Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, 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, December 02, 2022

Lessons from Steven Seagal's Aikido


Below is a video from Aikidoflow on some lessons learned in Aikido, after training with Steven Seagal.

 

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Politics of Olympic Karate


Over at Kung Fu Tea was an article about the politics behind Karate becoming an Olympic sport. Below is an excerpt. The full post  may be read here.

Introduction

We are very pleased to host the following essay on Karate’s appearance in the Tokyo Olympics by Prof. Stephen Chan. This is an important topic, particularly to readers who follow the debates surrounding the inclusion and exclusion of certain sports from the games. Yet his discussion transcends the more common narrative of nationally bounded scorekeeping and instead asks what other sorts of work Karate’s Olympic moment accomplished.

Prof. Chan is a founding figure within the Martial Arts Studies community who delivered the first keynote address kicking-off what has since became our annual series of Martial Arts Studies conferences. He is an accomplished practitioner of karate, martial arts instructor and a distinguished political scientist whose writing I have always enjoyed. It is truly a pleasure to welcome him back to Kung Fu Tea.

The Politics of an Olympic Medal

by Stephen Chan

Among karate practitioners internationally the advent of their sport in the Tokyo Olympics, after years of campaigning, was eagerly awaited – but curiously not so much in Japan itself; and the reason for this was its image of violence, not necessarily in the sport itself with its elaborate (though not always successful) safety rules, but in its perceived sociological niche as a working class pursuit. Ju jutsu was, in the same stereotyping, a pursuit of Yakuza and other gangsters. Ju jutsu’s refinement as judo, alongside sumo, kendo, aikido, kyudo (archery) and above all iaido were the sports of gentlemen, or had been accepted at court, and were, moreover, (with the exception of judo) more authentically and historically Japanese. However, judo had been refined enough to pass muster, but karate was without noble pedigree and never quite lost its tag of origin in Okinawa, the most ‘backward’ of the Japanese islands.

These are generalisations to be sure but, despite all the increasing overlays of sophistication and efforts to render karate a martial art equal to the others, it probably took the modern phenomenon of manga with its heroes and villains deploying karate techniques to bring it towards public acceptance.

In Olympic terms, the success of South Korea’s tae kwon do with its development of clearly derivative techniques (despite the Korean claim to its own historical authenticity) was a goad to having, finally, its karate ancestor placed alongside it as an Olympic sport. The leverage of the previous Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, long a powerful politician and himself a karate third degree black belt – a person who rose from exactly a poor farming and working class background – helped greatly with the campaign for karate’s inclusion. Suga’s well-advertised physical fitness routine which includes 200 situps every day meant it was difficult for more sedentary politicians to gainsay him.

But karate’s inclusion in the Tokyo Olympics meant that Japan had two martial arts represented – karate and judo. South Korea had one, tae kwon do. China has none of its martial arts in the Olympics. Karate’s entry was always going to be tenuous in the terms of the numbers game as to who gets how many of which sports.

If Japan was in this sense in a weak position to insist on karate’s inclusion in the forthcoming Paris Olympics – it already had judo – then other countries were not going to act as karate’s champion. Karate is strong in France, but the international governing body, the World Karate Federation (WKF), does not command total support from the karate community in the USA; and its affiliate in the UK, the English Karate Federation (EKF) has no throw-weight in UK sporting or Olympic politics.  Without the two Anglophonic giants of world sports insisting on karate continuing in the Olympics its dropping from the Paris agenda was accomplished with barely a murmur of protest from sporting establishments with quite enough already on their agendas. 

Moreover, it has to be said that the Tokyo Olympics featured bouts of sometimes dubious quality and certainly enigmatic judging. As a spectator-friendly event, karate appealed to afficionados but not very many others. There was no wave afterwards of members of the public seeking to learn karate.

As for the WKF itself, it is a strange survivor of internecine struggles that have bedevilled karate since its inception as a sport with international participants. Particularly in the USA there were ‘world championships’ that featured in the 1960s and into the 70s almost entirely American entrants – some of whom went on to become movie stars, such as Chuck Norris, and who certainly featured on the covers of the karate magazines of that era – so that the glamour, and also lack of any international regulatory environment, made karate seem almost splendidly anarchic as the Bruce Lee era dawned. With the dawning precisely of that era, regulatory regularity at least became desirable if only to avoid injuries and their almost random causation.

 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Mental Toughness


Below is an excerpt from an article about running and developing mental toughness. I used to be a distance runner and I consider the practice to be "Budo with a small 'b'." It's not strictly Budo, but is a practice that serves to enhance your budo training.

The full post may be read here.

