Tuesday, October 30, 2012


"Having survival skills is important; having the will to survive is essential."
- U.S. Army Survival Guide

As I was reading the above on my way into work today, I reflected on what this might mean in the con text of martial arts training.

For many of us, especially those of us who come from the Japanese traditions, martial arts is a "do" 道 a way of life or life path.  Still others see this as a way of improving health/physical fitness, overcoming stress, or otherwise increasing the quality of their daily lives.

When it comes to survival/self defense, there are only a few things that really matter.  Probably first and foremost is your state of mind.  This may seem counter-intuitive to some, but good training without the right frame of mind will get you killed.  bad/no training with the right frame of mind will probably still save your life.

There are countless examples of people under attack that have survived because they had the right frame of mind.  Victims of rape, assault, attempted murder, multiple attackers/armed attackers, and other seemingly impossible odds have stayed alive by having the right frame of mind, not giving up, and having enough pure will to endure.

In a self-defense situation it means understanding the reality of the situation and your environment (including your attacker(s)).  It also means being savage and aggressive enough to take the initiative and keep it throughout the encounter.  It means staying focused on the goal - staying alive - to the exclusion of everything else including pain/injury, fear, squeamishness, doubt, shame, and other negative emotions.  It also means stacking the deck as heavily in your favor as possible, which is precisely what your attacker(s) will do to you.  Using the element of surprise/ambush, cover,  evasion, psychology, and environment at your disposal to increase your chances of surviving.

We spend a lot of time in the dojo learning techniques and their application and not enough time developing the mental toughness and willpower that drives success and survival under stress.  I recall helping to teach a rape prevention class many, many years ago on a college campus near Chicago where several attempted rapes had been reported.  We showed responses to common attacks including a bearhug from behind.  In this case, we showed slamming the back of the head into the attacker's face, pal-heeling the groin, stomping the foot, and then running away for help.  One co-ed saw the palm heel to the groin and squealed "I could NEVER do that!".  Really?  Then guess what darling, you're raped (or worse).

No amount of training or technical knowledge can take the place of having the right frame of mind, underpinned by an iron will to survive.  Here I am not talking about paranoia (a healthy amount of which is also important) or fear (a healthy amount of which is important).  I mean being able to apply focus to a bad situation and escape it by whatever means are necessary and available.

Good training in the dojo can help with this, but it is also up to each individual to cultivate this willpower for himself or herself.  It is a skill that goes well beyond what you would need in self-defense, and is a cornerstone of using the martial arts to make a positive difference in your life.

"without a desire to survive, acquired skills serve little purpose and invaluable knowledge goes to waste."

Be a survivor.    

Monday, October 22, 2012

In Style

It was a great day with perfect weather.

We were lucky to have my friend Guro Romeo Ballares back in Japan and I asked him to come and give a special seminar on Redondo Arnis.  Guro Romeo is an interesting guy - 5th dan in Yoshinkan Aikido, but also having done FMA since his childhood days including Illustrimo Kali, Modern Arnis, Balintawak, and some others.  He is a spicy combination of the best of all of them, and a wonderful, kind and genuine person as well.

For my KM Japan students, most of them have had no direct experience studying FMA before joining my class.  Several of them (thankfully) have visited our HQ school in Singapore, gone to the annual camp in Bali, and attended Guro Fred's seminars here in Japan and so they have an idea of how diverse the Kali Majapahit system is and its major influences.  That said I encourage them to explore the richness of FMA as it is reflected in other major styles.  Seeing the different approaches to the same concepts helps develop a well-rounded perspective, and different styles emphasize different aspects of the FMA, which can add depth to the students' understanding.

While on one hand I believe it is important to study a particular style deeply for long enough to feel really at ease with it (generally 10+ years of regular training), it can also be said that through diversity of experience we can more fully understand the core concepts and gather a wider variety of expressions.  A critical flaw in Bruce Lee's Wing Chun training, for example, was not being able to learn the full footwork underpinning Wing Chun, without which the whole system cannot fully come together.  At the same time, the awareness of this led Bruce to explore ways to fill that gap - which led to the emergence of Jun Fan/JKD, which has been a truly revolutionary discovery for martial arts that has had almost limitless influence on our training and philosophy.

As its name would suggest, Redondo Arnis uses a circular style as a foundation, and like modern Arnis, contains some overlap with Japanese systems, especially in some of the locking and disarming.  They do emphasize a "walking" stick and FLOW, by having a variety of continuous-motion drills that develop dexterity, fluidity, and timing.  KM, by contrast, is much more heavily influenced by southeast asian style (hakka kuntao, silat, muay thai/muay boran) and has almost no connection to the Japanese arts.

