Tag Archives: kung fu

How much is too much? (Classical vs. Modern)

I have always thought,”reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood.” I just learned that has a name, Chesterton’s fence.

It is easily seen when someone buys a successful and growing business and starts by changing large parts of it–because of ego–and then the business quickly goes away. This is true in the Martial arts as well.

Some people change things to make them “easier” or just so they can claim they are doing a different style and call themselves “Grand master.”

The other side of this is when people cling to “tradition” and will not change how they do a move even when a better way is discovered or a fatal flaw is literally discovered. Ironically this violates several principles of warfare, business and combat.

Henry Ford refused to change from the model T until he was almost put out of business by a far superior Chevy. Many businesses have done this until they were gone and forgotten.

There is an inherent obligation when you find a problem in an existing system to look for a better way to replace it, but you are not obligated to be the one who comes up with it.

When I was first learning, my Sifu said, “If you find something that you think works better come show me and I will show you what is wrong with it, or I will change the way we do it.” That is a really traditional way to look at things in Kung Fu. In the Shaolin Temple they started with the 18 hands of the Enlightened One for 250 years then the top fighting monk traveled around China and collected more moves that worked. He expanded the style to 75 moves, and later masters did the same to expand the art further.

Once again it comes down to balance.

Further suggested reading: History, Philosophy and Technique,  Tao of Jeet Kune Do: New Expanded Edition, and The Shaolin Grandmasters’ Text: History, Philosophy, and Gung Fu of Shaolin Ch’an

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Strong Arm Tactics

               As an internal art, Chi Ping Tao stresses correct body position over less controllable aspects like relative size, reach, heaviness of build, size, and amount of muscle mass.  While these things can be useful, the truth is that, nine times out of ten, it’s the small man you have to worry about, because he will have concentrated on correct technique rather than relying on his size.  The small man knows how to fight; the large man knows how to look scary. 

               The center line is stressed very heavily in internal arts, many of the better Kung Fu styles, and of course Judo and Aikido.  There are two aspects to Center Line Theory, and a third, less known, aspect that connects the other two.  Grapplers know, of course, that if you can break a person’s center line, for example by getting them to twist or bend at the diaphragm, they can be thrown with one of your fingers.  Pugilists know that strikes are taken towards the center line, and defended by moving them away from the center line.  Advanced martial artists know that if your center line is properly aligned and your arms and legs are properly positioned, energy can be generated by the entire body and transported to a single point.  Conversely, it is possible to take energy from an incoming strike and redirect it wherever you want.  This can be into the ground, or even back into an opponent.  For several years, I had an ongoing argument with John Hill, who insisted that, with the sword work, one was supposed to lean forward.  To no avail, I explained to him over and over different aspects of what was wrong with this approach until one day we were watching the Grand Master of Kishima Shin Ryu giving a demonstration.  As soon as I pointed out that the Grand Master was ramrod straight, he changed his tune after mumbling something about not being good enough to do things the way the Grand Master did them. 

                When I talk online, I frequently talk about the importance of balance and the center line, but in class I also spend a lot of time talking about the importance of proper arm and leg positions.  Proper leg position usually refers to footwork, which I consider to be the basics, along with breathing.  If your stance isn’t good, and you’re not breathing correctly, then it doesn’t matter whether you know how to throw a punch or not, because it’s unlikely to land, and if it does it will have no power.  If you go to deliver a strike, or even a block, and instead fall down, at best you will appear comical, and you may even fall into an opponent’s strike or hit an obstacle on the ground, like a curb or a rock. 

                What I really want to talk to you about right now, though, is Immovable Arm.  There are two immovable arm positions.  The easiest one to describe involves having your elbow one fist away from your abdomen in front of you and bent at a 90 degree angle, such that you could put a board across your fingertips and shoulder, leaving it level.  If you make a small circle with the palm of your hand, starting facing you, through Willow-Leaf Palm, to a Palm Heel Strike, your arm should be in the other immovable arm position with your elbow pointed at your knee and slightly bent, but the arm almost straight.  I had another student (interestingly enough, also named John) who was an SCA-er and a Kali practitioner from Florida.  Although twice my size, his strikes with the Kali stick had less power.  He also had the problem that his Kali sticks were splintering, the way most students of Kali complain about.  He had been practicing on a telephone pole for several weeks and never left a dent on the pole, but every time he struck it he ended up with more cracks on the end of his Kali sticks.  If he had continued this way, he would pretty soon have been able to use them as paint brushes. 

