Monday, September 28, 2009

Why your martial arts class sucks

If there is anything the Internet has taught me, it's that people love lists....Here you go...10 reasons martial arts classes suck:
  1. No understanding of what a martial art is. Martial arts is learning and training the skill of fighting a fully resisting and attacking opponent. It isn’t easy to train this and there are a few different strategies….all flawed to some degree. If we just lay into each other 100% with no protection  a la “fight club”, we will spend most of our time injured. Pads and protection change things, rules change things, tuishou is not fighting, chisao is not fighting, wrestling is not fighting, judo is not fighting, boxing is not fighting. All of these activities have pros and cons. The important thing is that there is some understanding and discussion of why you use a training method and how it relates to actual fighting and why you are doing it that way. Learning to fight requires actually doing the activity of fighting at least occasionally or at least trying to replicate actual fighting as closely as possible with modifications for safety reasons. Most martial arts that work, train from 0% to 80% and then occasionally go 100% or have reasons for not doing so. My classes don’t go 100% and I have to consider and reconsider those reasons often(some people dispute my reasons and I understand that) but I would be the first person to say you gotta fight to learn to fight. Chisao alone won’t do it. It’s a training method. Also, a martial art should use techniques, principles and/or strategy to overcome an opponent’s potentially greater speed, size and or strength. All this can be ignored if the stated purpose of the class is to do something other than fight.
  2. Series of movements are trained on an unresisting and or defensive opponent. This is the type of training where someone throws a punch and the receiving party then does 2 to 20 unanswered moves with the intent of “chaining together” moves. This kind of training ritual is pretty common in Youtube videos. Also in this category is training to attack based on how the opponent will react defensively…”You feint to his eyes and when he squints you grab his left arm and pull, when he pulls back you grab his neck, etc.” If you use this method, get ready to freak out when the person you are fighting attacks rather than reacts to you. You see a lot of this kind of thing in useless self-defense classes. Most training should be spent in non-cooperative exercises.
  3. No appreciation for size, strength, speed and fitness. It IS possible to overcome these things, but it isn’t easy. You have to use superior strategy and then optimize these factors as much as possible. If you are getting simple answers for dealing with these issues, watch out. 
  4. Guru or lineage worship. Here’s a secret…nobody is that awesome. Ok, maybe they are, maybe they are a genius, but you know what. If they are that much of a genius, they are probably a shitty teacher. There are very few things that you can only learn if you are taught it by someone who was taught it by someone else. Anyone can discover anything or improve on anything. Sure it's great to have a great teacher and a great training environment improves learning a lot, but anyone who tells you they are the only way has something to sell. They want your money or your attention. Good places to train create environments where people can learn, create and share. The group learns faster than one person.
  5. Lack of concern for safety, manners and training efficiency If lots of people are getting hurt regularly and no one cares, what the hell? Martial arts is about violence and to train that isn’t easy so we have to figure out ways to be safe. Don’t get me wrong, people will get hurt when you are pushing the envelope, but that is the way anything competitive works. That is why there has to be concern about safety. As for manners, people should be communicating about manners and the way to act, hygiene and that kind of thing. It shouldn’t be “cool” to hurt someone intentionally, to bully someone or to work out on filthy mats. As for training efficiency, people should be communicating about the best way to train that doesn’t just involve repeating movements.
  6. Higher level  people don't move more gracefully and more relaxed or don't get better results. Oh man, this one gets me. If you want to learn something like martial arts from someone, the people who are good at it should move well. They should have some relaxed mojo and confidence. If they don’t, why study the art.
  7. Non-stop political infighting and status battles. People who can’t fight have more status. This crap can infect any group doing an activity. The focus should be on the skill. Of course there will always be people who don’t get along, but when the whole class or gym is all cliquey and this group hate that group and won’t train together or people are worried about who is senior to whom, what the hell kind of tea party is that? Also, if status (who the hell cares about your status in some martial arts group?) depends on how long you have been training rather than skill, that is a bit odd.
  8. Emphasis on techniques over principle. When you go to class and someone teaches a technique without explaining how it works, and then teaches another technique next week and another after that, you are on the teat. How do you get off the teat if you don’t understand the thinking involved in why you would do a technique this way. Why pay money to have techniques parceled out to you when you could be hooked on sweet heroin?
  9. More discussion than training. Long lectures and talking about everything under the sun where the teacher is the “expert” on everything rather than working out. I will give you another secret. Martial arts teachers know about as much about life in general as Spanish teachers. Only doing the skill gives you the skill.
  10. Culture worship over reality. Wing chun uses Cantonese to name techniques and Judo uses Japanese…hey, fair dinkum. But if people are all worried about the language issues and the history of it over how it works, maybe they should join an anime club. If you want to wear a sash and argue about the true meaning of a Chinese phrase or the tea ceremony, please remember that while you are worried about that, Chinese people are eating hamburgers and playing World of Warcraft. Also, if you quote the Tao Te Ching...well...yikes.
Ok, ten isn’t quite enough…here is one more.
  • Not fun. No socializing. Dudes who do stuff together have fun and joke around and       get together to drink and talk about girls or have dinner or bowl or whatever. If that isn’t occurring, why not? If it's not ever fun, go join a yoga class and meet some chicks.
This list probably came off a little judgmental, but the truth is my own class has been or is often guilty of many of these things. Hopefully, writing it will help me figure out how to improve my own classes. Damn! I want my classes to be totally awesome without all this “effort”.

