Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, April 19, 2024

Whole Body Movement in Taijiquan

At Thoughts on Tai  Chi, there was a good post about whole body movement. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

I try to follow some content creators, YouTube Tai Chi channels, etc. Recently I have found the vast majority of what is published and shared annoying, shallow and frankly said – useless for the common practitioner.

In the older literature and Tai Chi classics there’s no mention of “fascia”, there are no elaborate explanations about how to use “yi”. And if you haven’t read much of the older literature, you will have a very hard time find any passage or paragraph where you can read about how to “use Qi”.

Nowadays everyone try to explain what is actually very practical, simple things, that need hands-on learning, in a complicated, intellectual manner, while mixing Chinese and Western terms in the most confusing ways. I often have a feeling that they are more interested in themselves than in their students. What they say is certainly of very little help even if they speak more truths than just mumble-jumble.

Again, you won’t be able to read anything, or at least only a very little, of this in the texts and books written by older masters. And still those old masters could control and throw people away effortlessly.

The biggest trap is the intellectual process in itself. It makes students focus in the wrong direction, it teaches students to “think” about what they are doing, rather than to “feel”. You just cannot “do”, “be aware” and be present in the moment if you try to “think” about how to do something, at the same time as you are doing it.

But being present in the moment is absolutely essential when it comes Tai Chi. Why? Because Tai Chi in practical practice, against a partner or an opponent, is actually very fast and direct. To make something work in Tai Chi, you must react directly and instantaneous on what is happening. You need to attach yourself to your opponent, on distance as well as upon touch, in a way you can react directly and spontaneous on every small change.

Upon touch you need to completely empty your mind so you can let your tingjin, “listening skill” take over. This means to only rely on what you feel, the sensory feedback, and react to what you feel. All your knowledge and experience are preserved in your muscle memory. This is what you need to be able to access, instantly and without conscious thought.

Your intellectual thought process is just too slow, it has no chance to do adjust what you do in the present. You actually need to access another part of your brain, and to do this you need to use your brain differently and tap into your nervous system in a way that is incompatible with logical figuring things out.

To explain this further and hopefully in a physiological way you can understand this process better, Muscle memory is defined as a neurological process that allows you to remember certain motor skills and perform them without conscious effort. Muscle memory is achieved when you reach the autonomous stage. It means that whole of your performance, all your movements, are smooth and accurate, as your brain’s main activity switches to the basal ganglia, the region involved with automatic functioning.

If you are not present in the moment, as in trying to “think out” what and how to do something, you cannot access this part of your brain. Again, instead of acting spontaneously, you will act clumsy, hesitant, and also probably forget all what you have learned about song and sinking, how to follow, react and act.

The mind-state known as “no-mind”, or wuxin, is the key to be able to access the muscle memory and let your accumulated knowledge work by itself. The more you practice, the more hours you spend working with a partner in push hands and other exercises, the more knowledge and experience will be stored in your brain, nervous system and muscle fibers. Some studies suggest that muscle memory causes muscle cell changes that last for at least 15 years, which, if this is true, it means that you can accumulate a whole lot of knowledge and experience you can access through your muscle memory if you keep up your practice for many years.

You really need to get rid of the mind-set of “figuring things out”. If you approach your Tai Chi with intellectual curiosity only, which is by all means in itself not a bad thing, it will be easy to get stuck in this mind-state and let it color everything you do.

You need to focus on how things feel through your awareness.

It is said the skill is transferred by touch, from a master’s hands to a student’s. This is absolutely true. You need to experience first hand how a skilled teacher moves, act, feels. In terms of development, five-ten minutes personal on-hand instruction with a skilled teacher, is worth more than many hours of push hands practice with a partner of the same level, and more than one year of solo practice.

It is not what the teacher says that is important, but to experience the skill first hand.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

What is Your Training Style

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kenshi 24/7, on different personal styles of Kendoka. The full post may be read here. 

What's your training style like?

Seito-ha (正統派)

My kendo is, I’d say, 95% bog-standard, super orthodox kendo. Sure, there are things that I do my own way, and some waza I prefer over others, but in general my kendo is basically of the margarita pizza variety: easy to prepare/make, mostly satisfying, and very little can go wrong with it (=not much to complain about). Sure, it’s ok, but not many people will travel to a pizza shop in another town just to have some.

