Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Kitchen training"

Many years ago I was at the house of my friend (and student) Damon. We were studying for our final law school exams. During a break I was absentmindedly going through some kata movements (I recall that it was seipai kata from goju ryu) when one of Damon's other law school buddies, a fellow named Ian, came around for a visit. Seeing me performing the kata in Damon's small kitchen Ian furrowed his brow and shook his head in mild irritation.

"Why do you guys keep doing that stuff?"
"What 'stuff' do you mean?"
"You know - that 'Ha so karrrateee!' business. I kind of get why you might do it in classes, but what the hell makes you want to do it standing around in... someone's kitchen for God's sake!"

I was a bit taken aback by Ian's critical response to my impromptu practice. Among traditional martial artists this sort of "training" is really quite common. The next time you're with a karate friend, notice how he or she will start doing some small hand movements from kata while you're sitting/standing around, doing nothing in particular (and when you're not in some public place!). It is an unconscious thing. It comes from doing an activity that you enjoy - perhaps even love.

My response to Ian was, I think, quite apt. As Ian was talking I'd grabbed an umbrella from a stand and I'd started doing what cricketers do when they find a suitable stick or odd bit of wood - they assume the batting stance and start practising the "block" - presenting the bat to stop the ball from hitting the stumps. This is usually preceded by some taps of the ground behind your feet. (Baseballers can imagine their own variant - a kind of gentle warm up "swing" or "testing of the bat".) Ian was still talking, oblivious to my "cricket moves".

"Well, you see what I'm doing now?"
"Eh? What?"
"This. Cricket."
"Yes, what of it?"
"I'm doing it in the kitchen. You do that sort of thing all the time."
"Yeah - so what?"
"It's the same thing with karate. We're just 'going through the motions' because that's what we do."

Now Ian, like Damon, was a competitive cricketer; they both played at a club level. Damon even played at an international level, having represented Australia at the Maccabiah Games. They would both regularly grab the nearest "bat-like" object and started "practising". The difference was, Damon was also now a brown belt in karate - and he had also taken to "practising" karate in such idle moments (much to Ian's chagrin).

Ian snorted. "If you say so." Then he changed the subject. I don't think he really "got it". To him karate (and the Eastern martial arts generally) were appropriate to chop socky movies with their corny dialogue, far-fetched plot lines and highly improbable physical capabilities. In other words, to him the art of karate had more to do with a pajama-clad parody than something someone would pursue seriously and passionately (eg. cricket!).

But to those who practise traditional martial arts like karate there is nothing "corny" about them. They are every bit as worthy of practise - and passion - as something like cricket. Perhaps even more so. Depending on how you approach them, and what your goals and purposes are, martial arts can go right to the core of the 'human condition' - to our fears and insecurities, the nature of conflict (which often arises from those fears and insecurites) and the management of these things. So it is no accident that martial arts are often associated with philosophical traditions like Daoism and Zen.1

Which brings me back to the kitchen episode: what was I doing that day? What were Ian and Damon doing every time they started "batting" with a suitable-sized stick? We were, all of us, doing what I now call "kitchen training". What does this entail? Essentially it is a kind of absent-minded "training" one does during idle moments. Usually it does not raise even the slightest sweat. Rather, it is done slowly and deliberately, with the repetition of foundational movements (think of that cricket "blocking" action or the baseball batter's "testing" of a bat). Often enough the practitioner will casually cycle through a short sequence comprising those foundational movements.

So what function, if any, does this serve? Is it useful - or is it just idle movement that amounts to nothing?

I believe that for a complex physical activity, "kitchen training" is vital. I've come to the view that it is mostly during such movement that one "beds down" important kinaesthetic principles, mapping neural pathways in the brain and grooving actions and angles/planes of movement so that they become second nature; so that they become truly a part of you. In other words, "kitchen training" is where you start to "own" certain techniques/movements. It is here that they go from being something that someone else might do, to something that you do. And something that you do spontaneously.

Think about it: if the only time you practised cricket batting was during formal practice at the nets or during a match, what hope would you stand against someone who was constantly - even in idle moments - refining his or her batting action?

I'm fairly sure that if you did a poll of the world's top sportsmen and women you'd find that "kitchen training" was a common element. I have yet to meet a golf player who doesn't occasionally swing away at an imaginary golf ball with an umbrella; a soccer player who doesn't grab the nearest ball - even a tennis ball - and start bouncing it on his or her knees and feet; a basketballer who doesn't twirl and otherwise play with a kid's plastic ball. And so it goes.

I believe that if you examine people like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, you'll find that "kitchen training" is part of what defines their capabilities. It almost certainly invades their private moments. It shows that they love what they do. I doubt that they would be the world's best without that love. Furthermore I believe it also accounts (at least partly) for why they are the world's best. They don't waste idle moments; even these are put to use in some sort of "training".

