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 ~


Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Time to Go


Sometimes, it's time to leave a dojo or school we have been associated with for a long time. There are endless reasons to do this.

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kenshi 24/7 about the author's decision to leave the dojo he had been associated with for over 20 years.

 The full post may be read here.

...

So, yeah. I’ve been a member of the dojo in question for twenty years. I was appointed to a teaching position pretty early on, and turned down a director position once about ten years ago, before accepting it finally about four or so years ago. In the meantime my official position evolved from “instructor” to “senior instructor” (just a made-up title for a senior member under director).  This was fine, but by about 15 years in I already had the inkling that I had outgrown the dojo.  

( “Outgrown” can mean many things: in this case it refers not only the technical sense, but the groups use as a place of shugyo. ) 

My sensei passed away in 2021 and it is really at that point where I should’ve left. As I said above, I was ready to leave before but I decided to stay because he always showed me kindness and I respected him, a decision I don’t regret. Anyway, so after he was no longer around the group morphed into something else. A senior member who I respected left early on in this process, and I should’ve probably exited at the same time. For better or worse I tried to stick with it, but in the end I knew it was no longer the place for me. 

This is not the first time I have left a dojo. In 2014 another sensei who I respected passed away, and in 2016, after 11 years in the dojo, I felt as if I had no choice and departed. That time was different because I wanted to stay but felt that I was being kind of picked-on by the new teacher (hachidan = infallible). I already had a role in the dojo and would’ve almost certainly taken up a more senior position soon had this not happened. I remain close friends with my peers in the dojo (all of whom run the group now) and they often ask me to come. About once a year I pack my bogu and shinai and visit the dojo for some degeiko, but never go when the head instructor is there – which is unfortunate because I actually like his kendo…

The title of this article – “Ri” – you of course recognise: it is the last part of shu-ha-RI. Just to refresh your memory, this is from an older article of mine:

The ri (“separation”) stage is one that few ascend to. It is the point where the student has finally soaked up all that their master can teach and, combining it with their own discoveries in the ha stage (both the good and the bad), they create something uniquely theirs. They now become independent of their teacher.

The term Shu-ha-ri (“protect – break – separate”) comes originally, as you would expect, from military tactics. During the 1700s it began to be used in Sado circles, eventually being picked up and popularised for use in budo by Chiba Shusaku sometime in the 1800s. 

[ btw other terms were also imported from cultural arts into budo in the late Edo period, e.g. Shin-gyo-so (Shodo) and Jo-ha-kyu (Noh). ]

In very general terms, this shu-ha-ri cycle exists for anything that is taught and learned. The process of learning/mastery seems to be far longer in budo circles than in many other forms of study, at least nowadays. Is budo mysteriously somehow more difficult to acquire, or is there something else to it? If you look back a few decades or so you will see that the very long gestation time we see nowadays didn’t seem to be the norm. An easy example is that kendo grades only went to godan (people involved with increasing the grades post-war later wrote that in hindsight they shouldn’t have bothered). Anyway, I seem to have gone off-topic.

I guess my point is that after many years of practice at a particular place, it is natural to feel a re-adjustment of your position. You get older, your life changes, people come in and go out. Maybe the older members, including your sensei, pass away or are now no longer able to keiko, and you find yourself in a position of responsibility. As you have aged so to have your priorities changed, and maybe even your passion. Your role in the dojo as well as the dojos role in your life have transformed. Things happen.

I kind of fought my initial feeling to leave the dojo, but it built up over time to such an extent that it was probably obvious to everybody that it was no longer the place for me… it is time I made my own place.

 

 

Monday, June 03, 2024

Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu


Over at the excellent blog, Ichijoji, there is a good article unpacking Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, which is the oldest surviving martial tradition in Japan. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

 

 Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryū is one of the oldest extant schools of martial arts in Japan, with an unbroken lineage from late medieval times, blessed (until recently) with an open and charismatic sōke who oversaw the teaching and passing on of his skills and knowledge to the next generation while managing to maintain quality control at the same time as expanding its popularity.