                After working with him for several weeks, one of which was mostly devoted to showing him why what I was doing was better than the Northern Mantis and Kali he was already performing, he had gotten down moving the arms while keeping them in the first of the two immovable arm positions, which is a prerequisite for techniques like the Cannon Punch.  After he had gotten over the tendency to move the elbow any time the shoulder or wrist are moved, he decided to try his Kali strikes on the telephone pole again.  The sound alone was enough to let you know that there was a lot more power involved.  This time, chunks flew off of the telephone pole every time he struck it, but his Kali sticks did not splinter.  If the force is going into your target, rather than into the end of your weapon, or fist, then all the damage is received by the target itself.  I still have my first Kali stick.  It’s barely dented.  The ones that I share with my students have numerous dents, but none is splintered.  Not even the peeled ones.  To save my vanity, I will not tell you how long I’ve had these Kali sticks.  Let’s just say that my first one came from the first half of the 1980s.

                While it is a useful skill to learn to isolate different parts of the body musculature, the harder and more useful ability is to learn to have the whole body work or move as one thing without interrupting the flow of kinetic energy or, as they say in China, chi.  In this process, frequently arm position is overlooked.  That, of course, results in injuries to the wrist, shoulder and elbow, as well as broken bones usually in the hand or wrist.  Both the hand and foot need to work with grace and power, and the Dan Tien must be perfectly coordinated.  If, however, the center line is broken, the train derails and it all falls apart.  Wherever the chi stops, it explodes.  What this means in a Western sense is that wherever the kinetic energy stops, it injures the surrounding tissues because it suddenly and violently transfers from its source to its target.  This is the true danger of Fa Jing.  Any explosive release of power is going to cause damage somewhere.  If properly applied, then that damage won’t be in you.  It is said that the wrist should align with the ankle, the elbow with the knee, and the shoulder with the hip. 

                I understand that I have people of a variety of different levels of understanding who read my blog and, for some of you, this won’t be particularly useful or may even sound like gibberish.  There are others of you who’ve been sitting there saying, “Yes, exactly” over and over again, and thinking of better ways to say some of this.  Personally, I am aiming for those people in the middle who will get a lot out of it, most especially the one or two who will find that this puts all the pieces together for them.  Certainly, there are lots of other analogies I could make, but ultimately in this format, without even pictures, I have to rely on what you already know.  Certainly, that’s easier with things like horse stance because that’s used by basketball players and pro golfers, but it is hard to find good examples for immovable arm and, even if I could, making the transition from unmoving immovable arm to moving immovable arm requires a lot of practice, and for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, even saying that is confusing.  There are specific positions of proper bone and tendon alignment for every joint in the body that allow you to be immovable in certain directions.  Of course, there are no positions that will prevent you from being moved in every direction.  Every position has weak points that can be taken advantage of, but the positions of proper alignment have fewer than any other positions.  

                Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog.  I hope that you find it very useful. 

—  Reid Sifu

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Martial Tourists Need Not Apply — “Don’t Try to Rob or Rape Me Today; I Am Depressed.”

Martial Tourists Need Not Apply

“Don’t Try to Rob or Rape Me Today; I Am Depressed.”

             A martial arts master named Bilal who is a friend of mine said, “… What do you think that a rapist or a mugger, or someone who means you harm will understand your depressed, what are you going to say to them ‘ don’t rob or rape me today I’m depressed?'”  I know this may come as a shock to many people, but if I am in a lot of pain, feeling bad, or depressed it would be the worst time to try and attack me.  A lot of people take feeling bad, being sick, or even something as little as rain to be an excuse not to practice martial arts, but I used study while sick in the rain.  I still love practicing forms on top of roofs or in the woods.  I have practiced in the desert, on mountain tops, and up to my neck in water.  I pride myself on the fact that I have never seriously injured an opponent.  All that being said, if I were in a very bad shape, in pain, depressed, sick, and generally feeling hopeless and someone were stupid enough to try and attack me, it would actually make me feel better.  Unfortunately, as the exhilaration of combat took hold I would transfer all of my pain and all of their attacking Chi into what would most likely be a lethal counter-strike.

