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 ~

Monday, October 02, 2023

Choke Theory

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Tai Chi Notebook on the theory of applying chokes. The full post may be read here.

Disclaimer: Please only take medical advice from a qualified doctor. I am not a qualified doctor!

One of the things I find quite astonishing amongst ‘martial artists’ is the generally low level of understanding of the theory of choking people.

Choking is the process of stopping or reducing blood flow to the brain until the person loses consciousness (cerebral hypoxia). It usually requires a bit of squeezing force, but can be effortless and painless if applied with high levels of accuracy, and the person will just go to sleep. It’s one of the most powerful techniques in the self defence arsenal, since chokes generally work on everyone. It doesn’t’ matter if you’re big, small, strong, super strong or even Herculean, everybody goes to sleep. In Judo and BJJ done in a Gi, chokes are often done with a collar and are commonly taught.

Chokes have nothing to do with airflow. Again, I just did a quick google search and the amount of seemingly legitimate websites talking about ‘restricting airflow’ and ‘windpipe’ is insane. There is a lot of bad information out there. Chokes are about restricting the blood flow in the two jugular veins and cartoid arteries on either side of the windpipe. For a detailed analysis of what happens, check here. Being aware of exactly where you should be applying pressure when choking somebody will increase the effectiveness of your chokes massively.

Rendering somebody unconscious by stopping their airflow is also possible, and called smothering in BJJ. Smothering is usually a pretty nasty, violent thing to have done to you. Look up the Mothers Milk submission if you are curious! And a choke that involves crushing/compressing your windpipe to make it happen could also have dire consequences. Similarly, pressure on the chest can also stop you breathing and lead to unconsciousness. That’s particularly unpleasant, too.

But a good old fashioned blood choke is the safest method of rendering somebody who is aggressive instantly harmless. Quite often when they wake up the fight has gone out of them.

Chokes can be trained and practiced safely but become incredibly dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced, as we have tragically seen in many police killings of people already restrained, so only practice them under expert guidance. And if the person has gone unconscious – LET GO! Very often it is hard to tell, so check on them, get verbal feedback, don’t just keep squeezing!

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Everyday Training of the Samurai

At Ichijoji, Christopher Hellman, the author of The Samurai Mind, posted an article about the everyday training of the samurai through the ages. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here. Below the excerpt is a video featuring Omori Sogen.

It is sometimes tempting to think of the practice and training of martial arts in pre-modern times in monolithic terms, as if there was an ideal model, perhaps followed by a master in retreat at some secluded temple or shrine. On closer inspection, this seems unlikely as social conditions and the role of the warrior changed as the times moved from a period of perpetual war to one of relative peace, not to mention the varying requirements dictated by different roles and relative professional positions, even within the warrior class in Japan.

Having given that caveat, it must be conceded that traditions of martial practice in Japan enjoyed far greater continuity than those of Western Europe, even if it is generally acknowledged that the techniques that have reached us today are very likely not the same as those practiced by the founders of those traditions. One aspect that must have been of great concern at all periods was how to develop and refine skill.


There was, of course, the demanding, often repetitive physical training that must have formed the basis of most trainees’ experience. This is likely to have been intense, and yet quite unlike the military style drill common in some more modern disciplines, a development that seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of militarism in the early 20th century.  

There were other sides to practice, too. Omori Sogen (1904-1994), a 20th century Zen priest and practitioner of the Jikishinkage ryu who had clearly put plenty of time and energy into his physical practice (this was a style which includes strong elements of both kata and sparring (in the style of kendo) in its curriculum), spoke of his approach to the practice of kendo in his younger years. He explained that he developed the attitude that life itself was a perpetual series of contests. Every encounter or situation in life could be seen as a clash with an opponent in which any negative reactions he felt meant the situation had scored a point over him.


As he matured, he saw the mind that could be developed during kendo practice as being the same as that developed by the practice of Zen:

 “For example, a person who practices Kendo holds his bamboo sword and faces his opponent. If he forgets his opponent and his ego, enters samadhi, and truly experiences this state, then even when he puts his bamboo sword down, he must be able to maintain this frame of mind. Usually, however, it is a different world when he puts his bamboo sword down.

