BOOK REVIEW: Kalaripayat by Patrick Denaud

Kalaripayat: The Martial Arts Tradition of IndiaKalaripayat: The Martial Arts Tradition of India by Patrick Denaud
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There’s a dearth of books on Indian martial arts, in general, and Kalaripayattu, specifically. The few books that do exist, such as Ranjan Mullaratt’s “Kalari Margam” (a fine book which I’ve previously reviewed), focus heavily on the techniques of the martial art. Denaud builds a niche by writing perhaps the only English-language book yet that turns its focus on other aspects of the art, including the art’s history, philosophy, customs, psychology, and its influence on–and interaction with–other systems both in India and abroad (e.g. yoga, Kathakali, Ayurvedic massage, and Tai Chi.)

After three forwards by luminaries and an introduction, the book consists of seven chapters. The chapters cover the history and mythology of the art, Kalaripayattu as a martial art (weapons and techniques in general terms), the psychological aspects of the art, the art’s relationship with Ayurvedic practices—particularly massage, its relationship to other elements of Keralan culture, the results of interviews with modern-day masters, and the influence of India and Kalaripayattu on foreign martial arts.

When I picked this book up, I was somewhat expecting that it would contain little in the way of intriguing and relevant information, and that it would be stuffed with generally known background information. I’ve come across far too many books on topics for which there’s little information, and have become well-acquainted with the many methods by which authors pad out a pamphlet’s worth of information into a book. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much information on Kalaripayattu this book contained, and how relevant the background seemed. While there’s a fair amount of background, the book doesn’t feel padded. Granted, I can’t be certain how much of this information is accurate. I know common myths are repeated that are now believed to be false (e.g. Bodhidharma spreading Kalaripayattu to Shaolin), but I saw nothing that seemed like pure fabrication (though I’d be unlikely to recognize such a thing.) Denaud does cite his sources (not in bibliographic format, just by attribution of authors and texts) on most occasions and it certainly wrings authoritatively.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in martial arts, and the history of martial arts. It’s a rare glimpse into various aspects of Kalaripayattu. Also, some people who are interested in south Indian culture more than martial arts may also find it worthwhile.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Pyjama Game by Mark Law

The Pyjama Game: A Journey Into JudoThe Pyjama Game: A Journey Into Judo by Mark Law

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Mark Law’s book contains two types of book in one volume, unified by the theme of judō. On the one hand, it’s a microhistory of the martial art and sport of judō–and, no, it’s not redundant to say the martial art and the sport because while these aspects overlap they aren’t identical. On the other hand, the book presents a personal account of Law’s experience as a judōka who began his practice at the ripe age of 50. The two elements of the book are interwoven together, and aren’t forced into distinct sections by the book’s organization. The history is obviously organized in a chronological fashion, but personal accounts are peppered throughout, and sometimes stories appear in history chapters.

As a history of judō, Law begins with the pre-history of the art in its ancestor martial art of jujutsu, he travels through the arts influence on off-shoots like Sambo and Brazilian Jujutsu, and he examines how the art has contributed to mixed martial arts—the 800 pound gorilla of present-day combative competitions. Particular emphasis is given to Kanō Jigorō’s role as founder of the art and the evolution of judō as an Olympic sport. Interestingly, besides founding Kodokan Judō, Kanō’s other claim to fame was in being the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). However, he never saw judō become an Olympic event, and—ironically–at least a few among those close to him doubted that Kanō would’ve been pleased with his art’s inclusion in the international games.

While Japan dominated judō when the sport first entered the domain of international competition, it wasn’t long before there were a number of other countries including the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Cuba, and Korea that were producing first-rate judōka. Law devotes considerable discussion to the global blossoming of this sport, including entire chapters on some of the more prominent nations. The book discusses the double-edged sword that Japan faced. On one hand, the Japanese were heart-broken when other nations started beat them at their own game. On the other hand, it was clear that this had to happen for the sport to retain a global following. (Otherwise, the sport might have gone the way of baseball—being pulled out of the Olympics because only a handful of North American, Caribbean, and East Asian nations had any interest in it.

There are also chapters on women’s judō, a development that no doubt faced a good deal more misogyny than many sport’s bi-genderifications. There’s always been resistance to encouraging women’s participation in combative activities—even judō, a martial art whose dangerous edges were supposed to have been rounded off through rules, equipment (e.g. sprung flooring), weight classes, and close monitoring. Law discusses the hard fought evolution of the women’s side of the sport.

