Sunday, April 29, 2012


 My 2 best subjects at school were Maths and Art ... which might explain a little how I see the world.
There is a great deal of geometry in sword play (and martial arts in general of course) - How slight changes in range occur from the straight to the angle, how tangential lines intersect circles only once, about the usage of arcs, cusps, half way points, and on and on.
Add human physiology and gravity to the equation, and you get the strong and weak angles, footwork, power, and options at any one moment ... which is really just Physics, and a natural segue into relative movement in time, through the 3 dimensions, momentum, still points and intersections etc etc.
Of course you add Psychology to the whole .... and thus you get your Tactics. Add the environment and the context .... and thus to Strategy.

Few days ago I was invited to a BJJ class.
I have to admit that BJJ, wrestling, and grappling arts in general, are not my thing ... don't know why, swords hold a huge appeal, rolling around on the floor does not. I guess it's like musical taste in that way, it just 'is'..... But it's always good to get out of your comfort zone and occasionally do something that is a 'gap' in your practice, so I went.
I was certainly curious to take this class because the teacher was a woman, a black belt, and with a few major competition wins to her credit. I also heard she was meticulous about accuracy and correct technique, much more concerned with the efficient use of natural body mechanics than winning through luck or size, and with no interest in 'wins' achieved through brute force.
That all seemed right up my alley, and I am very glad I went. 
Jessi ran a great class. The students were mostly guys, but there were a couple women too. The warm ups were good, specific for the sport, and great exercise, and the techniques that we worked on were complicated (for me) but logical, and had a natural flow to them that was very satisfying.
I was really happy that all the potential counters were explored, connecting them to the WHY of how you held position (structure), and how you transitioned between positions, and how the 'WHY' translated into the reason the technique worked.
At one point, Rory's comments came to mind, about the idea of "Position before submission" being a 'Winner's strategy', and how the control, the lessening of options, has to increase from move to move, with no gaps, no mistakes. No chance for the chaos to increase.
My favorite part? When we were looking at the relative geometry between the opponents - the strong and the weak angles, the still points, the gravity and the physiology .... and Jessi said: " I call it Math with no numbers".
I can dig it :-)

Here's Jessi:
She teaches Tuesdays and Thursdays at Soja Martial Arts in Oakland CA

Monday, April 23, 2012

Stand By

It's always interesting to be a pedestrian, standing at traffic lights waiting for the lights to change so you can cross. Watch any group of people on the opposite side as the 'walk now' sign lights up, and almost as a unit, all will lean to one side and then take a step forward.
This of course is because they are standing relaxed whilst waiting. When they actually want to start moving, they have to engage their muscles, shift weight on to one leg so they can move the other, and only then, start walking across the street. Even if you start with your weight already shifted to one side, if you relax, or let yourself 'sit on your bones', you still have to reengage the muscles and tendons before you can start to move. 
The transition from still, to moving, requires a shift, mental and physical ... unless you wait in 'stand by' mode, like a runner waiting for the start gun, with soft tissue engaged and ready to go.

My Bagua teacher calls this 'stand by' mode, and likens it to being like a monkey that has seen a piece of fruit that it wants, and is waiting with full intent for that moment when they can grab it from the unsuspecting.
It's a rather interesting mode to be still in, and one that is practiced in many martial arts in standing postures, or in forms that hold moments of stillness within them. But it's hard to maintain in a relaxed manner .... hence the need to practice it. Internal arts call it 'Motion in Stillness', the partner of 'Stillness in Motion'. The transition between the two being a crucial place to work.

The other way to avoid this gap, this extra step to reengage the muscles etc for movement, is to always keep moving very slowly.
This came up in Toyama Ryu class the other morning where we were practicing random entries and reactions. If you think of the drill as a reaction to a random entry and set yourself up to wait for the opponent to commit, you are in effect relaxing, or at least disengaging a response from your legs until you see what's coming ... This is ridiculous and rarely works - there is not enough time to react, the OODA loop takes too much time.
To do the drill correctly, you are really never waiting per se but are constantly improving position and setting up actions, slowly, subtly, forcing the opponent's hand, and keeping your own mind and body engaged in the moment. You stay in motion, moving into your opponent, or changing line so there is no need to orient or decide, just observe and act.
Much smarter.

