Saturday, December 31, 2016

Strengths and Weaknesses

(thanks for the inspiration PM)

Great conversation with a dear friend over dinner the other night.
He reminded me of the power of strength and weakness in all of us.

Modern psychology tends to focus on improving our weaknesses.  It suggests that when we find areas of our skills which are weaker than others, we invest additional time and energy in training for balance, making those weak areas as good as the others.  We appreciate the balanced view rather than a focus on a few areas at the expense of others.  Even as fighters, we are taught to excel at all ranges; all distances; all styles; all weapons.  We are all taught to seek Universal Skill.  This, as my friend explains, is a dangerous paradox.

There is a negative spiral associated with our own weaknesses.  We are aware of our weak areas and so we avoid them.  We procrastinate because we know we are not good at them.  Eventually, when no other choice is available, reluctantly we try - knowing that we will not do as well as we would on something else.  Inevitably, this is true and the result is poor.  This fuels the cycle ("see, I knew I couldn't do it") and reinforces in us the fact that we are not good at a particular thing.  With focus, effort and willpower this can be overcome.  For example, I was a terrible swimmer.  I knew it, so I rarely swam.  Because I rarely swam, I never got better.  Each time I tried I gave up after a lap or two, shamefully reminded that I am bad at swimming.  Finally, I took swim lessons.  They were difficult and I made little progress, but eventually I improved.  I am still poor at swimming, but a little better than before.  Lots of effort for minimal gain.

My friend suggests instead investing time and energy in those things we are already good at, seeking instead to become the absolute best at them.  Since we know we have skill already, these tend to be things we enjoy more, which further adds to our motivation.  Ignore the weaknesses, focus on making the strengths invincible.

I considered his words deeply.  In my career, I have become known for having some specialist knowledge and skills which have set me apart and kept me in demand in the job market.  In other areas, I must admit I am weak.  Rather than expending effort to try to improve on these many weak areas, it is far more effective for me to acknowledge them and focus instead on making my strengths even stronger - and getting help or offloading the areas that I am weak at.  This is very productive and helps me use my time most effectively.  Leveraging my strong areas more gives me higher motivation and higher productivity as well.

In martial arts tool, focusing on our strengths is very important.  In FMA particularly, it is a highly individualized art.  We make our own Kali and our own flow, suited to the way we move and our mindset.  Of course, we hope to be well rounded and able to adapt to any changing situation, but it is inefficient to spend huge amounts of time in areas where we have low motivation and little potential skill.  The fact that any of us can do anything is indisputable.  However, time like other resources is finite, and focusing on getting the maximum output for our effort is worth consideration.

The key point here is to invest the time to know yourself deeply.  Understand who you are, what you enjoy and what motivates you.  Many times this is simple trial and error, but it is wise to remember the various activities and the feelings that went along with them.  At the beginning, trying as much as possible, and later selectively narrowing to the things that really matter.

In 2017, I want to highlight and reinforce my strengths both on and off the mats.  I want to be more "ME" and focus much less on what others expect of me.  I want to accentuate my strong areas and do my best to avoid or at least reduce, the time I spend using my weak areas.  I want to be efficient in how I use my time and energy, trying to make every day count and accomplish more with less.

What do you think?  

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Atemi and Irimi

(thanks for the inspiration PH)

A frequent comment by aikido practitioners is that it seems like aikido "doesn't really work".  Most believe that it can work some of the time, under certain circumstances, with an opponent who grabs or closes distance.  Many feel aikido is just not effective against attackers who kick and punch the way a boxer or MMA fighter would do.  This causes a dilemma, since self-defense is an expected goal of aikido training.  I have written about this before, but maybe it's time to expand a bit.

Background of Aikido - The Old Days
Aikido was derived from a handful of traditional Japanese martial arts that O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba studied during his formative years.  These arts were originally combat systems designed to incapacitate or kill enemies, and rounded out a traditional warrior curriculum that started with bow, then spear, and ended up centered around the ever-present long sword (katana). Ueshiba was highly proficient in spear and sword, as well as the empty hand expressions that derived from them.  Even today, most aikido schools spend time with bokken/jo and some even use real steel blades or cross-train in Iaijutsu/Kenjutsu or other battlefield styles.  These systems understood that one of the main objectives was to disarm and bring the enemy to the ground, where they could be controlled (and killed) more easily.  For this reason, traditional arts like Daito Ryu emphasized unbalancing and joint-locking/breaking in their systems.  For opponents who might be armored, a drop to the hard ground would effectively take them out of the fight.  Armor offered protection against strikes, but articulated joints were still vulnerable and helped to get an enemy off their feet.

Some Universal Principles
When dealing with an armed opponent, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Get Inside --- at range you will be unable to attack.  you need to get inside the weapon arc as fast as possible
  • Control the head/neck/spine --- taking the structure means taking the balance and strength
  • Bring them down --- on the ground, a lot of striking power is lost.  Adding impact via projection helps disrupt the attacking intention and energy

It is important to note that all of these principles still exist in modern aikido, just as they did in the foundation arts that aikido was born from.  This means that on balance, aikido is still (or can be) the devastating combat art that is its' heritage.

So, what changed??

Modern Aikido and O-Sensei's Vision
As a young man, Morihei Ueshiba was a ferocious warrior.  His body was very strong from years of hard training, and even in his mid-seventies he had the foundation of muscle from his youthful training.  After the war years, he became committed to peace and harmony, hence even choosing the name of Aikido (the Harmonizing Way).  Over the course of his life, he became further and further from the combat aspects of his lineage and closer to the spiritual nature of his religious beliefs as an Omote-Kyo priest, ultimately declaring that his power "came directly from God". Techniques were adapted and redesigned to be less violent, and ukemi (breakfalls) were added to make them easier to practice.  The original techniques do not have ukemi.

