Saturday, 25 February 2017

Blindfold training

Now here's something I have not yet written about. :D

I have been interested in the Zen side of Japanese martial arts since the age of 16. It was about at this age when I began with Qigong as well.

As a young karateka back then I did not have the confidence, strength or aggression of my classmates and looking back- I think it was a good thing. Because of that classes scared me.

Now- had it not been to exposure to the mental training techniques provided to me by Zen- I would not have seen this hostile dojo environment as the ideal testing grounds for the things I have read.

This is one major factor to which I attribute my development as a martial artist.

One very important training tool that has always served me well and that continues to do so to this dat is Zen Meditation. This, in itself, has provided me with a number of benefits about which I can write in detail. One of those- was the development of intuition and sensory acuity.

It is actually wonderful how we perceive the world around us. You have been told that what you know is the result of messages reaching your brain via your senses. Our eyes are probably one of the foremost senses on which we rely if not singlehandedly the foremost.

Meditating with my eyes closed has taught me that, once self awareness and thought has been removed out of the equation, we can actually be tuned in to so much of what goes on around us. We can feel the air around us, vibrations of the earth below us, sounds of people and vehicles far away.

After years of doing this I can still pinpoint the weherabouts of family members at home when my eyes are closed during meditation. They are quite noisy even at their most quiet times, after all. :D

Now- fiction as well as classic martial arts lessons abound with examples of blindfolded fighters. Most likely the most famous of them all is the blind swordsman, Zatoichi.

In more modern times the Marvel superhero Daredevil shows us that his sensory acuity actually allows him to perceive far more than what a seeing person does with his eyes.

Other examples that I have found is GI Joe's Jinx and Mortal Kombat's Kenshi.

As for myself- the only styles in which I could ever make sense of blind sparring are Judo and Wingchun. The cheat here is that these two martial arts involve you maintaining in physical contact with your opponent. A higher level of sensitivity, however, can allow you to perceive your opponent's movements from a distance away. Believe me- this is not just a matter of hearing where the opponent is. This is not guessing either. In fact- your mind has to be completely devoid of thought for this to work.

The very first exercise that I did while blindfolded was flicking up a coin with my fingers and then catching it in mid-air while my eyes are closed.

Later on I took to bouncing a rubber ball against a wall. With your eyes open this is already a good way to train your hand speed for blocking. With your eyes closed it becomes a very difficult exercise that requires the utmost sensitivity to do.

After all that I experimented with blind grappling and sticking hands. A while later I have read that it is not unusual for Wing Chun teachers to spar with their students while blindfolded.

This ability is actually one of the most elementary of skills that dedicated training in any of a number of martial arts can offer. Still- it is one of those that sets a martial artist apart from that group of persons that practice a fighting sport or someone that knows self defense.

Who has tried it so far?  

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Qigong as a means to regain balance

In his book Spirit of the Empty Hand Stan Schmidt mentioned a lesson during which his Sensei asked what his hand would be if it stayed a fist all the time.

I am certain that philosophers and martial artists alike will find a message in that.

As a person practicing a martial art that employs strikes and that uses sparring as a training method- I have a very tangible example of what this metaphor can tell us.

Practitioners of WSKF, Goju Ryu and Jeet Kune Do might know what I am talking about here. Most schools of Taijiquan and JKA Shotokan might not get it, though.

Wenhsiuquan recognises the importance of relaxing muscles in order to gather energy for a strike, but a fair amount of tension is necessary in areas like the legs and abomen to protect the internal organs and to speed up movement.

When facing a sparring partner head-on, a moderate amount of tension in the pectoral muscles protect the ribs as well.

This tension cannot be excessive lest it slows down your movement and robs your strikes of explosive power.

The problem is, though- that maintaining this kind of tension for too long pulls the shoulders forward and bends the spine at the top. We can therefore not walk like this all the time.

I know that most styles of karate do not practice Qigong as part of their warm-up routines and most classes I know off don't even bother to have a warming down routine after class either, much less qigong exercises afterward.

As a result we find a large number of serious fighters with what I have heard some Chinese refer to as "turtle back".

Where most styles of martial art I know want your body to compress itself to become stronger and more efficient at moving- one of the two Wu Styles of Taijiquan (let's not even delve too deep in there. Taiji history is just a mess...) actually recognises the importance of stretching and expanding the body.

I have found some use for this approach in combat, but much more use for the purpose of after training recovery and healing.

One qigong exercise that reverses the effects of tension maintained during karate training (if you are practicing a style that uses this kind of technique) is the one known in Shaolin circles as "Lifting the Sky". I have learnt one version of this exercise from Ashida Kim (Owen! I can sense you snickering!) and another from Sifu Wong Kiew Kit.