             When I play kung fu, it is life.  There are always people who just kind of dance around with it.  They only come to class if they feel good and the weather is nice.  I have worked out so hard that it knocked illness out of me before, but at this point I use my knowledge of herbalism to get rid of illness before I even start to work out.  Recently, I had a student drop out of class making excuses, but it amounted to me expecting him to live up to the martial ideals in his daily life and show up for classes regardless of how he felt.  Since that time, his weight has doubled or at least that’s how he looks.  If he had had the discipline to practice when he wasn’t in class, he would have lost weight instead.

             That being said, martial arts is not about suffering, it is not about hardship, and it most definitely is not about fighting.  In fact, it is about minimizing suffering, decreasing hardship, and avoiding fighting.  There is a saying in yoga that pain is nature’s way of telling you that you made a mistake. There are way too many “martial tourists” in classes today.

             Ultimately, martial arts and yoga are things that you have to love in order to be successful with them.  I don’t mean what most people mean by successful however; I mean if you want to master them.  My friend was talking about the importance of consistency, especially consistency in coming to class and that is important.  Another thing that most people talk about is self-discipline, and that is useful too.  I will frequently talk about the necessity of feeling that your life depends on learning martial arts.  I myself started learning before I can remember and practice became a daily thing at the age of eight.  I became very proficient.  Proficiency is not enough.

             My martial arts and my yoga did not translate outside of my life with the exception of the breath control discipline I learned from meditation and yoga.  I had severe asthma and that was the only thing that got me to the hospital alive on a number of occasions, and it kept me out of the hospital on even more.  Most of the time, my martial arts knowledge showed up nowhere else in my life.  I had acquired a degree of proficiency, but they were not part of my life and I acquired no amount of mastery.

             I did meditate in class during high school, out of boredom.  I believe I was 15 when I had the sudden realization that I actually loved yoga but hated being told to do it.  I started doing yoga during my spare time.  It wasn’t until I was doing yoga when I wasn’t being told to that I wasn’t being controlled in relation to it.

             After learning nothing but strikes, kicks, and weapons techniques for years and being told that it was about learning to fight, I had no interest in martial arts.  My first class of kung fu at 18 changed all that.  My instructor emphasized the importance of learning to avoid fights, had us constantly doing stance work, and put me to work doing forms and sets.  Suddenly, when all the parts were put together, it made sense and I felt like I was remembering something I had forgotten.

             Don’t get me wrong.  I knew somewhere between three and six ways to kill a man by hitting him in the face when I was 6.  That might be fighting, and it might even be martial arts, but it sure as hell isn’t kung fu or self-defense. 

             I was very clumsy as a child because I had a lagging eye, pressure on the inner ear, and club feet.  Despite yoga, I fell down between once a day and once an hour until my second lesson of kung fu.  Once I realized the stances were the ones from yoga, and I was learning how to move in them, I immediately stopped falling down.  To be honest, I fell down once a year after that for the first five years, and after I realized the importance of horse stance, I stumbled once a year for two or three years, and then I didn’t fall down until after I was in a car wreck, having been a passenger in a vehicle hit by a drunk driver going at least 75 mph while we were stopped.  With whiplash of the entire spine and brain damage, I would pass out at random intervals for the first two or three years.  Still, falling practice was so well ingrained in me that when I woke up I never had sustained additional injuries.  The reflexes trained into my spinal column didn’t care if my cerebral cortex was shut down. 

