Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Snake Charmer

The last couple posts were both answers to questions I'd been given, and the eskrima post was inspired by the idea of guards/ fighting stances.

Here is a follow up to the previous post regarding the counter intuitive idea, 'opening the line'.

So the theory, as it was empirically laid out for me in my workout times with Sonny, is this.
2 opponents facing off with swords.
The outcomes are - win/lose, lose/win, lose/lose, win/win.
Win/win - the most sensible outcome, involves both parties backing away and calling it quits.
Say this is not likely - we're practicing dueling after all, so the fight is on.
This leaves only one other worthy outcome for me - I win, they lose.
Problem is, even at the most basic level of statistics, that's a 1 in 3 chance. Me getting hurt is twice as likely.
So, there's nothing else for it, you have to control the game. Leaving it to chance is just too risky.
How to you control it? You become the snake charmer not the snake.
Winning comes from opportunities and motion. Learn to create those and take advantage of them, and you can improve your odds considerably.
Like Sonny said - "They are coming for you anyway, open the door and invite them in, (because) if I know what you are going to do next and when you are going to do it, I can beat you."
Make it happen, don't hope that it will.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

3 + Time II

Covering the line vs the parry vs the block - All kinda the same thing, yet all kinda different.

- Covering the line does not engage the opponent's blade, it's more of a 'I see you and want you to know I have'. It forces the opponent to look for other options.
- Parrying engages the blade, deflecting the weapon away from it's target. It can be used as a way to enter, a bridge if you like, to create an offensive opportunity.
- Blocking OTOH often happens because you are late, and the only way not to get hit is to use your blade to protect yourself (There is a difference here between edged and point only weapons, here I'm mostly talking about slicing/cutting blades). It too can be used as an opportunity, but often, because you are so 'late', it just buys time. It is possibly the least beneficial move offensively, but the most useful defensively, especially on an exit.

The other option of course it to open the line, to invite the opponent in.

All are range/time and angle dependent, and require a recognition of what is real threat vs what is not.

Dueling by it's nature, plays at the boundary between danger and safety - the opponent will not be tempted if it does not look ... tempting, and you cannot reach them without getting into range, which means you are either in danger, or have to 'seem' in danger.

A useful practice is to gain insight into how close you can play the margin, how little you need to engage with the opponent's blade, and how late you can be if you have to defend yourself.

Ideally you only need to use your weapon to protect yourself after you have struck them.

Less risky, is to engage on the way in to create a safer path, making sure the opponent cannot counter.

At worse, you misread and scramble for a block .... Unless of course you are really tricky and only seem like you are late ... using awkward and 'disadvantageous' positions to really surprise your opponent off a late block.
Riskier, but high percentage, and really funny if you can pull it off.

Bottom line - Don't waste your blade engaging the opponent's blade unless you are going to use it for good.
And practice what you can get away with.
How late? How close?

Friday, January 27, 2012


There's this thing about 3s that keeps coming up, it seems a very human number, if there can be such a thing .... and as a generalization seems to hold true when it comes to describing sets of important things. But just like 5 and 8 - auspicious numbers often used in traditional teachings - can contain an extra 1 or 2 'secret' parts to complete the picture, so it may be with 3 also.

With this in mind, a brief description of how I have come to understand the basics of Bagua body training in my system -

There a 3 circles - vertical, horizontal and oblique (one could argue that the oblique is merely a combination of vertical and horizontal, but there you go).

There are also 3 basic methods of inherent power generation -

Using the bones as struts, structural elements if you like, connecting what you do to the ground (for rebound, redirection, leverage etc), and even by accessing the inbuilt hydraulic plates between the joints for 'spring'.

Using soft tissue, fascia and tendons, for twisting, coiling and uncoiling.

Using gravity, or body weight (by shifting from one leg to the other, stepping, dropping or jumping etc).

Both the 3 planes of motion- the circles, and the ways to generate power require time - the 4th dimension - to make them useful.

