Saturday, 18 November 2017

Where exactly is the art in all of this?

Not so long ago, in a Karate class, one of our Senseis said after a really good class:

"This is an art- let's make it look beautiful."
We have also heard a reference to "artistic fighters" in other classes.

Apparently I, with my love for unorthodox (yet classical) attack and defense patterns and spinning techniques, am labelled as such an "artistic fighter".

Is this what being a martial artist is about? Taking a fight and making it look beautiful?

I must confess that in my vanity I have often endeavoured to make my sparring matches worth looking at, but that is hardly the main objective of what I practice and what I have learned. 


That is also not why any martial art, be it Karate, Kungfu, Judo or anything else is called a "martial art" instead of just a "combat science", "fighting method" or "fighting system".

At the moment, for instance, I'd say that Krav Maga, which I regard as military CQC taught to civilians, can perhaps be more aptly described as a fighting system than as an art.

 To understand whether anything is an art it helps to understand what exactly an art does.

 Has any of you ever tried to draw a picture of someone or something? You have a picture in your mind, but getting that picture on paper is a different matter altogether. At the beginning you find that there are lots of factors that contribute to the picture on paper not being what you had in your mind- lack of focus, doubt, fear, distraction or any kind of intangible obstacle. Things such as these make the picture on paper look a lot different from what you had intended in the beginning.

With practice, however, each of these obstacles get removed, even if it takes a long time and lots of practice, until you are able to put the vision in your mind on paper.

Now- a Seoi Nage ( shoulder throw) is fairly easy to do if you have learnt the method, right?

Image result for seoi nage

We know, however, that having been told the method, even when remembering the method, is not enough to enable you to perform this throw.

Even in a pre-arranged setting we may find our minds wanting to do one thing and our bodies another. In a free setting we have issues like sensitivity, timing, opportunity and responses to deal with in executing the technique.

With diligent practice, however, we remove each and everyone of those obstacles until the mind and body are unified in executing the technique as intended.

In essence- we can say that art involves us making ourselves a promise we might not yet know how to keep and then working until that promise has been kept.  

 Image result for seoi nage

This of course, does not only apply to throwing.

In Karate we find that the training at beginner level is mainly concerned with how each basic technique has to look. At this stage things such as keeping the hikite (withdrawn fist) tightly at the side and the heel on the ground are paramount. At this stage of training actual sparring or combat is not yet an issue- or should not be.

In Kungfu we find similar methods that start with preparing the body for the ways in which it has to move in a fight.

At this initial stage close attention is paid to oneself.


During a sparring match or an actual fight preoccupation with yourself will get you a serious butt-whuppin' if you survive. Here the vision or objective would be doing the right thing at the right time.

We know that our respective systems have their methods for teaching students to block on time, evade at the right moment and to strike as the opening presents itself. This is not the type of ability that is gained with just knowledge. As we practice we remove those obstacles standing between us and perfection. We might never reach perfection, but the skills we gather along the way are just awesome!

Seeing things in this light can make you realise that living in itself can be an art. Whether the vision you have comes from the Bible, Buddhist Scriptures or just plain ethics, behaving in the way prescribed by those teachings are not always easy, but by sticking to our principles we grow closer day by day to being the persons we want to be.


Saturday, 11 November 2017

Still treasuring her gift

I realised at the end of a really busy week that tomorrow was going to be the 12th of November.

This date holds huge significance to me as a person and I realise that for Wenhsiuquan this is a really important day as well. 

On this date in 2002 I have met Chen Yu Chi.

Yu Chi, or Carol as she was known to me back then, was 26 at the time. I was 24. I have just finished my LLB exams for that year and showed up for work at the Chinese Restaurant when she had just arrived with her friend Jamie from Johannesburg's OR Tambo Airport.

At that time I thought I would get along with all Chinese people in general. I realise now, however, that this woman is a rare breed.

This post, however, is not about her as a woman, but about what she had taught me of Chinese martial arts.

