people to want what he could do.
He was also eternally fascinated by the art of teaching itself - How will the student get this concept? Does this work? How about this? Ah, that worked ... but will it work on the others ..?
He understood the psychology of fighting really well, he saw patterns of behavior and individual traits he could use to put points across depending on the personality of the student, and encouraged students to play with each other as much as possible to see what the combination of personalities brought out.
In the Transmission post, the comments section brought out some commonalities other folks have found in great teachers. Apart from the emotional connections mentioned before, great teachers tend to push their students to perform at the edge of their abilities, great teachers do not spoon feed but encourage independent thinking, inquiry. They critique and expect high levels of performance. They also have a passion for what they do, and gain satisfaction in seeing their students improve.
Sonny had all of these, though perhaps his greatest insight, and most useful in terms of learning to fight/duel was the constant feeling he created in his students (and certainly in me) of constantly standing on the edge of chaos, of uncertainty, and the looming abyss of failure .... OK, that might be a bit dramatic, but I think that this emotional aspect of the training was a key component of why it was so effective.
Life is uncertain after all, decisions may or may not be 'correct'- I hate to say right or wrong, perhaps 'easier path' and 'more difficult path' would be better descriptors, so training in that same emotional space is very valuable as that is where 'stuff' is going to happen.
He understood this, perhaps not in so many words, but came to realize that it created a most efficient way to teach Eskrima.

Playing/teaching in the chaos, close to the edge, but not over it, is a skill in itself. It involves personal, one on one time, understanding the student and being able to read how they are faring. Sonny was great at frying your nervous system one day, but keeping you encouraged enough to keep going, giving you glimpses of the possibilities, but keeping you from becoming too obnoxious when you thought you had something.
He wanted you to see through his eyes, through mirroring his movement, flowing with him, defending yourself against him, watching him play others, trying what you'd learned whilst he watched.
It's very old school. Like I said, one on one, a systemless, troubleshooting approach with the individual as the focus.
In my opinion it's a highly effective, and possibly the most efficient way to learn, like an apprenticeship, not sure if it's for everyone though. Sonny has some really good students, some not very good ones, and many drop outs. The lack of structure, and the constant uncertainty was too difficult for some to handle, though of course others thrived in it, and the ones that spent the most time in it, are the ones that got the most out of it.

Just as a side note, from the teaching end of things, I've always said that I thought Sonny connected fighting to teaching through his interest in learning how to figure people out. His ability to disappear, blend, lead and trap was truly phenomenal. All these he could do so well because he was a superlative study of people, and he used these skills both dueling and teaching. I think he saw them as sides of the same coin - one constructive, and one destructive, and as a natural fighter, this is what kept him so engaged and creative in his thought, and teaching, process.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Transmission II

Arguably, human beings have been so successful as a species because of their ability to pass on important information, skills and learning, to their offspring and to others.
Still, many thousands of years later, we are still working out how to do this most efficiently.
Whether it's learning something from scratch, or upping performance of something already practiced, it usually takes an objective 'other' to teach you new stuff, or perhaps better, show you how to improve yourself. Of course, the other important half of the equation is that you yourself must want to learn, or think there is something unknown out there in the universe that you want.

Big thing is, you don't know what you don't know. You may know THAT you don't know ... but you probably have no idea what that knowing will feel like until you actually experience it, so on some level you have to trust that the teacher you have chosen will take you in the direction you expected, or at least towards something worthy, however unexpected the journey might be.

As a child you go to school and have little choice in who your teachers are, as an adult, however, you can choose for yourself, and change teachers if you do not connect with them, or what you are learning at the time.
Part of this connection is to do with your personality and how it connects with the teacher's method, or to the teacher's own personality.
Part of the connection will be to the material, the style and the context the learning takes place in.
Part of it is also timing - You can meet the best, most highly skilled and qualified teacher, with the best reputation, but if your paths connect at an inappropriate time in your training, you may be so out of your depth, afraid, embarrassed, closed minded, or not know what you are looking at, that you never get anything out of the encounter.

There is a saying that it takes 3 years for a student to find a teacher, and 10 years for a teacher to find a student. Whether this is numerically accurate is debatable, but the basic feeling behind the saying does ring true, and again goes back to a searching for connection - personal, material, timing.

But if passing on knowledge is so dependent of these things, are there some absolutes that hold true regardless? 
Do certain teaching paradigms create similar problems in students? Or do those problems vary based on the individual?
Are there highly efficient ways of teaching that only a few can grasp? Can those that fail/drop out learn the same material another way? Or are they just not cut out to perform in this field?
Are all people 'teachable'? Should they be? Should the method vary enough to encompass as many folks as possible? Or should the method focus on excellence in the few, regardless of failure rate?
ARE there commonalities to all good teaching? Teachers? Methods?
Should the method be as 'fast' as possible? Or should it be a 'lifetime study'?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Started to write a post about the best teachers I have known, and the best teaching methods I have experienced, trying to see similarities, connections, differences. But I thought I'd put a question out there first.
Who were(are) your best teachers?
Do you think it was just them? Or a combination of you and them, that worked so well?
And the kicker - Looking back, do you think you learned what the teacher was trying to teach you? Something related? Or something absolutely unrelated?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Kendo vs Miao Dao

Here's a great sparring clip between some Kendo practitioners and some Miao Dao folks. It points out some interesting things. (Wait through the animated, winged, fantasy warriors for the actual sparring bouts)

First I like how the participants are going pretty full on - decisive entries and engagements, some good power strikes and opportunities taken. (Don't go low, if your opponent can take high, folks! :-))
There's even blocking, tangles and body checking - Nice!

