Saturday, 19 May 2018

Where did the concept of stillness in martial arts come from?



Since about the turn of the Millenium I have found that when people got introduced to me as Martial Artists it no longer meant that we had as much in common as before.

Thing is- my life with martial arts has become much easier when I had learnt about mindlessness and mindfullness. If you asked me about it back in those days I would have said that it was a Zen concept that got applied in Japanese martial arts and that training without it would amount to making useless movements.

In Japanese the state of mindlessness is known as mu-shin ("no mind"). In the beginning it was uncanny for me to understand, but I loved how it worked. Now I still get amazed at a new generation of martial arts students who don't know how not-thinking can help you in a fight at all...

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But yeah... I am old-school like that...


Well- Maybe Okinawa had someone like Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid movies to teach that with his Karate...
Thing is, however, that Okinawan Karate is Te in its undiluted form designed for practicality rather than spirituality, so- I'd understand if a tranquil mind was not first on its agenda. 
In my research and studies thus far I have only found this mental- no- spiritual aspect of martial arts training in the martial arts of Japan, China and Korea.

It may exist in other martial arts from other countries, but I would not know simply because I had no contact with these systems at all.



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In Karate circles I have noted a strong gravitation towards Karate's Okinawan roots, which is understandable and which is to be encouraged, but if you want to experience Karate as moving Zen I cannot think of anyone better than a Japanese Sensei in the Shotokan or Wado disciplines to teach it to you.

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Now- I said that if had asked me about mindlessness and mindfullness I would have said that it is a Zen concept. Well- it does not mean that it originally comes from Zen Buddhism.
I have recently been fortunate to read the most life-changing scripture to date- the Bhagavad Gita.
This awesome scripture is one of a group of recognised scriptures in one of the oldest religions in Asia- Hinduism. Hinduism predates Buddhism by centuries and contains a lot of philosophical teachings that are of great value.

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Now- it is not unusual for religions to have songs, rituals and practices with which the religion itself is practiced.

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With Hinduism it goes further, however, in that it has actual exercises to tune the mind and body into a state of what is called "Krsna Consciousness". While some scholars might tell you that Krsna Consciousness merely means thinking of the Supreme God Krsna at all times (because that is what is literally said in many verses of Hindu Scriptures) I believe that it goes further than that.

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The Bhagavad Gita tells us that human souls are fragments of Krsna's own soul. It also tells us that all matter and energy in the Universe originates from Krsna's energy.

Ask anyone that has been moditating actively for a couple of years and you are likely to hear that they have achieved a mental state of connecting to the very energy from which anything in the Universe originates. Well- when I was 16 I would have said everything on Earth- but still- I have not read any of these scriptures when I was 16, but I have felt this to be true.

Much of the Yoga we see nowadays seem to be a physical exercise for physical health purposes. If you read the Bhagavad Gita, however, you realise that it was originally intended to be a spiritual exercise aimed at cleansing the soul and devoting the person to Krsna.



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During around 558 to 491 BCE Buddhism got introduced to the world. The first ascetic who 
taught people meditation and practices aimed at reaching a state of mind that was then to be known as 
"Enlightenment" is known in history as The Buddha.

Where mainstream Buddhism from this point on ended up becoming a religion that mainly involved
the honouring and worshipping of the first Buddha and his various incarnations a sage known as 
Bodhidarma strove to teach people the practices aimed at achieving enlightenment more or less like the 
first Buddha. This particular system we now know in Chinese as Ch'an and in Japanese as Zen Buddhism.

Meditation is an integral part of Zen Buddhism. In Shaolin Kung Fu we see that the mental conditioning   

obtained from Ch'an exercises enable practitioners to perform amazing feats of resilience and strength.

In all martial art systems that have this Zen element we note that the clear minds of practitioners give them really quick reflexes and feats like the catching of flying objects with chopsticks have been recorded in old martial arts texts in China.

Samurai warriors like Musashi Miyamoto mention the concept of mindllessness in their writings. In Musashi's Book of Five Rings we see that he mentions what he calls the no design/ no conception cut which we may view as the 16th Century Japanese forerunner of Bruce Lee's Intercepting Fist.

It is no coincidence that this state of mind has found its way into martial arts. As we see- Asian religion has for centuries not been just a matter of observing certain rituals at certain times, but rather has been- and is- a matter of maintaining a particular state of mind in everything one does. That includes fighting.

Then- of course- no article on the tranquil mind in martial arts is complete without mentioning Taoism that had begun to spread in China from about 400 BC. The teachings of Taoism are basically embodied in Taijiquan. Lesser known systems like Xingyiquan and Baguazhang are also based on Taoist teachings.