Bagua's basic body training practice - walking the circle - bring these elements together:
- Improving structure and the connection to the ground using physiological alignment principles and the practice of relaxing to gain articulation in every joint of the body within these alignments.
- Improving the flexibility of the fascia and tendons to increase range of motion using twisting, and so adding torque to the system, again, whilst keeping these alignments true.
- Improving the balance and ability to shift weight smoothly, to preserve the ability to use the natural power from the structure and the tissues at any moment, adding the power of gravity to the equation.

It's a very smart system really.

3 circles + time (walking) aka 'tri-planar' motion + time = a spiral.
Natural motion of the soft tissue in the body = spiral. (... + time = continually available torque)
Best way to break an opponent's structure - use tri-planar motion = a spiral.

Structural alignment + torque + gravity in motion = A great combination.

Monday, January 23, 2012


I have a personal bias against martial arts DVDs - not videoing in general, but the idea that you can learn something just from watching it on a monitor.
Many will disagree perhaps, but that has been my experience.
Of course, if you already KNOW physically what you are doing, and just need a reminder as to some of the technical parts, alignment etc of what you are practicing, then they are very helpful as an 'external memory' device, holding information until it has been fully integrated through practice.
The dilemma comes when folks start asking for material to work on remotely that have zero to very little idea of what they are doing.

A common question I get asked is about the availability of training videos of Sonny's material, and my answer has up to now, been no, sorry, not at this time.

Part of me really wants to keep it this way. I believe you learn to 'dance' best with a partner, reacting and moving because they move, and learn particularly well if you have a skilled partner that can lead you and set up 'questions' that you have to find the answers to.
It's pertinent, practical, and in my experience, a highly efficient training method, with hopefully, little 'un-learning' to be done on the way to understanding the art.

The other part of me thinks, sure, why not have some material that is available to practice remotely? After all, the pendulum and all it's variations are perfectly possible to practice solo, especially if you can hang a ball or some kind of weight on a string, from the ceiling to move with ....
But then I remember how errors creep in with no feedback, especially for those with poor proprioception, and am leery to encourage folks to imprint these errors through repetition, if these problems will only have to be erased later. The human mind has a high capacity for delusion and has a particularly hard time being objective, even with physical movement .... So ...

To video, or not to video ...?

Is not videoing preserving the integrity of the method? Or just being a control freak?
Is distributing a learning video sharing knowledge? Or just throwing out meaningless information?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Verbalization Practice

After having tea the other day with Sensei MikeE, he challenged me to write down what I think and feel about martial arts, and my place in them.
So here are some thoughts as of right now, not in any particular order. This list is, I'm sure, incomplete and liable to change:

I have been practicing one kind of martial art or another for a total of about 30 odd years ... perhaps 16 seriously.

I believe folks practice martial arts for a variety of reasons, none really more valid than any other, my reasons have generally been curiosity, a love of physical movement, probably a good dose of fantasy esoterica and some historical fascination with swords, the era in which they were important as weapons, and the cultures that used them.

Martial arts are also just COOL.

They make me happy, literally, when I do them, I feel healthier, and they have bled into other parts of my life in positive ways - understanding human behavior and gaining an interest in meditation. Oh, and I don't like how I feel when I don't do them.

I've made some of my best and longest lasting friendships through doing them and have hopefully expanded my imagination and fed my brain too.

I've often been the token minority in the room and guess have grown used to the idea. I do not strongly gender identify ... well actually not at all, and am constantly having to remember that I am considered the 'wrong' gender to be doing what I do because I forget.

I think way more women should practice martial arts - and I think the healthiest class setting is co-ed, for the women and especially for the men, though am happy to teach separate groups.
I would love to encourage more women to participate in martial practice, but am unhappy with the stereotypes that exist today. I am looking for a new path based on the individual, not on a particular gender.

I would not say that I particularly run a 'nurturing' or 'friendly and supportive' class, but I'm a huge believer in the power of play as a path to learning, and the concept that training should feel satisfying if not downright fun. You may feel 'empowered' from it or you might not. It will probably be harder that you thought it would be, and you will suck more than you thought you would. But in my book that's what makes it engaging.
I believe most things worthwhile in life contain failure and difficulty. They should not be 'easy and quick', or involve no effort. The effort and the obstacles are what makes them worthy.
Perhaps that means that some folks aren't up for it. That's OK.

