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My previous article referred to the type of fluid, connected movement exemplified by Bagua circle walking forms as yin rou jing.  Tim Cartmell told me that’s what they called it back in the day, and the term stuck with me.  I haven’t seen it used elsewhere, though.  So, I can’t verify the historical accuracy of that claim.  But, I’ve enjoyed considering the significance of those particular Chinese characters and wanted to share my thoughts.

First of all, let me say that nobody who actually fights cares about qi. Tim’s fist Taiji teacher said, “It is a natural occurrence in the body and the more you think about it, or try to control it, the worse off you’ll be.  Thinking about it will only hinder your progess.”  I agree.  Clearly, a kind of energy, or “spark of life,” animates our bodies.  If you want to call it qi, be my guest.  But, the feeling of effortlessness that accompanies a well-executed technique is the result of being properly stacked, not some mystical force.  Because of this, my advice to anyone wanting to develop “internal power” would be to first visit a CES, like Bob.

You might say that the primary goal of Bagua practice is to develop the ability to remain stacked, while constantly in motion.  The thing is, modern sports science methods, like SAQ and power training, are more effective ways to accomplish this than the classical Chinese methods.  The only reason to do Bagua is to preserve a curious aspect of Asian culture, albeit an anachronism.  Reasonable people understand this.  My own Bagua teacher said, “If you came to me and just wanted to learn how to fight, I wouldn’t teach you Bagua.”  Later, he went so far as to say that, knowing what he knows, now, he wouldn’t even have gone to Taiwan.  Instead, he would’ve gone to Brazil and Thailand.

Anyway, I still think it’s pretty cool stuff and like to consider myself a Bagua man.  As such, my goal is to manifest yin rou jing in everything I do.  So, what does that mean to me?  The Chinese character for yin is the same one used to represent the feminine principle of the popular yin/yang concept, which implies receptivity.  I try to either circumvent or redirect, rather than oppose force directly.  Other meanings include; be crafty, secret, and to deceive.  In a fight, my opponent should not be able to tell what I’m trying to do.  If I’m too rigid, he will be able to sense my intentions.

The character for rou, pronounced “ju” in Japanese, is the same one used to write both Judo and Goju.  Usually, translated as soft, or gentle, this character implies non-resistence.  But, for me, it also evokes a feeling of resiliency…like a bamboo stalk that can bend without breaking.

Jing means strength, energy, or spirit.  This term refers to a refined power, as opposed to brute force.  It can be used to describe any movement that has been repetitively trained , becoming highly efficient.  As an example, I always think of a swimmer’s stroke, or an Olympic lifter performing the clean and jerk.

If you want to learn how to strike, you’ve got to really hit things like a heavy bag and focus mitts.  If want to be able to throw someone, you’ve got to spend some time grappling in a standing clinch, AND not be afraid of falling yourself.  To be comfortable fighting on the ground, you have to wrestle.  At some point in your training, it has to become real.  Live sparring, against a resisting opponent, is the only way of developing the skills necessary to make a technique work.

Once you begin fighting against a resisting opponent, you realize the importance of physical conditioning.  You can never have enough of the core attributes, like strength, agility, and quickness.  They are like money in the bank.  If you have it, you can spend it however you want.  If not, you’re just broke…literally!

You cannot learn to fight from practicing solo forms.  But, you can learn how to move, or at least remind yourself.  After working with Bob to correct my compensations, the Bagua circle walking forms have begun to take on a new significance in my training.  The movements seem to be infused with a whole new power.  I think, I’m finally beginning to understand what all the hype was about in 19th century China.

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I’ve invested more of myself into understanding Bagua Zhang than anything else in my life.  In my case, that may not be saying much.  But, for what it’s worth, I want to describe what I consider to be the essence of the style.

My Background

I cannot discuss Bagua without first acknowledging sources that continue to inform my practice.  My interest in the martial arts spans twenty-five years.  I visited too many dojo, read too many books, and wasted too many years looking for the secret “death touch” stuff.  In the end, most teachers seemed more interested in self-promotion and preserving their particular style than helping me become a better fighter.  But, I did manage to find two people I can trust.