Modern aikido's many stylistic variations are largely due to different disciples having trained with O-Sensei at different times during his life, where his philosophy and teaching methods would have naturally had different focus areas.  Teachers who were with him in the early days have aikido flavors which are more aggressive and self-defense oriented (Yoshinkan/Tomiki/Iwama). Others are more spiritual (Shinshintoitsu, Ki Society).  There is nothing wrong with any of these, of course, they merely represent different blends of "martial" and "art".

The Modern Urban Battlefield
If you are one of the people seeking to make your aikido as effective as possible as a fighting style, there are a few things that I recommend focusing on:

1) Atemi "striking" and Irimi "entering"
This is at the heart of fighting using aikido.  I have written about this before on my blog and my opinion is unchanged.  Rather, over the interim years I would highlight this even more.  To create opportunity to execute a control or projection, atemi is a must.  If the opponent had a helmet or other face protection, instead of striking the face, atemi would mean moving the chin backward or to either side.  This disrupts the balance and is the beginning of control.  Harder styles suggest the atemi should be a knockout quality chop or punch to the face and I tend to agree.  If not, moving the chin is a secondary option.  Weak atemi is useless and leads to a misguided belief in the effectiveness of techniques for self-defense.  Note this blog's caption photo, where atemi is disrupting uke's balance and structure.

To do atemi properly requires excellent timing.  It means closing distance "Irimi" to deliver this strike decisively on a different line from the one the attacker is using (or entering forcefully enough to take the line away).  One should imagine the concept as being TaiAtari (striking with the body), which means explosively driving hips and body forward into attacker's attack and this is how to get inside their attacking arc.

2) Footwork
Footwork is key.  To use atemi properly, footwork needs to get us out of the way and onto a line that will bring our hips and body inside the attacking arc and into position to deliver atemi.  This means rather than evasive footwork, it is important to train "entering footwork" which brings us into immediate contact with uke, just as we deliver atemi.

3) Reactivity
The timing for atemi is developed through practicing reactivity.  This means that at the exact instant of aggressive intent (being touched on the wrist/arm/body) or uke's shoulders moving to wind up a punch, we must explosively drive into them.  If grabbed, atemi is instantly delivered to the face without hesitation.  Training these split-second reactions is important to deny uke the time to block atemi early , and make sure their only option is to tilt their head back and lose balance, opening up the opportunity for control or projection.

4) Disruptive Energy
Because of ego, most aikido schools do not train atemi hard enough (or at all).  Students feel afraid when shite comes rocketing in explosively delivering atemi (chop or punch) to their faces.  They stop coming to class because it is intimidating and uncomfortable.  However, learning to feel this disruptive energy and remain relaxed is also very, very important.  In aikido, tension makes techniques hurt worse and increases the chance of injury to uke.

5) Pain versus Injury in Aikido
To effect control or lead to projection, causing pain is sometimes necessary. Expert atemi can get the same result without pain but this takes a while to master.  For the rest of us, disrupting uke's aggressive intent requires causing pain.  Done dynamically, most of the aikido controls hurt. This pain disrupts uke's concentration and sets up shite's next movement (pin or projection). Again, most schools don't train this way because of ego, but experiencing this as both shite and uke is very important, as I have written here.  Learning to give and get pain without panicking is part of our journey to overcoming fear, which should be an objective of any martial art.

Ueshiba's aikido is compassionate and we are strongly encouraged not to injure others.  That said, pain is a great teacher, and it is often necessary to persuade uke to stop being aggressive or violent.  I contentd that in a confrontation I either have to hurt you or injure you.  I prefer to hurt, since once I stop the pain goes away.  If I injure someone they will need medical care to recover.  From a karmic (as well as legal) perspective, this is to be avoided if at all possible.

In this clip you can see some atemi set ups, but also a lot of cases where pain is used to disrupt uke from resisting the handcuffs being applied.  Law enforcement are generally not let to use atemi for legal liability reasons, but the use of pain for compliance is well understood and routine (unfortunately due to lack of sufficient training, many officers injure suspects as well).

In Summary
It should come as no great surprise that in your aikido journey, you are the product of your practice.  In a fight, you will move like you train.  There are many ways to experience aikido, all of them valuable.  If your goal is self-defense, I encourage you to develop your training to hone the tools that help most for this --- specifically atemi and irimi.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Greatest Hits starring Kuya Doug

This weekend was one for the history books.
If you missed it I feel very sorry for you.

Thanks to great work from our dear friends at Shin Kali, we were lucky to attend a weekend seminar by a living legend of Filipino Martial Arts - Kuya Doug Marcaida of Marcaida Kali.

TLDR version --- TRAIN WITH HIM.

Many people would know him from his excellent television show, "Forged in Fire", but FMA people like me have been watching his Youtube Channel from the very beginning, always amazed by his flow and ideas, and hoping someday to learn "The Kali Way" how he understands it.  He is especially famous for his smooth, effortless flows involving the karambit.  He is also part of the Funker Tactical team which host many of his videos.

Rochester, New York, is very far from Tokyo, and Kuya Doug is often on the road doing seminars and teaching law enforcement/military and doing other events.  It's been 6 years since he visited Japan.  We hope he will make this an annual stop (hint hint).

Over the course of a two-day weekend seminar we covered karambit, tomahawk, single/double stick and empty hands applications.  As expected, Kuya Doug is at such a high level of skill and understanding that you will simply not find better - anywhere.  His teaching style is informal and relaxed (he is, too) but if you listen carefully, he gives the essence for how to train and improve.

