Thursday, November 5, 2015


by Phillip Starr

     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, most of you know that aside from my daily practice of Yiliquan, I also try to get in some time to practice iaido.  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.  Nope.  I will likely never (again) get into a sword fight or have to draw my blade and cut down some nasty enemy who 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 one's 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 that 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 Mae (shohatto) fairly well now.  It's been a long time 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.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


by Phillip Starr

One of the very worst pieces of advice ever given to the martial arts community at large came from the lips of Bruce Lee.

"Absorb what is useful,
Reject what is useless,
Add what is specifically your own."

Determining just what is useful and what isn't is quite a daunting task and one that should be examined closely. After all, a goodly number of today's so-called "mixed martial arts" crowd as well as followers of numerous eclectic martial ways state very clearly that traditional martial arts aren't entirely applicable to modern combat or combat at all. They believe that numerous techniques that are taught within the traditional martial arts either don't work very well or, in some cases, not at all. This, they say, is why they have chosen to follow their "own paths."

Executing a correct reverse punch, front snap kick, kotegaeshi, or o-soto-gari is a pretty daunting task for most raw beginners who have had little or no previous martial arts training. The new student can spend hours working on any one of these techniques for a whole month and it still is practically worthless in a real fight. The reason why is obvious; to develop any technique so that it is truly usable requires a great deal of practice over a period of time! There are no short cuts. My teacher said that developing effective technique is like making tea. It can't be hurried and any attempt to do so will only ruin the drink.

It would be easy but very premature and terribly foolish for the novice to simply dismiss these fundamental techniques as being "useless." The same holds true for other, more advanced techniques that he or she will eventually learn. I'm sure that you've encountered techniques that just didn't work at first. I know I have. Still do. But with patience, some introspection, and lots of practice you've been able to see how they should be done, where your mistakes were, and suddenly they become functional!

When you learn a technique that doesn't seem to work well for you, ask yourself, "why?" What are you doing wrong? Sometimes the error lies in the physical execution of the technique but sometimes it is hidden in a less obvious place. Maybe it's your timing that's off - and that can be indicative of a mental/psychological error or block of some kind, can't it? Perhaps it's your approach to the application of the technique or your approach (physical, mental, or even spiritual) towards your training "opponent." Regardless, the error is thine. Find it and correct it. Sometimes it's the finding of the error that corrects it.

I was recently reading a book wherein the author stated that a particular movement in a basic karate form was placed there by its creator to show future students why they should NOT execute a particular technique. Seriously. It involved Pinan San (aka. "Heian Sandan)...the questioned technique involves a lunging spear-hand. This is followed by a backward pivot which is made while the performer folds his arm behind his back in the manner of a "hammerlock." The book's author believes that Master Itosu (who created the five Pinan katas) was showing students that if they tried to execute this kind of spear-hand thrust, the opponent could wrap them up in a hammerlock. The succeeding movement then shows how to escape from that particular elbow twist.

How absolutely absurd! Why would any martial arts master bother to teach students incorrect technique through a kata? This idea is beyond ridiculous. Obviously, the author never bothered to study the bunkai (interpretation) of this particular kata in any depth...Rather than do that, he came up with a wild conclusion that Itosu was warning students not to perform a particular technique in a certain way. Were that true, it would be possible to formulate an almost endless kata based on "what not to do..."

To say that techniques of the traditional martial arts are not effective (in self-defense) is a blatant display of one's own ignorance, and perhaps, one's unwillingness to put in the required practice (which is a nice way of saying "lazy"). In days long since past, professional warriors (e.g., policemen, soldiers, bodyguards, and their teachers) relied on these arts for their very survival. Back then, it was pretty easy to determine if a given technique worked. If it didn't, you died. Those who developed techniques that didn't work took their failures with them to their graves. For the most part, we'll never know what they were.

The techniques that did work are still with us to this day. If they didn't work, they would have been buried long ago. So, to say that the surviving traditional techniques don't really work is, in my opinion, a statement made by someone who has never learned genuine traditional technique...or who is unwilling, for one reason or another, to put in the time and training required to develop effective technique.

Beginning piano students dare not say that the classics are worthless and no longer functional! The masters who contributed to the creation of the traditional martial disciplines are our Bachs, Beethovens, and Mozarts. 

To truly understand a technique and how it should be performed correctly requires at least 10,000 repetitions. In karate or kung-fu this isn't terribly difficult, considering that you can easily practice 100 punches each day. In 100 days you should be able to perform the technique correctly, more or less. That doesn't mean it can't be improved, though.

