Thursday, September 29, 2022


 by Phillip Starr

All martial disciplines feature various forms of kamae, which are physical postures that practitioners assume just prior to engaging an opponent. Most of them are proactive; designed to provide a measure of protection against an assailant's attack. In this wise, they may be compared to a shield. However, the proper kamae should also bring many of the practitioner's bodily weapons to the fore. Thus, he is prepared to defend himself and deliver a quick counter-attack.

The traditional martial disciplines wherein the warrior was armed with some kind of weapon often featured “openings”, apparent flaws in the postures that could be exploited by the enemy. However, these gaps were intentional; they were actually traps that were meant to ensnare an unsuspecting foe. The warrior meant to tempt his opponent into trying to take advantage of his supposed weakness. Naturally, the opening had to be rather small; if it was too obvious, his adversary would see the flaw for what it was.

Using this type of tactic could provide the feudal warrior with a real advantage. He would know from what quarter his enemy's attack would come and he'd be prepared to deal with it instantaneously. He wanted to induce his opponent to attack a target that wasn't really there.

It's interesting to note that the bare-handed martial forms didn't utilize any kind of formal pre-combat kamae. Early films of karate instructors (many of whom would go on to become some of the most famous teachers in the world) show them engaged in jyu-kumite (freestyle sparring), which, was a new innovation at that time. There is no distinctive placement of the arms and hands.

As time marched on and more karate enthusiasts began to participate in this new-fangled exercise known as jyu-kumite, well-defined kamae began to emerge. Not unexpectedly, they initially often resembled a type of kamae used in classical kenjutsu (swordsmanship). Their interest was in winning the match. They wanted to score points against the opponent while preventing him from doing the same thing to them.

With the advent of karate tournaments in the West, the kamae underwent further modifications, especially after the introduction of padded gloves and footgear. Fighters assumed the kamae that one would expect of a Western boxer, whose hands are employed to protect his face and head (thus preventing a knockout) whilst his arms and elbows are used to protect his torso. Because striking below the belt and kicking into the groin and legs are not permitted, there is no need to concern oneself with their protection.

The differences between the classical forms of kamae and the more contemporary versions may not seem glaringly obvious but a little introspection will reveal the truth. The feudal warrior's primary concern was the destruction of his enemy and the preservation of his clan. Self-defense was of secondary importance. His approach to combat was aggressive; his intention was to draw his enemy into a trap and utterly destroy him.

After the disappearance of the feudal systems, the emphasis shifted to a more personal level, that of self-protection and defense. And when competition walked onto the scene, winning the game became the first priority.

In so far as actual self-defense is concerned, you usually don't have time to adopt some kind of formal kamae. Things often happen to quickly for that. It's best to utilize the principles of the formal kamae in common, everyday postures. These are often referred to as shizentai (natural postures). After all, it's from these positions that you may have to move quickly and defend yourself. It sounds simple enough to do but it will actually require some considerable practice. This is why the founder of aikido, Morihei Uyeshiba, said, "Kamae is for beginners. Shizentai is for advanced pupils."

Tuesday, September 27, 2022


 by Phillip Starr

The revered founder of judo, Dr. Jigaro Kano, admonished his followers to apply several maxims to their training and to their lives. The best known of these is:

Maximum efficiency with minimum effort.”

He explained further that we must apply just the right amount of strength...never too much and never too little. Practitioners of martial disciplines other than judo may feel that this sagely advice doesn't necessarily apply to their respective arts. I disagree; I believe that it actually applies to all martial forms as well as to every aspect of daily life.

Unfortunately, Kano's advice seems to have been tossed to the wind by many contemporary judoists, especially those that seek to win trophies and medals in the competition arena. In training for these events, they often focus on developing as much physical strength as possible. As one of my students (who is a former judo practitioner) said, “That isn't judo; it's brute-do.”

I see this same phenomenon in various forms of percussive martial arts, such a s karate, taekwondo, and kung-fu. Practitioners put their full power into every movement, straining every fiber of their musculature as they execute various kicks and punches. It's my opinion that they're really over-doing it. As Master Seiyu Oyata (a 10th dan and well-known karate master of the last century) told me, “Any martial art that requires the development of great strength is not a real martial art.” Too much strength becomes no strength.