Beyond technique, he is a great man, and gives a constant reinforcing message about the true purpose of our training - to make us better people.  Kuya Doug is a veteran, and also spent more than 20 years in the medical field as a respiratory therapist.  He gives back to the community and is dedicated to helping other warriors adjust to become functional in society again.  Every conversation with him will give you something to think about, and he is very approachable and always willing to share.  He is an honest example of what is possible if we train smart.  He is a true inspiration.

I will not give any specific techniques here (sorry) since you NEED to attend in person and feel his magic firsthand.  Go and train with Kuya Doug any way/anywhere you can.  SEEK HIM OUT and find out for yourself why he is so respected.  You will not be disappointed.

Some "greatest hits" from the seminar below:

The stick and blade are not dangerous in or of themselves.  The person is the weapon.  Fighting is a state of mind, being able to find calmness and relaxation in chaos.  Weapons work because they are functional and act as force multipliers.  In our lives we must aspire to be the same way - in our jobs, with our families and other social groups we should become functional and capable, and our presence should make everything better.  Every one of us can be a positive "force multiplier" in the world.

Drilling Down
For each drill, deeply explore its purpose and the practical benefits it can give to fighting in terms of improving our understanding of timing, distance, accuracy, control, power, speed.  Drills are a framework but it is very important not to be stuck in them, only to use them to develop skills and familiarity with weapons - NOT as fighting techniques in or of themselves.  One of the most important attributes is ACCURACY in targeting specific points such as eyes and throat, and it is worth investing a lot in training specifically for this.

Of Each Thing Ask "What is it, in and of itself?"
This famous quote from Marcus Aurelius reminds us that each tool of fighting has unique attributes, but there are common tools visible and invisible all around us.  Each tool is straight or curved, edged or impact, hard or soft and these give it certain characteristics which we must master.  Mastering one tool helps master all similar tools.  Thus, everything is a weapon.  Our bodies move like weapons also, forearms can function like sticks; elbows like daggers, arms like karambits. Shoulders and hips/knees and elbows/hands and wrists/fingers and toes are all the same body structures replicated on high and low lines and similar techniques work on both.

Some weapons, like the tomahawk, are comprised of elements of some others (the handle is an impact weapon, the beard is a cutting/hooking weapon, the back spike is a stabbing weapon). However, taken as a set of disparate functions, even a complex weapon can be easily understood based on what we already learn in basic FMA.  This extends to anything else at hand.  Everything is a weapon.

Fight Like You Walk, Walk Like You Fight
Kuya Doug reminded us to stay natural in all our movements.  Be efficient and easy with our footwork.  No low stances or twisting of the body.  Balance is key and being able to move naturally at all times is the goal.

Doubling Up
Great training in double stick focusing on imagining double stick as sword and shield.  The sword and shield roles switch between the sticks (beauty of FMA) but blocking with one and hitting with the other is an important concept to remember when training.  Double sticks are a long range system, so keep distance.

An army that cannot move cannot fight.  In FMA mobility is key and we want to keep moving all the time.  Even simple footwork drills can have great effect if they are fluent and used correctly. Good fighters use all lines (high/medium/low) and all ranges to their best effect, and good training methods divide the areas into "sectors" for ease of understanding.  The Clock Method is a great way to explain techniques and movements, especially to military.

Plan your work, work your plan
We need to have solid strategy and tactics to be effective fighters.  In life as well, it helps to have a plan with plenty of contingencies for the unexpected.  Drilling is a great way to develop sets of plans for various situations, since the dojo is the safest place for our training.  The key to executing fighting plans is to drill control of our nervous system, so that our body avoids habits and will respond just as our mind directs it. Our awareness should be looking not just for openings in our opponent but weapons nearby, exits and escape routes, other potential aggressors and the like.

Really only one way to actually do this in a fight --- hit the opponent! Hit the hands or head and then, only then, can you have a decent chance to disarm.

There was much, much more.  A weekend is far too short to spend with such an incredible martial artist, and I can't wait to get a chance to train with him again.


Sunday, November 06, 2016


So...this happened.  Now I'm FIFTY.

It's been a very relaxed and mellow birthday weekend, just as I would have wanted.  Plenty of family time, but also some time for reflection.

This morning, messages started flowing in via FB, SMS, mail, etc. from people around the world wishing me well.  I am grateful for everyone who has thought of me today.  Truly, deeply, grateful.

One of my closest friends calls me "the most successful man he knows".  I laughed at first. Later, thinking about it, I realized what he meant.  On a relative value basis, it would be hard for me to aspire to more than I have achieved.  Born to parents in a troubled, dissolving marriage, I was placed into foster care via Illinois Children's Home and Aid Society in Chicago at barely a year old.  I was born premature, underweight and had a non-functioning left eye.  My foster parents, Charles and Dorothy Leonard, already in their 40s, took mercy on me and brought me home to Villa Park, Illinois.  I grew up in idyllic, sleepy suburban Chicago, with long summer nights and longer, harsher winters.  I struggled hard growing up but my foster parents never gave up on me, even when I wanted to give up on myself.

Thinking back on how I started, I often wonder how I ever ended up here in Yokohama.  Kids like me didn't get many lucky breaks.  We didn't hit the lottery.  We didn't grow up to be doctors or lawyers or captains of industry.  Most of us ended up in prison or dead well before our time. Many of us were abused by our foster parents or shuffled from place to place, finally coming to rest in group homes until we would be pushed out at 18 with nowhere to go and no one to go there with. We'd end up... forgotten.  The sad truth is that foster kids just didn't really matter.

