Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Maze

Humans are extremely adaptable - that's what they DO, and have done for millennia, in the constant quest to stay alive and keep ahead of the competition.

Our senses are constantly on the look out for changes in our environment that require our adapting to them, and in fact can become blind if there is nothing going on.
For instance the eyes have a built in mechanism that make them naturally flicker away from staring at an object. They have to move away from it for microseconds at a time and back again just so they can KEEP seeing it.

So what does this mean for learning? Could this natural, physical ability, that links our senses to our nervous system, put information and smart reactions into our bodies more efficiently than routing those reactions through the conscious mind?

Do a prearranged technique with a partner and one of two things will happen if you repeat it a over and over .... Your opponent will either keep letting you do it with no resistance, kinda playing dead, or they will start to make it more difficult, sometimes on purpose, but most often without any thought whatsoever - They will start to resist a little more, make themselves harder to move, move their center slightly, block your strike, grab you tighter, shift off line etc. All the things they probably should do in fact (but to a greater extent) to negate your technique.

Humans are tricky, it is what comes naturally.

Though this is irritating in a traditional class where you are expected to behave in the same way over and over again to perfect the technique you are working on, it indicates a truth that I believe can be used to improve how we learn.

If we accept that human beings will react to stimuli through their senses, and they will adapt these reactions over time to their own advantage, perhaps this is the best 'gate' through which to ingrain skills?

We seem to learn deepest, and perhaps fastest, in my opinion, by having things either work or not, and will find the best ideas through trial and error, by not knowing, trying, failing and succeeding. ESPECIALLY in the physical world of dueling where success and failure are pretty easy to distinguish (unless of course you are delusional/lying to yourself, but that's another thing ...).

And those solutions will live in a completely different place in your brain than those learned by rote.

It seems once you name solutions, and teach from the name forwards, the process starts to go through the conscious mind, not through the body, and that kind of knowledge is not as immediate, or retrievable in the same way as reactive 'body' knowledge'.

Of course we might not have the imagination to find some reactions, and many more are counter intuitive, so need to be pointed out by someone else.
It is important, however, that even those counter intuitive reactions that come from outside, are best ingrained by having them accessed in context - from a feeling of being cornered, and experimenting until the way out is found. This way they will feel worthy of retaining.

The end product should be immediate, thoughtless, adaptive, reactions.

Train the 'immediacy' through the adaptive, and these skills might have a far greater chance of actually manifesting in other situations that require immediacy and adaption on the fly - like dueling.
Nothing like previous success to prompt using a given idea ... or failure to pass it up for another one ....

This kind of training implies having no script, no map. It implies training amongst problems that require solutions, and chaining these together in the way to create a path through an ever changing maze that has only a few ways out.

The maze itself needs to be a close representation of the real thing, or else the reactions that are trained could be inappropriate. So it requires a teacher that knows the maze, and knows how to create dead ends, how to shift the walls, and show the possible exits as they appear and disappear.

It also requires a student that is willing to try, to explore, to fail, and to use their imagination outside their experience.

One that trusts that they possess an innate natural ability to adapt, and that this ability can be cultivated until it too can see the maze ..... not to describe it or name it, but to CREATE it for whoever they wish to play with next - adversary, or student.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Brain Keys

Names are just memory devices, keys if you like, to access a picture of the whole in your brain.

Back in the day, Chinese martial artists came up with all kinds of animal imagery to cement flavors of movement and patterns in the mind. They used cultural stuff like the Yi-Ching and 5 Element theory for 'keys' also.

Nowadays we live in cultures and environments far removed from knowledge of wild animals, and most of us have no connection to the cultural identifiers, the famous poems, or the idioms, from the place, or time, when they were attached to the movements they were meant to describe.

These do have a romantic allure, especially when voiced in their original languages of course, and are of historic value, which, I'm sure, is why they endure.