As a personal narrative, Law talks about the lessons he learned from training in judō and from testing for rank—an arduous process that requires beating other rank-pursuers in randori (free-form grappling, i.e. the grappling version of sparring.) Many of these lessons will be familiar to anyone who has practiced a martial art (e.g. while it’s more intimidating to fight someone who’s much more experienced in the art, it’s usually vastly more safe—both because senior players are more in control of their bodies and because they have less need to prove anything—i.e. they won’t injure an opponent to protect a fragile ego), but much of this discussion is specific to the culture and practice of judō.

If you’re interested in the history and development of judō, I’d recommend this book. I found the book to be at its most interesting when it addresses the history and globalization of the sport. However, those who haven’t practiced martial arts may find Law’s personal insight to be useful—particularly if you’re considering taking up judō and all the more if you intend to take it up past mid-life.

It should be noted that—judging by the identical table of contents and subtitle—this book was also released under the title Falling Hard: A Journey into Judo. The book does is annotated and provides references. Law is a journalist, and the niceties of that discipline are followed throughout.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kalari Margam by Ranjan Mullaratt

Kalari MargamKalari Margam by Ranjan Mullaratt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the few books on the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu–particularly written in English. [There are English and Kannada editions–Kannada being the language spoken in Karnataka, the state where the book was produced.]Kalaripayattu is believed to be one of the world’s oldest martial arts and many believe it to be an ancestor to many popular Asian martial arts.

This will be a quick review because this is a pictorial book–i.e. like a coffee table book. While there is text throughout, the book primarily seeks to convey the feel of the martial art through photographs. In that regard the book succeeds tremendously. The photos, often full-page format, are vivid, engaging, and bring Kalaripayattu to life. The photographer, Arabind Govind, did an excellent job, as did all of the practitioners who served as demonstrators for the photos.There is pleasing use of natural lighting for both the photos taken in the kalari and outdoors. The acrobatics are awe-inspiring.

The text is well-written and concise. There were a couple tiny typos that didn’t detract from the meaning in any way. (It’s a first edition and a photo book, so I don’t grade hard there.) The text is most extensive and useful toward the front of the book in the discussions of history, philosophy, and mythos of the art. Throughout most of the rest of the book the text consists of sparse paragraphs used to give a little additional information on the weapons and techniques–including the massage style.

The book starts with background, then it delves into the physical exercises that are used to build fitness, then the unarmed fighting approach, followed by the arsenal of weapons employed in the art, and it concludes with a discussion of vital point massage.

I’d recommend this book for students of the martial arts who are interested in Indian martial arts, or who are just interested in martial arts generally.

I will say that the book may be difficult to get one’s hands outside of Bangalore because it is self-published by the Kalaripayattu Training and Research Center. I will, therefore, give their address: Kalari Gurukulam, 102 Maple Meadows, Chikkagubbi, Bangalore, India 562149.

Their website is www.kalarigurukulam.com

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9 Self-Defence Tips for Women

Today is a day of protest in Bangalore to decry sexual assaults on women and children. It seems like an apropos time to offer some advice on self-defense.

1.) NEVER GET INTO A VEHICLE or allow yourself to be taken to another location:

This is line in the sand #1.  He’s telling you to get in the vehicle because he wants to do something that he’s scared to do at the present location. That means your chances if you scream, run, fight, or some combination of the above are better than if you get in the car. A thief wants your money/possessions and then wants to put as much distance between you and he as possible. Don’t believe anything a thug tells you about why he wants to take you somewhere–no matter what kind of soothing tone he may use. He means to do you harm at the end of that ride.

2.) Never allow your freedom of movement to be restrained:

Line in the sand #2. The same logic applies. He wants to bind or handcuff you because he’s scared to do what he wants to do with an unrestrained victim. Your chances are better if you scream, run, fight, or all of the above than if you allow yourself to be hogtied.

3.) If you remember nothing else from this post, remember points 1 and 2. 

Source: www.clutterclearcoach.com

Source: clutterclearcoach.com

4.) 2 ways a cluttered purse can be perilous:

First, if you decide to carry some form of weapon (e.g. pepper-spay or a stun-gun) or the ineloquently named “rape-whistle”, it will do you less than no good if you can’t put your hand on it instantaneously. (Why less than no good? Because your eyes will be on your bag, instead of on the threat.)

Second, see point 5, below.

5.) How to be robbed, a primer:

You’ve probably heard the mantra, “Never fight over money or possessions, they can be replaced, you can’t!” That’s sound advice. However, you must keep in mind that violent criminals use “gimme your money” as a ploy. They wait until your eyes go down and then they pounce with much more ominous intent.  This is the second way a cluttered purse can be perilous. If you start looking through your purse, you’re at risk. Pitch the whole purse, let them find it. If they don’t go for it, then it’s time to flee or fight.

