Saturday, August 27, 2016

Keep Walking

We all hit a plateau sometimes.
In work, in sports, in relationships, sometimes we feel like things aren't moving - or aren't moving fast enough.

For me, the time between the ages of 20 and 30 had the greatest acceleration I have known. At 20 I was a forklift driver in a warehouse in suburban Chicago.  I graduated high school with no money for college and my parents had already retired and moved away across the country to Reno, Nevada, essentially leaving me on my own.  I knew how to work hard, since I started working almost full-time since I was 14.  I had lived on my own since 18 and was basically happy going to work and doing my job.  It just didn't feel like my future.   Fast forward 10 years and I had two college degrees, spoke a foreign language and lived 10,000 miles away in Japan.  It felt like I had literally reinvented my life from zero during those years.  I look back on those long days and nights and wonder how I ever got through it, but somehow I did.  That first year in Japan, 1991, I used to open my desk drawer and stare at my return ticket and imagine flying back to Chicago the next day - giving up on my dream of living in Japan because it was just too hard to move forward. The next morning when I woke up I would always close the drawer and get back to what I had to do. One day at a time.

This year I'll be 50 years old, having lived more than half my life here in Japan.  The dreams I had at 24 have all come true beyond anything I could have ever wished for.  I am lucky far beyond my expectations.

I started a new job this year that is a big challenge for me, and I often think back to when I was 20 and starting my professional life.  I worry that things aren't moving fast enough...sometimes I even want to go back to my old job and my old life, telling myself it might be easier.  Of course that isn't true.  As Lincoln's quote above suggests, What's most important is just to keep walking forward, even slowly, and make sure not to go backward even a single inch.

In the martial arts as well, there are times when we feel stuck.  New techniques, new skills, new awareness just isn't racing in like it used to as a new white belt.  Sometimes we even feel like we have seen it all before, wishing we could go back to the wonder of those early training days.  I think about being back in Singapore with my brothers and sisters at the place on Yan Kit Road where it all started, amazed by every new things Guro Fred or Guro Lila would show us.  Back then, there weren't any other black belts except Fred and Lila.  Now we are all teachers, too.

My Kali journey, like my Life journey, keeps moving forward.  Sometimes slowly, but always forward.  I am forever grateful for the experiences I have had, even more grateful for being able to share them with my students, who will be tremendous teachers in their own right and go on to grow teachers of their own - one black belt at a time.

Don't worry so much about SPEED, focus on DIRECTION.

Keep Walking.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Zone

A little tidbit from last night's training...

Summed up, fighting is about mastering the Kill Zone.
I define The Kill Zone as the place where you are able to deliver your maximum effectiveness (greatest impact force/accuracy with least effort) into your target.  Of course, it is also about insuring you stay outside the kill zone of your opponent.

First of all, to do both requires good footwork.  Mobility is key in order to get into good position and stay out of your opponent's good position.  In FMA, this footwork tends to be triangular in nature, moving us on unexpected/uncomfortable lines for our opponent and putting us closer to the target, which gives us more attacking options.  Staying in motion also minimizes our opponent's chance to prepare a good attack by continuing to move us away from their kill zone and into our own.  Generally speaking, good fighting footwork always seeks to gain the back of the opponent since this is usually the safest place for us to be when we attack.  This is another key reason for our triangle footwork. Avoiding your opponent's kill zone is generally a function of seizing and keeping the initiative through sudden aggressiveness, since this pressure forces the opponent to react instead of initiate.  As Guro Fred often points out "Fight on YOUR terms".

Second is ranging/distancing.  This means that while moving we try to get in a favorable distance for us and stay in an unfavorable distance for our opponent.  Our favorable distance is where we are able to generate striking power (greatest rotation of hips/shoulders/spine and extension of arm/leg) .  We know that our body generates the greatest power when we are able to engage the large muscle groups of our lower back/core/hips and transfer that power through our shoulders into the arm or into the feet via the leg when kicking.  As good examples, check a proper golf swing or baseball/rugby swing.  For kicking, Muay Thai has excellent body mechanics, often using the shoulders and arms to counterbalance and generate additional power from torque.
Efficient techniques rely on the back/core/hips for power and use centrifugal force to increase power.  Many techniques involving takedowns and follow ups on the ground also use gravity to increase force and lessen dissipation since an opponent cannot back away and dissipate impact force when lying prone.  As well, throwing techniques and sweeps have similar body mechanics (rotation/extension) but use the environment (floors/walls) for impact.

I often observe students being too close when they try to hit, limiting their ability to generate power.  Particularly in kickboxing/boxing when we have gloves and pads on, it is important to have proper range so that proper body mechanics can become part of the muscle memory through repetition.  Thrown properly, any single hit should end the encounter.  In FMA, we further increase the odds by throwing multiple hits in combination.

It goes without saying that different hits have different ranges (elbows versus roundhouse kicks, for example), as do various weapons of different lengths and configurations.  However, the use of hip and shoulder rotation plus extension is universal and students should consider how this is done in every technique they learn.  Of course, we all have different bodies and taller/shorter people with longer/shorter arms and legs must necessarily adjust distance and angle to yield the best application of personal force for each attack.  Sometimes this involves actively moving the opponent to a different angle or range.  In FMA we often do this using our checking hand to push/pull/redirect their energy, which also tends to disrupt their balance and structure.

As we gain more knowledge and experience, we see more options for each position/range the opponent is in.  We can then look for the most efficient attack to deliver in each moment, with the least preparation/effort to deliver.  Thus, a skilled fighter has more potential attacks that can be used at any range and angle than a beginner.  In Kali Majapahit, we master a variety of different strikes and kicks at all angles and directions to give us the best chance of having a ready solution to any situation we encounter.

Lastly, as I have said to my students many times, we want to deliver the best weapon (usually the smallest hardest surface area) against the best target (usually the softest, weakest area) of our opponent.  Likewise, we want to take away structure and balance at all times and keep our opponent from ever regaining them.  We want to go around resistance rather than meet strength with strength, since this is the most efficient movement.  Silat is especially good training for going around blocks, and for finding uncommon angles of attack and removing balance/disrupting structure.  Done well, the opponent should always be off balance until the encounter is over.

One of the best ways to improve your martial arts skill is to actively consider the body mechanics of each technique.

  • How do you engage your back/core/hips to generate power?
  • What range gives you the ability to extend fully?
  • What striking surface generates the most  impact force?
  • What targets are the best for each attack?

Asking these questions helps you identify the unique "kill zone" for every attack and increases their effectiveness.  Each new technique should be considered this way.

Make physics your friend rather than your enemy.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The People Whisperer

I really like watching Cesar Milan's TV show "The Dog Whisperer".  At first, 6 years ago, we started watching it to better understand how to bring Butch, our pug puppy, into our family.  We hoped it would help us understand dogs better.  What we didn't realize at the time was how much it would help us understand people better.  As Cesar often says "People say I train dogs, but in many ways I train people".

One of the most important things he talks about on the show is the importance of energy.  He says "the dog is a reflection of your energy, your behavior.  You have to ask "What am I doing?"  That's the right question to ask."  He clearly means that dogs understand and respond to the energy we give them - when we are calm and relaxed they are calm and relaxed.  When we are nervous or excited they are nervous or excited.  It should come as no great surprise that people are often the same.

Thinking about this, I discovered that the very same technique, projecting calm-assertive energy (being quietly, confidently in control), helped me to better manage my children.  Ultimately, it even helped me at work with both coworkers and clients.  I was far more successful when I would purposefully consider the kind of energy I was giving off, and try to keep it calm-assertive as much as possible.  The lesson was clear --- it was not about changing others, it was about changing MYSELF.  The energy you give becomes the energy you get.

Using this technique of calm-assertive energy has helped in so many ways.  Avoiding the projection of excited, aggressive energy, especially when confronted by it from someone else,   has helped prevent situations from escalating and allowed me to avoid injuring anyone.  Cesar points out "It's important to note that aggression isn't the problem.  It's the outcome of a problem." I believe this is very often the case with people, just as it is with dogs.

Calm-assertiveness has helped customers feel confident that I can and will help them achieve their business goals.  It has helped other staff view me as a leader and trust me to make the right decisions for our group.  It has improved my relationships at home by helping us establish and maintain harmony.  Cesar says "Assertive does not mean angry or aggressive.  Calm-assertive means always compassionate but quietly in control."  I couldn't agree more. I try to make this my normal state of being.

Of course, I don't always remember to use this technique, but when I don't and I see things heating up or starting to go the wrong direction, I always ask myself "What am I doing?  What kind of energy am I giving?" and this usually helps get things back on track quickly by changing my energy back to calm-assertive.

In martial arts we talk about energy all the time, usually in the context of our KI or life-force, which we apply in fighting and use for health.  I believe the study of energy is a universal one, and of great importance when we consider the energy we give to others by our words, our expressions and our body language.  As Cesar says "Dogs do know how comfortable you are with yourself, how happy you are, how fearful you are, and what's missing inside of you."  I believe people instinctively know this, too.

Become The People Whisperer...

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Value of Trading Places

About 18 months ago my lovely wife Sanae and I got an opportunity to start studying social dance, being lucky enough to get instruction from two of Japan's national amateur champions, Minato Kojima Sensei and Megumi Morita Sensei.  In addition to being world-class competitors and bright, wonderful people, they have a lifetime of knowledge and great skill in teaching.

Social dance has improved my martial arts tremendously, and both share a common skill on being aware of yourself and your partner's position in space without looking.  Both emphasize good footwork and balance, and both require grace and FLOW.

Today, Kojima-Sensei gave us a new drill.  I had to dance the ladies' part and Sanae had to dance my part.  In dance, the man typically leads, and the lady must adjust/adapt/respond to his communication through posture, head position, and the pressure of his right hand on her shoulder blade.  When reversed, we begin to understand the other's point of view, which in turn enhances our own understanding of how to move together to create the most efficient whole as a couple.

This was a great drill.  In dancing her part, I understood much better how important my lead is in giving my partner the direction she needs to stay in sync.  I felt how necessary it is to remain light or "floating" in my footwork in order to easily respond to my lead's guidance.  When I danced the lead again afterward I was greatly improved, more relaxed and more confident.

In martial arts as well, it is very important to train both sides (shite and uke) of every technique. We must master the motion by doing (shite), but deep understanding is gained by receiving (uke) as well.  When we become used to the feeling of techniques being put on us, even punches and kicks, we no longer feel any panic when we are under stress.  By feeling when our balance is going, we better learn how to take it away from an opponent.  By experiencing the locks we get insight into how to remove the slack and escape when we apply them to others.  Thus, even when sparring, it is just as important to work on defense as it is to work on offense.

Of course, in dance the goal is to keep your partner moving freely and unimpeded in lockstep with you, while in martial arts it is diametrically opposite.  My goal is to make each movement as difficult for my opponent as possible, taking away and keeping away their strength and balance completely from start to finish.  That being said, the same drills can yield the same benefits in both dance and martial arts.

Utmost gratitude to my teachers for their patience and training.

"It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own."  - Tsunetomo Yamamoto (Hagakure)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Ante Up

Take a look at the list on the left.

You would think these are a given, but they aren't.
In our modern society, with access to so much information, perhaps too much information, time and again I see situations where people show up without the list on the left being ready.

There are always reasons that can be given for not doing/being any of these, just as there are ways of insuring that we always do them.  To me, these are the ante to earn the right to sit at the table of learning.

Reading through the list, you can even go as far as to say that they all reflect one single attribute - caring.

To learn, to really learn, we have to care.  It has to be important enough for us to want to do what is needed to insure success.  Very often, failing to bring these things is evidence, sometimes subconscious evidence, that we don't care enough about the result.  This is easily visible in kids' classes.  Many times the parents push their kids to do an after-school activity that the kids don't really want to do.  Thus, some or all of these 10 attributes are regularly missing - often in rotation.  The flip side of this list would include such negative behaviors as self-importance, arrogance, entitlement, privilege and the general feeling that we are owed something by someone else just for being who we are (hint: we aren't).  As the saying goes "you've got to earn it to learn it."

However, it is important to understand what is really going on here.  Teachers were not born with the knowledge or skills they have.  These have been earned with hard work over many years, coupled with a desire to share what they know.  It is not to be taken lightly.  In school, work, and free time mentors come in a variety of forms, all of which deserve the respect of the student for a good knowledge transfer to be possible.  Going further, bringing these attributes makes us worthy of being taught - that shows the most important type of respect, self respect.

I am incredibly proud to be a teacher.  My students bring these 10 key attributes to class all the time, and that pushes me to give 100% in every single lesson.  They work very hard, which makes me want to work even harder.  Together we have a rhythm and a balance together.  We motivate ourselves and each other.

Time spent in the dojo is designed to instill these attributes, especially self-respect, into each of us - teacher and student alike, with the goal that we face the world outside the dojo ready and worthy of being taught all the skills we need to succeed in our lives, according to our own definition.

If you get up every day and try your best to learn something new, if you do your best to show these 10 attributes when you engage others, I have good news.  You will make it.  Inch by inch if that's what it takes, you will always get there if you stay the course.

In the end, that's what really matters.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Ok, enough is enough.
I have seen so much BS about Ninjas and Ninjutsu that I decided it was time to put my two cents in.  Actually, I think I have a great deal more than two cents to add, given the fact that I studied Ninjutsu intensively for 7 years (tested 2nd dan), have read most of the commercially available materials from the major authors in this field in the martial arts community, and have spent the last 25 years living in Japan, the birthplace of ninja culture.

At the risk of controversy from martial artists who may believe whatever they want to in the face of actual evidence, here's my take on a few of the common discussion topics. These views are my own and I take sole responsibility for them.

Who were Ninja?
We all want to believe the fantasies about black-clad assassins jumping from rooftop to rooftop using their superhuman skills to achieve the impossible.  Perhaps the most impossible thing they achieved was an over-inflated sense of grandeur about the whole thing.  While it is difficult to dispute the historical evidence that mercenary groups existed who fulfilled some aspects of the roles ascribed to ninjas (assassin, spy, informant, bodyguard) there is not much evidence to suspect that this was an orderly, controlled affair.  The historical documents of "Yamabushi' or mountain warriors blended with Shinto mysticism and martial arts are very likely to be highly exaggerated and a majority of so-called "ninja" were nothing more than villains/thugs for hire to the highest bidder, without the counterculture anti-samurai bushido that is accorded to them in movies.

Yet another strong possibility is that Ninja were forerunners of organized crime groups (yakuza), who were used to help keep social order during times of unrest, as Tokugawa Ieyasu used them during his reign.  It was useful to have groups from outside the capital who would not be subject to the influence of the politics surrounding the shogun, but who could blend in when needed and provide valuable intelligence on the ground.

Socially, such groups helped to maintain the social fabric in Japan (and still do), allowing justice to be done and/or grievances settled when the legal system is unable to do so properly or to the satisfaction of those involved.  While gambling and other gray acts were the hallmark of Japanese organized crime syndicates, there is nothing to say that these groups were not "ninjas", or worked in collaboration with other mercenary groups who might be called "ninjas".

To confuse matters more, some traditional "samurai arts" such as Yagyu Shinkage Ryu include "ninjutsu" as a sub-system in their study of "heiho" (strategy), much in the same way that clandestine operations and subterfuge are part of our modern military hierarchy.

The 1980's vision of "black ninja versus white ninja" and all the various Sho Kosugi/Franco Nero/Lee Van Cleef entertainment stemming from it added popularity and mystique to the world of the Ninja - my first experience being in Chuck Norris' "Octagon" (1980) which to be fair was actually better than a lot of other movies which came later.

Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi and the Bujinkan
At least as of this writing, Dr. Hatsumi still lives in Noda City, Chiba Prefecture, and continues to have his bone-setter practice in addition to teaching Togakure-Ryu Ninjutsu as Head of The Bujinkan, his global organization.  There is no evidence to suggest he is anything other than authentic, and he continues to appear on Japanese TV from time to time demonstrating Ninjutsu for various information programs.  The boom seems to have come during the 1980s when Stephen K. Hayes, an American karate practitioner from Ohio went to Japan and asked to be his live-in disciple.  Hayes became the foremost Western authority on Ninjutsu and went on to publish many books on Ninjutsu during the 1990s, which I read extensively when I was still training with my teacher.  He also served as Dr. Hatsumi's translator and I believe he was a fundamental part of the globalization of the Bujinkan. Later he would go on to study Tibetan Buddhism as well as advise for TV and movie programs and various government agencies.

There were a number of other Bujinkan luminaries (Shoto Tanemura, Doron Navon, Jack Hoban, etc.) who came and went from Noda City, and later founded Bujinkan chapters around the world. These seemed to be especially popular in the US, Germany, Israel and Australia.

Although the most famous lineage, Bujinkan was not the only school or system promoted in the 1990s during the Ninja Boom.  Ron Duncan popularized Koga Ryu Ninjutsu in the 1970s and 1980s and his work seems at least as credible as Dr. Hatsumi's, since it has proven difficult to verify the claims of any of the schools to a lengthy lineage beyond the current generation.

Ashida Kim was also well-known by researchers (although his work seems a bit more fantasy than reality) and published a number of books on Citadel Press.

In summary, esoteric and exotic sells.  Ninja have been made out to be everything from secretly trained mercenary assassins to deeply spiritual warrior monks.  There seem to be many versions of the truth, depending on who is telling the story.

Ninjutsu Fighting Methods
Fighting techniques covered in Ninjutsu include both traditional Japanese empty hand and weapon arts.  The empty hand arts might most closely resemble Japanese Kempo, including fluid striking/kicking and locking/throwing systems.  Weapon arts include traditional Japanese weapons such as jo and sword (although the katana is uncommon), and some schools teach spear (yari) and halberd (naginata) as well. Kobudo weapons such as bo, kama, sai and nunchaku also appear, although these are of Okinawan rather than Japanese origin.  Despite the dominance of Japanese archery (Kyudo) in samurai culture, there doesn't seem to be a precedent for such training in Ninjutsu.

The Ninja Star or throwing star (shuriken) is probably the most symbolic of all ninjutsu weapons and ironically probably the least practical of any of them.  Use of a straight throwing spike has a traditional precedent in old sword schools where the kozuka was sometimes thrown as a distraction when combatants entered fighting range.  Many traditional Ninjutsu schools still teach throwing this straight spike rather than the commonly assumed flat, spiked disk.

Another favorite in the media was the Kumade or bear claw, which is a set of claws attached to the hands or fingers and used to scale walls (supposedly) as well as for hand-to-hand combat.  Aside from sales of such items to teenage fanboys, it is unlikely that such tools were a major component of the Ninjutsu practitioner's arsenal and I dare anyone to go free climbing in them.  I have seen and heard speculation of a wide variety of exotic "Ninja" weapons, from blowguns to crossbows and everything in between.  I don't personally consider them more than curiosities.  

In swordsmanship, since this was not the primary art of Ninjutsu practitioners but one of many other training disciplines, face-to-face combat with trained swordsman was generally avoided in favor of angled attacks to the wrists/arms/legs of opponents and group attacks on single opponents were certainly preferred where possible.  Some schools would mount short swords with two-handed katana handles to deliver more cutting power at close ranges.  Ninjutsu sword techniques also include stabbing attacks far more than traditional sword styles, which emphasize cutting.

While movies portray Ninja as masters of disguise and deception, with skills like invisibility, water-walking, poison, and the like, the reality is that this was highly unlikely.  Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest the black suits and back-mounted scabbards have any basis in historical fact either.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that tabi, the black goat-footed shoes that ninja wear in movies, are worn by most construction workers and handymen and sold at the DIY store in the mall (so are kama, by the way, look in the gardening aisle near the shovels).

While there is plenty of controversy as to whether or not Ninjas actually existed, if they did they are unlikely to have self-identified themselves as such.  Moreover, there would have been many different interpretations of what constituted Ninjutsu practice.  I am extremely skeptical of the media portrayal of Ninjutsu, which bore little resemblance to what my teacher taught me.

Perhaps it is all best left in the shadows after all.        

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Human Doings Versus Human Beings

You need to watch this.  Jay raises some very important points about life and being happy.
He also gets into the very powerful awareness of being versus doing.  It is a common trap to confuse the two, especially by assuming that they are interchangeable.  They aren't.

I especially like his idea of a "to-Be" list rather than a "to-Do" list.  Being busy rarely equates to being successful or even to being truly productive.  In fact, just looking at the phrase "being successful" gives us a valuable clue (hint: the phrase is not "doing successful").  Doing something has a finite implication. When you do something, it's done and you can forget it and move on to the next thing - the next possession, the next person, the next job, the next goal, and so on and so on.  Being suggests permanence.  When we choose to BE we can make lasting changes in our personal state; lasting improvements in ourselves that we can continue to experience every moment of every day if we choose to.

Trying to do so much, we lose the chance to be so much more.  In the end, the doing becomes the past and disappears, leaving us being no better than when we started - just exhausted like a hamster on a wheel.

On the job, we are obsessed with skills, titles, roles and KPIs when we should be seeking to change the fundamental quality of who we are - rather than just what we do.  Companies tend to hire people for specific job skills rather than taking the time to uncover who the people actually are - and more importantly who they will become as part of the firm's success journey.  When we start to do this, we start to hire not just for culture and fit; we start to hire for potential rather than just past performance.  We start to see the career as a journey in being more, rather than just a collection of things someone has done.  We create the opportunity to evolve and grow.  

Jay calls out the difference between making a living and making a life but it's not enough.  Words have meaning.  Asking someone what they do is not the same as asking them how they are (or, even better, learning WHO they are).  Our engagement with each other need not be activity-based.  It can be experience-based.  We can teach ourselves to care more about how and who people are than just about what people do.

Think about the people who inspire you.  What attributes do they have that you want to have for yourself?  It's not just about what they have done, since the doing is a result of the being. You will find that many great accomplishments started with being rather than doing.  The change in mindset empowers the person to achieve what they set out to do.  Before doing something differently you must be differently.  To do more, first you must BE more.

Tony Robbins suggests how to increase your BEING power:
1) feed your mind- read every day, especially about those people that inspire you
2) accept the challenges - recognize that great people become great by dealing with adversity
3) move your body - change the way your mind works by getting your blood flowing
4) think bigger - a plan worth doing is a plan worth doing BIG
5) fail - learn not to be afraid of what could go wrong. It's not the end of the world
6) let yourself be grateful - feel the gratitude attitude

Define your own success. Choose your own version of happiness.  Own your outcome.