Many would, I'm also sure, consider it complete sacrilege to change these terms in any way ... but if their original intent was to convey a feeling, and to help remember a sequence of moves, are these original names really the best way to do so?

Being a pragmatist, I like the idea of efficiency, and I'll use any imagery I can to explain an idea ..... which is just a nice way of saying that I am often guilty of taking the poetic imagery and turned it into a Far Side cartoon.

Right now I am teaching a Xing-Yi form. Some systems call it the Phoenix form, my teacher likes to think of it as Vulture, but also refers to it just as 'Tai Bird'.
Seeing as Tai means 'big' .... I decided to invoke Big Bird .... which caused some mirth for those that have seen the kid's TV show Sesame Street. Nothing to do with the quality of the movement ... but perhaps out of place enough to jog the memory bank into action when reviewing.
One of the hand positions also totally looks like "Hold out the Handbag (That would be 'purse' to my American friends)".

Some of my others are - Throw the Chicken, Put the Mayo on the Shelf, Fling the Bedsheet, Start the Chainsaw, Spin the Pizza, Vogue, Vomit, Velociraptor, and of course the famous Over the Shoulder Nose Throw. Points for any Internal practitioners that can recognize what these might be ....

There is also a great deal of reaching for things off the edge of cliffs, squishing bugs (cigarettes are passe) and pulling oneself around on imaginary ropes, and though I have little experience with most of these, there is bowling, speed skating, slalom skiing, and punting occasionally too .....

Friday, March 22, 2013


Bernard Hopkins is the oldest boxing champion in history, at the age of 48, he just won again.

One of the reasons, and he talks a little about this in the clip below, is that he has never been cut, never knocked out, and gone down maybe 3 times in over 50 fights.

This means his defense is superlative, and I'm pretty sure it's his defense, which is part and parcel of his offense, that has given him this ability to fight professionally for so long.

What I find most odd is that you bring up 'defense' to folks, and many equate it with passivity and somehow lacking in value, even considering defensive fighters somehow lesser than those that charge in full force with little concern for their well being.
It's weird.
I mean I have an idea why this is - Defense is less 'sexy' for the spectacle of ring sports, but it's still strikes me as foolish.
Here are some thoughts about it from a guy who is not really a fan of Hopkins per se, but appreciates the 'genius of defense' :

Out of interest, the reason he dislikes B-Hop is his view that 'it's only cheating if you get caught' ..... I understand this, but the student of tactics in me can't help but admire what he does and how he gets away with it.

Here a great article pointing out some of his defensive games .... students of the blade arts should notice many similarities ....

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Free vs Random vs None

Regarding flow training

I see 3 different types of 'flowing' partner practice that make the whole: (Blade manipulation and warm up exercises are solo stuff so do not count here)

All three are based on a stimulus/response paradigm. Asking questions, listening to answers. Practicing, Inserting, Testing.

They are:-

1) - Random Flow
2) - Free Flow
3) - Sparring

The word 'Flow' just describes that these 'questions' are asked in continuous motion - Continuous, physical, motion in space, that is not preset.

- Random Flow has a focus, an aspect that is the point of the practice - The focus could be identifying threat, identifying openings, accuracy in targeting, understanding range, timing, etc etc

In Random Flow training (for a short sword), the feed is often limited to only 4 cuts ... or even 2 at first, so the randomness has parameters and can be calibrated to the skills of the student.

It seems a small thing to offer 2 choices instead of only one, but it makes a huge difference to the learning arc ... at least in in my opinion.

- Free Flow is one step more ... random, but not yet about winning. It is a partner interaction which can be negotiated between the players, or not. Usually each will have an idea of something they want to explore, and rely on the other for the opportunity to insert the ideas they wish to explore. Free Flow is tactically much 'smarter' than Random Flow with the goal of seeing how the pieces fit together and the myriad avenues that each single action creates.