What’s the “proper way” to be robbed? You throw the money in the robber’s direction (preferably between his feet and behind him) and then you run the other direction. If he’s a robber, he’ll grab the money and hightail it in the opposite direction from you. If he chases you, then it’s time to be ready to fight for your life.

IMG_40726.) Choose classes wisely:

There are a lot of offerings of self-defense and martial arts classes. The first thing to know is the difference between self-defense and martial arts classes. Self-defense classes will teach you a few basic, easily remembered techniques to get out of the grasp of an unsophisticated attacker so that you can run. If you know that you don’t have a lot of time and energy to devote to learning to protect yourself, this is the type of class you should pursue. You probably won’t learn what you need to get safely away from an athletic psychopath, but–fortunately–such individuals are rather rare. I’d recommend this type of training periodically even for women with no interest in martial arts.

There are many different primary objectives one may see in various martial arts, including: sport, entertainment, sustaining a historical lineage, or preserving historical / cultural events and ways. While self-defense is one of several objectives of almost all martial arts, it’s the primary objective that will shape the martial art and its relevance to you. Sporting martial arts will get you in fighting shape and teach you to take a hit and keep moving, but may leave you with systematic vulnerabilities around the rules of the game.

For example, if punches to the head aren’t allowed, you won’t learn to defend yourself from the head punches that a real world attacker won’t hesitate to employ. If fighting on the ground isn’t allowed, then you’ll miss out on some beneficial training. Also, in a sport you may spend a lot of time punching with a closed fist. This is great if: a.) you’ve built up bone density with bag work and exercises, b.) your hand is wrapped tightly, and c.) you have a padded glove on. If not, there’s a good chance you’ll break one of the tiny bones in your hand on the attacker’s thick, bony skull–and it may distract you enough to lose advantage. This isn’t to imply such a martial won’t prepare you better than the next woman (and better than an attacker, for that matter), but you should only do it if you’re interested in the sport as well as in defending yourself.

Martial arts for entertainment may have you spending a lot of time practicing complex, spinning, aerial maneuvers that you cannot count on being useful against an attacker on the street. Again, if you enjoy this kind of martial art for its own sake, I’m not suggesting you should abandon it or that it isn’t benefiting you at all from a defensive standpoint.

Historical martial arts often offer the advantages of being combat-oriented and not rule constrained, but you may spend a lot of time working with archaic weapons and may not practice sparring or free-form fighting–which, I would argue, is essential to being ready to defend yourself. Again, these arts are awesome, but you need to be aware of what you are studying and what it’s value is to you.

Questions to ask:

a.) Can I watch a class? I’ve heard clever explanations for why this isn’t necessary for such-and-such martial art, but if they won’t let you watch a class, I’d move on to the next place. The observation class allows you to see whether that art is right for you and whether the teacher is skilled and professional.  Now, don’t expect a school to keep allowing you to show up and watch, but one class should give you enough idea. You may want to ask ahead to make sure it’s a fairly typical class. Some martial art schools occasionally have atypical classes to communicate some ancillary information to students which isn’t at all that useful in a day-to-day sense. (Alternatively, some schools have classes that are rigidly identical from one session to the next.)

b and c.) Will you teach me how to stay on my feet?  and Will you teach me how to fight on the ground? The ideal answers to both is “yes.” If they answer the first question by saying, “All fights go to the ground, we teach you how to get down and control the situation.” You have some sort of submission sport school that would likely make you tough as nails. However, there’s a reason there are weight classes in those sports. You don’t want to default to the ground voluntarily with someone who outweighs you by 60 pounds and who can bench press your body weight two or three times over.

That being said, if the answer to the second question is, “No. Going to the ground is ridiculous,” you might want to move on to the next school. To summarize, you want a school that will teach you how to stay on your feet so you can get away, but, also, you want a school that’ll prepare you for the worst case scenarios.

d.) Do you do sparring, randori, rolling (as in ground-fighting free-form training), or other free-form training? Note: In most martial arts, you’ll need to spend some time learning basics before you get into sparring (and that’s a good thing, in my view.) However, if the school doesn’t do any of that type of training at any level, it probably won’t prepare you for what you are likely to face. There are some old school martial arts that only do form and technique training, but with no “unstructured” training.

My final word on looking for a school: Don’t be scared off by the students looking haggard, sweaty, and mildly gimpy by the end of class. Such a school will prepare you much better than one in which the students look pristine going home.