Not me.  I was the luckiest kid in the whole world.  My foster family loved me.  I had very few friends, but my friends were true and have been my friends all my life.  I was warm and safe and had clean clothes and enough food.  Other than my eyes, the rest of me worked pretty well.  We had birthday and Christmas and Thanksgiving and Halloween.  Most of the kids I met like me had it much, much worse, including my foster brother.  Through hard work and just plain goddamn stubbornness, I moved my life forward, inch by painful inch sometimes, but FORWARD somehow.
Dreams come true, and I finally made it to Japan - achieving a goal I worked on for more than 10 years.  That was 25 years ago and I've never looked back.  Now I've been in Japan for more than half my life.  No regrets at all.

Today, looking at all your messages, looking at all the people I have known and lives I've been a part of, I feel like my life has MATTERED.  I've been a part of so much.  I've had such a great adventure.  So many people have come into my life and guided me, helped me, and taught me. You've all helped me arrive here - in this moment - and I feel it's been worth the struggle.  I started my life with tears, but along the way you've helped me find laughter.  Thank you for sharing your lives with me.  Words aren't good enough (my words aren't anyway) to tell you all how grateful I am for your attention, your caring, your support.  You've made this life worth living. THANK YOU.

A very special thanks to my wife Sanae, who knows how to make broken things useful again - you taught me how to forgive myself for what happened.  Thanks for my family, especially my wonderful sons, who give me hope for the future.  Thanks to all my friends all around the world who make travelling so enjoyable - I always look forward to seeing you.  Thanks to my teachers for investing in me.  Thanks to my students for trusting and believing in me.  Thanks to my co-workers for supporting me.  Thanks for not giving up on me.

I hope the next phase of my life will be even more about giving back for all the good fortune that I have had.  I want to try to continue to make a difference in this World and never give up advocating for love, peace and understanding.  I want to stay active in the martial arts and continue to guide the next generation of teachers who will help make the world better.
I want to live my life fully until my very last breath.

Thanks again for being part of my story.  Please stick around until the end.
We've got plenty more to go.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


Great class Tuesday night.  We really got into some good expressions of Sinawali 6 outside passing with our students and found some powerful connection points as well which we could use to control our partner.  I kept reminding everyone to control their partners using their centers.  What does it mean?

To elaborate on planes of motion and centering, I attach the Da Vinci sketch at the left.  If you observe the diagram carefully, you can see the center of the circle is not at the head or chest of the man.  It is at the waistline. Specifically, in Japanese martial arts this point is called Tanden and represents the center of gravity --- a very important point in aikido, jujitsu and judo.

When I teach throws, I am always careful to emphasize how important it is not to just pull or push the opponent, but rather to concentrate on moving the line of their hips.  This means that we should be trying to get their tanden to rise off the ground, at which point we can easily unbalance for a sweep or load the opponent onto our own hips for a throw.  Likewise for defense, consciously keeping your hips low and away from your opponent is a central tenet of judo.

When fighters are mismatched, one being much taller than the other, there is often a tendency for the shorter to reach up to grab his or her opponent.  Instead, I would suggest focusing on connecting the taller person to your hips/tanden and bringing them DOWN.  Connecting them to your hips/center has a dual effect of making them easier to move, since you move them with your hips and body weight rather than just your arms, as well as compromising their balance by making their spine bend to meet your hip line.  In good aikido it is very common to redirect Uke's arm to your belt line before using a control or a throw - good examples include kote gaeshi, shomen irimi nage and tenchi nage.  Even for techniques which start on a higher line, such as Ikkajo, it is important to "row" the motion back to the hip line in order to get the maximum power.  My teachers used to advise me to "put their hand in my front pocket" meaning to bring Uke's hand and arm down to my belt line before executing the throw.  I have tried to remember this idea in my practice since.

The idea of the "dynamic sphere" is expressed in Oscar Ratti's excellent book "Aikido and The Dynamic Sphere" and clearly illustrates not only the principles of centering (connecting to the hips) but also of centrifugal force, which is the foundation principle for spinal rotation techniques (tenkan) in aikido, where we use the spinal axis rotation by pivoting to capture, control and project or guide uke to the ground.  Spinal rotations driven by the hips also serve to disperse an attacker's aggressive energy by dissipating it in a circular flow around us rather than making us receive it directly into our own balance and structure.  In Kali it is rarer to use such pivots, but the principle is the same when we pass using Suliwas or other parrying flows.

Of course, centering is an important metaphor outside the dojo as well.  Every day there are many things which happen that could cause us to reach out and lose our balance instead of remaining centered.  Breathing, posture and focused movement are just as important in our everyday lives as they are in our training.

Stay Centered.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Eyes Have It

This year's Kali Majapahit Instructor Training Academy (ITA) in Singapore was fantastic in so many ways --- Guro Fred introduced us to his R.E.D. training program and the enhanced HIT elements of our new curriculum, I got to reconnect with my brothers and sisters for a weekend of training, my 14 year old son George flew down to join (and did an amazing job!!), and my veteran students Joe and Will tested and passed Kasama (assistant instructor).  Last but surely not least, Kasama Phil became Kadua Guro Phil (1st dan black belt), my very first student to train up to that level.  I couldn't be more proud of our KM Japan family and how much we have achieved together.

Out of a full weekend of fantastic sharing and training it is hard to find any one activity that stands out --- it was jam packed full of awesomeness.  For some it might have been karambit team-teaching, where each of the instructors showed a karambit technique for the group.  That was crazy good.  However, for me one drill by Guro Guillaume continues to resonate with me.