(Omori Sogen: The Art of a Zen Master by Hosokawa Dogen)


This might be seen as typical of the Zen inspired approach of the later C19th and early C20th, a time when a measure of social freedom combined with the idea that personal efforts could reshape the world (efforts that were often centered around violence, it must be said). It seemed to have a particular appeal to young men, and was a direct factor in Japan’s road to war, both with the wave of assassinations that removed some of the less militaristic politicians from office in the 1920’s and 30’s, as well as the precipitating event in the invasion of China. It must also be said that Sogen was closely involved with groups advocating such methods, (to the point of being hunted for by the police) although his own account stresses that he felt the time was not right for assassination. (He also attempted to persuade Prince Konoe to appoint a less hawkish minister of war, so it is difficult to categorize him in political terms).

This approach, to life as well as martial arts, stresses the power of intention and the strength of will over technique. To be sure, this is always a major factor in confrontation, but one that has inherent weaknesses (exemplified in aspects of Japanese military doctrine in WWII, not to mention the unfortunate tendency to veer towards extremism). Older martial disciplines were shaped by the greater range of resources, technical, psychological and social, from which they drew the elements of their curricula.


While Sogen pursued mastery in Zen, swordsmanship and calligraphy, seeing commonalities in them all, Matsura Seizan (1760-1841), writing some 150 years earlier, presents an interesting contrast. A man of wide learning, he is known principally for his literary accomplishments, in particular his multiple volume collection of essays, Kasshi Yawa (Nighttime Tales of The Year of the Rat). He came from a very different social background – he was the daimyo of Hirado, a small island just off the coast of northwest Kyushu (where the English sailor, Will Adams, landed) – and although he retired at the age of 46, prior to that he set up a school for academic and martial studies, the Ishinkan, and a library that eventually had some 10,000 volumes (Rakusaikan Bunko). He was also a noted swordsman and author of several works on that topic.

It is clear from his writings that he considered sword use far more broadly than Sogen did, which is unsurprising, as swords were routinely carried by bushi until 1876. What may be more significant is that he stresses care and attention to surroundings rather than Sogen’s emphasis on single-minded determination, as a key to understanding the deeper teachings of the art, a reflection both of the more complex demands of Seizan’s social position, as well as the perspective of swordsmanship as training for use (in protection and for ceremonial uses as well as, potentially, for war), rather than primarily for personal and spiritual development. (It may added that it is entirely possible that Sogen did not receive the deeper teachings of his style – Sogen says his teacher did not consider any of his students to be his successor.) The flavor of his writing may be seen here:

…for those who are recommended to accompany their father, older brother, or master, it is necessary to be familiar with etiquette. Because this spirit of etiquette stems from the spirit of vigilance, if you perform this duty well, it will carry over to the heart of swordsmanship. Those who feel they cannot understand this roundabout explanation do not have the real spirit of swordsmanship. But when it is time to impart the himitsu ken (lit. the secret sword) from the inner teachings of our school, those who have resolved to maintain this excellent spirit of caution in daily life will already have the necessary attitude and approach.” 

(From Joseishi Kendan in The Samurai Mind by Christopher Hellman, p.54)




Thursday, September 21, 2023

XingYiQuan Monkey

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Tai Chi Notebook, which takes a detailed look at the XingYiQuan Monkey form. The full post may be read here.


I had the good fortune to guide a group of people through some Xing Yi Monkey recently, which made me focus on it more and practice it a bit harder in the run up, which was a good thing. (I’m also available for children’s parties and Hen parties too, btw). Anyway, I wrote some notes about it, which I’ve typed up below.

A unique animal

When it comes to the animals in the natural world that we can look at for inspiration for martial methods the most obvious place to start is with one of our closes cousins, the primates. Like us, monkeys can stand upright, if only for short periods in some cases, they have hands that can grip and even a bit of limited tool usage. However, monkey is not a good place to start your journey into the 12 animals of Xing Yi.

