Part II: The Zen of Kata
As usual, Sensei demanded that we go to our regular spot to eat: the local burger joint. Contrary to what many might imagine, sipping tea and eating a traditional Japanese meal after a hard day's training was not Sensei's forte. Sensei preferred a cheeseburger, fries, and a diet Coke. "A martial artist can have whatever he wants to eat - especially after training this hard and for this long. Reward yourself with a burger!" he liked to say. Internally, I chuckled and was happy to have something that satiating after a hard workout like we had just done. I could see that all the years he had spent in the USA had ever so slightly changed him, especially someone who was so intensely Japanese in his ways as a martial artist and a man of Zen.
Once we seated and were served our food, I charged at my food like a hungry barbarian, only to be suddenly stopped by the sight of Sensei eloquently performing his prayers to Buddha Fudo Myoo before he ate. I suddenly felt clumsy and out of sync of our mini cosmos for not doing prayer myself. Sensei immediately detected my sense of unease, and I could tell by the look on his face the brief respite from the intense training was over. Intentionally capitalizing on my exhaustion as he always did, it was time that we move from the physical into the mental testing and training portion of our day. He liked to test my resolve when tired, pushing me to see if I would continue without giving into any sort of ill-tempered responses just because I was worn out. Often times, I found this to be the hardest part of the training.
While we ate, Sensei continued on his theme of the day "Many train improperly for years. They never fully understand the martial arts and fail to fully integrate it into their lives. There is no denying fighting efficacy, but most who espouse that alone fail to understand that the fight is with life itself. That attitude is ultimately short lived, and always ends in disappointment when their youth leaves them. The problem is that they overlook the total person. Everyone eventually succumbs to old age, disease, and death - there is no escape. Therefore you must work on conquering oneself - that is a big part of what the Kata does. If you can see beyond the impermanent world and reach out to truth - then you can understand life as a whole, and rest in truth. There you can unleash your hidden potential as spiritual being. You see, the way of the Buddha is a mind training tool in effect - those that think of it as a religion almost always become lost - that is because it is about realization. Same as it is those who try to just be tough forever. It is a fools errand."
"You must do away with fixed thinking, or thinking of those illusions that you believe to be permanent - they are not! Look at the way I do Kata - I never do it the same, they are always qualitatively different from each other. The importance is that you must make the art come alive within you. This why I am stressing to you what I did - you must endure the unendurable, bear the unbearable in the Kata, feel the heat so to speak. Anything less, then your Kata becomes a dead form, and you might as well just run around flailing your arms in the air - both are equally useless. From start to finish you must keep your energy and you mind turned on. Once you do this, your Kata will work for you in Kumite, or in any fighting situation, totally spontaneous and fully functional, truly alive."
Eager to add to the lecture in agreement, " I can see what you mean here Sensei. I feel that after many years and fighting that I have come to understand."
"I don't think you do." Sensei said looking at me ever so slightly disapprovingly, "This all goes much deeper than you think Will...."
Interjecting, I said "But I have won a lot of fights, many of them for real. Sure I have lost, but I think you've trained me to be a pretty good fighter, defeating street fighters and other martial artists alike. All of this, despite what the naysayers have criticized about classic martial arts over the years."
"That is you ego talking!" Sensei said scolding me.
He continued, "Which brings me to the next point: you. Sure you've done well for yourself, and now you're seeking some kind of approval from me. A warrior does not concern himself with such indulgences such as a need for social approval. That very mechanism lies at the heart of your problems - a need to over examine things through the eyes of the intellect, then seek edification. Sure, the intellect is useful for analysis of in pre and post study, but it has no place in a fight. Fighting is emotional. The moment your flawed thinking creeps in, you're out of touch with the moment, and that is precisely when your opponent will close to strike you down. I already spoke of this earlier. You need to release yourself from this flawed concept."
"Yes Sensei." I said, visibly trying to hide my indignation.
"There is no 'good dog' while I pat you on the head in martial arts." Sensei said, "This is about fighting and realization, not good feelings. Those needs for good feelings trap you into illusion, which is not the Buddha's path".
"I'm sorry Sensei"
"No, do not apologize, or defend yourself. Be correct in thought and action. That is the true way to relief from suffering in this world." Sensei's tone began to palpably soften as he continued "You have not erred at all here Will. In fact, you had to act the way you did, otherwise you would not have needed the lesson. The only real mistake here would have been to keep.... that inside you so you would not learn the lesson." Sensei began to smile. "Yes, you have done well, but keep in mind that life defeats all challengers, and that all beings want enlightenment"
I slowly inhaled, leaning back in my chair, I began to study the backs of Sensei's hands, with scars and all telling a story of heavy bare knuckle combat. I continued my gaze, now looking at his face and seeing the lines of age and wisdom. I wondered about all the places he had been, what he experienced and what he had done, the trials he faced to achieve such and encompassing mastery of the martial arts. Nearly 30 years have past since I first met him, yet he never ceases to continually amaze me. His utter conviction of being truly alive every moment, not to waste a single breath, but to rather cherish it, yet without clinging to it has always been his message. Humbled by these thoughts, I truly questioned myself if I would ever be as good as him one day.
