Monday, December 27, 2010

How Much?

      How frequently one should train is a question with which I have often been faced.  Rarely does anyone like the answer they get but after several decades of martial arts training and teaching I feel that I have a firm grasp of what works and what doesn't.
     The first consideration must be this:  What do you expect to get out of training?  That is, why are you training?  It's surprising how many people who are involved (at various levels) in a given martial art cannot answer this question with any real measure of confidence.
    The second consideration is: What sacrifices are you willing to make to achieve the answer to the first consideration?  What kinds of hardships are you willing to endure?
     In our modern society, people enjoy having various hobbies.  Bowling, softball, golf, computer games...there are LOTS of hobbies out there.  So naturally, people often tend to regard and practice martial arts as a hobby.  This is fine as long as they realize that they will never acquire any measure of real skill.  After all, if you like to play the piano as a hobby, you may be able to entertain your friends but face'll never become a concert pianist.
     Other people look to martial arts as a way of keeping physically, and even mentally, fit.  Some want to "get in touch with their inner child" or some such business while others aspire to learn spiritual truths. 
    And other students desire to learn effective self-defense, but they want it now...kind of like microwaving a TV dinner.  Instant self-defense.  Overnight Bruce Lee.
     The point is that if you want to learn real martial arts as opposed to some "quickie" form of self-defense or an exotic method of losing weight or reducing stress, you have to understand that it can't be done quickly or easily.  It takes a great deal of effort and time, and these things will necessarily involve sacrifice and hardship.
     I compare martial arts training to developing flexibility or body-building...or even playing the piano.  If you attend class only once a week, your progress will be very, very slow...if you make any at all.  The ONLY way this can work is if you include at least 2-3 additional practice sessions on your own during the week.  If you do this, and you practice vigorously and seriously, you can make progress.  But if you ONLY practice one day a week, you may as well give realize that you're going nowhere fast.
     After all, if you were training to be a body-builder, you couldn't possibly do it if you lifted only once a week.  You'd very likely injure yourself.  You can't bench press, say, 100 lbs. one week, and then go to a heavier weight the next week unless you build up to it gradually.  That's the way the human body works!
     In stretching, you should stretch heavily only every other day and do light stretches in between - six days a week!  The body needs the "light" days to recover and rebuild from the "heavy" days.  But if you engage in only one "heavy" day a week, how can you possibly get anywhere?
     To learn to play the piano, you learn a basic exercise first.  If you practice it only one day a week, what are the odds of ever being able to play the piano with any measure of skill?  Zip.
     Two classes weekly is a MINIMUM for acquiring skill.  Even so, you must still practice on your own at least 2-3 days per week (outside of class).  If you do this, you can make good progress.  Otherwise, development of real skill will be considerably slowed.
     Three classes per week is ideal, but it may not be possible for your teacher to provide this many classes due to restrictions on the facility, and so forth.  Even so, you should practice on your own at least twice per week outside of class.
    Remember that class time is time for the teacher to present new material and to polish what you've already learned.  If you don't practice on your own, he's continually trying to polish the same techniques over and over because you're simply not ready to learn anything new.  If you tried, you might hurt yourself.
     Even someone who only wants to shed some extra weight knows that it is impossible if they exercise only once weekly or twice monthly.
     An experienced instructor can easily tell if you've been practicing on your own or not.  My teacher would have thrown me out of class if I had not practiced on my own because he felt that one should approach martial arts (training) with the utmost seriousness.  It wasn't a hobby, a game, a way of losing weight, or learning some nifty self-defense tricks.  He saw it as a lifestyle and he lived what he taught.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Listening To The Past

Most martial arts neophytes, and even a good number of advanced practitioners, tend to see martial arts primarily as a sophisticated means of kicking butt.  And certainly, we do put in a lot of time and energy training ourselves to become highly proficient in various types of combat.  But there's much more to martial arts than meets the eye (or butt) and it's important to stop every once in a while and listen to the voices of the past.  If we listen closely and reflect upon what they tell us, we can begin to understand what martial arts are really about...

"To achieve victory in a hundred battles is not the highest skill.  To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill."
                                      -Sun Tzu "The Art of War"

     The most efficient and safest way of winning is to avoid fighting.  Pay attention to what is happening around you and if violence seems imminent, leave.  Avoid frequenting places where violence is common.  
     Captain Kangaroo taught us a great lesson in how to avoid violence and diffuse hostile situations; he taught us "Please" and "Thank You."  Really.  You'd be surprised at the number of potentially violent situations that can be mitigated with little more than a calm, confident demeanor and these two phrases.  Avoiding conflict is the highest skill.  Confronting an opponent and winning without resorting to violence is the next highest level.  Winning through physical violence is the lowest level of skill.
"Mental bearing (calmness), not skill, is the sign of a matured samurai.  A samurai, therefore, should neither be pompous nor arrogant."
                                    -Tsukahara Bokuden

     One of the easiest places to find people who have puffed themselves up with self-importance and pomposity is a martial arts school (or tournament).  Those who possess genuine skill are usually very quiet.

"The obstacle is the path."
               -Zen Proverb

     We often talk about following the path of the martial arts and realizing that the obstacle we encounter have actually been placed there by us.  But consider...the path itself is the obstacle.

"Don't hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting, but never hit soft."
                                 -Theodore Roosevelt

     God bless Teddy Roosevelt!
"Karate begins and ends with courtesy."
                               -Gichin Funakoshi ("Father of Japanese Karate")

     Of course, this doesn't apply only to karate.  It applies to all martial disciplines.  I once had a young man approach me and ask what he would learn first if he enrolled in my school.  I replied, "courtesy."  He was somewhat taken aback at this response but I explained that if he could not or would not learn courtesy, he could never learn martial arts.  One of the great secrets of martial arts lies within the simple concept of courtesy.

"Maximum efficiency with minimum effort." (One of the fundamental principles of judo)
                              -Dr. Jigaro Kano (founder of Judo)

     Too many of us strive to achieve maximum efficiency through maximum effort, using strength against strength and huffing and puffing and pushing and pulling.  Let the opponent give you the victory.  You will not get it by yourself.

"A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind."
                             -Morihei Uyeshiba (founder of Aikido)

     The outside is reflective of the inside.  Moreover, the outside affects the inside.  Sloppy posture or stance begets a sloppy, loose mind...A sharp posture is indicative of a sharp but relaxed mind.

"From white to black belt, you shape the tool.  After black belt, you learn how to use it."

     Very profound.  

