TRADITIONAL MARTIAL ARTS

TRADITIONAL MARTIAL ARTS

Friday, August 14, 2020

THE AUDIENCE

                                                                    by Yang Shuangxing

     The “audience”; in this case, observers of various martial arts demonstrations, competitions, and even (Chinese) opera, and street performers, have had a rather profound impact on the evolution (or de-evolution, depending on how you look at it) of our current martial arts.  Let me explain:

      Just after WWII, interest in the martial arts in Japan suffered terribly.  The people, who were suffering unimaginable hardships because of the war laid the blame for the whole thing at the feet of bushido – the warrior's “code”, which the leaders (who had led the nation into war in the first place) had twisted and warped to suit their ambitions.  Enrollment in martial arts classes hit an all-time low, but within a few years, judo began to recover.  Many martial arts leaders of the time figured that this was due to judo's emphasis on its sporting aspect (and personally, I think they were correct).  Kendo began to emphasize a sporting front as well.  The karate leaders, fearing or the survival of their art, looked for ways to conduct competitions that would draw large crowds.

      This led to various changes being made to some of the kata – it was an attempt (and a very successful one) to make the older, traditional Okinawan kata more exciting to watch; this would lead to larger audiences and hopefully, increases in erollment.  The use of side snap kicks (which, so far as I know, do not exist in traditional Okinawan karate) replaced front kicks in many kata.  Side kicks are very infrequent in older Okinawan kata and when they are used, they utilize a side-thrust kick that rarely, if ever, travels higher than the knee.  Front kicks never go higher than the waist.

     The roundhouse kick never appears in traditional Okinawan kata.  First, it was (and still is) felt that such a movement left the groin too exposed and unprotected...and secondly, the roundhouse kick as we know it (which is correctly done with the ball of the foot) didn't exist until the late 1940's!  It was developed by a senior instructor of the Japan Karate Association for use in sparring competitions, thereby adding a new and very exciting element to the mix.  A roundhouse kick of sorts (going by various names, such as the “cutting kick”) were used in some Chinese styles (but never seen in their forms) and Muay-Thai, but it was and still is, performed differently and makes contact with the top of the instep and/or shin...and if you've ever kicked a jaw or elbow with the top of your foot, you can see why the ball of the foot was preferred by the Japanese.  Kicking with the ball of foot is also much more destructive to the target!

     When foot-pads and foam padded mitts were introduced into karate/taekwondo competitions back in the early 1970's, I warned against what would happen...cometitors quickly saw that they could easily kick with the top of the foot (or even the toes) and gain a quick point because the pad extended their reach quite a bit and before long, that's how most schools began to teach the roundhouse kick – so much so that nowadays, the original version (using the ball of the foot) has been almost completely forgotten!

     The original taekwondo forms were actually Japanese kata, since the founder and other leaders of taekwondo had studied karate in Japan (most of them did so while attending Japanese universities).  But with the passage of time the leaders of taekwondo wanted to further distinguish their art from the Japanese model and to this end, kicks in many forms became higher and higher.  This made the forms very exciting to watch; again, this was, in my opinion, done primarily to increase interest rather than improve upon the form's combative value.  And it worked!

     China is a bit of a different story.  Whereas karate, per se, is probably litle more than 400 yrs. Old and taekwondo, per se, didn't come into its own until the end of the Korean War in 1953, Chinese martial ways date back thousands of years.  To better understand all of this, we must first look into the subject of Chinese art (paintings)... 

     One type, known as gongbi (工筆,meticulous”), seeks to render a picture-perfect replica of the subject, whether it's a flower, tree, or whatever.  The other form of painting is called xieyi (寫意, freehand style) and it aims at presenting the essence or spirit of the subject; the observer must utilize his own imagination as he looks at the painting.  The art of Japanese sumi-e is a perfect example of this.  And so it is with many Chinese forms of gong-fu... 