Tim Cartmell is well-known among practitioners of the Chinese internal martial arts.  He contributed to the Pa Kua Chang Journal and is featured in the first chapter of Jess O’Brien’s book Nei Jia Quan. Tim lived in Taiwan for about ten years and is a lineage holder in the Gao style under Luo Dexiu.  He places great emphasis on practical fighting ability.  Since returning to the States, he earned a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

My formal training in Bagua came from Tim.  Beginning in 2001, I received approximately 30 hours of private instruction in the following:

  • The eight basic hand methods, or Ji Ben Shou Fa
  • The basic circle walk practice
  • The Single Palm Change
  • The first four Pre-Heaven changes
  • The first eight Post-Heaven straight line forms
  • Plus, various two-person drills and other self-defense

Bob is the other person I trust.  His teaching method gives me the best chance of actually being able to make the techniques work.  With an emphasis on modern sports science and corrective exercise, his programming of my workouts has me in the best shape of my life.  Skills are developed systematically through a variety of drills.  I particularly like his use of “asymmetrical games,” in which the two participants have different goals and operate within specific parameters to accomplish them.  We can begin to feel what it’s like to be under pressure and work against the opponent’s resistance without it becoming a free-for-all.  These kinds of methods help ensure everyone has a chance to succeed…not just the most physically gifted among us.

History

As far as I know, Professor Kang Gewu is the world’s foremost authority on Bagua history.  The influential martial historian wrote his master’s degree thesis on the origins of Bagua Zhang, conducting extensive research from 1980-82.  He concluded that Dong Haiquan (1813-1882) was the originator of the art.  Most likely, he combined fighting techniques he already knew with a circle walking meditation practiced by Daoist monks of the Quan Zhen sect.  The details of Dong’s life are not well known.  He probably got into some trouble and was hiding out in a monastery.  After his travels, he developed a reputation as a formidable fighter in Beijing and began teaching publicly around 1870.

Dong was from a poor family and probably illiterate.  It is doubtful that he was influenced by the Yijing, or book of changes.  He originally called his art Zhuan Zhang, or turning palm.  His students began referring to the art as Bagua Zhang toward the end of Dong’s life.  In Chinese culture, this would afford it a higher status through association with an ancient text.  The eight foundational trigrams of the Yijing are referred to as Bagua.  So, the art became known as eight-trigram palm.  Later generations of practitioners organized their forms into sets of eight and sixty-four.  But, the philosophical connections have nothing to do with fighting ability.

Dong’s students were already experienced martial artists.  He didn’t teach specific fighting techniques.  The circle walk practice was meant to instill the ability to move fluidly with a connected, whole-body power, known as yin rou jing.  Also, the basic patterns represented a primary strategy of flanking, or crossing the opponent.

Bagua forms consist of circular motions, which allow the conservation of rotational momentum.  In theory, this enables a fighter to strike and throw within the flow of a movement or change from one technique to another without losing power.  Dong taught three fundamental movements performed while walking the circle, generally referred to as “palm changes:”

  • The Single Palm Change consists of changing direction on the circle by turning inward and switching the lead hand. The rotation of the body generates horizontal momentum, which is expressed through the arms.
  • The Double Palm Change is basically the Single Palm Change with a couple of extra movements sandwiched in the middle. Compressing into one leg generates vertical momentum, which is expressed as a rearward pivot on the heel is performed.
  • The Smooth Body Palm consists of turning outward, expressing momentum obliquely, and continuing on the circle in the same direction.

In addition, Dong demonstrated how he entered into his techniques.  Students were expected to incorporate the principles of movement and strategy into their own unique fighting style.  That’s why sometimes people refer to Bagua as a “conceptual framework.”  No one can claim to know a more authentic version of Bagua, because there isn’t one.  The complex variations of these forms found in modern systems are all just different ways of manifesting the fundamental principles.