But that's not the same as making it workable. To be able to perform a technique effectively in combat requires much more practice. You see, the effectiveness of a given technique, whether it's a punch, a kick, a joint twist or throw from aikido or judo...involves much more than just being able to perform the physical aspects of the technique correctly. Much. More.

Back when I trained in forms of Japanese karate, I could not, for the life of me, get a roundhouse kick to work. Actually, it took MONTHS before I figured out how to do it correctly. I guess I just had a mental block and I couldn't imagine how to do it...but once I was able to throw a roundhouse kick, I couldn't figure out how such a kick would ever be useful in fighting! I suppose Bruce Lee would have told me to reject it because, as far as I was concerned, it was pretty useless...

Then came Baguazhang. At first glance, this art seems to have about as much in common with combat as a fish does to a bicycle. It would have been all too easy to simply toss it away as being some sort of pointless, flowery, Chinese bilge water. But I didn't. I stuck with it and studied depth. I examined it carefully, examined myself, examined its strange footwork and body movements...and I practiced and then when I was sick of it, I practiced some more. And when I had problems making it work (which was pretty much all the time, at first), I stayed with it and figured out WHY I was having problems.

In any given martial discipline, at least a decade (or more) is required if one wants to truly understand the art. The problem is that most Westerners don't want to spend that much time in training. They want "instant martial arts." We're accustomed to having "instant food" (which isn't really food), "instant entertainment", and now we want "instant martial arts." But there isn't such an animal...never was, and never will be.

So, rather than absorbing what you find immediately useful and rejecting what you think is useless, just ABSORB.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


by Phillip Starr

Do what you cannot possibly do.
Make the impossible possible.”
-Masutatsu Oyama
          Founder of Kyokushin karate

I first heard those words many, many years ago and I took them to heart. Martial arts were my great passion and they remain so to this day. I wanted to push the envelope; to see just how far I could go. I read about numerous masters of times past and determined that I would do what they'd done. After all, they weren't gods; they were men just like me. If they could do it, I could do it.

Many of you are probably shaking your heads and thinking, “What a fool... That's a fine way to get hurt very badly. Or killed. You were certainly a very foolish young man.” And looking back on those days, I'd have to agree with you. But I wasn't stupid.

I read about the legendary “arrow catch”, which is an extremely dangerous technique that involves catching an arrow in mid-flight. The legendary “godhand”, Master Masutatsu Oyama, said that of 1,000 students, only one or two would attempt to learn such a technique. And of the 1,000 who set out to perform it, only a couple who be successful. It kind of makes you wonder what happened to the 998 who failed, doesn't it? But I didn't consider that. I was never much good at math, anyway.

I was still in college and young enough to think that I was invincible; that I could be one of the “one or two” who would succeed. “If they can do it, I can do it”, I thought. One of my students was a very skilled archer who owned a good recurved bow and he agreed to work with me, We spent months practicing together. Eventually, I would face him at the opposite end of a basketball court. An arrow-net was placed behind me to prevent arrows from striking the walls of the old college gym. Just as he released the arrow, I'd pivot and catch it.

This isn't something that can be accomplished after only a couple of weeks of practice. I may have been foolhardy but I wasn't stupid. We started out by having me simply stand off to one side and observe how quickly the arrows passed by me. Then I would reach out and try to grab them. It was a slow and gradual process that required some considerable time. I would go on to demonstrate this technique at several demonstrations.

I also wanted to test myself by breaking large stones. Starting with very small ones, I eventually succeeded in cutting a 25 lb. stone with my sword-hand. My hand shook uncontrollably for three days but I was pleased that I had accomplished what I'd set out to do. I continued to train until I could shatter a “paver” brick (which is a little more than an inch thick) with my fingertips and split a coconut with a single blow.

Now, I'm not bragging. I've never been one to indulge in self-aggrandizement. I've never had much time for people who do. The point of this short essay is simply this; although what I pushed myself to do was often very dangerous, it had a very profound impact on my mind and spirit. Martial arts isn't just about learning some exotic forms of kicking and punching; it's also about pushing yourself beyond what you perceive as your limits. It's about setting goals and then going beyond them. If you mindlessly practice a few punches and kicks once or twice a week, you're not really practicing martial arts; you're dancing. Without proper spirit, martial arts devolve into little more than some nifty-looking calisthenics.

Certainly, I'm not suggesting that you run to the nearest sporting goods store and purchase a good bow and a handful of arrows or drive through the countryside until you can find a 20 lb. stone. After all, techniques such as the arrow-catch are fraught with danger and anyone who aspires to do them must train very carefully and gradually. You must push yourself slowly, step by step. Remember that when I trained to perform these things I was young, in excellent physical condition (I suppose my mental condition could be called questionable), and I had practiced martial arts for a very long time.

