External Internal Mixes

Just wanted to share this video of one of my class mates from the early 90's.  Stan was a strange kid, about 17 in this video, I remember him having some mental development problems that made him a bit shy and awkward in conversation, but he was fun to practice with.

And here is Shifu Qing Zhong Bao, George Xu's main teacher before George left China around 1980.  He is 95 years old in the video.  Lanshou, the system he is a master of, and the one Stan is demonstrating above, is considered a mixed internal and external system.  Whatever right?  Looks like it is pretty good for health in old age as well as training young people for maximum versatility.  

Jibengong (Basic Work)

Dr. Ken Fish inspired a very interesting thread on Rum Soaked Fist which I’d like to draw readers attention to. (It takes a little while to get going and is up to 7 pages as I'm posting.) Fortunately, I’ve been banned from posting on the site without explanation. Frankly that’s a good thing because it required a lot of effort to monitor comments from people who regularly misunderstood and therefore freaked-out about comments I made.

Fish’s disturbing premiss is that the training secrets of Chinese martial arts masters are usually withheld at the beginning of a person’s training, not later after many years of study as is often assumed. By withholding certain types of intense, precise, and personally coached training at the beginning, a master can insure that a student stays forever at an intermediate level.

In other words, because of extensive sharing and the ease with which students change masters these days, many high level techniques have actually been written about and it has become quite possible to learn these methods, but without that more basic training these higher level techniques rarely if ever come to fruition.

It’s funny you know, from when I first started studying martial arts all the way into the early 90’s, if you wanted to insult a student from another school or someone else’s master, you would say, “You lack basic training, If you just go back and practice the basics you will have a chance of improving.” The standard retort to this insult was made famous by Bruce Lee, “You have offended my family and the Shaolin Temple, you must have grown weary of living.”

What is most striking about the thread is that Fish gives Jackie Chan as the best example of someone who has unequivocally had this basic training. He explains that the training is performative, it can be seen, and it is unmistakable. He then goes on to say repeatedly that anyone who has had professional level traditional Chinese Theater training has it, unequivocally. And that this basic training, ‘though quite rare in modern teachers of the arts, is widespread among all regional styles of Chinese theater and martial arts. (Which, I might add, should be a clue to understanding it’s origins.)

Naturally, I totally agree with him. But I would go further, I would say that a great number of higher level skills, concepts and training methods are directly accessible only through seeing the martial arts within a matrix of ritual-meditation and theater. Without accessing the original context, our only hope is reverse engineering.

In other words, you can’t just be tough, you have to act tough!

Bing Gong Bing Gong

Let me try to give readers a better idea of what this basic work (jibengong) is like by describing my own experience of learning it and trying to teach it. Kuo Lien-Ying was trained around the turn of the 20th Century in Beijing traditional theater arts, also known as Northern Shaolin. As the vicious mass movement to separate theater, religion and martial arts got underway, he moved into the martial arts camp, where he studied with many of the greatest artist of his time. He fled with the Kuomintang to Taiwan in ’49 and then came to America in the 1960’s where my first teacher, Bing Gong, became his top Shaolin student.

Studying with Bing was a profound experience and we became very close.

Ye Xiaolong Ye Xiaolong

The truth is that Bing, although he spoke very little, had a strong desire to pass on the essence of this art. But sadly, hardly anyone was willing to endure the training. He would have me do very simple movements over and over again in slightly different ways until my body permanently changed.

For instance, while I held the basic monk stance, (see image below) he would order me to make small adjustments or movements while he introduced various forms of resistance. There were many eventual ‘benefits’ to this. So for example, after a time I could move my knee high enough and integrate it into my structure well enough that I could use it to block kicks to my ribs.

Take another example from Shaolin. While doing the second line of Tantui (springy legs), which is a very straight forward punch, punch, punch-kick combination, Bing would have me freeze with my

Paulie Zink Paulie Zink

outstretched leg up above hip level. Then he would have me move it higher and he would test it for connection or integration in various ways. And then we’d do the same on the other side--over and over, day after day, week after week. Again, until the ability was permanent.

