Saturday, March 28, 2009

day 219: addendums and randomness

  • chin na
  • control points
  • misdirection
  • yin-yang
  • release
  • bagua fist form
  • combat concepts
  • kyudo
i have to add an addendum in this post, since there were some topics that i forgot to include in last week's. things have been a little busy this year, and i've been having a little trouble remembering everything--and incidentally, it's also the reason these posts are being written on the Friday evening or Saturday mornings after the previous weekend's lessons. i'm trying to get ahead, but it's a bit of a challenge right now.

bagua fist form

we went further into the fist form, and i'm guessing we're now only about 8-10 moves away from finishing (about time...this is one of the longest forms i've seen, bagua or any other--i would place it as being as long as the chen taichi liaojia form, which is around 5-7 minutes, depending on your pacing). since Phunsak showed up late (he's been taking systema classes on Saturday mornings in San Diego, and it's put his arrival time in LA at around 11:30), Sifu led us in a review of the form, and then into the next group of movements.

combat concepts

at this point, Sifu began showing applications from the moves. for this, he called the bagua and baji students together, since this dealt with TCMA as a whole rather than any particular style individually. today's applications built upon last week's (and which is why i suddenly remembered the discussion we had then), and opened up a more general conversation about combat concepts. i'll summarize Sifu's points--from last week and today--as follows:
  • chin na--Sifu reminded us about the lessons of the chin na seminar, particularly on the need to focus on principles and concepts as opposed to specific techniques. he showed how various fist form movements are simply different expressions of the same principles, and how looking at them in this way enables you to see alternative applications from the same movements. he demonstrated that they could go from being throws and strikes to chin na and submission holds, and went through a series of chin na techniques based on individual movements (i.e., one movement leading to multiple chin na techniques).
  • control points--Sifu stressed that in engaging an opponent, it's never enough to attempt a single control point. he said this is dangerous, because 1) it's very easy for an opponent to focus their effort on the single control point, and thereby possibly overwhelm it, and 2) it tends to cause you to fixate (i.e., target fixation), and ignore other avenues of attack (from the opponent, or his friends). Sifu said that it is better to always employ multiple control points (2 is better, 3 is good). he asserted that this 1) confuses the opponent, making it easier to produce sensory overload of their minds, causing their defenses to waiver just enough for you to successfully attack, and thereby 2) breaks them down faster, freeing you to deal with other threats. Sifu had us practice this with each other, to see the difference in engaging with 1 control point versus several.
  • misdirection--Sifu also noted that we always need to apply misdirection. he said this is a fundamental feature of martial arts, and that it serves to 1) distract the opponent (again, cauing their defenses to waiver just enough for you to successfully attack), 2) deceive their senses so they send their force vectors in ways that assist your real actions. misdirection can be achieved in a variety of ways, including a flick of the hand towards the eyes, a shift in a force vector (either in magnitude or direction), or in contact and control points. he demonstrated this, beginning with one of the movements in the fist form (using a flick into the eyes), continuing with a movement in tai chi (shifting the force vector up, so as to set up pull-down), and then in chin na (to enable a take-down). he stressed the idea is to confuse the opponent. he then had us practice these to see the difference in effectiveness.
  • yin-yang--Sifu finished off the conversation by going back to yin-yang distribution. he said that control points and misdirection need to be combined with the use of yin-yang concepts, not just for chin na but for any application. he argued that this adds to the overwhelming of the opponent's senses (their autonomic/neurological responses). more than this, however, it also magnifies the yin-yang distribution, making easier to employ techniques. this, in turn, makes it easier to 1) locate the "hole" in the vortices of movement (something always induced by yin-yang breakdown), and 2) induce the creation of the "hole" in a way we can control (preferably to actions and outcomes that we desire).
we spent the rest of class working on these concepts, and tying them into the fist form and assorted techniques from tai chi and baji.


kyudo this evening was a continuation of last week: a pile-up of errors and struggles with shooting. at least tonight i managed to actually shoot a few more arrows than last time.

i found myself struggling quite a bit today with the form. things just didn't feel right. i began to realize that there was a certain tightness in my body, and it was causing me to pull inward--in terms of sitting (in kiza), in bowing, in standing, in shooting. all of this is bad, since kyudo ultimately gets to the act of expanding.

things kind of reached a nadir at one point when Sensei was helping adjust my form, and i suddenly found myself unable to release the arrow. for some reason, i just could not bring myself to let. that. arrow. go.

i was so dumbfounded by this incident that i ended up spending a good portion of the rest of the night trying to figure out what had happened. after awhile, i realized that what was really going on was that the problem wasn't physical--oh, it was, but only to the degree that the physical issues were a symptom of something else. and that something else was mental.