For example, watch a toddler try to pick up a pencil. She can barely do it. Her muscles haven't been fine-tuned yet. She uses too much strength and this makes the task that much more difficult. Can you imagine what would happen if she tried to pick up an egg? You can perform either of these tasks very easily because you've learned, after many attempts and a lot of experience, to apply just the right amount of strength. If you were to attempt use all of your strength to pick up a pencil, you'd fail. And remember when you first learned to drive a car? What happened the first few times you applied the brakes? Probably the same thing that happened to me; I used to much strength and nearly put myself and my father through the windshield! But after a lot of practice over time, I learned to use just the right amount of strength...not too much and not too little.

In the application of martial arts techniques, what matters is correct body structure and alignment. If either of these is off base, you will be unable to utilize the strength of your entire body and you'll end up striking with only the power of your arm or leg. To the uninitiated, the technique might LOOK impressive but to the trained eye it is rather feeble. On the other hand, correct technique may appear crisp but devoid of power, It is, however, much stronger than it looks.

The Chinese term for this kind of relaxed condition is “song.” It is mentioned repeatedly in the practice of the so-called “internal” martial arts of taijiquan, baguazhang, and xingyiquan, but it applies equally to any and all martial ways. The common translation of “song” is “relax” and this had led to a great deal of confusion within the Chinese martial arts community. In the West, the confusion began when Eastern instructors taught their respective arts to Western pupils in a second language...English!

They stressed that their students must learn to relax and the eager novices gave it their best; when they performed their sets they looked like so many lifeless zombies! I remember watching a taijiquan demonstration back in the 1970's with Mr. Roger Dong, an acquaintance from Shanghai. The performer, a young woman, literally slumped and dragged her sword behind you as she entered the arena! She looked as if she was half asleep! Her form was executed with the same emptiness. Roger turned to me and said, “In China, we call this 'dead man's taiji'.”

The Eastern teachers actually wanted their students to learn “song”, which is NOT the same thing as being flaccid. Rather, it is akin to the word “ju” as it applied to the Japanese martial art of judo. “Ju” refers to a state of elasticity and suppleness rather than an enfeebled condition. “Song” means that one should use no more (muscular) effort than is absolutely necessary to perform a given task. This is exactly what Dr. Kano indicated when he stated”...never too much and never too little.” It takes time and a lot of practice to understand and then apply this idea to your techniques, especially when you're moving at full-tilt boogie. This is one reason why taijiquan is initially practiced in slow motion. Most taiji practitioners never step beyond this stage of practice but to understand the true art, they must learn to do it at full speed. After all, it was originally designed as a martial art rather than a form of early morning exercise!

So, take your time and study your movements carefully. Are you using too much strength? One old Chinese master described correct punching and kicking as feeling “like an arrow released from a bow.” When you apply “song” correctly, you'll understand.

Monday, September 26, 2022


 by Phillip Starr

More than once (or a hundred, or maybe a thousand) times I've heard various martial art students and instructors ask, “Why is flexibility important? In my art/style. We don't do any fancy high kicks, so why would we need to practice vigorous stretching exercises? Just a few warm-up routines is more than enough.” And they're dead wrong. They're looking at what seems to be the obvious and probably because they don't personally like to engage in stretching exercises, they grasp at the first straw. And they completely miss the point.

Flexibility is, in my opinion, an essential part of any martial art training regimen. However, stretching exercises should be practiced at least every other day instead of just once or twice a week (or month). It works much like weight lifting; you can't do it just once a week and expect to see any results. If you engage in such exercises only once in a while what you can expect are injuries from time to time. If you want to increase your strength – or, in this case, flexibility – you must do it at least every other day. Each practice session needn't take a terribly long time. What is required is regularity and progression.

Stretching shouldn't be terribly uncomfortable or forceful. It is gentle and perhaps mildly uncomfortable (and no forceful bouncing). You must learn to relax when you do it. Circulation is improved when you stretch, which will contribute to better health and helps slow the aging process. The Chinese say that “long muscles mean long life.”