Taoism espouses a return to the "no-mindedness of the Great Origin" which is in my view identical to the mindlessness of Zen. This no-mindedness we know to have been taught by the late Bruce Lee as well.

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Whatever you wish to call this state of mind- it has come a long way. I have seen that a large number of schools don't bother to teach it. 


Yes, Coolio. Or maybe they just don't think it necessary...

To me, however, it is the secret ingredient in martial arts like Karate, Kung Fu (all systems), Judo, Aikido, Kendo and all forms of Bujutsu and Budo from Japan that make them work.

I have seen how some students have discovered mindlessness for themselves without having been taught. That does not mean to me that teaching it is unnecessary, though.

That's it for today! :)


Have a great week ahead and if you have not done so yet-

Go watch Deadpool 2!








Saturday, 12 May 2018

Stillness- why I like Chinese and Japanese martial arts



I realise that there are people like me out there who want to learn martial arts to find inner peace and  balance.


While Cobra Kai fans are yelling "strikefirststrikehardnomercy!" Dragonball Super fans are still posting memes about Goku's Ultra Instinct. 


With the trends I have seen in Karate these days and what we have seen in Cobra Kai and in MMA fights I have begun to think that martial arts enthusiasts are just not interested in that kind of stuff anymore...

I really enjoyed seeing Robbie bringing the whole mushin thing back in the last episode of Cobra Kai.


Over here the loudest voices in the martial arts community are preaching aggression and competitive spirit. What I see in how they practice however does not seem like any martial art that I wish to learn.

Sure- I like punching, kicking and doing damage as much as the next martial arts fanatic, but any outward display of aggression translates to me as a lack of control, lack of skill and a need for a lot more training.

Still- we actually have teachers and coaches encouraging a more aggressive approach to fighting. Further- we see students that embrace it.




Besides- we are in the West. It has to be bigger, badder and dominating. We go big or go home and have to approach everything aggressively to establish ourselves as the alpha males in the room- if you are male...

Well- like it or not- I guess the loud and aggressive approach to martial arts like Karate is here to stay.

Still- many of us remember...

We remember that moment in the Matrix when Neo stood up from being shot and stopping those bullets. We remember how effortlessly he blocked that agent's punches. (I love the gif!)

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I remember how Ippon Kumite felt when I began to relax.

I remember how much fun Jiyuu Kumite became when I learned to empty my mind.

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It is actually funny to see someone writing with great conviction these days that blocking does not work.

The post actually betrays a lack of experience in an area where people like me have gained quite a lot. People like us can tell you that a person that fights in stillness can easily block attacks.



Such a person can also attack openings in an instant as they begin to appear.

In self defense a person who observes his surroundings in stillness can often sense danger and avoid it without the need to fight. Where fighting becomes necessary such  a person can deploy any chosen martial arts technique with ease.

Cobra Kai knows nothing about striking first. You should see Naka Sensei in action...

The reality of it all is however- to make it work you need not only to have a quiet, empty mind, but your body also has to be trained to act  as one with your mind. There should not be anything like the mind telling the body what to do and then the body does it, but rather the body doing what the mind thinks as it is thinking it. Training like that can take a very long time, but it is worth it.

Still- it may be a long while- if ever- until we see evidence of such training in our competitions and MMA mathches. I admit that I had a chance to try fighting my tournament bouts in stillness and only had very limited success. 

I nonetheless prefer focussing on this aspect of martial arts in sparring because the benefits thereof reach far beyond the dojo floor. It helps us cope with a huge workload, to negotiate heavy traffic while driving and to deal with whatever life throws at us without getting a heart attack.

So- if you are currently with a dojo that does not teach this type of mindset- why don't they teach it?





Yeah. Maybe Coolio has a point there...


If you want to take up martial arts to develop a calm mind and attain inner peace, stay away from MMA. Really...

Martial arts that I recommend for you to study for this purpose are:

1. Aikido (really really awesome!)

2. Taijiquan (Tai Chi) (I prefer a more combat orientated version of Taijiquan, still- you need stillness to make it work.)

3. Xingyiquan- Ehhhhhh... This might be hard to find in your area... Still- I was able to get hold of a book.

Karate should be in this list, but it really depends on the teacher. I am glad to say, however, that dojos in Japan seem to place huge emphasis on the concept of mushin (no mind) in their training. JKS is a good example at the moment.

I don't know martial arts like Capoeira or Silat that come from other countries than China and Japan. How big these arts are on a thing like a calm mind I cannot say.

Still- anyone who does Capoeira or any martial art that I have not yet tried out is welcome to tell me where inner peace and mental calmness feature in their arts. 