and on this, i have to concede, there have been a fair number of things going on in my life that have been pre-occupying me quite a bit as of late...and i guess that pre-occupation has been not only mental, but also spiritual, and it now turns out physical.

i know what i need to do is release. to just let things go. all the baggage. and in a symbolic and literal way, this relates to just letting the arrow go. because it's all just really the same thing.

i noted this to Sensei near the end of class, and he observed that he could tell there was something not right when he saw me struggling. he added that my experience was part of the "art" of kyudo--that is, the "do" in "kyu-do."

on a lighter note, our gloves came in today from Japan. kyudo gloves are custom made for the individual archer, and so fit only 1 hand. it's possible to use another person's glove, but the feel and response is not as good as a custom one. Yachio (Sensei's wife) had measured my hand (and Phunsak's) some time ago, and had sent the measurements and the drawing of our hand outlines to Japan.

the result is, to say the least, a work of art. the glove is exquisite, and is a composite of buckskin leather and bone, with a separate inner lining of light linen.

we spent the remainder of the evening learning how to care for the glove, as well as how to put it on and take it off.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

day 218: transitioning back to chen tai chi

  • listening
  • chen push hands
  • Yang tai chi
  • Chen tai chi
last Sunday was a bit of a transition period. since we finished the 7-star mantis lien jian form, it was time to transition to something new.

we spent a fair amount of class time going through some applications in the Yang tai chi short form, since Jeanette is just learning it (she's a new student, and a friend of Jo-san from their days in Taiwan). this lasted about 2/3 of class.

after some time Sifu said we should discuss what we'd be doing with our Sundays from here on. he said he'd like to continue on with Chen tai chi, particularly pao quan. however, he said we'd have to do some work before we started with the form, particularly in terms of Chen push hands.

Sifu reminded us that Chen push hands is very different from the typical Yang-style that we commonly see, with Chen push hands (at least, the way he learned it) is much more dynamic and involves footwork, legwork, changes in direction, multi-planar movement, and use of space (literally, you don't stand in a static location, but instead move all over the ground).

Sifu also said we needed to become more intuitive with the tai chi method of changing and mixing yin & yang forces to produce misdirection and fool the opponent. this is critical, since so many of the techniques in tai chi will not work without this element.

Sifu began us with a series of drills on ting, learning how to move around and redirect incoming fists while stepping along a line. he had us do this in pairs, with one partner being the attacker and the other being the defender, first going forwards and then backwards, and then switching roles. since there were only 3 of us learning this (me, Phunsak, and John Eagles), we rotated as partners.

this took the remainder of time, with class ending a little after 1pm.

day 217: close, but yet so far

  • string
  • arrow
  • bagua fist form
  • kyudo
this (or last weekend) was a double duty weekend, with class both Saturday and Sunday. i was a little under the weather, since i'd gotten sick earlier in the week. it had been bad enough that i canceled the shuai jiao class, and spent most of the time trying to get better.

bagua fist form

we went further into the fist form, and i think we're now abotu 90% of the way through the form. the section today was the 3rd of a repeating set in the form, and so things went much quicker, since the set only varies with a few moves. we actually spent the bulk of time reviewing everything we've done to date and trying to get things down.


kyudo this evening was an exercise in frustration. this is the second class for me shooting without supervision, but so far i've only managed to get the arrow out of the bow a total of 2x out of 8 attempts. the problem is that i keep losing the arrow off the string as i raise it--it literally falls out.

this is possible in kyudo because it places the arrow on the right side of the bow (in contrast, most other forms of archery i've seen place the arrow on the left side). since everyone is taught shooting towards their left, that means the arrow is on the outside position of the bow with only the string to hold it in place, making it very easy for it to fall out.

originally, i thought that i'd been making a mistake in the way my right hand held the string. apparently it's supposed to rotate slightly in the thumb direction as you lift the bow. i hadn't been doing this, and it certainly contributed to my string problem. but even after i corrected for this, the arrow continued to fall out.

next , i thought i found the issue with the arrows i was using--the dojo arrows seem to have a slightly wider knocking slot relative to the other arrows. typically, the slot is narrow enough that it snaps in around the string, and so is held in until the string snaps on the release of the bow. but the string on the bow i've been using is a little narrow, and it slides a loosely into the dojo arrow slots. however, after i corrected for this by trying new arrows, i still had them falling out.

i am quite perplexed by this, and will have to devote some time to sorting this out. i may be making a mistake in technique, but the question is where and what i need to do to correct things.

