Saturday, September 23, 2006

day 1: starting a path

so my first session was about as basic as i thought it was going to be.

stuff covered today:
stances (only 4 out of 10):

1) horse
2) 60-40
3) 70-30
4) bow-and-arrow

i didn't do much, except work on basic stances. there are 10 basic stances. and then apparently several other lines of stances which are variations of these 10--or i'm inferring from what i heard. i only spent time on the 4 above, but they were deceptively hard, and ended up taking the better part of the 3 hours to figure out and learn.

my teacher was Art, who is a lawyer and a long-time student of the Sifu Jason Tsou. Art is a senior student, and one of the several in the group who is studying for what he termed "Sifu Certification." Art told me he's been studying with Jason since the 1970s, which would make it around 20-25 years (?) he's been studying, and from what he told me he's been concentrating on Tai Chi Chuan (Chen and Yang) as well as Bagua. he may have studied other styles, but i don't know.

Art is a pretty good instructor himself. patient. very low-key. but very hands on and very willing to explain things, covering not only proper form but also concepts and the rationale behind both form and concepts.

being the beginner, i ended up spending all my time off to a side with Art while the rest of the class spent time learning technique and concepts with Sifu Jason. but that was actually good, as i really want to have time to focus on the basics and have someone give me attention to make sure i am doing things right.

i've heard from numerous sources that the martial arts are the kind of thing that really depend on precision and technique, and that without precision or technique they are rendered virtually useless. i've also heard that everything builds upon what is learned before, and so ability is based on how well you learned lessons earlier. as a result, it is imperative to learn the basics correctly, otherwise everything you do later will be ineffective.

it's really similar in a way to what i learned with triathlon. there, it's said that your level of conditioning and athletic performance is analogous to a house. the higher and bigger you want the house to be, the bigger and stronger you need the foundation to be. likewise, the better you want--or need--your physical conditioning to be, the stronger and bigger you need your base level of aerobic conditioning to be. only with a strong base of elementary aerobic conditioning can you proceed to develop a strong level of anaerobic conditioning and muscular endurance, and everything combined together is needed for superior athletic performance.

i'm guessing it's much the same way with martial arts. the greater the level of proficiency you want, the more important it is to have a strong foundation in fundamentals, since the fundamentals will be the basis for developing more advanced techniques and abilities.

i think my difficulty today was in part me having to learn new means of movement different from what i'm used to, and having to think through things to work out my physical coordination. it is definitely different from the movements i've been doing in triathlon, and i suspect that my muscle memory is very much attuned to the technique involved in swimming, cycling, and running (and trust me, there's a very fine technique to each of those events). i'm suspecting that i am going to have to take my time and let my muscles adapt and acquire familiarity with new movement patterns, until the muscle memory takes effect and i can start to do things more unconsciously.

as for the class...i am a single beginner out of a group composed largely of advanced students and an assortment of intermediate and recent students. i'm guessing out of the 12-15 people today that 8 of them have been studying with Jason for at least 10 years, 3-4 have been studying for at least 4-7 years, and the rest for around 1-2 years. but everyone is pretty friendly, and they're all willing to answer questions, so it is a very hospitable and comfortable environment.

i feel good being in the group, although painfully aware that i'm the lone beginner.

hopefully, i can get up to speed and be able to start training with everyone else more regularly.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

day 0: finding a path

i'm looking for a martial art to learn.

not a problem in a city like Los Angeles. with the size of its Asian population, you figure it'd be relatively expeditious to find martial arts schools--and it is. there's one on every block in places like Monterey Park, Alhambra, Little Tokyo, etc. anywhere there's a sizable Asian population. you can't go down a street and not see one. they even offer martial arts classes via municipal government public service courses.


one issue is trying to find legitimate ones of quality. there's a lot of charlatans out there--fakers and genuine experts who thrive on the naivete and gullibility of earnest and sincere neophytes looking for instruction. it's easy money. and they all seem to claim some form of grand lineage (it seems to be really important, even though it doesn't mean a bean to me), and they all seem to claim to offer potential students great mystical secrets or mysterious, magical powers to defeat opponents and vanquish enemies everywhere. it's all marketing of dubious ethics.

caveat emptor.