Bing also kicked me a lot. He wouldn’t tell me how to get into a stance, he would kick me into it. Although I can point to a lot of different learning methods that I have experienced over the years which could account for the gongfu in my legs, nothing else was really as profound as that.

As I’m sure readers can surmise, these things are not complex to teach or to learn, but actually getting the student to do the work is unusual. I guess I liked it when Bing kicked me because I never asked, “Why are you doing that?” nor did I respond emotionally by making a face as most students do. How do you explain to a student that they are not to make a face? Trying to explain it is like making a problem on top of a problem, it just doesn’t work.
I think anyone who has done professional dance training will understand this instinctively. As one of my dance teachers put it, “Some people know how to take corrections and some people don’t.”

I could say things about all of my teachers in regards to jibengong, but I’m just going to mention two more, the first is Ye Xiaolong. Geroge Xu brought Ye over from Shanghai one Spring in the early 90’s because George himself wanted to learn from him and they both taught class together. But then suddenly in late May, George got his long awaited “Green Card” and shortly there after he flew to Europe to teach. He left Ye by himself to teach classes in San Francisco and arranged for us to get him back and forth from his house to the park. But as there was no translation, only two of us came to class for the whole Summer. He taught us for 100 days, everyday for about 3 hours. We concentrated on about five exercises which we did over and over. Ye constantly had his hands on us, making corrections, pushing, resisting, kicking and saying, “Bu hao,” (no good). We actually did a lot of push hands too, but it was never competitive, it was done as a kind of cooperative power stretch. The effects were permanent.

Paulie Zink deserves a mention here also because I believe he is an international living treasure specifically because he has the worlds largest collection of jibengong. As he put it to me, “I don’t teach martial arts anymore because I have yet to find anyone who is willing to do the preliminary work.”

Monk Clears His Sleeve - stance Monk Clears His Sleeve - stance

The New Definition of Fascia

Josh Leeger turned me on to a series of articles which are using a new definition of Fascia.  This article is particularly worth reading:

Fascial Fitness: Fascia oriented training for bodywork and movement therapies, by Divo G. Müller and Robert Schleip.

Many people I've shown the article to have commented that one of the authors is into a painful type of bodywork called Rolfing, and they have suggested that the authors may have created a Rolfing centric view of fascia.  Strangely no one has pointed out that the other author is into Continuum, which is a very watery type of movement exploration.

You'll get the new definition of fascia by just reading the article, so I'm not going to try to nail it down, but  readers should know that the old definition was a description of the clear or translucent film that surrounds all muscle.  The new definition includes tendon and ligament and sees all that juicy stuff as a single organ.

Whatever, right?  But what is important about this new article, and this new approach, is that it uses clinical language and conforms to kinesiology standards.  Until now there was no clinical explanation of how external martial arts work that any of us could use when talking to a physical therapist.  That's going to be a big change.

Fascia? Fascia?

The article explains that tendons and ligaments themselves can take load and can spring.  What the authors don't seem to understand is that it is through the natural spirals of the body that all of these soft tissues function together.  They don't seem to realize that the reason they are getting these springy dynamic results from slow holistic lengthening is because their method builds on these underlying spirals.  Spirals are there in shortened positions too, as anyone who does whole body tie-up and throw techniques (think: Aikido) can tell you.

So, it's a good start.  It primarily deals with what we call in both internal and external martial arts, "the foundation."  That is the ability to get in and out of a range of deep, long, loaded, and spiraled stances while using smooth (wood), explosive (fire), fluid (water), and hard-solid (metal) movement qualities.  "The foundation" is what I usually refer to in this blog as "jing training," the first level of internal martial arts.  It is also commonly referred to in martial arts lingo as "the benefits of good structure."