Now of course much of this is possible because the participants are wearing armor.
Fair to say that the Katana and the Miao Dao were both battlefield weapons where armor was employed, so tactically taking glancing blows in a historical context is absolutely valid, however, this sparring scenario is set up more as a one on one duel, circling instead of forward pressure, and square stances instead of shoulder first stances, more common to armored systems where the armor itself is used for defense and offense.
So here, the armor has both benefits and drawbacks.

The benefits I listed at the beginning - Armor allows for committed entries, greater risk taking and heavier, safe contact.
The drawbacks - Greater risk taking, and more 'double deaths'.
Note that as many strikes connect on exit as entry, probably more, and how disengaging is a tricky business. Both Kendo and Miao Dao guys are aware of this, succeeding some of the time, but not at others.

Getting out is a big part of the puzzle, and should not be forgotten about. Building in a loss of focus, or a feeling of everything being over, in range, is never desirable during training. Practice entries of course, but never forget you have to exit too.

Monday, December 5, 2011


There's an art to criticism, just like there is an art to conversation, and flow training, and 2 main reasons to participate. (There may be more, please let me know)
One is to interact, understand, learn something new perhaps, or make the other look to improve their work. It is entered into with an open mind without preconceptions about the outcome (I know this part is hard, but say as few preconceptions as possible) and is hopefully a learning experience for both parties to increase excellence on both sides.
The other is purely to put something down, close it off, with a mind already made up, seeing evidence that only supports a presupposed theory, and none that negates it.
The first is about 'not knowing yet', the second is about taking comfort in the sound of your own voice. The first about trying to understand what you don't know, or to try to change the mind of the other, the second does not care about effecting any change, just about stopping the other. The first is interactive and involves 2 people, the second needs no second viewpoint.

As an aside, one of my pet peeves is having a so called conversation with someone that does not believe the listener is a participant too. My rule is that if I could replace myself with anybody else, or a cardboard cut out with no effect on the words being said, then it's not worth wasting my time with. Similarly in flow training. Flow training is about LEARNING. It is a very different animal than fighting where the object is to win.

When winning is the objective, then screw the 'other' - there's be no back and forth, or generous creations of openings, pauses, politeness or trying to understand ... there would be ranting with no chance of a counter, no care about learning something new or helping the 'enemy' improve their game.

So, conversation, criticism and training, and 2 ways to go about it - the learners who play/flow/converse, and the fighters who want to consolidate their positions and only see enemies, not allies.

Personally I don't think I'm done with learning yet, I know there's alot I don't know, so am willing to try to understand opposite views. I suspect there are many others who are the same as me in this respect, but there are also plenty of folks 'fighting' to shore up their positions in any way necessary, who have no intention of letting other thoughts and ideas threaten them. They see all interaction as combat, with winning as the objective. Not sure yet how to talk with these folks .... not sure if it's possible, or desirable, but occasionally I've found it interesting to be 'the enemy', and very useful for understanding the difference between fighting and playing, even though it is only with words.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Steal from the Best

One more post about getting out of yourself, being someone else for a change, and understanding other peoples' movement and psychology. Because as you know, if 'All war is deception', then it's not all going to be about you.

Here is a new video clip of Steve Morris talking about self reliance and mindfulness, unfortunately the sound quality is rather bad, but you can make out what he's saying if you turn it up. I thought it was interesting in many respects, but in the context of this post I wanted to connect his idea about 'stealing from the best' with what Sonny called 'Mirroring' i.e. discovering useful material by copying others.

Steve Morris talks about 'watching the fight' and extracting material from it that you can play with and see how it integrates in what you do. I particularly love the part where Steve talks about 'being' Mike Tyson for a month, moving like him, immersing himself in his rhythm and fighting attitude.
Sonny had a similar, but different, way of doing this. He called it 'Mirroring' (though also used the same term for more specific mirroring - like in cut angle, or which side of the center line the hand moves).

Mirroring the whole person is about moving like your opponent, being their real, live, reflection in a mirror - Stepping with them. weight shifting with them, moving the blade and hands like them etc, the only difference is adding the pendulum concept in the forward back direction to avoid clashing (if they move towards you, you do not close on them you step back, they step back, you move forward).
It's not something you can do 100% of the time as the flow tends to stop. There is a skill to keeping it going by noticing the natural breaks in the opponent's rhythm and breaking off also, perhaps instigating an entry, then back to mirroring to understand the reaction.
It's also not an intellectual exercise, it's a 'feeling' practice, which is why you have to flow to practice it, at least at first.
Everyone that trained with Sonny got to flow a great deal with the man himself, and thus got a chance to mirror him, his movement, and his many, many, different rhythms. It was hugely valuable and obviously helped us 'steal from the best'. However, I would say that it was also immensely valuable to try mirroring everyone I flowed with to try to understand how they moved, just the fact they were not me gave me new ideas and ways to move I'd never thought of before regardless of their skill level.