another issue is finding the appropriate martial art for what you might want. even cursory research on the internet will reveal a legion of martial arts styles, all of which claim to be superior to each other and pose legends of their grandmaster defeating another style's grandmaster. which is entirely unsurprising and entirely unhelpful.

honestly, i didn't have a clue between one style and another.

all the claims and stories and legends being posed by schools, instructors, and proponents of individual styles passed right over me. they might as well have been speaking ancient Urdu for all the information they were giving me. for that matter, there was no way for me as an English-only Westerner in Los Angeles, California to verify any of the information being spun out to the public for consumption.

finding paths to follow

like i said in an earlier post: choosing a martial art proved to be a bit of a conundrum. it's one of those things that in order to acquire more knowledge you have to ask the right questions, but in order to ask the right questions you need to have a pre-existing base of knowledge. catch-22. essentially, a student has to make a good decision about the quality and legitimacy of an instructor as well as the appropriateness of a martial arts style without having the necessary information needed to make a good decision. so what happens if you have no knowledge and no information? what questions do you pose then to make the right decisions?

i started by first looking on campus at USC.

campus offers several advantages: martial arts courses on campus are usually cheap. courtesy of their location and proximity to my classes and my office, they're also convenient.

only thing was, USC only had a limited selection of martial arts to offer: mizhong law horn (sp?) kung fu, ninjutsu, tae kwon do, and aikido. that's it. the aikido instruction i felt was less than stellar. ditto the ninjutsu. tae kwon do just involved too much physical beating for my athletics-worked body. the kung fu class turned out to be a disappointment, with the instructor saying that he "[did] not teach combat, only fitness" (in which case, isn't that contrary to the entire meaning of the term "martial art"?). more than that, just like tae kwon do, he had his classes spend the bulk of their time on hard physical conditioning, which is the last thing i needed given the beating my body is taking on my athletic training schedule for triathlon--i'm getting plenty of physical conditioning already; what i need is technique and concepts and rational and philosophy.

truth be told, i was a little hesitant to try a "hard" martial art that relied on physical qualities such as speed and strength (as opposed to a "soft" martial art that utilizes other qualities). this is because 1) i can already feel my body changing, and it is losing whatever speed and strength it used to have, and i wanted to learn a martial art that i could use effectively into my old age, and 2) i am already getting plenty of physical stress from triathlon training, and the last thing i need is more physical stress from a hard style martial art.

this pretty much knocked out most kung fu, tae kwon do, karate, muy thai, etc.

of the remaining, "softer" styles, i felt a certain affinity for aikido, which i feel has a certain elegance and philosophical connection to Zen buddhism, for which i have always had felt some affinity. but the only reputable aikido-zen school i knew of was rather expensive and beyond my budget.

apart from aikido, i figured tai chi held out some promise since it was tied to Chinese conceptions of chi and chi-kung medicine, and so could was a good candidate to fulfill my interest in improving my body's physical recuperative abilities, as well as work on my flexibility and coordination. i also knew that chi-king (or qi-gong) supposedly helped improve the body's energy output, which sounded pretty good for athletic performance. and i also knew that certain forms of tai chi had very good combat applications.

further research on the internet also seemed to indicate that there were other "soft" styles with the same benefits as tai chi--health-wise and combat-wise. i found styles with names like ba gua (or pa kua), hsing-i (or xingyi), pi qua (or pi kua), baji, etc. and it seemed that many instructors (at least in the LA area) seemed to teach combinations of each style together, rather than just one alone. this was somewhat promising, as it increased my options and potential of finding something that fit my needs and my schedule.

but this raised the question as to which school and instructor?

surveying potential paths

having no one to consult or in a position to offer advice, i was kind of stuck. there was what research i was doing on the internet--but the internet is a notoriously unreliable source of information. i wasn't even sure of the information i had gathered.

i ended up just turning to what i knew: basic logic and basic research.

i decided i'd begin by just searching for a good variety of "soft" style schools on the internet that 1) seemed highly recommended, and 2) were in my area.

from there, i figured i'd pick the ones that offered the most available information on-line that matched my interests and schedule.

next, i planned on visiting and observing a class at each school to try and gauge their quality. i planned on evaluating each place on 1) the level of personal instruction, 2) the instructor's experience and skill level, 3) the instructor's and senior student's ability to teach and communicate, 4) the extent to which i could ask questions and get answers, 5) the quality of the students (as in quality of character and personality...which i thought might reflect on the character and personality of the teacher), and 6) the comfort level i felt in the school environment.