Regardless of whether or not you practice high kicks, increasing flexibility in the legs and hips will do much for cultivating smooth, easy, and nimble footwork. Increasing flexibility in the waist and upper body will go a long ways towards upgrading your punches, too. And regular practice of stretching exercises will help prevent a variety of injuries in your martial arts training.

One of the things that contributes to what we call the “aging process” is a lack of flexibility. As we age our muscles tend to become less flexible and the effects are readily apparent, affecting everything we do. This needn't happen. Although aging will certainly reduce flexibility to some degree, we can keep the wolf at bay by routinely engaging in a round of stretching exercises.

Now, I'm not going to provide a detailed explanation of how to practice various exercises; many, many fine books have already been written on the subject. But I know some of you will want to know how long you should allow for your stretching regimens. I recommend at least 30 minutes each time (you may wish to practice a bit longer). When I lived in China there were no nice training halls in which to practice. There was no practice equipment, either; one just had to “make do” with whatever was at hand. Each time I practiced at the park, I began with some basic warm-ups and then a round of stretching, which would last for at least half an hour.

I remembered seeing many of my American co-workers who were in their mid-60's and beyond. In many cases, their overall physical condition was abysmal. They maintained just enough flexibility to walk and that was about it; they regarded stretching routines as something for the younger generation. And it showed. I determined that I would never end up like that and at age 66, I can, without prior warming up, bend over and place the backs of my hands on the ground (it's a hair more difficult than placing the palms on the ground).

Yes, there are some exercises that I can no longer do as well as I did in my younger years but that doesn't deter me from continuing to try. And that's part of the secret -the trying - and being gentle with yourself. If you don't try; if you give up, then you're sliding down that nasty slope known as “aging.” Never give up the struggle! You're never too old to improve!

Sunday, September 25, 2022


 By Phillip Starr

It would seem that the availability of good martial arts instruction nowadays is easier than ever. If you can't find a proper school that grabs your fancy, you can always attend seminars that are taught by various masters, purchase a few DVD's, or just turn on your PC and visit various sites that offer online instruction! What could be easier? And it's entirely possible to get certified by attending certain seminars or through cyber-instruction! Wow!

As an old-fashioned traditionalist, I find this whole thing disgusting. Now, I've been to my share of seminars, many of which were taught by world-famous authorities. And I'll be the first to stand up and say that I learned from them. However, seminars are certainly NOT a good swap for regular, progressive training in a good martial arts school that is led by a qualified, motivated instructor. Some teachers who make their livings by teaching seminars offer a little more than the usual “group instruction”; they also pitch one-on-one, private tutoring sessions. These special sessions are usually rather short and follow the main seminar. Naturally, the student has to shell out more money for this “private” instruction.

Mind you, I'm not saying that this is necessarily wrong...unless said instructor offers promotions or certifications to those who complete a given number of such these exclusive classes. THAT is a scam, plain and simple. I know of more than one martial arts aficionado who, after having attended a certain number of these events, was certified as an instructor or promoted to the appropriate grade of black belt! Good. Lord. They never stopped to consider that most other devotees generally spend several years regularly attending class several times each week before being awarded the same certification! And let me say that it is simply not possible to acquire a high level of skill by limiting one's martial arts instruction to attending seminars.

I have also seen numerous DVD's on the market, which provide instruction in various facets of many different martial disciplines. This is fine and the majority of those who purchase such items are well aware that they are no replacement for “hands-on” instruction from a good teacher. They are useful for review and curiosity but they cannot provide the personal touch that is necessary if one wants to learn the real thing.

For example, I know of one individual who was desperate to learn the Okinawan kata known as sanchin. He got his hands on a DVD and practiced until he had the set memorized. Proud of his accomplishment (humility is not in his vocabulary), he approached a good friend of mine who is a high skilled teacher of traditional Isshin-ryu (an Okinawan style of karate). He happily demonstrated his sanchin kata. Now, sanchin is probably the most important kata in Okinawan karate and anyone can memorize the outer movements fairly quickly. However, what sets sanchin apart from many other forms is the INTERNAL aspects of it, which really can't be taught via DVD. It requires literal “hands on” training under a good teacher. His flaws were very obvious and my friend pointed them out to him.