What I'm suggesting is that you strive to push yourself past your “limits.” After all, it's YOU who set those limits in the first place! It's going to take some considerable work and sweat to get to the very edge of your limits... and then it'll require more than just sweat to go beyond them; it's going to take time, guts, and belief in yourself.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


by Phillip Starr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 9, 2015


by Phillip Starr

Gunfights in the American “Wild West” didn't really feature two iron-jawed gunmen facing off on the main street of town. The only recorded instance of such a “classical” fight occurred between a very young Wyatt Earp and another gentleman who obviously didn't survive. But there were certainly a large number of violent men who relied on their guts and skill with a six-shooter (or whatever other weapons they could get their hands on) to get what they wanted. Some were lawmen, some were criminals, and some bounced back and forth between the two. Men such as John Wesley Hardin, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, Bat Masterson, and William “Billy the Kid” Bonnie, and a host of others became legends in their own time. Of course, none of them had ever heard of traditional martial arts, but there is something we can learn from them.

None of them would think twice when it came to killing an enemy. Were you to face one of them with a “Peacemaker” strapped to your hip, you'd be looking death in the face. And if you flinched, even for an instant, you were dead. And herein lies the lesson.

Mind you, I'm not saying that you should march out, try to find the meanest thug in the city, and engage him in a life-and-death conflict. Not hardly. But I want you to consider something; if and when you were suddenly faced with an assailant who meant to take your life, could you do what has to be done without hesitating? Would you act instantly or would you stop and think about the implications of what you're about to do? If you balk, you've already lost the battle.

There have been many martial arts enthusiasts who have written articles and even some books on the subject of the law as it pertains to self-defense. They warn about the legalities of using your martial skills in violent confrontations and it is this kind of poppycock that will cause many people to waver in the face of aggression. As a former police officer, I will tell you what any other cop will tell you; do whatever you must to defend yourself and your loved ones. If the enemy threatens you with deadly force, you may respond with like force. It's that simple.

The question, however, is, could you? Would you? Would you do it without the slightest stutter? Bear in mind that your foe won't hesitate for a moment to accomplish his ends. You mustn't, either.

Friday, April 3, 2015


By Phillip Starr

Oftentimes, in the practice of basic three-step, one-step, or freestyle sparring, we focus our blows at what I call “general areas” instead of directing them at specific vital points. Some martial arts enthusiasts believe that training to strike the enemy's weak points is unnecessary; that a strong punch or kick is all that is needed to do the job, regardless of where it lands. I disagree.

Surely, the teachers of times long passed wouldn't have held them in such high regard if they weren't important. Numerous ancient Chinese martial arts texts illustrate various weak points in the anatomy and the so-called “Bible of karate”, the Bubishi, likewise emphasizes the importance of striking the enemy's weak points. My own teacher, Master W.C. Chen (a disciple of the renowned master, Zhang-Zhaodong, often spoke of using one's strongest weapon(s) against an opponent's weakest point(s). I remember him telling me, “If you fail to strike the enemy's vital point, you might as well just slap him across the face.”

Moreover, some of the old forms (kata) – just SOME of them, not ALL of them - have odd movements that indicate WHERE (on which vital point) a particular technique(s) should be focused! Yes, they're that important.

In so far as vital points are concerned, there's no need to try to remember a large number of them. One old text focuses on 36 points, which is more than adequate. I may teach student about a considerable number of point, but that's primarily for their overall education; in actual practice, we focus on much fewer.

Now, there are those “combat experts” who argue that striking small points under high-stress conditions such as a life and death struggle is next to impossible due to the concept affectionately known as “lizard brain.” They allege that due to extreme stress, one' s fine motor functions become seriously impaired such that striking small points on a moving target is more than extremely difficult and subsequently, dangerous.

Certainly, the phenomenon of the “lizard brain” exists. I know from firsthand experience, having served in various capacities as a peace officer. However, this condition can be overcome by a process known as TRAINING. It is not a process that can be hurried; it requires time and a great deal of arduous, repetitive practice that should be frequently bolstered by executing the proper movements under various stressful conditions. Peace officers and military personnel undergo this kind of training regularly. Martial arts devotees should, too.