The authors lose a few points in my book at the end of the article when they say this training, "should not replace muscular strength work, cardiovascular training, and coordination exercises."  That statement muddies the issue.  All that stuff is just included in basic Shaolin, it's already complete.  If we are building this "foundation" for learning Tai Chi, Bagua, or Xinyi, then we are going to leverage these underlying spirals to allow us to reduce muscular "strength" and discard the torso tension usually associated with "coordination exercises."

The author, however, should get extra credit for hinting at methods for developing higher levels of internal martial arts.  For instance, take the "ninja principle" all the way out, and the body becomes so light and quiet that our experience of the physical body becomes totally empty (xu).  Or take the idea of fluid movement all the way out, and ones habits of coordination and resistance become baby-like, unconditioned (ziran).

The Proprioceptive Refinement section of the article is the most interesting.  They discuss the, "need to limit the filtering function of the reticular formation."  This refers to a part of our brain which we can train to pay attention to certain kinds of nerve stimuli and ignore others.  Muscles transmit information slowly, that's why we need to turn them off and pay attention to other stimuli-- and that's the very mechanism which can make it is so easy to manipulate someone who is, in martial arts lingo, "too stiff."  Eventually we want to turn off most of our 'inside the body sensors' and turn on most of our 'outside the body sensors.'   The authors correctly identify the problems with doing any movement exactly the same way over and over, namely that we become insensitive to small errors which then become habituated.  This is why it is so important that our forms are empty! By cultivating emptiness, our movement is unconditioned by our mind.  On the other hand, always thinking about a specific and exact application of a technique, will turn us into robots.

Qi has no memory!  To practice martial arts with qi is to be continuously spontaneous.

To quote the Daodejing:
To be preserved whole, bend.

Upright, then twisted;

To be full, empty.

What is worn out will be repaired.

Those who have little, have much to be gained.  Having much, you will only be perplexed!


Fascia? Fascia?




Visualizations, Videos and Learning the Sword

In traditional Chinese Internal Martial Arts visualizations are used to help people develop qi and the ability to move it.  The key expression is:  "To make imaginary real, and to make real imaginary."  This is one of the things that annoys me about the whole movement to make martial arts less theatrical and more "real."  Folks, that's level one!  It's only half the job.  Once those fighting skills are perfected and all the applications have clear intent, power, etc, etc, then the task is to make them so natural that whatever the mind does, it is expressed instantly and effortlessly.  The art enters the realm of imagination.

I recently have learned a lot about my Northern Shaolin Sword form (Wuhudao) from playing with Maija.  She's great. What amazed and delighted me the most is that every single move in this old opera form from Kuo Lien-Ying is totally functional.  Even the things that I had thought were artistic flourish turned out to be really useful techniques!

And while we are at it I have a new favorite visualization.  The most common visualizations of qi are clouds, steam, silk, water, fire...etc....   all that old school stuff.  But my new favorite thing to visualize is dry-cleaning plastic!  It puffs up, it floats down slowly, it spins around, it has a mind of it's own.

Dry Cleaning Plastic Dress by Susan Lenz

Circus Martial Arts

City_Under_SiegeI just saw "City Under Siege" a film by Benny Chan at the Hong Kong Film Festival.  The best line in the film is this exchange:

Question: "Do you practice a lot of martial arts here?"

Answer:  "No, it's just a circus."

If you've been reading this blog you know that the Chinese circus tradition is Martial Arts.  To my delight the film's makers are strongly rooted in the gongfu theater tradition and share a historically informed ironic love of it.

Here is the plot.  While on tour the mean circus crew and the one nice guy clown happen into some biological warfare and are given a dose of mutating virus which makes them act like they are on a million doses of PCP.  The mean guys and one girl get meaner and go on a robbing and beating up police spree, the nice guy gets some confidence and fights back.  The physical comedy is top notch.  So is the gongfu.  And so is the physical embodiment of evil.

Here is the second best line in the film:  "Even acupuncture doesn't work!"  It is delivered by a doctor super cop brought in  from "The Mainland" with his super cop half wife lover side kick.  (Yes, I said half wife--he has nick named her "Tai," half of what you call a married woman: Taitai).  He is pickled cucumber cool and she is Sichuan pepper hot.