of course, the final factor would be tuition, which was a major issue given my student budget.

based on the resources i found on the internet, i generated a list of schools:
i went ahead and visited each of the schools. but for various reasons found them lacking. a lot of it was a lack of comfort. two of the places were in Barnes Park in Monterey Park, California, which turned out to be one of the most crowded, noisy, distracting, and chaotic places i've ever seen. to my mind, a dubious place to learn anything requiring concentration and focus. one had the featured grandmaster on its website actually back in China, with the school being run by one of his senior students. other schools were entirely in Mandarin Chinese, with non-Mandarin students having to rely on their Chinese colleagues for translation. a couple of schools seemed to focus on teaching for things that looked good on cinema, with their instruction focused on teachers and students with resumes and personal websites targeting the city's talent agencies. people were friendly, but that was about it.

and the tuition was high enough to make me seriously question my finances.

all in all, not very promising.

choosing a path

i did find one place that i found somewhat intriguing, but with a website that was rather cheesy:
the school, to its credit, did seem to offer an impressive array of styles and technique. and the 2 instructors listed certainly seemed qualified if their bios were to be believed. and the class locations and times certainly fit my schedule.

but there were some disconcerting items i found with the website. first, it was rather slow to download. second, it was rather simplistic, banal, and amateurish in its layout. third, i found that all of the training information and contact information on it was outdated and no longer valid. in brief, it was not professional.


it did not inspire confidence.

i skipped checking this school out several times. i would come back to the website, and check things out, but then just get disappointed and leave.

but after getting a growing sense of frustration with the other schools i had visited, i decided to exercise a few more ounces of diligence and see if i couldn't at least see what this instructor and school were really like. i figured it wouldn't hurt, and i needed to stick my rule of diligence and my plan of evaluation, just to know--if nothing else--that whenever i made my decision i could at least feel i had made my best decision and at least feel comfortable and have no regrets about what i had chosen to do.

i dug around the site and started calling all the numbers and contacts that it had. i finally tracked one down that worked, and it was to a person named Art Schonfeld, who turned out to be a lawyer and a senior student of the instructor. Art answered the phone with a tone that could be described as groggy, but he was patient and deliberate in offering information and answering my questions, and was upfront and honest about the training schedule and school--which apparently now was meeting in a park at an elementary school in Monterey Park.

with a certain level of reserved cynicism and aloofness, i decided to go ahead and make one last visit to observe the class. i figured that if this one wasn't any good, then i wouldn't have lost anything but time, and that i could still go back and start with one of the other schools i'd visited.
turns out that was probably one of the best and most fortuitous things that i could have possibly done.

the class was held in a quiet park. empty. open. with little to no traffic. with plenty of space and peace to focus and concentrate. very comfortable.

the class was relatively small--maybe 10-15 students at any time. and there were plenty of senior students, which to me was good, since it meant that there would be more people available to answer questions...and they were all willing to answer questions. the quality was high--and by this i mean they all seemed to be well-educated, well-behaved, and well-intentioned. more than this, they were all long-time students. all of this spoke volumes to me about the instructor and the quality of his instruction.

the instructor himself turned out to be a refreshing surprise. no pompousness, no sense of self importance, no sense of arrogance. just upfront, down-to-earth, and humble, with only the self-confidence you would expect of someone who is comfortable in his subject matter and comfortable in communicating it to others.

in addition, the instructor was very clear in his instruction, and covered complicated and expansive material in a way that was easy to follow but still comprehensive. better yet, he covered the spectrum of things that i found of personal interest: technique, and the concepts, rationale, and philosophy behind the technique. moreover, he was patient, attentive, and willing to explain answers in detail. and to top it off, he spoke English.

i found myself thoroughly enjoying the class. and more than that, i was getting what i wanted: a quiet Saturday morning in a place of peace and calm, where i could focus on 1) learning things to defend myself, 2) learning things that would help my training, and 3) learning things that wouldn't further beat up my training-exhausted body. more than that, it was intellectually stimulating.

the instructor actually met with me personally for a few moments, and was frank about his class. he told me simply "this isn't like other schools. i don't teach things to impress people. i teach combat." which is fine with me. that's what i want. that actually made me happy.

i made it a point to withold judgement. and decided to take a week to think things over.

