Monday, July 26, 2010



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are nothing compared to what lies within us."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

"It is better to be prepared for an opporunity and not have one than to have one and not be prepared."
Whitney Young Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Think about it. Masutatsu Oyama's real name was Choi Yong Li. He was Korean. He went to Japan in hopes of becoming a pilot during WWII, but the Japanese wouldn't hear of a Korean flying one of their fighters and he was turned down (fortunately for us). The Japanese have never been very fond of Koreans and the young man had difficulty even finding a job. He made money as a "milkman" driving a delivery truck and managed to get into the university. It was there that he saw Gichin Funakoshi teaching a karate class and he fell in love with the art.
     After several years and superhuman effort (which included living on a mountain for three years), he established his own karate system and developed the Kyokushinkaikan which became one of the largest karate organizations in the world! He was adopted by the Japanese people and took on a Japanese name.
     And it all started out driving a delivery truck and scrounging for meals.

"It never occurred to me that I couldn't do it.  I always knew that if I worked enough, I could."
Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics

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

"Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity."
Oprah Winfrey

     Jigaro Kano, founder of modern judo, was a schoolteacher who was highly skilled in jujutsu and who dreamed of bringing the art into the schools and into the modern sports arena. It is now the only martial art represented in the Olympics.

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

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

 Part 2 next week...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


     Most of us have seen a photograph of the “Father of Japanese Karate”, Gichin Funakoshi. Sitting in a very straight posture, he is dressed in formal Japanese attire, holding a fan and looking rather severe. He is a revered figure in the martial arts; the man who brought karate from Okinawa to Japan and single-handedly nudged it into the curriculum of most major Japanese universities. Initially, the Japanese were more than a little wary of this “brutal” martial form from the “backwoods” of Okinawa but Funakoshi managed to develop it into a very popular activity, which was eventually accepted as one of the Japanese budo (martial ways).

     Few martial arts enthusiasts ever stop to consider other aspects of the old master’s life – the difficulties he encountered and the "tolls" he paid as he traveled the path of the budo. For instance, when he was training in Okinawa he would go to his master’s house at night, walking along a dirt path through a dense forest (read, “jungle”). It was so dark that the moonlight didn’t illuminate the trail and he usually carried a lantern to light the way. Arriving at his teacher’s home, he would train for 2-3 hours and then return home to catch about 3 hours of sleep before having to go to work the next day.

     When he first began teaching in Japan he made extra money by working as a gardener at the university. He was provided a single-room apartment at the school. His wife had stayed in Okinawa, knowing that she would only be a burden to him as he scraped along for the first few years. Later, his two sons would join him but his wife stayed in Okinawa and although he wanted to go back to see her, he was never able to do because the popularity of karate kept him extremely busy.

     Think about that for a while…he lived alone in a single-room apartment and eked out a living doing whatever menial jobs he could find at the university.

     Then WWII arrived. Most of his students joined or were drafted into military service. Ultimately, his beautiful dojo, which had been built for him by his dedicated students, was fire-bombed by the Allies. Most of his students died in battle…and that doesn’t include one of his sons, who also perished during this terrible time.

     He was left with…nothing. During the Allied occupation, he continued to teach – and lost his other son to starvation – and still, he produced some of the finest karate masters the world has ever known.

     None of this, however, is reflected on his noble face in the famous photographic portrait of Funakoshi.

     Most of us have also seen photos of Jigaro Kano, the founder of modern judo. Kano was very sickly as a youth and took up jujutsu to improve his health. In the process, he became one of the greatest educators of all time and some of his writings about education are still studied today.

     But before he became so famous, he taught his new art, judo, in a small and rather old and rickety gym. He and a handful of his senior students would often wriggle into the crawlspace beneath the gym’s wooden floor and repair it with wooden props so that it would stand up to another day’s training!

     Aikido’s legendary founder, Morihei Uyeshiba, was a total flop as a businessman. He tried running a print shop but it went belly-up within a couple of years. In the ensuing years, he (and his wife) often endured times of extreme hardship – not having any heat in their tiny home or dojo, going without proper food and other necessities.

     I could go on and on with similar stories involving other well-known martial arts personalities…but what matters isn’t so much what hardships each one endured; it’s the fact that they DID endure it and continued to move forward with their training instead of throwing up their hands and giving in. They had come to understand that there are “toll bridges” on the path of the martial arts and anyone who travels that path will eventually have to ante up and pay the price from time to time.

     Those who have been on the path for a while understand that there’s really no end to paying these tolls…and they have come to expect it every so often. We have decided to set out upon a way that is very severe. Rather than being congratulated for having made it over a particularly difficult stretch, we find ourselves inundated with more techniques to master, more forms to practice. And the further travel, the more demanding it becomes. The slightest error, the tiniest lapse in attention is brought into view for everyone to see. Our weaknesses and faults are laid bare before us.

    And if we continue to press on to the point where we feel certain that our teachers and seniors will no longer pour criticism upon us, we find that we are expected to turn inward and examine ourselves from within. We must look not only at our technique but our lifestyles as well and impose even more hardships upon ourselves, seeking a level of discipline that is known to only a few.

     In Japan this severe form of self-discipline is known as shugyo. It is also sometimes known as hiya meshi o michi (the way of eating cold rice). If you’ve never eaten cold rice, it’s an interesting experience…but it certainly isn’t tasty. The idea is that a bowl of cold rice can make us realize that even the most fortunate of us must occasionally suffer. Although it may not be a pleasant meal it is every bit as sustaining as warm rice – and this is much like the martial ways. They are disciplines that are stripped of self-indulgence and ego, both of which are things that destroy the ability to travel the martial path.