It was also notable as the principal koryū studied by Donn Draeger, and through his influence became the point of entry for many non-Japanese interested in older martial traditions. Because of this connection, it was also featured in the BBC documentary ’Way of the Warrior’, becoming familiar to another generation of practitioners outside Japan and it was because of both of these that I learnt about it first myself.

It has a broad technical repertoire utilizing a number of weapons and, unusually in traditional Japanese martial arts, involves quite long kata which are done at speed (and also, at least at one time and depending on the circumstances, also practiced out of doors). Seen from an outsider’s perspective, it is often difficult to tell exactly what is happening in these kata, especially as targets are substituted for the real target to allow a longer sequence and to hide the true nature of the attacks from outsiders. There are several videos online of Otake Risuke demonstrating and explaining parts of these kata, and one can only assume this is the tip of the iceberg. Although such explanations give us an insight into the meanings of the kata, it must be viewed as a partial explanation of the system as a whole - there is, no doubt, very much more that is kept within the teachings. However, it gives enough to have good idea of how deceptive surface appearances can be. 

At first glance, the kata appear more combative than those of other schools - there is much clashing of bokken and the pace is fast. In fact, they look like the kind of choreography you might see in a movie. When Otake explains the techniques it opens a window to understanding, but there is more left unexplained. Two of the points he stressed were that targets are predominantly those areas that would be left minimally protected by armour, and that the targets which are shown in the kata are not the real targets. Strikes made in the kata are typically blocked (for want of a better word) by the opponent’s bokken, or avoided, and although it is sometimes easy to see where the cut is aimed, often the intended target is purposely obscured.

Looking at the kata more closely, there are several other points common to much of Japanese swordsmanship. Many schools of sword stress the ability to make a straight downward cut; their kata feature this as an attack (albeit often an unrealistic one) and often begin with a number of cuts that are obviously not directed at the opponent. (You can see this in the introductory kata of the TSKSR.) Putting aside considerations of reigi (proper behaviour and respect, custom, even religion) that may have influenced these kata (and these aspects should not necessarily be downplayed) what purpose does this have? I believe it is intimately bound up with the style of fighting, one which relies on assessment of line and distance, and one which sees attack as the best defence. These initial cuts are a means of establishing one’s own awareness of the line of the sword, the line which you use to attack and, vitally, must defend against. Understanding and being able to see this line is a vital component of effective swordsmanship: creating and manipulating this line within oneself is an important step towards this.

 


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.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Baguazhang's Single Palm Change


The Single Palm Change is the fundamental technique in Baguazhang. Below is an old video of a teacher demonstrating many facets of the SPC.


Thursday, February 22, 2024

Monday, February 19, 2024

Practice and Resistance


The author Steven Pressfield (author of Gate of Fire and the Legend of Bagger Vance) frequently writes about topics that while specifically are about writing, apply more widely to art in general and to martial arts. Below is an excerpt from a post about Practice and Resistance. The full post may be read here.

Why do we have a practice at all?

I have my own reasons, some of which definitely go deep into the airy-fairy, but the most obvious and the most practical is this:

We have a practice in order to confront and overcome Resistance.

A practice by definition defeats Resistance because it produces work every day with total focus and dedication. And a practice is lifelong, so we know we’ll never quit.

One could say that a practice is “habit.” But in truth a practice goes way beyond that. A practice enlists habit. It implies habit (if we have a practice, we do it every day, i.e. it can be called a habit) but it is habit only in the sense that giving birth is exercise.

Likewise, if we said the purpose of a practice is to overcome Resistance, we would be vastly understating the depth and effect of having a practice.

Overcoming Resistance is a side-benefit of having a practice. 

For myself, I was years into the act of having a practice before I even thought about its efficacy as a strategy to overcome my own Resistance. Resistance was (and is) a given for me. It wakes up with me. I know I will have to face it every day, and I know it will never diminish or relent or go away.