Looking at Kungfu nowadays I would understand if the public associates it with flowery movements, acrobatics and spectacular techniques. This has been perpetuated by the sport known as Wushu, which also happens to be the Chinese term used to refer to fighting arts.

At that time I had a background in Karate, Judo, Aikido and Jujitsu. I have just started learning Jeet Kune Do and was adopting its teachings within the context of what I already knew and practiced. Back then I called my eclectic style Zanshindo. 

It emphasised elevated awareness, defense and swift response.

Sticking hands (chi sao) was something I took from Wing Chun and that had formed the largest part of my defence at the time as well.

So- back then- I blocked quite well and evaded attacks quite easily, but my strikes and punches were not very powerful.

Now- Carol stands about 5 foot 4 tall and is really small built. She is definitely much smaller in build than I am. She had also not told me right away that she knew martial arts, but had heard very quickly that I studied martial arts in my spare time.  

It was after a couple of days during her stay here in Nelspruit that we had our first conversation about martial arts. The topic was self defence. Back then, blocking and parrying was everything to me- so- when she said that she had learned some self defence techniques I asked her to show me and threw a quick, but controlled punch towards her solar plexus.

The response refuted everything that I have thought I knew.

She did not divert the punch the the side or moved her body, but simply attacked the fist with her palm. The blow had tremendous force and I remember myself being knocked back a bit. I am sure that my wrist would at least have been sprained if the bones of my hand and wrist had not been properly aligned. This type of attack might sound weird, but a while later I got told of a fight between two Chinese masters in an open tournament in China where one of the fighters' fingers got broken when the other punched his fist as he was attacking.

That was the day I have realised that speed and reflexes are important, but that strength was too. And not just any strength...

Before the encounter above I have read about internal strength and concepts such as jing and chi. I have not found any reference to any of this at any of the two Karate schools at which I have studied by then and I have not yet begun a serious undertaking to study Taijiquan at the time.

Carol was my first live example. She was definitely not muscular and her small frame seemed very delicate. Still- when she hit her fists felt as hard as stone and her body immovable as a 2 ton boulder.  

This was what had prompted me into studying Taijiquan, Shaolin Kungfu and Xingyiquan.

For a long time afterward I have seemed to gravitate further and further from the light formlessness of Jeet Kune Do and more and more towards the firm stances of these arts.

Besides the secret to developing devastating power with relaxation she has also taught me the following valuable lessons:

1. A martial artist's level of mastery is revealed by what the way he speaks and acts. There are a wide range of signs that reveal one's training or lack thereof.

2. Illness should not occur if your internal training and lifestyle is conducted properly.

3. Martial artists are not controlled by their emotions. It is the other way around.

4. How to spot true friends.

5. Raging and complaining is useless. If something bothers you- do something about it. If you can't- accept it.

I have last heard from Carol in 2012. I don't know what she is doing now and whether she got married or any of those things about which one usually asks.

I have never stopped training, however. For years to follow since her departure I would diligently do my Qigong exercises and meditation, regardless of what type of martial art that I may be learning.

It is little surprise that Carol's teachings remained in place when I have finally settled into Wenhsiuquan. She may be long gone, but I still treasure her gift.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Me the grumpy hermit. lol

Let me say right from the beginning that there is nothing to learn from today's post- unless you are one of those who collect the photos at the bottom every week. 

I simply had too much on my mind this last week to form any idea of what to write.

Still- I like writing blog posts for my favourite community on G+ and to chat with other martial artists during the weekend.

For many of us martial arts make up that part of our lives devoted to going to class, meet other students, train with students, hearing announcements and maybe even chatting with classmates before or after class.

It was pretty much like that for me as well until a while ago. Largest part of my life, however, I have trained by myself. I have grown up with lots of examples on how to do it and after-training meditation is still one of the greatest parts of each morning.

This is the ultimate me-time...