Mirroring within flow also makes it easier to watch movement on video and 'feel' it, and be able to steal from there too, as Morris does, but you definitely need a context to put it in or it is rather meaningless.
For instance, I can watch soccer or snowboarding, and though I can possibly find stuff in their movement patterns to help my dueling, there is no connection in my body to what they are doing in their context, so the visual information is only pertinent to what I actually, physically, practice, and can integrate in my personal 'real wold' experience.
Also, though Steve Morris, with his wealth of actual fighting experience, can insert new ideas pretty easily into his repertoire with probably little or no separation between seeing something and internalizing it, when he coaches his guys, they try out new ideas shadow boxing or on the bag, in partner drills and sparring. These ideas then get tested in the ring, to see what works for each individual and what does not.

In our system, we practice mirroring in flow and test in sparring/dueling with a variety of opponents. Having a variety of ways to move depending on your opponent is the goal, finding what works for you and against whom.

As an aside, not everyone's moves are keepers in a bigger sense of expanding one's tool box- but using a personal rhythm against itself - i.e mirroring the opponent as a tactic, is certainly useful. It's hard to explain in print, but watch soccer or basketball defensive play to see what I'm talking about. Couple mirroring with breaking the mirror, and leading off the opponent's rhythm, and you have much of what you need to understand them, steal from them if you wish, and hopefully beat them too.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Stack the Deck

The Vikings vs Finns post illustrates the difference in tactical choices between a highly armed, superior force and a smaller, weaker one. The Finns take their stuff and run for the forests, fighting guerrilla style - hit and run, from cover - as the Vikings retreat with whatever booty they have managed to pillage. Not sure about their magical ability to create storms of course, but nice timing all the same. They menace, in sight, from the shore to make sure the invaders don't land again.

About 800 years later, my father did military service, as did (and do) pretty much all men in Finland. He was basically taught to fight guerrilla style - hide, fight and run, using the natural environment, trees and snow, as cover - The best option for an out-manned and out-gunned force, which Finland with a population about 5 million (that's half the population of London living in a country the size of Italy), will always be.
The most famous Finnish example of this, of course, is The Winter War, when the Finns took on Stalin's invading army and succeeded in pushing them back despite all odds.  

How does this little excursion into Finnish history relate to dueling you might ask ....? After all is it not hard to equate a full scale war or straight out ambush with 2 parties facing off (unless they have friends and are not interested in 'honor' and a matching of skills of course .....)?
Well, the underlying connecting piece, at least to me, is this - Fighting from a level playing field is always undesirable, regardless of if you start 'even', or worse. Even if your skills are in theory better than your opponent, Murphy's Law always plays a part, so the common thread in all these examples is the necessity to stack the deck in your favor.
Of course some may consider this unfair, or call it 'cheating' ... but usually only if they lose.

Ways to do this -

- Increase your level of protection 
Hide in the forest, lie in the snow unseen, have a great defense, be out of range

- Be able to see, and seize the moment when it comes
The enemy is exposed (in a clearing), trapped (in the forest), or at a disadvantage (no exit)

- Deception [Mental, physical, and emotional.]
Intimidation/fear, feigned weakness, surprise, confusion, uncertainty/certainty

None of this is new. Strategists have written about it through the ages. The way Sonny said it was
Don't get hit. Learn to see. Tell a lie.

- First part is about you, your strengths, weaknesses, the best way to move and keep yourself protected.

- The second part about the 'you and them situation' (as Luo De Xiu would say), range, angle, timing, rhythm.

- Third part is about them .... perhaps a little about you, and the you and them situation, but mostly about who they are. You are deceiving them, not yourself, and if you are too much stuck in yourself, you cannot affect change in them. Some human psychology is pretty universal, but some, especially in a dueling situation is very particular to your opponent.

..... And of course there is always luck/witchcraft, but that you can only influence ... maybe ... Certainly not rely on .... :-)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Few Against The Many.

I have ancestors on both sides of the equation so I am not taking sides :-)
"Then he (Olav) sailed to Finland, landed and pillaged there, but all of the locals escaped into the forests and took all their possessions with them away from the area/region. The king ventured far inland and through some woods; there were valley regions called Herdalarna. They took some property, but no men. When evening drew near, the King began his way back to his ships. But when they returned to the woods, they were confronted by men from all sides, and harrassed and shot at fiercely. The King told his men to take cover/protect themselves. But before they could get out of the woods, he had lost many men and several were wounded. He arrived at the ships in the evening. In the night, the Finns created a great storm with their witch-craft. But the king ordered to lift up the anchor and raise the sails, and they travelled along the coast during the night. The King's good luck was then, like so often, more effective than the witch-craft of the Finns. They managed to sail along the coast of Balegard and then out to sea. But a band of Finnish warriors followed them on land as the king sailed along the coast." 


Friday, November 18, 2011

You .... Or Is It?

Rory Miller talks about how people have this tendency to stand in front of each other when fighting even though it's possibly the least sensible place to be. Of course, if your adversary knows you are coming, it's hard not to be caught in front, unless you are at a certain range and have the opportunity either through distraction or their movement towards you, to get around them ...