But I have a practice. That’s all I need to know. I know at a certain time of day I will go into a certain room. I will enter with a very specific mindset, i.e. “Leave your problems (and your ego) outside.” And I will engage in a very specific (though infinitely varied in the moment) enterprise.

 

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Norimitsu Odachi


The Norimitsu Odachi is a huge katana. I don't believe it was ever intended to actually be used, but rather a showpiece by the sword smith or perhaps a piece of artwork for some daimyo. Below is a short video.

 

 


Saturday, February 10, 2024

Some of the Inner Work of Practice


As martial artists, we can learn from other, non-martial activities, which I refer to as "Budo with a small B." Among these is weight lifting.

Like martial arts, weight lifters can ride on the surface of what their discipline has to teach, or they can go more deeply and plumb the depths.

Below is an excerpt from an article written by Jordan Castro, which appeared at Harpers, who is a novelist and happens to take his weight training very serioudly. The full article may be read here.

...

Now comes the best part: The reason I came to the gym in the first place. I experience a sensation I think of as “opening up.” I receive new eyes. When blood flows into your muscles it changes your eyes—like wearing glasses. It starts in your blood and stretches out over the world, where everything remains the same, but different. It’s as if each color contains a deeper, richer layer of itself, invisible during the rote machinery of life—working on my laptop, making food, driving my car—which only gets revealed when blood makes muscle thick and full. Before, I saw colors, but now I can actually see; before, I could breathe, but now I can actually breathe. Anxiety disappears; stress disappears; the stories that I tell myself in language disappear. I experience something like pure phenomenological Life. And just as Life can only be understood in and through Life—revealing itself in the living ongoingly—the pump can only be understood through the pump. One cannot theorize or think their way into a pump; my pecs quiver; the neon red sign that reads the montanari bros. new haven the super gym becomes redder; the black floor and black weights become blacker—everything becomes both sharper and softer; clearer and warm; the taste of iron fills my mouth; I shake my arms and check the clock so I know when to begin my next set. When a minute passes, I lay back down and disappear.

This, in so many words, is the activity that increasing numbers of us engage in on a regular basis—that has changed the lives of millions of Americans in recent years. Roughly half of Americans say they exercise at least a few times a week. Since 2010, the number of people with a gym membership has increased by 32 percent, to 66.5 million people, a growth that is expected to continue. And weight lifting is now the second most popular form of exercise in gyms in the United States. More people are exercising, and the way they are exercising has changed.

I will stick to “lifting” to describe what is in reality several types of exercise, each with its own distinct methods and goals, but with enough in common to be comfortably grouped together. Each involves moving one’s body against some kind of resistance (weights, exercise bands, bars, the floor), with the intention of changing one’s body (usually to become stronger, leaner, or both). There is Olympic weight lifting, which focuses on two barbell lifts (the snatch and the clean and jerk); bodybuilding, which focuses on aesthetics (size, conditioning, and symmetry); powerlifting, which focuses on trying to lift as much weight as possible with the squat, bench press, and dead lift; “powerbuilding,” a mix of powerlifting and bodybuilding; calisthenics, which primarily utilizes body weight exercises like push-up and pull-up variations; high-intensity resistance training; and more.

Until recently, lifting was associated almost exclusively with a specific kind of meathead: crude, tattooed, ragey, offensive. Gyms were viewed as “sweaty dungeons,” and lifters seen as “unintelligent,” Natalia Mehlman Petrzela writes in her book Fit Nation. When my dad lifted in the early Eighties, as he tells it, men at the gym would openly shoot steroids while sitting on old equipment. But now, all kinds of people lift. Daniel Kunitz, author of the book Lift, has written about authors and their exercise routines: Kant, Thoreau, Hemingway, Nietzsche, Roth. Most enjoyed cardio, such as walking—or they engaged in some oddly specific movement, like Jack Kerouac, who said he would “stand on [his] head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with [his] toe tips, while balanced.” It’s only recently that more people have begun to lift weights, and that the older mode of hypermasculine aggression has been replaced with—or at least accompanied by—something cleaner and more health-conscious.