Guro Guillaume is a giant of a man.  standing at over 190cm and 100kg he is truly intimidating. For his size, he moves deceptively fast and smooth, and his many years of Kali training (he was one of Guro Fred's first students in Singapore) have given him an instinctive and graceful way of flowing. Trust me, you'd never want him to be angry at you.  At the same time, he is a loving husband and father, and a wonderful friend as well.  His martial arts is deeply rooted in spiritualism and psychology and he has incredible insights into the human soul.  He is a deep thinker and a perceptive student of people.

He gave us a very simple exercise --- stand directly in front of your partner and look deeply into his or her eyes.  Say nothing.  Just --- look.  Allow yourself to meet their gaze and connect. Allow yourself to let go of your conscious feelings about who they are and just see them as a human being, as a soul, connected completely to yours.  Without identity or classification, neither man nor woman, black or white --- just two perfect human beings.  It sounds simple, but is actually more difficult than most people realize.  Many people cannot stare into each others eyes at all without looking away or giggling nervously.  The eyes are just too intense and we begin to feel uncomfortable.  We have to keep breathing and focus on just looking deeply and letting go.

I was so lucky to have gotten the chance to do this exercise with my Kali brother and inspiration, Guro Vince.  When we relaxed and I stared into his eyes I was instantly taken back to the old dojo on Yan Kit Road where he and I first met --- my very first night when I was hypnotized by how he moved so effortlessly and dreaming of being like that someday.  When Guro Fred and the others were like magic and every moment was a wonder as new doors opened for me.  Without realizing it, tears were flowing down my face.   Tears of admiration for my dear friend and the amazing journey he has been on - this Kali journey we are on together.  I was overwhelmed feeling how lucky we both are.  I was so grateful to be standing there looking into the compassionate eyes of my brother.  I had missed him so much, and seeing his face brought back so many precious memories.  That exercise was a very special moment for me.

Later on, we all discussed it.  The real goal of the exercise is not recognition.  In fact, just the opposite. It is to break through any higher level thinking and just connect soul to soul.  This means that it should be just as powerful with a total stranger as it would be with your closest friend. By this definition, it was not a success.  However, I could not have been happier with what happened.  There will be other times to practice this, with many other people.  I am glad I got to try this with someone who means so much to me and who has been such an inspiration on my own journey.

The lesson is a simple one - connectedness.  It is a practice in engaging each other without any kind of judgement - just as two perfect human beings.  It is a powerful way of sharing and opening our hearts to each other, something I think this modern world desperately needs.

They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and I was reminded how true this is.
I encourage you to try this exercise for yourself and see the result.
You may find it as powerful as I did.

Look Inside.  Connect.  WE ARE ALL ONE.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Own the Outcome (OTO)

Recently I find myself repeating one phrase almost every day in a variety of circumstances - "Own the Outcome".

By this, I mean that we owe it to ourselves not to leave important things to random chance.  Instead, we need to consider the outcomes we want and make deliberate steps toward them.  We need to assert our will and control over the situations we can influence so that we can have the right results.

I know that not every situation is under our control, but I also find that we can all have far more influence over the outcomes in our lives than we probably realize. Martial Arts training is, at its core, a foundation to establish and reinforce goal setting and goal achievement.  We start each new level (belt) with a set of techniques to master and by the end, to achieve our next belt, we show the teachers what we have learned.  We prove to ourselves again and again that we can set new goals and, through hard work, focus and dedication, achieve these goals time after time.  We demonstrate to ourselves that we are winners - that we are in control.  We Own the Outcome.

Outside of class it is no different.  Whether at work, at school or at home, we can always set and achieve goals.   We can own the outcome of the things which are important to us by taking an active approach to engaging each task according to our plans.  Plans change, and adjusting is part of owning the outcome.  We do not affix blame; instead we accept causality and adjust accordingly.  Accepting feedback is an important part of tracking progress, and we use this to keep control on each step of our journey.

Owning the Outcome includes owning bad outcomes, too.  We must accept responsibility for our actions including mistakes we inevitably make.  Owning the outcome means forgiving yourself so you can be free to continue to move forward; accepting responsibility but not dwelling in negativity.

As an instructor, we have many outcomes we own --- outcomes for ourselves as instructors; outcomes for each student in our care (hopefully aligned with their desired outcomes for their training) and overall outcomes for the school which we contribute to.  We are part of a broader fabric and community, not just as individuals but collectively.

Unexpected developments are a part of daily life, but accidents rarely happen.  Most of the time, if we are focused on owning the outcome, we can foresee potential problems early enough to take preventive measures and avoid them.  When we can't, we need to adjust and be flexible without losing sight of the outcomes we want.

Fear, despair and depression are often the result of a (perceived) loss of control - the hopelessness of being unable to create change in our situation.  Developing a habit and discipline of Owning the Outcome is a great way to stay positive and keep momentum.  Empowerment is KEY.

I apologize in advance for those of you that see me regularly - expect to keep hearing this phrase since it applies so often.



Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Note the above.  This is a clip from the final fight scene in the movie "The Revenant".  If you have not seen it, please do.  In my opinion this is A FIGHT.  A realistic-looking fight between two people. There are weapons involved, there is blood EVERYWHERE, fingers and ears go missing...and finally one fatally wounded combatant, possibly two.

Yes, I know it's a movie.  The point I am trying to make is that the definition of a "fight" can vary greatly from person to person.  To some it is the pride-based "monkey dance".  To others MMA or boxing or even Muay Thai are "fighting".  Still to others, it is a life-or-death struggle to survive against potentially unfair odds.  You don't know until you are in it, and to be sure you are the one to walk away you must be ready to go as far as is needed to end the situation with minimal harm to yourself.

Sometimes I hear people whisper "I could take him" under their breath when they see people in the dojo train or spar.  Could you??  Are you sure??