A few years ago, scientist Ashley Samson embarked on a project aimed at accessing the darkest recesses of the runner’s mind. What goes on in the minds of people who voluntarily expose themselves on a regular basis to the rigors and stress of long-distance running? Samson is attached to California State University and also runs a private clinic for athletes who wish to avail themselves of her expertise as a sports psychologist. Samson was an athlete herself in her younger years and she still runs ultramarathons, so she knows all about the mental trials of running.

Up until recently the only way to get inside the heads of long-distance runners was to ask them to fill out a questionnaire after a race. Not exactly what you would call a reliable method, as it is always uncertain how well people remember specific information after the event. Samson and her colleagues decided to try something different. They fitted 10 runners with microphones and asked them to articulate their thoughts freely and without any self-observation while out on a long run. The scientists then listened to all 18 hours of the recorded material, searching for patterns. The thinking-aloud protocol allowed only immediate thoughts to be recorded; thinking aloud actually stops the mind from wandering. Nevertheless, the scientists must have had great fun listening to the recordings. “Holy shit, I’m so wet [from all the sweat],” reported Bill. “Breathe, try to relax. Relax your neck and shoulders,” said Jenny. Bill found the going very tough: “Hill, you’re a bitch . . . it’s long and hot. God damn it . . . mother eff-er.” Fred paid more attention to his surroundings: “Is that a rabbit at the end of the road? Oh yeah, how cute.”

Samson categorized the thoughts into a series of themes. Three themes in particular emerged: pace and distance; pain and discomfort; and environment. All of the participants in Samson’s experiment experienced some level of discomfort, especially at the beginning of their run. For example, they suffered from stiff legs and minor hip pain that became less severe the longer they ran. To cope with the pain and discomfort, the runners used a variety of mental strategies, including breathing techniques and urging themselves on.

There is more to running than just training your muscles and improving your stamina. It is also a mental sport, and maybe even more so than previously believed. Most runners appreciate the importance of mental strength. Those who decide to join their colleagues for a 10K run without any prior training are often able to show just how far you can get on motivation and perseverance alone. They run on “mental energy” and spur each other on. Keep going! Never mind the pain! As for ultramarathon runners, instead of ignoring pain they embrace it as part of the whole experience of long-distance running. “Pain is inevitable” is their mantra; it is an essential ingredient of the running experience. So what are the psychological qualities that make you a good runner? To what extent do they influence performance? And most importantly: Can you train mental toughness?

The Psychology of Performance

Anyone who wants to know more about the psychological side of sports would be well advised to talk to Vana Hutter. She is an expert on the mental health of top-class athletes, and she sums up all of the research on the matter as follows: Top-class athletes are armed with high levels of self-confidence, dedication, and focus, as well as the ability to concentrate and handle pressure. Their academic performance and social skills are also often better than that of nonathletic types. According to Hutter, athletes need self-regulation in order to perform. Everyone can learn, to some extent at least, to control their emotions, thoughts, and actions. And it is this aspect — learning to self-regulate — that is of particular interest to runners.

Funnily enough, Hutter began her scientific career at the “hardcore” end of exercise physiology: physical measurements of athletes’ bodies. “As time went on, however, I realized that athletic performance is determined by a combination of body and mind,” she tells me over coffee in Amsterdam. “I discovered that it is far more difficult to predict athletic performance than some physiologists would have you believe. There are so many factors that we just can’t account for.” For example, how do you explain the fact that the times athletes run are so different despite their being physically very similar?

If you were to subject the top 10 marathon runners to a physiological examination, they would probably all have a high VO₂max and excellent running economy. Some top athletes have something extra as well, however. “Measured over a longer period, the trainability of athletes is more or less the same. What really matters during competition is the extent to which their physiological systems are primed and ready to go, and how well those systems cooperate with each other,” explains Hutter. “Whether an athlete can avail of their maximum physical potential at the crucial moment is partly a mental matter.”

 She provides an example. “If your muscles are a little bit more tense because you are nervous, this will have an effect on your movement efficiency. You will need more energy to achieve the same kind of forward motion. This is the biomechanical explanation of the role of psychology in performance. On the other side of the spectrum, nervous anxiety can result in negative thoughts and fear of failure.” In other words, to go far as an athlete you need not only the right kind of physique but also to be mentally strong, primarily because of the influence the psyche has on how the physical body performs. Mental strength may in fact be the thing that separates the winners from the rest of us. Today, no one denies the role played by psychology in athletic performance. However, the extent to which coaches address mental toughness when training their athletes is a different matter, according to Hutter. Most of them do integrate it in their training, but opinions vary greatly on just how trainable mental toughness actually is.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Steven Seagal's Aikido


Say what you want about Steven Seagal. I like his aikido. Even though he is not the young man he once was, he still moves as smooth as glass. Below is a 15 minute documentary on his martial art.



Monday, November 21, 2022

Was Bruce Lee Right About Fixed Patterns?