In other words, even if you haven’t done kendo with me before you pretty much know what to expect:

Practice menu
- Lots of kihon
- Lots of kirikaeshi, uchikomi, oikomi
- Emphasis on correct execution of individual waza

Oji-waza choice
- Against men: debana men, degote, kaeshi-dou
- Against kote: kaeshi-men, aigote-men, suriage men

Jigeiko style
- Proactive “makko-shobu” style (see below)
- Fundamentally my central goal is to defeat my partner by debana-men

As you probably realise, my kendo can be kind of predictable, and isn’t flashy in the least. Maybe it’s even boring.

However, this type of “seito-ha” kendo – that is, the “orthodox style” – has an important (and highly attractive, at least to me) feature: a proactive “makko-shobu” style based on debana-men.  “Makko-shobu” (真っ向勝負) refers to a proactive, confrontational style. There is no (or we at least try to minimise it as much as possible) running way, blocking, use of the dreaded “amashi” waza, and overly flashy techniques or hikiwaza are generally de-emphasised. Debana waza (in particular: men) is where it’s at. 

 “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

All the quotes in todays article are said to be from Marcus Aurelius

(I suggest re-reading the popular five-part “Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo” series, a translation of an essay by Morishima Tateo sensei)

As you already know, when two “seito-ha” kenshi face each other (assuming they are of equal skill) it can look a little bit (to the inexperienced kenshi) un-energetic or even boring I dare say. Seme is subtle and done with a combination of the spirit, kensen, and right foot, not feints, mysterious twirling of the shinai, and – of course – with shinai-to-shinai contact. The last one is extremely important, as the very conduit of communication is via this. 

Seito-ha kenshi know one another when they meet, and enjoy the battle for debana men. If they are struck, they admit defeat graciously. 

Nanken (難剣)

Like the section above, this part will be generalised… even more so because of the nature of what’s being discussed. 

 “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Literally, nanken means “difficult sword.” This term has been used throughout the history of kendo to refer to those whose kendo was, to put it nicely, awkward. This doesn’t mean that they are weak or don’t have shiai (or grading – at least in the past) success, just that your average  “orthodox” kenshi struggles to cope with them. Perhaps their timing is different, their rhythm feels“off”,  their swing is larger or smaller than normal, they favour non-standard waza, and so on. It is almost as if they are speaking a slightly different language. Some other “features” include:

- their kendo is usually based on hitting and not being struck, so they like to evade or dodge, often bending their head or even body out of the way of attacks;

- sutemi is often lacking, which leads to hitting while standing in place (with no fumikomi);

- hitting out with their arms (zero fumikiri and often no fumikomi) then running away backwards (related to the above);

- overuse of feinting or whirling of the shinai;

- it is very common for them to just stand and wait for something to happen with no forward pressure;

- some (generally older people) fight from a very close distance;

- there is zero “aiki” so it doesn’t feel “friendly.”

(Some of these factors of-course lead to the timing being “off” as mentioned above)

Obviously, anyone who does jigeiko or shiai before acquiring a good grounding in basics will go through a sort of “nanken”phase. Only “sort of” because your average beginner will often honestly attempt to convert kihon into jigeiko use, which is very difficult even for the experienced. Usually, the less experienced will go back to kihon, work on it, then attempt to use what they have worked on in jigeiko, cycling round and round slowly getting out of the beginners phase and into a more “orthodox” style. 

However, some people never seem to get out of their “difficult” phase. Why, I am not sure. This is different from my kendo experience, so it is hard to comment on, but I’ll try anyway!

1. They believe that their kendo is effective.  By doing or acting differently you can often surprise or even deceive people in a manner that opens them up to be struck. Of course, this is perfectly “valid” in a competition and ippon may be awarded, reinforcing their tactic. This is of course absolutely fine (and to an extent is expected) in shiai for lower ages and ranks. Some, however, will persist in doing this during jigeiko (not only shiai) throughout their entire kendo career. 

2. They don’t care. This is of course connected to the above. It might also be the case that kendo is just a hobby, something they do for fun sometimes. They aren’t aiming for hachidan or anything, and have no interest in it above and beyond having fun. That’s cool too, I guess (it’s not me however).

3. They don’t practice enough and/or have no direct model. A “model” of course refers to both an instructor (physical skill) as well as a teacher (guide). Again, this is something that is difficult but not a disaster: it just takes time, travel, and extra effort to improve… assuming the desire is there.