During a recent conversation, Bob said practicing kata without having developed the prerequisite skills and attributes is like someone trying to appreciate a limerick who can’t even speak English.  I thought that was a wonderful way of explaining why the practice of kata usually doesn’t result in real fighting ability.  Most people can’t understand the meaning of the kata, because they don’t even know the words, so to speak.  A good deal of time must be spent on learning the fundamentals of the language, before we can appreciate poetry.

So, what are the fundamentals?  One way of looking at a martial art is that a small set of physical and mental attributes are required to develop a slightly larger set of skills.  Then, these skills form the basis of an even larger set of techniques. Each kata is meant to function as a mnemonic and includes a variety of techniques performed within an imagined strategic context.  Pretty high level stuff, huh?  You wouldn’t try teaching a small child to speak English by having them read Shakespeare, but a lot of karate people think they are learning to fight by practicing kata.  I disagree.

The attributes that make someone a good fighter are fairly obvious.  The training methods used to produce them are not.  At TKRI, Bob’s knowledge of modern sports science and corrective exercise principles informs everything we do.  Each class, we spend a lot of time stretching our ankles, hips, and shoulders.  Tight muscles can inhibit a joint’s range of motion and result in movement compensations.  If you can’t move, you can’t fight.  Also, we activate the core muscles by performing front and side planks.  These require us to stabilize the shoulder joint, too.  Strong core muscles allow us to effectively transfer momentum from the ground, through the waist, and out the arms.  If you can’t hold the plank position for at least 30 seconds, you shouldn’t be punching.  It’s as simple as that.

In addition to these foundational exercises, and others, we do a lot of balance and power training.  At the end of our last power cycle, I was able to catch and throw a six pound ball with one hand, while standing on a wobble board.  I felt pretty good about that.  And, squats emphasizing eccentric stabilization combined with agility ladder training have definitely put some extra bounce in my step.  These kinds of things are the attributes that will allow us to develop fighting skills.  No matter what you are trying to do to an opponent, your body will always be the delivery system.  Fighting is an athletic endeavor, and the same things that make someone a great football player, gymnast, or track and field star, also make you a better martial artist.  Think about it.  How much more confident would you be in your next sparring session, if you were put together like Bo Jackson was back in the day?

After a certain level of athleticism is achieved, you can just expect your body to respond the right way.  When you move your center, your feet will sort of automatically end up in the best position for whatever you’re doing.  But, in the beginning, an important mental attribute to develop is the awareness of your body, or kinesthetic sense.  If you are doing floor bridges and your hamstring on one side engages more than the glute, something’s wrong.  The most important thing is how a movement feels to you, not what it looks like.  If you are able to mimic your instructor’s kata moves exactly but don’t have the feeling of being “stacked,” then it’s no good.  Bob says we have to discover the best way to perform the techniques based on our own unique morphology.  You can’t do that, if you’re not “in tune” with your body.

The specific skills necessary to execute a technique properly are a little less obvious and will have to be the subject of a future article.  But, you get the point.  Kata practice can be an enjoyable and rich experience for someone who has already mastered the basics.  For someone just starting out, they are virtually useless as a training device.  There are much better ways to develop the fundamental attributes and skills required in fighting.  And, that’s what is special about Bob’s method.  He’s put together a system that introduces skills gradually through a series of exercises and drills.  You don’t have to start out being a super athlete.  An “average Joe” can get there by taking baby steps.  At TKRI, nobody gets left behind.  That’s what it’s all about.

If I could move and react like this, I’d never lose a fight.  The way he controls ground force and adjusts his balance, while repeatedly being hit with the opponents’ entire body mass is truly amazing…not to mention, his explosive speed and power.

He didn’t get that way by practicing kata.

At TKRI, almost everything we do can be seen as variations on a theme.  Bob says, “I only have two techniques, strike/throw or throw/strike.”  That may be an exaggeration.  But, in general, we are training to hit hard and put an opponent on the ground.  That’s what it’s all about.

Beginner’s have a tendency to over complicate things.  It’s difficult, at first, to see how the wide variety of techniques all have a few basic principles in common.  When introduced to a new technique, I find the best way to really “make it my own” is to analyze it in terms of a these basic principles.  Almost all martial encounters follow pretty much the same overall pattern, involving three phases:  1) Connect 2) Get an Angle 3) Put Opponent on the Ground.