A fine way to learn to strike vital points is to ALWAYS direct your technique(s) at them, whether you're practicing basic 3-step or 1-step fight (both as the attacker or receiver!), freestyle 1-step, or freestyle sparring. And I mean ALWAYS. It goes without syaing that this will require that you exercise a considerable measure of control with your blows, lest you injure your practice partner. Your partner may consider himself to be very fit and strong and perhaps he is; he may sport very solid, developed muscles...but those of of little benefit if you should strike him in certain points. Remember, vital points are the WEAK points of his anatomy; points that generally cannot be protected by layers of muscle and regardless of how big or strong he is, if you strike one...he's going down. This is why a small women (and a small woman is about the size of the average Asian of a couple of generations past) can easily take down a large man.

Surely, if you can learn to fire a modern handgun at a distance of several yards and hit “center mass” every time, you can learn to hit a smaller target at a much closer distance! Learn where the points are located. They're not tiny spots; most of them are about the size of your palm or even larger. Yes, some are rather small (about the size of a 50-cent piece or a bit larger)... but you CAN and you MUST learn to hit them! Your life may well depend on it.

Monday, March 23, 2015


By Phillip Starr

Remember way back when you were about to break your very first board? Do you recall your teacher's instructions? I imagine he said like, “Aim for the center and try to hit something BEHIND THE BOARD!” Essentially, he told you to put your mind on something behind the board...and your fist passed through it without much difficulty, right? This was probably one of the most valuable lessons you ever learned but so many of us miss it altogether...

What your mind believes to be true, becomes true (for you).

This applies not only to breaking boards, but to virtually every aspect of your life. In your martial arts training it is absolutely crucial that you understand this simple principle. It is one of the most important reasons we practice freestyle sparring! It's also a good reason to engage in competition. After all, martial arts is primarily about training the mind; training the body is secondary to training the mind.

In sparring practice or competition, a fear of losing will certainly result in a quick defeat. Actual combat is slightly different; in competition the object is to win but in a real life and death skirmish, the object is to NOT LOSE! Either way, you must remove the fear of losing from your mind altogether.

Whatever your mind is focused on is what will occur. Thus, if you focus on losing, you're guaranteed to fail. If your mind is concerned about losing, it will interfere with your ability to see clearly what is happening. You will miss opportunities and perhaps misinterpret movements that your foe makes, causing you to react inappropriately. Your qi (energy) is withdrawn and your spirit waivers, preventing you from acting boldly at the moment of truth. If your enemy possesses any real skill he'll see and “smell” your fear and take full advantage of it.

We are humans and as mortal creatures we experience fear from time to time. The key is not giving in to your fear (of losing). You must learn to control it, to put it in the back seat while you continue to press forward. This is the real meaning of bravery. The legendary actor, John Wayne, put it very succinctly when he said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”

You must focus your mind on succeeding, on achieving your goals, and you must see yourself as being victorious. Success in anything is not the result of luck; it is almost always due to a courageous spirit, the willingness to do whatever must be done to achieve it, and the firm belief that losing is simply not a possibility.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


by Phillip Starr

I often used the analogy of a chain to explain to my senior students how a proper martial art technique should feel and how it is to be applied. A coiled-up chain can't hurt anybody unless you throw it at them or shove it down their throats...but in that condition, it doesn't pack nearly the wallop that it does if it's used correctly. Coiled up, it is soft and flexible.

If you swing it around it has tremendous potential energy but if it doesn't hit anything, it's harmless. The potential energy is never released in the form of kinetic energy. Actually, it is still quite soft; it isn't stiffened at all... until it meets resistance; i.e., the target.

At the instant of impact, it is the RESISTANCE, the target itself that CAUSES THE CHAIN TO HARDEN! The links align and for an instant – just an instant – the chain becomes as a steel rod and if there's a weighted metal tip on it, that tip becomes a lethal weapon that transfers every last drop of energy into the target. This phenomenon lasts only for a micro-second, after which the chain once again becomes soft.

Isn't martial art technique the same? You will probably answer in the affirmative but then consider and ask yourself if you start to tense up BEFORE your fist or foot makes impact with the target? Well, DO YOU? If you do, you're blocking the free flow of power to the target!

So”, you ask, “Should I stay relaxed until the moment of impact and then tighten up my muscles like the chain?” And my smile would be followed with a thunderous “NO, YOU DIMWIT!” Think on the analogy of the chain once again and reread the first sentence of the third paragraph. Let it sink it. Digest it.