How can you accurately predict what kind of fight that would be?  How do you know without any doubt that person does not have a switch that takes them straight into pure survival mode where they will bite chunks out of your face, tear out your eyes, and stomp you without mercy until you are dead or crippled?  Can you really be 100% sure?

After 35 years in and around martial arts, in my daily life I am rarely afraid.  That said, I still avoid every single fight I can avoid.  That's right.  EVERY SINGLE ONE.  Because fights are unpredictable and people are unpredictable I talk my way out, walk away or run away if I can every time.  Given an alternative I simply won't fight.  When I am given no alternative, my definition of a fight has no rules, no time limit, and no referee.  It ends when I end the other person's will to continue or they end me.  I will grab the nearest usable weapon I can find.  I will use any and all unfair means to my fullest advantage.  I fight DIRTY.  I suggest you do, too.

Don't assume your definition of a fight is your opponent's.  Don't assume the other guy will fight fair.
Never underestimate how savage a fight can be, or how quickly it can escalate into deadly use of force.  When cornered, get on the offensive quickly and deliver the maximum violence in the minimum time.  Don't stop until you are completely sure it is over.  Then, get out of there as fast as you possibly can.  Protect yourself at all times.  Be the one who walks away.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Myth of Silver

One of many interesting conversations I overheard around the time of the Rio Olympics.  I seem to recall the drama surrounding legendary Japanese wrestling Goddess Saori Yoshida, who was apologetic and in tears for having lost to Helen Maroulis in the final to win "only" a silver medal in the Olympic women's 53Kg wrestling this summer.

Genuinely sympathetic, some TV programs empathized with her tears.  Yoshida is truly a legend in women's wrestling, having already won gold in three prior Olympics and won gold in every major championship she attended since 2002.  She had been considered basically invincible.  "Settling" for merely a silver medal must have been humble pie indeed. Saori Yoshida surely wanted to go out undefeated but now will be thinking hard about whether she can still step on the mats in Tokyo in 2020 at 37 years old.

However, the psychology goes a bit deeper than that.  Helen Maroulis had her sights set on Yoshida for years, even choosing to wrestle at 53kg instead of her usual 55kg since that was where Yoshida competed.  She spent countless hours studying Yoshida's videos and training specifically to beat her, having previously lost to Yoshida in a mere 69 seconds during their first match.  Saori Yoshida has not been complacent by any means, but it is very hard to defeat someone whose entire being is focused on beating you.  Maroulis' laser focus, commitment and dedication are the very definition of what makes an Olympic athlete.

It is easy to celebrate a gold medalist.  Winning an Olympic gold medal is a testament to the many years of hard work and dedication in overcoming all the obstacles that separate truly incredible athletes from everyone else.  It must be the pinnacle of pride to stand on the podium in front of the World, celebrated for your prowess.  I can't imagine anything like that feeling.

At the same time, Bronze medals are laudable achievements.  We recognize that making the top 3 slots and ascending to the stage requires a burst of effort for the athlete that may not be a legend, but can surprise you with an unusually great performance.  The battles for bronze are often some of the most hotly contested among athletes that can be far easier for us to relate to. These are not storybook heroes but their struggle for the stage is no less glorious and we applaud them for being able to share the platform with the champions.

Sadly, the silver medal is neither of these.  It does not have the impact of winning a gold, nor does it have the merit of struggling to barely make it into the top 3.  For many, a silver medal is actually considered a sign of FAILURE, an "almost bronze"- a shameful reminder of someone who worked hard, but just not hard enough to win the gold.  An athlete who will be considered as never being quite good enough to take it all, or starting to show they are past their prime and fading away.  As if to say "Second Place is just First Loser".  Nothing but the best is good enough.

Our modern society is one of extremes, and little sympathy for those in the middle, left to obscurity.  We idolize the rich and shame the poor, and for those of us in the middle, a bronze medal is the best we could aspire to as our 15 minutes of fame.

In the martial arts world as well, we see the black belt as a basic symbol of achievement and dismiss the hard work that goes into every single step of the way.  We forget the pride of each belt we achieved along the way and the many lessons we learned with sweat and blood on the mats every week as we inched our way forward.  When people hear I do martial arts usually the first question they will ask is "Are you a black belt?" as if none of the others matter at all.  Of course, to those us who are serious in the art, a black belt is really just a beginning; a symbol that we are finally ready to start the deeper learning that comes next.  It's a lot like finally buying that plane ticket to an exotic destination.  It shows an investment that is in preparation for the next stage.

I hope we will remember that a Silver medal is no minor accomplishment and is still worthy of great praise.  I hope we will remember that the key to success in life is to do our very best at every opportunity and not obsess over how we will be "ranked" by others, to celebrate our victories however small.  I hope we will remember to be simple and humble, and to just DO GOOD WORK every day.  There is honor in that, silver medal or not.  Everyone wins if they have given their all.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Fuel Efficiency

(thanks for the inspiration Guys!)

Last night we were training hard, like we do every class.  It was a little different, though, since some of the students are busy preparing for instructor testing at this year's ITA, the Instructor Training Academy for Kali Majapahit in Singapore later this month.  Two of my students are testing for Kasama, assistant instructor, and one of my students is testing for Kadua Guro, full instructor, the first time since I started our Japan branch in 2011.  I am very proud of them for their hard work and dedication.

They want to do their best, so we are carefully reviewing all the various material, and there is a lot.  To test in Kali Majapahit as a Kasama or Kadua you must have a wide range of skills including single/double stick, several styles of empty hands self-defense, boxing and kickboxing, edged weapons, and a lot more.  Then, they asked for more cardio at the end.