These three phases roughly correspond to the popular MMA model of free-movement, clinch phase, and ground fighting.  However, for strictly self-defense purposes, we prefer to stay on our feet for maximum mobility.  Running away won’t score points with the UFC judges, but it is often the best way to survive on the street.

Anyway, I would like to present a few of the most important principles involved in each of the three phases.

Connect

During the free-movement phase, we need skills that will enable us to close the distance safely.  Our goal is to hit or grab the opponent without getting hurt.

  1. Avoid the Opponent’s Power – Almost all techniques will involve some sort of footwork that moves us at an angle off the opponent’s line of attack.  Also, bobbing and weaving type movments allow us to further avoid or absorb the force of an attack.  We do not oppose the force directly, because a bigger, stronger opponent will always win.
  2. Divide the Opponent’s Attention – We usually throw strikes to distract an opponent, while we move into a dominant position and secure our hold.  Often, the strike is intended to break our opponent’s posture, which creates an opening in his defenses to be exploited.  Striking combinations utilize the same principle by creating a reaction in the opponent, which sets-up the next attack.  Strikes are always part of a series of movements.  We do not expect a “one- punch knockout.”
  3. Take Out the Slack – No matter what type of hold we have secured, to effectively impose our will on the opponent requires that we are able to move his center as part of our own.  This means we have to take any “slack” out of the opponent’s tissue between our point(s) of contact and his center of gravity, so that we are moving as one body.

Get an Angle

Once we have secured a hold, we strive to apply force to our opponent in a way that he cannot resist.  To do this, we will take advantage of inherent structural weaknesses by utilizing one or more of the following principles:

  1. Break the Opponent’s Posture – Throughout the application of technique, we always strive to maintian a feeling of being “stacked,” as discussed in a previous article.  Conversely, our techniques are designed to misalign our opponent’s posture, taking away his power.  Ways to do this include:  twisting or lifting the shoulders, bending at the waist, moving the hips outside the area of the base, and moving the knee out of alignment with hip and ankle.
  2. Uproot – The easiset way to move an opponent off his base is to push through his center at an upward angle.  This principle is utilized by wrestlers as they “turn the corner” and lift an opponent, while executing the popular double-leg takedown.  Ideally, you should push upward at a right angle to an imaginary line drawn between your point of contact and the outside edge of the opponent’s base, the same way you would tip over a heavy refrigerator.
  3. Hip Displacement – Many of the throwing methods involve rolling the opponent’s hip up onto our own, creating a situation in which we momentarily support his body weight.  It is especially important to remain “stacked,” when perfoming these types of techniques.  Other techniques involve stepping into the opponent’s center and replacing his hip with yours, as you knock him out of the way.  The end result is the same…the opponent’s center of gravity becomes subordinate to our own.
  4. Dead Angle – Pushing an opponent at a right angle to an imaginary line drawn between his feet, usually causes him to take a step or fall over.  It’s very difficult to resist force applied across the narrowest part of your base.  Avoiding the opponent’s power line automatically takes advantage of this principle.  Many techniques involve applying force to the opponent’s “dead angle,” in order to upset his balance.
  5. Tripping – Blocking or sweeping an opponent’s leg is commonly used in conjunction with applying force to the dead angle.  This prevents the opponent from stepping to correct his posture.

Put Opponent on the Ground

Once you have effectively closed the distance, secured a hold, and broken the opponent’s posture, putting him on the ground is the easy part.  You will do one or both of the following:

  1. Drop Your Weight – With the opponent in a compromised position and his center subordinate to your own, just dropping your weight is often enough to put him on the ground.
  2. Remove Support – If you are supporting the opponent’s body weight on your hip or shoulder, you just toss him off, or get out of the way and let him fall.  A properly timed foot sweep effectively removes the opponent’s base of support and is another example of this principle.

Obviously, in a real fight, a million different things can happen.  But, training with these principles in mind should begin to develop an understanding of what it takes to make the techniques work.  The rest is up to you.