4. Something perceptual inside them is different. This is hard to explain and I am not a scientist or anything, but some individuals seem to have a different perception of time (3D space, interval, distance, etc) than others. Of course, this is wholly in reference to myself (perhaps it is me who is “off”). This is something I’ve become acutely aware of as a teacher of high school students (and younger) for over 20 years. This is not something that can be “cured” or “fixed” rather, it has to be understood for what it is. I believe that this is probably the most influential factor in the “nanken” scenario. People like this can still have successful kendo careers despite being “out of sync” with the majority of others. 

So yeah, some people end up having non-standard “difficult” kendo. Numbers 1 and 2 above can be problematic, but the potential for change (should the person wish it) is there. Number 4, however, is different. 

“Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible.”


Monday, March 11, 2024

The Universal Humanity of Taijiquan

"The  Universal Humanity of Taijiquan" is the title of the second episode of a series on YouTube of Chen ZhengLei, a successor of Chen style Taijiquan. 


Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Catch Wrestling


Brazilian JiuJutsu has a solid foundation with classical Judo, but the experience of the early BJJ guys was colored by the frequent matches they had against other martial artists. Capoeira and western wrestlers, including "Catch Wrestlers."

From Wikipedia: 

Catch wrestling (originally catch-as-catch-can) is a classical hybrid grappling style and combat sport. It was popularised by wrestlers of travelling funfairs who developed their own submission holds, or "hooks", into their wrestling to increase their effectiveness against their opponents. Catch wrestling derives from various different international styles of wrestling: several English styles (primarily Lancashire,[2] as well as Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling,[3] Devonshire,[3] and Irish collar-and-elbow wrestling). The training of some modern submission wrestlers, professional wrestlers and mixed martial artists is founded in catch wrestling. 

Below is a documentary on Catch Wrestling.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

93 Year Old Kendoka

The video below was found at the end of a post at Kenshi 24/7 on relative outlook on Kendo in Japan and abroad. An except from the article is below. The full post may be read here.

Modern kendo in Japan has been intrinsically bound with (and to) the education system for well over a century  now. Also, as you no doubt know,  kendo in the police system (yes, it is a slightly separate thing – nor particularly technically, but in purpose) has always been a highly influential factor. Of course, educational kendo and police kendo were highly cross pollinated in the past (not now unfortunately).  Due to such influences kendo was, at least in generations past, seen primarily as a tool of education, both physical and mental. Building up to and during the Japan’s highly militarised era’s, it was also used explicitly as a tool of “soldier creation” and to engender nationalism. After WWII a concerted effort was done to democratise kendo, but in the end most of the teachers were of the old school variety (and if not, then students of them). 

Since it essentially evolved in such a serious situation, it comes with no surprise that kendo is – and is still seen to be – a serious activity.  At least that the image here in Japan.  

Multitudes of kids clubs can be found all around Japan, and I’m sure many readers have experienced keiko there. I wonder, however, if you talked to the teachers about what their purpose is, that is, their kendo philosophy? 

Kids kendo clubs here are generally (not always) community based affairs. Parents elect to have their kid “study” kendo  – often kendo is referred to as NARAIGOTO (“something to be studied”), in the same vein as things like as piano, abacus, English, or shodo, for example. Of course, you’d send your kid to a nearby dojo, not travel too much. The vast majority of parents chose kendo not because of the physical benefits for their kids, but because it can (or is supposed to) engender confidence and manners. Instructors are almost always unpaid, generally older, and the clubs are run by parents (= usually the mothers). Of course, there are some for-profit private dojo, but there are not so many, and I guess don’t make much money (otherwise there’d be more). Keiko will usually be tough (not violent) and kids may be pushed about and cry a lot. In general, a kid doesn’t have the freedom to quit either. Anyway, the point is that kendo – at the very start of a young persons kendo career – has seriousness already baked in. 

[ The above, however, breaks down when kids start older (junior or senior high school age) and do kendo under younger kendo teachers, or perhaps just amongst themselves. It looks as if these type of kendoka have increased over the last couple of decades…. ]

Outside of Japan, in my now admittedly limited experience, kendo seems to be very more of a social activity rather than a community based one: a once or twice or even three times a week affair with some drinks afterwards. There might be some kids in the club, but maybe not that many, and those that are there are treated softly so that they don’t quit. There may not be any older people with decades of experience (kendo and life) to help teach the kids or act as mentors or role-models to young(er) adults. Obviously, this is a generalisation.