Hat tip to Rick Matz over at Cook Ding's Kitchen:

I recommend this article in the Wall Street Journal by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  What Taleb says has interesting implications for martial arts training.  I'd love to hear what my readers think of this.  Here is his book, which I'm planning to read over the holidays. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder


Also, this article may be useful for getting us to think about how we condition ourselves.  What is the right metaphor here?  Is this a tough nut to crack or have we just discovered a few pieces of the puzzle?


Experience and theory talk to each other.  New experience (hopefully) causes theory to be either re-worked or thrown out and replaced by new theory, which prompts experiments which in turn lead to new experiences.  

However, language is not very good at communicating experience.  There are may places where language can fail us.  I have the sense that my body-mind-experience has real limits, but where they are is often unknown. Those limits are sometimes presumed based on what I can remember, or think I can remember, of my own experience, they may even be based on what I've heard about my potential.  So I have limits but I don't know what they are.

Language can be burdensome.  

So there is experience (mixed with uncertainty), and there is a portion of that experience which can be felt as a kind of knowing.  And that knowing can be translated into language as some sort of metaphor, often metaphors on top of metaphors.  Some of those metaphors are unconscious.  Some are just useful because they point to some pivotal aspect of experience, but may otherwise be misleading. And these metaphors are put together into theories we then use to formulate experiments to test and replicate our experiences, and to share with others.  

If we could simply and effectively demonstrate and describe the experiments for replicating an experience we could, theoretically, by pass the need for theory.  But experience is uncertain, metaphors are imperfect, and experiments have artificial boundaries, so nature has stuck us with a never ending conversation between theory and practice.

So always approach theory with doubt.  There probably is another way to solve the problem, whatever it happens to be, no matter how insistant your teacher is about a particular method or your lineage is about a particular way of stating things.

Which seems like a good enough intro to this video which attempts to answer the question, why do we have a brain?  There is a funny joke about 2 minutes in.   


I keep a notebook with me all the time because ideas come and go, often times if you don't catch them they're gone. I was looking through my notes of blog topics for today and a lot of them are kind of negative. I just don't feel like working with that right now.  So I'm pulling something out of thin air for your reading pleasure.  I'm in the midst of a move. The limbic system of our brains are deeply resistant to change, they desperately try to hold on to stability and predictability.   After living out of boxes for a couple of weeks my life is an emotional roller coaster ride.
The future is still up in the air but we are going to be staying on a farm with goats, chickens and bees for at least a few weeks. Wish me luck.

I've self identified as an improviser and a spontaneity artist for almost 30 years. It has profoundly framed my understanding of aesthetics, action and perception. So my thought for the day is a very simple one, one that, because of this basic framing of my own experience, is so obvious to me I could easily neglect to say it. That thought is that both fighting and teaching fighting are forms of pure improvisation.

My basic philosophy is that we have lists of social fighting expectations. Everyone has them, 'though they are not the same for everyone.  The lists are made up of largely unconscious actions, responses, and ways of being.  Here is an example of a partial list:

  • communicate, "I'm your equal"

  • bounce on your toes

  • control the opponents arms

  • face off, eye to eye

Here is another one:

  • communicate, "I'm not a threat"

  • shrink

  • position your head so that your eyes are looking up

  • show your personal-space-boundary with your palms facing outward

My job is to point out how these lists work, how they function normally, what triggers them-- and then get the student to stop doing them. Sometimes my methods take the from of 'try this" or "what if you turned the other way here." Sometimes they involve exploring an intrinsic body or space awareness, like "spin around without letting your eyes catch on anything and then try that again," or "now try that on all fours and notice how your dantian naturally responds to gravity." Even when I'm teaching an exact sequence like Bagua single palm change, I'm constantly trying to get the student to "stop trying to control the future." The relationship between ones elbow and ones knee must remain spontaneous --spatially active and responsive-- even when the sequence is a known form.

Lately I've been instigating this game: "You are in a bad position, now improve it with out going directly against me and with out using momentum or retreating. Just change your position. Don't think. Don't think of me as human. Feel the spaces and act on them at the same time. No techniques."

At times I'm giving intense direct physical feed back, slapping, tapping, poking, spinning, scratching, swiping, tripping, creating targets and moving them around.  At times I'm intensely verbal, "do this," "now this," "over here" "backwards," "now with him," "now with her,"  "now with an imaginary ape,"  "now on the ground."  This kind of teaching unhooks people from their resistance to acting spontaneously.  The more fun you have improvising, the less you will fear failure, and the more you will love fighting.

A student that has been studying with me for about three months, paid me an unexpected complement the other day.  She said, "I've had a lot of movement training, and taken a lot of classes, but nothing quite like this before.  What your are doing is Total Immersion."

Teaching Without Teaching

I just won an award for this post!  I submitted it to a blogging carnival, where you can read other great offerings on the topic of Bullying!


Martial Arts Perth

I have been doing much thinking about teaching and the nature of teaching and the purpose of teaching.  My ideas are incomplete but I thought I'd do some sharing anyhow.  I got the great pleasure of hanging out with Rory Miller the other day.  We took a long walk.  It is rare (for me) to be in the presence of someone I can talk about anything with.  So unusual.  It made me reflect; am I like that? Most of the time people are exerting a enormous amount of effort to hide their true nature.  We also spend tons of energy pretending to ourselves that we don't see what is happening socially.  What a relief to meet someone who is truly unpretentious.

I got Rory to read Impro by Keith Johnstone, and now he is running around telling people that Martial Arts is to Fighting, as Acting is to Improvising. A significant part of Johnstone's book is about teaching, and we talked a lot about it.  How much of teaching is just failure of the teacher to deeply understand the subject?  How much of teaching is un-conditioning negative behavior learned from loving parents who care so much they can not see what they have done?  How easy it is to be unaware of what behaviors we are reinforcing and what behaviors we are suppressing.  When I woke up the next day after talking to Rory it occurred to me that I may love teaching because I lack confidence.  I may even intentionally put myself in difficult teaching situations because I get a physiological thrill from the see-saw effect of the fear that I will fail miserably followed immediately by elation when things go well.  How would my teaching change if I actually felt confident? or indifferent?


Anti-bullying is one of the latest fads in education, and it is being used by a lot of martial arts teachers to market their programs.  When I think of bullying I think of my experience with Johnstone.  Bullying is a social game.  It can be taught as a game.  The idea that --a person being bullied is not in control-- is an illusion.  Talking about this is stupid.  You can either play a bullying game and experience it for yourself or you can talk about it for the rest of your life.  Such games can raise fascinating questions about whether or not we are in conscious control of our actions.  I had a kid claim he absolutely could not stand still, and that I could ask his mother about this for verification.  At that moment I was really wishing that a tiger would wander into the dojo and test his thesis for him.

As Rory pointed out, one of the consequences of "zero tolerance for violence" in schools is that now there are bullies who are physically smaller than the people they are bullying.  I had verification of this from some students who came to me a few months ago asking about how they could deal with this kid who constantly hits them, usually on the head.  He is smaller than all of them and they were claiming powerlessness.  Joss Whedon made a film about "zero tolerance" policies.  It's called Serenity.  In the film, as in real life, such policies have horrifying unintended consequences.  No doubt we are training a generation of super-bullies.  I responded to my students by having them play insult and complement games.  It's pretty simple, you face off and insult your partner (keep it personal, keep about him), he thanks you and insults you back, you thank him and then you complement him, then he complements you back, then back to insults, over and over.  The faster the better.  At first most students will make weak offers like "your shirt is messy,"  and they will forget to thank their partner.  As they get better at it, the insults are more and more real like, "your bald spot is a crusty white puke." Then we add self-complements and self-insults.

This leads to my 'Rules for Bullies' number one, which is also my rule of self-defense number one:  accept all offers.  If someone hits you with a baseball bat, keep playing the scene.  Never pretend it didn't happen.  If you get killed come back as a ghost and haunt that #%$@# right away!  Keep the action moving.  If you are trying to bully someone stay focuses on it being their fault!   That annoying twerp (with "zero tolerance" it could be--a handsome jock) is just taking up space, time and air that rightfully belongs to you!  You are the bully, exercise your birth right!  Make them pay! If you are being bullied, for God's sake man, accept all offers! Confess to all accusations immediately and admit to all wrong doing, it's even OK to make up bad things you did and confess to them as well.  But to play this game you must understand that the space belongs to the bully and you are only there to have fun at their expense.  There are two ways to play, if the bully gets closer take up more space, get languid, put your feet up on the cafeteria table, better yet, lay back on the table with your legs spread if necessary reach out in all direction, yawn, drool, as they move away, get smaller. You will control them like an insect with a chip in it's head. The game also works just as well if you shrink and whimper as they get closer and you get bigger as they move away.

Our perception of space is plastic.  It is only when we think it is fixed that we get into problems.  Bullies are not predators.  They are purely social animals.  Social animals are constantly trying to maintain and manage their identities, belongings, and status.  Non-attachment to those things is social freedom.  Knowing this intellectually means nothing.  Knowing it kinesthetically is total social freedom.  But knowledge of this sort is also expertise in trance.  The ability to go in and out of a trance is a skill.  But it is also a risk.  The traditional Chinese way to think about this is that there are ghosts and demons lurking about all the time, attracted by passion, and fear, and when you go into a trance they start eating your kidneys.  Go there too passionately or for too long and you will get stuck in the trance, you may even acquire a ghost body that stays with you...because you are it's food supply.

This is the essence of what I teach:  How you live in your body is determined by the rituals you use to inhabit animated space.

Rory had an interesting rule of thumb; it is to the extent that you really care about something that you are likely to make poor decisions about it. That's because our sense of caring is the limbic system of our brain, not the rational part.  There are strategies one can use to get around this, like actually taking other people's advice, or externalizing the decision by giving it to another person or using an astrological calculation.  The Sunzi has a good story about this:  One general sent the opposing general a jar of wine that actually contained his piss.  Having tasted the piss, the general got so angry that the next day he made a bad decision on the battle field which exposed his vulnerabilities and that was his final battle.

What is the lesson? if you get a jar of piss sent to you--keep playing the scene!  Drink a few glasses and wonder why you aren't getting drunk.  Or send a return jar filled with peach schnapps!

Rory talked about his teaching as giving people permission to act on what they already know to be true from their own experience.  A potent idea.  I believe I'm doing that in the kinesthetic realm too, but I wonder sometimes how deep or far away that experience might be.  For example, can people go straight to remembering how they moved before the first time they got frustrated trying to put two tiny Legos together?  Can they remember all that wasted effort?  Can they return to that effortlessness without the shame of clumsiness or the shame of being too damn cute?

There are two basic ways to deal with bullies.  Make it too much trouble for the bully to bother with you, or get a group of friends together and beat the bully up.  It sounds simple, but these are important and newanced social skills.  However, and this is a big however, a lot of what passes for education is actually bullying.  To teach these skills to kids means that they will have a choice. Have no doubt, kids able to make choices for themselves will bring down the education system as we know it.

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?




Magic in the Tendons

I came across this article on Frogs which is saying what I've been saying for years about the role of the tendons in power generation.
Though its muscles still have a vital role - after all, a quarter of the frog's entire mass is in its legs just for this purpose - these jumps would be physically impossible without its springy tendons.

As the frog readies itself to leap, its calf muscle shortens. After about 100 milliseconds, the calf muscle stops moving, and the energy has been fully loaded into the stretched tendon. At the moment the frog jumps, the tendon, which wraps around the ankle bone, releases its energy, much like a catapult or archer's bow, causing a very rapid extension of the ankle joint that propels the frog forward. The entire jump — from preparation to leap — lasts about a fifth of a second, the experiments showed. Other frog species jump much faster.


Daoyin Part 1: The Dog

Here is the first in a series of videos I shot about Daoyin and it's relationship to fighting theory.

Daoyin is an ancient Daoist movement meditation art. About 500 years ago it was combined with theater, fighting skills, and ritual. The result was the creation of the diverse arts of Shaolin, Tai Chi, and what you see in this video--
Circus Style Daoyin-- a performing art that uses animal movements to ritually re-discover our true nature.

It is the original "Yoga-TaiChi." Dig?

Flexibility For Beginners

80487165The way to achieve flexibility is to practice everyday.
About 10 percent of the population does not need to stretch at all because their ligaments are already soft and loose.  If you are one of those people you can develop flexibility simply by getting into weird positions and comfortably hanging out and wiggling around-- while scrupulously avoiding stretching.

Flexibility is the ability to get in and out of weird positions with minimal effort. Stretching is a form of stress.  There is a big difference between the two.

Most people think that the way to get flexibility is by stretching muscles, but muscles don't need to be stretched, they simply need to relax. Muscles tension is being re-established during everyday activity.  Sitting in a chair drinking a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper creates tension.  Not as much, and not the same tension, as driving a car in traffic, but tension never the less.  Once a muscle is in a comfortable elongated position it doesn't need pressure on it, it just needs time to relax.   Flexibility comes from putting muscles in elongated positions, not from stretching them.

The challenge for the beginner is to avoid developing an antagonistic relationship between regular everyday stress and daily practice. The norm out there in the world is that people take up stretching, they immediately over do it, and then after a time of intermittent struggle, they give up.  Flexibility, getting in and out of weird positions with minimal effort, needs to be practiced everyday.  Anything less than everyday practice will add an element of struggle.  Eventually the positions will no longer feel weird, but they may always look weird.

Beginners should try to understand the difference between muscles and joints.  Joints are trickier than muscles.  Once muscles are loose, there is some danger that ligaments may begin to stretch.  A ligament, by definition, connects a bone to another bone.  Ligaments are the main limitation on range of motion in a given joint.  If you stretch a ligament, it will leave you stiff for days because the muscles around it will tighten up to protect it.  If you really over stretch you'll do permanent damage.

Ligaments can be lengthened safely, but this is an advanced practice.  Think six hours a day, think professional contortionist.

For the rest of us, after about two years of daily flexibility practices combined with some internal practice like Tai Chi or Qigong there will be a dramatic improvement in whole body flexibility.  Once this is established, overall joint quality can start to improve.  The joints can become be tong, which means: all the way through.  Thus whatever the qi quality of movement or stillness happens to be, it is the same on both sides of a joint and all the way through it.


One reason there is so much confusion out there about this issue is that the most flexible people in our society, the "experts," mostly started developing flexibility when they were young.  If a student is under age 20 and they practice everyday, they can go ahead and stretch vigorously.   High kicks, are fine too. So are intense back bends and holding low difficult stances.  For a person under 20 it is important to thoroughly warm up, but trying to stretch ones body into funny shapes and extreme positions can start from day one. Warning, it is still quite possible for a young person to over stretch and to stretch unevenly, so it is really important to have a teacher regularly monitoring ones stretching. I use the age 20 somewhat arbitrarily. For some people the cut off is younger, say 17, for some it is older maybe 25. Childhood injuries can change the calculation significantly too.  Teaching the young is simply a different animal than teaching full grown adults, the two populations need to be treated differently.

The young heal very fast, when I was young I could pull or strain muscles several days in a row and be fine in a couple of days.  At 43 if I get a minor muscle strain it needs immediate care, rest and liniments.  A major muscle strain and I can be injured for weeks (knock on wood, I haven't had one in over 3 years).  Today, when I move it may look wild and extreme to the untrained eye, but in reality I'm very conservative.

My secret is: practice everyday.