There’s a special kind of paranoia that often accompanies a serious practitioner of martial arts.  Upon entering a room, we begin assessing possible threats and analyzing escape routes, like Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard.  I usually pick out the biggest, meanest looking guy and imagine ways that I might take him out.  It’s only natural to want to use a skill you’ve worked so hard to acquire.  But, it’s scary too, because you just never know….

I approach the bar to get a drink and accidentally bump into the guy, or step on his foot.  Maybe, he catches me checking out his girlfriend, and I can’t “smooth talk” my way out of it.  He’s determined to teach me a lesson.  I begin to go to that place inside myself, where it seems like my life is happening to someone else, like I’m watching it all on TV, or something.  I stay calm enough to avoid a premature adrenaline dump.  But, it’s coming on, as I feel my heart rate increase and senses begin to heighten.  We’re facing each other, and, after a few choice words, he takes a swing at me.

It’s a big overhand right.  I instinctively duck under, to the outside, and explode into his liver with a left shovel hook.  An uppercut, with the same hand, lifts his chin, and I immediately punch through his jaw all the way to the back of his head with a right cross.  Of course, my hand is broken, but he drops and doesn’t get up.  All those hours on the heavy bag finally paid off.

But, maybe, he’s too fast for me to duck, and I just barely manage to cover my head.  When I feel the impact of his punch, I instinctively wrap the same arm I just used to cover with over the top of his punching arm and manage to get a dominant overhook, or whizzer.  Then, I make a base by lowering my center of gravity and widening my stance.  He is swinging at me with his other arm, so I place my free hand in the crook of his elbow and prevent him from punching me.  While controlling that arm, I manage to twist his shoulders out of alignment with his hips and begin to pull him forward at the angle perpendicular to an imaginary line between his feet.  In one fluid motion, I step in front to block his legs and drive him into the ground, landing on him with everything I’ve got.  That took the fight out of him.  He may even have a couple of broken ribs.

But, maybe, he used to be a football player.  So he rushes in to tackle me, right after throwing the big right hand.  I couldn’t get control of his arm, becasue he lowered his level too fast.  But, as he drives into me, I’m able to throw my feet back and drop all of my weight onto his shoulder.  Somehow, one of my arms ends up across his neck, and I establish a front headlock.  If he has an arm in, I gator roll to an arm-triangle type choke.  That would be way cool.  Otherwise, I jump guard and do the classic guillotine.  Either way, he’s not breathing too good, anymore.

But, maybe, he’s too fast and too powerful.  I’m stunned by the punch, even though I was covering my head.  So, he just drives right through me with the tackle, and I’m underneath him on the ground.  Luckily, I ended up with one leg on the outside, so I’m in half-guard.  I work to get control of an arm and pull his head to my chest, not letting him posture up.  I need a few seconds to recover.  As soon as I can, I make my move.  I slide my hips out to the side, while pressing on his thigh with my forearm.  Hopefully, there’s enough space to pull my leg through and establish full guard.  From there, I place my shin across his hip, like I’m going to do a scissors sweep, and push myself away making space to kick him in the face with my other leg.  If it works, I’ll be able to stand up…and then we’ll see.

Of course, there are a million possible scenarios that could play out.  I guess, there’s really no such thing as a perfect fight.  Plus, I’ve been thinking like this for over twenty years, and nothing ever happens.  I always manage to stay out of trouble…and that’s good.  But, sometimes, it sure is fun to fantasize about.

I’m a big fan of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.   I can’t help myself.  I love watching those guys destroy each other.  The top fighters exhibit explosive athleticism and devastating technique.  There’s a big difference between training to fight in a cage and doing martial arts as a hobby.  But, there’s a lot we should have in common, too.

The most important thing is mindset.  If you learn all the best techniques out there but don’t have the will to fight, nothing else matters.  The aggressive attitude of cage fighters often seems ego-driven and arrogant…and it is.  But, when the time comes to defend yourself or your loved ones, you will have to “turn off” your conscience.  It’s either you, or the other guy, that’s going to get hurt.  Make sure it’s the other guy.