The first thing to realise about monkey is that it breaks a lot of the ‘rules’ of Xing Yi Quan, which is one of the reason why it’s often taught last amongst the 12 animals. My teacher taught the animals as almost self-contained mini martial arts – each one had a different strategy and techniques, but Monkey wins the award for being the most unique amongst them. It really does stand up on its own as a complete martial art.

Almost all of the rest of Xing Yi Quan can be performed in formation, standing in a line with other people, since you generally move forward and backwards along a straight line (except for the turns, obviously). Whether this really harks back to an ancient heritage of soldiers moving in formation is speculation of course, but it should be noted that a row of people holding a spear and standing side by side can perform the 5 elements and most of the first 11 animal links while all facing in the same direction without impending each other, provided they all turn at the same time. That’s possibly one reason why Xing Yi is so obsessed with keeping the elbows near the ribs.

But Monkey doesn’t follow these rules – it’s breaks the line. Or more accurately, it’s what you do when the line has been broken. Attacks in monkey are reacted to and defended at diagonal angles – there’s footwork you don’t find in the rest of Xing Yi and there are changes in tempo, bursts of speed and jumping. It’s as if your nice orderly line of soldiers has been broken up and the battle has become more of a melee situation.


Monkey Pi

Pi (splitting) is the main energy from the 5 elements that is used in monkey, but while in Pi Quan the arm uses the elbow joint as a pivot point for delivering the downward chopping strike (a bit like the swing of an axe), in monkey it’s the wrist that is the pivot point. The monkey Pi is more like a slap, but don’t think that makes it ineffectual. A relaxed and loose slap delivered using good body mechanics to the head can easily result in concussions.

Monkey also tends to eschew single strikes – everything is done in quick flurries of 3. This is called a triple palm. Often the first strike is to open up their guard, or intercept a strike, the second is to hit the head, and the third can be done as a grab and pull on their limb or head, leading to your own head butt or knee strike – an action called ‘wrapping’. The back of the hand can also be used as an upward deflection to the opponents arms, for when the monkey wants to enter deep.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Mind Breath Body

Below is an excerpt from a post on the relationship between the mind, the breath and the body that was posted at Thoughts on Tai Chi blog. The full post may be read here

For quite some time, I have wondered about why some Tai Chi practitioners seem to focus on the mind as it was the only internal aspect. Sometimes I have the feeling they do something very “western”, they split the mind from the body like the brain or its functions would be something less physical and “higher”, or better, than the body. 

To me, this kind of thinking, or attitude seems “Western” and as something highly christian, and it’s something I can’t really find in Chinese tradition and culture. In Chinese thought, there is no yin without yang. Everything, including our body, has both “internal” and “external” aspects at the same time. And moreover, all aspects of our human body are interlinked, the functions of the body and changes in it affects our thoughts, emotions and everything we could call “internal”. 

In my own practice and study of Tai Chi Chuan, I have always viewed the different aspects of “mind and body” and “internal and external”, as dependent on each other, and I see every attempt to separate them as something highly “un-Chinese.”

There’s a certain relationship between the mind, body and breath which I believe is the most basic and important correlation in Tai Chi. And personally speaking, I believe that this very basic knowledge, something I will be talking about here in this article, is something of the most important and valuable a Tai chi practitioner should know and be aware about.

To sum up this relationship or correlation: 

  • If you tense the mind, your breath and body will tense up. 
  • If you relax the mind, the breath and body will relax.
  • If you tense the body, your breath and mind will tense up. 
  • If you relax the body, the breath and mind will relax.
  • If you tense the breath, your body and mind will tense up. 
  • If you relax the breath, the body and mind will relax.

Or to simplify it:

  • If you tense either mind, body or breath, the other two will tense up.
  • If you relax either mind, body or breath, the other two will relax.

The most crucial aspect though is the mind. The Chinese concept of “heart-mind” is exceptionally useful here, because it considers both deliberate thought and emotion, and sees logical thinking and emotion as dependent on each other.

Actually, emotions might control our overall thinking more than we usually feel inclined to accept. As an example, look at how we experience art. When we see a painting, our “thinking” starts from an overall impression. When we look at it, we experience it emotionally first. And then, after the emotional reaction, we try to use our logical thinking to figure out why we experience it one way or another, or rather – to confirm and justify what we “feel”. 