Presently, I see that some online programs are now available; the aspiring student needn't buy a DVD! He can just turn on his PC and receive instruction! How convenient. How foolhardy. Again, as I said in the case about receiving instruction from a DVD, it simply isn't possible to learn genuine martial arts without the physical presence of a good teacher. One can learn something about the outer movements but the real art is often concealed below the surface of these movements and simply can't be adequately demonstrated via remote instruction.

To make matters worse, some websites offer rank promotions to those who successfully complete a “course” of such isolated instruction. Many of these require the student to provide them with digital proof that they have learned the required material. Once that's been done satisfactorily, the pupil is awarded the appropriate grade and certification WITHOUT EVER HAVING MET HIS TEACHER.

I remember back when videos were all the rage. DVD's hadn't been invented yet and there were many martial arts teachers (some who were quite well known) to offered remote instruction and subsequent promotion. As a lark, one of my pupils contacted one such revered instructor. He didn't even practice the martial form that was offered, but he went ahead and filmed himself performing two different kung-fu sets and a few basic techniques. In a very short time, he received an enthusiastic reply, which informed him that within a few months he would qualify for a SIXTH DAN! Naturally, he would be required to join their association. You can imagine my response; it was very colorful.

I believe that if you want to learn authentic martial arts, you need to seek out a qualified teacher and attend class on a regular basis. While some people search for private tutors, I am convinced that participating in a class setting is best; it provides the student with a wide variety of training partners, seniors who can inspire him, and a roomful of like-minded individuals who support each other when the going gets tough. I think it's important to build a good relationship with your teacher, a relationship that deepens over time until a close bond is formed. Learning martial arts isn't like shopping for new shoes...just my five yuan.


 by Phillip Starr

The phrase “martial arts master” seems to have a particular sort of image associated with it. Many people immediately picture a white-haired, bearded, wizened old recluseof some kind who spends at least half of his time meditating on the mysteries of life and the other half practicing ancient martial arts techniques that have been cloaked in secrecy for several hundred years. The master is wise in all things; he is able to provide sage advice in every aspect of life, including (but not limited to) personal finances, marriage, virtually every facet pertaining to physical and mental health (and, by the way, he is perfectly capable of treating most illnesses and injuries via his high level of knowledge and skill in ancient forms of Eastern medical therapies), purchasing a home, preparing one's annual income tax return, or even how to field dress a deer.

I can see some of you smiling while others laugh openly. Those who laugh are probably those old martial arts teachers who've actually had students approach them with questions about such things. I have. All of them (that's right; go back and look through the list). How to field dress a deer?, you ask. You betcha. And many other equally bizarre subjects about which I know absolutely nothing. Yes, I have practiced and taught kung-fu for most of my life. I am also an acupuncturist and I hold black belt grades in two forms of Japanese karate. I enjoy practicing iaido, too. But my understanding of personal finances, investing money, marriage, and generally understanding women are right up there with my knowledge about how to field dress a deer, rebuilding a truck's engine, or treating schizophrenia. I have, by the way, been asked about each item mentioned in this paragraph.

People will not be easily dissuaded from the image of the wizened old master that they hold firmly in their minds. A perfect example would be my dear friend, Master Arthur Lee (dec.). Arthur was probably the world's highest authority on the old Shaolin Fut-Ga system and his skill was truly second to none. But you'd never guess that this kind, well-dressed Chinese gentleman knew anything about the martial arts. Slightly built, soft-spoken, and extremely polite at all times, Arthur's demeanor never revealed his tremendous skill. He had worked for Sears for many years and was always ready to laugh and share a joke.

My kung-fu uncle, Master Ming Lum (dec.), is another fine example. One of Henry Okazaki's earliest jujutsu pupils in Hawaii, Master Lum was also very highly skilled in Choy Li Fut. And he would certainly be one of the last people anyone would suspect of being a master of a martial art. He stood perhaps 5' 4” (on his tiptoes), had one prosthetic arm (with a blunted hook instead of a hand), and smoked like a train. And no matter what the weather or the event (such as festivals, funerals, and weddings), Uncle Ming always wore a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt. However, he was hailed as a renowned master by virtually every martial arts teacher who ever met him.

