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

Amazon page

 

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.

BOOK REVIEW: Hapkido by Scott Shaw

Hapkido: Korean Art of Self-DefenseHapkido: Korean Art of Self-Defense by Scott Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

When I picked up this book, all I knew about Hapkidō was that it was a Korean martial art, that it wasn’t a sport like its more famous martial cousin—Tae Kwon Do (TKD), and that it was a more comprehensive art (grappling as well as striking) than TKD. I grabbed it because at least one of these mental reductions proved only partially correct and I wanted to know what else I might be getting wrong. In the first paragraph, I learned that Hapkidō was heavily influenced by / a descendant of Daitō-ryū Akijūjutsu. (If that art sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was also a big influence for its most famous student, Morihei Ueshiba—i.e. the founder of the Japanese art Aikidō.)

This book is tiny. It’s an overview of the art in less than 100 pages (and, as is common with martial arts books, at least half the space is devoted to photos.) So the first thing a reader might want to be aware of is that you’ve probably read newspaper articles with higher word counts than this book. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether that’s a good or bad thing.

The book consists of five chapters, but the last chapter accounts for the majority of the page count (but not the word count.) The first two chapters are histories. The first offers an overview of Korean martial arts situated in the context of national events of the time. The second chapter is a history of Hapkidō and gives one insight into Daitō-ryū Akijūjutsu and how it came to influence the Korean founder of Hapkidō, Choi Yong-Sul.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine aspects of the art that one might call “pre-basics” for lack of a better term. As ki (i.e. life force / energy, those familiar with Chinese arts might know it as “chi” or “qi”) plays a central role in the art, Chapter 3 discusses ki and describes breathing and meditation practices that are used for building energy. Chapter 4 describes break-falls and the art’s one posture / stance (a natural posture.)

Chapter 5 describes, and presents photos of, basic defensive moves of Hapkidō. There are five sub-sections that explore, respectively, the following types of techniques: disengagements (i.e. breaking away from an opponent who has seized one), joint locks, throws, punch defenses, and kick defenses.

I found this book to be concise and informative. If one is seeking a detailed overview of the art, one might want to look elsewhere. However, if one is just trying to figure out what Hapkidō is all about, it should serve you well. I doubt that an experienced student of the art would get much out of this book as it’s just the bare bones. Not everybody is looking to delve into the minutiae.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style by Yang, Jwing-Ming

Tai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style: The Complete Form QigongTai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style: The Complete Form Qigong by Yang Jwing-Ming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book is one stop shopping for students of the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Long Form (i.e. 108 forms.) That’s not to suggest that it only describes the sequence of that form. It does that, but it also offers lessons in the history of the art, explanations of chi and qigong, and elucidation of the fundamentals of the art.

The book is divided into four parts. Chapter one examines the history of this martial art and places Tai chi chuan in the context of Chinese martial arts as well as the Yang Style within the context of Tai chi chuan. The nine sections of the first chapter also explore Tai chi chuan as a means to healthy living, and provide guidance to students on how to go about taking up the practice.

Chapter two consists of five parts that delve into the concept of chi (qi), or energy. This section mixes together mythology of traditional Chinese theory on chi with scientific explanations where science has something to say on the matter.

The third chapter describes the 13 postures of Tai chi chuan, which are a set of fundamentals that feature prominently in the martial art. This is a relatively brief section and is where the book becomes photo intensive.

The fourth chapter offers students guidance about the unarmed element of Yang Style of Tai chi chuan. While the capstone of the chapter is a systematic walk through the Long Form, there’s also coverage of some Yang Style fundamental movements as well as presentation of meditation practices taught in the system. It should be noted that this book doesn’t cover the sequence of the Yang Style Short Form (a.k.a. 24 Forms, or the Beijing Standard Form.) (I mention that because that’s the most popular form in the world and many students may want to learn about it specifically. This book offers many insights into the minutiae of the component forms, but doesn’t describe it as a sequence.) There is a fifth chapter, but it’s only a brief conclusion.

With respect to ancillary matter, like most martial arts books, it’s graphic-intensive. The bulk of the graphics are photos that are used in chapters 3 and 4 to clarify the movements and postures. Said photos have arrows and other figures drawn onto them to help clarify the movement involve. There are also a few line diagrams and maps, and chapter 2 has a many scientific photos, diagrams, and anatomical drawings.

There are three Appendices. The first provides a list of the forms of the Yang Style Long Form. The second is a glossary of the many Chinese terms mentioned in the book. The final Appendix provides information about the DVDs that are available to be used in conjunction with the book (there are markers throughout the book to provide suggestions of when students should turn to the video lessons.) There are end-notes of cited material, but I read the Kindle edition, and most of these were unavailable because Chinese characters didn’t convert to the electronic format. This was no big deal for me because I couldn’t read the Chinese reference material anyway, but if you read Chinese, you might opt for the hard copy of the book.

I learned the Yang Style short and long forms several years ago, and bought this book to provide some background and technical guidance. I found the book to be interesting and informative, and would recommend it—particularly if you’ve learned the Yang Style (but one may find the early chapters interesting even if one hasn’t.) The author uses a number of entertaining and educational stories and the book is readable and insightful for students of all levels.

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5 Thoughts on the Conscious Mind in Martial Arts Training

In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to quiet the conscious mind in order to let the subconscious do what it does best. There’s a lot of terminology that’s used to describe the mind state in which one’s actions are effortless and one can adjust swiftly to unforeseen challenges: e.g. “in the zone,” the Flow, Zen mindset, and (in the Kotler and Wheal book I just reviewed) ecstasis. However, regardless of the name, one key to this state is a reduced activity of the part of the mind that’s self-critical and overly cautious, and that requires not letting the conscious mind do what it’s prone to do.

 

However, taking a course on mauythai advanced fundamentals recently has reminded me of the important roles the conscious mind plays in learning. The challenge is to use the conscious mind effectively–without letting it running amok.

 

The conscious mind is largely driven by anxiety about uncertainty. This makes the conscious mind a planner and worst-case scenario generator extraordinaire. (In meditation, I’ve begun to not only note what thought popped into my head before I dismiss said distraction, but I also have a classification scheme of kinds of thoughts, and “planning thoughts” are probably the most common type of thought to hijack my mind.) This planning / forecasting  proclivity can be beneficial if one is doing a job that requires such planning, anticipation of possible hazards, and the need to adjust to complex difficulties. However, it can also make one neurotic, overly risk-averse, and pessimistic.

 

So, here are my five thoughts on the conscious mind in martial arts training.

 

5.) Feed the right wolf:  There’s a well-known story about a Native American man telling his grandchild that inside each person there are two wolves at war, one good and one evil.

The child asks, “Which one wins?”

The old man replies, “The one you feed.”

 

This is a variation on the theme–not so much about good and evil as about positive and negative outlook. In martial arts training there are often competing emotional states. On one hand, there is often anxiety about either being injured or even about the embarrassment of being bested. (Surprisingly, it seems like the magnitude of the latter is often greater than the former.) On the other hand, there is an intense thrill that comes with making progress. For those who don’t understand how martial artists can put themselves through what they do, this is the part for which you’re probably not understanding the intensity of the high. When it clicks and you’re getting it right more often than you previously did, the feeling is transcendent.

 

So, when one sees either of these two feelings arising, choose the latter. If one notices the anxiety, remind oneself the promise of that awesome feeling of having it fall together.

 

4.) Scanning for lapses in form: The process of learning a martial art–like any movement art–is repetition of the movements until they become ingrained in one’s procedural memory. Early in the process, this feels clunky as one has to scan for imperfections in form with one’s super-intelligent but slow and cumbersome conscious mind. However, increasingly, the body begins to incorporate these movement patterns and they start to become second nature. The trick is to keep this in the moment and not let one’s thoughts linger on what one just got wrong, or any perceived ramifications of getting it wrong.

 

3.) Try visualization: This once would have been thought hippie guff, but now it’s entered the mainstream. Of course, the advice from #5 must be kept in mind. When I think of the technique of visualization, I’m reminded of a story that Dan Millman told about a girl that he was coaching in gymnastics. He came to check on her only to find her repeatedly cringing and grimacing. He asked what was going on, and she said she kept falling off the balance beam whenever she visualized her routine. It sounds silly, but attitude is a powerful thing, and I lot of people sabotage themselves in ways not much different from this. It’s your mind, you have the power to do the move perfectly every time, if you take the proper mindset.

 

2.) Conscious mind as governor of action and agent of trust: The subconscious mind can be feral. As one spars, one has to match speeds with one’s opposition so that learning can take place. While sparring looks reminiscent of fighting, the goal of sparring is learning, whereas the goal of fighting is winning (or–as a minimum in actual combat–not being destroyed.)

 

This is another role for the conscious mind. It can keep reminders to the fore to keep one’s movement appropriate to the occasion. It can inject an awareness that there’s a relationship of trust rather than warring competitiveness between. That one needn’t respond at the same magnitude that one would under attack.

 

1.) Dropping the Conscious Mind Out of the Equation: While the conscious mind is critical in the learning process, eventually one must do something that feels uncomfortable, which is shifting subconscious operations to the fore and quieting the conscious mind. Overthinking can be death in tests, competitions, not to mention, I’m told, actual combative situations. At some point you’ve got to have some trust in what you’ve trained to do up to that point. It might fail you, but not necessarily as spectacularly as if you let your conscious run amok, getting caught in a death spiral of self-criticism and futile guesswork.

 

Since I’ve been watching quite a few muaythai fights recently at the Rangsit Boxing Stadium, I’ve begun to wonder just how useful corner advice is. I know that people think it’s beneficial because it’s done in droves. Not only is the fighter’s trainer trying tell them what to do, but also his parents, his siblings, his granny, and a hundred random people who may or may not have put money on him. It would be interesting to see a scientific study of how fighters performed who tuned everything out between rounds versus those who tried to take in all the advice. I tried to look up whether any such study had been done, but a cursor Google search came up empty.

 

What comes of all the corner talk?

What comes of all the corner talk?

DAILY PHOTO: Vigilant Referee

Taken February 19, 2017 at Rangsit International Boxing Stadium

Taken February 19, 2017 at Rangsit International Boxing Stadium

 

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DAILY PHOTO: Rangsit Fight Night Takedowns

Taken on February 19, 2017 at Rangsit Boxing Stadium

Taken on February 19, 2017 at Rangsit Boxing Stadium

 

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BOOK REVIEW: Let Every Breath by Scott Meredith

Let Every Breath: Secrets of the Russian Breath MastersLet Every Breath: Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters by Vladimir Vasiliev
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book presents an introduction to breath exercises employed by the Russian martial art called Systema. Systema is one of a number of drill & spar-centric (as opposed to technique-centric) martial arts that have developed in modern times in an attempt to cast off the unrealistic and needlessly complicated elements that tend to grow within traditional martial arts (e.g. Krav Maga is a well-known exemplar of such a martial art.) Among the unique aspects of this system is its focus on, and approach to, breath—and breath is crucial in the martial arts, in a fight, and in life.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I’ll begin with positive aspects and then get into what I found off-putting. First, the book offers a clear explanation of principles and drills that are straight forward and will increase one’s awareness of breath. That is laudable. Are these particular principles and drills the end-all-be-all that will take one to heights that no other approach to breathing could (as the book suggests?) No. But is it a solid approach to breath that will yield benefits by making you more aware of breath while helping you to use it more effectively? Yes. Second, the book doesn’t have a lot of competitors in the “breathing for martial arts” space, and so it fits into a substantial void. (Note: the book doesn’t get into martial arts / self-defense drills or techniques, and doesn’t claim to.)

Now, here’s the other half of the open-faced shit sandwich. You’ve likely already gotten a hint of my problem with the book. This will seem like a two-part criticism, but it condenses into one problem with the book’s attempt to sell the reader on Systema. The starting point, as another reviewer noted, is that this system isn’t as completely novel and unmatched as is presented. Is that a damning indictment? It wouldn’t be. Just because this approach shares concepts applied elsewhere and is constrained by the nature of the human body doesn’t mean that it can’t offer its own unique value-added. The problem is that we are told how unique and completely peerless this system is so often that it becomes a bad info-mercial.

I get it. Systema is a product that has to compete in an intense market place with the likes of Krav Maga, MMA, Total Combat Systems, Defendu, and a ton of other self-protection oriented martial arts. It’s Pepsi, and it has to carve out a market share by convincing us of the unlikely fact that Coke products aren’t even in the same ballpark. The problem is that when it dismisses systems like yogic pranayama and Taoist chi gong, it does so in a way that shows virtually no understanding of those systems. When the author is telling us how the Systema approach to breath is superior to pranayama, he describes an asana (posture-oriented) class. If you’re going to convince us that the several thousand year old yogic tradition completely missed an approach to breath so groundbreaking that it will take one on an e-ticket ride to self-perfection, at least have some idea of the scope of what the yogis learned and how they present those lessons to their students.