Martial arts is basketball

The world of martial arts has more bullshit, con men, gurus, spiritualists, and misconception than you can shake a stick at.

When people ask me weird questions about martial arts, I often use the "basketball" response. If it doesn't make sense for basketball, it probably doesn't make sense for martial arts.

Don't get me wrong, the metaphor isn't perfect. Since basketball is a sport, it is a bit different than fighting which has hundreds of different approaches and permutations. Also, the metaphor would probably work better if it was an individual sport like tennis. But, bear with me. Here is how it applies.

Question: Can you learn to fight through forms?
My answer: Can you learn to play basketball through basketball forms?
Analysis: Sure you can learn to play better through going through the motions of free throws and jump shots, but the guys who play everyday will most probably win.

Q: Is size important in fighting? Does the bigger guy always win?
A: Is it important in basketball? Does the bigger guy always win?

Q:How does strong qi affect martial arts?
A: How does mojo affect basketball?

Q:What is the best style of martial arts?
A: What is the best style of basketball?

Ok, I think you get the idea. The idea being that if a concept doesn't make sense in something that is familiar to you, why would you believe it for something that is foreign to you? That is not to say that different cultures don't focus on different things or have different strengths and weaknesses, but every culture has fighting so why are people so willing to believe that one culture has the ultimate technique.

I like wing chun because it is a form of stand-up wrestling with punching. That is pretty cool, but the concepts are there in wrestling, or judo or cooperative dance for that matter. People often want easy answers to difficult questions or they want to find the cheat sheet for a skill. There are better strategies and training methods, but no easy way. If you happen to find an easy or superior way, someone will notice and react to it and figure out a way to beat it. That is the way of things.

The secret of martial arts

Intent/Attitude, Attention, Relaxation, Pressure, Leverage, Direction

Everything I can think of that is important is in fighting is encompassed in these words...maybe for any skill. The most important underlying thing that makes you good is your intent/attitude/state of mind. If you have that, you can learn the others. The most important word for the nitty gritty of what the study of martial arts entails is leverage. I may change my mind later though.

There you go... go whoop some ass.

Ok, you are paying attention, but to where?

One thing that comes up again and again or at least it should in wing chun, fighting, dancing, music, and most any skill is the question of where your attention is.

When you drive, you have to watch the road. Even when you look away for a second, you have to keep your attention forward while your eyes quickly look somewhere else. Doesn't matter if you have driven for 10 years or it's your first time, you have to do it to drive or you will crash.

If you dance, you have to feel the music. (Well, you don't have to but then I hope I don't have to watch you dance if you don't). If you are feeling the music, you can't really dance incorrectly. If you do some complicated move that you pay attention to doing rather than the music, it won't "work" or be "right".

When you play music with other people, as long as you are focused primarily on listening to the rhythm and the other members, I promise you will improve. God help your shitty band if you put your attention on that shitty lick you downloaded off Ultimate Guitar rather than the rhythm and your bandmates.

I often encounter the problem of misdirected attention or intent with beginners in wing chun. Your attention should be on what is around you which includes the opponent (I will get into why I don't just say your opponent in another entry). Whatever else you do, be it be punch, walk forward, move your arms, or make a funny face, you have to keep your attention directed outward, which primarily means your opponent and surroundings and not on you and what you are doing. You can't try to "do" all of this complicated bullshit like kuansao, and lapsao and whatever-sao if you have to put your attention on the act of doing it.

You may want to put your attention on a certain move in order to pull it off and try to convince yourself that you will learn to do it "correctly" in the moment later. Bullshit. YOU WILL NEVER GET IT THAT WAY. All the myriad of techniques only have any meaning if done based on your feeling while your attention is on the opponent. The attention can NEVER goes anywhere else. The whole point of chisao is to have your focus on the opponent while you interact with him. Focus on the move while you are alone.

Boxers are usually much better at getting this idea because if  they start thinking about a combination, their hands drop and they get punched in the nose. During chisao, your opponent may punch you or take your balance or "win" in some way, but often the person believes it happened because they did the wrong technique. No, you stopped watching and attacking your opponent.

I also have to add, this problem is directly connected with not moving forward. If you are moving forward, you will look forward, like when you move forward in a car. Hit the brakes and your intent is focused inward. Move forward, attention outward.

Update on Secret Fighting Arts of the World by John F. Gilbey

God I miss the days before the Internet when all we had was the library stacks and the bookstore. If you think wikipedia is bullshit because anyone can write anything, that has nothing on the way things used to be. Not only did we have wacky science fiction and porn fairies that left porn mags under bridges, we also had fake non-fiction books with no way to tell they were full of crap. It's nice to be able to find out if something is bullshit with the click of a hyperlink (I am looking at you Zeitgeist), but sometimes I miss how easily a young lad could believe just about anything was real.

