Friday, August 28, 2009

day 240: returning to chen pao quan

  • sinking
  • center
  • structure
  • chen tai chi pao quan
Sunday turnout this time was a little light, but there was a new student--a former student of Sifu's from Cal State Long Beach, who showed up today to work on jian shu. Sifu ended up running parallel classes, with Martin and the new student working on jian shu and the rest of us (Jo-San, Ching-Chieh, Phunsak, and me) returning to chen tai chi pao quan.

chen tai chi pao quan

since it had been so long since we'd worked on the pao quan form, we ended up going back to the beginning and revisiting the major points. Sifu took advantage of this to observe us and polish up some mistakes we were making--most of it involved us making the wrong interpretations of the applications in the movements (wrong in the sense that they didn't work) and Sifu showing us the correct interpretations (continuing the theme from yesterday, there were several correct interpretations for each movement in the form, with "correct" meaning they actually worked).

we spent class time dividing things roughly evenly between reviewing the form up to the point we were at and working on the applications. in the course of practicing the applications, Sifu stressed a number of things:
  • sinking--not all, but many of the techniques in the form involve sinking. sinking, however, does not mean loosening the body so that it becomes an uncontrolled limp amorphous mass. sinking requires some level of substance so that the act of descending serves to 1) integrate the sense of pushing through the feet into the ground (enabling Newton's law regarding equal and opposite reaction forces), so as to add the reactive force to your own, 2) direct your body mass as a single unit (and hence increases the workload the opponent must exercise), and 3) stabilize your self while destabilizing the opponent.
  • center--the techniques we worked on today involved a recognition of centers (yours, the opponent's, and the common center between you both). Sifu has discussed this extensively before (reference my entries under the blog label "combat concepts"). today, however, served as a reminder, with me discovering that the techniques were dramatically more effective (more power with less effort) if i directed things towards my center or the common center and away from the opponent's center.
  • structure--in order for force to be transmitted properly in a desired direction (i.e., as a vector), it must not incur any losses along the vector. for this to happen requires that you maintain structure. we've taken time to work on this before. but today, it became apparent that Sifu viewed structure as something dynamic. i think the tendency for many (including me) is to think of maintaining something rigid or static whenever the word "structure" is used. however, based on what Sifu was showing us today in demonstrating the applications, structure is something that is actually fluid and transitory, and can change in any number of ways. this means that "structure" isn't so much about fixed conduits transmitting force vectors, but more about a vehicle that can create and direct force vectors in any direction at any time. i see it this way: structure is not about pipes and girders and walls and braces, structure is about a car with forward, reverse, and 4-wheel drive.
Sifu also pointed out a number of techniques we're learning have been misinterpreted in popular understanding, and demonstrated the difference between their popular perception versus what he believes is their actual application.

he also, similar to yesterday, stressed that there were a number of movements which may appear insignificant (e.g., yin movements, yang movements, switches from yin to yang), but which are actually crucial in making techniques work. again--repeating his points from yesterday--they act to misdirect or distract the opponent enough to open gates for you to penetrate and engage techniques.

we wrapped up a little later today, since we started late (after 10), and finished after 1. we skipped the post-class lunch, since everyone had things to get to. Jo-san announced that he'd be gone for 3 weeks, so we won't be seeing him for awhile, which leaves 3 of us to continue on with the form.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

day 239: elbowing in

  • polishing
  • misdirection
  • distraction
  • bagua elbow form
today marked the return of Ching-Chieh from her trip to Taiwan and China. she brought back some goodies for Phunsak and Sifu (copies of new book about Grandmaster Liu Yun Qiao's philosophy, apparently written by one of his students who died a few years ago). since she'd been gone for so long, she missed all the work we'd done on elbow basics. we backtracked a little and went through all the of the basics (Sifu said there were 14 drills, but Eric and i counted more...20?) so she could at least see what they looked like.