"Martial arts are about discipline and the first discipline is showing up for class."
                           -Mr. Carter (A karate teacher)

     Indeed.  Truer words were never spoken.  But there's more to this statement than you might think.  Consider it.

"Knife sharpens on stone.  Man sharpens on man."


"Iron is full of impurities that weaken it.  Through forging it becomes steel and is transformed into a razor-sharp sword.  Human beings develop in the same way."
                        -Morihei Uyeshiba


"Before and after practice or engaging in a match, participants bow to each other.  Bowing is an expression of gratitude and respect.  In effect, you are thanking your opponent for giving you the opportunity to improve your technique."
                       -Jigaro Kano

     Bow.  Always.  And mean it.  There's nothing worse than an empty bow.


"Karate ni sente nashi."
                      -Gichin Funakoshi

     This is often translated as, "In karate, one does not make the first attack."  However, I believe a more correct rendering is, "In karate, one does not make the first move."  There's a considerable difference between the two.
     In the former, the emphasis would seem to be on morality, emphasizing that one should use karate only as a means of defense rather than aggression.  However, I believe that this quote has more to do with tactics.  Whenever a person moves he creates a moment of "kyo" (deficiency, vulnerability), which a skillful opponent may exploit and use to his advantage.  Therefore, it is best to let the opponent move and thereby weaken his defensive posture.

"Kamae is for beginners. Shizentai is for advanced pupils."
                   -Morihei Uyeshiba

     "Kamae" is a formal posture or fighting stance.  "Shizentai" refers to natural standing postures.  The master is saying that beginners feel that they begin from a fighting posture but a truly skilled practitioner can, after much training, present his techniques from any (natural) position.
"Martial arts are intended to prolong life, not shorten it."
                  -Morihei Uyeshiba

     Always remember this.  Think on it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Riding the Crane and Preparing For Class

     A couple of days ago I was reflecting on how classes were conducted in my old Omaha school and I stopped and considered how classes typically began.  Everyone was called to line up (by the beating of two sticks) and then to sit in the formal position known as ho-zo (in Japanese, seiza).  This position is actually on the knees with the feet resting under the buttocks.  The translation of "ho-zo" means literally, "crane-riding" since the ancients thought that this was how one would sit if one ever climbed onto the back of a giant crane and soared into the heavens.  Never having insomuch as even seen a giant crane, I always suspected that this uncomfortable position was actually created by someone who hated human beings and worked lots of overtime to find the most painful positions for them to stand or sit.
     It has fallen into disuse in China; the chair was put into widespread use there a long time ago but the Japanese held onto this formal sitting posture for many generations, largely due to their disdain of things like chairs and other forms of furniture which were raised high off the floor.  Nowadays, most Japanese no longer utilize this form of sitting - it takes a long time to get used to it - but it is still frequently seen in their martial arts schools.
     Many Japanese martial arts schools have students begin in this position, practice a basic breathing exercise, and perform a formal kneeling bow prior to training.  In the old Omaha school, students began in this position and calmed their spirits with a breathing technique before standing up and bowing from that position.  I remember back when I was a student and my teacher(s) said that we should meditate prior to training.  This always confused me.  One cannot really meditate after sitting for only a minute or so, which is about how long we sat.  Over the years, I changed the function from "meditation" to calming one's spirit via breathing techniques, getting "centered", and preparing the mind and spirit for class/training.
     I was recently poring over some old martial arts writing and came across some material from a very famous (now deceased) teacher.  He said that beginning the class with seiza was important because it naturally develops and enhances a spirit of etiquette which, in turn, has a strong impact on how the student approaches training.  It is, he said, a civilized and formal form of sitting/holding oneself and a source of natural etiquette which is imprinted on people's minds. 
     Because proper etiquette is central to correct training, he felt that this form of sitting before class is essential.  "An upright body is related to an upright mind," he said as he explained the importance of having the highest regard and respect for the individual student.   Each student must regard his/her peers (as well as the teacher AND him/her self) with the highest respect if he/she is going to really achieve anything in training.  Each student must maintain a high regard for what his/her teaches as well as his/her own individual training.  It was felt that beginning class in the formal seated position helped students (and teachers) approach the subject of what is about to be taught as well as preparing themselves for class.
     I have to agree.  Certainly, it's not always possible to begin class in this way (when training outdoors, for example), but it's probably best to begin class in this manner whenever possible. 
     I used to study things like how students pre-class attitudes affected their individual training as well as the atmosphere of the whole class, and how this could be altered for the better.  There were a handful of students who, due to injuries or handicaps, were unable to assume the formal sitting position at the beginning of class...but there were FAR MORE who were just plain uncomfortable in it (and often claimed, "I CAN'T sit like this!").  Being uncomfortable and being physically unable to sit in this way are two different things.  And although we giggle as we recall those days, there's a serious side to it -
     Remember the guys (and girls) who NEVER tried to master this position?  Remember how they ALWAYS complained about it and how they'd "fake" it by finding some way around it (they'd sit in a posture similar to, but not exactly like, the correct position).  None of them made it into the senior grades.  Why?  Well, there are many reasons but you can bet that ONE of them involved the unwillingness to endure anything which was uncomfortable.  Another things was usually that instead of doing a movement correctly (which can be uncomfortable at first), they'd "fake" it by doing something similar to it (which was more comfortable)...they didn't learn how to do things correctly because they were overly-concerned with their own personal comfort.  They didn't have the determination, the spirit to learn how to do martial arts correctly.
     The manner in which the students and teachers conduct themselves at the beginning of class directly impacts the spirit of the class, how the training is conducted and material is presented, and how efficiently the students absorb it.  It seems like a small, insignificant thing but it is really very important.  If the beginning of the class is very informal, students will not take training seriously (even if they think they do).  This brings up an interesting point - just when does class begin?
     Class begins when everyone lines up.  This should not be done too casually.  It's an important part of the training/learning process.  If the approach to training is formal and serious, so will the training be and the students will get a lot more out of it.  It's pretty much impossible to begin a class in a casual manner and then try to get serious at some point during the class.  It just doesn't work.  Additionally, students actually expect some measure of formality in a martial arts class; a class which maintains a fairly formal structure actually suffers fewer dropouts than those which apply a more "casual" approach.  At least that's been my observation after more than 40 years of teaching.
     I remember a small aikido class I attended back in college.  The instructor carried a small photo of the founder, Morihei Uyeshiba, into the class and set it up at the front of the room.  At the beginning of class, students and teacher exchanged formal kneeling bows and then bowed to the photo to pay respects to the founder.  Old-fashioned Chinese schools used to do something similar except that in lieu of a photo, they had the founder's name written on red paper at a small shrine.  Sometimes the names of the heads of the system (if the system was very old) were also included.  In China, a name on red paper or a person's name written in red ink indicates that that person is deceased - I once signed a traveler's check in China with a red-ink pen and they refused to take it because they thought that I would be putting a curse on myself....but that's another story.
     This kind of formal structure prior to class adds to the atmosphere, the spirit of the class and the overall approach to training.  It may seem rather foreign to us (as Americans) and even pointless, but there's a good reason for it.
     When I practice at home, I usually begin by sitting in this way and preparing my mind and spirit for training.  It may seem pointless since there's no one here to instruct me and I'm not leading a class, but it impacts my ATTITUDE. 
     Traditional Japanese iaido (art of drawing and cutting with a live blade) is practiced mostly from this position.  When I train at home, I do it as it should be done unless I'm outside on wet, soggy ground.  In fact, in an iaido class, the beginning of class is VERY formal and every little thing has to be done just so - from how you enter the training area to how you sit, how and where you place the sword, how you insert the sheathed sword into your belt (obi) and so on.  Believe it or not, I always begin my own private training in this way - because it has an effect on the SPIRIT of the whole session and the way in which I regard MYSELF as well as my sword.
     I remember when I attended elementary and high school, there were strict dress codes which were enforced by all of the teachers and staff.  Woe to anyone who violated the code and, being just a little rebellious, we loathed it.  But it had value.  Eventually, such codes were largely eschewed because parents complained about them and "student's rights."  So now we have kids attending school in clothes that look like they've been on the losing end of an Asian land war...and their attitudes match their clothing.  You rarely find kids who attend school in nice, conservative clothing getting low grades.
     As outside, so inside.
     We used to end class in the same way - by sitting and calming the spirit and preparing to go back out into the world, and evaluating what had been taught and learned.  Everyone had a chance to calm down and center him/her self before bowing and leaving.  It made a very real difference - not only in how students approached training and how well they absorbed the material and performed, but in numbers of students who regularly attended training.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Dichotomy