Friday, March 13, 2009

day 216: sorting things out

  • walking
  • turning
  • steps
  • bagua fist
  • kyudo
this Saturday was a return to the usual Saturday pattern of morning kung fu and evening kyudo. i haven't done this in a few weeks because of the workload in my schedule, but i figured i needed to find some time today to at least maintain some semblance of rhythm (because, you see, life--at least in its best moments--is really about holding to a rhythm).

bagua fist

we slowed a bit on the bagua fist form today, taking more time to review and go over what we've done to date. referring to the form chart, Sifu noted that we were now about 75-80% of the way through the list of techniques. he led us a few moves farther, to a point on the list which he said began to have some repetition, making a good grouping to work on for the next few classes.

we took also took a little time to work on the English translations of the techniques, debating the nuances of some Chinese terms and their associated English equivalents. this, however, proved a little troublesome, as a number of terms involved concepts for which there is no literal or even direct translation, in the sense that they involved multiple meanings or different concepts, and so required some contemplation as to approximate English words or phrases.


Sensei was absent this evening, and Masa Sensei was acting in his place. Masa Sensei ran things a bit differently, with a radically truncated meditation session--in fact, from what i could tell, there was almost no meditation, other than a couple of minutes of sitting. Masa Sensei asked that i sit with a new student, who was observing, while the others did 2 rounds of shooting. he then worked with us on our walking.

i've written on the walking involved with kyudo before, and i have to say it's very similar to bagua walking. the major issue is the difference in pacing and stride length, but it is almost the same in terms of breathing, focusing of weight into the ground, lowering the center, and alignment of the spine from tailbone through the head.

Masa Sensei halted the class after the 2 rounds, and said the entire class needed some work in terms of our form. he led us--and while this was new to me, i'm guessing it was meant as review for everyone else--on walking, turning while walking, lowering, rising, sitting in kisa and seiza, and turning while sitting. this took the bulk of the remaining class time, and we kept practicing the proper form, with the entire group doing them in unison, until Masa Sensei felt more comfortable with our unity and technique.

we finished a little bit before 10pm, which was also different. but i think this was because Masa Sensei felt it was a good break point in the lesson, and that people were starting to become tired.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

day 215: shuai jiao & wu tao

  • combat versus sport
  • history
  • wu tao (martial ethics)
  • shuai jiao
the shuai jiao today was devoted more to discussion. i sense that Sifu wanted to give us a chance to recover a bit from last week (which had admittedly been physically rougher than usual). but he also hinted that he wanted to wait before teaching us anything more, saying that he 1) wanted to see us get the shuai jiao jackets, and 2) wanted to let us get some more consistency in the throws.

shuai jiao

Sifu said that in order to teach us combat shuai jiao, we needed the jackets, since they were designed to be more rugged and to stand up to the physical wear and tear of practice. he observed that what we've been using (e.g., t-shirts) wouldn't work.

he took a little time to discuss the differences between combat shuai jiao and sport shuai jiao. the obvious difference is that the combat version is more brutal in its throws, with the takedowns meant to be debilitating, to a degree much greater than the sport version. in addition, the combat version involves movements that are safer for the practitioner, in the sense that they don't expose you to the opponent, while the sport version does this.

also--and this he stressed and spent the most time on--the combat version has very different entries for the throws. the sport version tends to have become afflicted with opponents grappling each other, with them starting in a basic clench position square to each other with both hands grabbing the other person. Sifu says that in real life this is actually quite dangerous, since a seasoned fighter can use the clench as an opening to attack--the simplest move is to just kick you (particularly in the groin, which is highly likely in a street or battlefield scenario).

in combat shuai jiao, the intent is to avoid the clench, and instead to generate entries using a single arm or hand. he said this is safer, because you situate yourself at an angle to the opponent (and so decrease your exposed area), and are able to move much more quickly. in addition, you can switch arms and hands. furthermore, in combat shuai jiao, everything has to be done quickly, with the setup, entry, and throw all being done in a split second (in contrast, the sport version tends to be slower in the setup and entry). he reminded us this is the reason why he always has students become proficient enough that they can do takedowns on a 2 or 3-count lasting around a second--because this is the way he was trained, and it's been proven by police and military personnel.

we spent the remainder of class discussing Wutan history and the nature of wu tao (or martial ethics).

Sifu began by observing that in the Wutan school many students look to 2 major lineages in Liu Yun Qiao's background: Li Shu Wen and Gong Bao Tien. Sifu noted that there were some lessons here, as these 2 men were radically different personalities with radically different ethics. Li Shu Wen taught baji/piqua to Liu Yun Qiao, and was famous for being the "God of the Spear." Gong Bao Tien taught bagua.