Did I mention the steel whips and nine section staff work?  Yea, it's great.  And this movie takes it's flying daggers really seriously!  If at all possible you should bring a date to this movie because the mandatory love interest scenes are actually touching and sexy at the same time!

The fighting sets are inspiring and modern.  The morality of the story is classic and timeless, almost Faustian:   Vanity, greed, power and desire create a hell realm on earth.

Unfortunately last night was the last showing at the Festival but if this film doesn't get a wider release my faith in humanity has been misplaced.  Keep your eyes out for it, or have it beamed directly into your central nervous system by satillite if you have that service.

Great news:  The San Francisco Film Society has gotten it's hands on the theater in the basement of the New People Building in Japan Town.  It's a great place to see a film and they have a lot of interesting stuff coming up, including a showing of the new Shaolin movie this weekend.siege

Aunkai Martial Arts in Japan

If you are a martial artist visiting Tokyo you will want to pay a visit to Akuzawa Minoru, he teaches an art he calls Aunkai which is a hybrid of Chinese and Japanese arts.
When I first found the studio, I looked in to see a bunch of guys in boxing gloves hitting boxing mitts.   My first thought was, oops wrong class.  But it was in fact the right class.  They use Sanda as a base for skills development and as a warm-up.

Akuzawa Sensei's website is worth reading, especially the Bujutsu section.  Towards the end of class he was kind enough to show his skills to me directly and let me test him in various ways.  He also partnered me with his senior student Miyakwa Kazuhisa for a significant portion of the three hour long class which gave me a good sense of what he has been able to transmit.

Although, I believe it is quite difficult for most students to grasp, Akuzawa Sensei is using an apophatic method,  "...[W]e aim to give our students the physical tools to forge a Bujutsu body able to bring its own imperfections to light, address them, and come to its own answers--all of this eventually leads the practitioner down their own path in the Martial Way."  While most people would read that statement in context as iconoclastic or individualist, to me it is simply explaining that the methods themselves primarily point to what you are NOT supposed to do.

Take for instance these two exercises:  sessyoku1_01sessyoku1_02Both have fixed foot positions.  The one top goes up and down.  The one on the bottom goes forward and backward.  They are both designed to take all arm and leg power out of the system as well as any size advantages or gravity/momentum/positioning advantages--  Thus leaving only "internal"  mind-energy changes of the torso for generating force.  What the practice reveals is all the possible things you could do that are wrong.  This is really important because all those "wrong things," like tension in the shoulders, might seem like they are giving an advantage in a more dynamic or volatile exercise.
No matter how much you simply copy the external shape, it is impossible to simply copy movement that happens internally. To add to this, the concept of bujutsu, unlike martial sports, does not adhere to rules, so you must be able to flip your perception and look at things in a completely different light.

Here I think he is suggesting that the mind limitations normally associated with social dominance also limit power and options.  To practice 'internal' arts is to fundamentally play a different game.
You must not get bogged down on the "shape" of things in practice. I also strongly believe that you should not create a method that is set in stone. Bujutsu itself is the ability to use the body in any situation, any environment, and as such is the embodiment of change. This means that training must be tailored to yourself by endless trial, error, experimentation, and adjustment if you want to understand the true essence behind movement.

Again he emphasizes the apophatic; make mistakes and learn from them.  Sure, there is a method here, but  the method is pointing to something.  When you figure out what it is pointing to, the method can be burned away.

Akuzawa Sensei is a warm, generous and open guy and his students were all welcoming.  The best test of his power I got was when he asked me to hold his arms down at his sides.  I was instructed to use any kind of force adjustments I wished to try and stopping him from lifting his arms up for the opening movement of Tai Chi.  I was ready, in position, holding his arms with all my creative effort, but he unconsciously decided to scratch his head!  His "head scratching" power was totally unstoppable, he took me with him.