To begin with, neither may know where the flow will go, but they start, and see what comes up.
Generally the pace is measured, with both parties calibrating their movement to the other. It can be fast or slow .... but the most important part is to work IN THE SAME TEMPO as the other.

- Sparring is a fully chaotic place in which to try to win. All the pieces come together here, the individual elements, the tactical knowledge, and the 'reading' and 'writing' abilities. The point is to assess the 'risk to gain' of each decision, to count the hits - most importantly the ones against oneself, find the gaps and glitches, and fix the things that do not work ... alongside stocking the toolbox with all the things that do of course ......

Sparring is not the 'real thing', even if it is as close as most of us will get. It is not the pinnacle of achievement, but just a part of the cycle, and apart from the fact that it is fun, it should also have the purpose of improving skills and generating new questions to answer.

And there are always questions to answer .... just got to find the right ones to ask.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Cross Purposes

The discussions that followed the posts on patterns made me want to clarify some things, about terminology, meaning .. and things 'lost in translation'.

When I write/say certain words, obviously I can picture in my head, and feel in my body, what I mean, but this really has no effect on someone else's experience of hearing the same words .... until they feel it too.

This is really what teaching is - Getting someone else to feel what you know.

The questions that came up, a few of which have come up before, are really useful to me because now I can better understand gaps in my explanations that I did not see before.
Good discussion and conversation enables us to get a grip on misunderstandings, and hopefully point the way to clarifying meaning,

First off, what others call 'flow' is often not the same thing that I mean. Flow, as I mean it, is not just a back and forth interaction with one piece connecting to the next - it is an interaction like a conversation, that involves listening and speaking .... and there's really no need to have a conversation if both parties know what the other is going to say next - That would be reading a script.

Next, many people question the purpose of flow, where it 'goes', why it is useful, and what it could possibly teach you, focusing so little on the technical 'end game' solutions taught in other systems.
Some also see flowing as just as much a 'dead pattern' as pre arranged drills.

To keep with the metaphor of flow as conversation ... this would put it in the field of idle chatter, or talking around a subject with no thought of resolution.

In some ways I have to agree that anything done without the 'goal' in mind can be a pointless waving around of weapons, randomly done or not, but again, that is not what I see, or mean, when I talk about Flow Training.

Flow is a process of understanding through conversing with strangers.

Another question that has come up before is - How does moving around with so much time spent 'dancing' teach you anything tactical?

I would say that working in uncertainty, flowing, is a place where you can get your 'eyes tuned in' to what is ACTUALLY going on in an interaction - What stimuli produce which reactions. And that this is the very basis for understanding tactics.

This must be done in phases as it is hard to comprehend everything at once, which is why flow is a training method ... not a way of fighting.

And lastly - The assertion that random flow as a teaching method is totally confusing to the beginner.

I believe the human body has a bunch of innate skills, walking, running, jumping, avoiding objects, catching, and throwing. Stuff that can be improved and refined for sure, but that really needs little 'teaching' as such.
The training is about putting all this stuff in the right context, so that the right thing is done at the right moment ... and for that you need to create the right stimulus to create the correct response. You cannot learn to do this without actually trying this out with a 'stranger' ... trying to react appropriately to stimuli thrown at you - In other words, answering off the cuff the unscripted questions posed to you, and throwing out stimuli (questions) without knowing what reactions they will elicit, and listening for answers until you find the meaning.

That to me is what 'Flow' is, and does.

So to recap -

Dead patterns are reading a script.
Flow is a conversation - The process is the training.
Sparring is an argument - A place to see if you have the better one.
Dueling is something else - Hoisting your opponent on their own petard comes to mind .......

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Prof. Pierre Vigny and Miss Sanderson

Great article from Edwardian period London pertaining to self defense, fencing, and the use of the walking cane.

Interesting side note on the origins of the word 'Hooligan'

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Patterns vs OODA

First to the question of how I rationalize the Bagua and Xing-Yi that I enjoy so much with the fact that I dislike preset patterns -
I like solo forms because they are fun, interesting and challenging, but honestly not really for any tactical reason beyond that.