Books about magic, meditation, ninjas and martial arts (I always accidentally write "marital arts" for martial arts for some Freudian reason) were awesome if you were too young or stupid to know better. I was firmly in both categories when I was a kid. We had all that Stephen Hayes ninja crap, The Peaceful Warrior, and best of all Secret Fighting Arts of the World by John F. Gilbey. Secret Fighting Arts was the shit!

It was about this super rich martial arts dude who traveled the world finding the most awesome secret martial arts. Along with such staples as Savate and the dim mak, it also featured tales of meeting masters of the Newcastle Nutter (guy who headed people in the face), the Macedonian Buttock, and the Ganges Groin Gouge (my personal favorite, a martial art where you just try to punch a guy in the nuts). Later, it came out that the book was a joke written by martial arts writer Robert Smith. Damn!

Anyway, when I came to Taiwan years ago, I saw that book sitting on my friends shelf. I said, "whoa! you got this book, it's hilarious!" He agreed, and we laughed about it sometimes.

Recently, he called me and told me he had met a foreigner that lived in Taiwan in the 50s and 60s. He asked him if there were any foreigners coming to Taiwan to study martial arts at that time (he asked because in the book the supposed author mentions being in Taiwan in some chapter). The guy said, "Hell no! At that time, it was such a small world for foreigners to be here, we knew of anyone from anywhere doing whatever they were doing here. No foreigners were doing martial arts period at that time." My friend was happy to have finally disproven the book.

Didn't have the heart to tell him the back story about Robert Smith. Damn, growing up sucks sometimes. Well, at least I am sure Morihei Ueshiba and Socrates from The Peaceful Warrior could really teleport.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Relax into the movement

One of the most difficult and important issues in wing chun or any kind of movement is relaxing as much as possible during each movement. When people start any new kind of movement, they tend to clench their bodies up as their mind tries to do the movement "perfectly".

Unfortunately, its impossible, you can't do new movements or activities perfectly the first time. This "trying" causes all kinds of problems. I think most people attempt to get a new movement down "correctly" and then the relaxation comes later. It doesn't.

The relaxation part is a core part of skilled movement. It needs priority over other aspects of the movement.

What that means is that when doing something new whether it be plucking a guitar string or throwing a punch, it should be done as relaxed as possible from the very beginning. In order to do this, the movement itself will probably be somewhat "incorrect" (it's debatable that there are any incorrect relaxed movements) or sloppy.

Sloppy is great. Be sloppy until you personally feel reasons to move differently. You can't copy someones movement over your own movement. You can only copy the mental state and principles they are using.

One way to speed up this process is to breathe out and let go as you do any new movement. Don't breathe out and relax and then start, do it at the same time as the motion. Breathe out AS you punch. Breathe out and let go as you start chisao. Do it as you jump to dunk the basketball (ok, that's a joke, I can't dunk no matter how much I breathe out.)

Fight with the eyes

Sorry, for the long delay since I last posted, I am currently reworking the site.

I have seen a lot of chisao, sparring and push hands over the years and one thing that I am constantly surprised about is the number of people that look down when they practice fighting. Actually the same thing happens in salsa as well. 

I can understand that a beginner is so concerned with what he or she is doing that they will look down at whatever body part they are moving, but this should be strongly discouraged.

In a fight you have to fight the man, not the moves. Your attention must be firmly on the source of moves. It is possible to do this while looking somewhere else, but it is much easier to just look the direction that your attention is focused.

The body will unconsciously follow where you direct your attention. This means that the body follows the direction of attention. Your eyes usually reveal where your attention is. If you look down, you will go down. Your stance will most likely be unstable.

If you focus on the opponent, then your body will be directed in all movements to pull toward that direction. This is ideal.

It is not enough to have the eyes open in the direction of the opponent, actual intent has to be there. By "intent" I mean you have to actually be looking. You focus on the other party rather than what you are doing. This creates interaction.

One way to look at it is socially. If I approach someone and tell a canned joke or story without focusing any attention on them, it will probably not get much attention or laughs, regardless of how funny the material is. On the other hand, if I relax and actively listen to someone while I make the jokes that naturally occur to me in the moment, I will get a better reaction most of the time. I will also get better at it the more I do it.

Another way I like to look at it is by thinking there is no such thing as preparing or practice. Each time you spar, fight, chisao, wrestle, dance or whatever, its the real thing and should be interactive. Your partner or opponent deserves your full attention. In the doing of the actual activity, you get better. Your eyes are the best indication of where your attention is in the beginning.

Oh, and one last point because I am feeling snarky. Occassionally in wing chun, people like to wear blindfolds to show how awesome their "sensitivity" is. DON'T DO THIS! It misses the point and is extremely undignified. If you want to try closing your eyes sometimes, do so, and do it with them open as well, but leave the blindfolds to the kids.