 

 

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Chunliang Al Huang Documentary


Over at Bloke on the Path, a documentary about Chunliang Al Huang was posted in two parts. Mr Huang helped promote taijiquan as a part of the Human Potential Movement in the 70's and 80's. The first part is below. The second part may be watched here.

 

Sunday, February 04, 2024

A Scientific Approach to Taijiquan Practice


Over at Thoughts on Tai Chi, there was a post about applying the scientific method to ones practice. An excerpt is below. The full  post may be read here.

 

I was thinking about healthcare in ancient China, not necessarily in terms of “Traditional Chinese Medicine”, or “TCM”, but more how advanced the overall healthcare was in older times. I thought I should do some digging to find more about this subject and luckily I stumbled on some very interesting articles covering the Han dynasti, the same time as the Huangdi Neijing and the Suwen, which is the most important of the historical texts on Chinese medicine. So I read more about this time era, and was surprised by my findings. I bet you can’t even imagine how advanced China was at this time.

I will reveal more of my findings, but first I think I should explain more about why this era is important. The Han-dynasty stretches from 202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD, and preceded by the short lived Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE) starting with the reign of the person we here call “the Yellow Emperor,” or Qin Shi Huangdi.

This period, with these two dynasties especially, were very important for the future of whole China. Huangdi means “Yellow Ruler” in Chinese, or “emperor”. This was the first emperor of China, who united the country. Amongst other things, he standardized the Chinese characters, units of weight and measure, built roads, and started to unite guard towers together into what today is known as the Great Wall.

His own time and the following dynasty was a time of development and science. A lot of thoughts and science from that time influence Chinese people even today, especially when it comes to attitudes to foods, exercise and general health. Much of the philosophy of Chinese medicine and “internal exercise” as what is today called qigong and neigong stems from this time as well.

So why is all this important? Well, because the philosophy around Tai Chi Chuan is influenced by this time era as well. A lot of concepts, terms and ideas are found in different kinds of practice and ideas of neigong, qigong and Tai Chi can also be found in the Huangdi Suwen.

But it’s more to this, and it’s here where the rest of the story fits in. You see, science, medicine and healthcare, were all much more advanced in this time than what most people here understand. What is called TCM today is just a part of a much bigger picture. There was indeed some of the traditional Chinese medicine and the same kind of philosophy we still find today in TCM, the foundations of TCM. But at the same time, the scientific approach and methods we can find in Western medicine and healthcare were also prevalent.

Already in the Han dynasty, there were not only hospitals, but they also had mobile teaching and research units, and health stations. They had an advanced understanding of anesthesia, and aseptic techniques were also quite advanced for their time. This also made surgeries possible. Surgeries 2000 years ago? Really? Yes, they had medical surgeons performing surgeries like cesarean sections, dental extractions, and even the removal of tumors. They recorded the patients and maintained detailed medical records for patients.

They also develop sophisticated diagnostic techniques and they used dietary therapy amongst other things. But when it comes to diagnostic techniques, herbal medicines and diet, the so called “Chinese traditional medicine” is present as well.

In fact, back in those times, “western” type of medicine and “traditional Chinese medicine” were not separated. It all existed as a whole. There was a scientific understanding and a holistic approach together at the same time.

So what is good to know is that the separation into a “western medicine” on one hand and a “traditional Chinese medicine” on the other hand, is in fact a relatively modern, new “thing”. Originally, they were parts of the same whole and it was never supposed they would be separated like this.

So what does this mean for us studying Tai Chi and similar “stuff”? Well, it means that the philosophy and concepts we use in our own practice were never meant to exist in a vacuum or as an autonomous system of thought. Instead, this terminology, or what we call “philosophy”, was meant to be used together with, and as tools for, a scientific approach. And for many hundreds of years ago, it was used in science.

