Saturday, December 31, 2016


by Phillip Starr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2016


by Phillip Starr

There is a saying that tell us, “The music is not in the notes, but the silence in between.” This is a very profound statement that can apply not only to music, but to martial arts as well. Just because there seems to be a “space” between the notes doesn't necessarily infer that they are void. The next time you watch the performance of a kata, pay close attention to the the spaces that seem to exist between the individual techniques and postures. Is there anything there at all or are they truly empty?

I have seen many practitioners almost prance through their sets, placing great emphasis on the techniques but the spaces in between their blocks, punches, and kicks were just so much dead territory. They were simply “posturing”; their forms amounted to nothing more than a rather lengthy facade of martial arts poses, as if they were being photographed for the cover of a magazine. Oftentimes, they would drop their hands to their sides before executing the next technique!

In genuine, traditional forms the placement of the hands and feet in the so-called “empty space” is very specific. There are reasons for that, not the least of which is the fact that various striking, kicking, joint-twisting, and throwing techniques are often concealed within them. The spaces are not really empty at all! Moreover, dropping the hands or waving them about meaninglessly provides the (imaginary) opponent with large openings, “windows of opportunity” through which he can deliver an effective counter-strike.

This same idea applies not only to the performance of kata, but to the practice of combination techniques as well. What seems to be an “empty space” in between the individual techniques must not be barren. You must ensure that you don't open the “window of opportunity” too wide and provide your enemy with easy entry. The placement of your hands and arms, your legs and feet, and your physical posture must be very precise so as to afford you maximum protection during the execution of your combination.

In the practice of traditional martial arts, nothing is wasted and nothing is done haphazardly. Every movement, every gesture, is to be done just so. There's a reason for everything, including what appear to be “empty spaces” because they really aren't empty at all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


This collection of books contains a wealth of information and they make GREAT STOCKING STUFFERS for the martial artist in your life, or just for yourself!! Make this Christmas extra-special!!!

THE MAKING OF A BUTTERFLY: A collection of anecdotes involving my teacher, me, and some of my classmates. There's a very valuable lesson in each story, too.

MARTIAL MECHANICS: How to use principles of physics and kinesiology (how the human body works) to maximize power and speed in your technique! It's the only book of its kind on the market!!

MARTIAL MANEUVERS: Fighting tactics, principles, and training methods that will help you to improve your fighting and sparring skills!!!

HIDDEN HANDS: Learn how to “read” your forms, how to extract the information they contain! If you REALLY want to understand your karate, taekwondo, or kung-fu system, this book is a must!

DEVELOPING JIN: The principles and training methods of “silk-reeling power” explained in clear, down-to-earth English. If you practice an “internal” martial art, you need this book! Without “jin”, internal arts become little more than fancy forms of streetfighting. WITH “jin, they become explosively powerful!

These books are all available at and at fine bookstores.

Monday, December 5, 2016


by Phillip Starr
    As we enjoy our practice of our chosen martial disciplines we tend to get caught up in what I call the "punch-kick" mentality. That is, we’re looking at the outside of what we do and not thinking much about anything else. It’s kind of like driving your car and being overly-concerned with how it looks as opposed to what’s going on inside; how it should work compared to how it’s working at the present time (that’s usually too scary to contemplate), and what makes it work in the first place – or even what can be done to make it work better.

     The Buddha once said, "As a man thinketh, so he is…" Truer words were never spoken although most of us, after hearing these words, simply acknowledge their profundity and then go on with our lives and training as usual.

     Some time ago a former student of mine who has taken up iaido and kendo said she happened to open up a book written by Mr. Dave Lowry entitled, "Autumn Lightning." She looked at the page before her and read about how Mr. Lowry’s iaido teacher (a Japanese gentleman who was teaching at a nearby university) insisted that his iaido pupil learn to speak Japanese. This, he said, was essential if one was to understand the true spirit of the art. And he was right.

     You see, we’re brought up to speak American (we don’t speak English; the British speak English and believe me, it’s a bit different than the American version) and the result is that we unconsciously learn to think in American. This can be a real problem when we’re presented with (foreign) concepts for which our language has no word or phrase. Not only is it difficult for us to find an appropriate American word or phrase to match to the foreign tongue, it’s often impossible to IMAGINE the concept in the first place because it doesn’t fit into our language/thought processes!