I don't like imposed ranks or hierarchy, and ritual and rigid traditions do not interest me too much. I will know how much respect you show by the way you practice and the way you conduct yourself without formal rules to follow. And the more effort you put in, the more you will get out.

I don't teach for the money, honestly class fees are a token, nothing more. If I was making my living teaching martial arts, I would not be teaching in the way I do.
I believe the time my teachers put into their practice and their understanding, and the effort I have put in can only really be repaid by the student putting the time in themselves and appreciating the exchange that is taking place. The rent still needs paying though, so such is life.

I believe the difference between martial practices and those purely for health is that you have to connect what you do outside yourself. There is a point to them, they are FOR something, and as such what they are for generates how they are done. Lose the meaning, lose the point.

I believe that traditional martial arts hold much good and valid information within them. They may not be the fastest way to learn how to fight but all the information IS there if you know what to look for.  They also have many side benefits that make them a fabulous way to keep fit, stay flexible (mentally and physically) and can be done (if done right) until you keel over and kick the bucket.

As far as conflict in general goes, here is a thought from Rory Miller that I agree with wholeheartedly -
"I don't think conflict is a physical problem most of the time .... and even when it is a physical problem, there are minds and social rules and the world involved. The more of those elements you can manipulate skillfully, the better off you are. Sometimes you play the cards, sometimes you play the person and sometimes you play the table."

I also believe that training martial skills is healthy. Power and skill are neutral elements that a clear mind and a good moral compass point towards good or bad depending on choice.
I believe it is unbalanced for folks to refuse to look at conflict and ignore it as part in life. Chaos and destruction are as important a part of the cycle of life as creation and sustainability.
Scary things should be met, leaned against and explored. That which is understood is in the end far less scary than that which is left a mystery. Martial arts seems to me like a safe place to start this conversation.

In the end I guess I'm a student of Strategy, and see no real disconnect between researching the great warriors and commanders of history, to understanding animal behavior and human psychology, to learning how to debate.
It's all about humans - agreeing and disagreeing. Imposing will and denying it. Working together, and making things happen. Creating change, and protecting the status quo.

I believe stagnation is death and that all things move, vibrate, oscillate, pulse, shimmy and jolt. I read once that if it was not for the volcanic nature of the Earth, the liquid core and the constant motion of the crust, we would all be gone and the planet would be a featureless sphere of dust.
In that spirit I believe we all need to learn to surf this constant movement, and for some reason training martial arts can help with this. I suspect it has to do with becoming comfortable in chaos, accepting that some things may stay unknown, and gaining the confidence to enjoy the ride .... at least that's the goal.

If you think you can learn something worthwhile from me, I would love to have the opportunity to share some of what I have been given by my teachers.
If I can expand your imagination, take your brain into places you had not thought of before, enhance your ability to move, connect to your body and to the moment, and generally improve your understanding and enjoyment of life and the folks that populate it, then I've done my job.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mr Wang Critiques ......

Pertinent critique from Mr Wang. Not sure when this interview was ... 1940/50s?


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cross Pollination

Workouts right now have been on climb ups, stealing distance, entries and openings.
Starting with Largo, moving to Bogsai, sword and then to Pangamut, basically long to short.
The common handwork pattern called Pangamut is the start point for empty hand flow training in many Filipino systems. Some systems do it standing still or facing the opponent, we do it in conjunction with the pendulum step so these climb ups, range stealings, entries and openings are easier to practice.

By the end of the session we started inserting entries from Bagua and Hsing-Yi into the mix - Pi, San Pa Shou, Kai Kan, Li, Gai etc - and looking at trips and throws from Hsing-Yi and Bagua to add to the mix of Moro footwork, kicks and locks. Any time the players got stuck we worked Hubad (tying and untying) to look for disengagements and reversals.
Good times.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Classes for the New Year