     Here's something to consider.  Ask any practitioner of kung-fu, karate, jujutsu, or aikido why they practice their chosen martial art.  Although some will tell you that they do it to stay fit, the vast majority will say that they train for reasons of self-defense.  If you observe the classes in which they participate you'll see that the training is largely focused on practical applications of the various techniques to self-defense situations.  Some training will feature very old and seemingly pointless practice, such as forms...but the instructor can quickly demonstrate how the movements of the various forms can be easily applied on the street.
     Now, those of you who know me know that aside from my daily practice of Yiliquan, I also try to get in some time to practice iaido and kenjutsu.  And I can see the look of confusion on some faces out there...why would the old man practice stuff like that?
     Well, why would anybody?
     I will probably not get up tomorrow morning, throw on a hakama, slip my katana into my obi (belt; sash), and saunter down the road looking to right society's wrongs and being a champion of the downtrodden like the samurai of feudal times.  Nope.  I will likely never (again) get into a sword fight or have to draw my blade and cut down some nasty enemy to intends to do me harm.
     And it is for these very reasons that my practice of iaido is important to me!
     Okay.  Now I see even more confusion.  Why would I practice a highly ritualized, moderately-paced art which has no obvious "street application?"  The fact is that, because iaido has no modern self-defense applications it provides an ideal environment in which to refine my mind and spirit; to strengthen and discipline them.
     Well, isn't this also done in kung-fu training?  And karate, jujutsu, and aikido? 
     Although most martial arts which still retain practical self-defense applications are supposed to emphasize these qualities, the fact is that the majority of one's time is spent developing actual combative skills.  This is jutsu
     In the practice of something like iaido, there is no concern about developing practical combat skill...because it's never going to happen.  I'm never going to have to use my sword in battle.  I can't even practice with a partner because in iaido training one uses a live blade.  And this is the art's greatest attribute!  ALL of my attention can be focused on refining my mind and spirit because I don't have to concern myself with the possibility that I'm ever going to have to use this art in combat.  That is do.
     Everything, from the standing position prior to bowing, to sitting (when my arthritis acts up, I practice standing), to inserting the sword into the belt to the draw and cut and blood cleaning and replacing the sword into the scabbard - everything must be done just so.  It took some time to just learn how to tie the sageo (cord attached to the scabbard) to my belt!
     I sit and relax and focus on correct breathing.  I keep One-Point.  I prepare to rise up and execute the draw...but, no.  Spirit isn't right.  Can't do it yet.  Focus!  Don't think about it.  In trying NOT to think about it, I'm thinking about it's not right.  I can feel that it isn't right yet...
     Focus.  Relax.  One-Point.  Focus.  Focus.
     Zip!  And it happens.  The draw is complete.  Rats.  Cutting edge is off just a hair.  OK.  I still go through the formal, ritualized movements of completing the kata and replacing the sword in the scabbard...
     Now let's try this again.  Relax.  Focus...
     And so it goes, over and over.  I think I can do the first kata known as Shohatto (mae) fairly well now.  It's been a year since I started working on it.  It looks like it consists of only a very few simple movements; come up to one knee and draw the blade out in a horizontal cut, then grasp it with both hands and advance one foot (still kneeling) and make an overhead cut.  Stand up partway and perform the chiburi (blood cleaning) to sling the funk off the blade, then do a "change back" step and re-sheathe the sword.  Keep zanshin and kneel back down.  Sounds simple enough.  And if you watch a master do it, it looks pretty basic.  But like everything else in martial arts, it isn't.  I practice the other kata but this first one has my full attention.  It's the most basic one and has to be mastered before the others can really be done properly.
     So I am a beginner again.  But I know where I'm going and how to get there.
     The refinement of mind and spirit gained from iaido practice is naturally carried over into my Yiliquan practice.  This would no doubt horrify most, if not all, of my kung-fu counterparts...a kung-fu teacher practicing a Japanese martial art (especially involving the sword) to refine his kung-fu?  Ridiculous!  And heretical, too.
     Yeah, well...I also practice a roundhouse kick (which is distinctly Japanese), eat sushi, and teach Japanese-style breakfalls.  I've also borrowed techniques from Muay Thai, learned from fine Okinawan karate masters (as well as Japanese), and use a number of two-man qigong training exercises found in aikido.
     So what?  It all works.  The object is to learn and develop skill
     There is a Japanese story that tells of two young samurai who were good friends.  They were about to embark on their musha shugyo; the travels through which many young warriors took to develop and refine their skills.  They agreed to meet on the bank of the river exactly twelve years later if they survived their quests.
     Sure enough, on that same day twelve years later, the two men approached each other.  However, they had approached the river on it's opposite side and it had flooded.  One man made a spectacular leap which far exceeded the skill of even today's Olympic hopefuls.  His great jump easily carried him over the swollen river.  The other samurai walked downstream a distance and paid a boatman to ferry him across the water.  What it took one man many years to develop was effectively accomplished by the other man for the price of five cents.
     Similarly, if one is interested only in being able to defend oneself, why not purchase a firearm and obtain a permit to carry it?  So, you have to first ensure that your training goals are worthwhile.
     In the ancient art of iaijutsu, there is a saying that tells us, "Kachi wa saya no naka ni ari."  So there.
     For those whose Japanese is rusty, it means, "Victory comes while the sword is (still) in ths scabbard."  Physical skills alone, no matter how refined and strong, are simply not enough.  There is always someone who is stronger, someone who is faster, someone who has a better technique or dirty trick. Goliath had the advantage of strength but David had the advantage of spirit.  Goliath figured he had this little Jewish kid in the bag but David was determined to win at all costs.
     The higher purpose of iaijutsu (and its grandchild, iaido), is to foster the development of the mind and spirit of a warrior; an attitude and strength of character that wins the battle before it even begins.  This is not easy to achieve and requires a great deal of training.  Attitudes of jealousy, greed, anger, selfishness, and hate must be eliminated because they are counter-productive and self-destructive; they inhibit the development of real skill.
     Another story relates how an iaijutsu teacher told his student to sit facing him.  The young man did so and the instructor told him that he was to draw his sword as quickly as possible and attack with all of his strength and speed.  The young man sat in front of the master and prepared to execute his fastest technique, but he could not.  Every time he prepared to move, something held him back.   He knew he would fail.  Finally, he told his teacher that he could not do it; he could find no opening into which he could move.  This is how one wins without emptying the scabbard.
     Now, I'm not necessarily advocating that you begin the regular practice of iaido.  But I hope you can glean something of value from this lecture and apply it to your training.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