The importance of physical conditioning cannot be overemphasized.  When fighters know all the same techniques, strength, agility, and endurance make the difference.  It’s like football.  Nobody thinks any other team has better blocking or tackling technique.  They just have better athletes.  Besides, it should be obvious that we use our bodies to perform every move.  The better condition we’re in, the better our karate will be.

Many people credit Bruce Lee with initiating the mixed-martial-arts revolution.  His Jeet Kune Do was an amalgamation of techniques from different styles organized around the concept of the “stop hit” from Western fencing.  Also, he believed in live sparring as the true test of a technique’s effectiveness.  But, he was not the first.

Mixing martial arts is nothing new.  Throughout history, people who actually fought have always wanted to learn anything that would help them survive.  For instance, caravan guards of nineteenth-century China often combined Xing Yi’s powerful linear striking methods with the circular throws and evasive footwork of Ba Gua.

I would argue that an effective self-defense method could be created by combining only the primary techniques of a few different styles:

Boxing – Nobody punches better than boxers.  That’s all they do.  The straight-lead, or jab, is a great way to gauge distance and create a reaction in your opponent.  I like the method described in Jack Dempsey’s book, Championship Fighting.  According to him, the “stepping straight-jolt” is the most important punch.

Muay Thai – The signature technique of Thai boxing is a round kick with the shin.  It’s absolutely devastating, but I don’t like it.  I could probably do some damage, but my shins aren’t conditioned to handle the impact.  However, I can throw knee strikes, while controlling the opponent’s head in the clinch, without hurting myself.  That’s good stuff.

Freestyle Wrestling – The single and double-leg take downs are simple and effective.  Either one is a good way to put an opponent on the ground in a hurry.  Plus, the ability to change levels and penetrate quickly are invaluable skills for closing the distance.

Greco-Roman Wrestling – Because holds below the waist are illegal, Greco-Roman wrestlers are the best at clinch fighting.  Learning to pummel for under-hook control might be enough to fight off an untrained person.  If you can duck under or arm drag to a rear clinch, that’s even better.

Judo – In general, I don’t like turning my back to the opponent, and techniques need to be learned without a gi.  But, Judo’s basic hip and shoulder throws are hard to beat.  Learning to back step well is a good skill to have.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – The Gracie revolution demonstrated to everyone the importance of grappling methods.  Even though the art has it’s roots in the ne waza of Judo, BJJ evolved on it’s own into a subtle and profound art.  The most distinguishing characteristic is extensive use of the guard position and an ability to fight on your back.  Submissions are not as easy as they look.  I’m most concerned with just controlling an opponent and trying to sweep or stand up.

The attitude of the Okinawan originators of karate would have been to use whatever worked for them.  There was a predisposition to believe that anything Chinese was better, and the Fujien province was most accessible to them.  They did the best they could with the knowledge they had.  Shouldn’t we do the same?

The way our bodies move is the basis of all karate technique.  Our training should include methods to correct postural imbalances, which inevitably inhibit movement.  Too many older martial artists cripple around from years of abusing their bodies and just “pushing through” the pain.  That’s not fighting spirit, it’s just stupid.

Correct alignment, or being “stacked,” is the beginning of efficient body use. We have to learn the feeling of being truly balanced.  I used to think having good balance was a technique, like juggling.  If only I practiced enough, I would get it.  That’s not the case.

Everything about our posture and movement has to do with muscle conditioning.  Without using muscle, we would just be a pile of bones on the floor.  Our bodies are designed to function a certain way.  If muscles are too tight, they can limit our range of motion.  Also, we get in the habit of using the wrong muscles for a particular movement, because the right ones aren’t strong enough.  The more we move that way, the worse the problem gets.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Irregular movement patterns, or “compensations,” are signs of dysfunction.  I’ve been working with Bob to correct the problem of my right foot turning out.  This occurs primarily because I’m using my hip flexors, instead of glutes and hamstrings to stabilize.  So, we begin with SMR (Self-Myofascial Release) using the foam roller and stretching to “turn down” those hip flexors.  Then, we do specific exercises to strengthen the “underactive” glutes and hamstrings, like Romanian deadlifts.