Another reason he postulates for this is the Monkey Dance paradigm - in a dominance type interaction (and dueling certainly falls into this category), it's part of the plan that a 'you' wins in relation to 'them'. Being in front makes sure they know who beat them.

So what happens if 'they' have your number, as it were?
You can't win as 'you' - they know 'you' are coming, can read who 'you' are, and on some level this means that everything 'you' do is a tell .......

Seems obvious, but you have to become someone who can instigate a rash decision, a mistake or cause a distraction in THEM. You need to change, and become whoever you need to become to make that happen. Sometimes it can be 'you', other times it can't.

Sonny was one of the few people I have seen fight/spar/play who could do so as many different 'people', changing his game to suit the moment and the opponent. I always admired this ability greatly, not only because it was fascinating to watch, but also because tactically, it made a great deal of sense.

“If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.
"If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.
"If his forces are united, separate them.
"Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
Sun Tzu

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Neutral Points

Sonny had a term for places within movement where you could change your mind. In other words, places where you could 'hang out' (really for just a split second), wait for your opponent to commit, and decide if you yourself are going to go - left/right, in/out, strike/abort.
He called these places neutral points, or being 'in neutral'.
The weapon can be held in neutral positions, and footwork can be in neutral too.
The place where the feet pass each other when stepping is a neutral point. People rarely pay attention to it, though Bagua uses it as a focal point, probably for the same reason Eskrima does - it's important.
It's a great place to hide your intention, hide which side leg you are weighted on, and an easy place to switch weight from one side to the other and change direction, or get off line.

I wrote a post a while back about how Sonny used his knowledge of dance to create movement methods with a partner to practice dueling skills. I don't know the first thing about Salsa or Hustle dancing, or Cha Cha, so it was very cool last week when one of my students brought a friend to class who was in town for a visit. She is a professional dancer so I got her to teach us some basic steps and we all did some Cha Cha - Forward, center, cha cha cha, back, center, cha cha cha.
Cha cha cha are all neutral points.
As we were working on moving from weapon contact, the 'Sticky Blade' (akin to sticky hands) mentioned a couple posts back, it was a great place to put the two things side by side.
It was very interesting to add some syncopation, deception, and moving round, instead of straight to see how something cooperative can turn into something combative with very little effort.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Gentlemen's Blood

Just finished re-reading Barbara Holland's fine book "Gentlemen's Blood: A History of Dueling from Swords at Dawn to Pistols at Dusk.

Some reviewers have pointed out that the book has some flaws and errors, including the fact that there are no footnotes to back up some of the anecdotal stories, but it is a wonderful book, and a fascinating read none the less.

I think Barbara Holland would have been a fabulous neighbor. I woulds have loved to listen to her talk about life and the universe over a cup of tea ... or perhaps a few shots of whiskey.
Her wit is razor sharp, her humor as cutting as the duels she writes about. Her sense of irony is pitch perfect and lord knows I would not have wanted to be on the receiving end of her insults, sometimes so off hand and subtle you would not have felt the wound until you had bled out.

Here is a excerpt from the end of the book:

"Unfortunately, like the impersonal pistol replacing the personal sword, the weapons involved have moved a long way from the human hand. ......
"Battle now is not only too mechanized, it's also too big. Thousands of people can be killed at a clip, in the blink of an eye. Since Hiroshima, the idea of making elaborate arrangements to try to kill a single man seem ludicrous; surely one enemy's death is hardly worth the trouble of unsheathing a sword.
 Or perhaps it is."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Counter Intuitive

Things that feel counter intuitive (I'm sure there are more ...) -

1a) For swords with edges, holding your blade closer to you is safer than holding it away from you (distance varies depending on single or 2 handed weapon).
1b) If cornered and panicked, it's safer to pull your sword towards your center than slash about away from your body.

2) Looking at an incoming cut is safer than turning your head away from it.

3) From contact, it's often safer to close on your opponent than back out again.

4) You can reach further if you drop lower.

5) Letting go the weapon is sometimes safer than trying to keep hold of it.

6a) You can gain advantage by slowing down.
6b) Stealing the timing by slowing down or stopping can be just as effective as speeding up.

7) One of the most dangerous moments for you is when you are striking.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Pre-dawn Toyama-Ryu sword class was awesome again. Worked and talked on many things including how arcs meet straight lines and the deflection that creates.
Also the connection of the sword to the person and the person WITH their sword to the opponent - For power strikes, relative positioning (strong vs weak lines) is just as important as being able to reach the target ... especially when body checking comes into play.
Also looked at hooking and weight shifting, controlling space and creating distance, and choosing same side, or crossing of the center line. (Basically choose In or out? Left or right?)
Well, no surprise, but it turns out that all these elements require your feet to be under you and your body and feet working WITH the sword .. and by extension the opponent, to create 1) Safety and defensive line, 2) Advantage (angle and time) and 3) Power when needed.