     Numerous gong-fu styles, forms, and movements/postures are named after certain creatures, from tigers to dragons, chickens, monkeys, the praying mantis, and so on (even drunkards).  Some of them aim at imitating, as best they can, the movements of the creature for which their particular style is named.  This would be akin to the gongbi form of painting.  It is my opinion (for whatever it's worth) that such styles imitated animal movements to a lesser degree back in the day.  But people loved watching performers make some of these movements, particularly in the opera and street performances, and so – to attract more paying customers/observers – practitioners began to enhance their forms considerably.  Nowadays, there are enthusiasts who do their level best to imitate, as realistically as possible, the animal movements.  The wiser ones know better, however, and their renditions of their forms/movements are directed more towards practicality than thrilling audiences. 

     The internal style (such as taijiquan, xingyiquan, and baguazhang) are closer to the xieyi form of painting; although they name movements (and in xingyi, even whole forms) after various animals, they make no attempt to imitate the movements of the creatures.  Rather, they seek to emulate the essence of their movements...which usually are a far cry from an accurate imitation.  In fact, they regard accurate, meticulous imitations as incorrect.

 

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Affordable Ideas to Create the Ultimate Home Dojo

by Charlene Rothsafetykid.info

charlene.roth@safetykid.info


If your child has been doing martial arts for any length of time, you already know how valuable it is for their physical and mental well being. That’s why parents are worried about their children missing out on classes while we’re going through the COVID-19 pandemic. If your child is waiting for their dojo to reopen or you’re hesitant for them to attend classes, the obvious solution is to set up a martial arts space in your own home! Naturally, a home martial arts space won’t replace in-person instruction, but it will help them stay sharp. Of course, we know that parents have to be cost-conscious with your spending, which is why we have kept your budget in mind while putting these tips together.

Can you really set up a martial arts space on a budget?


*Shop around to find the right floor mats that fit your budget.

*This DIY wall mirror is cheap to make and is a great tool for self-correction.

*Choosing quality equipment is important for safety and your budget.

*Get estimates for affordable rubber flooring.

*Make sure you know a store’s return policy and that you’re shopping safely during the COVID- 19 pandemic.

*Look for ways to keep your home dojo ventilated, especially during warmer months. *Last but not least, a budget-minded martial arts space can help increase the overall value of your property should you decide to sell.


Want to help your child be their best?


*Set a practice schedule and make sure each session is the right amount of time.

*Use positive body language and supportive statements to help your child stay motivated. 

*Help your child set goals, then give a small reward for achievements.

*You can find family-friendly martial arts movies on your favorite streaming services for an affordable way to encourage your child’s interest.

These educational YouTube channels include awesome ideas for physical fitness.

Make sure your child cleans and disinfects equipment after working out.

Contact instructor Phillip Starr at Yiliquan Kung-Fu for expert advice and training.


With the right space and resources, you can create a home dojo for your family. And with smart shopping and online deals, setting up this space doesn’t have to be expensive. Not to mention, you’re giving your child the tools they need for an effective home practice — and this will serve them long after the pandemic is over.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

As Years Go By…



by Phillip Starr

    In a conversation with an old and dear friend (who, like me, is a long-time martial arts instructor) I asked about several of our mutual martial arts friends.  I inquired about their health, their families, and whether they were still involved in practicing or teaching martial arts.  I was saddened to learn that quite a number of them no longer practice the disciplines that they once embraced; it seems that once they were no longer able to participate in the sporting aspect of the arts, they’d lost interest in them.  And since I lean towards the philosophical side of life, it got me to thinking…

     Most martial arts enthusiasts are rather young, not having yet reached what we call “middle age.”  I don’t have the demographics on this subject but I’d bet that younger children and teens make up the vast majority of today’s martial arts practitioners.  The next largest chunk would be taken up by those who have not yet reached their 35th or 40th birthdays.  And the numbers dwindle dramatically after that…

     The conversation with my friend got me to thinking about the different paths that martial arts enthusiasts travel.  For most, the path is very short.  They practice for a while – some as few as a week or two and others as long as several months or even years – and then they fizzle out.  For one reason or another, they lose interest.  Oh, they come up with some pretty creative excuses but what matters is that they gave up.  You know, it’s okay if you lose interest; it’s perfectly alright if you find that there are other things you’d rather do than throw punches and kicks, and gasp, and bleed.  There’s no need to make up some kind of bizarre story.  Just tell it like it is.

     But the fact is that the vast majority of martial arts devotees just fade away into the sunset, never to be heard from again.  It’s always been that way, and always will.