They may have other benefits .... and I have certainly enjoyed playing and experimenting with them over time .... but whether those benefits are 'martial' is debatable.

What I do believe is that there are better and worse ways to do forms, and that I have certainly found practical uses for pieces of most forms I have practiced, mostly by having something come out in sparring, and thinking 'wow! that's in that form!!'

Also, I am curious about the structure of systems. Luo DeXiu mentioned once, after having spent the last 2 decades researching and comparing Bagua and Xing-Yi systems both in Taiwan and mainland China, that he felt that he could find nothing 'missing' from the Yizong system. Now that might sound self aggrandizing but I don't think he meant it that way.

I understood him to mean that in the context in which it was developed, and the parameters in which it sat, that he could find no gaps in the exercises, drills, forms, and method to get you to point of full understanding.
As I have not reached the level to be able to tell whether this is true or not, I cannot comment, but the thought interests me and a part of me would like to feel why he believes this is so for myself.

Is it the fastest way to learn to fight?  I don't believe so. (See below)

Was it really meant for people that already could? Yes, I think it was.


So, back to preset patterns and technical responses to pre arranged attacks ....

Practicing specific techniques may give you an answer to what you need to do in response to a certain thing happening ... but it does not give you any chance of learning how to see that moment coming. And if the thing is already happening, there is certainly no time to observe, orient, decide and actually act before it becomes something else .... in other words, you will always be behind in the OODA loop.

If you know what is going to happen, you are never watching for clues as to what MIGHT happen. You have taken away any motivation to investigate and understand precursors, tells, and set ups, deception, hesitations, and errors  ... because you do not need to look for them.

You probably have no need to watch for, and understand 'follow ups' either ... because again, they do not exist in this training format.

The first skill set I learned from Sonny was to 'read' the opponent, because he believed that this was the foundation for everything else, that this must be deeply ingrained to achieve an understanding of what things actually 'look' like (both visual and tactile) in real time. Only then was it possible to be in the right place at the right time to do the thing you needed to do.

Obviously this ability did not come instantaneously, it took time to learn how to 'read'. Random flow was Sonny's innovation on how to learn this stuff without having to do it in a real fight.

What is a threat, what is not, how much time you have, how far away they are, can they kick from there, which hand is more likely to come out from that position, what is open, what is not worth worrying about, how is the weight distributed, what is chambered?? etc etc.
What kind of person are they, how do they see you? ... and on and on.

Why is it so important?

- Everything that can happen, happens because the previous thing happened. 

- You will always be behind if you can't see this chain and learn how to change it's path.

- If your opponent can see this chain, your moves will always be predictable, which means that again, you will be behind.

- Being behind is bad, and the fastest way to getting cornered and lose.

Interestingly enough, the higher level, learned after you can 'read', is to learn how to 'write' your opponent. In other words how to MAKE them do what you want them to do. So you are always ahead in the loop - keeping them orienting (O) whilst you act (A).

This of course means that you will know what's coming next, having engineered it that way, and all those techniques? Here's where you finally get to use them.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


I find myself defending an interesting position when I teach FMA, and one that I have known was a challenge since the day it was given to me by my Eskrima teacher - One that has thrown out teaching preset patterns or forms of any kind.

[Definition: A preset pattern, as I see it, is not the same as repeating a move or series of transitions to try to get it smooth and relaxed, like rolling and cutting angles for instance. A pre set pattern is a choreographed series of moves that does not vary for that particular set, and it usually has a name or a number by which it is known - 'Heaven Six' for instance. I count preset counters to preset attacks as choreographed patterns also]

Most people will argue with me that patterns are the only way to teach, especially beginners, that you can't get 'random' too soon or it will be confusing ....
I don't think this is true .... but it may be true that the 'Random' approach only suits people of a certain temperament or aptitude .... It is certainly the most efficient way to gain tactical skills that I have experienced.

