Tag Archives: mastery

Mastering a single form is a lifetime achievement?

Well, that’s certainly a traditional saying, but I think if it takes you an entire lifetime to master a form, there is something seriously wrong. Actually, I can think of three things that would have to all be wrong.

1. Your instructor would have to be crappy.
2. You’re not practicing enough, and not spending enough time thinking about the form.
3. You ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

Of course, I know number three because you’re putting up with number one, and continuing to engage in the two aspects of number two, and you can’t just figure it out.

I have generally found that instructors of the “just do what I do” category fall into two categories: Really good at doing and really bad at teaching, or Really bad at doing and really good at conning people.

When I was taking Kali, Wing Chun and Muay Thai, we were allowed to go to all of the instructors various classes in different locations. I don’t know of anyone other than me who did so. At one of the locations, the instructor was teaching a Kali class and a separate Wing Chun class. The only people in the Kali class were a 60-something and a 70-something pair of little old Southern ladies. There were more than ten students in the Wing Chun, and the instructor wanted to concentrate on the Wing Chun class.

Now, we were halfway through the quarter, and the two little old ladies had not yet managed to get down the first move. The young Chinese instructor from Hong Kong really didn’t understand them at all, and had more ego than teaching skill.

I readily agreed to teach them for him, and started going over the course material. It was readily apparent to me that they just weren’t getting it. Now, an important thing to remember is that Kali is actually a double sword technique, and you practice with the rattan stick so you don’t kill people in practice class. I looked at the women and asked them if they cooked from scratch. The younger one had only been doing it for fifty years. At that point, I knew I could teach them. I explained every technique in terms of kitchen uses of a butcher knife that they had been practicing around twice as long as I’d been alive.

Before the regular instructor came back, they had mastered considerably more than that quarter’s course material in Kali, including all the basic attack and defense moves. Then one of them asked me, “How would I use this for self defense?” I answered, “Cut up a chicken.” They then answered, “Oh,” followed by a horrified, “Oh…” and then a delighted “Oh!” of realization.

Now, I realize that I had certain advantages in having cooking the same way as these ladies since I was 8, growing up studying German long sword, and having had at least three quarters of Kali prior to this, but what really allowed me to do this was that I have an open mind, think about what I’m doing, and understand it.

When the instructor came back and asked how the class had gone, he was obviously gloating. He had been spending the last quarter competing with me, not very successfully. I was just there to learn. Of course, when they showed him the techniques that they had mastered for over fifty years, he was more frightened than astonished. He never did ask me how I managed to teach them that. As soon as they thought of it as a butcher knife, and were told what cooking techniques applied, they were masters of at least everything I had shown them that day. There are very few people who want to fight someone with a blade who can filet meat in less than a second.

This is what I call using the same experience points twice.

I know that there are people who will say that you can continue to get things out of a form indefinitely, but that is really dependent on two factors.  One is the person who is doing the practicing, and the amount they’ve managed to get out of it so far, and the other is the type of form in question, and how they were taught it in the first place.

There are three types of set, or kata: sets that teach the basic moves, sets that teach a particular strategy, and sets intending to recreate a particular fight or battle.  Siu Nim Tao from Wing Chun, and Skip Knees from Muay Thai are examples of sets intended to teach the basic moves of a style.  That is like learning how the pieces move in chess.  Thunder and Earth from Shaolin Kempo Ku Shu is a particular tactical attack.  That would be roughly the equivalent of  learning the Indian defense in chess.  No chess master is going to spend the rest of his life just practicing the Indian defense.  Certainly, there are perspectives that you can add to your practice as time goes on, from going back and practicing the sets and techniques you started with as your perspective changes, but saying that you have not mastered that technique would still be a stretch.

Every form or set, every technique or kata, has to be understood from both sides.  If you do not know the technique that you are defending against, if you cannot visualize it as a two-man form, then you really haven’t been taught the form.  When I go through sets with my students, I will go through the motions on the other side so that they understand what they’re defending against and where they’re attacking.  Since they understand what they’re doing, it’s much easier for them to learn the form in the first place and grasp its meaning and intent.   Yes, continual practice is needed to hard-wire the form and techniques into the body, and so that you will remember the form, and honestly to help you stay fit, but, hopefully, you understand what you’re doing and aren’t only waving your harms in the air like you just don’t care.

While mastery itself is a life-long process, the mastery of a single form should not take very long at all.  While continued practice will increase your proficiency, and thinking about it should continue to bring greater insights over the course of a lifetime, those insights really come from you and your understanding of martial arts in general, not from the form itself so much, unless of course you were missing stuff.

For some further reading to help you understand the process of learning, well, anything and put you on the road towards mastery, try The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life, by Timothy Ferris.

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Food for Thought

Food for Thought

A lot of people make a big deal, one way or the other, about Bruce Lee, and lately I’ve heard people trying to downplay his role in revitalizing martial arts worldwide, especially mixed martial arts. Ultimately for the master, all martial arts become a matter of, as Bruce said, “Authentic self expression.” In the 1950s, when American music became so bland that Pat Boone was the most exciting thing on the radio, Rock ‘n’ Roll became an inevitable necessity, and without Chuck Berry we would never have had Little Richard, Elvis or the Beatles. When Bruce came on the scene, martial artists everywhere had become mired in tradition, down to copying their instructor when he did a move incorrectly, which is still a serious problem the further you get away from a grand master, and sometimes even they fail to get one move down correctly, and everyone’s afraid to correct them. “Oh, he must be right. He’s….”

The first person I know of promoting martial arts widely in America was Teddy Roosevelt, who opened a Jujutsu dojo in the White House. He had been a sickly kid, and credited his good health to constant practice. Even today, many schools refuse to fix a bad technique that all other schools can see is crap because “well, they’re not part of our lineage. This is how we do it.”

No, Bruce was not the greatest martial artists ever to live, but he may have been one of the fastest. No, he did not surpass his master. In fact, he was fourth down in the lineage of Yip Man, and everyone who outranked him could beat him. Yes, he was also an actor, but he was an actual fighter as well, and if you think that’s the important thing, you’ve missed the point of martial arts in the first place. Skin color, country of origin, luck of physical endowment, and style of martial art are not the important thing. I have difficulty remembering people’s names, and honestly the names of styles that I have not practiced. I am also not an expert linguist, mastering the traditional languages of the half dozen places of origin of the styles I have practiced. Yes, sometimes I annoy my students by using German, Spanish, Japanese, Thai, Cantonese and Mandarin in the same lesson.

However, this isn’t about me, and martial arts isn’t about famous personalities. Do you think when Jet Li was the all-China Wu Shu champion and nobody in America had heard of him that therefore Joe Corley was a better fighter?

The first rule of all martial arts is, “If at all possible, run.” but the second rule is, “If it works, use it.” By the way, the first rule of yoga is, “Pain is nature’s way of telling you you’ve done something stupid.”

The greatest martial artist on Earth is probably entirely unknown. The greatest martial art on Earth may well be being practiced by someone who is weak, uncoordinated, and has major health problems. While he might not be able to beat anyone else, it is keeping him alive and teaching him mastery. Some of the most famous grand masters have been really bad teachers, and some half-way decent martial artists have been great teachers, and very few of the people who are good at choreography are really any good at the other two.

So, ultimately, Bruce Lee was an inevitable necessity for martial arts in his time period.

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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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