bagua elbow form

once we finished with the elbow basics, Sifu took us a little further into the form. he led us through a few repetitions, and then asked to see us do it from the beginning. after a few iterations, he seemed to think there was a need for some polishing work, since he had us go back to the beginning to show us a number of corrections in our movements.

this was convenient, since it also allowed us to revisit some of the applications. Sifu pointed out that to some degree there was some room for variations in the form, but only to the extent that the variations were expressions of different techniques. each of the techniques depend on what the practitioner is intending to apply, and so this makes the movements a reflection of yi (intent). here too, there are limits, in that the expression of yi requires correction execution of technique, and correct execution of technique requires some very subtle movements--movements which in the context of the form don't seem important, but in the context of applications are.

Sifu went back to some of the initial movements in the form (partly for Ching-Chieh's benefit, partly for ours) and demonstrated variations in each of the movements. in doing so, he noted a number of specific movements which seemed minor but were actually quite important. in particular, he highlighted that these movements (some involving the yin hand, some involving the yang hand, some involving a switch from yin to yang hands) were actually doing the following:
  • misdirection--shifts in yin and yang movements can be done intentionally to mislead the opponent into thinking you are intending one action when you are really setting up to do another. furthermore, you can do this to incite the opponent into moving in a way that actually helps you execute a certain technique.
  • distraction--some movements are supposed to go to the eyes or the head, not necessarily with the intention to strike or even make contact, but simply to just distract the opponent and disrupt their focus just enough to allow you to enter their gates and initiate your techniques.
Sifu demonstrated these principles with a number of different movements in the form, and showed how they could be combined or mixed with strikes, joint locks, and pressure point attacks. he then had us practice working on these principles with a selection of the applications in the form, letting us see how different applications can result from a single movement.

this was a bit of an eye-opening day. not so much because of the above principles, but because i started to see some of the physics at work in some of the movements, and could see that different applications are deploying different physics to produce different results, and that so long as the physics are employed correctly you really can express your yi (and thereby express yourself) through the applications. i could also see that this means that you don't have to think about things in terms of individual techniques (i.e., with individual techniques corresponding to specific results), but more in terms of just your yi.

Sifu has mentioned this in the past, and has always reminded us to avoid thinking about things in terms of individual techniques, with the argument that in a real fight you won't have time to think about techniques, at least in terms of remembering them and choosing them. instead, you'll only have enough time to react. because of this, it's important to be fast, and it's much faster to simply move based on yi, and to let the applications come from that. the trick, of course, is that you understand how to use the physics well enough that your yi can be expressed effectively as applications. this can be tricky--but once you get it, it is much easier than remembering techniques.

i see this in terms of an analogy to language. techniques are like a vocabulary of words. you can learn a lot of words (techniques), and become good at understanding a language (martial art). but to actually master a language, to the extent that you can adapt and use it freely, quickly, appropriately to respond or relate in meaningful ways to the world around you requires that you have an intuitive feel of how to mix and match words. to do this requires that you understand the grammar (physics), which provides you with an understanding of how and why and when language (martial art) works, which then guides your ability to find and use words (techniques). and once you get the grammar (physics), you'll find that you can adapt any word (technique), and create any combination of words--in fact, you'll be able to generate new and different combinations completely unique to a given situation...but which will work in ways uniquely effective for that situation.

which to me indicates what it means to be a master. poets master language in ways that let them communicate messages and meanings beyond the ordinary meaning of words--ways that ordinary people don't understand looking at individual words. similarly, martial arts masters are able to generate expressions of combat beyond the ordinary execution of techniques--expressions that ordinary people can't understand looking at individual techniques.

Sifu went to work with the baji students, and we spent the rest of class experimenting with the applications and exploring the physics. we finished late for the usual post-class lunch, but today was worth the extra time.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

day 238: starting the elbow form

  • structure
  • locks
  • bagua elbow form
today was a mixture of perplexion, frustration, and observation. not necessarily in equal measure or in that order. we had a bit of a light turnout today, largely because i suspect there was a still a post-tournament hangover and a number of people elected to stay at home for the weekend.