 


Thursday, January 25, 2024

Leave Your Troubles Outside


As martial artists, we can learn from other athletes and artists. Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Steven Pressfield's blog (author of Bagger Vance and Gate of Fire). The full post may be read here.

My great friend and mentor (and also my first boss), David Leddick, spent several years as a ballet dancer with the Metropolitan Opera. David trained with a celebrated teacher named Margaret Craske.

Here’s what he wrote in his book, I’m Not For Everyone. Neither Are You.

I studied ballet at the old Metropolitan Opera when Antony Tudor, the famous choreographer, was the head of the ballet school. In fact, Margaret Craske was the teacher most students considered to be more important.  She had danced with Pavlova in the ’20s. 

Miss Craske instructed us: “Leave your problems outside the classroom.”

Such good advice. And in that hour and a half of intense concentration on every part of your body, the music, the coordinating with other dancers—you really couldn’t think about your troubles and it was great escaping them. You emerged much more relaxed and self-confident.

We worked hard. We never had a sick day. You went on even if you had to lie down in the wings until you were needed. No one thought this was unusual. 

At the Met, the powers that be were only interested in two things: how well you sang and how well you danced. Your race didn’t count, your background, sexual preferences, family, none of that mattered. You had to deliver.  That was the sole standard. It was great.

In later careers, all of this has stood me in good stead. I never had to work that hard in any of the various worlds I entered. I knew the quality of the work I was doing. Dancing at the Met was a wonderful experience and a wonderful preparation for the rest of my life.

 


Saturday, January 20, 2024

Stoked to Practice



Sometimes our daily practice becomes drudgery. It's sometimes difficult to be enthusiastic about our practice every day, and yet it is essential that we do. 

Below is an excerpt that appeared at Zen Habits, while not specifically speaking of martial arts practice, talks precisely about what it is we need to do to maintain our enthusiasm. The full post may be read here.

 

 

Cultivating Stokedness

By Leo Babauta

How many days do you wake up excited for life, stoked to be alive and take on the day’s challenges?

If your answer is “often,” then congratulations! That’s an amazing way to live life — but you’re in the minority.

Most people are unenthusiastic about their lives, not looking forward to what the day has in store. That’s not a bad thing — if that’s how you’re feeling, it’s just how you’re feeling. There isn’t a “right” way to be.

That said, if you’d like to be more stoked about life, then there are ways to cultivate that. We’ll explore some of those ways in this post.

Living a Life of Stokedness

What would it be like if you felt more excited by life each day? Or by what you were taking on at work, in your relationships, in your workouts?

Life is incredible, and we are immensely privileged to be alive in this miraculous world. We don’t always appreciate it — and that’s OK, to not always be grateful or excited — but there is the possibility of feeling more awe and wonder in our days.

Let’s say you wake up and you have a bunch of work to do (in addition to other things going on in your life). You could feel a sense of burden, overwhelm, and anxiety about all of it … or you could feel really excited by the meaningful things you’re taking on. It’s not that one approach is right and the other is wrong, but they are entirely different approaches and experiences. We have a choice.

What if you took on each thing with a sense of wonder, and an open heart? What if each act of your day were an expression of your love?

What Gets in the Way

All of that sounds good, but there are things that get in the way of living life this way:

  • A default of not being enthusiastic about life. This comes from years of having our enthusiasm dampened, from feeling disappointment over and over, from learning to be jaded.
  • A sense of pointlessness that comes when we feel like we’ve failed at things over and over, or that people have let us down over and over.
  • Built-up pain from things that have hurt us, to the point where little things can agitate the wounds in our hearts, easily causing frustration, anger, explosions of outrage.
  • Built-up fear from things that have gone wrong, leading to a general sense of anxiety and overwhelm, and worrying about everything.
  • Built-up resentment and anger from injustices and offenses, large and small.
  • Built-up self-judgment from all the things we think we’re doing wrong, failing at, etc.
  • Built-up sadness from many losses, both large and small, so that the world and people around us can easily trigger sadness.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but I hope you can get a sense of what gets in the way of our enthusiasm and stokedness about life. Our hearts are closed more than open.

