Thursday, April 30, 2009

Demonstrating to a class

When I demonstrate something to a class, I will occasionally invite an attack of any kind, not knowing how my demonstration will work out. Why do I take this "risk"? Because it adds pressure and ensures that I am staying honest to the students and myself.

Me demonstrating kicking in the "melee range" - see from about 2:45 onwards.

I will also frequently allow the students to demonstrate on me, knowing that I'll cop a smack that I would otherwise be handing out. Why? Because again, I know it will keep it honest and real. The other risk with this approach is that I loose any veneer of "invincibility" which an instructor can manufacture by always being the one dishing out blows. Again, this is a big "loss", yet I do so because I don't want to rely on "veneers".

Me demonstrating a throwing technique. Note from 1:57 onwards where I allow a student to demonstrate on me.

How do you all feel about demonstrations to a class? For example, should a teacher invite a limited range of attacks (grabs or cross punches) only to deal with them (however impressively) with a multitude of responses none of which can be responded to by the student (who obediently and doggedly sticks to a futile game plan of persistent grabs/punches even when he/she would, in reality, adopt a very different approach)?

An example of a demonstration where the student (uke) offers a token attack and then submits to a flurry of responses

I have seen a lot of this, and it makes the teacher look very good. But I can't help feel that unless it is clearly expressed as no more than an artifice - a mere method of illustrating a principle - then the danger is that the students watching will get an inflated view of the teacher's ability and hence of what he/she is teaching. To me this is a very dangerous pedagogy and can give false confidence to both the student and the teacher.

We are all aware of the powerful psychological advantage an teacher has over his/her students. How prepared are you to lose this advantage in the interests of honesty and reality?

One of my colleagues on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum wrote in answer to these questions:

    "... after seeing two great clubs with a superb teachers disintegrate completely I can certainly appreciate the need for a bit of the "I say, you do because I'm the boss" mentality. Perhaps it's not quite what you are talking about, but I think the air of invulnerability can help maintain class discipline. It's all too easy for power to devolve to strong personalities in a club. Then rifts start forming, students start leaving and it all goes pear shaped."
I think the "I say, you do because I'm the boss" mentality has a lot more to do with maintaining the correct teacher/student relationship based on respect than it does on veneers of invulnerability.

You can maintain this relationship using very subtle behavioral devices. Just as the best school teacher doesn't have to shout to get attention, so the best karate teacher doesn't have to bully to be respected.

I agree there is a fine line: a teacher should not lower him/herself in demonstrating. That is counter-productive. If he or she has a weakness (and we all do), this weakness should not be continuously on display as it might detract from his or her good qualities, resulting in loss of confidence and the breakdown of the teacher/student relationship. For instance a teacher with a bad back doesn't need to engage in hard and fast sparring with his students. However the teacher doesn't need to make his/her students stand still while he slaps them around either...

In other words the teacher must not use ploys to create a false appearance of efficacy and power. A good teacher should be impressive enough to his/her students just by being him/herself. What you choose to show of your true self is what counts - not what you choose to lie about yourself.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Gorillas in the midst: the question of wrist grabs

In my view people sometimes get caught up asking the wrong question: ie. a question that contains one or more false assumptions which serve to distract you from seeing the full picture.

Consider the following video as an example. Watch it carefully and see if you can answer their question correctly...

An episode of "Sleek Geeks" featuring a memory/concentration test.

It is my strong feeling that wrist grab defences are subject to a similar "distracting question", namely:

"Why practise defences against wrist grabs when they are not realistic attacks?".

This question contains a number of false assumptions that serve to distract you from the otherwise obvious "gorilla". What are they?

First, this question assumes that applications proceeding from a wrist grab are always intended to teach a defence against a wrist grab attack. In my opinion the primary purpose of wrist grabs is to put you in the correct range for the application of a technique in a basic setting. After all, once you are in a combat situation nothing requires you to wait for a particular attack; you might simply grab your opponent's arms in the same manner as if he/she had grabbed your wrist and you were responding! The notion that every self defence application must start with a defensive move and hence must have an attack is false and the assumption is unwarranted. Some applications are proactive.

The second false assumption is that wrist grabs are always unrealistic. That might be the case in gloved ring sports, but controlling your opponent's limbs (by trapping, grabbing or otherwise) is standard form in civilian self-defence, just as it is in civilian attacks. Indeed, my article "The art of checking" examines instances where you grab a wrist to "control" your opponent.

I remember as a prosecutor watching surveillance footage of an attack where a woman was dragged 50 yards by a wrist grab, then raped in an alleyway just out of sight of the camera. Had she known even the basics of wrist escapes she would have been able to slip out and perhaps escape - particularly when the attack occurred in broad daylight and people passed the point on the street where she was first grabbed less than a minute later. Had she put up even a modicum of resistance she would have delayed the movement off the street until bystanders had arrived on the scene.

The third false assumption is that all applications must be realistic in order to have a purpose. Different stages of learning require different strategies. As alluded to above, I see wrist grabs as a basic start to understanding or applying certain principles, mostly because they do not have the distraction of a strong attack; the student can focus on perfecting his or her movement. Once the student can apply the relevant principle sufficiently well the instructor can introduce progressively stronger and more realistic attacks and have the student attempt to apply the principle in that context. You must learn to walk before you can run...