Over at JDK HQ|Taekwondo Perth was an article that examined Bruce Lee's ideas on fixed pattern practice and how those ideas impact the practice of a traditional martial art. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

 It's ironic. The Founder of JKD, that's Jeet Kune Do, and attributed as the Father of MMA, Bruce Lee was brought up schooled in Wing Chun. A talented athlete with a keen intellect, he assessed the tactical strengths of his traditional martial skills (based on those fixed patterns), and then reached for and assimilated new skills to round off his fighting base.    


But you don't totally 'empty' your cup of your existing skills. You 'empty' that cup of your preconceptions, your bias, and incomplete assumptions. With new insight, you add to your skills and build your foundation. 

Minus the grandstanding you see in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the quote above which has been attributed to Bruce Lee is correct. Fixed Set Patterns will not help you better deal with a dynamic situation. If you take out the posturing from actor Jason Scott Lee, the quote isn't to pick on those systems that use 'fixed set patterns.' You know why? It's because almost all systems I've come across use fixed set patterns. 

Call them Kata, Hyung, Tuls, Punyo, etc. Even boxing at various levels uses drills that are repeated over and over again. Know what those are called? Those are called Fixed Set Patterns. 

In my tradition, I use Fixed Pattern Sets called Hyungs. Early in my career, I started spreadsheeting individual techniques within those patterns to associate them with every skill I could identify. Neck deep and about a year in, I started to realise that I was just spinning my wheels. Some enthusiasts were impressed but I knew I wasn't on the right path, and appending more words to techniques wasn't creating any value. 

Eventually, there was a threshold that needed to be crossed. That threshold was a Fixed Set Pattern that a 19th century Karateka claimed was all he needed for street combat. It was a kata that I had been obsessed with for a long time. It's simple mirrored techniques seemed superficially simplistic, until I looked at it as a problem solving mechanism. I found I could use just the one technique for a same side attack. Then I saw it applied to an opposite side attack. And extending that train of thought, it would also work if I had guessed either wrongly! That I could recover using that technique! 

The Kata did not produce this tactic. It inspired the insight within me to see this for myself. 

Since then, the more I understood of the technician's situation, of his opponent, and the dynamic situation in an engagmenet, the more value I could draw from our fixed set pattern. 

I know sometimes I seem dismissive of patterns. That I seem more than happy to choose my own flipbook story ending. Nothing can be further from the truth. The pattern is our unchanging benchmark. But it is a benchmark created by an architect who was limited to chunking a few skills into a sequence of about 40 moves. 

The pattern does not show in entirety that architect's skill.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Turning the Waist in Taijiquan


Turning, not twisting the waist is a foundational principal of taijiquan movement. Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Thoughts on Tai Chi on that topic. The full post may be read here.

What does “waist” mean in Tai Chi Chuan? Isn’t the waist just the waist? Is it necessary to complicate it and analyse the meaning of this common word?  Well, first, Chinese is obviously another language than English. And we know that words don’t always have the exact same meaning in different languages.

Still, this post might seem provocative, as everyone translate the Chinese character “yao” into “waist”, including the most famous “Masters” today who travel around the World to personally sign their commercial books at two-day seminars for many hundreds of participants, eagerly waiting to learn about the deep secrets of Tai Chi that are reserved for only a chosen few. I guess that having a master, or even Grandmaster(!), signing their book make many students feel as they have achieved “more” through their training.

But as I myself am neither famous or travel around signing books, I couldn’t care less about the commercial aspects of being politically Tai Chi correct. So let’s start from the beginning by explaining the Chinese character for “waist“.

In the Tai Chi Classics, this character is “yao” or 腰. This character, that belongs to 3000 most common characters (Ranked no. 1228 to be precise), or Yao, is indeed a common Chinese word for what we mean by waist, or the area around the back and belly, between the ribs and the hips. This is that makes the upper body rotate horizontally while the lower part of the body remains mor or less stable. In Western tradition the waist is what separate the upper and lower body. And sure, we can use “yao” in this sense as well. Yao can be used for “waistline” and the word for belt in Chinese is yaodai, 腰带.

So where, and in what context, do we use the character yao in Tai Chi? Well, It’s right there in the Tai Chi Classics, in the probably most common and well known Tai Chi saying:

其根在脚,
发于腿,
主宰于腰,
形于手指

Rooted in the feet, ​
fa/issue through the legs,
controlled by the ​yao, 
expressed through the fingers.

What many masters on many books have explained, and what I would believe that most Tai Chi practitioners should agree on, is that everything must move together as a whole, as one single movement. Foot, legs, yao, arm and hand. Well, “shou” 手 or “hand” can be used for the whole arm as well. So you could interpret this character, here in this context, as the whole arm, right out to the fingers. When one part moves, the rest of the parts move at the same time. Everything should have a direct connection through movement.