     The budoka (martial arts person) accepts cold rice because he or she sees it as a way of building discipline and learning to appreciate “hot rice” when it is available. Eventually, we can learn to appreciate the cold rice as well and when we can do that, we can accept whatever curves life throws at us.

     Our martial forefathers endured and suffered much. They often consumed plenty of cold rice and they did so without a complaint, without blaming anyone, and knowing that it would sustain them and even make them stronger. Can we do any less? Those who would travel this path must do so knowing full well that from time to time, they’re going to have to sit down to a bowl of cold rice.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


As Years Go By…

    In a recent 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, July 3, 2010


    Some years ago there was book written which was entitled, "Everything I Ever Needed To Know About Life I Learned In Kindergarten."  It was a beautiful little book and it held true to its title.  The author spoke of learning about things like courtesy and consideration, sharing with others, and my favorite part - milk and cookies followed by a nap.

     Four years ago at the First National Yiliquan Seminar I made a statement which, I think, came as something of a surprise to many participants - but only because they'd never thought about it - I said that the whole core of the system (and probably most martial disciplines) is taught within the period we know as "basic training."  And as they all took time to think about that statement they all realized how true it is.  
     This statement doesn't indicate that we necessarily master the many things we learn as beginners; rather, it means simply that we are told about them, shown how to perform them, and encouraged to practice them every day.

     Which most students don't.

     Thus, the "mysteries" of the art remain as mysteries because so few martial arts enthusiasts neglect their daily practice and fail to look deeply into the art.

     But consider what is shown to beginning students of Yiliquan (and those of you who practice another martial form can list the "core" items that are taught to beginners in your respective arts):

* Courtesy (It's the very first thing I teach a student)
* Basic Techniques (The most basic techniques upon which all other techniques are built.)
* Basic Body Actions and Body Mechanics (which provide power to the basic techniques)
* Proper Breathing (provides power to the techniques and enhances overall balance)
* Basic Stances (how to stand in a balanced manner)
* Basic Stepping Methods (footwork - how to move from one stance to another)
* Moving From One-Point
* How To Fall (breakfalls - there's more to this than meets the eye)
* Fundamentals of Qigong (4 Principles and basic exercises)

     You'll notice that the items listed above are all interrelated; they "dovetail" into each other although a beginner cannot see how this is possible.  Senior practitioners will immediately notice the relationship of these items.  

      It's obviously way too much for anyone to thoroughly learn in a short time.  In fact, this material will require years of regular and rigorous practice.  And almost everything that is taught to the student after this stage is just frosting; training that promotes a deep understanding of the items on this basic list and fosters the development of real skill.
     As students progress through the system and learn more complex material they often lose sight of the basic material they were shown as novices.  What they fail to understand is that what they learned as a beginner must be applied to everything they learn from that point on.  
     They must learn how to apply these things to their forms which become increasingly complex.  They have to learn to apply them when they practice formal Three and One Step Fight, Freestyle One-Step, Freestyle Sparring (!!!), Self-Defense, Weapons Forms, and so on.

      For instance, take a minute and run through one of your forms.  When you've finished go back and see if you used the correct form of breathing.  Were you moving from your One-Point?  Were your body actions correct?  And bear in mind that you must practice each form until it can be executed perfectly without having to check each of these items!
     That kind of skill can't be developed overnight.  It can't be developed through haphazard practice, either.

     Senior martial arts practitioners don't possess any secret knowledge.  They don't practice highly advanced, secret techniques.  Instead, they simply practice the basics.  Every.  Day.  Everything they really needed to know about their respective martial disciplines they probably learned from their teachers in the earliest stages of training.  They've simply learned how to fit everything together.

     About two years ago, our Association's Chief Instructor (Jeremy Thompson) and I attended an iaido (the art of drawing and cutting with the Japanese sword) tournament and testing in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  I was told that it was probably the largest such event in the entire United States that year!  Anyway, during the examinations (which were held for all grades up to and including 6th dan) I noticed that ALL EXAMINEES were made to perform the most basic iaido kata known simply as "Mae" (meaning "Forward", also known as "Shohatto").  Without going into a lot of detail about the minutae of the kata, it begins in a kneeling position.  The practitioner comes up to one knee and draws the sword in a horizontal cut with one hand.  The sword is then brough back, gripped with both hands, and an overhead cut is executed.  The swordsman then rises to his/her feet, performs a blood shake (called "chiburi", it is intended to shake imaginary blood from the blade) before re-sheathing it (known as "noto").
     It sounds simple enough to do and by the time an iaido student reaches the stage of sankyu or so, he or she can perform it with considerable skill.  But consider...someone testing for 5th or 6th dan is also required to do it.  Such a person has put  25 years or more in training!  You'd think they'd have it right by that time, wouldn't you?
     Sure.  They can do it correctly.  But they have to do it MORE correctly than someone of a lower grade. All of the items they learned as beginners have to become an integral part of their movement and technique without conscious effort.  IT must become them and THEY must become it.
     Moreover, the essence of all other techniques and kata are contained within this first, basic kata.  Once this one is truly mastered, so mastery of the others follows easily.

     Everything you really need to know about your martial art, you learned in kindergarten...