As indicated in my article "The art of checking", I often grab the wrists in sparring to control; maybe not for more than an instant, and maybe not in the way applications are normally effected, but grabbing the forearms/wrists is something I've found to be very productive in trapping.

There is an issue with wrist grabs, but it has nothing to do with whether or not they are a useful platform from which to apply techniques, or whether wrist grabs are "realistic". Rather, the problem with wrist grabs is that they occupy one of your arms. For this reason you have to use them selectively.

Another problem is the grip reflex. This will often not allow you time to let go when the grabbing hand is needed more urgently for defence or some other task. I have noticed that it is part of human nature to "hold onto what you've got". In the confusion of combat this can be very dangerous. You can't afford to "think about letting go" of a wrist/arm because by then it might be too late. Furthermore you need to be careful not to "chase a grab" for the sake of it. Being obsessed with grabbing is likely to distract you from incoming attacks.

A video where I discuss the grip reflex

As a matter of interest, many forms/kata/xing contain "friction holds" in their bunkai; ie. controls (usually of the opponent's forearm/wrist) that rely on friction rather than a full closure of the hand. This avoids the grip reflex issue while maintaining control for the time it takes to execute a punch/strike.

The "sokumen te awase" uke as used in the second half of the above video illustrates a "friction hold" using a hooked wrist rather than a pure grab.

On this topic my friend and colleague Russ Smith made this observation:

    "I now put a focus on avoiding "the hand chasing the hand". By this, I mean utilizing the forearm / elbow, etc. to manage the incoming hand, leaving my hand free to "endanger" the opponent."
Consider his video below:

Russ Smith demonstrates a "control" drill.

So grabbing has its issues, but "realism" is not really one of them. Apart from their function in teaching basic technique, wrist grabs can and do occur in combat. Indeed, you can use them quite effectively to control your opponent. The real issue with wrist grabs lies in the fact that they occupy one or both of your arms. But then again, kicking leaves you balancing on one foot, throwing a punch leaves an opening etc. Every technique has its time and place. When considering wrist grabs or any other issue, don't get so lost in the detail that you don't notice the gorilla in your midst.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, April 27, 2009

"Free" tuition

I am sometimes surprised by how those in Generation Y expect things to be given to them for free, rather than appreciating that the world doesn't owe them everything.

Consider this young fellow who, in relation to one of my Youtube videos, asks me to "please make a video explaining how to master that footwork step by step".

You'll see in the comments that I politely declined, citing the difficulty with "video teaching". However I don't think he got the hint that his demand for even more free information was quite cheeky (ie. "Your existing free video isn't detailed enough - please give me much more. For free, of course.").

All this from a person whom I couldn't differentiate from a bar of soap.

The video in relation to which the request for more detailed free instruction was requested - click on the video twice to access the comments.

I note that in the comments on a related clip someone else has offered to give him free tuition over the net. I wondered if I should say something, but I decided that I shouldn't labor the obvious. If the other person wants to offer free tuition to an unknown and cheeky Gen Y, then so be it. I don't think it should be encouraged, but each to his own.

Why should a prospective student expect me or any other martial arts teacher to give them knowledge for free that cost a great deal of money (never mind blood, sweat and tears) to acquire?

As it happens, I am happy to give information for "free" in many circumstances. But as my good friend Narda says, it isn't totally "free" in some respects if I feel I am getting something from it (eg. satisfaction in doing something well, enjoyment in teaching or helping etc.). If I don't get anything like this back, I don't give. I don't get any satisfaction from giving to someone who takes selfishly. Nor does this entitle a prospective student to say: "You enjoy teaching, therefore you ought to enjoy the privilege of teaching me." That is simply outrageous!

In a teacher/student relationship (or indeed in any relationship) there needs to be yin and yang - a balance.

We have always had a policy at our dojo that no one is turned away on financial grounds. If a student can't pay in money, he or she can give back in other ways. With any such arrangement there is a necessary precondition that the student must train with dedication and sincerity - so that the instructors at least have some "reward" for their investment of time and effort.

On the topic of balance, I often think you can destroy a friendship in 2 ways; giving too little and giving too much. I've found over the years that you need a balance in any relationship for it to be sustainable. I remember I had an impoverished friend for whom I often paid small amounts when we were going out (parking, a beer etc.). One day he turned up at my house and gave me a handful of notes and coins that approximated what I'd paid for him over the preceding couple of months. He was clearly agitated. "There," he said. "Please don't lend me any more money." I took the money and the balance was restored. We never spoke about it again and I was careful not to make him feel indebted to me (which was never my intention, by the way) from that time onwards.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The art of checking


The art of checking is widely misunderstood and I thought it would be worth spending a bit of time discussing it.