     For others, it was fun so long as they could enjoy the art as a sport.  They enjoyed the rush of competition, the give and take of a good match.  But life has a way of putting an end to this aspect of martial arts.  It’s called AGE.  And when these folks could no longer compete due to age or any number of other things (such as lack of tournaments in their area), they pooped out.

     Some turned to teaching but even then, for many of them it became little more than a business enterprise.  They no longer trained themselves; the almighty buck became their new sensei or sifu and their love of the martial arts turned bland and sterile.  The objective no longer had anything to do with self-development; instead, it became focused around making money.  Their art and their spirits died for the sake of better business.

     I considered all of this and decided that these people had never really been true martial arts practitioners.  They might have once thought that that was what they wanted but they couldn’t stand the gaff and they quit.

     There are few things in this world that are worse than false teachers, especially false martial arts teachers.  Certainly, age robs us of some of our youthful abilities – I can no longer kick as fast, jump as high, stand as low, or look as pretty as I could when I was a few decades younger – but what counts is that I keep trying.  If I don’t train on my own, how can I expect my students to train on their own?

     Too often I hear older martial arts enthusiasts cry about aching backs, knees, or whatever.  Actually, quite a number of them have not yet reached their 50th birthdays…and they use excuses like aches and pains as reasons for not training.

     Get real.  Don’t you think that the martial arts masters of generations past suffered with the same problems?  Of course, they did!  The difference is that they absolutely wouldn’t give up.  Period.

     And, unlike so many of our current “older” martial arts practitioners who train (minimally) just to maintain health and stay in some semblance of good shape, the practitioners of former generations continued trying to improve their skills even into old age!

     Gichin Funakoshi practiced perfecting his punch while sitting up on his deathbed just one day before he passed away!  Tatsuo Shimabuku suffered from malnutrition as a child and developed beriberi for a time.  This left one leg slightly shorter and weaker than the other.  Kicking with that leg would have been very painful.  If you watch videos of him doing kata, you can’t tell which leg was deformed!

     Bruce Lee was born with one leg shorter than the other and he frequently wore an insert in one shoe.  But you can’t tell which leg was malformed by watching films of him performing his techniques.

     These men and many others like them refused to sit back and whine about their problems.  And they weren’t content to just try to stay “fit.”  They were constantly striving to improve themselves.  And that’s what martial arts is all about.

     It’s not about trophies, making lots of money, or just doing enough exercise to maintain fairly good health.  It’s a thing of the spirit.  It’s about a continual striving towards self-perfection.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

THE CRITICAL INTERVAL

by Phillip Starr

In traditional Japanese swordsmanship there is a poem that tells us,

"To strike the opponent you must have your own skin cut;
To break the opponent's bones you must be cut to the flesh;
To take the opponent's life you must have your own bones broken."

The famous Japanese swordsman, Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi (first son of Yagyu Tajima No Kami Munenori, who was head swordmaster for the Tokugawa shogunate) said, "The different between victory and defeat lies within the distance of one 'sun'." A "sun" is known an Chinese as a "tsun" (or "cun", in Pinyin). It is the measurement of the body inch used by acupuncturists and is generally found by bending the middle finger and measuring the distance between the fold of the first and second knuckles.

It's pretty darned small.

A story is told of a duel in which Jubei participated. The challenger was a samurai of a daimyo whom Jubei was visiting and he asked for a lesson with bokken (wooden swords). Although such "lessons" could easily result in serious injuries, Jubei agreed. Once the swordsmen squared off, the action was quick and the two fighters seemed to strike at each other simultaneously. It was impossible for anyone to really tell who won. The challenger asked for another chance and it was provided, but with the same outcome. Members of the audience swore that the duel had ended in a "hikiwake" (a tie) but Jubei told them that they were unable to discern the true timing of his stroke.

His opponent then demanded that they have another go at it but with shinken (live swords). Jubei tried to talk him out of it but the young man would have none of it. Thereupon, they had at it one more time but this time the challenger's kimono was soaked with blood as he backed away. He collapsed, dead on the spot. Jubei's sleeve had been cut and he suffered a slight wound from his opponent's sword. It was then that he uttered his famous saying about the distance between life and death being no wider than one "sun."