Sifu began by making an announcement regarding next year's tournament. apparently, the decision has been made to hold it in Khaosiung, Taiwan. it's Taiwan's 2nd biggest city and it's located on the southern end of the island. it was chosen over Taipei (Taiwan's biggest city and located on the northern end of the island) because Khaosiung is cheaper and the city government is more welcoming of a tournament. the date has not been set, although Nick Scrima and Master Su Yuchang had originally worked around a date sometime next August (this is subject to change, since many Taiwanese have pointed out that Taiwanese Augusts has the most volatile weather, particularly in terms of typhoons). Sifu said that this tournament was going to feature an international body, with a much greater number of participants and spectators, and that we should try to make the trip if at all possible. he encouraged us to try and plan for the tournament, and make it a project for the course of the next year.

bagua elbow form

Sifu decided to start the elbow form today. as an introduction, he told us the form is pretty short--much shorter than the fist form (which can last around 5-6 minutes), but that it has many subtleties within in it. he made a number of points to keep in mind as we learned the form:
  • elbow strikes are not necessarily elbow strikes, but instead can have other functions, including opening gates, penetrating defenses, or providing misdirection (i.e., feints)
  • the form contains a number of movements which externally appear to be motions of the arms and hands, but that even then the intent and focus of force needs to be through the elbows if the techniques are to work properly
  • the engagement distance using elbows are much closer relative to techniques involving fists, hands, or legs
  • with elbow techniques, it's useful to keep in mind their relationship with the rest of the body, since there's a greater transmission of power if the structure is maintained through the body into the elbows
with these comments, Sifu led us through the first few movements of the form. based on these, the elbow form seems to have some similarities with the forest palm and fist form. the opening is almost identical to the opening of the forest palm, and the sequence after the opening goes along a line in a repetitive pattern reminiscent of the repetitive pattern along a line in the beginning of the fist form.

having said that, the techniques are radically different from either one. Sifu showed us the applications for each of the ones, and then let us practice on each other. the nature of the techniques in each of the movements varied, with multiple techniques possible in each movement, depending on the opponent (e.g., their positioning relative to you, their body composition, their actions, etc.).

i found the techniques somewhat straightforward when i worked with Kieun, but then found things to be more difficult when i switched to Phunsak. i found the physics shifted, and had to feel my way through the techniques--not with complete success. i took this as another reminder of just how important it is to work with different body types when practicing applications. even though the physics are the same, the deployment of the physics are different, largely because i suspect that different body types mean that you need to have different placement of force vectors necessary to exploit the physics. this means the issue is not just what technique to use where and when, but also how. this is something not always intuitive.

this brought up the issues i had last week with the locking technique (reference: day 237). one of the things i'd thought about in the wake of my issues from last week was that people were giving me different hints and interpretations of the same technique, none of which seemed really helpful. not to say that any of them were wrong; they were all very likely correct, except that they were correct for the people advocating them. in other words, that different people were providing tips ands hints that worked for them individually, and hence had been tips and hints appropriate for their own unique set of problems.

this is a phenomenon common to teaching, learning, and education. different people have different ways of perceiving the world and different learning problems (due to having different bodies and different minds and different habits acquired during the course of different lives). as a result, even though the subjects being taught are the same for everyone, the method of teaching has to end up being different. this means that different people require different tips and hints to help them overcome their different problems.

this is fine, except that it means that in order to get the tips and hints useful for a specific individual, you can 1) identify their specific problems, 2) associate it with the appropriate tips and hints, and 3) the individual then has ability to employ the tips and hints.

