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.