The most common method of checking is a slap like motion to your opponent's forearm, usually following a deflection of an attack. An example of checking can be found in the sequence of photographs on the left which is taken from an arnis/escrima/kali based drill:

An initial deflection is made using one arm (here the right). The left arm then slaps the attacking arm (ie. "checks" it) allowing the arm that did the initial deflection to counter-punch.

However, why would one ever bother doing this? Some would argue that the "check" is a "passive" movement that might have been more easily utilised as a strike in itself. Accordingly some have argued that the practise of drills that involve such checks is foolish and even dangerous. Consider the video below:

An instructor giving a strong argument against the use of the "checking" method shown above

While I think there is a lot of merit in what the instructor in the video is saying, the principle issue for me is that he is assuming various things in reaching his ultimate conclusion that the drill (and hence this kind of checking) is worthless.

He assumes:
    (1) that you always want to hit as soon as possible;
    (2) that the "2-handed check" isn't useful in confusing the opponent who might otherwise expect the simple (direct) counter;
    (3) that the simple (direct) counter will always land.

You don't always want to hit

If you're not trying to hurt someone, multiple checks can have their purposes; I have used them to "box up" my opponent without hurting him or her. I don't propose to dwell on this point however as I recognise it is not a major use of checking.

Mixing it up

In my experience in sparring, "simple" and "direct" moves are all the go - until you encounter someone very skilled who is doing more or less what you do. That's when you might want to "mix things up" a bit.

I've done this drill since my first escrima days in the 80s. Do I do it a lot? Probably once or twice per year; hardly enough to cause serious "muscle memory" issues of the kind to which the instructor in the video refers, but enough to have exercised the brain a bit (the primary purpose of a drill as opposed to a combat application which you might want to inculcate into your subconscious).

Direct counters won't always be able to land

Yes, the instructor in the above video does make a point: one should be aware of "passivity" and strive for directness. However he goes a step further and makes directness a panacea - a dogmatic assertion that I believe is flawed. Why?

I have already noted his assumption that a "direct counter" will always be best (it might usually, but not always). This assumption is, in turn, based on the more critical assumption that your opponent hasn't noticed the interception of his/her attack and started to react accordingly.

In fact this is one of the reasons why fighting (real fighting) between 2 skilled opponents doesn't feature "clean" techniques; very few moves are fully executed - most are half-executed, then modified etc. because of the constantly shifting/dynamic environment.

It is for this reason that I don't always advocate "directness" as a dogmatic panacea... You need to understand transition, not assume that your opponent will just stand there after the failure of his technique.

Put another way, a skilled opponent is going to throw techniques that can be modified if intercepted.

When I was in Hong Kong recently I applied a few arm bars on one of Hans-Kurt Schaefer's students in sparring, only to find that his punch (to which I had started to apply an elbow lock) was then transferred into a "snake creeps through grass" motion (from bagua/taiji) that went between my legs, neutralising the arm bar and throwing me. This was done just before I had managed to apply a full arm bar (ie. at a point I thought the conclusion was certain)...

Other reasons for "checking"

An important point I wish to make is that even very basic, rigid karate-type drills have their function: for all their "passive" movement they do teach kinaesthetic awareness of a kind that is crucial to overall martial development. In other words "non-combat" drills have their function. Bricks don't look like houses, but you can't build a house without bricks. In my experience those who don't have "classical" and "non-combat" forms training often lack the necessary kinaesthetics for future development.

However I think the more important reason for "checking" was summed up well by my friend and colleague Ryan Dickerson on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum recently:

    "Checking isn't about tapping someone's arm or limb just to get one blow, but (at least the way we use it) is used to control and maintain a connection to the opponent with the checking being done along side of footwork to better reposition oneself out of the way of the opponent's attack."

In my experience, kinaesthetic awareness of where your opponent's limb is (and where it is going to be in the next second) is the main benefit of checking. For example, it is very hard to get hold of a forearm/wrist on the first attempt; however check it first and you will find that on the next move you can grab it quite easily; your body/mind has some contextual spatial and time awareness, permitting a reasonable estimation of its positioning within the next second or so.

Arnis/escrima/kali practitioners know the importance of this concept well, particularly when a bladed weapon is in issue (grabbing a hand that is holding a knife is fraught with danger). The assumption of the gentleman in the video that seemingly "passive" movements in kali are primarily intended to slice tendons etc. with a knife is not entirely accurate; yes - they can be so used, but I think "checking" is more importantly a methodology for control.

Of course "checking" needn't involve a 2-handed exchange as demonstrated in the above sequences of pictures. Another friend and colleague on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum, Jo Roman, wrote the following:

    "In aikido and even chin na contact with the opponent's arm is established usually with the wrist/forearm, followed by sticking/sliding into the grab. This is even more so with techniques that use the same arm to deflect then hold the limb."

Indeed. The initial contact sets up the awareness, followed by the grab. This is irrespective of whether you use 2 arms or one.

In these and many other respects, checking is no different from deflection; clearly you can use one arm to deflect or you can use 2. Your deflecting arm might be used to strike - or you can deflect with one arm and strike with the other.