It's a subtle thing though, this motion in stillness, Or this ability to maintain constant, slow and smooth movement, it's like a predator, stalking. You don't want to startle you opponent at the wrong moment, you want to entice them in, or remain unsuspecting until the moment you pounce.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Wrong End of the Stick

There's a book about a Tai Ji teacher called TT Liang. It's called "Steal My Art".
The author, a student of Mr Liang, talks about his experiences as his student and the life lessons he absorbed during that time. It's been a while since I read it, but remember enjoying it.
The title refers to the tendency, especially in the older generations of teachers from Asia, to be rather secretive of their skills and their art. Mr Liang, however, gave his student a hint about how to gain it for himself - he encouraged him to 'steal it', by whatever means he was creative enough to do so.
My own teachers certainly have their stories of peeking over fences, and hiding in the bushes, trying to get glimpses of teachers practicing and teaching their 'indoor students'. Tales of plying them with gifts of cigarettes and tea, or whiskey and beer, of reciting stories of the teacher's teacher in ear shot in hopes of eliciting comment, and best of all practicing something wrong in front of them, something most teachers cannot abide to see, and cannot resist to correct.

Old school teachers also had a reputation for being brusque, with barely a good word to say, only terse correction and never ending utterances of 'No'! and 'Wrong'! It took a particular kind of grit for a student to stay the course, hard as it is to be constantly 'wrong'. It's hard to invest in loss, hard to fail, and hard to have your ego thrashed over and over again, perhaps alongside the rest of you.
Now I'm not saying this is the best way to teach, or that training should be so, but times were different then, and many of these guys had come from real, fighting, backgrounds. They played their cards close to their chests and were careful not to show their hands if they didn't need to.

My favorite story about TT Liang concerned a rude, obnoxious, bully who came to class, never listened to corrections, and who nobody wanted to work with due to his lack of control and tendency to inflict injury.
Apparently one day Mr Liang calls over the bully and hands him a piece of paper, and in front of the class, shakes his hand and says words to the effect of - Congratulations, you have finished the system, I can teach you no more, and I hereby award you this certificate of completion and wish you well on your journey.
Guy left and never came back.

So remember the old school .... and be careful if your teacher tells you - 'Yes, yes, very good', and apparently never finds anything wrong with what you do.
And be especially careful if they say - 'I don't think you can learn any more from me, I have taught you all I can. You have everything you need already. No need to come back' ....
It may not mean what you think it does ......

Sunday, April 15, 2012


One of my students has been converting VHS tapes of Sonny training his students to digital format, and though he's not watching everything all the way through - the transfer occurs in real time - he has been catching 10 minutes here and there of all the tapes that have gone through the machine.
Yesterday he had questions about the tapes, and was looking to fill out the context for some of the exercises and drills he'd seen in a selection he'd been digitizing.
Funny thing was, that all the different questions he had, from various random tapes, had a common thread - in this case 'The Wavecutter' concept.

What 'Wavecutter' means is unimportant here, but it got me to wondering, if he had asked about a completely different set of drills or exercises, would they too have a commonality?

Was the Wavecutter concept just the piece that MY brain saw as a way to connect the separate drills?

Are our brains wired to find patterns and links, predisposing me to find commonality between ANY list of things? 

Of course there's also the possibility that Sonny was working on this concept over some months with different people, and the series of tapes watched just mirrored this fact.

But ..... if all the pieces of the puzzle are linked (and if by nothing else they are certainly linked by the concept 'sword') ... are there some concepts that form the hubs through which all, or at least a great number of the concepts, are linked?
I'd say yes, but I think the more important question is - At what level you see them?
I suspect the depth of your understanding of any system/method is directly linked to this.
The other important part, from the teaching end, is how these hubs formulate how you connect the pieces you teach. I don't think you can teach from the 'hubs' out, you have to let the student come back through them ... but can certainly use them as 'themes' or mind openers at the appropriate moment.

Sonny's material, his body of knowledge, and the method he used to disseminate it, feels to me like a tree.
Where as a beginner you start at the outermost leaf tips, jumping from twig to twig, leaf to leaf, with no real feeling of the connection between the things you practice.
As you improve you find yourself on larger and larger spurs and branches connecting all the smaller branches, and the picture of how the pieces come together starts to come into focus.
Eventually, hopefully, if the teacher has done their job right, you reach the simplicity of the trunk, the true hub.
You then look up at the sky through the leaves and wonder at the simple elegance of the stem, the core that initiates all the diverse complexity at the periphery .....