Author Dave Lowry refers to this as "yuyo", which is, I think, called "yaoyan" in Chinese. It means roughly, "critical distance"...the distance between life and death, the very essence of timing and distance (which are actually the same thing). It is mastery of real technique.

If you want to see yaoyan in action, don't go to the next karate, kung-fu, or taekwondo tournament. You won't find it there. In those fiascos, one never sees truly refined, masterful technique. In fact, you'll not see it very often in today's martial arts schools (an unfortunate fact, but true).

However, if you chance upon a traditional school and observe well-trained students practicing three-step or one-step fight, you may get a chance to witness it. The attacker will fire his technique with absolute precision, aiming to just touch the receiver. However, the receiver will shift and execute a defensive maneuver or technique at the last possible moment and fire out his own counter-technique, which, although it is delivered with maximum destructive power, will stop just short of contact. It is directed at a specific target and its timing will be flawless. The attacker, putting complete trust in his training partner, will make no attempt to block or evade the counter-attack. He might blink, but he won't move because to do so might cause him to step into the blow and, even worse, it would show his partner that he doesn't trust him or have much faith in his skill.

Those who have refined this technique even further are capable of applying it during freestyle one-step and freestyle sparring practice.

This is becoming a real rarity nowadays, especially since the advent of the padded mittens and footies that are worn by many, if not most, contemporary martial arts practitioners. Wearing pads and other such protective devices not only inhibits the development of this fine skill, it encourages participants to use brute, uncontrolled technique. Since they're wearing armor they're not overly concerned with running into their partner's attack (and remember - he's wearing pads, too...). Real martial skill goes right down the stool in the name of safety.

I say, "get a grip." It should be understood from the outset that engaging in a vigorous martial arts program is likely to result in many minor injuries (split lips, black eyes, bruises, strawberries, and the like) and the very real possibility of serious ones. It's simply the nature of the beast. I have never used protective gear in my schools and I've been teaching martial arts for almost 40 years. To this day, I've never had a student seriously injured. Not once. It's simply a matter of proper training with the right attitude.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

BABY STEPS

by Phillip Starr

Although the term, "kung-fu" (also, "gongfu"), serves as a generic term for Chinese martial arts, use of the term in that regard is actually a misnomer. As most of you already know, "kung-fu" refers to a fine, high level of skill that is developed over a period of time through hard work. Thus, "kung-fu" can actually be applied to any martial discipline as well as many other activities that require rigorous and regular practice over a period of time.

Throughout the Orient it is understood by most persons who endeavor to train in any martial form that substantial skill cannot be acquired quickly and any teacher who promises otherwise is nothing more than a charlatan whose main interest (and skill) lies in separating a student's money from his wallet. At the same time, there are those who come from the other end of the spectrum and insist that students must practice this or that training routine (and pay for it every month, of course) for an extraordinarily long period of time if he or she hopes to acquire a high level of skill.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle and students must be careful about selecting a good teacher.

In the West we are accustomed to things being accomplished fairly quickly. We have microwaveable meals (which aren't really food....), instant entertainment (just turn on the television), quick diets (which don't work), and so on. When we want something, we want it NOW. When martial arts were first introduced to the West, a number of enterprising instructors realized that a great deal of money could be made by short-cutting training routines and providing forms of "instant martial arts." My own teacher envisioned this happening although his young pupil (moi) just couldn't see it coming down the pike. But it arrived like a thunderbolt and it's here to stay.

No doubt, some of the old, traditional training routines were extremely tedious but they were necessary for the development of genuine martial skill (as opposed to what is presented nowadays as being martial skill). Westerners, being the way they are, sought to find short-cuts through much of what they regarded as "unnecessary, old-fashioned, unrealistic" training. Many honestly believed that they had found ways to shorten the training process but the truth is much different.

My teacher likened the process to making tea. To make tea the old way takes time and any attempt at hurrying the process will only ruin the drink. To be sure, we now have "instant tea" but my teacher couldn't stand the taste of it. There's tea and then there's tea.