and the last item is a bit of a kicker. i've mentioned before that i find a lot of kung fu to be a test of coordination, largely because it involves movements i'm not familiar with, leading to a situation where me trying how to effectively apply techniques is comparable to a blind man being asked to learn the color blue (as i've said in previous posts: how do you tell someone the feeling of technique if they've never had the feeling before? how do you describe the color blue to a man who is blind?).

i am starting to suspect that this is why so much of the teaching methods associated with Asian cultures are so mystical and vague. culturally, teachers in ancient Asian societies saw this phenomenon, and decided that the best solution was just to let students figure things out for themselves, since any attempt to explain things would just devolve into semantics, confusion, and trial-and-error...which is what happens anyway if you let people stumble around on their own.

of course, for someone more associated with Western culture, this can be incredibly frustrating, especially if your philosophy is that any help is better than no help at all.

i spend the last part of class trying to sort the lock out. it's maddening. sometimes i think i'm getting it, and then it turns out i'm not. Kieun identified it as a structural issue--something i strongly suspected, but then offered some tips he picked up from japanese martial arts. this seemed to help a little, but it's something i'm going to have to continue to explore.

i'm devoting extra time to this technique because i'm of the belief that it involves some principles critical for many of the other techniques in martial arts. while it is possible to get some of the techniques to work without these principles, there are some that simply will not work without them. and even for the techniques that can be made to work without them, the principles act to make them more effective. as a result, these principles are crucial, and i believe that my progress is going to be severely hampered unless i get them down.

in some ways, i know the principles. i understand them on a conceptual level, and i can deploy them in other techniques. but this particular technique indicates that there is an area in terms of my body mechanics that is still problematic...and i am unfortunately the blind man trying to learn the color blue. i'm going to have to work on this.

Friday, August 14, 2009

day 237: las vegas tournament 2009

the Las Vegas kung fu tournament was held this past weekend, and have been recovering this past week since coming back from the trip.

i didn't indulge in any of the typical activities associated with Las Vegas--those are just not my things, and in fact, i actually detest the city as a vacation spot or resort getaway, since it's just not my idea of a good time. i went primarily because of the tournament. i didn't compete in any events, but helped as a referee in the jian shu tournament.

the Las Vegas tournament itself i think is a worthwhile endeavor. even if you're not a competitor, judge, or volunteer, i think it's interesting just to go and see all the various schools and styles of Chinese martial arts from across the country. it's something that you can't find easily. it's kind of enlightening to see the range of perspectives on kung fu, and interact with other people who are just as committed to TCMA as you are. that, and i've met some genuinely nice people there.
i took a few photos, but not too many. i've put 3 that i thought amusing in this post. this year, i made an effort to make as many videos as i could, since i wanted to try and do more to make a record of all the various styles and performers who were attending. i uploaded all the videos i made onto Youtube--you can reference my Youtube channel, jonathanonapath, and look for anything titled "kung fu tournament 2009." there's too many videos to list here, but i can list the ones i made from our kung fu school:
i should point out there were a fair number of things i did not record on video that i wanted to get, including some of the other people from our Wutan Los Angeles. part of this was me having to help referee the jian shu tournament as other events were going on, part of it was having to run back and forth between simultaneous performances, and part of it was just simply getting tired and losing awareness of what people were doing.

and it was tiring. even though i don't think i did that much (refereeing and recording). but by the end of Saturday night i was barely able to get into bed before falling asleep, and by the end of Sunday night i was happy just to be home. thankfully, it helped that i had a room (and an entire suite, no less!) all to myself, since 3 people canceled at the last minute and we found ourselves dividing 3 suites between 4 people. this made for a big difference in terms of rest. i could deal with this again.

the turnout for this year was less than last year, and i suspect the poor economy had a lot to do with people making the decision to travel or not to travel. but things were still busy, since there were new events (most notably shuai jiao). i still managed to meet people from across the country, and also met a group from a martial arts academy in China. i tried to speak with them, but no one spoke English and i ended up having to get translation from Tommy (who was competing in shuai jiao).

