Ma-Ai: The Ideal Interval [Free Verse]

there is a ma-ai

-- an ideal interval --

the perfect gap
in space & time
& space-time

there's a ma-ai:

between setup and punchline
&
between punchline and laugh

between inhalation 
&
exhalation

between listening
&
speaking

between receiving
&
countering

between swinging
&
hitting

too rushed and momentum
is smothered

to slow and momentum
dissipates

there is a ma-ai
for all things that move.

BOOK REVIEW: Karate Science by J.D. Swanson

Karate Science: Dynamic MovementKarate Science: Dynamic Movement by J.D. Swanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When I picked up this book, I did so with the hope that it would be to striking as Jiichi Watanabe’s excellent book “The Secrets of Judo” [now sold as “The Art and Science of Judo”] is to grappling. That didn’t turn out to be the case. If Watanabe’s book has a fifty / fifty split between science and judo, Swanson’s book is about 80 percent Karate manual and 20 percent science. It’s a fine book about karate techniques, but if you want to understand biomechanics and how to optimize your movement, I think you can do better (particularly, if you would like insights that apply beyond Okinawan Karate.)

The book had two failings, keeping it from living up to its potential. First, it didn’t use graphics as well as it could have to help the reader visualize what is being said, or to point out the subtleties under discussion. Second, it generally presents the science at a shallow level. I’d been pleased to see that there was a chapter on breath, because I think that’s one of the most important and under-discussed factors in any system of movement (martial or otherwise.) However, I was disappointed to see that there wasn’t much to it besides some philosophizing about ki-ai.

There were a few valuable tid-bits here and there, points about which the book adds to one’s scientific / bodily understanding. The best example of this is probably the discussion of Intra-Abdominal Pressure (IAP,) which is where the book most shines with respect to offering some food for thought.

If you study Okinawan Karate and are looking for discussions about the difference between how various schools perform techniques, this may be the book for you. However, if you’re expecting some science in a book entitled “Karate Science,” I suspect you can do better.


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BOOK REVIEW: Transforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu by Jamie Marich & Anna Pirkl

Transforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu: A Guide for Survivors, Therapists, and Jiu-Jitsu Practitioners to Facilitate Embodied RecoveryTransforming Trauma with Jiu-Jitsu: A Guide for Survivors, Therapists, and Jiu-Jitsu Practitioners to Facilitate Embodied Recovery by Jamie Marich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: March 15, 2022

This book proposes that jiu-jitsu can be beneficial and therapeutic for those with trauma-related conditions (e.g. PTSD,) and it offers advice and insight to martial arts teachers, therapists, as well as trauma survivors considering jiu-jitsu. I’m curious to see how much merit these ideas prove to offer. By that, I mean neither to insult the bona fides of the authors, nor even to foreshadow skepticism. What I am saying is that this proposition isn’t one that’s been studied thoroughly and systematically. [The authors acknowledge as much. They’re at the vanguard of an idea here.] Therefore, the good news is that the book is bleeding edge, but the bad news is that it’s based largely on anecdotal evidence and the application of tried concepts to an untried (and quite unique) domain.

On one hand, few activities can teach one: breath control, now-centric living, command of emotions, and increased comfort with being in close proximity to people (who may seem physically intimidating) like the martial arts. Those all feel like positive features for a trauma survivor, and some of them (e.g. breath control) are addressed extensively in the book. On the other hand, the way martial arts teach one to keep one’s focus in the moment is via the pressure of an attacker – defender dynamic. If one is triggered by intense, seemingly aggressive activity, that’s hard to reconcile with the nature of the martial arts — which should always be safe but do necessitate a certain degree of intensity to mentally prepare students for a combative experience.

As I read through the panoply of challenges that might arise – from inability to train with someone who looks vaguely like one’s attacker to not being able to be experience a mount (one of the most fundamental jiu-jitsu positions) – I often had the feeling I’d have in response to a book entitled, “CrossFit for the Severely Arthritic” [i.e. not all fine objectives work together.] The authors do discuss alternatives like private lessons and specialized workshops / classes, but those are more realistic solutions in some cases others. (i.e. I feel that few of the dojos I’ve been in could afford to offer the range of classes for special demographics that are mentioned [workshops, probably.] But there’re only a few hours a day one can hold classes that people who can afford to attend aren’t working, and paying rent on a larger space on the amount that can be earned from those few hours a day is daunting enough.) If you can attend special trainings for trauma survivors, the book’s guidance all seems quite workable. But, otherwise, I had to wonder to what degree one could accommodate those with these needs without losing those who feel they benefit from the existing approach. [e.g. Many dojos I’ve been in used a rotation scheme so that everybody trained with everybody else, and in virtually all there was an expectation of a certain level of decorum and discipline of behavior on the mat — e.g. not wandering off in the middle of practice, not holding side conversations, and not picking / choosing what techniques one will / won’t practice. (All of which, were activities mentioned that could happen in the trauma-sensitive school, and all of which I feel I benefited from having trained out of me.)]

There was a tremendous amount of useful information in the book. How to recognize an individual has been triggered. How to best respond. It’s certainly worth reading for those reasons alone, and – maybe – they’re onto something.

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BOOK REVIEW: False Guard by Merwan

Fausse Garde - NE (Hors Collection)Fausse Garde – NE by Merwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 30, 2021

This graphic novel is set in a fantastical world that combines the culture of a Southeast Asian live-in gym, a setting suggestive of “One Thousand and One Nights” supersized to mega-city scale, and some novel creative elements of the author-artist’s imagination. The protagonist, Mane, is a fighter who dreams of making it big in the big city. On the bright side, despite the prejudices against him as an outsider, Mane has the drive and talent to be a champion. However, in a universe of single-minded people (professional fighters,) his energies are split between the gym and his desire to fight for social justice. It turns out that the man leading him into a guerrilla battle against the societal elite, Fessat, is an old intra-gym rival of the gym-owner / coach, Eiam, for whom Mane is fighting.


The story is largely about Mane’s attempts to reconcile these two aspects of himself, and the travails of the bifurcated mentorship he receives from Fessat and Eiam. The fictional martial art of Pankat bears resemblance to Muay Thai / Lethwei / Pradal Serey Southeast Asian style kick-boxing, with a combination of MMA elements to appeal to the present-day reader and some creative details to make it feel more exotic.


For the most part, I found the story and character development compelling. There were some points at which it felt like there was a disjoint between the emotional displays being made and the events at hand. It’s hard to put a finger on what was off, it just felt a bit overwrought at times. Besides a desire to create a visceral story, this is probably meant to reflect Mane’s stress level, but it felt forced at times. It’s also true that Mane is a complex character – at times sympathetic and at other times an impetuous jerk.


If found this book to be enjoyable and engaging.


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Mantis Kung Fu [Common Meter]

A mantis landed on the rail,
and it put up its dukes
as one might expect of madmen
or drunken Irish kooks.

Why would one seek out a fair fight
with someone much bigger,
I shook my head and started to
engage in a snigger.

But then it did occur to me
that he couldn't stand elsewise.
So, I tried to gauge his intent,
and looked him in the eyes...

and he stomped me in my nether bits -
much to my surprise.

BOOK REVIEW: Musashi’s Dokkodo ed. Lawrence Kane & Kris Wilder

Musashi's Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint's Last WordsMusashi’s Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint’s Last Words by Miyamoto Musashi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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“The Dokkōdō” consists of 21 precepts written by Miyamoto Musashi in his last days. Musashi was solitary, a minimalist, and single-mindedly resolute as a swordsman – all to extremes few of us can fathom. [Imagine a cross between Diogenes and Muhammad Ali.] These twenty-one sentences barely fill a page, let alone a book. However, as with sutras of yoga and Buddhism, a book’s worth of material comes from elaboration and analysis. This approach is taken in this book by way of five commenters from different walks of life, though all with martial arts experience.

However, normally the explanations would be made by: a.) someone who understands the language (particularly the archaic form the author wrote in – i.e. Musashi’s lifespan overlapped with Shakespeare’s, so consider the changes in the English language that transpired,) or b.) someone with a depth of understanding of the worldview of the author (in this case, that would be someone immersed in a mélange of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Chinese classics, and the influence of life in the wake of centuries of feudalism and militancy on a person’s psychology.) This isn’t the approach taken in this book. While the five commenters are clearly well-read and intelligent individuals, they are also firmly ensconced in a worldview that is Western, Abrahamic, and materialistic. [I suspect this was the editors’ intention – to relate to the lives of the likely readership, but it does have stark implications for how the book is perceived.]

If one is looking for a book that will explore what – if anything – from the legendary swordsman’s deathbed lesson aligns with a Western / Abrahamic / American-suburban strip mall dojo lifestyle, this is your book — 5-stars – buy it immediately. However, if one approaches the book from the assumption that Musashi was an exceptional person who must have had valuable insight into how to be exceptional, then one is likely to find this book presumptuous and dismissive of Eastern values and philosophies.

Much of the book is the commenters dismissing Musashi’s ideas as wrong-headed. In some cases, this is because Musashi was such an extremist that few could hope to live a life like his. [It’s not “the way of going alone” for no reason. Though that’s arguably why we are still interested in what Musashi has to say 400 years after his death.] However, in many cases, the commenters seem to be talking past Musashi’s ideas because their assumptions are inconsistent with the swordsman’s cultural milieu.

This is most often seen with respect to a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western psychology. In Buddhism, there are purely mental constructs that have no reality except within the mind, and which can cause suffering with no material upside. For example, in precept #6 when Musashi argues against regret, some of the resulting commentary was as if the precept was “Don’t learn from your mistakes. Never change.” For a Buddhist, not holding onto regrets does not at all mean that one doesn’t learn or make corrections – mid-course or otherwise. It just means that there is this cancerous mental construct that can’t help one because the past is the past, and so it is jettisoned. Another example involves not having preferences, which – again – doesn’t mean that one won’t make a choice (if the situation allows one a choice.) It means not holding onto a mental attachment. [e.g. If I like coffee more than tea, and a choice presents itself, I order coffee. What I don’t do is let my mind obsess about not being offered a choice.]

There are some beautiful insights peppered throughout this book, some that appear to be in line with Musashi’s thinking and others that I suspect the swordsman wouldn’t recognize as related to his own words. However, there is also a lot of commentary that sounds like college students railing against how bad Shakespeare is, in part because they are missing much of the Bard’s nuance and in part because his works seem unrelatable to their experience.

My recommendation of this book would be contingent upon where you fall on dichotomy that I mention in paragraph three. You might love it, or you might loath it.

P.S. If you’d like to know what differences can result from translation, you can find a scholarly translation that is done by a Japanese linguist (Terou Machida) and published in the Bulletin of Nippon Sport Sci. Univ. right here. You’ll note that most of the precepts are (for-all-intents-and-purposes) the same, except the conversion from first to third person. However, you will notice that several precepts (10-12, 15, and 20) are substantially different, and one (#16) is arguably of the exact opposite meaning.

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BOOK REVIEW: Breathe by Rickson Gracie

Breathe: A Life in FlowBreathe: A Life in Flow by Rickson Gracie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: August 10, 2021

This autobiography of the phenomenal Brazilian Ju Jutsu practitioner, Rickson Gracie, begins with ancestral origins that include a Gracie who fought in the US Civil War through Rickson’s boyhood in Rio and his professional fights in Japan, and onward to how he reinvented himself after family tragedy and the end of his fight career. Along the way, he conveys lessons learned not only through personal experience and from his father and uncle, the founders of Gracie Ju Jutsu, but also through his studies with Olando Cani — a yogi and developer of bioginastica. While the book is overwhelmingly about a life in Ju Jutsu, Cani’s influence plays a crucial role as the yogi taught Rickson about breath control, and, among a huge pack of skilled Gracie fighters, that ability was pivotal in Rickson’s rise to the top. (The book’s title, “Breathe,” hints at the role breathwork played in Rickson Gracie’s legendary capacities for enduring, flowing, and keeping his head in seemingly unfavorable situations.)

The memoir is candid, offering insights into not only Rickson’s path to success, but also his failings (which, not unexpectedly given his single-minded obsession with Ju Jutsu and fitness, more often involved life as an impetuous youth, as a father, and as a person – generally – than it did his life on the mat.) The book also explores some of the fissures in the Gracie clan and how they grew under the pressure of the family’s mammoth success. With autobiographies, it’s always a challenge to know how true a picture one is getting, but Gracie’s willingness to self-critique makes this book feel truthful.

This book is fascinating and highly engaging. If you’re interested in martial arts, it’s a no-brainer for one’s reading list, but any reader who enjoys a memoir of a life intensely lived will find the book highly readable.

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POEM: Tai Chi

do you know the way it flows

the glide it rides from highs to lows

coiling left to unwind right

weight of water, strong or slight

twisting, turning, a fire burning

riding tides and then returning

do you feel the way it flows

sometimes it speeds, most times it’s slow

BOOK REVIEW: T’ai Chi Classics by Waysun Liao

T'Ai Chi ClassicsT’Ai Chi Classics by Waysun Liao
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book conveys the teachings of three tai chi masters of old: Chang San-feng, Wong Chung-yua, and Wu Yu-hsiang. However, those masters’ treatises take up only a small portion of the book. That’s not a criticism. No doubt the treatises were cryptic and sparse, and so they are presented with commentary embedded rather than as literal translations. The treatises discuss the concepts that each of the masters thought was essential to the art, and the author conveys these complex and ethereal ideas in a way that is as understandable as possible.

Before presenting the three treatises in chapters four through six, the author offers a three chapter background on essential concepts for the tai chi student to understand. Chapter 1 presents historical background on tai chi and differentiates temple style from the family styles of tai chi, as well as giving insight into the philosophical underpinnings of the art. The second chapter offers a primer on chi, the life-force energy that is at the conceptual heart of tai chi. Chapter 3 describes jing and the means by which chi is expanded and transferred.

After the three treatise chapters, there is a final chapter that is intended to take the book from theory to practice. Most of the final chapter is a step-by-step description of a tai chi form, and consists of line drawings of the positions with bullet point descriptions of the movements. However, the chapter begins with some lists of key philosophical concepts as well as clarifying ideas about movement fundamentals.