Funnily enough, yesterday in Eskrima we were also looking at positioning, timing, set ups and moving off line. In Eskrima the only difference is that we were using single handed, shorter swords where power generation is less of an issue.The rest of the stuff - positioning, distance, timing, arcs ... all very similar.
And as far as the 'having your feet underneath you' part - absolutely crucial.
Now this is not a static thing. Steve Morris talks about moving the head and having the feet catch you, and especially in sword dueling, this is an essential skill - the head after all is a huge target, and taking it off line is a great idea in itself, and as a side effect is one of the fastest ways of having the rest of your body follow.
Sometimes though as a pre-set, if you are, say, setting your opponent up,  or creating an exit, it's wise to set up the feet and weight in a way to make the next step, and change of angle possible without telegraphing.
Sonny called this 'Puntaria' and is based on the very simple idea that if you point your toes at something, when you shift your weight to that leg, your hips will face in that direction. Point your toes at your opponent, and when you step on to that foot, you should be facing them.
Trick is to keep your knee and foot pointing in the same direction, and to let your body and weapon align above.
Note, it is REALLY important not to be flat footed. A firm footing is key for issuing power, but learn how to pivot, either on the heel, but mostly on the ball of the foot to move - you'll be much more mobile, and you'll save your knees into the bargain.
Also, learn how to hook step, and how to shift your foot even with weight is on it, and make sure you don't get caught with your legs crossed at an inappropriate moment :-)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Unless you are one of the rare few (are there any?) who have spent their whole life training or at leisure, practicing healthy exercise without injury, you will have used your body up in some way.
Age and wear takes it's toll. Gravity is a one way street. Entropy is omnipresent.
Work - from sitting at a desk all day, or in a car, to doing the hardest manual labor, will crunch, stack, compress, twist, misalign, and repetitiviely strain your body ... and that's not including injury - tendons that never quite go back to how they were, scar tissue that restricts range of motion and blood flow, bones broken, cracked and healed ... maybe straight ... maybe crooked.

Thing is, we are all like this, it's what life IS, and it's unavoidable .... well, perhaps some of the stuff from the 'stupid' file could have been avoided, but the rest ...? We all live there. They are fact, real, normal.
So please ... stop complaining. Use what you have. Work from where you ARE not from where you would prefer to be, or some fantasy alternative that does not exist.
Can't put your feet parallel? Can't squat? Can't straighten your fingers, wiggle your toes, fold in your hips, freely rotate your joints, flex your spine evenly?
Think you 'should' be able to do all these things? Sure, but if you've never spent any time doing them, why should you be able to?
Because I can? Other people can?
Well ... I can because I practice, other people probably because they practice too.
Do I have asymmetries, aches, repetitive strain injuries, old injuries, a job that 'damages' my body? Yes.
Can I ever be 'perfect'? No.
Can I be better? Yes.

You can mitigate a bunch of the wear that your body goes through every day, heal some stuff, improve a bunch more and generally work towards your potential IF ... and it is a big IF .... you pay attention, and work at it. Regularly, every day, all the time if you are a big enough nerd and have some imagination.
You are never going to be 'perfect' (what does that mean anyway?) but you could be way better than you ever thought you would be. So stop complaining, this is what life is. Work on yourself, let go of perfection, or some fantasy of your lost youth, and start moving towards your own, real, full potential, now, in the real present.
And no ... it's never too late to start.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sticky Blade

This week we worked on some 'defensive' stuff in class .. I hesitate to say 'defensive' as defense and offense can often be indistinguishable, but defensive in the sense of staying protected whilst looking for or creating openings.
We call these flows '2nd flow' because they start from blade contact with the checking hand coming into play if necessary because of the closer range.
We worked with the emphasis on slicing (rather than cutting/chopping or poking) and looking at the opportunities such contact gives. The most obvious one of course is indexing, because the moment you make contact with your opponent's blade, you know where the rest of their body is.

One particular 2nd flow is called 'Sticky Blade'. This flow builds in sensitivity to heavy contact, (to disengage) and lost contact/drop offs, (that open the center line) and works on positioning and relative angles depending on which side of the center line you want to play. It also works on extending to insert, and receiving, to 'flush block' against your body, as baits and draws.
The focus is on adding this 'blade pendulum' to the weight shift and stepping without losing contact with the opponent's blade.
With practice you can keep this contact whilst your opponent tries to open the center line by causing an error, drops off, or disengages for the hit.

What you are start to feel after a while is a 3 dimensional defensive ball - the picture I get in my head is of a rattan Sipa ball - which you are inside of, rather than a 2 dimensional wall. An arc meeting a straight line has a very different effect than 2 straight lines meeting - Bagua is based on this idea. Works very well with swords too.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Use Your Powers For Good

Teaching is a veritable Monkeyland minefield .....
There you are, self appointed head monkey, teaching volunteer junior monkeys to dance.
The whole thing is a set up for potential stupidity, and the worst part is that you are IN Monkeyland, with all it's rules and scripts, and because you are in it, it's hard to see them.

Here are the ones I've at least noticed, and this is from the teacher end, not the student end -

Status is a tricky thing - get some as a teacher and some part of you wants to keep it, or get more. It'll make you want to stay in your comfort zone, never risk losing - to anyone, and always create the impression that you know all the answers. It'll have the tendency to make you stop experimenting or putting yourself in situations where you can screw up ... i.e. it will make you avoid risk and chaos as much as possible. And it will make you occasionally tyrannical if you think that status is being challenged.
Status will also make you want to pander to your 'followers' - Make them like you, re-affirm your status, enjoy the time they spend with you, find you entertaining, be comfortable, succeed, get their egos stroked ... so they keep coming back. Make it easy, non confrontational, nice.