No Hurry!

 It seems like I'm always telling you to sit back and watch other students in class so that you can learn what not to do.  Well, this time isn't much different.  Sorry.


    Next time your teacher calls someone up to perform a given form (or maybe even if he does a form himself), pay attention...but today we're not going to be paying attention to the form, per se.

     We're going to pay attention to what happens before the form starts...outwardly.

     We'll call the person doing the form "Elmer."  

     Once Elmer is standing in the spot from which he intends to execute the form, watch him.  Odds are that he'll begin in the proper basic "natural" stance, whether it's "attention" or "informal attention" or whatever.  He'll assume that stance and then almost immediately break out into his form.

     Is that wrong?

     Well, not necessarily.  But it is a bit hurried.  I mean, he's acting as though he's sort of anxious to get it over with.  Like it's an exercise.  Jumping jacks or push-ups or whatever.  And if that's the case; if he really is in a bit of a hurry, then the entire set is bad.


     Because his mind isn't focused and his spirit is scattered.  He isn't really rooted into his form.  He doesn't feel it.  He's just going through the moves like a good robot.  His techniques and stances and such may be technically correct but he isn't really doing the form.

     Let's take a moment to look at the Japanese art of drawing and cutting with the sword which is known as iaido.  Different schools of iaido utilize various kata (forms).  Some use identical or very similar kata and some are very unique to a particular style.  But regardless of which school a given kata comes from, one thing is always true.
     They're short.  Really short.
     I mean the entire kata may consist of the draw, one or maybe two cuts, and then the sword is re-sheathed.  And that's it.  Granted, there are many, many small and subtle movements that must be perfected if the kata is to be performed correctly.  This is something that the "sport" crowd always misses.  They grasp the sword and swing it like a Louisville Slugger and although their high-pitched kiais (which often sound like a cat being sexually molested) and fancy uniforms may make the kata look impressive, it's usually one huge mass of errors from start to finish.

     But that's not my point.  The point I'm aiming at can be seen if you watch a skilled iaido practitioner as he prepares to execute his kata.  Once in the proper position (which is usually kneeling in the case of iaido, but it wouldn't matter if he was standing), he half-closes his eyes and takes three deep breaths.
     You ask if this is done to relax his body?  Well, of course.  But more importantly, it "centers" his mind and spirit.  He breathes down into his dantien (tanden in Japanese/Okinawan) as his posture is made correct:

* Ears pushed slightly up away from the shoulders.
* Sphincter slightly tightened.
* Coccyx slightly tucked forward.
* Feet flat on the floor.
* Shoulders and chest relaxed.

     There's no hurry.  If he isn't ready after three breaths, he can take more.  

     Then when his body, mind, and spirit are ready, the form begins.

     Notice that I didn't say that HE begins the form.  The FORM begins itself...

     He feels every movement and savors each one.  He doesn't try to rush through it like we do when we're hungry and slamming down a Snickers.  He may appear to move quickly but inside, he's taking his time.  Feeling.  Tasting the movements with his body.

     This is very important in iaido if, for no other reason, so you don't muck things up and cut yourself!  But the skilled swordsman never worries about that.  It never enters his mind because he's done the kata so many times and his movements are precise.

     I think this is a lesson we can all take from iaido.  Next time you prepare to practice a form, take three slow, deep, abdominal breaths and "center" your mind and spirit while you root yourself.  Then let the form begin when it's ready.

     No hurry.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Because if you don't, nobody else will, or can, do it for you.   - P. Starr 
Most Yiliquan examinations require that the examinee demonstrate a certain level of destructive power (and belief in oneself) by performing one or two breaking techniques. And so it was a couple of weeks ago that one of our students asked how one should go about breaking boards.
     Of course, he was provided with the usual information; setting up the boards, directing his blow beyond (and behind) the surface of the wood, and striking into the exact center of his target. However, I also gave him a piece of advice which applies not only to being successful in breaking boards, but in being successful in all other aspects of martial arts and life in general.
     I told him whenever I performed breaking techniques in public demonstrations I always pictured myself in my mind successfully executing the break. This simple mental device never failed to enable me to perform a variety of what would normally be very difficult breaking techniques. I have used this same psychological principle many times throughout my life and I believe that it has great value - and in re-reading Maxwell Maltz's famous book (which I picked up in 1966 for the price of one dollar) I see that I have been using many of the principles which he outlined in "Psycho-Cybernetics."