My balance has improved, and I feel less strain in my knees and hips.  Ironically, as my muscles become more conditioned, I experience fewer “feelings” of muscular strength.  When things are working the way they’re supposed to, I’m just moving around fluidly and not really feeling where my power comes from.

Unfortunately, this condition is not permanent.  We must continually maintain proper function and work to correct any irregularities that arise.  Fighting is tough.  If we train realistically at all, our bodies will have to endure a certain amount of punishment.  And, we are likely to develop some new bad habits down the road.  It’s an ongoing process.

Why does anybody do anything?  I don’t know.  We recently had a conversation about how to “sell” karate to newcomers.  I couldn’t come up with a good reason to do karate, instead of some other martial art.  I couldn’t even come up with a good reason to practice martial arts in the first place!  I’m almost forty, and I’ve never been in a fight.  Plus, if my life was really on the line, I’d want a gun.

I think anyone who’s interested in fighting is probably afraid of getting beat up.  We don’t talk about it, but that’s the truth.  It begins with fear.  In a recent documentary film about Mike Tyson’s life, he describes being bullied as a youth and never wanting to be humiliated that way again.  He actually begins to cry as he talks about the confidence that came from boxing, saying that he knew nobody was going to f**k with him again.

Of course, nobody’s invincible.  After years of trying to learn the secret “death touch” stuff, I’ve accepted that there will always be people who can beat me up.  So, what’s next?  Well, I want to be healthy and have a hobby I can continue to practice into old age.  I like to call it “karate for life,” and Bob is the perfect coach for me.

Most people you meet spend a lot of time trying to convince you how great they are, telling you about all the things they’ve done.  Bob doesn’t promote himself.  “What you see is what you get,” and he sincerely wants his students to be better than him.  Teaching karate is his passion, and he’s good at it.

There’s a whole bunch of martial arts schools that cater to kids by giving out all the colored belts and trophies for doing nothing.  To me, that’s just “glorified babysitting.”  On the other end of the spectrum are the MMA schools that have become popular recently, emphasizing VERY hard training for fighting in a cage.  I’m glad somebody out there is doing that, because we’ve learned a lot about the shortcomings of “traditional” martial arts.  But, it’s not for me.

Training with Bob is somewhere in-between.  He’s firmly rooted in the “classical” styles of karate, but his approach is extremely practical.  He’s very open about not being able to make some of the techniques work the way he learned them.  Nowadays, his teaching method is based on ideas that come from an intensive study of fields seemingly unrelated to martial arts, like psychology and teaching.  And, he places a great deal of emphasis on making sure our bodies are able to perform the movements without getting hurt.

His pedagogy is unique.  I can’t explain exactly what Bob does, because I don’t know enough about the method.  But, it’s obvious to me that he has a specific goal in mind with each class.  We usually start out with stretches to “turn down” muscles we don’t want to use.  Then, we do a few exercises designed to activate and “warm-up” the major muscles needed for whatever technique we’ll be working that day.  Bob’s been watching people’s bodies move for so long that he can see dysfunction right away.  Sometimes, when it seems like he wasn’t even looking at you, he will tell you about some minor adjustment you can make to get the most out of an exercise.

But, he’s not “hung up” on details.  He introduces new skills in a very general way and let’s us work out the details on our own.  Then, he builds on top of that experience, gradually, with more specific applications.  Nothing is ever “set in stone.”  If we do something spontaneously and it feels good, Bob encourages us to explore our own way of fighting.  Of course, he makes suggestions and keeps things grounded.

When it comes to analyzing the applications of classical kata, nobody is better than Bob.  Sometimes, I can’t believe it.  But, the stuff really works…and it’s way cool.

Even if my interest in martial arts began with feelings of insecurity, now it’s just what I do.  Bob treats me with respect I haven’t earned and gives me the tools I need to constantly get better.  He is my sensei.  But, more than that, he’s a true friend.  Thanks for always being there, Bob.  You’re the best.