I understand very well that we all have our own experiences of humanity and mine in particular is mostly that humans have a way of constantly looking for an undisturbed, calm person on which they can dump their problems. Some martial artists may have heard the saying that "the superior man, when he stands alone, is without fear" and nice as that sounds I can confirm from my point of view that A: superior men- or women- are few and far in between and B: that may only be when they are alone, but when they are amongst people things may be very different altogether. :D

It is understandable if you associate martial arts with gyms and schools full of people and tournaments and events with lots and lots of people, but to me- it is also about regrouping, spending time by yourself and gathering strength to deal with people when you have to be among them.

Talking to others certainly have its benefits, but so does some quiet introspection.

For one- you realise how much better life becomes if you just learn to control yourself. Controlling everyone out there is impossible. It is not even a viable solution to stay clear of them for good! What you do learn, however, is how much you can figure out on your own and probably most importantly-
that happiness and contentment- especially contentment- comes from yourself.

I know it won't make sense to a lot of you, but that is just because you don't meditate.

One important benefit of training by yourself, though, is reaching that maturity in your training where it becomes independent from an instructor, availability of a dojo or external motivation. 

Heaven knows a lot of people would do well to learn some self- motivation!

The sun is getting low now and I have stuff to do. It has been a pleasure chatting with you anyway and I hope you all train well and improve with every passing day. 

Until next time...

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Unknown

Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War wrote "If you know yourself you have one third's chance at victory. If you know yourself and your enemy you have two thirds' chance at victory. If you know yourself, the enemy and the battlefield victory is certain."

All good and simple until you realise that the time at which you will know all 3 of the above shall very rarely occur.

What it tells us about tournaments- where we can leave the battlefield out of the equation since we can safely assume that both fighters would know it ( fighting area, rules etc.) it means that your chances in a tournament should be 50/50 right? Well... if only the outcome of fights or sparring matches hinged on knowledge alone...

The fact remains, where fighting is concerned, victory is seldom if ever guaranteed... 

This is not only true for fighting, but for many areas in life.

Growth, be it in financial investments, business or our personal lives, require the taking of risks.

I was (probably still is) a big fan of the Tao Te Ching's doctrine of not seeking to travel beyond the borders of my town and so forth since it is the method for a peaceful life- at least until some force majeure comes and messes it all up for you...

This is why the Tao also teaches that rulers shouldn't mess around with their people too much either.

Our rulers however make it their business to mess with us on an almost daily basis. If it is not the petrol price rising it is this new law or that, this tax hike or that new call for our cooperation. And it is not only our political rulers, but our employers, friends and family members also make sure that our lives stay well and complicated.

Now- preferring to stay as you are amidst the changes that these people force on you will only generate more stress. It is actually not as comfortable as Lao Tzu made it out to be, is it?

The only way you can hope to get on top of it all is

Not necessarily, Deadpool...

by taking that risk. Be it standing up to that bully, starting that business venture or moving to another town or even another country- it is risky, but the consequences of NOT taking that risk is staying stuck in that ditch that smells like Mama June after hot yoga that Deadpool would refer to.

Now- I remember the anxiety and excitement that goes with tournaments.

I also will admit that the prospect of having to fight someone does not amuse me as often as I would like to have it.

What we know, however, is that the consequence of not getting in there and making the effort is not only that our situations stay exactly as they are until they grow stale and decline (and decline they will unless you do something), but also a feeling much worse than the pain and humiliation of defeat.

As a martial artist losing should not scare you. A much worse fear that should be riding you is the one of realising  that you have not done your best.

Well- this post and the G+ space- and the spaces on Facebook and Twitter- can take comments. Tell me about the risks that you have taken to better some aspect of your life and how it panned out.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Capturing a moment in time.

I remember learning the concept behind chi sao (sticking hands) in Yongchuan or Wing Chun.

Although many teachers insist on having one learn and memorise the different defensive positions found in Wimg Chun forms I have found that these positions are naturally occurring events in a sparring match if a student understands the basics.

Later- when I have learnt about Shaolin force training, though, I have realised that we cannot just discard basic movements or positions in martial arts. They are practiced repeatedly for a reason.

Wing Chun is certainly not the only Chinese martial art that has fixed positions that one learn to move from the one to the other. In fact- Karate and Taekwondo forms have the same thing.