             The day I fell in love with kung fu was the first day of class.  It was then that I started putting together the parts of my life.  It was as if there had been one missing piece.  From that point on, martial arts informed every move I made.  A martial master once commented that he had never met anyone whose every movement was an integrated martial movement until me.  I consider this one of the greatest compliments I have ever received.  As the martial philosophy and movement brought together every aspect of my life, I found that I became one-pointed.  Unfortunately, that only lasted four months until I had to have emergency surgery to remove my appendix the day after John Lennon was shot.  The Filipino doctor at the hospital in the rural Georgia town where I was shot me full of drugs I was allergic to (yes, they were all on my chart) and looped stitches through my intestines.  He also damaged several internal organs in the process.  It took 14 years for the drugs to entirely get out of my system, and I started trying to put my life back together again.  And in all that time, the martial path guided my progress.  In all the intervening years, it has kept me safe, whether sliding down iced-over stairs or being unexpectedly attacked, it, whatever it is, has kept me safe.  Martial arts are the only reason I’m alive today.  Kung fu is my life.  It is not something I do.  It is something I am.  I am certainly not well today, but I was not supposed to live to be 18 and in the more than thirty years since then, I have had injuries that would kill most people many times over.  It’s not so much that I am in some way special; it’s that the path is, and to walk the path you must achieve balance.  To maintain balance, you must dance so as to remain at the eye of the storm.  A tourist can’t do that.  You must live the Path.

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Johnny-come-lately

In many ways the death of John Wallace Hill was the proverbial brick that broke the dromedary’s back. It was very hard for me over the past few years watching this kid give up on life. It’s not that he didn’t want to live, at least on a conscious level, but it was very clear that on another level he was dead set on dying.

He was very stubborn, but otherwise showed no sign of discipline or willpower. I suppose that I should not take it personally that I could not get him to follow the rules of or practice or even come to a regular class of kung fu because even his lifelong love of the samurai arts could not get him to follow the rules of or practice either.

I remember the first time I met John. It was at the first M.O.C. martial arts panel. I had been hounding Roland about wanting to do a martial arts panel for several years. Martial arts figure into a lot of science fiction literature, movies, and television shows. I even pointed out to him that there were lots of martial artists who went to science fiction conventions and that he himself was a tae kwon do practitioner. Eventually Roland decided to let me do a martial arts panel and it was the first one at any science fiction convention. When I told him that I would look for other people to be on the panel he said that he had been talking to a number of people about my idea and he would just pass the word on for them to come be on my panel.

The next year M.O.C. had the first science fiction martial arts panel in history. I showed up in a full Sam with green sash, to indicate that I was Taoist, before the panel was to start. I was the first one in the room and I sat down in the audience in the front row center. Eventually some fans started filing in and then some of my panelists arrived. There was John, a lesbian woman who taught self-defense for women based on some Korean art, and a couple of others. The room filled up and they dithered for a few minutes waiting for me to show up. The other people on the panel sat there and looked lost until John decided to take charge. He stood up and announced that he thought they should get going instead of just waiting for the organizer of the panel. After introducing himself and giving a ranking in Japanese, which he claimed spuriously was one rank below the highest possible rank in his art, he had everyone else introduce themselves and they all gave a standard belt ranking. Belt ranking started with judo in Japan. Its originator was the originator of judo himself, Jigoro Kano, in the 1800s and it has become standard practice throughout Japan.

I continued to sit in the audience while they gave a brief introduction to each of their arts and then proceeded immediately to a question-and-answer period because they had no idea what else to do. Every time they started to get stuck I would ask an insightful and leading question. After fielding a few questions about kung fu John decided that I belonged up there on the stage with the rest of them and asked me to come up there and introduce myself. I then mounted the stage, turned and faced the audience and introduced myself and explained that I was in fact the organizer of this panel, whereupon John said, “I might’ve known. That’s just like the Shaolin!”

After that I led the discussion and gave the panelists topics and had them demonstrate a few simple moves. After the panel was over, I led a small group of interested audience members and John to an empty room where I continued to answer questions and teach a few techniques. That was more than 20 years ago. (I did not say that that was more than 20 years ago; Dragon NaturallySpeaking just up and typed it. I was going to say that was 18 or 19 years ago but I can’t explain why it typed that.)

The two things that stood out about John as he towered over me that first day were his leadership ability and his sense of humor. In the end his sense of humor was gone and that was how I knew that he would soon be gone as well.

Certainly this was not the last in a long line of stressful events that I’ve been dealing with nor was it by many years the first but it was the one which made me realize that if I didn’t get a break I was going to.

Copyright September 2012 Julian Thomas Reid III

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