Deflecting by "simultaneously" punching/striking is preferred (I shall cover the question of what is "simultaneous" another time). If you can do it all with one arm (or other limb / part of the body!) this is arguably ideal. But this in no way invalidates other methods of deflection (ie. using 2 arms instead of one, not striking "simultaneously" etc.). They all have their time and place. I just had the opportunity to observe this in a systema seminar by Alex Kostic - a very pragmatic and direct martial artist who does whatever he has to do (which in some situations requires the use of 2 hands and not one).

A simultaneous deflection/strike with a single arm might be the best in theory, but it is a tall order for beginning students and often even for advanced ones. It requires pin-point accuracy and control. Given the premium civilian defence arts place on not being hit rather than hitting, those practising these arts need to be careful about abandoning methods that ensure deflection and control first, and put hitting second.


In the end, I see "checking" as a means of "mixing it up". It not only serves to give you alternative responses that can confuse an adept opponent, it also enables you to transition your control from one hand to the other, in order to gain greater control or so as to get into better range for your counter. The latter 2 are quite crucial against a highly mobile and resistant opponent.

As an aside, I see "checking" as a mere subset of using the "secondary move" in blocking or deflection, as illustrated here in relation to the karate "hiki uke" or "kake uke" (hooking block) (see also my article "Two for the price of one").

A video showing the use of the "secondary movement" in the hiki uke block

On a final note, it is worth observing from the above video that the check is often applied so quickly after the initial deflection that they are virtually instantaneous. The "extra" time, such as it is, is sufficient to gain extra control or move further into your opponent. I don't feel it is safe to assume that you will will already have that control or will already be in range because of a JKD-type interception philosophy.

Checking drills are not about replacing "directness"; they are about complementing it. They should not form a major part of one's training or they can indeed detract from "directness" training. They are a variation that is worthy of occasional consideration for the more experienced student.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, April 20, 2009

Memories of Taiwan: encounters with spirituality

It was Wednesday afternoon in my first week in Taiwan and I was emotionally exhausted. That morning I, among others, had undergone a traditional "bai shi" ceremony where I was accepted as an "inner circle" student of my teacher Chen Yun-Ching. Every facade had cracked; my attempts at maintaining a composed, relaxed front had proved laughable, and even Master Chen's normally inscrutable exterior crumbled as he knelt before the picture of his father and bowed three times, openly shedding tears. Then, with every one of us bai shi, he had the handkerchief at hand.

Before me was my good mate "Little" John Scott who so endearingly wears his heart on his sleeve, tears flowing freely. By the time my turn came I resolved to keep some semblance of both my and Master Chen's composure, holding back hot tears behind my eyeballs; pressure vessels about to explode.

In the afternoon I felt so spent I didn't bother to note where we were going. All I knew was that we were traveling somewhere by bus - "a very special trip to a temple" Shou Mei said. Given that we had spent every day training in front of an impressive temple, I couldn't understand how the excursion could possibly amount to anything more than a pleasant distraction and some relief for my sore muscles and swollen joints.

I boarded the coach and chose a seat on my own, then slumped into the shared quiet: each person seemed deep in his or her own thoughts. I let the hours of the journey roll past with the deepening countryside, watching the sky gradually becoming slightly less hazy as we steered into the moist hills, my ears popping.

When we arrived at the temple we were confronted by what I can fairly describe as a challenge to our weary legs - a long, steep flight of stairs ascending to a gate which I assumed led to the opening of the temple. I remember how I stood momentarily at the base, shaking blood and resolve into my lower limbs, breathing in the fresh mountain air and bracing myself for the climb.

It turned out that I had every reason to be apprehensive; the flight of steps was only the beginning. After reaching the gates at the top I found myself staring at an even steeper climb to another gate, and just beyond that another, and another. It was at this point that Shou Mei assembled us for an introduction to our guide; a Buddhist nun who was fluent in English. I remember walking towards the front of the group, slipping between my martial brothers and sisters, still lost in my own world, oblivious to (and disinterested in) what was to come.

Those who know me or have read some of my writings will be aware that I am what I like to call a "reluctant atheist" and a skeptic generally. I respect friends who are religious, moreover I respect their right to hold their beliefs. Indeed I often wish I shared them as I can see the solace and peace religious convictions can bring. But as I have said elsewhere, "wishing don't make it so" and I remain on the "outside" of belief systems. Meeting the nun who was to be our guide is as close as I have ever come - and probably ever will come - to "spirituality", however one defines that term.

It is a cliché, but I'll say it anyway; it was as if she had a light shining from within. The broad smile that framed her face embodied contentment of a kind I had not ever seen. It as was as if pure joy were personified; somehow distilled, bottled then rendered into human form.

She studied the group, her kind eyes surveying each individual, gave a small cough and adjusted her rattan "hat", making me aware of her shaven head. At this point I wasn't sure if she was a man or a woman; her lack of hair, brown robes and androngenous features perplexed me. Ultimately it was only her soft, measured voice that betrayed her gender.

In perfect, accentless English she apologised that she was still recovering from a nasty case of influenza and was not in her usual form, but would do her best to guide us through the temple complex. Whatever daze I'd been in before had disappeared. I became totally focussed on her every, slightly raspy, word, emitted between small coughs and a smile that flowed like her robes. We were, she said, in for a few surprises and I had the feeling she was right.