On the other hand, this same status can give you the attention of those open to learning new things. Status can give you the opportunity to lead by example, open peoples' minds and imaginations, teach how to enjoy problem solving and critical thinking, how to be present, mindful, aware, alive.
As a teacher you can create environments to show alternative ways to be, encourage excellence, reward growth, be ethical and upstanding in decision making and choices, and refuse to get drawn in to all the monkey games that the in built hierarchy of a martial arts class can tempt you with.

I don't think it's easy, I personally have to keep watch on myself on a regular basis to make sure I'm not getting trapped, but if I remember what I'm here for, what the point of what I'm doing IS ... then it's easier.
I don't want to create carbon copies of me, or loyal fans that think I'm great. I want to create students that can beat me at my own game. Once they can do that they should move on as I can't teach them anything more.
And that would be just fine with me.

If, at the same time, I can pass on the same joy I get from playing Eskrima, that would be awesome too.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Many people, especially women have a tendency to apologize if they make a mistake - does not matter if the opponent gets hit or not, if it's an error in a drill or in sparring.
I do it, but nowadays only if I ding someone accidentally hard through an error on my part. I don't apologize if it's their error, or it's what I intended, but martially even this is a bad habit, I know that, but decades of polite upbringing are hard to break.

Today at workout it came up during a Palakaw exercise - One of the students - 'Oops'. 'Sorry. Oops. Oops. Hell. Sorry. Oops'!
Gotta stop saying Oops

Sensei MikeE has a solution to this problem. I think it's inspired so I thought I would share for all those afflicted with this same politeness virus.
His advice - "When you f*#k up, don't say 'Oops', say 'I will haunt you'!
How cool is that?

Thanks to Liat for passing that on.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Watch Yourself

Got the chance to sword spar recently with someone with great skills. A friend videoed the fun and I got to see the footage yesterday and it was really interesting.
As I've mentioned before, Sonny video taped all his classes and we all got to go home with a VHS tape and review the workout, but since his passing I have rarely taken footage of spar time, so it's been quite a few years since I have been able to watch what I do free style as an observer.

Here's what I noticed:
- Sparring is basically a form of Monkey Dancing which is fun, and when you are having fun the game is absolutely playing you and it's hard to remember to get off the carousel.
- Fun is seductive - it makes you forget.
- Having fun makes you think you are doing better than you are ... and as such gives you no reason to change your tactics.
- All the stuff I practice to gain advantage over an opponent when I'm training, or at least much of it, is subsumed by the fun I am having being danced by the monkey.

Now, there's nothing wrong with having fun. I am a huge fan of play as a vehicle for learning .... But here's the thing, I don't recall any specifics of our sparring time, and I know if I could, there would be stuff I could learn from, I just can't put my finger on it from memory alone.
(Aside: The post I wrote on Ego, Death and Progress comes exactly from this forgetting, and 'being danced'. )

But there is a secret weapon - I watch the VIDEO.

... Ahhhh .... Wow, look at all the stuff I forgot to do. Look at all those opportunities to try something different. Look at the strange loops, decisions and errors ....
Why did I keep trying that same combo? Didn't work the last 2 times I tried it ... Why didn't I ....? Or ...?

Actually it's inaccurate to say I don't recall anything, I do remember contemplating trying some tactics and plays that did not manifest physically, but dismissed them as unworthy.
For instance, I didn't think I could fake or bait this opponent - they're pretty good at reading, and the marginal advantage between something that looks real to a seasoned player and is not, is very risky to try .... But was that a correct read on my part, or no? I think I should have investigated more, not just assumed.

To reach a higher level of skill you have to become more open, be willing to lose, invite your opponent in more and start thinking a bit further out of the box ... the monkey box ... and make yourself DO IT during the dance to test what works.
Through the power of video and the third party point of view it bestows,  I have visual confirmation that I did not try a large part of a repertoire I have at my disposal (in theory), and so the next time I play I'll have a place to start and to seek improvement, to practice again remembering to play AND think.
And who knows what will and will not work .....?  I actually have no clue, but if you believe you can get better you must expand your imagination and try it out.

And that, ladies and gentlemen is why I highly recommend you video yourself too.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Workout Oct 13

Looked at how to practice accuracy of cut and blade angle - tabletop, tuning fork.
Hiwa cuts - curves and arcs.
Recycling and neutral points - Increasing the options from each point.
Connecting the sword to the body so the whole moves as one.
Gunting open and close, connection of live hand, and cut angle to center line.
Worked all these concepts into Palakaw - fixed step to make the hips work.
Added Hiwa defense as offense + added all the concepts + repetitions and doubles.
Ended with a short 2nd flow a.k.a. Sticky Blade and introduced the timing of the 3 main openings.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Getting Your Learn On

 What I learned -

There are sometimes no good answers ... or perhaps better ... sometimes no answers that satisfy. Apparently our tendency as humans is to reframe the question to create more answers until we find one we like.

Sometimes you just don't know and there's nothing you can do about it.

Things happen for reasons.

Luck is real.

We all have blind spots and because we are in them, we can't see them, and can't even hear directions on how to get out.

Smart (my definition) people are good readers and writers (Sonny's terms). They can listen and they can lead.