We train hard and like to get a good sweat going, but they also know that ITA is no joke.  It's several long days on the mats, and testing is even harder.  When you are testing, there is usually no break during the seminar even for lunch, and you have to run to get water if you get any chance at all.  When everyone else rests, you MOVE...and KEEP MOVING.  These are the hardest tests I've ever taken.  Pacing is very important since some sections may go on for several hours without a break.

My students want to be in the best shape they can be in, and that's good.
At the same time, cardio alone will not get you there, and if we are strong we can be fooled into thinking that using our physicality is the best way to fight.  We burn it up during the boxing and kickboxing, hitting the pads as hard as we can every single time.  By the afternoon of Day 1, the tank is already empty and the rest of Day 1 and Day 2 are inconsistent and incrementally more difficult.  We forget that "How we train is how we fight" and that we always need to have some energy left at the end to walk away.

Many students and even instructors forget that a key to martial arts is EFFICIENCY.  The best fighters always do more with less.  They have strong bodies, but still look for the easiest, most direct way to accomplish their goals.

FMA are particularly famous for being "lazy" in that we train to go around opposing force and avoid direct strength on strength whenever we can.  We use guntings to disable and weaken our opponents, we rely on superior footwork to gain a good strategic position and deliver maximum force when we hit.  We use weapons where we can in order to multiply our impact force or use edged weapons which require less effort to employ.  Deliberately, we attack the enemy's structure to remove their power base and strength and make them easier to defeat.  We fight dirty because fighting dirty is much more efficient.   In Kali Majapahit, we know that we will often be in bad odds during a confrontation, so we skew in our favor by being brutally efficient in how we apply force.

This is in direct contrast to many other fighting systems such as Kyokushin, boxing, Muay Thai, for example, which rely on having a stronger, more athletic physique than the opponent.

In fighting, just like in life, knowing when/where/how to get the most return on your effort is the key to sustainability.  Especially as we grow older, just relying on physical strength will no longer be enough.  It is far far better to focus on developing clean, efficient body mechanics so that the strength needed is minimized and every calorie spent earns the maximum result.

Focus on body mechanics and efficiency rather than just speed and power and your skills will improve much faster.

Make every single movement count.

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, 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 when I landed in Japan 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.


Friday, May 13, 2016

The Coin

Last night was the end of a big chapter of my life.
After 4 years, I left my job to start something completely new.

To thank everyone for their friendship and support, I hosted a party, my way, with pizza and drinks at one of my favorite places. So many colleagues were there, chatting, eating, drinking, sharing.  It was perfect - a great way to close this part of my journey.

They asked me why I was leaving - maybe it was the scotch talking, but I arrived at the metaphor of a coin, which seemed a good way to explain some of the basics of my philosophy.

It goes like this...

The decisions I make are based around two facets, which are related so much that they could be called two sides of the same coin - each integral to the whole but each with a different aspect.

The Journey
One side is about The Journey.
Each and every one of us has a Journey.  Whether we know it or not; whether we acknowledge it or not; whether we accept it or not.  The Journey is our birthright as a human being and is part of being self-aware.  Animals do not have a Journey, they are able to just BE.  Humans, every single one, have a Journey.  Moreover, the Journey is unique to everyone and everyone is responsible for his or her own Journey.  This is very important.

Like every Journey, it travels forward, not backward.  It may pause but it does not stop.  It has goals, steps, way points, hills and valleys along the way.  It has rain and shine, vistas and panoramas.  It is the beautiful, glorious human adventure.

My Journey belongs to ME.  It is not the journey of my father, my wife, my children, my boss, my co-workers or my friends, even though sometimes it may seem like it is.  Recognizing that the Journey is unique helps us with the second key aspect of this understanding - we are all, each one of us, fully responsible for our own Journey (and ours alone).  This is true empowerment, since I can only ever seek to control myself, my decisions and actions; my responses and reactions.  Only I can determine my own happiness and success, and only I can affect the outcome.  In short, only I can be accountable, and must be fully accountable, for me.  Sometimes I step off the path, sometimes painfully.  However, the Journey remains and I can always find my way back to it if I try.  It is never too late.

The Journey of my soul is a Journey of Happiness.  When my actions are in accord with my personal journey, I experience happiness.  Not a giddy, delirious laughter.  Rather, a deep sense of contentment born of purpose and accomplishment, knowing unconsciously in my core that I am doing the "right things".  My soul tells me so if I can learn to listen.  In the end, it will not matter what clothes we wore, what car we drove or what size house we lived in.  What will matter is if we found happiness.  I believe this is found by following the Journey purposefully.

I believe we human children are born of The Light, born from the centers of stars when the universe was young.  Our Journeys are toward the Light.  This means that our happiness can never be meant to come at the cost of someone else's.  We must have a vested interest in the happiness of others, just as they must have a stake in our own.  We are far more alike than we are different.  Human beings come from the same source, with the same roots.  Our skin color matters as little as the color of our eyes or hair.  Our religion matters even less.  We are all one, each perfect soul with our own Journey.  I try as hard as I can to see past the physical self to what is inside - the soul and its Journey.  I try to see all people as beautiful.

Thus, knowing that I have a unique personal Journey in this life, self-discovery is of critical importance.  I focus on understanding myself, my drivers and motivators, my likes and dislikes so that I can better identify my Journey and prepare myself with the tools I will need to travel it well.  The Journey cannot be denied, but we can travel it smoothly or roughly at our own discretion.  My teacher often says that we are passengers on a train.  We do not control the route to the final destination, but we can choose where to sit.  Personally, I like a window seat.

The decisions I make, the big decisions, I try to make in accordance with my own personal Journey.  I know and accept that I need to own the outcome of my life - no one else can.

Very importantly, my parents, my wife and my children do not own my Journey - I do.  They can share my joy in accomplishment but cannot be blamed for the choice I make, good or bad.  My Journey is mine, and I do not have the responsibility to achieve what my parents did not or could not.  Likewise, my children's Journey will not be to finish what I start - only I can do that.  As a parent, husband and friend all I can do is offer support and encouragement to the Journeys of those I meet and facilitate their Journey.  I can share my happiness and comfort their sadness, but I cannot own their Journey for them.  As a parent, I try to prepare my children with the tools to seek their own answers about their own lives, and encourage them to discover their own Journey, their mission, whatever and wherever it may be.  I try to teach them to prepare themselves by trying many different things to see what resonates in them.  There are no wrong answers, and I know the destination with be worth the effort.  They must learn to do things not because it makes me happy, but because it makes them happy.  It is their Journey which matters. I have my own.

The Gratitude Attitude
The second side of the coin is the Gratitude Attitude.  This is an ever-present feeling of thankfulness for the gift of our lives and the gift of our Journey.  As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes "we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience".  We are each privileged to have the chance for this great human adventure and to be given a chance to live fully, with purpose and meaning.  We have the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy and positively influence those around us.  We can be part of the Journey of others and increase each other's happiness.

I am deliberate in finding things to be grateful for, every day.  This is an important part of changing my perspective from negative to positive and has helped me to see the bright side of things as much as I can.  I feel very fortunate to have been given so many chances to do so many different things.  In my life and my career I have learned so much.  Now, turning 50 this year, I am given a chance to go in a brand new direction.  I couldn't be more excited.  I am truly grateful.  I own my own outcome, and I am grateful to be in control of my life.

All my friends, family, co-workers have given me so much support.  Thank you all for believing in me and for being such an important part of my Journey.  I promise you the story will be a good one.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Monkey Trap

Ah yes, the good old monkey trap.
My parents used to tell me this story a lot when I was young.  The monkeys were too agile and clever to get caught by hand or with the typical traps hunters used.  So they devised something that would work every time - the monkey trap.

By putting a banana in a heavy glass vase, with the opening big enough so the monkey could reach in but not big enough for the monkey to pull its fist out.  The monkey grabs the banana...and is stuck.  The hunters walk up with a net...

If only the monkey could just let go of the banana, it could be free...

Sound familiar??

All of us are victims of the Monkey Trap from time to time.  Like the monkey, we become fixated on something, tangible or intangible, that we want.  We just won't let go - can't let go - and the thing we want ends up causing us harm.  We are too blind to see past our own wants and desires and accept the fact that some of the things we want (or think we want, anyway) just aren't good for us.  Some of the most common things we can't let go of were recently reminded online, and I share the list below:

1. Limiting Beliefs - anything you believe that is holding you back.
2. Dwelling on the Past - Life is to be lived IN THE NOW.
3. Worrying about the Future - Everything is going to be Fine. Trust me.
4. Negative Self-Talk - If you don't believe in yourself, who will?
5. The Need to Impress Others - Let them love you for who you already are.
6. Complaining - It's better to just get on with things.
7. The Need to always be Right - Accept that you are human too.
8. Resistance to Change - Learn to go with the Flow.
9. Blaming Others - It probably isn't their fault either.
10. The Need for other people's approval - The most important respect is Self-Respect.

I am guilty of holding on to all of these from time to time - some far more often than others.
Maybe you are, too.  By not letting go, we prevent ourselves from the happiness we say we really want.  An important step in personal growth is acknowledging this - and then working to improve on it.  Happiness is a journey, and we must keep moving to keep making progress.

What's YOUR banana?
How can you learn to let it go?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Fighter's Life

I was watching the 2015 movie "Creed" again recently and there's a part in the dialog that I keep thinking about.

Rocky: Why would you want to pick a fighter's life when you don't have to?
Adonis Creed: I been fighting my whole life.  I ain't got a choice.

Rocky goes on to tell him that it's always a choice.  However, I am not so sure I agree.

I've been involved in martial arts now for more than 35 years.  It's been my life's journey as a student, now a teacher, across a variety of martial arts styles.  At the right times in my life, the right teachers have appeared to guide me to the next stage of my development.  Even the times I thought I would stop training or focus my energies on something else - I just couldn't.  It's in my DNA.  I feel like I've been fighting my whole life.

The journey started with me wanted to protect myself from the frequent beatings I got at school.
I was small, with a disproportionately big mouth (which I still have).  I was an outcast, unpopular and poor at sports.  Picked last when I was picked at all.  I got beaten so much that the school would let me out 15 minutes early in the afternoon so I could get most of the way home before the other kids got out and chased me down.  It usually worked.

Martial arts gave me the confidence to stand up, even when I got knocked down.  It gave me the confidence to set and achieve my life's goals.  Martial arts ultimately brought me to Japan (where I still am and expect to remain).  It gave me a place to belong.  It taught me to have pride in myself and not to be ashamed of my past as a foster child.

Now, martial arts is a way to help my students have the confidence and drive to accomplish their own goals and achieve their own success.  It is about paving the way for the next generation of teachers who will go out and share what we do with their own students.  It's about changing the world - one black belt at a time.  It's about giving back, for all that martial arts has done for me.

I am going to be 50 years old this year.  I'm still fighting.  I think I always will be.  I just don't know any other way to be.  I'll be fighting against bullies.  I'll be fighting against myself.  I'll be fighting against my past and my demons.  I'll be fighting for recognition, for self-respect, for my pride.  I'll be fighting to make a difference.  If you are reading this, I expect you will be too.

What are you fighting for?
What are you fighting against?