"Ah, I can see you're in reflection. Good!" Sensei exclaimed with a big smile on his face, "That means I have been successful in getting through to you and in you're in Kufusuru: a steady state of meditation as you move through all your daily tasks." Feeling lighter as if he stripped off some sort of heavy cloud over my mind, I bowed to him.
Today, I truly appreciate my Sensei.
Part I: The Zen of Kata
Martial arts forms, or Kata, is a method the martial artist uses to perfect, catalog, and transfer their fighting methods so that they may be preserved and refined by the next generations of fighters. The fact that we have forms still with us today that are between several hundred to over one thousand years old is an incredible testament to their genius and innovation. Improperly taught, learned, or practiced however, can lead to disastrous outcomes that can cause an entire martial art system to fall into the ash heap of history.
Over many years of training, while I have always liked Kata and all other martial art forms, only now I can say that I truly appreciate the difficulty in doing what it takes to perform them correctly. Sensei has driven that point home to me on numerous occasions, and there is one occasion I was training with him that was particularly grueling, yet very productive. We had been working on Shorinji-Ryu's Kushanku series of Katas non-stop for over two hours, and I was becoming exhausted.
Earlier in my training with Sensei, I didn't dare approach or ask him questions unless prompted to do so. Later as the years passed, he became much more open with me, taking great liberties to answer all of my questions regarding details, how fighting applications were derived from the Kata, with no stone un-turned or detail overlooked. I would soon discover that time was about to come to pass. Desperately needing a break form his intense regimen, I posed a question about one of the moves, as I didn't fully understand the fighting application behind it.
Sensei admonished me, "You have been a black belt for sometime now. Do the Kata! Then you will learn what it all means. No more questions!!"
"Yes Sensei" I replied, attempting to be indirect, as Sensei never answered direct questions, "So I hold my weighting this way before I move in Shuto?"
"You're making an attempt to intellectualize of the Kata" Sensei said. "Such attempts work to undermine your progress and will be you undoing. You see, the moment you become intellectual, you mind starts seeking proof from an opposing point of view - that creates internal conflict, at which point you are finished! Your opponent will kill you, and you will have no idea of how it happened. Save for your last view, a 360 degree pan of the world when you head flies from your body!!"
"See, you have to put yourself into the battlefield" Sensei continued, "there is no space for useless banter in your head. Kata is about precision, finesse, power, movement, and most importantly, Ki. You must Do the Kata, not practice it. There is a significant difference between the two. Now drop down in your stance, and drop your Ki down into you belly and breathe, breathe deep."
I thought I understood what he meant, as I made a failed attempt to duplicate the movements exactly as he instructed, he immediately lashed out, "No! Don't breath like you're sitting on your couch - that is death. Breath like you're alive! Use it to relax, and the pain in your legs will go away. You have to feel the Kata, understand the art in you bones, unthinking with your intellect, and reach into your sub-conscience. That is where the real you lies along with all of your true talents. Let the Kata break you, your ego. Let go, and understand what it all means without attempting to grasp at it, lest it will escape you."
All in that moment I understood what he was saying, but more importantly, I could feel what he was imparting. As I continued through the Kata, Sensei continued his lecture, as he expected me to perform Kata while absorbing his words at the same time during certain points. "The problem with most is that many say 'Kata is no good, Kumite is better' - what they are really saying is they are not up to the task of doing Kata properly. Then there are those who practice it, and never get anywhere. That is because they weren't listening to their teacher, or the teacher did not understand what they were showing them. Chalk it all up, it is no wonder the state of Karate has eroded over the years."
I continued my training with renewed enthusiasm and energy. As we moved toward the end of our third hour I became completely spent. As I attempted to move from an extremely low stance into a higher one, my legs gave out and I stumbled over. "Why did you do that?!?" Sensei shouted, then he realized in the same moment "Oh, ah ha - I see what's happened" he started to laugh "You're too tired to stand! Good, training is over for the day, let's get some food." I was relived to hear his words.
Happy that I was getting a break, what I did not yet know was I was about to get the real point of the day's lesson over dinner.........