He is clearly offering a method, it uses boxing gloves and some Shaolin and Xingyi type repeating lines, and a bunch of two person resistance/cooperation exercises that teach various things, and he advises students to do standing meditation practice on their own.  But he is also clearly saying, don't get stuck on the method, the method is all about limitations, the fruition is about freedom.

New Classes

I'm in the thick of it again.

Tai Chi and Qigong starts up again this Wednesday Jan 5th, 2011, at 5841 Geary Street, 6 to 8 PM.

Bagua Zhang and Qigong start up Thursday morning Jan 6th, 2011, Douglass Playground 6 to 8:30 AM.

All in San Francisco of course.  But I'm available for private lessons in Marin too since I live near the bridge.  I take phone calls if you have questions...415-752-1984.

This week I'm beginning 10 new children's classes in Northern Shaolin as a Performing Art in schools, that's in addition to the 2 I'm already teaching.


I had a great vaccation, did a ton of reading and practice, I didn't check my email or phone for 14 days.  Yeah me.


I have a new theory I'm excited about. I'll just share it with y'all briefly because I'm headed to bed early these days.

Here are some interconnected notions.

1.)  The frontal cortex of the brain is the part we usually associate with "thinking."  The frontal cortex counter-intuitively has a largely inhibitory function.  We don't usually think of  "thought" as a form of inhibition but it turns out that if I think about jumping out the window my brain does most of the things it would do if I actually did get up and jump out the window.  But in addition to all those things my frontal cortex inhibits my movement. That's why you can improve a skill just by thinking about doing it.

2.)  The various nerves which send messages from the body to the brain operate at different speeds.  Some of them are lighting fast, like the nerves sending information from the eyes, the ears, and those involved with spacial awareness.  But the nerves which send messages from inside the body to the brain are much slower.  Naturally, as martial artists we should instantly recognize that any information received from the slow nerves inside the body would be useless in a self-defense situation.  As Rory Miller puts it, "Time is damage."

Thus; the reason we practice internal martial arts slowly is to first make sure that we are not inhibiting any movement on the inside.  Inhibitory movement includes many things like stabilizing or rotating individual joints or holding strength in the abdomen.  Once all that inhibitory tension is gone then we can move (spread?) our mind to the outside of the body, to the fast nerves, to the instantaneous awareness of plastic and dynamic space.

As I have been saying now for about a year now-- body inside the mind, not mind inside the body.


Also check out Rory Millers new workshop in SoCal, he is hinting at another one in San Francisco soon too.


Happy New Year!3221829804_94d1960374

The Greatest Self Defense System Ever - Northern Shaolin

The first movements in the Northern Shaolin I teach are superbly designed for responding to the way actual bad guys attack, especially considering that Northern Shaolin is traditionally taught to children.  In fact I would say it is the greatest self-defense system ever invented.  I know that sounds pompous or something but I was surprised, I mean, I didn't show up to Rory Miller's workshop on real world violence thinking or believing that.  My teachers were all too modest to ever say anything like that either.  I have only come too realize this through testing and reflecting on the forms that I teach after having taken Rory's workshop.

Frankly this is totally counter intuitive because the style of Northern Shaolin I teach begins in a very theatrical way, with a stamp and a quick parting of the curtains followed immediately by a special run where the feet kick backwards, which is followed by the 'monk clears his sleaves' movement which ends in a stamp balanced on one foot with the other knee up at chest level and with a fist high in the air.

I have long been an advocate for teaching Chinese martial arts as a performing art.  I have also argued extensively that historically these arts were understood as performing arts with real life applications.  You could really fight with these arts, you could also put them on a stage or in a parade.  In many parts of the world you can find some type of amateur theater, or folk dance, which has very real and important therapeutic and social purposes.  In traditional Chinese culture, martial arts were woven into everything.  Depending on who you talk to this is either extreme heresy or so obvious it doesn't need to be said.