This relationship becomes even more evident if we look at children’s reactions when they look at different paintings. They know immediately if they think it’s ugly or pretty, but often they can not explain why. 

All our thinking, every thought we create, fire off physical/ neurological reactions in our bodies. If someone sees a person run, the nervous system in the viewer’s body, and especially the parts that are actively involved in the actions watched, are activated as if he or she was actually running. And if we only think about running, our body is activated in the same way and it prepares itself for running. 

This is why just “thinking” about doing the form and going through it just while sitting down can be almost as valuable as doing it, especially for beginners. You don’t get the physical “doing”, but the nervous system will be activated as if you were doing it and the repetitions while “thinking” it will be stored in the muscle memory. Well, if you have time and space for doing it, you should. But if you are traveling a lot, or daily, this could be a compliment to your actual practice. 

Anyway, let’s go forward. What you need to know is that every single thought and everything you “think” will either act “relaxing” or “calming” on all of your body and on your breath. 

The first “problem” we encounter when we want to calm down our minds, is that we shape words with our thoughts. Every word we quietly “think” for ourselves in our brains, will activate and affect the muscles in the mouth, tongue and jaws as we were talking. Mostly it will cause movements and muscle contractions, and if it’s not, “thinking words” will still activate the nervous system linked to “talk” in these areas. 

And second, all of our thinking will also affect the breath. Calm thoughts will calm it down, because the physical activity and activity of the nervous system will calm down. Faster and less calm thoughts will activate the “talking areas” more and also make the heart rate go up and the breath go faster. And obviously, the opposite happens if you “think” more calmly and slower. 

But here is also a great opportunity. By learning to relax better physically, you can eventually learn to relax your mind and more or less stop your thinking by will. You see, if you relax your body, all of your body, and the breath will automatically go slower and sink down. This will also force your mind to become calmer as it needs a certain neurological activity to work fast. 

The first step in your own practice, if you already haven’t practiced this, should be to create more awareness about the tensions in your face, jaws and neck, and also in your hands. you can practice to relax while sitting or standing naturally, it doesn’t matter much. If you keep your focus, attention and awareness on these areas, and try to relax, just keep still and not move, you will find that your mind and breath will also calm down.


Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Longevity in Training

Among other things, martial artists are athletes. As such we can learn from athletes in other endeavors how we can continue at the top of our game for a long, long time.

Below is an excerpt from an article that appears at The Art of Manliness blog, describing the incredible sports longevity of Nolan Ryan. There are lessons to be had. The full post may be read here.

I turned 40 last December. 

No, I haven’t had a midlife crisis. 

But that number did cause me to self-reflect. 

How did the first 20 years of adulthood go?

What can I do to make the next 20 years great?

Around that same time, I happened to watch a documentary about one of my childhood heroes: baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan. 

That movie showed up in my life at the right time. 

What caught my attention in the documentary was that Nolan Ryan made his 40s the most productive and successful part of his career. 

Despite his age, or maybe because of it, from when he was 39 until he retired at 46, Ryan did his best pitching.

Between the ages of 19 and 28, he averaged 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings. 

Between the ages of 29 and 38, he averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

Between the ages of 39 and 46, he averaged 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings. 

He even notched two of his seven record-setting no-hitters while in his 40s. 

Not only did Ryan’s professional success impress me, but his personal success in midlife was admirable as well. His marriage to his high school sweetheart, Ruth, continued (and continues today) to thrive, and he raised three good, down-to-earth kids.

When you watch clips of Nolan Ryan on the mound in his 40s, he’s got a presence that commands respect. He looks like a man who knows the talent he’s got and will continue to express that talent for as long as he can. He’s got the grit. 

I started calling that quiet, determined confidence that Ryan exuded in midlife “Nolan Ryan Energy.” 

It’s the kind of energy I want to foster in my life during the next ten years. 

So I dug into some biographies on this legendary pitcher to find ways to nurture my own Nolan Ryan Energy. Here’s what I uncovered. It’s helped me as I’ve started navigating my 40s. If you’re into or approaching midlife, maybe it will help you, too.