Despite having no direct experience in Redondo Arnis, I found many of the basics to be very similar to things I have seen elsewhere or have worked on in KM.  At the core was single sinawali, which Guro Claes presented in Bali last year, and which is a great container/structure to work applications of flow, especially in the medium range (bridging to close range).  This framework allowed us to explore both solo and doble patterns, as well as solo versus doble applications for working on our reactions and timing.

From this flow we were able to explore bridging from medium to close quarters via the puno, finding the entry point (and response to puno attacks) every time the sticks crossed.  I have seen this flow in modern arnis before and I like it a lot.  It offers a clear reason why controlling the hand (not just the stick) is so important when blocking.  This led us to tapi-tapi drills to work on connecting the live hand to our partners and keeping that contact through the drill.

In the solo variation, we were able to experience the live hand contact with our partners, and ultimately this led us into a variety of disarms/strips in medium distance which were interesting and useful.  Some were variations of other common disarms in medium range (vine disarm, snake disarm), while others were body strips using elbow or underarm which felt very practical and easy to apply under pressure.

I wonder how many of my students picked up that the single sinawali is basically a flow using the punch block series that we have been working on throughout this cycle...

The Balintawak influence was evident in some of the recoveries and blocks in closer ranges, where returning from the dunga (stab) rapidly was critical, and where we used a combination of stick on stick and hand trapping to control the centerline and open up abaniko or other fast responses exploding from the centerline.

We spent a final few minutes on daga and application, using what we had learned and finding a unique disarm that I liked a lot :-)

Overall, as a contrast to what our students see in KM, this was a great seminar by a very talented martial artist.  Subsequently, I am sure we would be able to dig deeper past these basics into the depths of Redondo Arnis without disappointment, finding it (especially as Guro Romeo shows it) to be rich and robust, with plenty to take away.

Thank you again Guro for a most enjoyable Sunday in the park!



Friday, October 19, 2012

Poker Face

Back in 2006, I wrote a post comparing martial arts (in that case Yoshinkan Aikido) to a chessgame.  You can read that post here: http://martialartsdigest.blogspot.jp/2006/01/checkmate.html

However, the other day, I heard a quote from someone about a contract negotiation that went like this, "It's not a chess game, it's a poker game".  I have been thinking about that idea ever since.

Chess is a great game because it involves deep strategy - in particular, predicting your opponent's reaction to your moves.  In this sense it is a lot like fighting.  Chess also involves a finite space and defined rules that nonetheless have infinite possibilities and combinations.  That is also a lot like fighting.  There are only a certain numbers of discrete movements humans can perform, but there are infinite ways to combine the movements and solve for particular situations.

At the same time, fighting is, in reality, much more like poker than it is like chess.

Chess is a game of defined rules and restrictions on movement for the various pieces.
This makes it a game for understanding limitations.  Poker, on the other hand, is about understanding probabilities.  A good poker player knows what hands can be made from the shown cards and the probabilities of other players being able to make those hands.  One key to good poker is pressing bets on high probability hands and folding low probability hands.

In martial arts, this means using the highest probability techniques in every situation, and having a very good understanding of the opponent's highest probability responses/counters to them - and being prepared for them.  Good fighters are not only masters of strategy, but also masters of psychology, able to predict the probability of an opponent reacting in a particular way and being ready when they do.  Setting up and Attacking by Drawing use exactly this principle.

Another one of the most important skills in poker (and fighting) is bluffing.  Bluffing makes playing poker a very different experience from playing chess.  By bluffing, you must rely on being able to convince the other player that their potentially winning hands are actually potentially losing hands.  This causes them to react to fear/apprehension and fold hands sometimes when they could have actually won. In fighting, this can make all the difference. Just giving the enemy pause - causing the apprehension or fear response - can make him decide to back down from a fight he could have won.  By the same token, bluffing too much will cause the other side to challenge, which could result in the bluffer losing.  Bluffing is best used sparingly and in combination with both weak and strong hands so the others never really know if it is a bluff.  Important too is the bluffer's ability to mask the tell - or giveaway - by having a flat expression or "poker face".

Bluffing is evident time and again in the animal kingdom as well, where countless species have used the bluff as part of their mating, courtship, or dispute resolution strategies.  They fan their feathers, puff up their chests, shriek loudly, or otherwise present themselves as formidably as possible, making their bluff in the hopes that the other will back down and give up.

Calling the bluff carries a risk that the bluff is not really a bluff and you will lose.  Fear of loss is an unbelievably powerful motivator to people to resist temptation (think of husbands not cheating on their wives for fear of divorce).