 ...... Which in the manner of things as they are, of course, sinks deep into the ground, spreading as far, or further than the leaf tips ever went.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Moment Before

What is tactically possible in any moment, is predisposed by what is happening in the moment before.
This probably seems obvious, but has a profound effect on what can and cannot succeed, and the variety of options viable at any one time.
For instance, you can only land a shot on your opponent after you evade, if you are loaded onto your legs to move back into range the moment before. You can only exit successfully if you are already prepared to do so as you enter.
It's a very short moment you see, which means you already have to have the idea about what's about to happen, and what you can do, 2 STEPS ahead AS you do the next thing ....... (and I might add that though this may be practiced consciously, in real time it's a 'feeling' that comes from 'seeing', and seems to bypass the thought process), so everything you do ends up being part of a chain of events, a Kadena if you like.
The opposite of this would be working purely 'IN the moment', reactively that is, meaning you are basically trusting your reflexes, and to some extent, luck, relying solely on your opponent to create the opportunity.
So using the previous post's video clip as an example -
The Japanese stylist is always spring loaded to take advantage of the opponent's lapses in concentration .... but is still relying on the opponent to lapse, taking advantage of a situation in the moment, seizing it very efficiently, but really has no part in creating it.
OK, he does change his kamai some and shift his feet which could have an effect, but basically, in my opinion, why there are so many double death cuts in the interaction, is that neither party is creating, they are just trying to take advantage, of situations AS they unfold.
Sometimes one party engages the other's weapon, creating a bridge, and I guess this could be construed as trying to create opportunity. Problem is that neither seems to have a game plan leading forward from that contact - the Western fencer never has good enough footing to kick, trip, or shunt his opponent off because he is not ready for this to happen. Neither does the Japanese stylist.

This ability to create, or writing, as Sonny called it, is a step above reading which is what is mostly happening in the video clip.
Now, often 'reading' is good enough, and a hard enough skill to learn in and of itself. And technically the Japanese stylist 'won' on the first interaction, because it's only the first one that really counts after all ....
But what if it isn't enough? Say because your opponent is skilled or a difficult read, what then? Surely it's better to have luck and reaction play a smaller role and learn how to 'write' the game for yourself?

So back to 'the moment before' ..... The key ingredient to what is about to happen next. A predictor, a 'tell' about your opponents next move, and the last, diminishing moment of influence YOU can have on a forthcoming event.

- How late can you change something to your benefit?

- How early can you influence a chain of events?

- How long can you play this sequence and lead the interaction?

Well, it's impossible to know unless you play IN TIME, and by 'in time' I don't mean on the beat, I mean in the 4th dimension. In a situation that models, as closely as possible, a real interaction between you and another.
Set sequences of prearranged techniques don't qualify as you know what comes next, so are learning nothing about how to influence events, set up opportunities, read intent, or gain on the timing.

That is why, in my opinion, flow training is so valuable (free sparring too, though often it's too fast to 'see' what's going on and change behavior very efficiently), and what separates it from static and purely technical learning. How are you ever going to learn to work with this 'moment before' if it never appears in your training?
And if you never get to work with this moment ......?
Perhaps the whole event will remain a mystery, and everything you do will be down to luck and fast reflexes .... Not such a great prospect in my book.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Middle English wil, from Old North French, from Old Norse veel, trick, or of Low German origin.
Synonyms: wile, artifice, trick, ruse, feint, stratagem, maneuver, dodge