I've heard that Steffi Graf used to hit golf balls against a wall using a stick. I'm certain that this sort of "casual practice" is what helped her gain unerring consistency with her shots. And tennis is nothing if not a game where consistency counts. Indeed, if you take a look at Steffi's childhood photos, you'll notice that she is often holding a stick. I suspect she was habitually "kitchen training"...

It is important to note that no champion at sports ever "forces" themselves into "kitchen training". It is spontaneous. It arises out of a love for the activity - an excitement, intellectual stimulation or other passion. It has nothing to do with "conscious effort". It is just "something that you do" - just as Ian frequently used to go about "phantom batting", often in our law library. The only difference between Ian's and my "kitchen training" was that one was more "culturally acceptable". Accordingly, Ian felt less inhibited about his "cricket displays" - yet was openly derisory about my "martial arts displays" (which he no doubt felt had a farcical "chop socky" quality to them).

And so, even today, I'll generally keep my "kitchen training" private. Sometimes I actually do such training in my kitchen while, say, stirring pasta. (This confession is likely to get me in trouble. When my wife reads it, she'll know why my pasta is invariably overcooked!) Why the kitchen? For starters, it has enough space for small sequences. It also has no obstacles for me to trip over. Finally, it is usually fairly private. Other places I have used for "kitchen training" include elevators (naturally when no one else was with me - and I hope no video camera was recording!) or deserted beaches (where I used to take my dog for a run and I'd casually go through a form to see the pattern it created in the sand) - or just about anywhere where I wouldn't attract the attention of people in white coats!

Over time I've found myself developing little drills that I do out of habit during "kitchen training". These tend to morph over time as my interests and the material on which I'm focusing changes. But some constants can be noted:

Because the area in which such training takes place is often fairly small, the drills must be short and "circular", making use of the space but not having to go outside it. Ideally, the drill will also "loop" - ie. it will go back to the beginning, permitting endless repetition. The drill below is one I created during "kitchen training" and it comprises the essential elements of the first section of the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan form. I've found it so useful that I've started teaching it to beginners in my classes.

A looping taiji drill I invented during "kitchen training"

Once I get a little bored with such drills I'll start to "play" with them subconsciously. Here is the same drill with some variations - mostly in relation to turns and pivots:

A video where I "play" with the preceding drill

But usually the "kitchen training" comprises much smaller sequences. These tend to be formless and impromptu, but sometimes I will deliberately focus on certain movements that I can't do (at least, to my satisfaction). Sometimes I'll try the mirror image of a movement (eg. "single whip" from taiji). Sometimes I'll take these movements and morph them into drills to challenge my students (see my previous post!).

The important thing is to let your mind "deconstruct" what you're learning; to take it apart and reassemble it in myriad ways. It is this subconscious process that allows you to "take ownership" of the "form" of your art - to make it truly part of you so that it is no longer something that is "imposed upon you" but rather something that emanates from you reflexively.

A video of various kitchen training" drills I developed for my students as preparation for their upcoming trip to Taiwan (set to start at my discussion about kitchen training)

In the end, kitchen training can be whatever you want it to be. In fact, it must be whatever you want it to be. If it is too planned and regimented, the spontaneity will be missing. And that spontaneity is the subconscious arbiter of what you need to "bed down". If you follow your instinct, you can't go wrong.

And whatever you do, don't let inhibition get in the way. Trust me: if your friends and family aren't already used to you doing "Ha so karrrateee!" stuff, then they'll get there. Just be careful about public places - and don't let the pasta overcook!


1. Now it's true that I've seen books like "The Tao of Cricket" and "The Zen of Cricket" on the shelves, proving that even a sport can be elevated to a philosophical level. Clearly martial arts does not have a monopoly on combining wisdom with physical activity. For starters, the Japanese even associate Daoism and Zen with things like Chado (tea ceremony) and Shodo (calligraphy). But when it comes to comparisons with Western sports, at least we can say this: martial arts "got there first"! They are no "poor cousin" to Western sports - even if they are easily misunderstood, occasionally mistranslated by some movie producers and "New Age" adherents, and otherwise parodied in Western culture.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, May 28, 2012

Deconstructing form: the bridge between "learning" and "applying"

In just over a week's time three of my students will be departing for Taiwan to train directly with my teacher, Chen Yun Ching. Two of them will become third generation bai shi. I am deeply honoured to have my students recognised in this manner and proud of all three of them. I know that they are going to have an amazing, if not life-altering, experience. I am saddened that I won't be able to be there with them to see it happen, but life does not always deal us the cards we would like to have and I am grateful for those that I have previously been dealt!