We are all who we are - we are obvious. It takes skills to hide these things.

I know I have blind spots because I don't know how to connect what I learned to change what I do.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Chinese/Filipino Sword Afternoon

Had a blast yesterday comparing elements from a Northern Shaolin 'Five Tigers' Sabre form with Filipino Barong and Kampilan usage.

The 3 swords we compared are shown below, each is different in some respect from the others -

The Chinese Dao is a curved, single edged, single handed (hand and a half) sword, about 30 inches long.

The Barong is a leaf shaped, single handed blade about 20 inches long.

The Kampilan a long, straightish, 2 handed sword up to 40 inches long.

What they have in common however is that they are all heavy, slashing and chopping weapons, weighted towards the front, with a sharp tip that can be used to thrust or gouge. The Kampilan is probably the only one specifically designed for battlefield use, though all three have been used as battle and skirmishes weapons.
Because of these similarities some of the ways of using them overlap.

I've seen very little Chinese style sword work up close, especially done by someone willing to free flow some ideas, so it was a very cool to have Scott (Phillips) perform the 'Five Tigers' form, I'd comment on certain parts that looked familiar to my Eskrima and we'd compare the body mechanics, observing also the subtle changes that would occur due to the difference in weapon design and cultural flavor. Scott would give insights from his research, and his teachers' comments about it, to add to the mix.

It was also interesting to take out parts that did not look familiar at all, and try to work out how they might be used, or why they looked like they did.

Of course knowing which direction the bad guy is attacking from is part of the puzzle, or if there are multiple opponents.
Wide open space, or narrow street?
If the move is a passing move, a closing move, making distance, targeting hand or body/head, or an 'oh sh*t' last line of defense.

Of course it's all speculation in the end, but great fun never the less.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mud Walking

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

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

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

Monday, September 26, 2011

Romance & Reality

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

'What's the Damage'?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Defining The Win

Putting this out there as a question -

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

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

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

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Pen and the Sword, In Accord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 8, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sound Effects

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

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tha Wave

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 26, 2011

Simple, yet ....

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

Thursday, August 25, 2011


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

Monday, August 22, 2011


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

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

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Gory Details

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Warm Ups

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 13, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fulcrum Striking

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


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

And for some local flavor :-)

Saturday, August 6, 2011


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

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

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

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Goal

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

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

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ego, Death and Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Maestro

There are so many self proclaimed 'Masters' out there, every man and his dog has a title to give them status and authenticity.
Sonny told me that the title 'Maestro' was only to be given by others, not only others but people outside his system. In the old days, a man was expected to show his prowess, fight in public if challenged and carry himself in a way deserving of the title, and only after years of study, practice and teaching did this title become true. Others would notice it as obvious and thus it became bestowed upon the person deserving it.
Sonny insisted that his students called him Sonny, he even grimaced at 'sir', and would not tolerate bowing or any sycophantic behavior. He was a man of the old school and a true role model of a man who needed no external reinforcement to know who he was or what he had.

Here is a piece written by Edgar Sulite, a highly respected Eskrimador, that says it very well.

Thursday, September 29th, 1994
What Makes A Grandmaster?
By Punong Guro Edgar G. Sulite (edited by Master Reynaldo S. Galang)

"To be recognized as a Grandmaster or Master of combat arts in the Philippines, you must have made your reputation and show mental maturity and physical age. Grandmasters question the rankings of other grandmasters.

Masters and grandmasters are criticized and questioned regarding their skills and abilities. Who bestowed their title? Do they have enough skills for the titles they carry? How many years have they been practicing the art? How old is he? How many followers and students does this man have?

In other martial arts, the attainment of a certain level automatically designates the title Master or Grandmaster. In the Philippines, there are certain norms to be satisfied before one can be called and accepted as a Master or Grandmaster.

A master of the art must be a master of himself. He must be in control. His daily life epitomizes a man in control of his life, his destiny. A master of the art must know his art, its origins, its history, its philosophy. He must know the techniques, the interplay of techniques, and the reversals of techniques.

A master must know the basics, the intermediate forms and techniques, and the advance levels of the art. Mastery of the art does not only mean so many years in the art, but the amount of experience using the art, one's personal evolution within the art and personal dedication and contribution to the art.

A master of the art must know how to teach and impart knowledge from the art. He must be able to communicate, elaborate and present the art in such a way that each student learns on a personal basis. Each instruction is adapted to the learning process and ability of the student. A master must be a real maestro, a real teacher.

A master of the art must be of good character. He should epitomize the qualities of a leader, the majesty of a noble, and the courage and strength of a warrior.

A master of the art is called and acknowledged a Master by other masters, never by himself."

Do I think Sonny was a Master of his art? Of course I do, but don't believe me, decide for yourself.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Earlier Than You Think

Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped - African proverb

If you are always getting stuck in the same corner, or getting hit in the same way, freezing, 'running out of angle' or losing your balance.
The problem is not at the moment of failure, it's in the moments leading up to it.
You are probably repeating a mistake, not noticing something important, playing your own game without watching your opponent, failing in your set up or lacking in guile.
Failure is the end result, not the problem, and the point of no return often comes much earlier than you think ..... Though having said that, the more creative you are, the later it tends to be.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Here is a fabulous video of Michael Jordan playing basketball. I really enjoy watching his timing as he evades his opponents' defense, passes and/or shoots.
Musical analogies work well - He breaks beats, stutters, holds notes, stops suddenly or flows seamlessly whilst passing in an unexpected direction.
Watch how he does not commit the shot until he has an opening, the use of curves instead of straight lines, the turns, pivots, jukes and of course the timing.
And then imagine doing this with swords.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Buying and Selling

You have to sell a fake, and it has to be bought.