     I think it might be well to do a series of lectures on how some of these principles work and how you can use them to your best advantage.
     The Buddha once said, "As a man thinketh, so he is."
     This statement contains more truth than many people suspect. It tells us that you ARE what you think. Sound kind of metaphysical or new age? It's not. It's very old and time-tested.

     Each of us has certain beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs may or may not be based on the truth - in fact, they're often not based on the truth at all - but that's not the point. The point is that WE BELIEVE THEM. And if you believe in something, then it's true...for you.
     If you believe that you're homely for some reason - maybe your ears are too big, your nose is too pronounced, your lips are too thick or thin, or whatever - then you'll behave according to your belief, convinced that other people also regard you as a poor physical specimen.  You'll avoid them and feel very uncomfortable around groups of strangers. You KNOW they're looking at your huge Dumbo ears or your Pinnochio nose; you KNOW they're whispering to each other about how you you do your best to avoid getting into these kinds of situations. You avoid being around people. Standing up in front of a group of people to give a speech is absolutely terrifying.
     Maybe you're not concerned with being homely. Maybe you think you have other defects. You might perceive yourself as physically weak, mentally slow, or uncoordinated. Maybe you believe that you're no good at mathematics or any one of ten thousand other things.
     And if you believe it's true, then it is...for you. You MAKE it true by believing it. You have, in fact, hypnotized yourself. Consider - hypnotism works because the subject BELIEVES that what the hypnotists tell him or her is true. If the subject doesn't believe in what the hypnotist suggests, the whole thing fails...but if the subject trusts the hypnotist and BELIEVES that what he says is true, the subject will then behave accordingly.


     If the hypnotist tells the subject that his hand is resting on a hot stove the subject will exhibit signs of severe pain and the skin may actually blister! There are many similar examples but I think you get my point. 

     You will behave according to how and what you believe about yourself.

     Some time ago, I wrote about an old student of mine named John. John had (and still has) an absolutely devastating punch. Many years ago when he worked at a meat-packing plant he was attacked by a large hog. Now, a full-grown hog can weigh as much as 250 lbs. but John brought it down with a single punch to the forehead (the thickest part of the hog's skull).
     Anyway, I once convinced John that the inch-thick board he was holding was actually a piece of extremely hard oak. I spent a couple of minutes talking about how strong this wood was - how he could probably park his car on it - and when he tried to break it, HE FAILED! Not once, but twice!
     Then when I told him that I was just "funnin'" him, he split it without any effort at all.
     There's a lesson to be learned here (and John not only learned it; he mastered it)...that you will behave according to what you believe. John believed the board was too hard for him to break and, appropriately enough, he failed! Yet, when he realized the truth, he succeeded easily.

     So, how can you begin to change yourself? First, you have to realize that you already have an "image" of yourself, one that you have created and based upon past experiences and current beliefs. At the present time, you act in accordance with this image because it is how you perceive yourself...regardless of whether or not it is based on truth.

     Many, many years ago I used to simply sit back, close my eyes, and imagine myself executing a given form flawlessly. I was having trouble with some of the postures and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't perform them properly. I decided to "see" what they would look like if I DID do them correctly, so I sat back, relaxed, and "saw myself" doing them perfectly.
     To my great surprise, I found that I was able to perform these movements very efficiently (albeit not perfectly...not yet, anyway) in a very short time!  It was as if I had physically practiced them many, many times although I had only exercised them in my mind!  This, I realized, was a wonderful principle that wasn't well-understood by most martial arts practitioners.

     Later, I realized that this same principle could be applied to almost every facet of life - not just martial arts.

-More Next Time-

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


"May not a simple bow be compared to the Tao ("way")? That which is high is made low, and that which is low is raised up."

     If you think that courtesy doesn't necessarily have much to do with your personal security, you're right...for the most part. However, there's much more to courtesy than meets the eye.
     Some forty years ago, one of my (martial arts) teachers told me, "Only someone who possesses real spiritual strength can be truly courteous." Truer words were never spoken although the profundity of this statement was lost on me for many years. Real courtesy is more than just a verbal expression or a physical gesture; it has to come from the heart and spirit. False courtesy is like a doughnut; lots of sweetness around the edges but empty in the center.
     Genuine courtesy is a way of saying "I care", and it is felt by the one who gives as well as the one who receives. It is an expression of your consideration for (the feelings of) someone else.
     Sadly, today's modern society often deemphasizes the importance of courtesy and proper manners. Instead, it would seem that we are often encouraged to place our own desires, concerns, and egos before the consideration or welfare of others. The emphasis is on me instead of we.
     In my grandfather's day, a handshake was often accompanied by a slight bow. Nowadays, we tend to think of bowing as being peculiar to the cultures of the Orient but it used to be quite common in both Europe and America. No one ever left the dinner table without an "excuse me" and Captain Kangaroo taught us all to use the magic words of "please" and "thank you"; a lesson which has remained with me to this very day. In my years as a peace officer I was able to diffuse many volatile situations through the use of the Captain's magical words.
     But there's another side to courtesy that many people miss. A person's character can often be seen in the way he or she employs, fails to employ, or makes a special show of employing...manners and courtesy. A person whose spirit falters in the face of hardship or who places herself above everyone else cannot be truly courteous. In both cases, the individual is primarily concerned with herself and she has no room for consideration of others.
     Take the handshake, for example. A person's character may be detected in his or her handshake. Some handshakes may be compared to wringing out a pickled herring. Others are akin to grasping the cold, metal, lifeless hands of one of the bronze statues on our campus. There are those handshakes which are devoid of spirit and those which are aggressive and overbearing. And then, of course, there are those that are firm and sincere; gestures of courtesy that are presented by people who, because they possess real spiritual strength, have no fear of being honest and open .
     Next time you're out and about, take note of the way people treat each other. If you look closely, you can see into their hearts.