There is nothing wrong with any of this — it’s a natural consequence of life! We build up conditioning from lots of things that happen to us, from grief and loss to hurt and anger and fear. It builds up, and we lose the open-heartedness with the world.

Releasing the Blockers

If all of the above represents blockers in our hearts, then wouldn’t it be freeing to be able to release these blockers?

The process to release the built-up blockers is simple but not necessarily easy:

  • When the world triggers a conditioned blocker (anger, resentment, fear, sadness, hurt, overwhelm, anxiety, jealousy, grief, etc.) … notice that it’s there, and decide to release it.
  • Sit still for a few minutes, and let yourself feel whatever you feel. Relax, and allow the feeling as fully as you can. Surrender to it, allow it to just be an experience of energy in the moment.
  • Know that you’ll be OK. It’s just energy, and if you relax instead of resisting the energy, it will just pass through you. That said … only do it if the intensity is a 7 out of 10 or lower. You don’t need to work with a 10/10 intensity, unless you have a therapist working with you.
  • After it passes, give yourself some gratitude and love. You have released some of your blockage.

It might take a number of these kinds of releasing sessions to actually release a blocker, but the more you’re able to surrender and feel it, letting it pass through you, the less it will remain in you. You’ll be freed.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Training Ideas: Reduce the Restraints


In our training, we talk a lot about discipline and motivation in getting our behinds out there and getting the work in. In the Yin and Yang of things, there is also another approach we can take: to reduce or remove our restraints.

At The Art of Manliness, there is a post that discusses this. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

It’s a new year, so many men are thinking about making changes in their lives. 

Maybe you want to lose weight. 

Maybe you want to get up earlier. 

Maybe you want to spend less time playing video games.

Maybe you want to be less of a grump. 

If you’re like many men who desire to make changes in their lives, you’ve likely attempted personal change but failed. 

You’ve started diets, tried workout plans, and created budgets, only to give up on them a few weeks or months later. 

What gives? 

When we flounder in our attempts to improve ourselves, we typically chalk up the failure to a lack of motivation or discipline. So we read books and watch YouTube videos on increasing our motivation and discipline. But they don’t seem to help much. We might feel an initial increase in drive, but then it peters out after a few days.

Like most men, I’ve had varying degrees of success with different self-improvement goals. Why do I succeed with some and not others? As a father, I’m keen on helping my kids develop noble habits and desires. How can I better nurture their progress? As a guy in the business of “helping men become better men,” I’m always looking for insights that can help me fulfill that professional vision.

So I’ve been thinking and reading about personal change this past year. My study has taken me to psychology and behavioral science, of course. But it’s also led me to philosophy. Personal change isn’t just a matter of neurology or psychology; an element of soul is also involved. Some changes are more soulful than others. 

Over the next year, I plan to share some of the things I’ve been thinking about and learning about personal change. 

But to kick things off, I want to introduce you to a theory of how personal change happens that has significantly influenced my thinking about this aspect of the human experience. 

...

When it comes to making a change, we typically think of increasing our driving forces — things like motivation and discipline. 

Increasing your driving forces can get you much of the way towards your goals. I’m a particularly strong believer in the idea that motivation — having an inherent desire to engage in a pursuit — is essential in achieving success in any endeavor. 

But people often overlook the significance of restraining forces in successfully transforming their habits. Dr. Ross Ellenhorn, the author of How We Change (And Ten Reasons Why We Don’t), compares the interplay between driving and restraining forces to heading out on a road trip: you may have a full tank of fuel (driving forces), but if you run into a traffic jam (restraining forces), you’re not going to get anywhere.

So it’s worth flipping things around from how you may normally think about goal-setting to consider the restraining forces side of the equation. 