Walking up the next flights of steps seemed somehow easier. I was with Little John, taking 2 steps at a time. The nun's enthusiasm and joie de vivre seemed infectious.

Finally we reached the very top where the main temple stretched out in front of us. I was surprised to find the nun already there. Where I was slightly out of breath, she was perfectly composed (except for the little coughs).

We waited outside for a while until the entire group had assembled and I asked our group photographer Lucia Ondrusova to take the adjacent picture of me and the nun just before we went in.

As to what we experienced inside... well, I think I'll let the video below speak for itself. Take careful note of my expression as I'm surveying the interior:

A video of the bai shi ceremony and the visit to Kaohsiung's Fo Guang Shan (佛光山) or "Buddha's Light Mountain" temple. Fo Guang Shan is an international Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monastic order

After we had savoured the majestic scale and beauty of the main temple we found ourselves congregating outside where the nun waited patiently. Then we followed her down an immaculately polished stone corridor. When we had reached the end she paused and turned to us: "We are now going into an art gallery. No photographs are allowed inside." The injunction was not a request, nor was it received as an order. It was just a fact, and we dutifully (if reluctantly) put our cameras away. "What you are about to see is some of the glass sculptures of Loretta Hui-shan Yang. She was a very famous actress here in Taiwan, but now she is known all over the world for her beautiful art. You will see why." Again, that omniscient smile.

As we entered the gallery we were immediately engulfed in a world of stark contrasts; darkness, punctuated by back-lit displays of exquisitely carved glass objects. Some were crafted in such minute detail they appeared to defy human physical possibility if not logic itself. "The artist," the nun explained waving at the interior decor, "designed the entire exhibition, right down to the lighting. She was directly involved at every step."

Before we entered a the final exhibition the nun made us pause. "This room is very special. I won't say any more. You will see."

Again she was right. We entered a room with displays that were, quite simply, indescribable. I turned to the nun and saw her laugh knowingly as our jaws collectively hit the floor. Joy was to be had from seeing sheer beauty. Yes, she too was reveling in the exhibition. But she was also vicariously experiencing the joy on our faces. How many times have we heard the saying: "the simplest things in life are often the best." Here was someone who lived that truism.

It was Einstein who famously said: "Time is an illusion." Indeed, while I was in the art gallery, time seemed suspended. Occasionally I took a break from examining the artworks to chat with the nun, who explained to me that after becoming interested in glass sculpture, Loretta Hui-shan Yang had written to leading Italian glass artists seeking some advice on where and how to begin. Apparently the few replies she received were less than helpful. So Ms Yang decided to go it alone. Working tirelessly for the better part of a decade she developed a technique and method that is now world-renowned and completely individualistic. She turned an initial setback into an advantage. She refused to give up. Some of the individual artworks had taken her up to 5 years to complete. The nun felt there were many lessons to be learned from her.

After the art gallery we visited the temple's museum, another state-of-the-art facility. I won't bore you with more gushing descriptions. You get the "picture". But our experiences were far from over; in fact they were about to become more "hands on".

We were shepherded into a giant, wood-paneled classroom for a calligraphy lesson. It was, the nun explained, all about the moment - living in the now. Grasping the pre-filled "brush pen" I tried to adhere to what I knew were the basics; keep it vertical, make a single stroke and be decisive. Never go back over a stroke; the moment has passed. I succeeded in breaking each of the fundamental rules, but found myself smiling anyway.

After the lesson we were led to a delicately lit meditating room. Without any instruction we were invited to have some "quiet time" to reflect on the day. We filed in and circled around the perimeter of the room, taking up positions wherever we wished, sitting cross-legged on futon-like cushioning, our backs against a similarly padded wall. The 15 minutes of silence was at once an eternity and yet it passed in an instant: again the words of Einstein come to mind. There was so much on which to reflect...

After the meditation session we emerged, blinking, into the sharp rays of the late afternoon sun for the final part of our tour, which included a visit to the giant bronze Buddha - a structure that was at least 3 stories high and dominated the peak of the mountain. By now I could see that the nun was weary; the extent of her illness was only just becoming apparent to me. She sat down to rest on a bench facing the statute and I took the opportunity to ask her about life in a monastic order. Did she often leave the temple? If so, for what purposes? What had she done before entering the monastery?

Whatever weariness the nun had been feeling seemed to vanish temporarily as she spoke of her life; clearly she had found complete contentment in a world utterly alien and incomprehensible in the context of our Western materialism. She had joined the monastery in the '80s after a time at university. She had never looked back. She rarely left the temple compound as all her needs were provided for there. The only exceptions were visits to prisons, to do other charitable work and to give the occasional lecture or paper on subjects pertaining to their order and Buddhism itself.

As she spoke, I remembered with some irony how at one point during the tour the nun turned to us and asked if we had heard US president Barak Obama's inauguration speech. We replied that we hadn't; we'd been too busy training. "It's okay," she said, "you haven't missed it. Just log onto Youtube and do a search for "Obama" and "inauguration". It comes up straight away."