Well... whether you enjoy calming down or getting a good emotional outlet with some intense fighting- I hope you train well and have a good week.

Next week I will write more about the concept of stillness and why we see it in Asian martial arts.





Saturday, 5 May 2018

I think some of you knew that I was going to write about this today... Cobra Kai has finally arrived!

Greetings and salutations, dear readers!

I have been waiting for this month to come around specially to see how this particular series premieres.

For those who do not yet know what Cobra Kai is about I will briefly explain:

The kid that Daniel Larusso have beaten in the first Karate Kid movie, Johnny Lawrence, has grown up. While Daniel's success as an auto dealer gets rubbed in his face we see him getting fired from his job as handyman and meeting a really nice mannered Mexican kid, who he just sees as an annoyance.

You'd think that this nice Mexican kid, who gets beaten up by kids at school could really use a guy like Mr Miyagi (who is now already deceased) in his life. Instead- fate has brought him this no-bullshit, politically incorrect and obnoxious bastard that is Johnny Lawrence to teach him to "strike first", "grow some balls" and to kick ass.

We see Johnny becoming an unwilling hero as he starts changing the lives of some tormented teens for the better while Daniel is flipping his lid and gradually gets transformed into an envious looney from the moment he sees the Cobra Kai logo after all these years of bliss in which he has been happily waking up to his beautiful wife, raising his spoiled kids and "kicking the competition" in the auto trading business.

https://youtu.be/_rB36UGoP4Y


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Now- let's not forget now: To a person like me the Cobra Kai has represented everything that was wrong with martial arts schools in real life. Why would anyone make a series about it at all?


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Well- my answer to this question?

It would not have made sense in the 80's. Sure- full contact karate had already made its appearance back then, but it was just not as mysterious and wonderful as the type of teachings a Sensei like Mr Miyagi had to offer.

Also- your mainstream sources of Karate were the initial 4 schools of Wado, Shito, Goju and Shotokan who had actively worked on spreading their brand of Karate throughout the world. This was the pure Karate, the original. A style like Cobra Kai was considered manufactured, "fake" and full of Western arrogance and ignorance.


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Now- let's turn the clock forward to where we are now, after the Gracies have gone and shattered whatever illusions about martial arts that may have remained after Bruce Lee's introduction to Jeet Kune Do and after the public had time to discover that a lot of what they got told about martial arts techniques did not work as well on the street as advertised.

Dojos had to- I won't say make way for- but rather lose students to MMA gyms unless they have signed up with MMA federations and organisations themselves to get their students a chance to slug it out in the cage.

Fight choreography in action movies had changed from the high kicks and flowery techniques normally associated with martial arts to the grappling and ground-and-pound tactics of MMA that we have been seeing in MMA fights.

In short- the public no longer wanted to buy what Mr Miyagi had to sell. They were now ready to hear what schools like Cobra Kai had to say.

I further think that a lot of Karate people- if not all of them- who had been attending karate classes from the 90's until now would tell you that they have never met any Sensei like Miyagi. Well- maybe the ones who happened to study under Demura Sensei when he was still alive, but from as early as the 60's it would have been unlikely for the simple reason that the only Karate the Western public ever got exposed to was an institutionalised system under the banner of one of the four initial schools (I won't say "original" really, because it won't be correct) and none of the teachers in these styles had Miyagi's freedom to teach as they saw fit.

The reality that most of us saw more closely resembled Cobra Kai. Here in South Africa for instance your average Afrikaner would not take a short bonsai trimming Japanese guy seriously. What worked for most of us here was this drill-sargeant-slash-boxing coach that kept students in line and "made men" out of us. Well- worked for most of us, but not for me. Still- the majority of the public gets what it wants...     

I admit that I have been rebelling against the way I got taught by early teachers in the past for so long that I have neglected to see the good that had actually come from my time at these dojos.

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Sure- our new Karate Kid Miguel stands a chance to become a juvenile delinquent under Sensei Johnny's tutelage, but kids like him discover that the only chance one has at improving his/her situation is by facing his/ her fears and take action.

Johnny addresses this current generation directly when he tells Miguel that Cobra Kai is a method of fighting that his "pansy ass generation" had been missing all these years. If you want to disagree with Johnny you are welcome to try out any anti-bullying solutions you find from these websites who seem to be run by social workers and social studies students.

What remains to be seen in episodes to come, however, is not just how Miguel and his friends start reaping the benefits of putting what they have been taught to use, but also how Johnny uses his own teachings to get his life back on track. That guy has a lot of stuff to work out.