well, i took that week, and decided i'd pretty much found what i'd been looking for, and decided to come back to that course, regardless of the cheesy website and outdated contact information. that course, as bad as the website was, is pretty much everything all the other schools were not.

and it turns out the instructor is about as good as the website claimed him to be. i found his name recommended highly on numerous websites, message boards, and even Kung Fu magazine. and he seems to have a pretty broad connection with a wide array of Wudang practitioners around the world. his name's Jason Tsou (at least, that's his English name...i suspect he has a Chinese name), and he seems like a good person to know.

it also helps that he's about the most affordable instructor i found outside of campus. all the others were charging exhorbitant fees that really made my student budget take a gulp and a grasp onto my wallet. Sifu Jason (and that's what i'll call him) offered a pretty reasonable rate, which is a great comfort to my student income.

i'm pretty happy with the school, the students, the class setting, the quality of instruction, and the instructor. i think i'm going to give this a try.

and hopefully i'll learn something about self-defense. and hopefully i'll learn something that improve athletic performance. and hopefully i'll learn something that will make me a whole lot better than i was before.

all in all, i think things turned out pretty well. and i'm comfortable in the decision i've made.

not bad, given how clueless i was (and still am) about martial arts.

and that's pretty much how i got started.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

day 0: directions for a path

so i made a decision to take a martial arts class.

there's various reasons why, and the explanation is somewhat extensive. but to be brief, i'll summarize it as follows:

1) i've always had an interest in the martial arts. just as much as any other adolescent boy has had. but i've just never gotten around to it, and other things have always taken a priority, and my family (or i) just never could budget it into our expenses. it's only recently that i've found time, motivation, and the resources necessary for martial arts.

2) self-defense. there's been a number of times (actually, many times) in my life when i've felt a peculiar sense of vulnerability, when i've realized i was in potentially dangerous situations, and the only means of defense i had were physical strength, speed, conditioning, mental aggression, and whatever adrenaline my body could muster. these times have increased in frequency as of late, as the crime rate in the neighborhood surrounding my school has begun to escalate dramatically. i've felt an increasing need to learn how to defend myself--not just as a means of achieving victory in a confrontation, but as a means of survival...although, to a certain degree, victory and survival can be seen as one and the same.

3) competitive performance and physical recuperation. my sport (triathlon) places a heavy toll on the body. particularly for the races i prefer to do (ironman). training for an ironman triathlon requires a supreme level of physical conditioning, discipline, fortitude, perseverance, diligence, sensitivity, and foresight, and requires that the athlete constantly ride the edge of physical training and overtraining. i have been exploring ways to improve my body's recovery time and recuperative abilities, as well as ways to improve my body's efficiency in generating energy for a given amount of effort. i believe that martial arts may assist in this area, since presumably they encompass the same objectives and have the benefit of centuries of accumulated observation, wisdom, and application to draw upon.

all these reasons came to a head after my performance at Ironman Arizona. there, my struggles in the heat and wind, and subsequent state of dehydration, shortness of breath, and periods of black out pushed me to the inescapable conclusion that i had to improve my training.

based on my times in practice, everyone had told me my target time was probably going to be around 12 hours. i ended up finishing at 14:55. this was, to be blunt, pathetic. awful. other people were kind of shocked. i was disappointed. annoyed, to be exact. embarrassed, to be honest.

yeah sure, it was my first ironman. but i know--and i fully expect--that i can do better. reviewing my performance, i suspect that my training had been off (actually, i know it was off), my taper had been too short, my race day nutrition had been waaayyyyyy wrong, and my acclimatization period for the heat had been non-existent.

but i also know that my breathing efficiency needed work. as did my muscular recuperative powers. ditto my muscular endurance and power output.

i researched sports performance sources, as well as sports medicine. i also consulted with professional athletes and coaches. but what they seemed to offer were things i'd already covered at some point. as a result, i decided i needed to look for alternatives. given my pre-existing interest and growing sense of urgency to learn self-defense, i decided to try out the martial arts.

of course, there's the issue of what martial art...

and that is a bit of a conundrum. in order to make a good decision, you need to have a base of knowledge to work with, to the point that you at least know enough to ask good questions. however, in order to acquire such preliminary knowledge you actually have to have made a good decision and chosen a good source from which to learn.

a bit of a problem, to say the least.