After obligatory stops to buy souvenirs from the temple's gift shop (the nun helped me choose some marvelous taiji music by a talented local artist) we were then led to the temple's cafeteria/restaurant and treated to a sumptuous vegetarian feast. The nun made a final appearance to wish us all a pleasant New Year and to say "Go Obama!" once more. I remembered the New Year greeting suggested to me by Master Chen's sister just after the bai shi ceremony and said it to her (this wasn't to be my first misadventure with New Year greetings, but more on that another time). It took the nun a moment to compute my poor rendering of Chinese tones and the perplexed look on her face faded back into the familiar smile. "Oh - I get it."

In the end, I'm not sure what "spirituality" is; all I can say is that I don't think a "spiritual experience" is outside the realms of possibility for an atheist skeptic. If "spirituality" means reveling in the beauty of a moment, in the exquisite complexity of nature, the power of the universe, the insignificance of man and simultaneously the endless possibilities open to us all, then I think we are all capable of such an experience.


Little did I know that my encounters with Buddhism were not yet over for that day. Not long after we returned to the hotel I was convinced by Little John to go out to the Cabana Jazz Club - a little bar some of my martial brothers and sisters had already made their own. A couple of hours and a couple of beers later, John and I left, exhausted and depleted, with Lucia in tow. She was still fired up about the calligraphy lesson and had been told by Karen Jensen that there was a teacher operating at a place we would pass on the way back to the hotel (this enthusiasm is the subject of another story you can read here). Since neither John nor I were certain about our ability to determine the way back, we let Lucia be our navigator; a short side-visit would be a small price to pay for getting "home"!

In our search for the calligrapher we chanced upon a shop, still open in the late hours. I stopped to examine some torches and keychains, coasters and broom handles; a mish-mash of items spilling out onto the sidewalk and into the warm, moist, sweet-sewer smell of the evening. The items themselves were mundane; certainly there was nothing I was interested in purchasing. John and I looked up simultaneously as a shout echoed out from the back of the room; a little woman of indeterminate age rushed down to us, beaming like a headlight. She said (in animated half-Chinese, half-English) that she had something for us. Ruing our decision to stop and browse, we hastily made our excuses, retreating into the shadows. She did not seem to understand and disappeared to the back of her store, presumably to obtain the goods she thought we'd like. Taking the opportunity, we absconded.

We never did find the calligrapher - nor the hotel. In fact, after a further half-hour of walking we found ourselves precisely back at the woman's shop. It seemed we'd just walked a very big circle. The woman was ecstatic; we had returned for her goods! She hastily piled books and bookmarks into our hands and ran back for more. I resigned myself to purchasing a few - whatever they were.

Flicking through a couple, I found myself somewhat pleasantly surprised; one was a book of wise sayings - generally of the kind one would expect to be uttered by the Dalai Lama or someone similar. It was a handsomely bound paperback and would make an excellent souvenir for some people I knew. Others were similar gentle philosophical books with a Buddhist "bent". The bookmarks were really quite exquisite.

I selected a few and made my way to the counter to purchase them. "No, no!" the woman protested. It seemed these were gifts. Then I took the time to examine her more closely and noted that what I had initially perceived to be a manic persona was nothing of the kind: it was the same embodiment of joy I had seen in the nun earlier that day.

Lucia took the opportunity to ask the woman if she knew the whereabouts of a certain calligraphy teacher. She did not. But she did inquire what words Lucia wanted to have rendered into Chinese script and obliging wrote them down for her on a note-pad. The woman in that shop didn't want to sell us anything. She didn't want to "convert" us. She just wanted to give us something - a gift in the truest sense of the word.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, April 13, 2009

Applying forms in combat

I would like to make the following observations on the subject of applications and forms, gleaned from my recent trips to Taiwan and Hong Kong:

My teacher Chen Yun Ching and my senior James Sumarac were at pains to point out that what they demonstrated as applications of forms were merely examples. Forms don't teach applications - rather they teach certain principles. Isolated applications make you aware of how these principles might be utilised in combat - they do not provide an exhaustive treatise on how they should/will be utilised.

The reality is that you are unlikely ever to string together any chain of movements from a form, however you can extract the principle of the movements if you study them sufficiently and correctly. In practice this means applying a small part of a form sequence here or there - and perhaps more importantly it also means learning to avoid those techniques being applied to you.

Part of the reason why applications exist in the form of xing/kata/hyung/poomse etc. and not just as isolated "applications" is that they are not intended to be applied literally (ie. as a full sequence). Your opponent's possible initiating movements are infinite and his/her responses to your counters are also infinite.

Chaos theory tells us that it is impossible to predict the exact path of a droplet of water on a window pane, even when a droplet of the same size is placed on the same point with mathematical precision. There are simply too many variables (physical, atmospheric etc.) that are continuously changing. You might predict with some certainty how your opponent will react to one technique (a block, for example) but after that the odds of your prediction matching reality decrease exponentially.