Authentic masters may well work as train conductors, plumbers, school teachers, or any other profession. The real ones don't walk around with their chests puffed out, proclaiming their accomplishments. They're ordinary people except for one thing; they've walked a path that most people will never see.

Friday, September 23, 2022


 By Phillip Starr

I stood before the group of beginning students who had been training for about four months and told them,, “I think you're all ready to take your first examination.” I then provided them with the necessary details; the date and time of the tests, what to bring, what to expect, and so on. Afterwards, one of them approached me and said, “I'd prefer not to take the test.”

Why?”, I asked.

I don't believe in rank”, he replied. “I'm not interested in getting different colored belts. They don't really mean anything.”

I chuckled, remembering how many times I'd heard this same statement. “Actually”, I said, “They mean more than you might think. But regardless, that's the way we do it here. If you don't take the exam, you'll be stuck in the beginner's class and you can't move forward.” His long face revealed his frustration.

Over the decades that I've taught martial arts, I've heard countless students (as well as many people who never studied martial arts a day in their lives) say things like, “A black belt doesn't mean you're really good. In some schools it's very easy to get a black belt...” True enough. I can't argue that point. However, we do need some form of certification that indicates that an individual has achieved a given level of skill. Certainly, these levels vary from one association or school to another but they are necessary, nonetheless.

For example, your physician posts a copy of the diploma he received upon graduating from medical school. It's signed, dated, and stamped and very official looking. But we all know there are many doctors out there who probably shouldn't even be handing out aspirin, right? How would you feel if you went into a doctor's office and his certificate said simply that he had attended a particular medical school but it made no mention of graduation? It'd spook me, for sure! What if high schools and universities didn't award graduation diplomas? You could walk into any job interview and claim to have a PhD!

This is a problem that many kung-fu stylists face. A good number of them will puff out their chests as they affirm, “We don't even have certificates or colored belts. They've never been used in the Chinese martial arts...” They've never considered what this means and what's happened because of it. Consider; any Chinese person can claim to have trained under a well-known (but deceased, of course) Master for a considerable length of time. He has no proof of it and even if he has a photo of himself standing beside his famous mentor, we don't know how often he attended training (once a week, thrice a week, once every other month...) or if he ever acquired any notable level of skill. All we have is his word on the matter and let me be the first to tell you that I've met some highly respected kung-fu instructors in the U.S. whose actual skill is rather minimal.

Mr. Adam Hsu, who was a well-known kung-fu teacher in the U.S. for many years (he now resides in Taiwan) emphasized the need for grading systems in the Chinese martial arts community. For the most part, his argument fell on deaf ears. This is most unfortunate. When we purchase something of great value, we usually insist on a “certificate of authenticity.” Shouldn't we do the same thing with martial arts teachers in whose hands we place our health and lives?

Thursday, September 22, 2022


 By Phillip Starr

     "I can't" is an expression that should all but be removed from the vocabulary of all martial arts practitioners. Here are some reasons why:

*Henry Ford failed and went broke five times before he finally succeeded.

*18 publishers turned down the story about a "soaring seagull" before the MacMillan company finally published it in 1970. Within five years, Richard Bach's book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, had sold over five million copies.

*21 publishers rejected the idea of a comedy set in a medical camp during the Korean War. Richard Hooker kept going until M*A*S*H was published by one company. It became a runaway best seller and spawned a movie and TV series.

*General Douglas MacArthur was turned down twice by West Point when he applied to become a cadet.  On his third try, he was finally accepted. The rest is history.

*When NFL running back Herschel Walker was in junior high school, his coach told him he was too small and suggested that he go out for track. Walker ignored this advice, built himself up through intensive training, and won the Heisman trophy a few years later.

*Colonel Sanders went to over 1,000 places trying to sell his chicken recipe before he found a buyer for his Kentucky fried chicken!

*Dr. Seuss's first book was rejected by 27 publishers before being published and selling 6 million copies.

*Once a week for four years, a black author received a rejection letter regarding his novel. He was traveling on a freighter and decided to give up and throw himself overboard. He claimed he heard the voices of his ancestors telling him not to give up and he decided to give his book one more try. Alex Haley's book,
Roots, was finally published.