As those of you who attended Luo Dexiu's seminars last year will know, Laoshi has been concentrating on passing forward the Hsing-Yi of the Yizong school.
The Yizong system contains the 'trinity' of Internal Arts - Tai Ji, Hsing-Yi, and Bagua.
For many years the focus has been on Bagua, and rightly so in my opinion as it is a most elegant and beautiful martial system. However Hsing-Yi, too, is an integral part of Yizong with a directness and beauty all it's own. Practical and accessible to beginners, yet subtle and fascinating for more advanced level practitioners.
As such it seemed appropriate to organize the morning class schedule in a way as to be able to concentrate on both Bagua and Hsing-Yi equally, yet separately. Therefore I have decided that over the year I will be teaching 4, 8 week courses, each looking at different aspect of the Bagua and Hsing-Yi of the Yizong system to give both the time for in-depth study they deserve, and so students can choose which courses to attend depending on their interest.

1 - Starting on Tuesday January 24th, I will be teaching an 8 week course on Bagua circle walking for meditation, health and martial practice.

2 - Starting on May 1st for 8 weeks, Hsing-Yi for meditation, health, and body training for martial practice.

3 - Starting July 17th for 8 weeks, Bagua straight line forms with fighting applications.

4 - Starting September 18th for 8 weeks, Hsing-Yi linking forms and 2 person An Shen Pao.

All classes are Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 7.30 to 8.30am at Suigetsukan Dojo  http://suigetsukan.org/

Courses are open to beginners and continuing students.
Cost is $150/ 8 week course (16 classes)

Eskrima classes are ongoing.
I teach mostly privately but there is an open group class that meets every Thursday from 3.30 to about 5.30pm.
Looks like I will be in Europe some time in March into April. I will be in the UK for about a week, then in Switzerland, possibly Germany though no firm plans/dates as yet.

Anyone interested in seminars, on going classes, or privates can contact me at the e-mail address below. Also to sign up for the 8 week courses.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

No Monotone

As kind of a follow up rant to the 'Outside' post, and I'm sure repeating things in the post a while back about acceleration and deceleration, an idea for any form practice -

There is a reason you traditionally practice slowly to start off with, the thinking is that you need to gain the proprioception needed to co-ordinate your body into the most efficient way of moving possible, gain the ability to have a strong 'root', i.e. connection to the ground, and from that the ability to issue, absorb or redirect power at any moment, and have the ability to recycle power in the 3 dimensions.
Our skeletal structure is designed to work in gravity so there IS a 'best' way to align the bones, and there is a need to free up the tendon and fascia of the body to improve power and efficiency of motion.
There is also a need to un-learn some of the bad habits we have grown into through our every day inattention to alignment and structure that have tightened up the body, caused stiffness, diminished range of motion and our ability to relax etc etc.
BUT ..... If .... IF you are trying to connect the forms to anything martial, or even if you are purely doing it for health, DON'T GET STUCK HERE.
It's only the first step. The soporific effect of a slow, monotone tempo will in the end freeze your brain - perhaps some will disagree - but I truly think that to connect what you do to the environment you are in, your surroundings, and anyone else in it, you need to move WITH the moment.
I'm not saying you can't influence the moment by a calm demeanor and a slower pace, but don't expect the world to follow you if this is the only pace you know.
Stuff does not happen at the same speed all the time, in fact it rarely happens slowly at all, unless you really are trying to connect with the purely natural world of plants growing and glaciers shifting.
Practice at different speeds, trying a form really fast will point out errors going slow will never find.
Practice varying the tempo, and even momentarily holding moments, accelerating fast, stopping, slowly moving again, sudden, sharp movement followed by a slow deceleration, whatever you can think of.
And make it DIFFERENT every time you do it.
Ignore what SEEM like the natural breaks in a form and try to express the power of the move AFTER that.
If a form has a natural 4 count, try to pause every 5 count.
It's good for the body AND the brain.
It's a part of how I teach my students, and how we do form work. If you practice by yourself you can pick pretty much any adverb you like to add to your form - slow, fast, jerky, smooth, heavy, quiet, sneaky, big, powerful, invisible, syncopated ....
Give it a go, see what you think.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Bird in the Hand

Read an article the other day about an FMA practitioner who sells Rattan sticks. He described how folks would come in, spend a while rolling the sticks, sighting along them and feeling the balance before either rejecting of buying. Everyone likes a weapon that feels good in the hand.
However, he also pointed out that back in the day, his grandfather, and Eskrimadors in general, would often just cut a weapon straight off a tree to use - adapting to whatever curvature, balance points or unevenness was naturally present.