Monday, October 25, 2010


     A question which we seldom ask ourselves but which is all-important to our progress in martial arts (or anything else) is, why are you here?  Why are you doing this?  It is a question which we could readily answer back when we first began training, but after we've been involved for some time we forget about it...and that can lead to problems.  It's important to ask ourselves "why" periodically.
     In the past, I've mentioned various reasons why people first become involved in martial arts.  For instance, some want to get into better physical condition.  Frankly, a good aerobics class will do them more good in the short term.  Some aerobics and some weight training will work wonders for improving one's level of fitness.  Most people who start martial arts just to get fit give up shortly after they start.  Did YOU start training mainly to get fit?  WHY haven't you given up yet?
     Then there's the people who want to learn self-defense.  I used to tell these people that good basic defensive skills could be acquired in about six months.  Were you one of these?  If so, have you been training for more than six months?  If so, why?
     Some people just want to "learn martial arts."  It's a perfectly valid reason, but I can't say exactly what it is.  What do they mean?  WHY do they want to learn martial arts?  Is this your reason for starting training?
     Here's something new to add to your regimen.  Sit and write down just WHY you are currently practicing martial arts.  It may surprise you; you may not be able to express it in words.  But don't get up until you've written it down.  It's important that you know WHY you're doing it.
     Add a list of your strong points to your paper.  That is, strong points insofar as training and practice are concerned.  This should include not only things that you do well, but aspects of your character that benefit your training.  This helps you see how you really view yourself.
     Also make a list of obstacles which you have overcome (that you remember).   Do you recall just HOW you overcame them?  If so, write it down. 
     Now add a list of your weak points; weak areas of your training (things you need to improve), and aspects of your character that have a negative impact on your training.  Next to each one, write down what you intend to do to overcome each weak point or negative aspect.  You need to know where the chinks in your armor are, and you need to have an actual plan to overcome them.
     In a few months, review the paper and write up a new one with the same items.  See if they've changed.
     It's important to know how you view yourself; your strengths and weaknesses.  You need to know WHY you're doing this; what you intend to get out of it, where you are, and where you're going.  I think the majority of students have no idea where they're going.  They're like small boats out in the middle of an ocean being tossed about aimlessly by the the winds and waves of circumstance.  They have no oars or motor...they are helpless because they don't have a destination. 
     Too often we allow "life" to distract us from our goals.  We use it as an excuse; a  crutch upon which we lean our weaknesses.  "I failed because...."  Nobody ever wants to admit that it's their fault.  But it usually is. 
     A word of matter what goal(s) you ever set for yourself, things will get in the way.  What counts is whether or not you have the fortitude to grab the bull by the horns, face the obstacles, and overcome them.  If you don't, you never had a chance of success in the first place.  But if you try, you'll find lots of people out there who are anxious to help you.  Your instructor is one of them.  But you have to be willing to try and do whatever is necessary to overcome the obstacles.  Ultimately, the decision is yours.  Only YOU can make yourself better.  No one else can do it for you.
     I used to look at various martial arts figures for inspiration.  Masutatsu Oyama, founder of the Kyokushin style of karate, began his journey from Korea (his real name was Choi Yung Li).  He aspired to be a pilot in the Japanese military during WWII (!!!), so he went to Japan.  Sadly, he found that the Japanese weren't going to allow a Korean to become a fighter pilot.  He was an unwanted Korean, alone in a foreign country.  He managed to get a job driving a delivery truck.  It didn't pay squat.  But he saved his money until he could get into the university and it was there that he first saw a karate class being led by the legendary Funakoshi Gichin.  He fell in love with the art.
     Even the, his troubles weren't over.  He killed a man in a barfight (the squabble involved the affections of a young lass) and he also became involved with a group which supposedly wanted to unify Korea, but which turned out to be a den of thieves.  It was strongly suggested that he disappear for a while, so he went into the mountains and lived there, penniless, for three years.  When he came back down, his skill was extraordinary and he founded the Kyokushinkaikan, which became one of thw largest karate organizations in the world.
     But think about it.  He came to a foreign land that was prejudiced against him.  He could only get a crummy job which barely paid enough to live on, he got into trouble with the law...and he became one of the world's best-known karate teachers and was actually adopted by the nation which had formerly rejected him.  He even took a Japanese name.
     Sun Lutang was orphaned at a very young age.  A pre-teen, he lived on his own in Beijing and tried to make a few pennies by selling hog bristles which were used to make brushes.  That means that he had to climb into the hog pens and collect them by hand.  He was starving and decided to end it all by hanging himself.  But he even screwed that up, and a passerby cut him down.
     He was about 10 kliks below down and out until he saw a Xingyi teacher leading his students through some basic exercises.  He determined to learn that art and began training.  Later, he heard of a strange art known as Bagua, and walked to the other side of Beijing every day to attend class!  The rest is history.
     Morihei Uyeshiba (founder of Aikido) was sickly as a child and very weak.  After surviving his youth, his father set him up in a business to help him begin life.  He failed and the business closed down.  He was broke.  However, he determined that that type of business wasn't suited to him and he moved into the north to help build a small community.
     Even after he developed aikido, he was very poor.  He refused to collect tuition for classes, so his wife would do so in his stead.  In time, he became one of the greatest martial artists who ever lived.
     There are literally hundreds of examples.  Ed Parker was an unwanted Mormon kid who got beat up regularly.  Funakoshi Gichin was a schoolteacher who was sent to Japan (where Okinawans weren't held in the highest regard) to demonstrate karate.
     Kind of makes your problems look small, doesn't it?  It always did to me.  Still does.  When things get tough, I think of these people.  I think of the people I met in China and the unbelievable level of poverty I witnessed there.
     But each of these people made a conscious decision about what they wanted to do.  They knew where they intended to go and worked towards certain goals.  And although we remember them, there are literally millions of others who didn't make it... As I used to tell my students, "The world is full of failures.  Do not seek to add to their numbers."
     Success isn't based on luck.  Failure isn't due to a lack of it.  There's no such thing as luck one way or another.  Cause and effect.  Success comes to those who set a goal and then move towards it; to those who refuse to give up and who will struggle to overcome any and all obstacles that get in the way.  Failure and mediocrity comes to those who don't.
     Which way do you want to go?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Battle in the Mind

     The young warrior slogged through the thick mud created by the evening rain. Today would be the big battle; surely he would bring honor to his family by serving his lord and dispatching several enemy soldiers. At his side he proudly carried his father's broadsword; a very fine blade forged by one of the best swordsmiths in the province.

     As his troop marched down onto the plain, they were greeted by a terrifying sight. The enemy forces were much larger than they had anticipated and very well armed. With an ear-splitting scream, the enemy line charged forward with weapons drawn. Their faces were as faces of demons and the young warrior could see the sun flash off the blades of their swords. He drew his sword but then felt his legs weaken. His hand were wet with the perspiration of fear and his stomach seemed to knot itself into a ball about the size of a small nut. His eyes opened wide but he could not scream in fear. Instead, he threw down his weapon and ran; ran back to the safety of the ridge from whence they'd come, ran for the safety of home.......