Li Shu Wen was a fearsome person, with a history of violent confrontations and a record of kills that extended beyond count. personality-wise, he's often described as having a black heart, in the sense that he often killed for the simple reason that it gave him pleasure, and also allowed him to test his thoughts on combat and maintain his reputation as a supreme martial artist. in short, he was not a nice person. ultimately, his lifestyle caught up to him, because for all the invincibility and combat genius derived from his martial ability, he was still killed by the simple use of poison.

Gong Bao Tien, in contrast, was an almost diametric opposite. he actually avoided violence, to the extent that he would concede a challenger as a superior martial artist so as to not fight. he treated people well, and was generous, with a reputation of being very happy and gentle. of course, part of this was tied to his personal addiction to the mood-altering effects of opium. but generally speaking, he was a nice person. and despite his opium habit, he lived an usually long life.

Sifu noted that these 2 men essentially represent 2 extremes in martial ethics, with one using his ability to cause death and destruction, and the other using his to engender harmony and good will. he noted that Liu Yun Qiao in a way represented the person who has to choose between these 2 extremes. whatever the choice, there are very clear consequences for your actions.

Sifu observed that some people have argued that the historical context and personal backgrounds called for certain modes of behavior, with scholars noting the violent time period in China during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and how Li Shu Wen came from an illiterate, poor background and so had to struggle to make a life in this environment whereas Gong Bao Tien came from a well-educated, financially prosperous background and had the luxury of not having to struggle. Sifu recalled that many people in Wutan asserted this, and used it as a reason to uphold Li Shu Wen as a model figure.

but Sifu commented that this is not really an excuse. he said 1) the past is the past, and the issue is how wu tao applies in modern society, and modern society does not accommodate the presence of figures like Li Shu Wen, and 2) the goal of any martial art is ultimately to prevent violence, so as to stop the further spread of pain and suffering, since the world already has too much of it.

Sifu noted that this was incidentally one of the reasons he left Taiwan to come to the U.S.--because here he had the freedom to really think about wu tao, and put things in perspective.

Sifu finished by saying that it was important to understand wu tao, and to develop it. but importantly, he said it was important to do more than just talk or write about it, but to actually live it (i.e., not words, but actions); he said there is a big difference between talking about something and actually living something. he concluded by stating that this is the only way the world will become a better place.

since this is the only way the world will change.

day 214: finishing mantis lienjian

  • back
  • mantis lienjian
this Sunday ran a little long, with Sifu saying we needed to finish the mantis lien jian form.

mantis lienjian

i was surprised by this. Jo-san had mentioned that we'd probably need 2 more weeks to finish, and based on what we'd done so far i agreed with him. but Sifu said we were close enough that we could make a push to get through the remainder of the form, especially since some parts of it repeated movements.

true to his word, we finished the form today. i recorded a video of the completed form, with Phunsak going through it VERY slowly to help make the movements more clear. you can check it out:

day 213: a very long form

  • translation
  • prior forms
  • bagua fist
i missed the kyudo class this Saturday because of a performance i wanted to see of a visiting dance company from Israel (yes, art & cultural events are important to me, so there, bleah). i just stayed with the kung fu lessons this morning.

bagua fist

this is a long form. a very long form. not as long as the yang tai chi long form (which is about the longest i've learned so far), and perhaps about the length of the chen tai chi long form (although it depends on how slow or fast you are moving), but the bagua fist form seems to go on forever.

Sifu brought a sheet of all the techniques in the bagua fist form, and said we needed to make it a group project to translate. apparently, no one has ever translated all the technique names from Chinese into English. we took a number of minutes to familiarize ourselves with the sheet, and where we were in the form (according to the sheet, we're about 2/3 of the way through).

Sifu left to work with the baji people, and left us to review the bagua fist form while we made an initial pass with the translations. i ended up working with Art and Ching-chieh to go through the techniques we've learned to date and figuring out their English equivalents. i use the word "equivalents" because the translations are not literal, nor can they really be--Ching-chieh noted that a lot of the Chinese terms are poetic, and hence involve evocations and invocations to concepts, images, metaphors, and analogies unique to Chinese culture, and which therefore get lost in a literal translation. we ended up struggling a bit, but got through most of the terms.

Sifu eventually returned, and spent the remainder of class taking us further into the form. we're at a point right now where certain movements seem to come from prior bagua forms (particularly stances, the 5th palm change, and the leg form). but Sifu pointed out that here the physics are a little different, and so involve different concepts and applications. we took some time going through these, and practicing the applications.

class ended a little after 1, but we ended up staying longer since some of the other students wanted to work on jian shu.