There are line drawings throughout the book, not only to show physical positions in the practice but also diagrams to help convey the difficult concepts discussed throughout the book as well as Chinese calligraphy characters. Besides the calligraphy, these graphics are crude, looking as one might expect in a notebook. I don’t think the crude form of the graphics is a problem, and the notebook effect it creates may be an intentional aesthetic. As I don’t believe one can learn a martial art or other system of movement from a book, the fact that the graphics don’t offer much detail isn’t a problem.

I found the book to be thought-provoking and would recommend it for students of tai chi and qi gong.

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5 Tools to Hulk Your Way Out of Your Comfort Zone


5.) Take a class / Join a group: While I’m partial to yoga and the martial arts, the class could be in any area that presents a challenge.  However, there are a couple of advantages to the aforementioned two (to which I would add dance.)

 

First, these disciplines train one to be expressive with one’s body and to move more freely. This can do wonders for confidence. People store tension in their bodies without even realizing it. Many have postural problems that effect confidence and self-perception.  A 2014 New Zealand study found that posture can have a strong effect on emotional state.

 

Second, no matter who one is, one will be challenged by new approaches to movement.  The average person has great difficulty learning to use their body in new ways. One needs to drill in movements conscientiously to achieve competency. Our conscious mind, frequently gets in the way. Even the most athletic and coordinated people will need to work it, failing repeatedly until they succeed.

 

Why is the challenge so important? Many people go through life afraid to fail, but far too few fear never failing. Sounds idiotic. Nobody wants to fail. I have some hard news. If you’ve never failed, it’s not because you are unmitigatedly awesome in all things. It’s because you’re living in a box and cherry-picking life experiences that feel unthreatening.

 

If, like me, you’re an introvert, this approach offers the additional benefit of social interaction that is of a predictable / schedulable nature. One needs the interaction, but the problem comes when one has social interactions and / or sensory stimulation that go on too long and in an unpredictable fashion. Therefore, being able to schedule such time is a good way to go about being a more productive introvert.

 

 

4.) Writing  / Visualization:  These two approaches to mentally rehearsing allow one to keep one’s inner critic in check. The problem with simply day-dreaming it is that critic can chirp in without being that cognizant of it.

In visualization, one quiets the mind and can then non-judgmentally acknowledge and dismiss the negative thoughts. In writing–be it as a journal entry, poem, or a story–we may not notice the nagging voice of the inner critic on the first draft, but you can take note of it and undo it in rewrites.

 

 

3.) Travel / Living abroad: I should point out that not just any old travel will have the desired effect. Many people plan their travel with the objective of being comfortable at the fore.  They eat at places that serve the same kind of food as at home. They stay in hotels with virtually all of the comforts of home, and sometimes many more. This is understandable because the traveler might just be seeking rest.  However, if one is seeking the epiphany or enlightenment experiences talked of by backpackers and ashram-dwellers, that’s not something that comes from staying in resorts or eating at American fast food joint. Those kinds of brain changing experiences come when one is stripped from the familiar and has to surrender one’s attachments to the way one thinks the world should be. One’s perception of culture and worldview changes radically when immersed in a foreign environment.

 

 

2.) Game it / Roleplay: There’s a big movement to gamify all manner of everyday activities.  In her book, “Reality is Broken,” scholar of game design Jane McGonigal describes a game called “Chore Wars” that incentivizes the doing of mundane household chores.

 

What is it about games that help one move beyond one’s limits? First of all, it incentivizes actions. And if you’ve ever noticed people playing games on their phone or FB for hours on end, you’ll note that it doesn’t take much reward to keep people plugging away—as long as the game is structured well.

 

Second, good games provide a built-in process of “leveling up.” This means that the challenge keeps being intensified as our skill level advances. Those familiar with Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of “Flow” will recognize that matching skill level to challenge level is one of the most crucial elements in facilitating flow-state.

 

Roleplaying is a bit like the previously mentioned tools of visualization and gaming in that it’s a way to have a low-cost rehearsal. If one has someone with whom one can engage in such a roleplay, than one also has someone to help make you aware of your inner critic and its deleterious effects. And that brings us to the final tool:

 

 

1.) Have a spouse, partner, and or confidant: In “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” Robert Sapolsky tells a story of being interviewed by a magazine. He was asked what the number one thing that they could tell their readers about reducing stress.  To which he replied that the most well-established factor in stress reduction is to have a spouse / life partner with whom to share one’s challenges.  Unfortunately, this was a magazine for women business leaders, a significant portion of whom had given up on permanent relationships and families. They, therefore, asked him what else he had.  Still it’s hard to overlook the anxiety-fighting effects of having someone around with whom to share one’s dread.