*In 1905 the University of Bern turned down a doctoral dissertation as being irrelevant and fanciful. The young physics student remained undaunted and continued in his efforts. His name was Albert Einstein.

There are thousands and thousands of similar stories. My own is one of them and will be yet again.

"Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there."

-Will Rogers

     One of the most important things we learn through our training in martial arts is that anything is possible if we just believe. We discover that the only obstacles we ever encounter are those we have placed in front of ourselves. And we are the only ones who can move them; nobody else can do it for us. If we believe that we will fail, then our destiny is certain. If we refuse to accept failure and believe that we will succeed, the same thing is true. We are what we believe.

     Of course, simple belief isn't enough. Absolute determination and the willingness to work hard and long are also elements which must be included.

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are nothing compared to what lies within us."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

     The process can begin with something as simple as a shoulder roll. Over the years, I have taught many young students who were terrified at the thought of doing such a thing. I coaxed and prodded and made each one of them do it. And then I made them do it again and again until their fear was a thing of the past and the obstacle had been removed. They were often overjoyed and wanted to practice rolling at every training session!

"It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one than to have one and not be prepared."

Whitney Young Jr.

     At various point(s) in our training we all run up against the same kind of obstacles. Just because we overcome the first one doesn't mean that's the end of it. Far from it. We discover one obstacle after another. Some are very large and some are small but each one requires a certain measure of effort and belief in ourselves in order to overcome it. This is, we find, a continuous process in life. But if we realize what it takes to overcome these obstacles, we can ultimately overcome all of them one at a time.

"Never look where you're going.  Look where you want to go."

Bob Ernst

     A student once asked me how I was able to thrust my fingertips through small bricks. "First you have to learn the technique," I answered. "Then you have to believe that you can do it. Each time when I set up the brick to do that demonstration, I see myself doing it successfully before I hit it. That's the secret." He didn't believe me and gave up training shortly afterwards.

"I cannot discover that anyone knows enough to say definitely what is and what is not possible."

Henry Ford

     Now understand that technique is essential. A person who can barely read cannot become an author until he learns the technique. A scrawny youth who has never played football will never become an NFL star until he puts in the time and sweat and learns the technique.

     Your teacher can teach you correct technique. That's what he's for. Once you learn that, a good teacher can take you farther and show you what you can really do with it. A great teacher will go beyond the physical technique and show you how to live (it).

"The doctors told me that I'd never walk again, but my mother told me I would. So I believed my mother."

Wilma Rudolph

    Think about it. Masutatsu Oyama's real name was Choi Yong Li. He was Korean. He went to Japan in hopes of becoming a pilot during WWII, but the Japanese wouldn't hear of a Korean flying one of their fighters and he was turned down (fortunately for us). The Japanese have never been very fond of Koreans and the young man had difficulty even finding a job. He made money as a "milkman" driving a delivery truck and managed to get into the university. It was there that he saw Gichin Funakoshi teaching a karate class and he fell in love with the art.

     After several years and superhuman effort (which included living on a mountain for three years), he established his own karate system and developed the Kyokushinkaikan which became one of the largest karate organizations in the world! He was adopted by the Japanese people and took on a Japanese name.

     And it all started out driving a delivery truck and scrounging for meals.

"It never occurred to me that I couldn't do it.  I always knew that if I worked enough, I could."

Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics

     Morihei Uyeshiba, the legendary founder of aikido, started out running his own small business. His father had fronted him the money for it. He failed miserably.

"Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity."

Oprah Winfrey

     Jigaro Kano, founder of modern judo, was a schoolteacher who was highly skilled in jujutsu and who dreamed of bringing the art into the schools and into the modern sports arena. Until a few years ago, it was the only martial art represented in the Olympics.

    Gichin Funakoshi was also a simple schoolteacher who was ordered to go to Japan to demonstrate karate in 1923 because he was well-grounded in Japanese culture. The Okinawans wanted to send someone who was well educated and familiar with the Japanese culture.  Funakoshi subsequently established the world-reknowned Shotokan karate system.

"If you don't hear opportunity knocking, find another door."

Omar Periu