So in the last few trainings I have been placed in a bit of a quandary: how can I best prepare my students for their trip? After all, I know only too well what sort of thing they can expect. They can expect to be thrust into an intensive learning environment, with new forms, techniques and concepts being thrown at them like grapeshot from a cannon. In order to absorb as much useful material as they can, and hence get the most out of the experience, they need to be prepared. They need to know as much as I could teach them in the preceding months. But they also need to be able to learn fast - as fast as they have ever learned. If anything, this is the most important part.

The first part is something that is easily addressed in a pedagogic sense – and to a large extent, we have: in the previous three months we have covered as much of the material as time has allowed, including taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan. We have gone through the feng quan "bridging" forms (containing elements of all three internal arts) and we have studied the Chung Yang sword form. We have trained in push (or "listening") hands and we have looked at applications of all the techniques.

But with two or three lessons to go before the trip, how is their time with me best spent? What is it that will most be of use to them? Should we go through the feng quan forms one more time? Should we go through the xingyi 5 elements where I refine their technique yet further? Is memorisation, repetition and physical correction what they need right now?

This sort of training may have served them well in the lead up to their departure, but it only serves to refine what they already know. How can I help them prepare for material they have yet to learn?

Well, I know for starters that the material they will be learning in Taiwan will almost certainly build upon their base of existing knowledge. To absorb the new material, and get the most out of it, they need to know their base inside out. They will need understand the concepts inherent in that base, both intellectually and (most importantly) subconsciously/intuitively. They will need to be so familiar with the essential concepts that they can recognise them whenever and wherever they arise in the new material, albeit in a modified way. In short, they need to know their base well enough to see it in an adapted form, and adapt it themselves, without a moment's thought.

This means that they need to own the material – it needs to be part of them. There can be no disconnect between the forms/techniques and the students. They, as individuals, need to be adaptable.

Achieving this sort of "ownership" of techniques or "adaptability" doesn't just mean that they should be able to do their existing forms accurately and correctly. Having an exact "pao quan" from xingyi just testifies to one's ability to mimic form, parrot-style, not necessarily to any "deeper", more intuitive, knowledge. No: there must be something more. Whether their form is entirely "correct" or not, the concepts inherent in that form must arise subconsciously and reflexively in their movement. They must occur spontaneously.

So, faced with this dilemma, last Saturday I decided not to go down the usual route of, say, examining their xingyi 5 elements in detail, requiring endless repetitions with stops for correction.

I decided not to go through applications exhaustively. I have always thought that "showing" an application, and even practising it, does not bring a martial artist much closer to "owning" the material. After all, I could show you a million and one applications of formal movements. You could practise them endlessly in a series of "standing start" drills. But would this help you bring them out as spontaneous reactions (what I've called "situational reflexes") – particularly against an aggressive, resistant attacker? Not really, in my experience.

There needs to be a bridge between "form" and "function"; a bridge between learning and applying; between practice and reflex reaction; between something that you've been shown and something that you will naturally do. The bridge is this: an intuitive or subconscious understanding.

But how can you get that?

I've previously discussed how a traditional martial artist learns form for the sake of absorbing concepts; how once these concepts are absorbed into your subconscious and become part of your "situational reflexes", they can (and should) be abandoned. They will have served their purpose.

This is why I adhere to what I've previously called a "sequential relativism" in traditional martial arts study: you learn new forms based on principles you've learned in more basic ones. As you go further and further in your study, you slowly change the material on which you're focusing. As useful as it is to go over foundational material occasionally (if not regularly), if your study is confined merely to basics you're guaranteed to get diminishing returns. Necessarily, you need to avert your attention to new material – material that challenges you, that inspires you that provokes the reaction "I can't do this! Why the heck not?!" It is only when you reach that point that you know you are learning at a maximum rate.

Yes, one could study a grade 10 physics textbook for one's entire lifetime, trying to ensure that one will get 100% in any test arising from that material. But this is hardly a productive use of time. You might only be able to score 60% in a test on the material – but it will be time to move on to something that is more advanced. You'll see that grade 10 material again anyway; the higher stuff assumes you know it. As much as you should pause to master something – to get the "magic from the small things" – there should also be an impetus driving you forward.

So, faced with my student's current performances of their existing forms, how would the remaining three lessons be best spent? Probably to their great surprise, I didn't require them to drill their forms on Saturday. Instead I got them to experiment; to start "deconstructing" parts of the forms that they knew and put them back together again.

A video in which I discuss the "deconstruction" of certain techniques from the internal arts

The video above is taken from that lesson. In it, I took two related taiji movements known as "part wild horse's mane" and "fair lady works at shuttles" and combined them into a short sequence. Initially I got the students to practise this sequence repetitively along one line. But as they became more familiar with it, I encouraged them to morph it into a more "free form" activity – to "play" with it by changing the angles, and even the stepping pattern so as to turn/pivot into infinite angles and directions.