Daniel's only role in this story for the moment is that of a bitter antagonist who in his misguided righteousness does not yet know what kind of company his sweet little daughter is keeping (she's with the mean girls at school and dating one of the high school bullies! :D)

Only bad thing is- we don't have Youtube Red here in South Africa. The first 2 episodes got uploaded on Youtube for free for promotional purposes and we shall have to wait a long while to see if it will be available on platforms that are more accessible here.

If you are curious to see how Daniel and Johnny have turned out as adults, watch this series- if you have Youtube Red in your country...


Until next time- train hard and stay well!




Saturday, 28 April 2018

What makes a technique work for you?


Hi!

I am glad to say that I have successfully developed the ability to kick my own head height with roundhouse and reverse roundhouse kicks at any time of day without warming up.

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It took a whole lot of training to get there, though. For years I have been unable to kick high without warming up first. Well... when I was 17 I had no trouble doing it, but then I had to grow older.



Still- I have decided that as long as I am training- I can keep pushing until I get it back and I am happy to say that it is back and better than ever, because now I can also HOLD the kick at head height.

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That is the thing with anyone still actively practicing martial arts- we just have so many more tools available to help us in fights than a person who has just attended a self defense class or two. During my early karate years I have been warned by my Sensei that high kicks are really not suitable for self defence and that we should rather stick to low kicks whenever we have to fight for real.


I have even seen a very well-known past master being quoted saying that kicks are not really useful in a real fight.

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Statements like that make it easy for people to come forward and say things like
"this does not work." and "this really works". We also have practitioners of certain styles that would argue vehemently why their specific version of a technique is more effective than that of the next school. 

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If you want to join a discussion like that in an informed manner, however, you have to know that there are numerous factors, other than a technique's design that determine its use and effectiveness.
A few of these factors have come to my mind that I would like to mention:

1. The purpose of the technique: Practice the punching techniques of Xingyiquan and Chen style Taijiquan and you quickly realise that while these punches do not look like anything you would see in an MMA ring, they can do some serious damage. These punches dent car doors, make trees shake and I am sure that they can crack the plaster off your walls, but- there is a limit. They only work when both feet are firmly planted on the ground.

The moment you punch someone in mid-flight or while chasing after him while he is retreating in a tournament fight you find that these punches don't really work that well.

Traditional Karate had punches like that as well. Competition sparring, however, demand that you have to be able to hit a target at any given time, regardless of where your feet are and we find that the punches that are used by competitors are not as powerful as those in traditional arts, but they are fast and they hit the target when  they have to.


 

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Likewise we have seen that while you can score an Ippon with your Shotokan Karate roundhouse kick that hits and snaps right back after doing so it is definitely not the same as the destructive neckbreaking roundhouse kick used by Kyokushin and Muay Thai fighters.  We know by now that Muay Thai as well as Kyokushin has knocking an opponent down as a primary objective. It is understandable that their techniques would be suited to that purpose.



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Then we of course have Chinese martial arts that have survived government imposed bans in their history because their forms have been beautified by modifying techniques to display poise and grace.


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I still get fascinated by Wushu forms in action. I am not a fan of gymnastics or figure skating, but I have huge respect for anyone who can pull off those difficult forms with the style and grace of people like David Torok and Jade Xu.


2. Time of day: I have mentioned that I had to train to be able to kick high at any time I want to or need to. Before I got to that point, however, there have been many times when these kicks would simply not be available to me. They would definitely not have been my go-to moves when I get surprised by a mugger in a parking lot. It helps to keep a wide range of simple straightforward techniques that do not require a lot of strength and flexibility to work ready for self defence. We know by now that the techniques we use in competitions are not the same as the ones we use in self defence situations, right?


3. Your own energy level, state of mind and physical condition: If there is one thing that I have learnt about life from work it is that trouble always arrives when you are not in the mood for it.

You can readily accept that you can be attacked on your way home while being tired after a hard day's work. What kind of defences or attacks will you be able to deliver in this state.

Some techniques work perfectly when you are calm and in control of yourself. How well will they work when you are hot with rage, though?

4. Build, body type: In Chinese we have the saying of "Nan Quan Bei Tui" meaning "Southern Fist Northern Leg". This saying is used to explain that the people of Southern China generally had better upper body strength than their Northern compatriots and excelled at hand techniques while those in the North had stronger legs and excelled at kicking.

We see how different students in the same school have preferences to techniques that best suit their build when they spar. 


5. The amount of training needed: Don Wilson said that it would take him years to teach a beginner to punch as effectively as a boxer, but that just about anyone could use elbow strikes. If you want to create a style that uses only elbow strikes, eye jabs and low kicks you are welcome to do so, but I would really not enjoy learning it. The workout I get from practicing high kicks, footwork and punches is just something I would not want to replace.


That is it from me for today.

Have a great weekend and a great week ahead!