MARTIAL ARTS FOR GIRLS IS LIKE SWIMMING FOR TODDLERS (AND 5 TIPS FOR PARENTS THAT WANT TO GET STARTED)
By PJ Pereira*
Since the long overdue debate around violence against women got traction, parents have been asking me for advice on how to get their little girls to learn to defend themselves. Teaching women to fight is far from a real solution for our society’s rape-culture problem but, at least on the individual level, it may help – either by teaching them how to get out of violent situations or creating clear signs of physical confidence that will make some predators think twice.
I’ve been teaching martial arts to women for a while now. It’s fun, but sometimes very disheartening. Most of my female students tell me they wanted to learn to fight when they were kids, but their parents said “it was a boy’s thing.” That’s the first part of the problem, and an easy one to fix: don’t be those parents.
Other issues I’ve empirically observed start at how uncomfortable my female students usually are with rough, physical contact. They can’t stand causing any level of pain. They get psychologically shocked when they get hit. Most of all, they lack confidence. The idea they can survive a fight with a stronger man is unfathomable for them. That's what they've heard their entire lives, after all. Good news: all those issues are the base of every martial art in the planet. Let them start early, and they may have the chance of not even developing those erroneous feelings. It will make learning much easier for them.
If you are a parent of a little girl and is on board with this plan, just doesn't know how to get started, here’s my advice:
No matter if an early or late starter, all women I know that spent time to learn a fighting system became a fierce, impressive, confident fighter that can defend herself against much bigger opponents using technique and intelligence. Following these tips will give them the chance to focus on the fun part much quicker, cause they won’t have to unlearn the fear. As a side benefit, they will also develop a sense of confidence under pressure that will help even more in this misogynist world.
* PJ Pereira is a martial arts instructor with 20 years of experience and advanced degrees in Shao Shin Hao Kung Fu, Wing Chun and Shorinji-Ryu Karate.
Disclaimer: I know violence against women is a serious issue and do not mean to diminish the debate to this single angle. And I know there will be people that will severely disagree with me and think this is a man trying to blame women for not being violent or something like that. Please, understand this whole thing saddens me more than you can think. I got into martial arts not to defend myself but because I loved the discipline behind it. Having to teach someone for self-defense reasons breaks my heart. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in, and if this little advice can save only a few brave women from trouble, it will be worth the headache it may cause. In the meantime, us, parents of boys, have a long road ahead to teach and educate them to treat their female peers with respect.
I had a beginning student in Karate a couple of years ago that really wanted to do heavy Kumite (Karate's word for sparring). Coming from a wrestling background, he was used to different types of defensive postures. While they were good for defending against grabs and take downs, they left him exposed to certain kicks, especially round houses to the ribs. Part of this was because of the nature of his open position kept his elbows away from his center line, losing the natural cover they provide around the torso.
He kept getting kicked there, either by the round house, or by a double punch-side kick combo. Almost every time, he got the the wind knocked out of him. No matter how many tips or drills I gave him, or how many times his seniors told him to keep his elbows in (especially during flurries), he would fail to parry his opponent's attacks and lose the match.
He was already participating in our Wing Chun class, so I decided to intensify his curriculum onto the road of free chi sao. Chi sao or, "Sticking Hands" is the hallmark training method of Wing Chun, and several other styles. It is a method specifically designed to make a trainee very sensitive and adaptable. Two students are always in contact with each others' hands and forearms, constantly employing snap punches, slapping parries, blocks, grabs, sweeps, and low kicks to the shins and knees. This teaches how these basic techniques can be used under a wide variety of scenarios, over and over again, developing extremely fast reflexes. He wasn't at that level yet, but I knew that once he had just a few days of doing free chi sao, it would give him the ability to instinctively protect his center line and waist in a way that fixed drills could not.
Within a week of him completing the basic Wing Chun curriculum for free chi sao and actively participating in it, the next Karate class began. From the moment Luke stepped into the ring, there was an apparent difference. He kept his elbows down and in, and most importantly, after an exchange to where he attacked, he was able to cover his center line without any trouble, and could nullify his opponent's counter attacks. No more painful round houses to the ribs, and an ability to instantaneously interpret and respond to multiple rapid attacks in a way he could not even do a short two weeks before. I saw him leave the Dojo that night with a distinct feeling of accomplishment. This made me very happy as a teacher. I remember my early days of always being pitted against superior opponents, and I was constantly having to learn from my mistakes. This kind milestone was definitely one that he will remember.
Moving beyond fixed drills
What chi sao ultimately does is free us from fixed drills that lack an aliveness aspect. While fixed drills are great, and provide much needed foundational work for students, they can pose a problem at times. Too many fixed drills sometimes can lead to the undesired effect of where the practitioner becomes too mechanical and rigid in an offhand situation, leaving them unable to adapt to a different position. Chi sao fills the gaps in between fixed drills, providing the necessary fluidity, and spontaneous adaptability needed to change in real time. The practitioner learns to flow effortlessly from one situation to the next, without a break in movement principles or technique.