Applications of forms typically consist of more than one technique, eg. they have a defence - a deflection or evasion (preferably both) with a counter or series of counters. If forms consisted of merely one disjointed technique after another they would not be any more than a series of basics. Yet even 2 connected techniques is stretching "predictive accuracy"...

Forms and their applications can teach you principles of movement and how your body (and that of your opponent) move relative to each other. If these principles are understood well enough, you can adapt your response productively, depending on your opponent's movement/reaction.

In my experience forms teach you a fairly broad cross-section of responses/principles that should "cover the field". Some form-based arts are more "complete" in this sense than others, but in general most established martial systems cover essential principles fairly well.

You could practice the techniques found in forms in isolation - ie. without ever doing them in a sequence or "form". But doing this would miss the point: forms place the application of techniques in a dynamic setting; ie. the techniques are being executed in a changing, shifting, flowing environment. This environment might not change or shift as it will in reality, but the form should teach you something about moving from technique to technique.

This process of "change" or "transition" is where forms come into their own. Forms are not a collection of stray techniques; they are tools for learning principles of transition. In other words, forms are about the process of change (as reflected in the bagua-related Chinese classic, the Yi Qing or "Book of Changes"), not about static positions.

Learning about the transition from technique to technique is what distinguishes forms and their applications from static practice (eg. "he does this, you do that"). Without understanding the process of change from technique to technique it is my view that you will never actually apply more than basics: a punch, kick or strike. Once you understand the process of change/transition on a superficial level you then need to attempt to apply this understanding in dynamic, flowing sparring (what we call "randori"). I think it is one of the many tools one needs to develop overall skill and is the only real forum for attempting applications from forms.

We call our continuous sparring "randori" however others call it "iri kumi" or "jiyu kumite" etc. In my recent trip to Hong Kong I had a chance to train (however briefly) with a bagua group led by Hans-Kurt Schäfer Shifu and noted their version which they called "playing".

This "playing" is vital to learning the art of actual combat. As I have noted previously, it is why dogs and cats (or indeed any predator/carnivore pups and even adults) "playfight". They are learning about response and transition. You can't experiment in a life-or-death scenario; in the latter case you have to be conservative and instinctive. "Playing" at various levels of intensity gives you the chance to grow - for those vital neural connections to be made.

Where do forms and applications fit into all of this? Form training is a precursor; it is a method of stringing together techniques in a way that maps neural pathways in preparation for free sparring. As a method of practise it is, in itself, insufficient for combat. However without forms you don't have a solo forum for practising techniques in a dynamic setting; put another way, you don't have a means of learning the essential principles of movement from technique to technique. All you have is basics. Shadow boxing is not sufficient; it is not scientific for one thing and generally amounts to doing what you already know - not what you don't. It generally amounts to no more than a string of disjointed basics - usually strikes and kicks.

Every time I have learned a new form/xing/kata recently I've struggled to adapt to the new paradigm. Why? The principles of movement have been so vastly different from that which I've learned before. If you doubt me, do some karate, then walk into a bagua school, a xingyi school, a taiji school and then a shaolin school. It gets "harder" the more you master one art because your neural responses become so entrenched.

Yet every time I struggle with something new I am heartened. Why? I believe that the moment you come across something new to you - something you cannot automatically do - you have identified a "weakness" (ie. a kinaesthetic neural pathway that has yet to be mapped). And the moment you identify a weakness you are already stronger - assuming you are willing to do something about it.

So what should you do when you identify that weakness? You practise the solo form until you can do the movement without conscious thought - until you have "internalised" it on a solo level. Then you must go the next step of applying that movement (specifically the transition or principle of movement, rather than a specific bunkai) in a dynamic setting.

The extent to which I have "grown" during and since Taiwan has surprised me, and I believe has been apparent to my training partners. I only wish health would permit me to have capitalised on the "growth spurt" even more...

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, April 5, 2009

More lessons from Hong Kong

Today I decided to head off to Kowloon Park where many of my martial arts colleagues assured me there would be plenty of good gong fu / wushu to watch.

Events did not proceed as smoothly as I had hoped; I wanted to get there as early as possible, so rather than take the ferry from Central to Kowloon, I decided to take Hong Kong's fantastic MTR. What wasn't so fantastic was my map-reading skill; the mistake I made was thinking that the "Kowloon station" marked on the MTR summary map was actually near Kowloon Park... Let's just say it wasn't. I exited into a strange world of massive concrete monoliths joined by surreal sky-bridges; a neatly paved and minimalist, futuristic landscape with nary a person to be seen. This was not Kowloon Park...

Luckily I chanced upon a resident of one of the surrounding apartment blocks; a pleasant ex-Singaporean who was going for his morning exercise. Without hesitation he went out of his way to walk me through a maze of building complexes, subways and escalators until we came out again into the first bright, sunny day I'd seen since I arrived.
     "There," he gestured into the still hazy distance (for even a sunny day in Hong Kong doesn't mean what I'm used to), "you see that group of buildings over there?" Far in the distance, around the corner of a bay, I could see an outcrop of buildings huddled in the mist. "Head for those buildings, then turn right. You can't miss it."

So much for getting there early.