Each of these positions represent a certain moment in time. It may be the moment your attacker's arm got lifted to expose his ribs, his fist got knocked downward to expose his upper body or face or that moment of having created just enough space for that side kick...

 One of the effects of slowing these moments down and looking at them a bit closer is that one can easily find the move that is to follow that particular moment. The benefit of not flailing around in a panic when you are under attack is certainly something worth having if you are to spar with fellow students or defend yourself against an actual attacker.

I was once knocked off balance as I circled my sparring partner's punch and blocked it. The moment the block made contact I felt that I might have been better off not blocking at all. 

Later on- having analyzed the incident- I realised that I was blocking at a moment when both my feet were airborne. I was not even aiming to leap, but my hurried footwork resulted in a very low leap that had compromised my stability for that moment.

That particular problem got solved by replacing the sharp hip twist that I have used along with its footwork with a movement called the "Unicorn Step" as I block and then follow it through with a step past my opponent.

Breaking down the movement had provided me with the necessary clarity to see where I have gone wrong. It can also show you where you could go wrong before you even fight.

Actual fighting is not force training, however...

It is important to make these positions and movements part of you so that they can be forgotten. Then- when your hands go where they are supposed to and your feet find their targets without you telling them to- these movements will occur by themselves and these positions become part of the flow of movement in the fight.

Starting from this thoughtless place, though, without having first internalised every movement and position may just result in you landing on your butt...

That's it for this week. Enjoy your weekend and see you again soon! :)

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Learning subtlety in all things

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while would know that I value relevance over effectiveness.

I have a very simple reason for doing so. I simply do not deem a martial art effective if its teachings are not relevant to everyday life. This is because fighting in itself is subject to the same laws that govern the universe as is everything else under Heaven. 

Understand this and debates over which system should be studied or which technique should be preferred becomes of very little concern to you.

I have once again found a lot of photos with which to decorate my post so that it looks a bit more appealing than just a mass of text that I want to drop onto you during the weekend- so I'll just ask you to enjoy the photos as you scroll down to what I have to say...

Scroll on...

Okay! We are here!

The idea to write a post on subtlety has come to me during this week. I have realised how I had yet to apply one very valuable lesson from the martial arts to my daily life.

When we fight we do not want to telegraph our intent to our opponents before it gets carried out. For a student of internal arts like myself it means that one needs to develop impeccable control over one's energy. The result is an absence in the change of one's facial expression when he's about to hit, absence of telegraphing as a shoulder that pulls back or a visible shifting of weight.

It means movement that is light, decisive and unencumbered by thought or emotion.

As Bruce Lee would say: "I do not hit- it hits for me." :)

Still- throughout my life I have been an open book all along. Part of this was that an earlier version of me was not always brave enough to speak his mind and did not feel free enough to act as his heart dictated.

When I have finally developed the courage to act on my emotions and to say what is on my mind I wasted no time enjoying this freedom and taking every step possible to protect it. Still- I found that in life itself I have always found that someone still had the better of me. Details are not important here, but suffice it to say that this is the expected result of wearing one's heart on one's sleeve. This is true in work, family life and in matters of the heart (of which Crouching Tiger's Bei Lao Ye once astutely observed even the greatest heroes to be a consummate idiot...). 

Keeping one's thoughts to oneself or not showing your anger at something that annoys you- regardless of how brave you feel- is not weakness at all. It is smart.

Sure- there are times when immediate action is required, but many a soldier will tell you the disadvantage of giving away your position before you have begun to engage the enemy.

An enemy that sees your attack coming will not stay in place for it to find its mark. To add insult to injury- an attack's failure has a demoralising effect on the attacker as well. 

Just as we can maintain control of a fight as long as your opponent does not know what you will do next so our lives have a way of spinning out of our control when those within the circle that pressure us (I won't really say "enemies", but definitely people who can willingly or unwillingly do us harm) can easily perceive our intentions.

So- if you find that you are still an open book. Take some advice from Lady Gaga and work on that poker face. It will change your life for the better. :)