It could be said that poker is a game of emotion where chess is a game of logic.
A smart fighter knows how to use both to full advantage.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Size Matters

(at left - the character DAI 大 "big" in fires on a Japanese mountainside)

Size matters.  You hear it all the time.  This is not wrong, but it needs some context.

I am a big proponent of efficiency rather than just sheer size, not just because I am only 5"7" tall.  It is also because I abhor wastefulness, and I find an elegance in scaling the solution to the need.  For me this applies in martial arts as it does in everything.

There are times, though, when size matters more than anything else.

One of those times is when you SET YOUR GOALS.

Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, wrote "argue for your limitations and they're yours."
I couldn't agree more.  While it is of critical importance that although your plans consist of smaller, more manageable steps to reduce the risk of failure, allow for contingencies, and reinforce achievement, the goals in your life - especially your long-term goals - should be BIG.  BIG enough to be meaningful for you.

To me, there is simply not much point in going after things which are already in reach - if they are too easy to achieve, there is no value in achieving them at all, and we never develop the unshakable confidence we need to make our real mark on the world around us.  If our narrow mind can imagine only something so small, it is far better to start over or wait than it is to pursue a goal which is not worthy of our continued best  efforts. Much of the time, the effort between small and big goals is not proportionately different, and the chance of success or failure not really so different either.  If you are going to fail something small, you might just as well fail at something big - something worth shooting for.

In my case, after I started martial arts training, my teacher used to talk about Japan and I became fascinated.  I set my mind on going to Japan one day to see for myself what was in all the books I read and stories he had told.

Ultimately, this goal took 10 years of my life to achieve, and I failed the first three attempts (the third time nearly breaking my will for good).  On the fourth attempt, my plan came together and I was able to realize my lifelong dream to visit Japan, arriving as an exchange student in Osaka in 1991.  That changed everything.  By January 2003 I was here for good, and except for some time in Singapore (at my company's request in 2008-2009) I have stayed in Japan the better part of 20 years.  Beyond even my wildest expectations I have built a life here --- A career, a home, a family... a treasure of experiences that has helped me truly understand that mankind knows no limitations other than what we impose on ourselves.

I wish you all the same sense of accomplishment I have had and I encourage you to plan small, but to DREAM BIG.

Sunday, October 07, 2012


In Yoshinkan Aikido, my teacher used to tell me:

"all your power, all your force, at a single point, at a single time."

He said it so much it became like a mantra to me.  He meant that I always have to connect my contact point with my partner to my hips, and deliver (through hip rotation) my full body power into the contact point to control it and use the force to disrupt an attack.  This idea is at the core of Yoshinkan.  In Japanese, this focus is called "kime" 決 and is the subject of a lot of discussion both practical and philosophical.

My views on aikido have changed over the years, but I still think it offers some really important insights for training.

In Kali, our goal is to be in motion all the time, never static.
At the same time, we want to use our entire body all the time.

This may seem counter-intuitive to my prior post about relaxation, but it is not.
A central idea here is that we want to use the bigger muscle groups wherever possible.
This means not relying on our arms to do the work, but rather connecting through the hips and back.  We want to hit by driving from the balls of the feet up the line through the pelvis and hips, and deliver that power via the spine.  The feet are principally important not just for balance, but to deliver the explosive power of the coiling steps.

A second major concept is that we want to use our full bodyweight.  This means that I am actually dropping my weight into my strikes, as well as my stick.  It also means that I am letting gravity give additional force into what I am doing.  I do not want to lift my opponent.  Instead I want to drive down through the weak point of the structure and disrupt it.  When I throw someone I do not ever lift them.  Instead, I load them onto my hips and then use my bodyweight to drop or launch them.

The more efficiently and completely you can use your full body, the easier the motions will become.  Start by overemphasizing this motion.  Later on, you will remain tight but still be able to connect and drive.  The key is to focus your full body power at the same time on a single (weak) point of your opponent.

Filipino Martial Arts are very effective and easy to learn, but take a lifetime to do properly.
If you do not use your body efficiently, it may even take several lifetimes.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Wisdom from the Master

"The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be"
 - Bruce Lee

It was cold outside.  I could see my breath as I walked from the parking lot to the school.  When we got to the dojo the mats actually had frost on them.  We shivered as we changed into our uniforms and lined up for class, shifting our weight from one foot to another as if that would lessen the chill on the bottoms of our feet.  Our teacher stood in front; quiet, motionless - relaxed.
Class began.

Within the first few minutes of warms ups and stretching, the windows had condensation on them and we were dripping in sweat.  All thoughts of the cold disappeared.  We were working - hard...I can recall this night as if it were yesterday...