Moreover I had chosen the first and only hot, humid day of my stay in Hong Kong to go for an extended walk. By the time I reached Nathan Road I was already drenched in sweat but thankful for the giant fig trees lining the pathway. Not long after that, I climbed the steps up into the postcard-perfect world that is Kowloon Park; a maze of themed and manicured gardens, broad leafy trees and boulevards. As I had expected, people at every turn were performing their morning exercises. It seemed I was not too late.

Taijiquan and related (often minimalist) qi gong exercises were the most common. What struck me most about the taiji practice was the speed at which it was being performed - or I should say the lack of speed. In some cases movements were being executed so slowly that I wondered if the practitioners were frozen, often mid-step.

I wandered about for a while, admiring the atmosphere of diligent practice and enjoyment. In one paved area I chanced upon some women practising taijiquan sword, the leader/teacher taking them through dragon-like movements of exquisite elegance and beauty. In another, a group of children with stoic, fixed expressions went through endless repetitions of a Shaolin staff form with military precision and unrelenting intensity: their skill level far exceeded anything I'd ever seen in children of their age (the youngest must have been no older than 8).

Presently I chanced upon a group of 15 or so people practising bagua in small sub-groups. Their teacher was European - something I had not expected to see in Kowloon Park. I sat for a while and watched their style which reminded me of Youtube footage I'd seen of the late mainland bagua master Sha Guozheng (it turned out later that he was, in fact, the grandmaster of this group). One student (the only other westerner) was practising some xingyi, in particular the linking form and later the monkey form.

I sat down and watched them practising for a while then, when there appeared to be an appropriate break, I went over and introduced myself. I discovered that the instructor was none other than Hans-Kurt Schäfer, a direct student of the late Sha Guozheng (1904-1992).

Shao Guozheng performing bagua in 1986

Hans Shifu greeted me cordially and was more than happy for me to watch their training and take some photographs. Later it transpired in discussions that he knew my shifu, Chen Yun-Ching; they had met during a trip to Taijung. Hans had even seen my picture on Master Chen's wall!

After discussing the Chen Pan-Ling system (and in particular Master Chen Yun Ching's openness and generosity in imparting knowledge), Hans invited me to demonstrate some of my school's material, which I did (somewhat haltingly, having spent the preceding week cooped up in a conference room). First I showed some feng quan - ie. Chen Pan-Ling's synthesis of his favourite Shaolin, xingyi, bagua and taiji moves named "mountain top boxing" after his nick-name "Feng" meaning mountain. I also demonstrated our version of the 5 elements linking form from xingyi.

I was then given the privilege of taking part in some of the lesson, including "playing" (their version of our "randori") with Hans' student Chris (who I had previously seen practising xingyi); a very interesting experience given the extremely different fighting method/style they use. It is rare to get a chance to "cross hands" with someone from a completely different style, and I'm sure Chris appreciated the opportunity as much as I did.  I certainly learned a valuable lesson from him: that "snake creeps through grass" is a potent antidote to a standing arm bar!

When practise was finished I was given the further privilege of joining Hans and his students in their post lesson custom of a dim sum brunch - and every entreaty to contribute was refused. Not only was the hospitality unmatched, but the dim sum was the best I've ever had, by far! A very civilised way to end a training indeed.

During our brunch the students bantered away on a variety of topics that changed as often as the myriad dim sum dishes being brought to the table. I was surprised to find them conversing amongst each other in Mandarin rather than Cantonese - the "lingua franca" of Hong Kong (one of Hans' students confided to me with a mischievous grin that "we only speak Cantonese when we don't want shifu to know what we are saying").

I asked Hans what his background was and he mentioned that he had started his martial arts career back in his home town of Frankfurt where the only martial arts school within reasonable distance was a taekwondo club (there was an aikido school a bit further away and Hans seemed somewhat wistful about missing the opportunity to have studied there). He then moved to yang style taijiquan which he studied for 15 years without any cross-training.

After that, Hans shifu was fortunate enough to become a direct student of the late Sha Guosheng with whom he studied until the latter's death in 1992. He pulled out a pen and sketched his teacher's lineage on the margin of my dog-eared map of Hong Kong:

Hans shifu regularly makes trips to the Chinese mainland to study with his late teacher's surviving senior students. Was there any danger in knowledge being irretrievably lost with each passing year? "Of course," Hans replied, laughing and pointing around the table. "Each of my students does the same move slightly differently. Over time the differences in emphasis and technique are magnified and the changes become quite large. It is unavoidable." At the same time it emerged from our discussions that he felt that there were only so many ways of skinning the proverbial cat; the same knowledge could be found in, or perhaps rediscovered from, a variety of sources.

In fact, now that he had acquired a higher skill in a number of different arts Hans felt he was beginning to see just how related they all were. He lamented that he had not cross-trained during his yang taijiquan era, attributing some of his dogged loyalty to his German nature. He said to me: "I spent so long digging one very deep hole; now that I have dug some other smaller ones I'm able to see the same vein from a different perspective." I suggested to him that perhaps that first hole taught him the very importance of digging, and he nodded and smiled. "Perhaps."

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic