The Master Key

The sound quality on this podcast of Rory Miller is poor, but it is still a fun talk. (I'll come back to it in a moment.)

I was talking to Daniel Mroz yesterday and he said that his friend who is a Beijing Opera (Jingju) master of martial arts roles made a very bold statement.  He said that there is a basic movement of the whole body, making a flower with the hands, which is the master key movement out of which all other Beijing Opera movement comes. 

This particular movement is nearly identical to a basic movement used in Kathak (North Indian Classical Dance).  It is also important in Filipino knife fighting Silat, Maija Soderholm showed it to me the other day.  George Xu uses identical whole body coordination as his favorite warm-up for teaching Chen Style taijiquan but working from a horse stance.  

The movement is probably essential for anyone who masters handling two single edged blades at the same time.

Now that I've had a day to play with it as a key concept, I'd say it is key to all Baguazhang and is very helpful to staying integrated during shaolin movement.  It is not key to Liuhexinyi, but I may change my opinon on that.  As an underlying integration of right to left and homo-lateral to contra-lateral symmetry it can be used as an internal measuring stick of whole body integration in almost any complex movement. 

I've been doing it for 25 years, but I never thought of it as a key movement before.

I read one of Namkhai Norbu's books last fall in which he recommends using the Vajra posture for standing until one is past the experience of fatigue before laying down and relaxing into emptiness as a way of going directly to the experience/expression of Dzogchen (non-conceptual enlightenment).  Basically the Vajra posture is the same posture used for this movement in Kathak dance.  It all fits together so well.  And the term Vajra means a weapon of uncuttable substance, like diamond I guess.  I also recently read an article by Meir Shahar about the widespread concept among martial artists in pre-20th Century China of creating a Vajra body.  Here is the title (you can get it for free if you have access to JSTOR):

  • "Diamond Body: The Origins of Invulnerability in the Chinese Martial Arts." In Perfect Bodies: Sports Medicine and Immortality. Edited by Vivienne Lo. London: British Museum, 2012.

So all this is to preface that I met Adam who runs West Gate Kungfu School here in Boulder, Colorado.  We hit it off right away. We both care deeply about the arts and we both see performance skills and having maximum fun as master keys of the martial arts experience.  He invited me to hang out with his performing troupe the other day.  I brought my instruments and accompanied their warm-up routines, which went really well, I also taught some Daoyin which they immediately wanted to teach to the kids classes.  I had a great time and I have deep sense of respect for what Adam is doing.

His students have a lot of talent and enthusiasm and they have some great butterfly kicks too! Butterfly kicks, by the way, use the exact same body coordination as that Vajra flower movement I was just talking about above.  

So I was an argument on Facebook with a Police Officer about whether or not Capoeira is utilitarian in a self-defense context.  He was particularly adamant that flips are useless for fighting.  I eventually got him to agree with me, which was awesome because he is obviously a really smart and experienced guy.  To win the argument I went through some of the stuff you can hear in that Rory Miller talk at the top of this post.  For instance, martial arts training rarely, if ever, kicks in the first time a person is in a violent situation.  It is more likely that it will kick in after 3-5 violent situations.  And when it finally does it can be amazing.  But before that it is all conditioning and that includes what you conditioned as little kid.  From a purely self-defense point of view having a lot of techniques to choose from forces a person into his or her cognitive mind which generally precipitates a whole body freeze.  So one of the most important things martial artists need to train if they care about self-defense is breaking that freeze.  

Conditioned movements should be designed relative to what a person is likely to need.  This is very different for a police officer who may have a duty to get involved, and a citizen caught in a self-defense situation.  Criminals most often (this material comes from Rory Miller) attack children and women from behind, and surprise attacks are also most often from behind.  The practice of doing a back flip involves moving huge amounts of momentum backwards and up.  If the attacker is taller than you are, your head is going to slam into either his chin or his nose, and you will probably both end up on the ground.  The motion of a back flip is actually a really good thing to condition as a response to a surprise attack from behind.  

In general, practices which use large amounts of momentum, practices which condition comfort and ease with flying through space are great for self-defense.  Why?  because of this maxim:  If you are winning try to control the fight, if you are losing add chaos and momentum.  If you get attacked by surprise, you are already losing, so add chaos and momentum.  The practice of spinning around the room while holding on to a partner is also great conditioning, most judo classes train this a lot.  Add butterfly kicks and you are doing even better, practice using those kicks off of walls and tables and you are approaching ninja territory.  


Someone just posted this on Facebook and it is a great example of the same base movement used to organized a routine:

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)