What the two versions have in common is that it stretches the body upward. Especially the spine. It forces you to leave that compact state in which we feel safe. The reward, however is that one ends up feeling refreshed and relaxed after class.

I am not surprised to note that some MMA gyms have their fighters attend yoga classes as well. I am certain that fighters that do yoga will tell you something similar to what I have just said.

In a similar manner meditation does for your mind what the Lifing the Sky Exercise does for your body.

Office jockeys who have no interest in learning how to fight will find that this exercise even counteracts the 15h00pm slump.

If your style does not teach you Qigong, Yoga or Meditation I strongly recommend that you start learning it. 2 excellent books that I can recommend to get you started are Ninja Mind Control (Ashida Kim- Yes, I know he has a bad rep, but his teachings actually work.) and The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu by Wong Kiew Kit.

You may also ask Abisha Soans at Martial Arts Forums. She is hopefully still practicing her qigong. :)

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Here's a revolting development- Does this happen in your country as well?

From 2014 to now I have attended classes at two different Shotokan dojos and noticed something I did not like at all.

First time it happened I was at a class headed by one of the junior instructors. At the start of the class he went for a book in his bag (well- it could have been a bunch of pages just bound together) and then went on to start the class with: "Your basics are..." This was at a JSKA dojo.

At the WSKF dojo (where I currently am) a lot of time gets spent on preparation for tournaments and gradings.

Around tournament time we get to do free sparring practice, which is always a good idea, but all the other times are devoted to competition techniques and- guess what- a bundle of pages in the Sensei's bag.

My first karate teacher actually had me wondering what the syllabus actually required from me. The reason for that was because he kept the lessons ever changing. Those times I have spent learning the next kata and ippon kumite sequences for my grading were actually a welcome break to all of the lessons and practice to implement them.

At the end of it all, however, we know what I took home with me in the end.

Jackie Bradbury posted a question on Martial Arts Forums during this last week regarding when we are to ask students to leave the dojo.

Now- as the saying goes: Strike Buddha three times and even he will get angry.

I am not Buddha. I have very little tolerance for troublemakers, but especially among children we really have to ask ourselves what the causes of the interruptions and unruliness are.

If your class is boring- you can expect a lack of spirit and really poor participation.

With adults- you will certainly see if students feel that you are not teaching anything that is of use to them.

Now- I can clearly see that a lot of us started with karate or some other martial art and over the years we got conditioned into accepting a lot of things. We got to accept things like- "our school has no bunkai", "our school does not teach self defence", "spiritual enlightenment is not to be found here" etc. It also seems that we came to accept that even after a decade of training we shall only be allowed to teach what a Shihankai tells us to- or is that just the teacher being lazy?

Maybe part of the reason is a lack of enthusiasm in the teacher. Another thing that I fear is killing karate at the moment is kata being taught without bunkai and to make matters worse- changing the movements thereof with no explanation.

Many of us know that kata and taolu are a means by which martial knowledge got preserved over centuries. How much knowledge has been lost due to these changes?!

At least the world has Sensei Iain Abernathe who has gone out to show what power actually lies locked up in these katas...

Likewise Sifu Iain Sinclair has actually showed us Taiji in a light rarely seen in Taiji schools across the world.

If a syllabus serves to preserve martial art knowledge and prevent contamination from outside influences I have no problem with that. Blind reliance on it is actually destroying a style, though.

Now- my question:

How are classes conducted in your school and in your area. What I have written here is what I have seen going on here in South Africa. How are things done in your country?

Saturday, 4 February 2017

My annual trip to Nan Hua Temple- and my coach on Saturdays.

If you don't know me yet I just want to get you on the same page as me before you think this is some annual pilgrimage to renew my focus and to purify my soul etc etc.

This particular trip to a temple was to celebrate Chinese New Year, show a new friend around, eat as many treats as I can and to get the WeChat ID of the girl at the bubble tea stall.

This festival happens to have multicultural performances and among these a Chinese Kungfu demonstration is usually featured.

This time around the demonstration was not given by Chinese students like all the previous years.

The demonstration team was made up of South African instructors and students instead.

It is a pity that these schools are mainly in Gauteng and the Western Cape. I would have liked to attend classes...

Back here I want to show you someone who observes and understands the importance and sacredness of the Saturday Morning Workout.

Can you see her? Look! Right there behind the stairs.

Patrys (you can call her Patricia) is a bullterrier that takes interest in everything we do at home. 

Saturday mornings have become an institution with us and I often find her fetching me from my bed on Saturdays so that we can go do this. :D

The space behind the stairs is the safest place for her to be once the weapons and limbs get swung about. 

I hope you all enjoy your weekends as well.

Until next time!