Fast forward 300 years...

    The young Marine walked in a skirmish line through the dense jungle, his M16 locked and loaded. Quiet. Got to be quiet. He glanced up at his friend who had taken the point, advancing slowly and very carefully, looking for trip wires and pits. The enemy was in this place, somewhere. He could feel them.

     His silent world exploded into a thousand pieces when the first burst of enemy fire took down the soldier walking point. The Marine dove to the ground and felt as though he'd like to burrow underneath the roots of the trees. The noise was deafening. The screams of the wounded and dying filled him with terror. Maybe if he just burrowed down, they wouldn't see him. They'd miss him. He left his rifle on the ground and tried to burrow deeper, trying to get away from the screams...

     Pretty sorry writing, I know, but it's my blog and I can do what I want. So there. Phththth!

     The point I'm trying to make is this; one may be armed with the best of weapons but the weapon is only as good as the man using it. Without his help, it is useless and he might as well enter the fray with a twig. In the martial arts, we spend a great deal of time working on our weapons. Our bodily weapons. We build them from scratch as beginners and as we progress through the different levels of training, we temper them. We harden, sharpen, and polish them. We practice regularly so as to keep them in the best condition possible - who would want to go into battle with a rusty sword or a dirty rifle that hasn't been cleaned or oiled for a month?

     Certainly, our weapons are important. However, if our minds and spirits are not equally strong; equally sharpened and polished, our weapons will be of no use. Our bodily weapons are useful only insofar as actual physical combat is concerned...aren't they? How often will we need to use them? Did you use any of them last week? Last month? Probably not.

     However, the mind is also a weapon of sorts. When was the last time you used that weapon? Probably quite recently. Not only is the mind a weapon unto itself, it also controls the other (bodily) weapons. It is the stone upon which our bodily "swords" are sharpened and polished. The spirit is the forge in which we create these blades.

    As the two stories above illustrate, one may possess very fine and strong weapons but if the mind or spirit is in disarray the weapon is useless.  Many martial arts practitioners miss the point of various parts of training. They don't understand them or see their significance, so they tend to disregard them. Some teachers have gone so far as to toss out some parts of traditional training, declaring them to be "unrealistic" insofar as developing real fighting skill is concerned.

     This is unfortunate because it has brought about an over-emphasis on the development of bodily weapons which, as we know, are worthless without the development of the mind and spirit.  The old traditional ways have survived the test of time because they are tried and true. They were developed by men (and women, too) who had actually used their skills in life and death conflicts and for this reason they should not be carelessly discarded, especially by persons who label them as "unrealistic" or "unnecessary" -persons who have never looked death in the face.

     From the bow to the training hall to the line-up of class, to the kneeling bows and the beginning breathing exercises prior to class...these things may seem unimportant, "unnecessary," and "unrealistic", but they are, in fact, ways of training the mind and spirit which impact one's physical skills. They teach us to maintain center, to calm the spirit, and to maintain a constant state of what would be called "zhengxin" ("zanshin" in Japanese) which means roughly, "continue mind/heart/awareness."

     The mind must be taught to remain calm at all times, even in times of great physical stress. It must remain calm (and thereby keep the body calm) so that it can maintain full awareness of what is going on around it. In Japanese, this is called "mizu no kokoro" which means roughly "mind like water." A pool of clear, calm water will accurately reflect any image put before it. However, if pebbles are thrown into the pool, ripples arise and distort the image. The larger the pebbles, the larger the distortions.

Thoughts act as pebbles thrown into the pool. Fear acts like boulders thrown into it. The image becomes so distorted as to be unrecognizable.

     The mind is taught to be remain calm by focusing on correct breathing and maintaining one-point. At all times. In bowing, kneeling, standing up...and then while facing a training partner who will attack with a full-tilt boogie punch in the practice of one-step fighting. This is not something that is achieved after only a handful of lessons; it takes some considerable time and a great deal of practice.

     As training progresses, one faces a partner who will attack with an unspecified technique (freestyle one-step) at a time of his or her choosing. The attack is real but the student does not know when it will come or what it will be. If his/her mind becomes cluttered with thoughts and anticipation; if the pool's surface is broken by rocks thrown into it, he/she will not respond correctly or smoothly. He/She is not "keeping one-point."

     This same mind is to be maintained in the practice of forms. At first, the student struggles simply to remember the set. However, once that is done (and it cannot be achieved quickly), the form is to be done correctly - which often means with destructive power - while the mind remains calm and centered. This state can be called "buxin" (aka. "mushin") which means literally "no mind" or "without mind," or "without conscious effort."

     In the practice of traditional Japanese kyudo (art of using the bow), there is great emphasis on tradition and many beginning students give up because they fail to understand the importance of these seemingly "unnecessary" actions. For instance, one takes only so many steps in approaching the position from where one will shoot the bow. The bow must be held at a certain angle (!) as the arrow is nocked...everything is measured out very precisely.

     In the training of traditional Japanese iaido (art of drawing and cutting with the sword), there would seem to be many unnecessary facets. One must move the saya (scabbard) and grip the tsuke (handle) just so. Initial emphasis is on exact precision rather than lightning speed or power.

     Students may think me mentally decrepit when I say that these arts and the other traditional martial arts are not so much geared for teaching fighting skills to be used in combat as they are for training the mind, which is the greatest weapon. The sword cuts through our weaknesses. The arrow is launched into ourselves. In kyudo, the object is not so much to hit the bull's eye as it is to perform the action correctly. Hitting the bull's eye will come along later, but even if it doesn't, that's alright...because the object of the training is not really intended to make you a deadeye archer.

     This same kind of training can be applied to baguazhang's practice of walking the circle - where you aren't training (or at least you don't seem to be training) with the various postures and techniques - you're just walking the circle, round and round, going first one way and then the other......the mind must be trained first. It will train the body.

     Yiliquan students are, from the first few training sessions, told that they must learn to always keep one-point; walk, stand up, sit down, lie down, run...everything from one-point. This allows them to learn to control every movement with great precision and they are provided with physical exercises to assist them in learning to do it. However, the best exercise is to use the mind. The mind is what "keeps one-point"; not the body.

     As an aside, many years ago I had (still have) a good friend who was a female homicide detective with the Omaha Police Department. She often visited my school because I had an acupuncture clinic there and her back often caused her pain. She attended a chigong seminar which I held for my students and I spoke about "keeping one-point" and using it in everything you do. After the class, she asked me about using this concept in her practice of combat shooting. Her qualification scores had always been fairly low and she needed to improve her skills.