It has to be something your opponent wants, or wants to avoid.

You can't just put something out there and hope it looks like the genuine article and assume someone will take it.

A successful fake must look real, read - attractive or dangerous, if it looks like a fake and it is not particularly attractive or dangerous it does not work.

You have to understand what real things look like, and what looks real to people. And also how different things look real to different people.

You can't sell fakes until you first learn how to sell reality.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A TMA* Interlude ....

My teacher is coming next month from Taiwan.
Luo De Xiu is one of the world's best exponents and teachers of the so called Chinese Internal Arts .... in my humble opinion of course .... and every year he does a 'world tour' of schools and groups that practice his lineage of Bagua, Xing Yi and Tai Ji (The Yizong system).
This year he is focusing a great deal more on Xing Yi than in previous years perhaps because he harbors a slight worry that the more popular Tai Ji and Bagua will mean less people are going to be able to pass on the deceptively straightforward, and as such perhaps somewhat 'boring' Xing Yi.

And I admit it - I thought it was somewhat boring too. Bagua is much more fluid and beautiful and you get to work your body in all sorts of unusual planes and angles that don't appear elsewhere, and Tai Ji has at it's core a long, elegant form that can keep you entertained for decades ... but Xing Yi? Well it comes from military training from way back when they fought with spears and halberds, it is always moving forwards (almost always) in a straight (almost) line, repeating a simple series of movements left and right, and there are only 5 ways of doing that (... OK the 12 animal forms etc ... but they came later).
Of course now, years later, my appreciation for the simplicity of it's forms and concepts has grown. The forms are restful, meditative, and the power development and body integration that comes from practicing them is noticeable .... and you get to play with long weapons ... and swords ... and that's cool all by itself.
It keeps you healthy, flexible and strong too.

* TMA = Traditional Martial Arts

Here's my teacher demonstrating the 5 elements that make up the basic practice.
I find it incredibly restful to watch

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Stimulus Response

'Catching a ball is a stimulus-oriented response and not a motor one . In other words one that has been thought out . The conscious mind is simply incapable of organizing such a complex motor event. You can provide the stimuli to catch a ball but you cant consciously organize those motor events by which to catch it. That's why it is far more important to know what you have to do than how to do it .' - Steve Morris
The body possesses an intelligence that is innate. At the bottom of this post is a link to a pdf about 'Biological Motion' for those that are interested, it's a fascinating paper about the skills we are all born with.
So how this relates to training is this - Giving the body a problem, and some physical cues to copy if it can't work out a solution - the 'Mirroring' concept - and working from there is a faster and more efficient way of ingraining suitable responses that rote learning without the stimulus.  Kinda 'Don't get hit' as opposed to 'Step left as I cut down, bring the sword hilt to you hip and make a small arc as you catch the weapon'.
Now maybe the most efficient way to deal with this particular cut is as described above ... but what if it's now slightly different in angle or timing? Perhaps with your feet in a different orientation and the start point of your weapon elsewhere ..? Do you teach more individual solutions ... or just stay with 'Don't get hit'?
Now you may be thinking that there are many different ways to 'not get hit' - absolutely true. And that some are more appropriate at certain times than others depending on what might happen next .... true again. So as you flow add the next thing as a stimulus/problem to solve - "Well that would work, except now you are really open over here, so how do you fix that"? (This sentence is a physical question not a verbal one). The problems keep coming as one thing always leads to the next ......
In case you were wondering, the conscious mind does have a part, but gets added later as an observer almost, until it can keep up with what's going on and choose different courses of action i.e. tactical decision making. Like driving where you are not paying attention to the physical movements of your arms and legs, but deciding which route to take to your destination.
Sonny never explained his concept in this way, but essentially that is what he was doing when he started teaching random flow. He created a format in which to present 'problems' and have the student 'solve' them. The key of course was to calibrate the problems to the student, always seeking to work at the edge of their potential, and at a pace where the conscious mind couldn't .... 'interfere'.
That's a real skill, and one of the ways that Sonny connected his fighting ability to his teaching ability - He spent every day he worked out testing people, watching them, leading them, setting them up and seeing what came out. After workouts he would watch tapes of what happened - he could rarely consciously repeat sequences of movements in class, which was frustrating to those of us who asked 'What did you just do"?? 
But in the end it was better because he would always answer, "Let's go again and see if it happens" .... which then meant you were now paying attention to the lead up to what might happen next, and if you were lucky could find what you were looking for directly from a problem solving context. The body would be engaged in the doing, the mind in the watching.
The fact that Sonny could calibrate his movement to each student was a huge gift to us of course, but ultimately meant he was also constantly in problem solving mode - solving how to get the student to 'see', and at the same time handicapping himself in speed and opportunity to match the student, improving his fighting skills and ability to get out of tight corners later, slower, and with the least movement possible.