Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lost in Translation

The Bible is a great example of what can happen.

The original was most likely written in a combination of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Roman.
After centuries of being hand-copied, the Bible was brought to the masses courtesy of the printing press, which would have meant original copies done in Latin and German. Now the bible is available in more than 438 languages, with a variety of different editions.


I am not being deliberately anti-christian here. I am merely using the Bible as an example, and I am only really interested interested in what we martial artists can learn from this example.

There is most likely a lot of symbolism and hidden meaning in the Bible. Most of it is now lost due to the several steps of translation required to get a single-language version for everyone to read. What got lost?

Even recent books like Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code" suggest that subtle differences in the use of a Hebrew word could have far reaching ramifications in understanding what the original authors' intentions were.

For most of us in the martial arts world educated in the west, we are bereft of native instruction in what we do. If we are learning karate, we are most likely not learning it from Okinawans. This has implication in the linguistic, cultural, and martial aspects of our studies. Frankly, no matter how good our western teacher is, they are unlikely to have had full exposure to the system with its cultural/spiritual/historical linkages. Sadly, many people are taught by only lower ranking belts (less than 5th dan) which is unthinkable in any traditional school. These younger belts can instruct the basics of technique, but would never have been taught the very deep meanings behind techniques, or anything more than the fundamentals of the surrounding culture their art embodies. The teacher cannot take you beyond his/her own limits of knowledge. They should, however, guide you in the right direction.

For most westerners, the lack of language skill, and/or a certain racism/prejudice on either side can mean that the full system was never transmitted. This is amplified by the fact that most westerners did not commit the time and energy needed to master the art except at the surface/technical level and so entire portions of knowledge were lost. Lost to those teachers, it was also lost to their students, and down the line. In the 3rd generation and beyond, most students have no way to recover, and become limited to only a portion of the original art.

So much is lost in translation due to this diaspora that we are in jeopardy today.
Modern martial arts focus on combat effectiveness (Krav Maga being one example) often at the expense of any moral or ethical education needed to control it.

I encourage every martial arts student to:
  • be very concerned with the credentials of any prospective teacher - check them out!
  • be mindful of the ethical/moral character of teachers and other role models for yourself and your children
  • continue to do outside research on what you study using libraries and internet
  • learn the native languages of the arts you study so you can dig deeper and access material in the original language
  • travel to the countries whose arts you study and develop a deeper understanding of the culture and history that makes them what they are
Martial Arts is a lifelong journey of exploration. The quest for the truth is not easy. Never stop learning. Don't get LOST IN TRANSLATION


"There is no one silat, there is only YOUR silat" - Punong Guro Jeff Espinous

What does he mean?

Unlike traditional martial arts instruction in the East, FMA are typically concepts-based and expect the student to free-flow.

This has both good and bad elements, but when taught and practiced properly, opens the door to a level of skill and creative self expression that otherwise would take decades of training.

At its heart, FMA is practical. That means that it must have the "Martial" element of martial arts and be effective when used for self-defense. This is only possible if concepts are fully taught and understood, and the key principles followed during application.

1) strong basics including distance, timing, footwork
2) flowing
3) constant guard
4) holistics including striking, kicking, grappling, and weapons

At the same time, FMA allows for total self-expression and the gestalt of our unique backgrounds applies itself when we overlay concept on technique. Our experience of martial arts gives us access to a giant library of martial arts techniques, especially now that visual media such as youtube are so accessible. These techniques can be adapted and integrated within the framework of FMA as long as the concepts and principles are properly followed. The result is one's own style, reflective of our own unique artistic sense. This is the "Art" of martial art.

The result is FREEDOM. This is the freedom to evolve, and will allow you a lifetime of study, training, and growth without becoming bored or repetitive.

This freedom has been absent from most martial arts taught in Japan, Korea, and China. Many of those schools rely on rote memorization and adherence to a pre-defined set of movements or techniques, not allowing for individual expression, progression, or evolution. In many cases the original deep meaning of the movements has been lost forever, especially in the importance of footwork.

If you are in the FMA, remember how lucky you are to have FREEDOM.
If you are not, there is a world beyond technique and kata for you to explore.
I encourage you to seek it out.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Heads Up

Ah, the headbutt...an all-time personal favorite aka "the nutter", "the Glasgow Kiss" or botter in French. This is an absolutely devastating close-quarters attack, easily on par with the knee and the elbow when space is tight. Who can ever forget French football legend Zinedine Zidane (above) giving one to the chest of Italian Marco Materazzi in the 2006 Wold Cup Final (for which Zidane got a red card and a 3 match ban and Materazzi hit the ground like an anchor).
A classic, and very educational.

Guro must have shown this one a thousand times in the flow. jab, cross, pary, trap -> BAM! Headbutt to the face or chest and the fight is over. I still forget to get as much use out of this savage attack as I know I should.

To do this properly, it is necessary to hit the target with the crown of the forehead (not with your own NOSE, in case any Romans are reading this). The best places to apply it are to the opponent's nose/face/mouth (the most common) or to the sternum (thanks Zidane). one very interesting gunting even guides the opponent's punch into the crown of the forehead, thus breaking the attacker's hand - OUCH!

They are also very effective against the cheekbones or temple, or even the bicep (sounds odd but trust me on this). You also see the rear headbutt (and its grappling variant, the crown crush) get used when the attacker is behind you.

Of course, this attack works best with a lot of force behind it. This means either catching an inbound opponent (just ask Materazzi), or for you to step in strongly and close the gap yourself. I especially love a headbutt when I am trapping up my opponent's arms or when I am in their guard. Another beautiful place for this is in clench with your hand behind your opponent's neck. Remember to clench your teeth and tense your face muscles at the instant you strike, as well as tilting your head slightly forward and bending your back for acceleration. Expect a satisfying crunch when you hit the target.

I think it is fair to say that a few of the common headbutt attacks are expected by most street fighters, like the rear headbutt against a bear hug, for example. The slightly unusual (although no less effective) attacks like the chest or bicep are high percentage hits because they are unexpected and usually get in very fast.

Have a play next time you are in close - see if you can find the headbutt attack.

Zidane would be proud.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


No, I didn't sneeze (but thanks for the blessing anyway)

Gasshuku, actually written 合宿, is a tradition in most Japanese martial arts, and even extends to other sporting clubs such as tennis. Gasshuku are weekend intensive training camps, usually done once or twice a year on long weekends, where we go off to the country and do a focused training event.

Especially for Japanese Budo, this is a must. In many schools where I trained, gasshuku were twice a year (summer and winter) and a time of great camaraderie and friendship, hard training, and good food. Some aikido and karate schools like to do these in the hottest and coldest weeks of the year for spiritual purposes as well.

Gasshuku were times when we students and teachers could really bond together. These intensive camps were also great training times where we could cover huge amounts of material in detail in an immersion setting, which really helped many of us to increase our skills. They were also events that our overseas brothers and sisters came home for. For Japanese, gasshuku have a certain nostalgia.

A typical aikido gasshuku, for example, went a bit like this:

Arrive late Friday night (usually a place 4-5 hours from Tokyo)

Training starts 6 am with a 5 km run
First class at 7 am for 2 hours
Second Class from 10 am - 12 pm
two-hour break (including lunchtime)
Third class from 2pm - 4 pm
ONSEN (natural hot springs) from 4pm - 6pm (one of my favorite parts)
Meditation/lecture from 6pm - 7pm
Dinnertime from 7pm onward (usually followed by very heavy sake/beer drinking as part of Japanese martial tradition!)

Usually a half-day session including 5 km run (tough after drinking until 3 am), and two more classes. Then we went home by car, bus, or train.

These Gasshuku remain some of my fondest memories of training in Japan. Here in Singapore, we can have access to some outstanding places such as Thailand, Malaysia, Bali, etc. where we could have some awesome and memorable Gasshuku.

Let me know your favorite Gasshuku stories!