7.) Drill with any weapon you carry:

Believe it or not, I once saw a professional law enforcement officer who accidentally sprayed himself full in the face with pepper-spray. (Among my varied and sundry past occupations was a stint in law enforcement.) No weapon is a magic talisman that you can put in your bag and expect to have it ward off evil.

8.) Don’t expect the Hollywood plop:

Squirting an attacker with pepper-spray, shocking them with a stun gun, or even shooting them with a handgun will not necessarily immediately and definitively incapacitate them. They may keep coming, hopefully impaired, but possibly just angered. There is an old samurai saying that goes, “Even in victory, cinch tight your helmet cords.” This means, even when it looks like your attacker is down for the count, maintain caution.

9.) Remember items 1 and 2, NEVER GET IN THE CAR and NEVER LET YOURSELF BE TIED UP.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

Tao of Jeet Kune DoTao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jeet Kune Dō (henceforth, JKD) is Bruce Lee’s “styleless style” of martial arts. Its literal meaning is “the way of the intercepting fist.” However, Lee cautions one against attaching too much significance to that name (or any name) in the book’s final chapter. Long before “Mixed Martial Arts” became a household word, Lee was constructing this fighting system that borrowed heavily from the Western traditions of boxing, fencing (conceptually speaking), and wrestling as well as from Kung-fu, Savate, and Judō/Jujutsu. While JKD employs techniques and concepts from these systems, Lee remained adamant that no good came of organized styles built on fixed forms. In fact, that might be said to be the central theme of the book. That is, each fighter should begin with sound fundamentals and build an approach that is ultimately his or her own.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is an outline of the martial art. In many ways, it looks like and reads like Lee’s personal notebook. It’s illustrated with crude (but effective) hand drawings of the type one would see in a personal journal, and they are annotated with hand-written notes. (My biggest criticism is that on the Kindle version the graphics are largely unreadable. I’d recommend you get the print edition if you can, which is large-format paperback as I recall.) The book combines a philosophy of martial arts with nitty-gritty discussion of the technical aspects of combat. The philosophical chapters bookend the technical ones.

As others have pointed out, there’s not much that is new in either the philosophical discussions or the technical ones. Lee’s value-added is in how he states these concepts, how he selects the concepts of value (informed largely by a love of simplicity and a hatred of dogma), and the weight lent to the lessons by Lee’s great success story—albeit in a life far too short. Lee was a man of charisma, and one who approached endeavors with gravitas.

Now, I can imagine some readers saying, “Why are you recommending a book on real fighting by a movie martial artist? Would you recommend a book on how to conduct gall bladder surgery from someone because they were on the first two seasons of ER? Would you take martial arts lessons from Keanu Reeves because his moves looked pretty nifty in The Matrix?”

I’ll admit that there is nothing about making kung-fu movies that makes one particularly competent to give advice on close-quarters combat. However, as I said, Lee seemed to devote himself entirely to everything he did. Consider the Bruce Lee physique, which seems so common place among actors today (no doubt in part chemical and in part owing to live-in Pilates coaches) was virtually unseen in the 70’s. Yeah, he probably had good genes, but he must have trained like a maniac as well. Lee’s constant mantra of “simplicity” lends him a great deal of credibility. (It should be noted that pragmatism is not a virtue in the movie-making industry.) Lee demonstrates that he’s given a lot of thought to the subject and done the training when he discusses technical concepts. For example, while he gives high praise to Western boxing and emulates boxing moves in some regards, he also notes that boxers are insufficiently cautious owing to the rules/equipment of their sport (a comment—it should be noted–that can be leveled against any sport martial art.)

The technical material is organized in four chapters. The chapter on “tools” deals with the techniques of striking, kicking, and grappling. A chapter on preparations explains Lee’s thoughts on faints, parries and manipulations. There is a chapter on mobility that discusses footwork and various types of evasions. The last technical chapter discusses the approaches to attack, focusing heavily on JKD’s five types of attack.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is undeniably repetitive, but that repetition has value in hammering home key concepts. It’s also consistent with the JKD philosophy of not getting into a great deal of complexity, but rather drilling home the basics. There’s an old martial arts adage that says, “One should not fear the man who knows 10,000 techniques as much as the one that has done one technique 10,000 times.” This seems apropos here. Besides, the concepts that are repeated are often worth memorizing. e.g. Simplify. Eliminate ego. Avoid fixed forms. Be natural. Don’t think about building up as much paring away.

I’d recommend this book for martial artists of any style. Non-martial artists may find the philosophical chapters interesting, but may not get much out of the list-intensive technical chapters.

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