     The most ready example is the word qi (“ki” in Japanese). There simply is no American/English equivalent for this concept and the end result is that many of us completely misunderstand the whole idea! And we get charlatans trying to prove that they can knock people over without touching them and generally playing "Star Trek" with their bare hands…

     Or shen (“shin” in Japanese), which we roughly translate as "spirit" but that’s not quite right. And yi, which is often translated as "intention" or "mind" but the real meaning goes much deeper than that… I believe that language impacts the way in which we think (and subsequently act). It can also limit the way in which we (are able to) think…and this can lead to misunderstandings about the arts that we practice; how they should be practiced and what makes them tick.

     Let’s take the word "yi." It is written with two radicals, one above the other. One radical means "sound" and the other means "heart." In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that the heart houses the emotions and what we call "mind" (not the brain). So if you take a little time to consider what this means, it can change the way you feel about the word "yi." Those of you who practice a martial art such as Xingyiquan may acquire a finer understanding of what the name implies.

     Xingyi is usually translated as "Form/Shape of the Mind" but once you understand the FEELING behind the word for mind (yi), it can change your understanding of the name of the art and how it’s intended to be practiced.

     The word Xing is usually translated as "form, shape, pattern." It can also mean "image." That has a slightly different implication than "form." Moreover, the Japanese/Okinawan pronunciation for (the character) Xing is…KATACHI (for you taekwondo stylists, it is "Hyung")!

     So it really helps if you learn, at least to some degree, how to speak the language of the culture in which your particular art was developed, and to read some of it as well. Most westerners are loathe to do this and consider it too much of a bother. But the fact is, if you truly want to understand your art more fully, you need to spend some time immersing yourself in its culture – and that includes language.

     But there’s more.

     Consider mathematics. I always hated math. But my teacher, Master W.C. Chen, once told me that the reason mathematics is so heavily emphasized in school has little to do with whether or not we’ll ever use algebraic equations as we go through life…it’s because mathematics is a language! And just as the languages we learn to speak impact the way we think, mathematics teaches us new and different ways of analyzing and thinking.

     Many years later my own father would echo these same words. "Math teaches you to think in a certain way," he said. It would be some years before I fully understood what he meant.

     If we learn only one "language", as it were, our "way" of thinking is very limited. By learning more languages, we develop our mental faculties more fully.

      My teacher, Master W. C. Chen told me that individual techniques are like words. Combinations of techniques are like sentences and paragraphs. A bad combination – one in which the techniques do not flow smoothly – is like a badly written sentence. Good combinations are like fine poetry and our forms are books, being comprised of many sentences and paragraphs.

      Moreover, each form teaches us to think in a certain way! Each one is different; it has its own sentences and spirit (like a "style" of writing, no?). Your forms may use many of the same words but the sentences and the style of writing are very different. A comma here, and semi-colon there, parentheses over here (and what’s inside those parentheses?), indentations for paragraphs, and so on.

     It’s a book! At first you learn to read it like you did when you first learned to read. For me, back in the days of covered wagons, we used the old "Dick and Jane" readers; incredibly boring and stupid stories which everyone read aloud in a REALLY boring monotone with no emphasis on any particular words or phrases… Then as you become more literate and you can read with greater skill, your form (your recitation of the book) takes on more meaning and life! And as you continue to practice it, that form will teach you to think in a certain way!

     This is very important. Very. Important. Go back and re-read that last paragraph.

    It’s the same thing when you first learn to play a musical instrument. You can’t possibly start off with the classical, complex, highbrow stuff. On a piano, you have to learn the keyboard and start with really simple, boring stuff…but there’s more to it than just memorizing keys and melodies. You’re learning to think in a new way! And when you learn to play a particular piece of music you learn another way of thinking and hearing and tasting and experiencing and BEING the music.

    Then you move on to another piece to expand your understanding and learn to think in yet another way. Music is, after all, a LANGUAGE! Like math. They’re much the same thing.
And as you learn more "languages", you are better able to express yourself and you are better able to understand others!

     Remember, as you think…