Train Hard and Smart

A key to Nolan Ryan’s middle-aged success was his rigorous and innovative training regimen developed with his trainers Gene Colman and Tom House. 

Instead of taking it easy in his 40s, Ryan spent five hours a day, six days a week on physical training. Before Nolan Ryan, doing marathon workouts like this was unheard of in baseball. Players might hit a few weight machines, perhaps do a little stretching, and call it a day. But Ryan understood that if he wanted to continue to thrive as a pitcher in his 40s, he needed to continue to develop his strength and endurance, and the way you develop those qualities is through hard training. 

Weightlifting played a big role in Ryan’s exercise routine. He loved squatting because it helped him develop his lower body power which was the key to his trademark windup and delivery. 

After weights, he would run foul pole to foul pole for laps and then end his conditioning workout with five 60-yard sprints. 

Ryan stuck to this workout schedule religiously. When the Rangers traveled to other cities to play, he made sure there was a gym he could use to get his workouts in.

Even though Ryan went hard with his training, he also understood that the body of a 40-something differs from the body of a 20-something. The stress and strain of heavy exercise could wear down his joints and connective tissues. Moreover, muscles don’t recover as quickly as they get older. 

So besides training hard, Ryan trained smart in his 40s. Working with Tom House, he devised innovative training protocols for his aging body. He dedicated considerable time to water-based exercises to minimize joint stress. He spent a lot of time stretching. He loved riding a stationary bike after a game while he talked to the press because it allowed him to get his cardio in without stressing his tendons and ligaments.

Takeaway: For many men, their 40s are a season when they let their foot off the gas. Physical activity slides to the back burner as other things take priority in their lives. Even if you’re not a professional athlete, physical health is the foundation for remaining dynamic and effective into middle age. Find a workout regimen that suits your stage in life and do it with vigor and consistency. 

Be Open to New Ideas

By the time many men hit their 40s, they’ve developed a well-worn rut in how they approach life. It makes sense. They’ve likely discovered strategies and tactics that have worked for them, so why change things up?

But sometimes staying the course with what worked for you in the first twenty years of manhood will only lead to stagnation in midlife. 

Nolan Ryan understood this tendency and its potential trap, so he countered it by remaining open to new ideas. He was, as his wife Ruth put it, “a sponge wanting more information.” He would seek mentors and coaches who could help him continue to succeed and thrive into midlife.

Ryan’s relationship with Tom House, his pitching coach, illustrates this openness. House’s innovative approaches to training included utilizing new technologies, like the Motion Analysis System. Despite his initial skepticism, Ryan gave House the benefit of the doubt and let himself get analyzed by the computer. This led to a revelation about a subtle flaw in Ryan’s pitching mechanics — a tilt of the head — that was impacting his overall performance. 

When faced with the physical demands of pitching nine-inning games and the toll they took on his body as he aged, Ryan displayed adaptability again. He developed new training protocols with House, incorporating unorthodox methods like throwing footballs for warm-ups. Many pitchers thought Ryan was a weirdo for throwing footballs before a game, but once they tried it, they discovered what Ryan knew: it allowed a pitcher to loosen up without putting too much stress on his arm.

Takeaway: Instead of getting stuck in your ways in your 40s, be open to new ideas. Read new books. Keep making new friends. Find mentors. Maybe hire a coach to help you improve your career or physical fitness. To thrive in midlife, keep what continues to work for you, but do some exploring too

90 Year Old Martial Artist

Folk martial artist and old Chinese doctor Yang Deyou learned martial arts with his teacher at the age of seven, and taught at the Nanjing Jingwu Sports Association in his middle age. Yang Lao inherited the authentic Tiangangmen of Southern Shaolin, and is good at Nanquan, Tanzu Tiangangquan, Tiangang Sanshou and Shaolin Plum Blossom series There are more than 100 traditional routines in the Luohan series of boxing weapons. Yang Lao is unique in that he is ninety years old, but his movements have no signs of aging at all. His moves are fast and sharp, and he can roll and fly at will.