Okay then, let’s go back to the yao. What you need to know is that Chinese people don’t necessarily associate character yao in the same way Western people do with waist. In Chinese, Yao can mean “waist”. But foremost, this character is associated with the lower back. One common translation you can see in dictionaries is in fact: the lower back.

 


Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Examing the Slow Practice of Taijiquan


Ever wonder why Taijiquan is generally practiced slowly? Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Slanted Flying, which examines that topic. The full post may be read here.

A common joke about t’ai chi is about a practitioner who is confronted by a bully to fight. The practitioner agrees to go outside and fight, but tells the bully, “it will have to be in slow motion!” The popular misconception about t’ai chi is that the practice is just a slow motion dance, and many people are surprised that it is also a highly skilled martial art. But what about this slow motion aspect?

Different speeds produce different effects for learning. At fast speeds one can appreciate the momentum of swinging and turning as well as experience the force of strikes, but it is too fast to attend to details and subtleties. Medium speed is perhaps a balance between learning momentum and balance, but still does not provide the detailed attention necessary for exploring nuances of movement.

When moving fast through forms, one set of muscles becomes active to initiate the movement and another stops the movement. Between initiation and stopping there are many other processes occurring, but we move so rapidly we seldom notice them. Slow movement enables us to pay closer attention to relaxing muscles that are not needed for the movement, aligning and sinking the body, relaxing abdominal breathing (we tend to hold it or breathe in the upper chest when concentrating), and linking and coordinating all parts of the body.

Learning t’ai chi is a complex motor process. Consider the principles of posture from the classics: Keep the head upright, hollow the chest, relax the waist, differentiate substantial and insubstantial, sink the shoulders and drop the elbows, coordinate upper and lower parts of the body, and so on. Each of these requires close attention and practice, let alone how they are all finally integrated into the flowing movements of t’ai chi. Slow and repetitive practice allows attending to each one and gradually integrating them into a fluid form.

A common joke about t’ai chi is about a practitioner who is confronted by a bully to fight. The practitioner agrees to go outside and fight, but tells the bully, “it will have to be in slow motion!” The popular misconception about t’ai chi is that the practice is just a slow motion dance, and many people are surprised that it is also a highly skilled martial art. But what about this slow motion aspect?

Different speeds produce different effects for learning. At fast speeds one can appreciate the momentum of swinging and turning as well as experience the force of strikes, but it is too fast to attend to details and subtleties. Medium speed is perhaps a balance between learning momentum and balance, but still does not provide the detailed attention necessary for exploring nuances of movement.

When moving fast through forms, one set of muscles becomes active to initiate the movement and another stops the movement. Between initiation and stopping there are many other processes occurring, but we move so rapidly we seldom notice them. Slow movement enables us to pay closer attention to relaxing muscles that are not needed for the movement, aligning and sinking the body, relaxing abdominal breathing (we tend to hold it or breathe in the upper chest when concentrating), and linking and coordinating all parts of the body.

Learning t’ai chi is a complex motor process. Consider the principles of posture from the classics: Keep the head upright, hollow the chest, relax the waist, differentiate substantial and insubstantial, sink the shoulders and drop the elbows, coordinate upper and lower parts of the body, and so on. Each of these requires close attention and practice, let alone how they are all finally integrated into the flowing movements of t’ai chi. Slow and repetitive practice allows attending to each one and gradually integrating them into a fluid form.

 

 

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

What it is to be a Samurai


Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Budo Bum. The full post may be read here.

So you want to be a samurai, eh? When I ask people who revere the samurai “What is it about the samurai that you find so great?” The most common answer is that they are impressed by the bushido code. There is a lot of good stuff found in what is termed the bushido code. Most of it predates the bushi by 1500 years or more, and the rest was added in the early 20th century when the term “bushido” was first widely used.  Most of the stuff about sacrificing oneself for one’s lord other such more extreme was only added in the early 20th century.

The parts of “bushido” that weren’t added by fascist military promoters in the 20th century are quite good. It's just that they are basically the 5 virtues of Confucius. I have a piece of calligraphy in my living room done by my budo teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan, that lists them in this order:

智  仁  義  礼  信

In Japanese they are read:

Chi or “wisdom”.

Jin or ”benevolence”

Gi or “righteousness” 

Rei or “ritual propriety”

Shin or “Trust”

 

 These all seem like really good virtues, especially if you understand a little about Confucian thought. I can’t think of anyone who would argue that chi, or wisdom, is a bad thing. Developing wisdom requires having some understanding of the world, so study and learning is encouraged as a means of acquiring wisdom. This includes active, lifelong studying for self-improvement. Once you have some wisdom and understanding, you have to act on it. Wisdom without action isn’t really wisdom.