I've been teaching these opening Shaolin movements as self-defense for twenty years.  I've always taken the martial component seriously, meaning I've always been frank and open about what I know and don't know and given students an opportunity to practice these movements with a partner who attacks them in a whole bunch of different ways at different speeds from different angles.  But because self-defense was of limited interest to me my perspective was limited.

One of Rory Miller's big challenges is to analyze martial arts by asking questions like, "How do bad guys really attack?"  And "Would this work against a really bad guy."  Rory obviously has a lot of material in this area that he didn't have time to cover in the workshop, but a couple of things really got me thinking.

According to Tony Bauer, it is important to choose a single action which your body can go to in a surprise attack.  It should be a position from which you can fight which defends your head and neck and is itself a return attack.  This wasn't hard for me to do, I have at least 20 of these and picking a favorite was easy. (Watch a Tony Bauer video)

We practiced this by doing the same movement while three people took turns (spontaneously) attacking us from the front and the left and right.  (This made it obvious how important it is to train side power, but more on that another day.)  Everyone's movement involved putting their hands up in one way or another.

After this Rory took the women aside (I decide to pretend I was a woman) and told us that there are two common ways women and children are attacked which require a different type of response.  The first is being grabbed from behind by the neck and pulled backwards.  The necessary response to this attack is an elbow strike backwards and it should be practiced.  The second is a bear hug from behind which traps your arms and lifts you off of the ground so that you can be carried away and thrown in a car or something.  Most self-defense classes teach that at the moment you are being grabbed you should suddenly sink your weight straight down.  This could potentially work if the person attacking was just grabbing you.  But as Rory pointed out, they don't do that, they grab you as they are running.

This Summer George Xu was showing us how effectively he can sink making himself impossible to lift.  A strong healthy student offered to help with his demonstration and promptly came up behind and lifted George into the air.  To his great credit George immediately admitted that his method had completely failed and we went on to analyze why.  It turned out that his attacker was charging forward before lifting.  When George added turning to defuse the forward motion and sinking at the same time, it worked, he couldn't be lifted.  But heavens, if it didn't work for George Xu the first time, do you think it will work for you?

So that's what Rory said too.  If you are still on the ground being bear hugged you can try the sinking thing, but if you are already in the air you need a different strategy.  He suggested using your hands to trap you attackers hands and leaning forward.  If the attacker is moving they will likely stumble forward and as you have their hands they are very likely to fall forward and to the side, shattering their collar bone on the ground.  Great stuff.  (He cautioned  that practicing this, even on a mat, has a high probability of leaving the attacker with broken bones.)

The Northern Shaolin opening movements follows this exact logic and take it a step further.  Rather than try to get this all in a writing, here is a video I just made!

Women's Self-Defense

In the 680 or so posts on this blog I have not had all that much to say about self-defense in general.  (It's not even on my "Category" list in the side bar.) Of all the things which interest me about martial arts, self-defense has rarely risen to the top.  But lately I have found myself thinking, reading, and teaching about it more and more.  Most people think of martial arts and self-defense as synonyms.  That leads to a lot of confusion.

Devi Protective Offense is a site dedicated to clearing up the confusions.  It is specifically designed by women, for women.  Teja is selling a product and a service which looks great.

You can watch a few of her videos for free, and she has this overview (click to enlarge).

She isn't dealing with historical development however, which in my opinion means she is too quick to discard traditional methods and forms.   In the video below she says that men have created unrealistic strategies for self-defense because they have trouble comprehending what it is like to be small and weak.  She is correct, but to me that is an argument for preserving traditional arts not discarding them.  Women were involved in the creation of many traditional martial arts particularly those related to performance and hospitality.  But even more importantly, I was a kid once.  I know exactly what it is like to fight someone three times my size.  Northern Shaolin was designed specifically for kids and it is extraordinarily well designed for kid's self-defense.  The internal arts take a long time to learn and require adoption levels of intimacy, but all the techniques I teach do assume that you are fighting a much stronger opponent (weakness with a twist is my motto).  Everything else she says is spot on. (hat tip: Chiron)