Even so, most of those who have undertaken the study of a traditional martial discipline with the understanding that it's going to take time to develop real skill will still often catch themselves "shaving corners" and trying to take "big steps." Such attempts at hurrying the training process and the evolution of genuine skill almost always result in frustration and/or injury.

I knew one young man who wanted to develop large callouses of his punching knuckles. He beat the living bejeezus out of his striking post (which was incorrectly made and was akin to hitting a tree) and mangled his hands...he didn't realize that hardening the hands is NOT the primary objective of training with this particular device, and he finally had to give it up. Of course, he then argued that training with the post was "old-fashioned", unnecessary, and unrealistic.

Another fellow dreamed of being able to execute his form with the same precision, grace, and power as his teacher. He trained his form for 2-3 hours every day, suffering pulled muscles as well as numerous other minor injuries. He ultimately gave up, insisting that forms were "old-fashioned", unnecessary, and unrealistic.

And yet another student envied the uncanny fighting skill of his seniors. He dreamed of becoming an invincible warrior and practiced shadow-boxing and sparring incessantly. When he engaged in sparring practice he often went at it with a bit too much power and the wrong mind-set (he was determined to "win"), so, of course, he often went home with bruises, cracked ribs, black eyes, and many other booboos. He finally gave up, saying that traditional training was "old-fashioned", unnecessary, and unrealistic.


Progress in real martial arts comes in what I call "baby steps"; little steps that are sometimes too small to even measure or notice right away. Regular practice is essential. After all, a toddler will never learn to walk if he or she only tries to do it once in a while. So, if you train (at home) just every now and then, you can be assured that you're getting nowhere. On the other hand, if you're training at home 3 days a week or more and you're taking your time (taking "baby steps"), you can be confident that you're developing genuine skill - and if you keep at it long enough you'll develop real "kung-fu."

Thursday, July 20, 2017

MY TEACHER AND ME

by Phillip “Pete” Starr

Many years ago, I used to write articles about various aspects of the martial arts and send them out to my senior students. Along with those articles, I included a number of anecdotes involving my teacher and me. After some time, one of my students suggested that I collect such anecdotes and put them into book form.

I considered his suggestion; I remembered so many stories and valuable lessons about both martial arts and life from my teacher! Maybe, just maybe...people nowadays would enjoy learning these same lessons! They could actually learn from my teacher!!! I thought that would certainly be a great opportunity, so I set about writing my first book, THE MAKING OF A BUTTERFLY.

Memories flooded my mind. I tried to select anecdotes with a special lesson(s) included. In this way, my teacher could still speak to those willing to listen and learn. Of the five books I've authored, it's still my favorite!


*Available on Amazon.com and fine bookstores.

Monday, May 29, 2017

ETIQUETTE

by Phillip Starr

I would hope that the majority of my readers would be more than a little familiar with the basic forms of etiquette that are typically practiced within the training hall. Students line up prior to the start of class, bow to the instructor, and then begin the training session. The same thing is done at the conclusion of the training period. Most of the participants don't give it much of a second thought. It's simply a way of “showing respect” to the teacher; an “Eastern oddity” that is practiced more as a form of tradition and simple courtesy than anything else. It requires no more than a few seconds, anyway. No big deal. Or...is it?

To the average person, such quaint customs are nothing more than polite gestures that they are expected to learn and then regurgitate at the appropriate time. Usually, they are devoid of any real substance; they are regarded as old-fashioned, cultural oddities that were developed and practiced by our ancestors. However, to the bugeisha (a person who practices the traditional martial ways of the East), they are much more than that. Much. More.

For instance, let's take the beginning of class. Students are ordered to line up. Their lines should be straight and students adopt the position of “readiness.” In some schools, the most senior student (who may assist the instructor) stands off to one side at a right angle to the students and the instructor. Your stance should never look limp or sloppy. Your uniform should be neat and clean. Your body, mind, and spirit are held in a state of readiness. It is a preparation for learning, a preparation to face yourself. Your eyes should be directed straight ahead but peripheral vision must be maintained. You should not shift their eyes from side to side or turn your head. You remain focused on your instructor.