     We talked at some length about it and I taught her the basic concepts behind it. She took it to heart and practiced regularly and one day she came in to tell me (with a huge smile) that she had scored very high on her qualification course. She said she'd used the principles she'd learned in the training hall...the principles of the sword also apply to using a handgun.

     The bulk of our training is directed towards training the mind and developing a strong spirit. In the process, we might also develop a strong punch or a lightning kick, but that isn't necessarily the object. I had taught this young lady that the concept wasn't necessarily to hit the center ring of the silhouette target (a statement which really confused her at first); the object was to perform the technique - from the adoption of the stance and body posture to the draw and presentation of the weapon correctly. Do it as if it were a traditional martial art (it really is a modern martial art). Doing all of these small things very precisely was the object. This would train the mind. She had to keep one-point throughout the process and every tiny movement had to be broken down and practiced individually before moving on to the next. It was something like doing a short form. Over and over she had to practice until her mind remained calm and centered...until there was no"thought" of the weapon and no"thought" of he target. No feeling of "I'm now drawing my weapon...." No concern about hitting the silhouette or even the paper. Something like modern-day kyudo.

     And it worked.

     Next time you go to class or even practice on your own, keep these things in mind. No pun intended. By keeping them in mind, you will be able to keep them out of mind.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Seven Years For The Foundation

     Last April marked my fifty-fourth year in the martial arts. I recall looking through a copy of my first book, The Making Of A Butterfly, and thinking back to my early days of training under Master W. Chen.  I remembered something he'd said that made me wonder if I would be able to continue training in the Chinese martial arts.

     I was in the throes of a religious experience - that is, I thought I was seeing God - as I was doing my best to hold the "ma" (commonly known as "ma-bu", but more correctly called "chi ma-bu", or or "horse-riding stance"). My legs were on fire and shaking like a jackhammer, and I could hardly keep my back straight and breathe correctly. I collapsed, of course, but I resolved to get right back up and continue the exercise. And within a few seconds my legs gave way again.

     Sifu Chen stopped me and told me about the vital importance of learning the "ma", of building a solid foundation. He told me that the first seven years of training were devoted to this end.


     Yep. He said it calmly, as if it was a fact that everybody knew and accepted. I couldn't imagine continuing this kind of training for seven years! But that's what he meant and that's exactly what I ended up doing.

     Oh, sure - I was taught many other things during that time. I learned all kinds of techniques and forms and two-person exercises and joint techniques and throws and...lots of stuff. But the emphasis on the ma was always there. I can't count the number of times that I listened to lectures about the importance of it.

     I figured that if it was important enough for sifu to constantly lecture us about it, it was something I'd better practice. A lot. And I did. Eventually, I came to understand its value. This isn't something that can be completely understood just by reading or thinking about it. It has to be practiced - physically experienced over an extended period of time. That's the only way to "get it", to acquire the knowledge and ability that comes as a result of such painful practice.

     The reason I thought about it was because my editor had sent me a copy of a little blurb they were putting on the back cover of my book. It's a quote from the book about learning the "ma." I thought about how long it had been since I'd first started training and then noticed another line they'd put on the cover - that I'd been training for about 50 years (at the time the manuscript was sent in, it was only 48 1/2 years) and I was stunned. I guess time flies when you're having fun.

     But even after five decades of practice (part of which passed before I met Sifu Chen), I have to say that he was absolutely right. Without the proper foundation, learning real martial arts is impossible.

     Building a strong "ma" doesn't necessarily mean that you only practice standing in a horse-riding stance for a certain length of time each day; it also has to do with learning how to step, how to shift your weight and move, how to stand in other stances (although the "ma" is the mother of all stances), how your breathing affects your movement, how your yi (intention) affects your movement, how to maintain balance when standing still and moving...lots of things. But they all have to do with the foundation. The "ma."

     I remember back when beginning judo students were made to spend most of their practice time learning not only ukemi (breakfalls), but the basic stance (jigotai). It's kind of a second cousin to the "ma." Students practiced shifting and stepping in this position. Times have changed; I don't think most modern judoists have ever in so much as even heard of this posture.

     There's no question that the vast majority of contemporary kung-fu (and karate) practicioners have ever practiced the "ma." They may know what it is, alright - but they don't "have" it. They can intellectualize about it but they have no real foundation.

     Sometimes I hear internal stylists argue that they don't use the horse-riding stance very much, if at all. That's fine. "Ma" literally means "horse" (as well as other things), but the term "ma" when it's use in conjunction with fundamental stance(s) simply refers to the style's most basic way of standing. In xingyiquan, baguazhang, the basic stance is "sanzai" (aka. "san tsai"). That's their "ma." In taijiquan - well, it depends on who you talk to...some would say they do have a horse-riding stance (it appears in Commencement) while others use the "sanzai" stance...whatever. The point is that they do have a single, fundamental stance.

     The problem is that most martial arts enthusiasts nowadays don't practice their "ma" anymore. In many cases their teachers don't (and probably never have), either. The teacher is sometimes afraid that if he makes students engage in such uncomfortable training, they'll quit - and that means loss of income. So they don't make students do it anymore. And now we're seeing the results - martial arts practitioners who have no real power, no real skill. No "ma."

     I remember that my sifu used to insist that if we stood in the "ma" every day, our vital energy (chi) would eventually sink down to the dantien and we would be able to express great power. I couldn't imagine how this was possible. How could standing in this painful position accomplish that?

     And he said that unless we built a solid "ma" we'd never be able to emit real power. We'd have no true strength. That confused me, too.

     But he was absolutely right. And after watching the development of martial arts over the last fifty years, I must say that this old time-tested training method needs to be re-emphasized.

     Practicing the "ma" has a positive impact on both physical and mental health, too. Many years ago, kung-fu teachers in China would often recommend it as a sort of therapy for a variety of ailments, especially for problems with the stomach and intestines. It was prescribed for some respiratory sicknesses, too.

It's an excellent tool for developing a strong yi (intention) and spirit. Try standing in it for ten or fifteen minutes and you'll understand why.

     Most Westerners dislike this kind of training. They want to jump right into the martial arts and get into the "meat" of it. They fail to see how standing in some static posture or doing boring drills like "walking the square horse" are going to help them become superior fighters.

     But they do. It just takes time. You can't hurry the process. You have to learn patience, you have to willing to endure great discomfort, and you have to develop an iron will.

     For seven years.