Let the target (the resistance) CAUSE whatever measure of tension is required; DO NOT try to do it yourself! You'll probably generate too much or too little (tension) and in any case, the moment of impact lasts for such a very short time that your timing will very likely be too early or too late! Just let nature – and physics – do everything for you. Your job is to ensure that everything is properly aligned; that all of the “links” in the chain are correctly adjusted (so that they all inter-support each other), so that (kinetic) energy is not lost. Actually, you're you;re going to lose some of it – that's simply unavoidable – but try to lose as little as possible.

Sure, it sounds simple enough but it requires a good deal of practice. Overcoming the inherent tendency to tighten up, making sure that the body parts are correctly coordinated and aligned...takes a tremendous amount of practice. Even tightening your fist before impact will cost you power. I often tell my students to make a fist as if they've just caught a fly but don't want to crush it. No daylight seeps in (lest the fly escape) but it isn't tight, either. Impact will tighten it for you!

This is the secret of what is known as “kime” in Japanese (pronounced “kee-meh” for you rednecks out there). I have heard on taijiquan practitioner say that chansi-jin (silk-reeling power) is actually generated by maintaining a relaxed condition until the instant of impact... and then body is tightened for just a second. The gentleman who spoke these words said that such was the instruction provided him by a renowned member of the Chen family (who practice Chen style taijiquan in China and teach seminars worldwide). And... he's wrong. Real chansi-jin is another story, but that's outlined in my book, “Developing Jin.” Certainly the analogy of the chain is applicable, but there's much more to it than that.

And, like the chain, you must not retain any of the (kinetic) energy once impact is made. You have to adhere to the old Christian adage, “T'is better to give than to receive”, and give all of it – every last micro-measure – to the intended target. To do otherwise means that your target receives much less than 100% of the power that you can give to it. If you consciously tighten up, the time of impact is increased and that reduces striking force considerably.

I've seen countless students and teacher alike who, after executing a punch, have what I call a “bouncing fist.” That is, the punching fist seems to bob up and down a wee bit after the punch has been performed. This is indicative of excess tension (energy) being stored in the arm and hand; it is energy that has NOT been transferred to the target. At the instant AFTER impact, your bodily weapon should be empty. Totally.

To strike with real destructive force doesn't require great strength. It requires correctness. There's a difference.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


by Phillip Starr

For many martial arts enthusiasts, their kata are little more than formal exercises that they must endure and memorize only because their instructor insists on it. For others, they are something of a mystery; they have been told that these routines contain a wealth of information but they have no idea about how to extract that knowledge. Thus, my fourth book, “Hidden Hands.”

Frankly, there's so much to be learned from the traditional forms that I wasn't sure how to begin! I really had to sit down and organize my thoughts on the subject. The importance of the forms can't be understated. As I said in the book, the forms are the “books” that contain all relevant information about a given martial arts system. Too many martial arts enthusiasts have simply never learned how to “read” these “books” and to make matters worse, the information contained in these abstract texts is frequently layered. That is, what appears to be one thing is actually another and that can give birth to yet another layer of information. Once a student has learned to read, she must learn to “read between the lines.” Not only that, but some forms contain coded information; the advanced practitioner has to learn how to decipher it and apply it to certain movements in the form. How could I possibly explain these things in words that would be readily understood?

And so I began with my outline, trying to select movements from forms that are practiced in karate and taekwondo. Naturally, I included some material from (internal) kung-fu sets as well. I wanted to make sure that devotees of these different martial disciplines could all make good use of my book. This led to an argument with my editor concerning the cover of the book. I had photos of people performing taekwondo, kung-fu, and karate postures...but the publisher insisted on a cover showing a nice-looking Eastern gal in a taijiquan pose. I warned 'em that prospective readers who practiced karate or taekwondo would overlook the book, thinking that it was geared primarily towards kung-fu enthusiasts. And I still believe I was right. But they stuck with the cover they wanted...

By the time the book was completed, I felt that I'd done the best job that I could do. I'd covered the subject of forms that originated in China, Okinawa, Japan, and Korea. I'd also been brutally honest about the development and practice of such forms. The book wasn't intended to spoon-feed the answers to my reader's questions about their forms. Rather, it was intended to teach them certain principles so they could do it themselves!

One reviewer was upset that I hadn't figuratively taken him by the hand and shown him all of the possible interpretations of the various movements presented in the book. He had no idea what he was asking for. To do that would have required a dump truck load of more photos and a couple of hundred additional pages of text! Instead, I presented instructions on how to break down forms (from virtually any system) and then left it to the reader to do the work himself. Apparently, he wasn't up to the task.

Mastering a single form is a lifetime achievement. For those who want to learn more about authentic martial arts, it's essential that you master the language and read the books. “Hidden Hands” will show you how to do just that.