At this point, some schools have the students and the instructor perform a standing bow. Others, particularly Japanese disciplines, order students to kneel down (and yes, there is a special way of doing this) in the position of seiza with the feet tucked under the buttocks. Beginners will find this position more than a little uncomfortable but they must avoid any display of discomfort. To do so is to show that one's spirit is weak and in a martial arts school this is entirely unacceptable.

In Japanese schools the command of “mokuso!” is uttered by the instructor. Students sit quietly with their backs straight and their eyes almost shut. Many people refer to this as a period of meditation prior to the beginning of class but this is incorrect. Rather, it is a period of quiet introspection. It is way of leaving your mental and emotional “baggage” at the door so that it will not interfere with training and your ability to learn. It is a time for focusing on what you want to achieve during this particular class. You “clean” yourself and prepare to receive instruction.

After a short time, the teacher may turn to the front of the school (with his back to the students) and they all perform a formal kneeling bow to the front of school. He then turns to face the students again and they exchange bows to show respect for each other.

As with everything else in the training hall, there is a proper way to execute the standing and kneeling bows. For instance, I remember when I first received instruction in this ancient tradition. We were told that even when bowing, one must not take one's eyes off the opponent (or whomever one is bowing to). Thus, we craned our necks and rolled our eyes upwards when we bowed so as to keep our partners in view. As you might expect, my instruction came from a Westerner who didn't clearly understand how the proper bow is to be done. The first time I did this in front of a Japanese instructor, I was quickly corrected. To crane one's neck and raise the eyes as I was doing is considered very rude because it demonstrates an obvious mistrust of the person(s) to whom one is bowing. Rather, the neck is kept aligned with the back and the eyes are are allowed to drift slightly upwards (without raising the eyebrows) so as to allow a reasonably full view of the other person.

And of course, all movements must be performed from the tanden (in Chinese, dantien) so as to permit complete control over one's body at all times. Moving from this area, which is located about three finger-widths below the navel, not only grants full control over one's physical movements but it also affects one's mental and spiritual stability as well.

Regardless of procedure or the culture from which a given martial form originated, this act of exchanging bows is extremely important. In my opinion, it is vital to maintaining the spirit of the class because it sets the “tone” of the class and reminds us that we are about to engage in the practice of a special Eastern custom whose roots reach back to antiquity. Although not a drop of Eastern blood may course through our veins, we are links in a chain of a very special tradition and it is crucial that we keep that tradition intact so that it can be bequeathed to the next generation in its entirety.

I lived in China which, contrary to what many Westerners believe, is not “the land of bowing.” Japanese culture emphasizes bowing as a form of courtesy; Chinese culture does not. Thus, Chinese martial arts instruction generally does not begin with any kind of formal bowing. The lack of such “old-fashioned formalities” is readily apparent and it is my opinion that it has a negative impact on their training.

A formal training period concludes in much the same manner. Students line up and, in the case of most Japanese martial traditions, kneel down and the command of “mokuso!” is repeated. Students will take a few seconds to consider what they have learned and prepare themselves to re-enter their daily lives. The teacher and students then exchange bows. Students then rise and again adopt the position of “readiness” before being dismissed.

Alright”, you say. “So, this is part and parcel of a martial arts class. It's a cute ritual but what has it got to do with living in the modern world? And the answer is, “More than you suspect.” Discipline and control are two of the key elements.

In this regard, discipline has to do with proper conduct and perhaps more importantly, self-control. The two go hand in hand and they are very important ingredients if you expect to enjoy a successful, satisfying life. These virtues are easy enough to nurture when you're healthy and in good spirits but the real test lies in your ability to cultivate them when you're not feeling well. After all, anyone can maintain a fair level of self-control when they're feeling “up” but it's another story when they're angry, frightened, frustrated, discouraged, depressed, or in pain. Learning to preserve your composure under such adverse conditions requires a fair measure of discipline and is one of the objectives of your training.

The discipline and control that are developed in the training hall should be carried over into your daily life where it will affect everything that you do, from how you stand up and sit down to how you drink your morning coffee, cook up some pasta, and even how you brush your hair. Of course, it also impacts the larger, more dynamic elements of your life such as how your perform your job and the relationship you have with everyone who walks into your world; your co-workers, your boss, your spouse, your friends, family, and ultimately...yourself.



And it all started with what seemed to be a simple bow.