I might pause at this point to note that the short sequence I'd created might, at first glance, appear relatively easy. For a seasoned taiji student it should be basic – after all the movements are taken directly from the taiji form, with one preceding the other in the "long form" sequence.

Even with the 2 beginners I had in the class, it might be viewed as 2 distinct and simple movements. How hard can it be? The truth is this: it is very hard. It is "advanced". If you doubt me, I invite you to try the taiji variant at the start (from 0:16 onwards). Why is it hard? Because it requires you to understand the very principles at the heart of the two movements. You need to have them ingrained as part of your psyche before you can execute them fluidly along the same line – never mind with variations in angle/direction etc. (see from 3:45 onwards).

After the taiji "drill" I got the students to examine a bagua alternative (see 0:43 and 4:22), then a xingyi one (see 0:43 and 4:34), to see how the other internal arts handled the same situation in different ways using subtly different concepts and principles (see 2:30).

Then finally I got the students to combine the 3 different drills, executing each one randomly in free-form "play" (see 4:55 onwards).

"Ah," you might say, "but how is this different from learning forms? Isn't this is just another form that you've taught yourself?" No, it is isn't. In fact, I routinely perform such sequences in my own training, whether formal or "informal" (what I call "kitchen training" which I will soon address). I try to perform such sequences spontaneously – without any planning at all – with an emphasis on maintaining a flow and pulling in techniques from all three internal arts (as well as the external arts that I study).

In this particular case, during my lesson planning I randomly chose two movements from taiji (ie. "part wild horse's mane" and "fair lady works at shuttles") and I combined them. I did this in about 2 minutes the night before. I did the same for the bagua and xingyi variants. They were hardly rehearsed; I spent all of maybe 10 minutes planning the lesson. When I performed them in class they were almost entirely "new" to me. In fact, I hadn't even considered a more "free-form play" until just before the class. I was learning too!

So what was the net result? What do I think the students gained from this practice? I hope they acquired some adaptability. I hope they started to understand the deeper concepts inherent in these movements; the way they connect; the way they can morph or "blend" into different techniques. We could have done this with practically any movements, but these worked well enough. In fact, I had a "back-up" plan involving a sequence using the taiji technique called "single whip" but we never got to that. In the end, it doesn't matter what "formal sequences" you choose: after a while you start to see the same concepts and threads emerging; you start to see the common patterns underlying human movement.

Eventually you start to understand the relationships between movements – and later this "understanding" becomes intuitive. Only when this happens do you know that you're on the road to "owning" the material; that the form is finally fulfilling its function; that you've started moving from "learning" to "applying" in a truly reflexive, spontaneous way. It is only then that you should expect to see the movements arising against a resistant partner. Up till then, you'll almost certainly be using the same tired movements that comprise your default – or worse, some form of "faux boxing"!

So had one of the students approached me after the class (and I know they wouldn't have even considered it!) to ask: "Why didn't we spend more time on X or Y in preparation for Taiwan?" I would have answered as follows:
    "I can teach you what little I know. But I can't teach you what I don't know. And the most challenging part of your trip will be the unknown. Your best way of preparing for the unknown is adaptability. And that is what we were trying to develop today."
I wish my students a safe journey, an enriching, fulfilling experience and I wait (enviously, but proudly) for their return so that perhaps they can teach me some of what they have learned!

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, May 20, 2012

My article in Blitz Magazine

At the start of this year (I'm not sure when) an article I wrote about my last trip to Taiwan was published in Australasia's leading martial arts magazine, Blitz.

I'm really terrible at these sorts of things and somehow didn't even remember to buy a copy! In any event, it is now available on-line, so you can read it there. The article is edited down from the one I wrote (I can, as one fellow told me recently, get a bit verbose!) but it is more or less intact.

In it I tried to layout the essential flavour of the trip, the nature of the training and the experience. It became apparent that, as always, words really are inadequate for describing such a life-changing event. So I'm afraid that I have ended up with rather more of a "itinerary description" than anything else. Still, I hope my readers will find it of some interest.

I'd like to thank my senior, James Sumarac, for inviting me to write the article and for giving me the chance to come to the course in the first place. I'd also like to thank Silvio Morelli for publishing it.

I now have 3 students of my own going to Taiwan in a fortnight - with two of them to be accepted as 3rd generation Bai Shi. I dearly wish I could have joined them, but my health has not been the best lately. I hope this article at least gives them an idea of what they can expect (minus the prolapsed disc!).

Anyway, here is the article - enjoy!

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic