Monday, December 25, 2006

quarterly summary - Q4, 2006

it's been 3 months since i started martial arts training, comprised of 12 classes with my Sifu, Jason Tsou, and innumerable practice sessions on my own, with an assorted sprinkling of review sessions with fellow students. taking a page from the business world, i've decided to write up quarterly summaries of my progress in martial arts education, with these past 3 months being the first quarterly summary.

i'm organizing this the same way i would expect any quarterly summary to be structured: review of original goals, summary of events, evaluation of the extent goals were achieved, observations, and objectives for the future.

original goals

my original goals were stated in my first 2 entries:
to clarify, i wanted to learn self-defense, and i wanted to improve my athletic performance. i figured both could be solved by the study of martial arts, specifically Chinese martial arts, since it has a reputation of proven combat applications and apparent connection with traditional Asian medicine's understanding of human health and physiology.

these larger goals can be specified as being an education in combat techniques and concepts, philosophy, qigong (alternative spelling: chi kung), and breathing.

in addition, i wanted to learn things that were real, as in proven and effective, and concrete and practical. so much of martial arts seems to be romanticized fairy tales and superficial lies propagated by charlatans and con artists employing vague terminology and mystical explanations designed to exploit the gullible and clueless. and it doesn't help that modern pop culture fuels these perceptions (i.e., hippy retreats, children's anime and manga, action movies, etc.). the truth is that people in the past relied on martial arts to save property and lives, and so it had very real methods and very practical applications. i wanted to learn the real and practical; i wanted to learn what was true.

moreover, i wanted things that i could apply and use for the rest of my life, not just while i was young (which is the relationship so many people have with martial arts--they consider it an activity of youth). this meant martial arts education, not just training, with the education being in self-defense methods i can use as i get older, as well as the richer tapestry of life lessons, perspective, health, and lifestyle.

as a caveat, i wanted to avoid martial arts training that involved heavy calisthenics or conditioning work, since i believe i already get more than plenty of that in my athletic training for Ironman triathlons. i thought that a martial arts style that focused on hard physical training would overtax my body's current workload, and would also get away from my goal of learning self-defense that i can use into old age, as well as my goal of learning something that would build my physical abilities (as opposed to wearing them down).

summary of events

the events to date i've documented in my postings over the past few months, and i won't repeat the details here.

in terms of the curricula i've covered so far, here's what i've been taught:
  • tantui: lines 1-4
  • stances (the 10 associated with Jason Tsou's bagua zhang: horse, 60-40, 70-30, rooster, low, dragon, leaf covers summer flower, unknown name #1, unknown name #2, and unknown name #3)
  • fire and water
  • footwork (ko and bai)
  • single-person pole drill (front and side)
  • single-person single-hand drills (front, side, rear, sparrow front and rear)
  • single-person double-hand drills (front, side, rear, hawk chasing sparrow front and rear)
  • two-person hand drills (inside and outside, for each of: pushing moon out the door, kissing the toad, brushing the arm, leaf covers summer flower, walking the circle)
  • two-person leg drills (inside and outside, for each of: ankles, calves, knees, thighs)
  • walking the square (including inside and outside turns)
  • walking the circle (including inside and outside turns)
  • bagua zhang qigong: level 1, qi gathering
  • mother palms: palm change 1 (lion), palm change 2 (snake)
  • 64 palms: palm changes 1-5
  • sparring (2-person and multi-person)
of course, this doesn't mean i've actually learned things solidly. this is just what's been taught. i'm still learning and practicing each, and still need to learn and practice them more. martial arts training takes time, and i'm only a beginner.

in terms of things beyond the curricula, will summarize it all by saying:
  • i made it a point to try to attend every class offered. with the exception of a couple of sessions, i did this. for the sessions i did miss, i made an effort to meet outside regular class with senior students so that i could catch up on what i'd missed.
  • i made it a point to try to practice consistently outside of class. as much as i can, i try to schedule a minimum of 3-5 hours each week outside of class, with the practice time spread out over 2-3 dedicated sessions during the course of each week. admittedly, this is not as much as dedicated martial arts practitioners or students of previous generations, but it's the best i can do between triathlon, graduate school, and work.
  • i made it a point to keep an open mind. everything is new to me, and i don't know enough to really make any critical or analytical comments about anything. that, and i don't see much point in arguing against several thousand years of empirical observations and data.
  • i took course notes. it's not easy, scribbling things down in the middle of class, particularly as we move from one physical evolution to another. but i figure any record i can make will help for review and practice.
  • i did outside research. i figured that being a complete stranger to martial arts (outside of pop culture understanding), i needed to learn as much as i could about the background of martial arts--particularly in relation to what i am learning. i figured that it helps to understand something by observing relative differences with reference points, and that this needs context, which means an understanding of the contours of the martial arts landscape. as a result, i spent time on the internet and in discussions with other people about martial arts, kung fu, and ba gua zhang.

i believe that i've managed to make good progress towards my original goals--as much as can be expected within 3 months. as i've said in previous posts, to become skilled and really effective in martial arts takes years of training. but i feel that i've gotten a solid start so far, and am in a good situation that will allow me to continue.

in terms of the stated objectives, this is how i view things to date:
  1. self-defense: yes. i am definitely learning things that can help me protect myself against assailants. i can also see that i will learn more about self-defense as i can continue with my Sifu, Jason Tsou.
  2. practical application: yes, i believe that what i am learning is concrete and real. Sifu told when i started that he taught combat, which is one thing i definitely wanted.
  3. longevity: yes. the particular style that is being taught is bagua zhang, which is considered one of the 3 commonly perceived "internal" or "soft" styles of Chinese martial arts (the 3 being bagua zhang, tai chi chuan, and hsing-i chuan). one of the characteristics of internal soft styles is that they avoid reliance on physical force, and so are conducive to practice by the elderly.
  4. philosophy and culture: yes. to a degree, i can see that Sifu integrates philosophy and culture in the lessons. i think this is a natural byproduct of learning a Chinese martial art, which means the need to learn the context and background of the fighting style, which requires understanding of Chinese philosophy and culture.
  5. medicine (qigong and breathing): yes. to some extent. i have begun learning basics of qigong, and breathing is an integral part of the training.
  6. avoidance of excessive physical stress: yes. so far, the lessons have complemented my athletic training, and have also seemed to help build some of my physical capabilities (see below).
i should note some challenges that came up:
  1. lot to learn: there is a lot to learn. it figures, given that people spend entire lives learning, developing, and refining their skills in martial arts. but i didn't realize just how great the volume of information's vast. there's so many nuances and details that have to be remembered.
  2. instinct: it's not enough to simply remember the lessons, or to know techniques and understand concepts. things have to be learned to the extent that they become second nature, natural, and instinctive. they have to be applied in the speed and chaos of combat without hesitation or circumspection. this, however, takes time. much more than the 3 months i've had.
  3. practice: a crucial component of training is practicing with others. there are drills and there is sparring which require 2 or more participants. while single-person practice is fundamental for improving technique, these multi-person activities are important since they spur the development of speed, efficiency, reflexes, and familiarity with fighting conditions necessary to become effective in real-world situations. this takes partners who have the time to work with you, which has been difficult to find outside of class sessions.
  4. ignorance: some lessons require understanding of things i don't know. most of the other students have prior training in martial arts. meaning they know things that provide them a point of reference about lessons we are learning, which may give them a grasp of combat applications for those lessons that i don't see.
  5. middle of the curricula: i started with my Sifu in the middle of the bagua zhang curricula. while i am currently learning the same things as the rest of the class, i know that there are things being taught that build upon or refer to lessons given prior to my arrival. while i am doing my best to catch up on things, i am sure there are techniques and concepts i've missed that others have and take for granted.
i think that these challenges will be addressed and resolved in time. this, of course, means continued diligence and commitment on my part, as well as continuation of the class. so far, i see this as definite.


i have some random comments about things i've noticed about my kung fu education so far.

in terms of my body and physical capabilities:
  • knee pain: i've been dealing with a chronic case of knee pain in the left side of my left knee that is either a tendon or ligament problem. it appeared while training for my 1st marathon and grew into a debilitating injury during training for my 1st Ironman. i've been doing rehabilitation with little success. however, since i've been learning kung fu, it seems to have dissipated. i don't know if this is because the cross-training nature of taking kung fu, or if this is because of something endemic to kung fu, but whatever it is, i'm going to keep doing it.
  • moving meditation: practicing solo really does seem to provide a state of "moving meditation" that i've heard people talk about in association with the internal styles of kung fu. i really do get a certain sense of positive mental and spiritual calm from it, and at times it is quite pleasant. i also sense a greater level of physical coordination and mind-body awareness developing. again, i don't know if this is from the cross-training in physical movements that are unfamiliar to my body, or if it is something endemic to kung fu. but whatever, i'm just going to keep doing it.
  • athletics: in terms of athletics, this also seems to be helping. in sports and sports medicine, they have the idea of "active recovery," where you engage in exercise at an intensity that is low enough that it allows your body to recover by flushing out anti-oxidants and loosening muscular and connective tissue, while still high enough to provide training benefits in terms of aerobic conditioning and neuro-muscular (mind-body connection and physical coordination) development. the classes force me to stay at this intensity level, and so have been giving me a solid block of active recovery. now if i could only feel more chi energy to power through a race...
  • chi: still don't know what it is. still don't know if i'm feeling it. i've talked about it quite a bit with Sifu and other students, and i have some ideas and have gotten a lot of feedback. but i suppose it's like romance: you'll know it when you know it, and no amount of talking, description, expectation, or imagination is going to bring it about any faster. and as some of the other students have told me: you have to let it come on its own; the harder you try to grab on to it, or the harder you try to find it, the more it will just elude you.
in terms of my Sifu:
  • Sifu knows a lot: my Sifu knows a lot of kung fu styles. from what other students have told me, he knows bagua, tai chi, hsing-i, baji, piqua, shui jiao (also known as Chinese wrestling), taizu chuan, mizhong chuan (alternatively known as mizhong lo han), and mantis. holy smokes! now i want to know when he teaches all these styles...and just how 1 person can go about learning so much and so many.
  • Sifu is progressive: from what i've read on the internet and from what i've heard from other people (both inside and outside of class), Jason Tsou is a somewhat unorthodox teacher. he avoids a lot of the indirect, traditional teaching methods (reference my prior post on Teaching Methods), and seems to follow a much more direct, frank, and open teaching style (students told me that in the past he actually got in trouble with his own instructors about his manner of teaching). he also avoids a lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo in favor of practical instruction. i suspect this is because of his education and profession (engineering), which is tied to a modern (and in many ways Western) scientific methodology that eschews obscurity, evasiveness, and mystical approaches in favor of concrete, verifiable, realistic processes. which is fine with me. i'm pragmatic. i just want whatever works.
in terms of things about kung fu and martial arts in general:
  • i keep saying it, but only because it's the truth and such a big factor: it's going to take a lot more time before i become proficient, and before i expect to see tangible results. but i'm treating it as a long-term investment that needs continued participation, and that's what i'm going to do.
  • i'm wondering what i need to do to learn other styles besides bagua. i know i've just started, but i'm thinking that in the long term i would like to learn other styles. i subscribe somewhat to the ideas of eclecticism and Greek ideals, which share a belief in making yourself a complete a human being as possible. i'm thinking bagua is just one style, and it would make me more complete to eventually learn others.
in terms of things outside of class:
  • this has probably been one of the most enriching things i've done. i'm learning a lot. not just about self-defense, but also about Chinese philosophy, history, language, perceptions on health and life, and folklore. as a result, it's been both physically and intellectually stimulating.
  • i notice that most of the people i meet think kung fu (and martial arts) is something for nerds and dorks. most of the students on campus make fun of me whenever they see me practicing--or they think i'm really weird. even the Chinese ones. whatever. i just tell them i'm just doing what i've been told, and it seems to be helping.
  • it's been fun. people are good. i feel good karma. i want it to continue.
objectives for the future

what else? i've met my goals in terms of starting progress towards learning self-defense and improving physical performance, but that's the key word: starting. i need to keep going to make more progress.

specifically, however, this means:
  • continue attending class (making it an integral component of my athletic training schedule)
  • continue practicing during the week outside of class
  • increase 2-person and multi-person drills and sparring (to improve combat application of techniques and concepts)
  • learn the more fundamental components of the curriculum i missed by beginning in the middle of it (e.g., the 8 palm changes of mother palm, xiao ka men, qigong, etc.)
  • learn more about martial arts in general (to get better perspective on bagua in the topography of martial arts)
  • acquire reference materials (e.g., books, DVDs, etc.) to use as study aides
  • figure out a long-term plan in terms of learning bagua and proceeding to other styles
  • figure out just how i should go about progressing in bagua in relation to everything else in life
i'll finish by stating that in terms of martial arts i am on a path (hence the name of this blog: jonathan on a path), and i have to continue on it to learn what i want to learn (as well as to learn what there is to learn). and that's what i'm going to do.

"the journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step"
--lao tzu, tao te ching

Saturday, December 23, 2006

commentary: good v. evil, part 1 - [not so] petty crime

the school i attend is located in an area of Los Angeles that is not very nice.

the campus is situated in a section bounded by predominately lower-income immigrant neighborhoods of differing ethnicities in various states of tension (African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians). approximately 32% of the population live beneath the poverty line and the median income is $17, 597 per year in a city with average housing prices above $300,000-$400,000. around 46% of the residents have less than a high school education. the schools are regularly rated as the worst in Los Angeles County, the state of California, and the United States as a whole.

these conditions entail a predictable state of violent crime. the neighborhood is claimed by 4 rival gangs as their private turf. according to the statistics compiled by the LAPD Southwest Division, crime rates reflect levels of homicide 242% higher than the Los Angeles County per capita average, robbery 368% higher than the county average, and an overall crime index 210% higher.

you can view the relevant (and sobering) statistics at the following links:

the fact that most students at my school spend their time either on campus or the immediately adjacent community does little to absolve them from the conditions of the neighborhood. despite being starving students, they are identified as readily accessible targets by local criminals and gangs. apparently, "starving" is a relative term.

observe the following crime reports excerpted from data compiled by university security for the month of december 2006:

DATE & TIME OF OCCURRENCE: December 8, 2006 at approximately 10:15 PM. LOCATION: 3200 block of University Avenue (off campus). REPORTED OFFENSE: The Complainant reported that both suspects approached him. Suspect #1 struck him in the face, knocking him to the ground. Suspect # 2 searched the complainant's pockets, while Suspect #1 took the complainant's backpack containing property. The suspects then fled with the complainant's property, and were last seen running west bound towards Hoover Street and out of view.

DATE & TIME OF OCCURRENCE: December 9, 2006 at approximately 1:50 AM. LOCATION: Portland Str. and Adams Blvd. (off Campus). REPORTED OFFENSE: The complainant was walking north on Portland Street, when suspect approached him from behind. Suspect struck complainant, and demanded his property. Complainant complied and the suspect took his property and fled out of view.

DATE & TIME OF OCCURRENCE: December 15, 2006 at approximately 2:25 PM. LOCATION: 3600 block of Vermont Avenue (off campus). REPORTED OFFENSE:The Complainant reported that both suspects approached her. Suspect #1 displayed a weapon and demanded property, while Suspect # 2 repeated property demands. The complainant handed her property over to Suspect #1. The suspects then fled with the complainant's property, and dropped the property one block later. The suspects were last seen running west bound on 37th Place and out of view.

DATE & TIME OF OCCURRENCE: December 19, 2006 at approximately 7:20 PM. LOCATION: 600 block of W. 32nd Street (off campus). REPORTED OFFENSE:The Complainants reported that the suspects approached them. Suspect #1 grabbed Complainant #1 and demanded property, while Suspect # 2 searched Complainant #2 and demanded property. Suspect #3 stood by. Complainant #1's property was forcibly removed by Suspect #1. No property was taken from Complainant #2. The suspects then fled with the complainant's property, and drove away east bound towards Figueroa and out of view.

DATE & TIME OF OCCURRENCE: December 20, 2006 at approximately 5:50 PM. LOCATION: 2700 block of Portland Avenue (off campus). REPORTED OFFENSE:The Complainant reported that the suspects approached him from behind. Suspect #1 struck the complainant in the head and placed an unknown weapon against his head demanding property, while Suspect # 2 stood by. The Complainant then ran away from the suspects leaving his property behind. The suspects then fled with the complainant's property, and ran away east bound from 28th Street and out of view.

observe that the times are random, with equal distribution between night and day. all crimes occurred within student residential neighborhoods that are heavily trafficked at all hours. this suggests that crimes occur under conditions when you would least expect them: in broad daylight, within blocks of campus, within the street blocks with a high probability of witnesses. all of which indicates that crime, while not tolerated, is certainly prevalent and that criminals feel they can act with impunity.

i've been told by friends in the LAPD that the local gangs have made it part of their initiation rites to "jack" (in terms of assault, robbery, etc.) students, since we're considered easy targets of opportunity who are 1) likely to have something worth stealing (computers, cell phones, credit cards, pocket cash), and 2) unlikely to pose resistance.

one of the reasons i wanted to start learning a martial art was self-defense. i am, however, realistic in understanding that knowing a martial art does not immunize someone from crime, or make them immune to becoming a victim of crime. i am also fully aware that government and police advise victims that resisting an attack often only serves to provoke a criminal and escalates a situation from dangerous to lethal, and that it is better to simply surrender property to an attacker with the reasoning that it's better to lose a thing than it is to lose a life. in addition, i know that no amount of fighting skill will help you if your assailant uses a gun. furthermore, i understand the admonition of most martial arts instructors that the best way to survive a fight is to avoid it--and this includes running away.

however, this does little to assuage my thoughts on the issue.

this is because i cannot clearly discern the intent of a criminal. they may be engaging in "petty" activities, with the goal of purely assaulting a student to obtain valuable property and notch up a gang initiation rite, but it's not guaranteed. they may be young and impressionable and confused and poor and starving and lonely and desperate and scared, but it's not definite. they may be a part of an oppressed underclass venting a collective air of frustration, but it's not certain. they may be involved in things they can't escape from, and are being pressured to do something they do not want to do, but it's not assured.

and none of this changes the situation if you are the target of a crime.

and none of this is helpful if your attacker decides that it's a bad day and someone has to suffer, and that someone is going to be you. none of this means anything if your attacker decides today is the day to give pain and you are the person who is going to receive it. none of this means anything if your attacker ignores your efforts to comply, overcomes your ability to escape, and decides that violence should exist for no other purpose than violence.

and that's when petty crime becomes not so petty. that's when it becomes deadly.

in ancient China--as well as in the rest of the Far East--martial arts were employed by common people as a means of defending themselves from crime. frequently, it was employed by townspeople, merchants, farmers, and travelers against bandits, warlords, and individual criminals who accosted them in the course of their lives. people didn't learn martial arts solely for enjoyment, education, or enlightenment, but additionally for the very real and very practical purpose of defending themselves, their property, and their livelihoods from kidnapping, theft, robbery, or destruction. in short, they relied on the martial arts to protect themselves against crime. and they relied on the martial arts for their lives.

of course, at this point, i won't even pretend to compare myself against the ancient Chinese. and i won't even offend any current martial arts practitioners by claiming that i have any useful level of skill right now.

truth be told, were i to be made a victim today, i seriously doubt that i could effectively deploy any martial arts skill. i just haven't had the time, nor the practice. i even question if i've acquired the requisite amount of technique. sure, within the past months i have had with my Sifu, i have learned techniques, i have had some practice, and i have spent a lot of time. but it's only been a few months.

it takes years to become proficient. techniques have to be learned in abundance and they have to be learned to be performed properly. techniques have to be practiced so they become natural and instinctive. and time has to be spent so that a person has the physical and mental components necessary to react, act, and finish a fight.

i've only had a few months.

right now, i believe that if something happened to me on the street, and if i were placed in a violent confrontation that offered no means of escape, i would be left relying largely on nothing more than raw aggression, emotion, and adrenaline. in fact, i'm almost certain of it.

i know, because in the few fights i had as a youth, that's what carried me through. i know, because in the school and street fights i've seen, that's what carried the people involved.

it appears to be the recipe humanity relies on in the face of violence. i suppose it's a vestige of the genetic fight-or-flight animalistic impulses. i've been told that in the military soldiers are taught to utilize it, and that they are told that in a combat situation pure aggression is sometimes the only thing that makes the difference between life and death.

but this poses problems. adrenaline runs out. emotion can be spent. aggression can be overcome by superior aggression. strength can be overcome by superior strength. speed overcome by superior speed. there are situations when your attacker is bigger, faster, and stronger than you are. especially if they're younger. especially if they've lived their lives in harder surroundings. especially if they're more desperate. especially if they don't care what happens--to them, or you, or anybody. especially when all they want is to see violence propagated in the world.

martial arts training is supposed to rectify this, for a number of reasons:

  • skill. skill in the use of proper techniques and fighting strategy. martial arts training is supposed to provide sufficient skill to allow a person to defend themself effectively without relying on physical attributes or raw aggression.
  • senses. senses in reading potential confrontations and the intent of the people around you. martial arts training is supposed to develop a person's ability to read danger, and thereby avoid them before they are realized.
  • projection. projection of an appearance that deters others from identifying you as an easy target. martial arts is supposed to help a person gain an aura of capability--what Sifu labeled as the "shen" in the jing chi shen (see previous posts).

it's partly for these reasons (other than cross-training and health) that i continue with the martial arts instruction. because i know that while right now i might rely on things like aggression, emotion, or adrenaline, those things will only carry me so far. because i know that at some point, i am going to need to rely on something else. because i know that i'm in an area where i may need these things to survive.

i know, i know...nothing helps against a gun. it is better to surrender property than a life. never escalate a crime, especially if it is for petty material. and i know: martial arts doesn't guarantee anything; there are proficient martial artists who are made victims of crime every day.

but what if the attacker doesn't want just petty property? what if the attacker doesn't let me escape? what if the attacker wants me to suffer? what are my chances of survival without martial arts then?

and that's my point. no, against a gun i wouldn't really envision martial arts making a difference. no, i have no intention of actively seeking out situations to deploy martial arts techniques. no, i don't expect to be made a victim anytime soon like tomorrow, next week, or next year--i'm not paranoid.

but i do want to improve my probability of survival if i ever was forced into a violent situation and there was no escape. some odds are better than no odds.

and that's why i'm taking Sifu's instructions so seriously.

because it may make a difference between life and death.

and because sometimes petty crimes are not so petty.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

videos: shaolin on national geographic

a group of Shaolin monks visited my school several weeks ago, and gave a public demonstration during the lunch hour. in addition, they took additional time to provide a question-and-answer session to anybody in attendance.

i was so impressed that i did some additional research about them, and i found this series of videos from National Geographic:
  1. Part 1 of 5:
  2. Part 2 of 5:
  3. Part 3 of 5:
  4. Part 4 of 5:
  5. Part 5 of 5:
my comments on these videos and on the Shaolin monks i saw are as follows:
  • the martial arts styles i am learning are NOT like anything in these videos. a lot of the kung fu shown in these videos are very forceful, very physical forms. what i am learning (bagua) is a less forceful, less physical form based more on the idea of redirecting opponents' force, and is derived from Taoist principles (for the uninitiated, know that Taoism is NOT Buddhism). however, i find it interesting to compare training methods and styles, just to get a point of reference and for cultural awareness.
  • the perception of monks spending their entire existence practicing their martial arts skills appears to be somewhat of a misnomer. the senior priest leading the monks at the lunch hour exhibition at my school pointed out (via translation) that Shaolin is first and foremost a Buddhist temple, and the monks are expected to be Buddhist monks. as a result, he said they actually engage in physical training only 2-3 hours per day, and the rest of the days are devoted to studying, praying, meditation, and performing chores...of course, 2-3 hours per day is a whole lot more than most people.
  • Shaolin monks are still human beings. during the lunch hour exhibition, some of the younger monks had to admit their inability to answer sophisticated questions from the audience about Buddhism (what do you expect, some of the audience were professors and graduate students), and had to rely on the senior priest for support. in addition, they appeared to be as interested in iPods and cell phones just as much as the Western students were.
  • these videos are interesting because they show parts of the daily life of Shaolin monks, particularly those of child adepts
  • the videos discuss the connection between Buddhist principles and martial arts, which is something i think is ignored by most Western fans of Shaolin
there has been so much misinformation, misunderstanding, and misstatements of truth over so many years about Shaolin that it has almost become a joke or source of derision with many Westerners i know--either as something that is pure myth, hucksterism, or at best showmanship. and i think it doesn't help that the modern Shaolin seems to have fallen for modern methods of marketing and self-promotion, which do little to instill a reputation of honor.

the few Westerners who do perceive Shaolin as having some basis in fact are too often faced with the challenge of determining fact from fiction, and are too often left sorting out some kernel of truth from the overwhelming supply of useless or baseless chaff.

i figure National Geographic has a decent enough reputation as a respected and honorable source that people can at least have some belief that something it says might be true. and i figure that videos of National Geographic can thereby also be trusted as having something that might be true...although, i concede that it is entirely possible that National Geographic may have been given a snow job, just like any other barbarian Western tourist bumbling along in China.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

day 12: the face of chaos

  • walking the square
  • walking the circle
  • 2-person drills (pushing moon out the door)
  • multi-person sparring
  • palm changes 1-5
today showed inclement weather, with scattered rain pestering the class and forcing us to move at mid-point from the open asphalt area where we normally meet to a covered picnic area nearby.

people showed up a little late today, possibly as a result of the predicted storm. with nobody present on my arrival, i took it upon myself to go through stances. of course, by the time i had finished, several other people had shown up (Ching-Tszieh [sp?], Laura, Shatil [sp?], and a couple of others), which meant i got to go through stances a second time.

Sifu showed up with John and Phunsak near the end of the 2nd iteration of stances. as soon as we had finished, Jason led us all through the 1-person hand drills (single and double). i'm finding these to be a nice gentle warm-up. it also turns out that John was right, now that we've done them several times i'm starting to feel a slight rhythm to them, and even find them quite pleasant to do.

walking the square

immediately following the hand drills, Jason ordered everyone to walk squares. identical to last week, he would call out for inside or outside turns at various points, and observe us as we made changes. we ended up doing this for a good while, as Sifu had to answer his phone and consequently leave us to practice walking the square on our own.

one thing i am noticing about walking the square is that there is a progressive level of difficulty. in the beginning, it seems easy (and boring) enough to simply plod around the perimeter of an imaginary square, brushing the feet against each other and stepping flat-footed in the ready position. however, it becomes somewhat more difficult if you do it with eyes looking forward to an imaginary opponent, rather than glancing at the ground. the difficulty level escalates further if you do it with speed, as you would in actual combat--and i could tell that the more senior students in the class were applying distinctly greater speed than those of us new to bagua. beyond this, another order of difficulty arises if you attempt to incorporate breathing techniques in conjunction with the steps and the turns.

in a way, it reminds me a lot of swimming, which is superficially simple but mind-bogglingly complex in technique if a person expects to do it competitively. and the technique is maddeningly difficult to master, even as the exercise itself is maddeningly monotonous to perform. it doesn't help that you invariably do it solo, by yourself, with nothing available to occupy your mind. walking the square is exactly the same way.

walking the circle

after awhile, Sifu Jason had us move on to walking the circle. this is to me a bit of a relief, since there's more things of interest in interacting with other human beings, even if we are just moving around in circles. this is because you can observe your form relative to others, you can simulate circling an opponent, and you can learn to synchronize your actions with others.

i could feel myself markedly more comfortable relative to last week, even when Jason called out inside and outside turns. i suppose it should, given the practice i'd been putting in over last week. for all that, i could tell the exercise of walking the circle probably has several additional magnitudes of difficulty--just as much as walking the square, i can see that it can be affected by eye position, speed, and breathing, and can also further be influenced by posture, height, and number of participants.

just as we finished with walking, the rain started to come down. Jason pointed to where he wanted everyone to go--a sheltered picnic area on the opposite side of the school, easily within walking distance, even though most everyone ended up driving their cars and re-parking them (it's LA, go figure...).

2-person drills (pushing moon out the door)

when we reconvened, Sifu pointed out the size of the picnic area, which was distinctly smaller than the asphalt lot we'd been using. he commented that we should get used to this, since it was highly likely we'd encounter combat situations in confined spaces. he told us the story of a wing chun practitioner who managed to win a fight inside a closed elevator against a mugger. Sifu said we needed to learn how to feel comfortable fighting in these kinds of areas.

with that, he had us break off into pairs to perform the 2-person pushing moon out the door drill from last week (the one involving the pushing movement in the 1st palm change). i was working with Art this time. Art and i were a little discombobulated at first, since he wasn't sure as to what drill was being done and we had to check with the other pairs to confirm what we were supposed to be doing.

working with Art is a bit of an exercise in enlightenment. for someone who has gone through prostate cancer (and survived), and for someone who gets little aerobic conditioning, he manages to have a surprising amount of power. a lot of it is his understanding of technique. whatever it is, working with him always surprises me as to just how effective a practitioner he is, and constantly yields lessons in just how big a difference a slight change in technique can make. i notice that compared to some of the other students i pair up with in drills, Art forces me to pay much more attention to technique purely on the basis of the power i sense coming from his movements.

i would have liked to continue working on this drill with Art a little bit more, since i could tell i am having some inconsistencies with proper technique. but Sifu stopped everyone to proceed to what was apparently the focus of the day: multi-person sparring.

multi-person sparring

Jason introduced multi-person sparring by stating that there may be times when we encounter multiple opponents. while never a good thing and something to be avoided, he said that the general strategy if we are forced into such a situation is to face the nearest opponent first and then proceed to the others based on proximity.

the challenge, however, is to maneuver yourself in a way that doesn't expose you to the attacks of the other opponents. Jason said that this can be done by taking your first opponent and positioning the 2 of you in a way that the first opponent is between you and the other attackers. the challenge is to keep track of where everyone is while simultaneously engaging in combat with the person in front of you.

Sifu then showed us the drill that is meant to develop our ability to learn such skills. using Phunsak and Lee, he posed himself as a defender and the other 2 as attackers. he instructed both of them to attack at the same time. Sifu engaged Phunsak first, since he was the nearest, and then fought him in a way that kept Phunsak moving so as to unintentionally impeded Lee's attempts to attack Sifu.

what Jason demonstrated was very reminiscent of aikido demonstrations i've seen, where a single defender faces off against multiple attackers, but then glides effortlessly through the assailants and with complete grace and ease engages them, so that they are thrown helplessly around into each other. the best image i can invoke to describe the scene is of a single person located serenely in the center of a whirlwind.

i should note that i've noticed a large number of similarities between bagua and aikido. this apparently is something that's been recognized in the martial arts community, since there seems to be a large number of writings devoted to it. the suspicion apparently is that the creator of modern aikido borrowed from (or was influenced by) bagua principles.

Jason made some points about the nature of the multi-person sparring drill and combat against multiple attackers:
  1. engage the nearest person first
  2. do not fixate on the person you are engaging. always keep track of everyone around you.
  3. as a corollary to the above, do not stay engaged with the person you are fighting. if necessary, if you can't dispose of them quickly, engage them and get them out of the way so that you can proceed to the other attackers, and then return to dispose of the first attacker
  4. do not remain stationary. you must move.
  5. move with purpose. move in a way that helps you win.
  6. make the person you are engaging move so that they obstruct the other attackers.
  7. do not expose yourself to attacks from multiple assailants or from multiple angles
  8. be quick, be efficient
  9. be in shape
after demonstrating this drill, Jason then had everyone break off into groups. ostensibly, he wanted groups of 3, but since there were a number of beginners (oh, by now i am no longer the only beginner...this is somewhat, if only marginally, comforting) we ended up in 3 groups of about 5-6 people.

the drill, if done properly, involves people by turn assuming the role of defender while the other members of the group assume the role of attackers. all attackers are supposed to attack simultaneously. the defender, in response, is supposed to engage the nearest attacker, but then constantly move so that attacker is made to move in a way that constantly obstructs the other attackers from approaching. all the while, all participants are supposed to be exercising the techniques that have been taught to them (and Jason emphasized the concepts of "opening" and "entering" the opponent's gates), and making sincere efforts of real attackers.

we didn't do the drill properly. from what i could tell, everyone had challenges in applying proper technique (really sloppy "opening" and really haphazard "entering"), footwork was all over the place, attacks weren't consistently simultaneous, and there was very little movement of opponents in ways they could obstruct fellow opponents.

i think a lot of it was that people were having to adjust to dealing with multiple opponents and multiple participants at the same time. it's a lot to keep track of--much more so than walking the circle, since here people aren't working in synchronization, but rather are working in the exact opposite: dissonance. as a result, our focus was thrown off, preventing awareness and ability to remember and to perform proper technique or to realize the intended strategy.

that, and it is really tiring to constantly deal with multiple opponents. really tiring. i can't imagine what happens in a real fight with several people all intent on hurting or killing you--especially if they're all skilled.

i think people are still trying to get used to the drill. it's just a lot to deal with. especially since we just started doing 2-person sparring only last week. multi-person sparring involves complexity, fluidity, transience. to borrow a popular Buddhist term, it exemplifies the state of impermanence. to me, it was pretty much chaos.

but that's what combat is, isn't it?

after some time observing, Jason called a halt and gathered everyone together. he shared with us a story of a similar drill he learned in shiu jiao [sp?]. there, he said students were sometimes broken into teams of 6. the drill would commence as we were doing it, but the instructor would count to 3, with the defending student expected to have disposed of an attacker within that count and moved on to the next opponent. once students had gotten good working in a group of 6, they would then proceed to challenge other teams of 6, and thereby get further practice against opponents they didn't know.

Sifu then told us that the reason he was inserting sparring sessions in between time learning 64 Palms was that he wanted to give greater emphasis on sparring and combat. Jason said that the last time he'd gone through the bagua curriculum that he'd given less time to actual sparring (he used the word "glossed over"). this time, he said, he wanted to really make sure we were learning the combat applications, and to make sure we were getting good sparring practice.

this is fine with me. as i've written in previous posts, one of the original reasons i wanted to learn a martial art was to learn self-defense. that, and as i've also written before, a "martial" art isn't really "martial" unless it's effective in combat, and a "martial artist" isn't really a "martial artists" until they can use a martial art effectively (and that's the key word: effectively) in combat.

palm changes 1-5

having introduced everyone to multi-person sparring, Sifu organized everyone to review the first 5 palm changes we'd learned. this was pretty much straightforward, and i could tell Jason was doing this to fine-tune people's form, as well as to give everyone a refresher before heading into the winter break.

Sifu reminded everyone that there would be no class for the next 2 weekends, and that we would resume January 6. he also said that at that time we'd discuss making up the 2 weekends.

with that, class was dismissed. there was a clinic this weekend that Sifu had first told us about last weekend, but since my schedule was already filled with things for my research and family commitments, i figured it was best i get on with the things i needed to do. that, and the seminar covered things (Chen tai chi) that i just don't know enough about to really get the full benefit from (even though Chen tai chi is something i definitely want to get to...maybe after i get a little more grounded with what i'm learning now).

Sunday, December 10, 2006

day 11: legs (or, it takes 2 to tango)

  • 1-person drills
  • walking the square
  • walking the circle
  • footwork game
  • sparring (circle)
  • 5th palm change
  • 2-person drills (legs, 1st palm change)

today was another busy day, but the focus turned to legs and footwork, as well as basic sparring. we moved with a greater pace through the lesson plan, taking fewer breaks than usual. i don't know if this is because the baji students were absent this class (as they had been last class), and so Sifu Jason's attention was more targeted to us, or because he was trying to meet a timetable before the upcoming winter break.

1-person drills

Sifu had everyone start with basic 1-person drills (1-arm and 2-arm). these are starting to become straightforward, although i'm still not sensing the rhythm (or energy) that John had told me as an aside when we'd first started learning them.

i notice that Jason does these drills with a certain level of artistry that could be alternatively labeled grace relative to everyone else--at least, i don't see anybody else in class getting close. obviously, he's been doing them for a whole lot longer, and he probably has a higher level of physical coordination than the rest of the class. but my point is the same: some of the other students have been doing these drills for years (as in decades), and still haven't gotten to the same state of grace as Sifu. which makes me wonder just how long it really takes.

walking the square

once we finished with the 1-person drills, we promptly moved to walking the square. Jason watched as everyone performed the exercise. at random intervals, he would call for an inside or outside turn. i'm still new to this, so i found myself doing the turns at less than full speed, particularly the outside turn, which for some reason i find to be somewhat unnatural. i remember a ballerina once told me outside turns took longer to learn than inside ones, and i guess that insight carries over--outside turns are just not done as often as inside turns by human beings.

walking the circle

immediately after walking the square, Sifu had us divide into 3 groups of 4 to perform walking in a circle. Jason again took to calling out for inside or outside turns at random points.

i'd been practicing this during the week, and thought that i'd gotten a greater level of comfort with the exercise. but i still found myself struggling several times with the outside turns. i think this is because there's a difference between doing initiating turns that you choose to do versus initiating turns someone else is calling out; there is a certain level of uncertainty involved that calls upon reflexes--reflexes which i am working to develop. that, and we were doing circle walking at a decidedly faster pace than i'd been doing in practice.

2-person drills (legs)

after a brief break, Sifu said it was time to show us the 2-person leg drills. similar to the 2-person drills from last week, the purpose of the leg drills is to develop sensitivity with respect to the lower body relative to an opponent. i worked with Mike as a partner on these. Jason showed us a series of exercises, with a ko and bai set for when 2 partners both face off with their right or left leg leading, and a ko and bai set for when 2 partners face off with one having a left leg leading and the other a right leg leading (or vice versa).

for the exercises with partners both leading with the same leg, the practitioners are supposed to join their ankles, or knees, or thighs. each time, they are supposed to rotate their point their contact in a clockwise and subsequently counterclockwise direction. the point is to maintain the point of contact, so that each partner can sense their fellow partner's movements. this generates the following list of leg drills:

  • ko, ankle--contact point: inside of ankles, rotate: clockwise or counterclockwise
  • bai, ankle--contact point: outside of ankles, rotate: clockwise or counterclockwise
  • ko, knee--contact point: inside of knee, rotate: clockwise or counterclockwise
  • bai, knee--contact point: outside of ankles, rotate: clockwise or counterclockwise
  • ko, thigh--contact point: outside of quadriceps, rotate: clockwise or counterclockwise

for exercises with partners leading opposing legs, the practitioners still join their ankles, knees, or thighs. this generates the following list of leg drills:

  • ankle--contact point: outside of ankles, rotate: clockwise or counterclockwise
  • knee--contact point: outside of knee, rotate: clockwise or counterclockwise
  • thigh--contact point: outside of quadriceps, rotate: clockwise or counterclockwise

footwork game

we went directly from the leg drills to a footwork game that Jason said he'd learned when he was a student learning bagua. he smiled knowingly at us and said it was time to "have some fun."

in the game, participants line up, facing in the same direction to the head of the line. the person in front then turns and faces the 2nd person behind them. at this point, the 2 then engage in a game trying to catch each other's feet, ankles, or legs, with no use of arms, body, or head. they are allowed to switch legs, or stay with the same one. they are expected to try and catch each other for a few moments, after which the person who was in front moves on down the line to the next person and repeats the performance. the 2nd person, who is now the leader, is supposed to then turn and engage the person behind them. this cycle repeats until the entire line is pairs of people trying to catch each other's feet, ankles, or legs. once the line is done, then it turns around and does the same thing in reverse. everything repeats until the instructor calls for an end.

performed correctly, i think this is supposed to be an artful game, with skilled footwork. Jason suggested as much, saying that the purpose of the game was to improve foot speed, lower body dexterity and coordination, and reflexes. you know those kung fu movies that occassionally show opponents wrestling with their feet? the scenes where you scratch your head and wonder just why the director took time to focus on that? yeah, i'm guessing it's supposed to be like that.

unfortunately, most the game for class ended up being a lot of foot stomping and accidental shin kicks. this may be what happens in a fight, but i'd be interested in seeing skilled martial artists do this game to see how it's really done. still, this game seemed to make everybody a little happier, and we all ended up laughing.


we took a few moments to catch a breather, and Sifu then instructed everybody to pair up for circle sparring.

circle sparring is new to me--as is sparring in general. circle sparring has 2 practitioners face off in ready positions (the initiating position from the 1st and 2nd palm changes), with the forearms of their leading arms in contact. they conduct the sparring session by walking the circle facing each other, their arms maintaining contact.

Sifu instructed everyone to keep circling until he gave us the command to "enter." On this, we were supposed to engage our partner in mock combat using bagua techniques we'd learned in class. Sifu used the term "enter" as a connotative device to remind us that bagua was in part based on the idea of "opening the gate" (creating a situation where an opponent loses protective posture and becomes exposed to attack) and then "entering the gate" to attack.

this was a pretty interesting experience for me. going full speed with another human being capable of initiating and reacting to movement showed me a lot about the challenge of applying theory and technique in combat. things in a fight are not as neat and tidy and simplel as in practice, and the state of chaos is an additional order of complexity to overcome. i started with Eric as my partner, and then switched over to Lee.

i didn't do so well at first. lost is more like it. i found myself struggling to try and apply things i'd learned in class, while simultaneously have to guard against my opponent's movements. i started to get better after awhile, and a little more conscious as to what i was doing and how theory and technique could work for me, but i can see this is something that needs a lot more practice. i can also see this is probably one of the most important things in terms of being a martial art...i mean, it's never a martial art--and you are never a martial artist--unless you are capable of using it effectively in combat. funny, huh? a martial art actually being used in a martial situation. wow. what a concept.

2-person drills (1st palm change)

after a break, Jason had everyone gather in pairs again to work on another 2-person drill. he returned to the 1st palm change, which involves a turn into a push (pushing moon out the door). he showed us that for combat this is a simultaneous redirecting of an opponent's strike by the upper arm and a push into the opponent's torso with the lower hand.

Sifu said the drill for this involves 2 partners facing each other in a position to initiate pushing moon out the door, with each person's lower hand in contact with the other person's lower hand. the 2 practitioners take turns, with one initiating pushing moon out the door, and the other redirecting the attempt by bringing their upper hand close and slightly to the outside of the centerline (again, rotating the wrist...this is bagua, remember) and simultaneously bringing their lower hand slightly in.

Sifu said it's important that the defending partner subtly curve the back to receive the pushing partner's force. he instructed us to visualize "sucking" the opponent's force into our body.

this drill seemed relatively straightforward to the others, although i did notice that it could become awkward against a partner of a dramatically different size--the physics and feeling of the movements are different and take some adjustment, particularly if you're used to working against a person of a particular size. i started the drill with Mike, and then repeated it with Phunsak and a new student named Shatil (another friend of Ching-Tszieh's).

5th palm change

Jason had us finish the day with the 5th palm change. we went through the entire palm change, with all 3 of the previously divided sections united, as a single pattern. Sifu watched everyone, and went around correcting form. after several iterations, he seemed satisfied, and called everybody together to dismiss the class.

we finished with that, and also got a reminder that there would be a seminar from a visiting instructor next weekend. it's supposed to cover use of the spear. unfortunately, i'm rather busy next week with my other sport, and it looks like i'm going to have to miss the seminar. booooooooo!!!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

day 10: drills and beginning the circle

  • walking the square, with inside & outside turns
  • walking the circle, with inside & outside turns
  • ko and bai


  • 5th palm change
  • 2-person drills (inside and outside brush, purple swallow, shake the foundation, kissing the toad)

today ended up being chock full of all kinds of interesting details. based on the above, it didn't seem like we covered a lot, but it's deceptive. we had so much stuff i had trouble remembering it all.

the day started off typically enough. people showed up a little late (well after 10:30am). this time Mike (one of the older students...he started a little after Art) led the obligatory warm-up through stances. Sifu Jason then showed up with the rest of the class from the morning jian shu class. he instructed Lee to lead everyone through the drills we learned last week: single hand drills (front, side, reverse) and double hand drills (front, side, reverse, hawk chasing swallow front, hawk chasing swallow back). this was a relatively straightforward, although Sifu did notice that several people (me included) needed corrections in our posture.

walking the square, with inside & outside turns

at this point Jason instructed everyone to begin walking the square. i noticed that everyone else immediately began doing the drill, indicating their level of familiarity with it. Phunsak had shown me how to do this during one of the first classes i'd had (reference: day 2: stepping things up), so this wasn't new to me, but it was still something i had to consciously think about.

there's nothing complicated about it: the torso, arms, and face of the practitioner are oriented at a 45 degree angle inwards from the direction of the legs and feet. since the legs and feet are following the perimeter of the square, the practitioner is constantly facing in a new direction. the drill, however, requires some body awareness in that if performed properly the arms have to be at the ready position with loose shoulders, the back must be straight, tailbone must be tucked in, the legs must be in a slight crouch with the quadriceps touching each other, and the feet in line with each side of the square as they step along its perimeter. it's straightforward, but requires conscious thought in the beginning before it becomes instinctive.

a slight complication occurred when Sifu said he wanted everyone to start practicing inside and outside turns. i had missed this part of the drill, so i found myself having to observe what other people were doing. after a little bit of awkwardness, i realized that the "inside turn" that Jason was calling was just an extension of the weight-shifting fire-and-water stance drill from day 2. the "outside turn" was similarly an extension of the turn out from the leaf covering summer flower stance in the first 2 palm changes. realizing this, i managed to get on track enough to follow the rest of the class as Sifu called out the stance changes.

walking the circle

walking the square, of course, led into the next drill: walking the circle. walking the circle appears to be one of the main foundation elements of bagua. from what i can tell, the public perception of bagua is of the circular forms that are frequently demonstrated at tournaments, festivals, fairs, and celebrations. which makes sense, since bagua is built around the concept of circles--as noted in previous posts, it is circles within circles in multiple planes and multiple angles in various directions. the most commonly demonstrated forms (xiao ka men, mother palm, 64 palms) are often performed by a practitioner moving in a circle (imaginary or otherwise) on the ground.

being the lone beginner in class, i was the only one who had never done circle walking before. but Sifu Jason appeared unperturbed by this, and had me join everyone else as we broke off into 3 groups of 4 people. Jason then had each group walk its own circle, changing direction from clockwise to counter-clockwise at his command.

in terms of body positioning, walking the circle is similar to walking the square. the torso, arms, and face still orient inwards from the legs and feet, but perpendicular to the direction of walking. the legs are in the same crouch with closed quadriceps. but this time the feet follow the perimeter of the circle. in addition, turns--inside or outside turns--are somewhat more complicated.

ko and bai

i used to think that the words ko and bai (spelling?) were Mandarin for "left" and "right," respectively, but i'm starting to understand that they're more the terms for "in" and "out." with respect to walking the circle, they refer to the orientation of the feet along a centerline of the body, with ko being towards the centerline of the body and bai being away from the centerline of the body.

Sifu Jason instructed us to use these concepts in performing the inside and outside turns, since they were helping in understanding how to initiate and carry out each turn. for the inside turn, Jason said we needed to use ko, which reminded us to initiate the turn when the forward foot is pointing inwards to the circle. the practitioner is supposed to use the forward foot that is ko to stop, and then initiate the inward turn, which is just the same shift in stance and weight involving fire-and-water from the inside turn in walking the square. the end result is that a practitioner who is moving in a clockwise direction will be able to stop, turn in stance to a counterclockwise direction but while constantly facing inwards towards the circle, and then resume walking in a counterclockwise direction.

the outside turn, in contrast, is more complicated. Jason instructed us to use the sequence ko, bai, and ko. this means that we initiate the outside turn using the ko foot, then step forward over the ko foot with the rear bai foot so that it points parallel to the ko foot. from this point, the entire upper body turns in the direction of the inside of the circle and continuing until it begins to face outside. here, the practitioner lifts the ko foot and steps in the direction of the turn, pivoting on the bai foot until both feet face outside the circle. the practitioner then goes into the leaf covering summer flower stance, and then turns out to resume the ready stance in a direction opposite the original walking direction.

basically, a practitioner moving in a clockwise direction will be able to stop, turn in what appears to be a clockwise spin that ends with the practitioner facing to the outside of the circle, and then come out of the leaf covering summer flower stance to resume walking in a counterclockwise direction. conversely, a practitioner moving in a counterclockwise direction would turn in a counterclockwise spin before returning to walk in a clockwise direction.

Jason had us do these turns at random points, with everyone walking circles with their respective group until he would call for either an inside or outside turn, whereupon we were expected to execute the command in synchronized fashion.

at one point, Sifu caught the pace of my group, and with a slight trace of sarcasm said in the driest of tones: "i said walk a circle, i didn't say walk slow." we all broke up in laughter, but took the point and hastened our pace. Jason later made a particular effort to emphasize to us that in a fight, speed is crucial, and that it is imperative that we be able to walk and change direction as quickly as possible. he didn't say it, but i caught his implication that we all needed to practice walking the circle and performing the inside and outside turns until they became instinctive--and more than that, quick.

5th palm change

after working on walking the circle, Sifu had everyone line up to review and then finish the 5th palm change. as John had noted during our practice session over Thanksgiving, there was a 3rd part to the 5th palm change. luckily, however, it is an extension of the second segment, except that it incorporates performance of the turn and execution of the bear stance (i think that's the name) that we learned for the second part of the 2nd palm change.

what was interesting, however, was that after having everyone go through the entire 5th palm change several times to integrate the 3 parts we had learned, Sifu took extra time to point out some nuances of the moves.

for example, with the initial move out of lion covers head, he made particular effort to show the subtle twisting of the arms, making it clear that they were actually performing a block in the transition between stances. the importance of this hadn't been apparent to me, since i'd missed the day everyone had first learned it. but from the looks of it, it was consistent with the concept of twisting force used in other bagua blocking techniques and drills, such as the pole drills i'd learned in the first several lesson days.

another example was the rise out of hawk chasing sparrow, in which the practitioner assumes a stance with one arm outstretched forward with an open palm and the other arm raised above the head and curved forward off the centerline. Sifu said this was called kissing the toad. i had to take a moment and suppress a laugh. this is yet another evocative Chinese term, and one for which i told Jason i wanted an explanation one day. he snickered, and said i didn't want to know.

according to Sifu, in kissing the toad the arm above the head can be either a block raising an opponent's arm, opening the torso for a strike by the forward arm, or an elbow strike against the opponent's chin, again opening their torso for a strike by the forward arm.

2-person drills

in order to illustrate the combat applications of the 5th palm change, Sifu introduced us to 2-person drills. he had us pair up, with me joining Mike.

Sifu repeated his comments from the last set of 2-person drills he showed us:

  • the 2-person drills are important in terms of developing sensitivity to an opponent's movement, which often indicate the opponent's intent. this sensitivity is crucial in being able to act and react to an opponent's actions.
  • in addition, the drills serve as a basic form of sparring, putting theory and technique into practice so practitioners can better understand how theory and technique need to be applied in a combat setting.
  • more than that, it also serves as a up-front, no-obfuscating way of finding out just how good our technique really is--if it is good, then we won't have any problems doing the 2-person drills; if it is not good, then we will find ourselves having difficulties performing the 2-person drills.

Jason first showed us 2 drills he called the "inside brush" and the "outside brush." to me, these titles are somewhat misnomers, since they actually involving performing similar drills, but with one on the left side of the centerline and the other on the right side of the centerline. the only other variation i can see is that with the "outside brush" both participants have either their right foott or left foot forward, while with the "inside brush" one participant will have the left foot forward while the other has the right foot forward and vice versa. in essence, both drills are variations of the same idea: using the posture of kissing the toad to block an opponent's strike up or to the side while simultaneously striking their torso or head.

what makes the inside and outside brushes 2-person drills is that the 2 practitioners never break physical contact, with one person always having a blocking arm in physical contact with the partner's striking arm.

the concept is similar with the other set of 2-person drills. from what i can tell, this starts with the bear stance that follows the spin in the 2nd palm change. to briefly review, the bear stance is a low crouch with spread legs and spread arms turned downwards. in terms of combat applications, Jason showed that this is supposed to enable the practitioner to open the lower area of an opponent's forward strike and reach down to the opponent's knees, ostensibly to initiate a counter-strike. the practitioner uses the arm and hand opposite the opponent to lock the opponent's arm, while the arm and hand nearer the opponent then engages in an offensive maneuvre.

Sifu demonstrated 3 drills with differing offensive actions:

  1. purple swallow--here, the arm and hand nearer the opponent reaches for the opponent's knees to throw the opponent. the key, according to Jason, is to sink into the reach, so as to set the opponent off-balance. in the 2-person drill each partner alternates being the practitioner stepping in to perform purple swallow versus the opponent attempting to strike. both partners maintain physical contact the entire time, with one partner's locking (rear) hand in contact with the other partner's striking (near) hand.

  2. shake the foundation--similar to purple swallow, except here Jason emphasized "sinking" into the opponent and using the shoulder and hip in conjunction with the sinking motion to push the opponent off balance as opposed to relying on a hand to reach for the knees. both partners maintain physical contact the same way as in purple swallow.

  3. kissing the toad--here, kissing the toad is used as a finishing motion in the event the opponent counters the above 2 actions. in Jason's opinion, it is necessary to first either apply purple swallow or shake the foundation to misdirect the opponent's focus downwards to their legs, which then leads them susceptible to surprise when the practitioner adjusts their near arm up and rises into kissing the toad. the key here, according to Jason, is to rise rotating the near arm so that the elbow rises to make contact with the opponent's chin. this helps to throw them off-balance, and opens enough space to then use the rear hand in conjunction with a rotation from the hips to push the opponent further off-balance. in the 2-person drill, physical contact is broken because of the dramatic rise from a low stance to a high one, but the alternating turns of reaching down and then rising are preserved.

final comment

the day ended with a final comment from Sifu. it was a repetition of something Mike had told me while we were performing the 2-person drills: the need to understand that in bagua, the movements needed to be loose, in the sense that there should be no tensing of the muscles and no forcing of motion. Jason explained that this was crucial, not just for bagua but for any combat in general. he stated that the act of tensing the muscles or attempting to force an action against the opponent's resistance serves to communicate your intent to your opponent, and gives them signals as to what you plan to do. this allows them to employ counter-options to prevent your actions.

bagua, according to Sifu Jason, is a martial arts form that disguises your actions and your intent, creating a level of surprise and uncertainty in your opponent that you use to your advantage. this is reflective of the underlying concept of deception and avoiding direct encounter of force with force, and permeates so much of bagua combat.

Jason also noted that this meant a corollary: if we were performing any actions wherein we had to apply force, then it meant that we may be performing the techniques wrong. he noted that bagua techniques needed to feel relatively easy and effortless, and that at no point should we be directly engaging the opponent's force. this echoed a lot of what i had noticed during the 2-person drills with Mike, since i found out that things were dramatically easier and the techniques far more effective when i didn't force the actions and avoided direct force-on-force confrontations.

having made his final statements for the day, Sifu dismissed us and we left.

Monday, November 27, 2006

day 9: practice day


  • chi kung (level 1)


  • 5th palm change
  • tantui (lines 1-4)
today wasn't an actual class. it was Thanksgiving weekend, and Jason had said there was no class for the week.

but i had swapped contact info with John Eagles, one of Jason's intermediate students, and we'd scheduled a Saturday meeting, figuring it would be a good chance to catch up on some of the things i had missed from previous weeks and practice some of the other things i hadn't quite figured out. since we both lived near Pasadena, we met in Garfield Park, which is a small grassy park in South Pasadena just off Mission St.

i told John that i'd wanted to go over what he'd showed us a few weeks ago with chi kung level 1, as well as the 5th palm change. John said that he was fine with that, and that he'd probably also do some jian shu (Chinese sword) practice on his own.

John has been with Sifu Jason for about 4 years. from what i can tell, he seems to have developed a pretty good understanding of a lot of Jason's teachings pertaining to bagua open-hand as well as weapons training, although i'm sure he'll deny it. John also seems to be a very laid-back, receptive, and generous personality. i find him to be one of the more open students in Jason's class in terms of entertaining questions, engaging in discussion, and demonstrating lessons. sometimes, i find him almost too receptive and generous--he'll often provide more information that i can readily digest, and i find myself having to parse out my questions to him to control the flow of information to a manageable stream.

chi kung (level 1)

John had led the early arrival students through this some weeks ago (reference day 6: 4th palm change and application), but at the time i was overwhelmed with the information involved.

to summarize from the prior session, level 1 chi kung involves 9 exercises following the 8-sided taoist symbol (1 exercise for each side, plus 1 for the center of the symbol). this 8-sided figure is named bagua (hence, the origin of the name of the martial art based on it), with a trigram for each side. each side also has corresponding meanings in taoist alchemy, cosomology, and philosophy, with associated elements (yin and yang permutations of wood, earth, fire, heaven, and water), animals, fortunes (as in fortune-telling), emotions, and numbers. further complicating things is that there is a pre-natal and post-natal bagua figure. in essence, the 8-sided figure appears to be the basis for all of taoist teachings, principles, and way of life.

i'd managed to scribble down a basic diagram when John had led people through it the first time, and then with Ching-Tszieh's help had filled in some of the terminology and concepts. i'd subsequently taken some time to do research on the internet to clean up my scribbling and generate a cleaner copy of the 8-sided diagram.

unfortunately, i wasn't able to do much with the exercises other than collect a vague and foggy recollection. i'd asked Art for some help, but he hadn't been able to do much since it was at the end of a class and everyone had been leaving.

i was a little surprised when John said that there were actually 3 levels of chi-kung, with level 1 just being for chi-gathering. he offered to show me more than just level 1, but i told him that was pretty much all i could absorb and that i'd be satisfied with this. he shrugged, and we started off slowly.

level 1 chi-kung starts by facing northwest, performing the associated exercise synchronizing slow physical movement and breathing, and then proceeding around the 8 points of the compass, facing in each direction and performing the respective corresponding exercise, until finally finishing and facing the center. having done some of the background work, i was able to follow along with John much better. it also seemed to help to remember the exercises in sets of 2, since there seems to be a connection between pairs of exercises, especially consecutive ones. it also helped to understand that each exercise is meant to gather chi into distinct parts of the body. as we went through the 8 exercises, John named the element and the body part related to each one.

near the end, John made an interesting comment to me. he said that chi was something that can't be forced. he said that the harder you try to find it, and the more physical effort you put into performing kung fu techniques, the more difficult it is to find chi. to make his point, he held up a fist and squeezed it, then said "if you squeeze it [chi], it'll just ooze out."

i think i can remember the set of exercises, although i promptly forgot the breathing...which i know is probably one of the most important parts. this will probably need quite a bit more of work.

5th palm change

after the chi-kung, we took a number of minutes to go through the stances. John then said he wanted to review all of the first 4 palm changes.

this was expedient enough, although we had to stop and discuss which palm change was which--i, being a beginner, am still having to mechanically sort out the distinctions between each palm change, and John, being more advanced, has to figure out which are the correct 4 palm changes from all the palm changes he knows.

we also had to stop before starting the 5th palm change. Sifu Jason broke this palm change into different sections, since it is a longer one involving more nuanced (as in not as intuitively obvious) movements and combat applications. John and i did a few dry runs to figure things out, then did several runs of the entire sequence we've covered in class to date. John commented that he thinks there's actually another section of the palm change that Jason will show us, since what we're doing in class doesn't quite match his memory. despite this, i was happy just to review what we had, and get a better feel for the entire sequence of movements.

tantui (lines 1-4)

after we'd gone through the 5th palm change, John asked me if there was anything else i wanted to know. in particular, he asked me if i knew anything about tantui. i said i knew the first 2 lines, but that i'd like to pick up the 3rd line.

with that, John lined up next to me, and we immediately went through the first 2 lines. he watched and corrected me on lines 1 and 2, and then took me through line 3. to me, line 3 is very similar to line 1, in that it involves wide circular movements of the arms in a vertical plane. it differs in that it incorporates successive punches in opposing directions. i'd tried to figure it out on my own, but there were a couple of points that i needed help going through.

John demonstrated line 3 several times, then had me perform it with him. after stopping to watch me, he seemed comfortable with my performance, and then said we should go through line 4.

line 4 is a rather complicated sequence of movements, involving an initial low stance rising into a forward facing kick and punch, which are then followed by a reversal of direction and backwards steps done in conjunction with a series of punches. it is awkward, somewhat befuddling, and for me entirely non-intuitive. i managed to get a sense of it after awhile, but not enough to feel comfortable. like so many other things in this class, this will take some practice.

John offered to show me line 5, but i told him i didn't think i was ready for this yet. which was the truth. i'm not. and it will probably be some time before i am.

by this time, we were wrapping up. we had started at 9:30 am, and it was now close to 11. John had originally planned on doing some jian shu practice on his own, but i could tell he had forgone that and was done for the day--i certainly hoped it wasn't because of me. we chatted for a little bit, and then i packed up and left to run some errands.

with the material we had gone over, i felt that i'd gotten plenty to think about and digest, even if it was stuff that i'd gotten before. i'm probably going to have to go over it again with Sifu Jason (and maybe even again after that...) to get things down.

Friday, November 24, 2006


i found some useful videos showing my instructor Jason, some of his senior students Jeff and Phunsak, and Liu Yun Chiao, who as Sifu Jason's instructor and founder of the Wutan Hall in Taiwan.

most of the videos are related to bagua--the style i'm learning at the moment, but a few cover baji. bagua, as you can see from the videos, is a softer, less physical style (hence one of the reasons it's classified as an "internal" martial art), while baji is a harder, more physically forceful style (and thereby classified as an "external" martial art.

note that the 2 videos of Jeff and Phunsak show them doing the same bagua forms. you can compare and see the differences in the way they are doing them. i haven't asked them--or Sifu--if this is something that is allowed in bagua, or if this is perhaps a product of personal stylization and customization of the underlying bagua techniques.

Jeff (i've never met him, but he appears to have been a long-time student of Jason):


Jason Tsou:

Liu Yun Chiao:

Monday, November 20, 2006

day 8: 5th palm change (or, the only constant is change)

  • wuji
  • tai chi
  • liang yi
  • xiang yi (si xiang?)
  • combat applications
  • functions and variables
  • change rhythm and combinations
  • circles


  • 5th palm change
today was a bit of a make-up day for me. i missed last week because of fund-raising activities with my other past-time (USC Triathlon) for Homecoming weekend. i was a little worried that i might have quite a challenge catching up, since we seem to cover a lot of material in classes.

the class started slowly this time. it seemed everybody was late, and Lee didn't do his customary lead through stances or tantui. after a while, i figured i better warm-up with stances on my own. i took the stances slowly this time, trying to incorporate the breathing work that Sifu Jason had taught us in the previous classes. of course, this meant that by the time i was finishing them everybody else began arriving.

Sifu Jason began by having us review hand drills (one-arm and then double arm), with John leading the class. after that, we proceeded with a brief review of the 1st palm change, with Sifu stressing proper form, particularly in terms of keeping the quads close and the hands, arms, and head all moving in and out of tension. once he was satisfied re-familiarizing everybody with the palm changes, Jason then began discussing combat applications of the forms.

combat applications

this was probably one of the more fascinating sessions i've had. so much of the palm changes we'd practiced to date had been focused on proper technique, proper form, proper breathing, and feeling of energy. today's session added a practical layer to the palm changes, showing just how the techniques and forms are meant to be applied.

Sifu Jason spent a good chunk of time demonstrating the use of "leaf covers summer flower." as i've discussed before, this applies to a stance featuring the practitioner crouching and twisting the torso around, with hands crossing in opposite directions across the chest, with the lower hand facing up and the upper hand facing down.

Jason showed that this stance is actually part of a throwing technique. when used in conjunction with a step-turn, it allows a practitioner to step outside an opponent's line of hand-strike while simultaneously trapping the opponent's outreached arm and throwing them. the practitioner's lower hand (the "summer flower") is supposed to align in the direction of the opponent's line of strike, the upper hand (the "leaf") is supposed to move towards the opponent's face, and the shoulder of the lower hand is supposed to engage the rear side of the opponent's striking arm shoulder. the technique is supposed to involve a rotational moment about the step-turn's pivot foot, with a slight downward movement that finishes with the non-pivot foot's knee stopping in the rear of the opponent's forward knee and the practitioner's 2 arms squeezing the opponent's striking arm. the technique itself finishes with the practitioner continuing follow-through and rotate the torso in the direction of the step-turn, so the practitioner's shoulder throws the opponent. performed properly, it's supposed to be a largely effortless means of throwing the opponent off-center.

functions and variables

Sifu expanded the lesson by showing the various options involved with the throw, and stressed that there's different ways to perform the technique. he showed that instead of being a throw forwards, it can be reversed in mid-rotation to become a backwards strike or a backwards throw. he also showed that it could be used to facilitate a joint lock on the opponent's shoulder, elbow, wrist, or hand.

Jason paused to emphasize that our use of the technique--and the ultimate end of it--could be interpreted as a function with variables. he said it was important to NOT view it as a simple answer to be applied mechanically in response to an opponent's attack, but rather should be seen as a mathematical function whose end result would depend on what variables were sensed by us. this, in effect, goes back to the discussion in previous posts about not becoming algorithmic technicians but more engaging, observant, and creative problem-solvers. of course, this means that it becomes imperative in being able to recognize and observe the opponent's actions and intent correctly so as to adjust the variables of the function.

change in rhythm and combinations

the next point of emphasis was the idea of changing rhythm. taking the "leaf covers summer flower" lesson as a starting point, Jason said the technique could continue to successive actions. he showed how the technique could be changed in mid-application by reversing the hands from "leaf" to "summer flower" and reversing the rotation, throwing or locking the opponent in a different direction. in addition, it could also be changed by shifting the practitioner's weight downward, tripping the opponent. this way, in the event we saw the opponent employing a counter-technique, we could change and employ an effective response. the concept is to adjust the rhythm of the technique so that it becomes more unpredictable and more difficult for the opponent to follow.

Sifu Jason commented that in combat chances are that most trained opponents would be able to respond to a single technique in isolation. many, however, can be caught off-guard and confused by changes in rhythm.

Jason proceeded to the idea of combinations. here, he said that apart from changing the rhythm of a technique in mid-application, that it can be combined in successive variations, with the same purpose of increasing unpredictability and confusion against an opponent. with "leaf covers summer flower," for example, he showed that we could perform the technique going one way, and then continue by staying engaged with the opponent and repeating the technique in a different way (reversing rotation, shifting weight, changing into a lock from a throw, etc.).

according to Jason, a substantial number of trained opponents can handle a simple technique, and will almost always have a counter to employ. however, fewer will be able to handle 2 changes, and fewer still will be able to deal with 3 changes. he estimated that the application of 3 changes would probably deal with 99.5% of opponents (although i suspect the precision of this percentage).

this is apparently an extension of Taoist principles, especially those presented in the classic I Ching (The Book of Changes). by its very title, the work espouses the concept of constant change and its application. for bagua, which is derived in part from Taoism and the I Ching, change is an integral component of combat, and something to be utilized to achieve victory.

Sifu reminded us that the only constant is change, and we have to embrace it. he said that in bagua, and in Taoism, even the idea of yin and yang, as dynamic as it is, can involve even more change. in Taoism, complexity can increase. it has the term wuji to describe a state of zero energy (void?), tai chi to describe a state where yin equals yang, liang yi for when yin and yang are discernible from each other (i'm guessing this means unequal), and xiang yi (si xiang?) where yin and yang further divide.

Jason referred to the idea of exponents of 2. wuji is a state of 0. tai chi is the value of 2 (yin and yang) with the exponent of 0 (creating a net value of 1, or unity). liang yi is 2 with an exponent of 1 (creating a net value of 2, indicating 2 distinct entities). si xiang is 2 with an exponent of 2, indicating that 2 becomes 4 (or increasing complexity). to me, this is roughly analogous to the idea of entropy, which is a thermodynamic law prescribing increasing disorder and chaos.


something else covered today was the concept of circles.

bagua is apparently about circles. circles circles circles. circles everywhere. big ones. small ones. horizontal ones. vertical ones. angled ones.

as we practiced using "leaf covers summer flower" with rhythm change and combinations, Sifu repeatedly stressed that we hand to understand and visualize our actions moving in circles. these circles extended beyond just general motions involving rotation of our torsos, but also needed to be visualized in reference to movement of individual body parts. in essence, while there might be large circles described by the actions of our bodies, there were simultaneously smaller circles being described by the individual behavior of our hands and feet as well as arms and legs and head and waist. in other words, there are circles within circles, sometimes moving in conjunction, sometimes moving independently, sometimes within each other, sometimes outside each other.

Sifu said that the idea of circles also needed to be visualized as beyond the horizontal plane. the circles could be angles or vertical as well as horizontal. for example, our practice with "leaf covers summer flower" involving a shift in weight to trip the opponent could be interpreted as a vertical circle. in addition, our application of the stance into a throw can be understood as movement in an angled circle.

according to Jason, this concept is important, since it increases the effectiveness of the techniques and also increases the ease with which they can be performed. and that, in part, is the purpose of bagua: to exert as little of the practitioner's energy as possible to defeat the opponent.

5th palm change

we finished the day by learning the 5th palm change. on the day i missed Sifu had evidently taught the first half of this form. i'd managed to get John to show me what they had covered during the break, and it had seemed simple enough to pick up. but then Kei-Yon (sp?)--another student who, while one of Jason's intermediate level students, had a broad martial arts background--showed us the second half of the 5th palm change, and it became apparent that this was one of the longer palm changes.

Jason had everybody do a couple of run-throughs of the first half, and that allowed me to get my bearings straight and pick up some of the nuances. he then introduced us to the second half of the form.

the 5th palm change begins in something called "lion protects the head," which basically means that both arms are above the head, with one reaching to the side and the other reaching over the practitioner's head. from there the practitioner rotates to a 70-30 stance with both arms lowered to torso level, from which the practitioner steps into a single-leg posture with a hand strike forward before rotating into a crouch facing the opposite stance with the striking hand suspended where it was. at this point, the hands come forward and then perform a figure-eight pattern in the air.

Jason noted that the figure-eight pattern was exactly that: a figure eight pattern, but with variations in vertical position so one side of the eight is at a different height than the other. he explained that the combat application of this was meant to be a warding away of an opponent's strike using the downward portion of the figure eight and then a counter-strike into the opponent's torso or head using the upward portion of the figure eight.

Sifu had us practice the figure-eight pattern, emphasizing again its variations and options. being somewhat newer to this, i was a little more uncomfortable with this movement--or the entire form. but i figure this is something that can be resolved through practice.

we ended the day with Jason reminding everyone that next week was Thanksgiving and that there would be no class. i exchanged contact info with John for a practice session, so i could get caught up and more familiar with everything we'd covered--and also to review the chi kung he'd led everyone on 2 weeks ago.

with that, class was done for the week.


i decided to go with everyone for the post-class meal. this week it was to one of Jason's favorites, a place called Hunan Restaurant. this placed turned out to be GREAT--at least for the stuff Jason ordered. good spicy food.

i kind of enjoy the meals, since it gives an opportunity to discuss background questions about martial arts and Sifu's understanding of them. as a result, i can fill in a lot more of the gaps in my perception of just where his class and teaching fits within the larger framework of Chinese martial arts, both from a modern perspective and in terms of historical continuity.

this week we spent a good portion talking about Sifu's class-mates, and their schools, as well as the apparent division within his teacher's (Liu Yun Chiao) progeny. it's somewhat unfortunate to hear about this kind of thing, since i believe that 1) it's not good in terms of preserving the styles of martial arts taught by Liu Yun Chiao and his Wutan Hall (see my previous commentary on open door schools), 2) it's never good to be afflicted by needless political infighting, and 3) i'm not really superstitious, but i think it's bad karma. Jason apparently agrees, and i sense he's disappointed by the behavior of some of his martial arts class-mates.

as with so many things, i guess all we can do is to control the things we can control, and let everything else just be left to itself.