i should note that the Las Vegas tournament is now part of a series being introduced across the United States, as well as around the world. the organizer, Nick Scrima, has created an umbrella organization, the International Chinese Martial Arts Championship, with the goal of promoting Chinese martial arts and improving the overall quality of all participants. the organization is starting tournaments similar to Las Vegas in other cities in the U.S., as well as in other countries such as Japan, Costa Rica, the Bahamas, and Italy. you can reference their website ( ) as well as their Youtube channel ( ).
we finished the weekend on Monday, with Sifu holding a disciple ceremony in the evening. i won't go into details about the ceremony, since my impression is that apparently the nature of the ceremony is something that the Wutan organization generally wants to keep secret--or at least not something publicly transparent. but it was comparable to last year, and seems to be a good fit with the past weekend's trip to the tournament.

Friday, August 07, 2009

day 236: guess i don't know things like i thought i did

  • chi
  • structure
  • miscellanous
this Sunday was more miscellany, since i think most people were more focused on going to the Las Vegas tournament (next weekend).

we took a little time today to review the teaching device Sifu has used--the one involving looking down in order to generate force down into a person's hand. i've written about this before, and to a degree i thought i'd figured it out.

of course, this meant that no, no i hadn't really. for some reason, i could not get the technique to work on Sunday, and i spent the rest of class trying to figure things out.

Sifu, Josan, and John Eagles all offered advice and comments, but i think i was getting to the point where there was just too many different source of information saying different things that while not necessarily conflicting still ended up just muddling things up for me (too many cooks...). based on what i was being told, a lot of it involves being able to direct focus as a way of directing force (or, in the terminology today, chi), with the note that 1) you're not supposed to use your upper body (chest, back, arms, etc.) to exert strength but instead to just direct it, and 2) the force is coming from the ground. Sifu says it involves dropping the chi into the ground and letting the reaction forces come back up. he pointed out that in order for that to happen you have to maintain proper structure, so that the energy, or chi, doesn't get dissipated or blocked as it comes back up from the ground through your body.

i practiced this w Martin and then Aurelijus, but just couldn't get it to work. i'm still scratching my head. i'll have to think on this some more.

the remainder of the time i took some videos of Aurelijus demonstrating the cane forms. you can see them here:
Auri told me that these forms aren't really in the Wutan system, but that they were forms that Sifu had learned from another instructor outside of Wutan. Auri considers the cane a useful weapon--more useful than say a sword or stick, since in modern society it's more likely that you'll be carrying a cane relative to any other weapon and more likely that you'll be allowed to carry a cane (by security, police, guards, etc.) relative to any other weapon as well. he also sees it as being very effective.

i haven't learned the cane, but the last time it was taught was some time ago (i think Auri was the most recent person to learn it). but it looks interesting, so i'll have to make a mental note as something to look into learning at some point in the future.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

day 235: moving on and zen

  • logistics and scheduling
  • bagua elbow basics
today was largely a tune-up for people going to the Las Vegas tournament (next weekend). as a result, a fair chunk of time today was spent discussing logistics and scheduling issues in terms of rides and hotel rooms to and from Vegas. we also found out that Viet is going away for a year for a post-baccalaureate program, so we had some farewells there as well.

bagua elbow basics

we dedicated the majority of time to finishing off the moving basics, with everyone going through what we remembered and Sifu showing us off the remainder. Sifu says he wants us to begin the elbow form next week. of course, after we had wrapped up the moving basics i suddenly realized there was 1 that we had not done, but by that time class had finished and everyone was already leaving.

that was pretty much it for today. i had no kyudo today, since this was the weekend of the seminar and class had been cancelled to allow people to go. Sensei did hold a zen retreat at his temple for the weekend, but i ended up going to just the Friday night session. i've never been to a zen service of any kind, so this was an educational experience, and definitely a very rewarding one in terms of spiritual fulfillment. i may go again.