This method obviously came from training with Sonny, and he had come to believe that preset patterns at their most basic level contained too many tactical errors to make them worth doing, and even at the higher levels, that they conditioned behaviors that were not only undesirable, but harder and harder to get rid of as time went on.

He separated out blade manipulation exercises, which he used as 'warm ups', from partner practice. This meant that tactical considerations (range, timing, tempo) were not confused with dexterity exercises, but in all honesty even these never stayed the same from day to day, or even minute to minute.
He used hanging and swinging targets of various descriptions to work these finesse drills and practices, and in the videos to right of this post you can see some of these in the Sandung video, and the double ended target video.

All partner practice was random, never choreographed, and forever evolving and changing throughout the lesson. Sometimes they were done with limited parameters, different roles for each person, or limited strikes, but even limited to 2 strikes, the randomness was maintained by never know which of the two strikes would come next, or perhaps when it would come.

So, does one need patterns?
Do they cause more problems than they help with?
Are patterns the only way to keep the interest of beginners?
Should one give people what they find comforting rather than what is most efficient?
Does it matter if only a handful of people can make it through the training because there are NO patterns?
Aren't they the people that you would want anyway?
What about the students you lose?

People LOVE patterns and forms, keeps them entertained for hours, I know it!  ... And there's no denying that working from continual uncertainty, without the eye to see the subtle NATURAL patterns derived from human nature and physics, is much less relaxing, and possibly only fun to those that enjoy puzzles, dares, and being lost.

Is that OK? Or should it be more 'accessible' at the expense of efficiency?

Before he died, Sonny looked me right in the eye and said point blank "Don't teach patterns". So I don't, and I won't, but it's certainly a challenge not to.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Authenticity vs Copy

The Philippines is well known for it's incredible variety of blade designs. Each tribal area has not just one, but a selection, of blades that are particular to their region.

What I personally find fascinating about each and every design, is that they all have reasons why they look like they do. And finding out what that is, is part of the fun and the overall learning experience.

One can buy many different reproduction blades nowadays, based on real weapons and old, historical, designs. Some are made by people that know what these swords do and how they should feel in motion, others by people that clearly do not.

Some also have more time and effort put into their fit and finish by craftspeople, others are mass produced as an approximation to the real thing that merely need to look similar but not perform.

Needless to say, a blade designed and made by an expert who knows about swords and their purpose, will feel better in the hand than a blade that looks almost identical, but made by someone that was just copying a picture of one.

At the other end of the spectrum you have the fantasy blades inspired by book and movies, it seems mostly designed by people looking towards being novel for the sake of it, rather than from any thoughts of practicality.

I personally dislike both poorly made reproductions, and any kind of ill conceived fantasy blade.

There is another side to this too of course.

There are people that can create functional swords that handle well, out of any piece of metal. Who design and fabricate weapons from whatever they have at hand, out of curiosity, or a gap that they think needs fixing. Or as a way to discover new ideas in sword play.

I have no problem with either the folks that reproduce accurate and well made historical designs, or that fabricate from their own minds eye ..... as long as they know WHY they are doing what they are doing, can EXPLAIN to me the purpose of every curve, recurve, indent, dull and sharp edge, the shape of the handle and the balance of the blade, AND create something that feels good in the hand, moves well, and does the job as described.

A sword is a tool, it's FOR something. It's pretty easy to know if it works ... All you have to do is test it, and the ideas that it is meant to hold. Then compare it to something that you know already does the job, and see if it is a worthy addition to the tool box, or just derivative and pointless. It could also be something that is close .... but needs exploring further.

Here is a training blade made by Sonny from something completely different. Even though it is a trainer, it is perfectly balanced, and feels great in the hand. The basic design contains traditional elements from the blades of The Visayan Islands, but the curves are particular to this sword and dictate how it moves best. It works great and definitely stays in the toolbox.