Chi sao has had very strong influence on my training methods, and changed the way I teach fighting drills altogether. What I do these days is give rather simplistic fighting application drills to my students that they can remember and apply under pressure. As I give these out drills, it relieves me of the need to create all kinds of elaborate alternate escapes and counter scenarios. Because of the sensitivity gained from their chi sao training, they are able to adapt if they make a mistake, or they can continue to another method if their partner attempts to thwart their technique. It allows the student to grow and fill in the blanks according to their experience, and no longer enslaves them to fixed mechanical responses that have very little recourse beyond their specialty.
Although Wing Chun is probably the style best known for using chi sao extensively, many other styles use it to the same effect as well. Southern Preying Mantis uses it, Bagua Zhang has Rou Shou, Taiji Quan uses Tui Shou, etc. I encourage all martial artists of any style to explore the idea of chi sao, and tailor it as needed to their system. It has the potential to bring new life to your existing drills, and gives a certain ability to interpret seemly mysterious parts of classical martial arts forms into practical and sensible fighting applications. It truly is a jewel as a training method, one that I hope all Martial Artists can benefit from.
The benefits from training martial
arts are often too numerous to list in one article. Many people categorize the martial arts as a sport, and assume you receive the same benefits as you would in any other sport. While this is true to a degree, what you receive from training the Martial Way is much, much more than this.
Virtually no other method has a way of making the weak and sickly become powerful the way years of training can do. You learn how to overcome difficulty in ways that school or conventional workouts simply cannot do, as you must bring everything you are, your mind, your body, spirit and internal energy into total focus and release it in a singular point of power. It is difficult enough to do this even once, yet the martial arts demand that we perform this repeatedly throughout our forms and daily training regimen. Often times we fail at this, and must continually work at it in order to achieve it. Gradually over time, we learn to cope with constant challenge, and learn the value of being spiritually tested under fire, learning not to fall into traps of emotional extremes.
Slowly the meditative process seeps into our methods, calming us, and allowing us to see things as they are happening in real time, unadulterated by social conditioning, preconceptions, or distraction. Not only does this effect of training allow you to become clear in your mind, your body also become healthy as a result. This New Year, give yourself the gift of more training. Set out to follow the path of self improvement, and endeavor to become an Artist of Life.
As a martial artist, one of the most important aspects of our lives is how to balance our training properly. Getting the most from our regimens, maintaining our health, getting sufficient rest, and injury avoidance and recovery is paramount. Understanding how to train in a balanced way has to do with a proper attitude, and sound underlying principals of how the body works. After a lot of research, trial and error, I have found in my years of training and teaching, some
basic guidelines that have served me
Training for Martial Power:
There are countless methods for developing power in the Martial Arts. Whatever method you choose, I strongly encourage you to seek out a regimen that emphasizes full body power. They produce results much more quickly than conventional resistance/isolation type exercises. The methods I prefer for this are simple, and require no special equipment. More to the point, what I mean is that you should avoid any kind of exercise that isolates muscle groups, or dynamic tension. The body works as an interconnected whole. Using methods such as weights that focuses on one muscle group over another leads to excesses and deficiencies all over the body. Isolation strength exercises also lead to excessive muscle tension, which should be avoided. If you still feel weight training is beneficial (it can be when done properly), seek out an expert that understands the principal of full body power. Weighted vests that allow you use your whole body while training, or the Russian Kettle Bell are good examples of this.
Training under the 75% rule:
When training, it is best to keep your enthusiasm in check. Proper moderation helps mitigate the possibility of getting injured, therefore it is wise to keep your efforts at 75% of your maximum capacity. This ensures a safe and productive training regimen, without excessive strain on the body. Once you get used to your 75% and it starts feeling like 65%, increase your efforts to what feels like 75% again. Steady progress is accomplished in this manner. If you want to push yourself to maximum performance for a tournament, or just because you want to be at your best, 90% effort is fine. You must first work your way up in strength and endurance, then give it all your effort. You must keep in mind however, that with increased activity that you will need more rest and recovery time. If proper measures are taken, training at 90% for extended periods of time can be quite beneficial.
Qi Gong/ Nei Gong:
Lastly, it is always a good idea to adopt a time proven nei gong system to round out your training. Methods such as the Eight Brocades of Silk, the Tendon Changing Classics, or the Fives Elements work very well. The meditative process they use are particularly beneficial to cool down at the end of a hard training session. They balance out the internal with the external, and enhance the overall relaxation of your body and mind.