A machete, golok, bolo, broom handle, iron pipe or tree branch all have quirks that must be felt. The recycle time is different, the grip and weakness of handle play a part, the weight of the weapon and how it's held when not in use, the weight of the tip, or the lack of a tip. The sharpness and length of the edge, or lack of edge all contribute to how it's used.

The way a weapon is used derived from what it is, and how it feels in the hand. Straightness, and good balance are a luxury. Weapons specifically designed for fighting and not for work, were generally not daily carry, so this ability to adapt to circumstance was key to being able to defend oneself.

Even for weapons specifically designed for fighting there are differences depending on manufacture, quality, personal preferences and physical size of the maker compared to the user. Style of blade shape (culture), length, weight, balance, thickness, handle length, and purpose (battlefield, skirmish or duel), etc etc.

I watched many times when Sonny was handed a gift of a new weapon - many people would bring him gifts from around the world. He'd hold it, shift his grip around the handle, test the tip weight, flourish, and start to move with it, often flowing with whoever was there at the time. I wish I had video footage of all the times to compare now, but I know each time was different depending on how the weapon felt.
Sometimes the comment after was 'Nice. I like that'. Other times a few weeks later that weapon would be transformed into something completely different.

Sonny spent much of his free time fabricating training weapons, and redesigning and altering these live blades that were given to him. He would rework the shape of the blade, change the handle, make new sheaths and essentially create works of art - eminently practical, form following function perfectly.
All the 'flaws' would be manipulated to create a weapon with perfect balance, that moved amazingly well in the hand and in space, with small design features contained in the curvatures in the blade and the handle that would become apparent when you started handling the weapon and using it for the purpose it was meant for. The thought that went into each piece was amazing .... though probably completely natural to one who could see all the possible pros and cons of each shape and alteration.
Everything you see in pictures or video footage on the walls of his living room, was reworked, or made from scratch by him.

This was also true for his Aluminium and soft style training blades - everything had great balance and the different designs he came up with, he used to teach different parts of the system.
What was amusing to me was that Sonny would always make his training blades in pairs, but because each was made by hand, the slight variation between the two would mean that he would have a favorite that he would always choose over the other. Even there, he could tell the difference between 2, ostensibly identical, blades.

So yes, given the choice, why not choose the most comfortable weapon to suit your body type, personality and context of the fight? But I guess the thing is not to get too comfortable with 'perfection', ass you must be able to adapt to anything put in your hand - an unbalanced piece of crap, a weirdly bent tree branch, an overly long broom handle or someone else's sword. A rock on a piece of string or a rolled up newspaper, a Barong, a Pinute, a Katana or a Rapier. They all have a personality, a distinct way of moving that can be used to your advantage if you learn to understand it.

If I have an ambition in training, it would be this understanding.
That would be cool.

Monday, January 2, 2012


One of the hazards of practicing so called 'Internal Martial Arts, or concentrating purely on Nei Gung (Chi Gung), is the tendency to start focusing inwards all the time.
It's all well and good learning how to feel what's going on inside your body, and working out how to control it, but in the end, if it never manifests outside, you are just masturbating.
I have heard the Taoist view that the physical body is a gateway to understanding the 'higher' levels of human consciousness, pain and cold for instance are very immediate and real things to experience, and as such the physical world is the arena you practice in first - harder to delude yourself when there's real stuff to deal with.
But here's the thing, it's absolutely possible to be totally in your physical body, incredibly in tune with it, yet completely disconnected to the moment you are living in, what is going on around you, or have an ability to move with that moment.
Higher meditation practices often imagine a connection to the edges of the universe, or to infinity, but trust me, you'll certainly be deluded about that if you can't even connect to where you are right now, what you touch, the ground you stand on, or the space you move in.
Everything you do connects. You are a part of it all, not separate.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Thought for New Years

There's nothing to remember

........... if you learn how to 'see'.