No one can tell you how it feels, when you perform a technique the right way.  A good instructor can make suggestions, but only you know whether you really “get it” or not.  And, being able to hit hard, or control an opponent, can’t be found in a book.  It won’t come from learning the Japanese word for a technique or knowing a bunch of dead guys’ stories.  The various “styles” of martial art are nothing more than different ways of showing us how to discover something for ourselves.  Real fighting ability only exists in YOU…or else, it doesn’t.  The techniques always have to manifest themselves through the experience of an individual, just like the popular Zen idea of “mind-to-mind transmission.”  And, whatever style of martial art you practice is only “a finger pointing to the moon.”

Don’t expect someone else to give you anything.  It’s up to you to discover how to make your body do the things you want it to do.  A good instructor can only provide some guideposts along the way.  Ultimately, we each have our own unique experience of karate.  When you’re fighting, no one else can be inside your body with you.  You are alone…that’s the bottom line.

Through solo practice, we develop our kinesthetic sense, or “body feel.”  We learn to coordinate hand techniques and footwork with compression and rotation.  This “timing” is the basis of power in technique.  The formal kata of karate represent a series of techniques linked together in a particular pattern.  After learning the techniques involved, kata can be useful as a sort of mnemonic device to help us remember what we learned.  Also, they can be studied as examples of which techniques combined together well for the originators of the kata.  However, the kata are too complex for beginners to realistically use as a learning tool.  Also, they do not allow for experimentation.  By definition, the patterns of movement have been formalized.

Something analogous to the practice of “shadowboxing” is more appropriate for beginners, because you can practice only the movements you’ve already learned.  At first, single techniques should be practiced on both sides of the body, until the left and right sides feel the same.  Then, we can experiment with combinations to see which techniques “flow” together well.   It takes a long time to develop the kind of body control needed to perform karate techniques in a spontaneous situation.  According to the written transmissions of Xing Yi:

For those practicing martial arts, eighty percent of the time is spent in solo practice, twenty percent of the time is spent with others.  Therefore, it is said, “The time strengthening the body is long, the time defeating opponents is short.”

We’ve all been impressed by people who seem to have extraordinary body control: dancers, gymnasts, figure skaters, and good fighters all have one thing in common, the third general principle of body use.

     3.  Move Rhythmically  

Rhythm has to do with timing.  For someone to “have rhythm,” in everyday language, usually means they can move in time with the beat of music on the dance floor.  In martial arts, we learn to time our movements with the various methods of power generation, so we can take maximum advantage of our momentum.  In a fight, we must also consider the opponent’s momentum and how we are moving with the opponent, or the momentum of “the system.”  But, that is beyond the scope of this article.

Because, we are always under the influence of gravity, our movements must conform to the speed of gravity.  This does not mean that all parts of the body move at the same speed.  Even a skydiver can change the speed at which any given body part moves by changing the angle and direction of his body.  And, a slow rotation of the center will result in more rapid rotation of outer parts of the body.  But, if we attempt to force the speed of our movements, excess muscular tension can result in a loss of power.

Also, we must coordinate all movements through the center.  The Asian martial arts place a great deal of emphasis on the dan tian as the physical and energetic center of our bodies.  When standing erect, our center of gravity falls somewhere in the vicinity of the pelvis.  Also, the major muscles of the body all connect to the pelvis.  So, it makes sense to emphasize the hips in training.  These powerful muscles must engage properly to transfer ground reaction force up through the arms.  The smaller muscles of the arms are only used to “guide” the power.

It takes a tremendous amount of focused concentration to become truly aware of your body.  I find this difficult to accomplish in a group setting.  We derive other benefits from attending karate classes, but it is your solo practice time that determines whether you are doing a martial “art” or just learning how to beat someone up.  The ultimate goal should be continuous self-improvement.

My future articles will expand on the ideas contained in this four-part series by introducing some basic power training exercises and examining how they relate to specific fighting techniques.

Acknowledgement:  I put as much of myself into these articles as possible.  But, it’s inevitable that I used the language of my teachers.  The core concepts came from Tim Cartmell and are described more completely in his book, Effortless Combat Throws.  Other sports-related terminology, and further deepening of my understanding, I owe to Robert Miller.


"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin

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