The second half of this rant is that there is a lot of hagiography to delve through before one gets to the meat of the subject. Now, in general, authors of martial arts books tend to pay homage to their teachers and lineage. It’s not unreasonable that there is some near-deification of teachers in this book. However, at some point it becomes hard to tell whether the book exists to inform readers or as a monument to someone’s ego. This book gets disconcertingly close to the line. (The arrogance issue is made worse by confusion about authorship. It’s said that Meredith wrote the book, but Vladimir Vasiliev takes the by-line. This creates an odd situation because the book tells us how Vasiliev is both an exceptional human being, and humble as well. You can see my problem. Without evidence to the contrary, I can easily accept that Vasiliev is exceptional. I can also believe that he is humble. But when a book with his name on it tells me both of these things, I’m forced by the dictates of logic to reject at least one of them [and doubt is cast upon both.])

If you are looking to expand your understanding and awareness of breath, you may want to give this book a try. I certainly wouldn’t endorse every claim it makes, but there are some interesting ideas presented.

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5 Bits of Ancient Eastern Wisdom to Make Your Modern Western Life Happier

img_12811.) The Dispassionate Witness:  A person’s default setting is to repress emotions and pretend they don’t exist. On the one hand, this seems to work because others rarely notice one’s clenched jaw or downing of Prozac, and it’s true that fist-fights rarely break out in workplaces and classrooms. On the other hand, this approach leads to a lot of passive-aggressive behavior and stress-related illness. I just read in some material on Flow and business that 2/3rds of performance issues in businesses result from strained relationships.

The alternative is to take time to observe one’s emotional state, but to watch it without dumping fuel onto the fire. This process puts one’s feelings in perspective so that one can respond in a careful, but not repressed, manner. It doesn’t mean one won’t still be mad, sad, or scared, but one will be in a position to act in a manner that is neither petty and knee-jerk, nor one that consists of gobbling antacids. This brings us to #2.

 

2.) The Second Dart: [Siddhartha Gotama] Buddha talked about the mind’s response to an event as the second dart, suggesting that the second dart produces much more prolonged misery than the first. Imagine one is walking along and gets hit by a dart. Ow!  It hurts. But what makes it agonizing is when one’s mind becomes obsessed with the injury. It’s unfair that someone threw a dart at me. What if the wound doesn’t heal right? What if the wound heals up too well, and I don’t have a cool scar at story time?

This point is closely related to #1. One has to observe, but not let mind run wild. The first dart is real. The second dart is immaterial, a figment of the mind.

 

3.) Relaxation is Part of the Process: Anyone who’s attended a yoga class is familiar with closing in savasana (corpse pose.)  Occasionally, a student wants to get up and walk out at this point. They “aren’t paying __ $’s to lay around on their a##.” For Americans, rest is something begrudgingly accepted between actually doing stuff.

The problem with the “rest as laziness” approach isn’t just that one is likely to suffer a relaxation deficit, but also that the rest one gets isn’t effective. But how can rest be effective? I’m glad you asked. Because when you’re doing savasana or yoga nidra (yogic sleep) you’re not just letting your monkey mind run wild as it does when one is watching television or stuck in afternoon rush hour.

 

4.) Breath is Anything but Mundane: Since breathing is constantly going on and one can choose not to think about it, people dismiss it as unworthy of consideration. However, breath is the one point at which we can consciously influence our autonomic nervous system. [Well, there’s also blinking, but to my knowledge there’s no evidence that one can adjust one’s energy level or emotional state through blinking–but you can with breath.]  Breath is the key to improved physical performance, but it’s also a powerful tool to train the mind.

 

5.) Use the Belly: I haven’t studied a large number of martial arts, but I’ve trained in a diverse few that were extremely different in both approach and priorities. It could be said that these arts (budō, tai chi chuan, muaythai, and kalaripayattu) had nothing in common. Except they did. They all valued strength in a point below the navel. Sometimes it was called dan tien; other times tanden. However, regardless of the pronunciation, name, or the precise anatomical location, there was this commonality.

Strength in the belly is tied to both breath and mental concentration.

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