These nouns denote means for achieving an end by indirection or deviousness.  
Wile - suggests deceiving and entrapping a victim by playing on his or her weak points
Artifice - refers to something especially contrived to create a desired effect: 
Trick - implies willful deception: 
Ruse - stresses the creation of a false impression 
Feint - denotes a deceptive act calculated to distract attention from one's real purpose 
Stratagem - implies carefully planned deception used to achieve an objectiv 
Maneuver - often applies to a single strategic move 
Dodge - stresses shifty and ingenious deception
Below is an interesting clip of a match between a Japanese stylist and a Western stylist. The Japanese fencer is more skillful, using a wider repertoire of targets and attacks, and with a better understanding of how to take advantage of gaps in his opponent's intent. He is quite successful with his hand and arm targeting, I counted about 6, which the western fencer seems not to have trained to avoid.
The Western stylist concentrates mostly on binding the weapon though has a nice long lunge at one point.
The rest of the strikes, and I don't know what the rules are here as to when someone acknowledges a hit, are split about 3 to each opponent for successful body strikes with no counter, and about 10 'double death' strikes, where both opponents get caught.
Of course this combat could be considered armored, in which case perhaps many of the body strikes, and perhaps arm cuts too, could be void. Perhaps the tactics assume this, but then this would be a battlefield type fight not really a straight duel as this engagement is set up to be .....
Anyway, it is a great illustration to me about how difficult it is, when you present yourself as a static target, to prevail.
There is a momentary movement off line in the first encounter, but then each subsequent engagement is done from standing and facing off, in the standard 'Here I am, come get me' mode ....
There's something missing .... what could it be .....?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Open Mind

An open mind implies that you are not certain. That you are willing to entertain new ideas to expand your world view, be surprised even, and adapt.

An interesting thought came up in a conversation with B -

Can the experience of training, physically, in uncertainty, as in random flow, help open your mind to new possibilities, and perhaps in other ways outside of training also?
... Or is an open mind necessary as a prerequisite for successful random flow training?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Face It

One of my teachers (Ming Liu) shared a quote the other day:
"When you run after your thoughts you are like a dog chasing a stick.
Every time a stick is thrown, you run after it.
Instead be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower.
One only throws a stick at a lion once."

The quote relates to meditation practice, but struck me as a useful model in other arenas also.

If there is something you need to work on, something that needs troubleshooting or fixing ... say repetitive tendencies, freezing points, giving away targets, lack of escape routes from tight angles etc ... anything that occurs as a pattern. Then best to look at the problem area head on rather than try to make it go away by doing what you've always done ..... but faster .... or harder.
This tendency to try to fix things by either adding more power or more speed to exactly the same reaction, is very very common ... as is the tendency to deny that the problem even exists in the first place, or refuse to see it at all.

I guess it's linked to a switch from the 'human brain' into the monkey or lizard, to use the 'triune brain' model, and is pretty universal as some level of frustration overcomes the conscious mind.
The old standard of hitting the TV to make it work, throwing an offending object or pushing a button over and over again to try to achieve the desired effect faster, seem common enough experiences to us all (OK, maybe not the TV one for those who have only known flat screens ...) but, back to martial arts ....
Sonny was a big fan of understanding a problem by observing it in ACUALITY, and solving it through the experience of making the mistake, becoming conscious of it, and trying to work out how to fix it - sounds obvious, right? But hard to do in practice. A coach can help here of course, as sometimes the solution is invisible to the participant, and often it takes time, and patient training partners, too.

The 2 key elements are -

1) EXPERIENCE the problem

For instance, if you keep getting your hands tagged in dueling .... put your hands in different places and WATCH where they get tagged, WHEN they get tagged, HOW? WHY? If you keep getting stuck in the same corner with no escape, watch what happens before you end up there. How? Why?
Understand the parameters, then you can start to fix the problem.
Keep running away from the problem without understanding it first, and basically you are trusting to luck.
Recognize it, face it, feel it. THEN fix it.


Some might disagree with this, as certain situations and motions only happen in real time, and are hard to recreate slowly ... but you have to have some way of exploring the moment. With a good teacher you can go faster and can work on real time solutions, especially if the teacher can point out when something is ABOUT to happen so the student can readjust ... and the student is capable of keeping their mental and emotional focus, and ability to change their movement, at speed. But it also works well to concentrate on just one aspect of the game, and work at a pace where the problem becomes manageable with any training partner.

Our nervous systems seem to possess a mechanism that wigs out, and ceases to process rationally when it reaches a certain level of panic or emotional frustration.
You can't fix things here, as this is the place of preexisting patterns, and if your preexisting patterns do not work consistently, then you have to change them ... and this has to occur in a stimulus/reaction scenario in the CONSCIOUS part of the brain.

Trick is to notice when the switch has flipped ... because it sure feels like you are completely compos mentis even when you are not ....
Quick way to check - Decide to go half speed and touch lightly. Possible? Or not?
Ask your training partner.