But Bruce should know best...right?  What does he mean??  Less effort???  Is he kidding????
My own training has been nothing but maximum effort all the time as far back as I can remember...

In the younger students I can always see the tension.  It is especially evident in their shoulders, but often throughout their whole bodies.  The movements are unfamiliar.  Their minds understand the concept, but they are fighting their own bodies to get themselves to perform the motions the way their minds imagine them - it is like a puppeteer pulling the strings to get his puppet to open a door.  Their muscles are so tense they cannot move smoothly or flow at all.  They are disconnected from each other; disconnected from themselves.  They have no responsiveness, no explosiveness.  They get tired easily, because their bodies are like a clenched fist - permanently clenched... I shake my head and sigh to myself.  "not yet...still much further to go...", I think.

Bruce means that to be good at martial arts - to be fast and powerful - you have to RELAX.  This is especially important for the shoulders, but it applies to the whole body.  The only time we should experience tension is at the instant of contact with a target, and then immediately release back to relaxation.  In boxing I often see students who are flexed throughout the drills, teeth clenched, fighting themselves more than the pads or their partner.

I suggest meditation or yoga to help learn that to move well we need to move in relaxation.  To be connected, which is ESSENTIAL, we need to be relaxed.  Beyond this, in class it is important to deliberately relax the body before drills, especially those drills where you want to FLOW.

Bruce also means that rather than complex techniques, we should master our relaxed motion to be in the right place at the right time (which is always the wrong place at wrong time for our opponent).  This means less effort to respond and end a confrontation.  It means thinking ahead; being prepared.  Having STRATEGY.  If we rely on brute strength to overcome an opponent, then defeat is simply a matter of facing someone stronger (or several people).  Less is definitely more when it comes to fighting.

This is not to suggest laziness in training.  Rather, it means training SMART, so that we get the maximum benefit of training for the minimum effort of study and practice.  We do not train things which are of no use, and we do not waste time in the dojo.  We plan the work and work the plan.  We learn and adapt and improve and EVOLVE the system so it becomes a living, growing expression of excellence.

But Bruce means more than this --- his words are also a metaphor for success in every aspect of our lives.
Some people you meet live their lives like a clenched fist - using the maximum effort for even the smallest step of progress in their jobs, their relationships, their careers.  They are always their own worst enemy, constantly making their lives harder than they need to be, and suffering and becoming exhausted as a result.

The less effort (you use to succeed in your life), the faster and more powerful you will be.

  1. Leverage the LAW OF ATTRACTION.  If you don't know about this, ask me.
  2. Make the most of HABIT, which can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
  3. Be Organized.  Have a plan for everything.  Write it down.
  4. BREATHE.  It is the essence of Life.
  5. Do not be afraid to ask for help.  We are all connected.
  7. THINK!
  8. THINK! (it's worth saying twice)
  9. Learn to let go of negativity --- embrace the positive energy that surrounds you.  Let it fill you up.
  10. LOVE --- life is so much better when you do.
Work hard in the dojo, but work SMART, and master the concept that "less = more".

See you soon.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Martial Arts or Peaceful Arts?

Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; and through humane ways.

~ His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama

The above quote should resonate with all true martial artists.  We devote ourselves to a study of conflict; a study of war; a study of the human body, human psychology and human weakness.  However, to maintain balance we must also dedicate ourselves to a study of compassion; an appreciation of the impermanence of life; a disicpline of self-mastery; an attitude of humility.

It is really only through understanding the chaos and brutality of man that we can fully appreciate man's ability to show mercy.  It is through recognizing man's frailty and weakness that we can understand man's strength and resolve.  It is by overcoming our fear that we are able to harness our courage.  It can be said then that by knowing the worst of us, we can become the best of us.

Violence can serve no long-term purpose as a means of resolving conflict.  Any true martial artist knows that it is his/her confidence, honed sharp through constant training, that allows acceptance of others and the unknown without fear.  Knowing our "enemy's mind", we become more in tune with our own.  Once we can fully appreciate an opposing point of view as part of the larger Balance, we are then free to accept our differences without lowering to the base ego and weakness of violence.  We know that destroying another can only mean destroying ourselves.
We are all connected.

We are not always given the choice to avoid violence.  However, we should use every means at our disposal - dialog, education, knowledge and humane ways, to defuse potentially violent situations whenever we can.

I know the world is not perfect, and neither are we.  Nature itself is not perfect, but in it's imperfection lies the ultimate beauty and truth - We need not be perfect, merely tending toward perfection.

His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama is an insipirational figure, and I highly recommend his books.