Kurt Lewin was the intellectual grandfather of the contemporarily influential psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Thinking Fast and Slow fame. In an interview on the Freakonomics podcast, Kahneman described a key insight he got from Lewin about how to help someone else change that also applies to changing your own life:

Diminishing the restraining forces is a completely different kind of activity because instead of asking, ‘How can I get him or her to do it?’ it starts with a question of, ‘Why isn’t she doing it already?’ Very different question. ‘Why not?’ Then you go one by one systematically, and you ask, ‘What can I do to make it easier for that person to move?’ 

I love that question to ask yourself when you’re troubleshooting failed attempts at personal change: Why am I not doing this thing already? 

Why am I not already eating right? 

Why am I not already exercising regularly? 

Why haven’t I already curbed my drinking?

Maybe perfectionism is holding you back from sticking to a diet. Instead of giving up completely when you don’t keep your diet with exactitude, perhaps you can give up the perfectionist mindset and settle for good enough 80% of the time.

Maybe you’ve overextended yourself in time commitments and don’t have the time to dedicate to a regular exercise routine. Do an audit and bow out of some commitments to free up some time. 

Maybe you’re ready to quit drinking, but all your friends want to do is go to the bar every night. Expand your social circle and find new friends who don’t center their socializing around alcohol. 

You don’t have to eliminate all the restraining forces in your life. Some restraining forces you’ll never be able to get rid of, like family members or a disability. But you can always find ways to work around them or diminish their influence on a desired outcome. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Musashi the Artist


Besides being a famous swordsman, Musashi was an artist. At Ichigoji, there is an article about his famous dragon painting. An excerpt is below. The full post, with accompanying photographs, may be read here.

 

Another year draws to a close and the Year of the Dragon begins here in Japan (yes – it is a somewhat odd combination of the Chinese lunar New Year that begins a couple of months later, and the western New Year).


The imperial connections of the dragon in China are well-known; in Japan there was a strong connection with esoteric arts and Zen Buddhism in particular (at least in art) where they are seen as protectors of the Buddhist law. In this respect, they are still to be seen on the ceilings of many temples in Kyoto – some of them dating back to the late Muromachi  period (late 1500s). Some of these are on public display, some in areas only open to the public during the special openings in the spring and autumn, and some are rarely to be seen at all - perhaps only when peering through the wooden slats into the gloom. Some of these are very evocative, some less so, but they certainly have a power in situation that is difficult to reproduce in photographs.

 

The same may be said for the many dragons depicted on sliding doors and screens, some of them very powerful, others quite strange (or even both in the case of some of Kaiho Yusho’s paintings, where the dragons loom out of the darkness as presences quite different from the scaled creatures of Chinese lore. I wrote about some of the great dragon paintings (Master Dragon Painters), and strongly recommend seeing them in the flesh if possible. The reality of a painting is more than the image itself - the setting, the lighting, the size, the texture, the sense of antiquity, - all these add something to the experience that make it more than visual alone. With ink, the age of the paper, the way the ink has sunk in, faded or worn off – the patina of age, I suppose you could say – is part of the work. 


For whatever reason, I have always found the works of Miyamoto Musashi particularly powerful in the flesh (not something I’ve had the chance of doing very often, mind you), but I have not had the chance to see his dragon painting. Of course, he is better known for the more modest creatures he depicted, things he had seen with his own eyes, but at least one dragon painting survives (and there is supposed to be another, even more elusive one, too).

 






The dragon faces left into space, but his eyes look elsewhere. The look on his face is mild, even sheepish, recalling some of Kaiho Yusho’s dragons. (It is quite likely that Musashi had seen and perhaps made copies of Yusho’s work). What is he looking at? 


As I’ve written before, there is recognition now in art circles that the pairing of dragon and tiger had strong associations with military divination, and these connotations would have been familiar to many warriors. It is possible that this painting was one of a pair – I have seen it suggested there could have been a tiger, or as in the case of Kaiho Yusho’s works, another dragon. Perhaps the eyes are a clue.