Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fitness Quest

Well, today was mission accomplished. A wild idea that popped into my head about my 60th birthday was today brought to fruition. On October 12th I suddenly thought "my birthday is exactly in one month. What should I do to mark it?" and then the idea of doing 600 push-ups appeared. At first I tried to dismiss it as ridiculous. After all, I could be doing fun stuff, and this sounded like work. But the idea hung around persistently, waving at me from the edges of awareness, and soon I came to embrace the idea of this as a worthy challenge, a kind of quest. A friend from the aiki side of martial arts turned me on to a Japanese term, shugyo, for a similar type of disciplined spiritual endeavor.

I'd probably gone years without doing 600 push-ups, and with some shoulder injuries, I'd only begun doing them somewhat regularly about a year ago for rehabilitation. If I was going to make this happen, I'd have to train for it, and so I set a secondary goal of 3000 push-ups in the one month run-up to my birthday. That meant averaging 100 push-ups a day, which I broke up into numerous sets of 10 or 20, logging every set in my notebook. Exercise can be addictive, and I quickly realized that 3000 was too low a goal, so within the first few days I refocused on 4000 pushups for the month. Sundays were my big days, doing upwards of 300 push-ups during football game commercials, getting ahead on the count so I could rest on another day during the week.

I reached 4000 Monday evening, giving me Tuesday to rest up before the big day today. Ironically, I'd been pain free all month, but the last few days one of my shoulders was sore from working so hard. Now the underlying goal of this quest was to strengthen deep muscle and connective tissue. The push-ups were varied to hit muscles from different angles to support the shoulder joint, incorporating inclines, declines, close grip, wide grip and uneven grip push-ups as well as traditional flat ones. Some were done for explosiveness, others on slow count to feel the burn deeply. This was pure volume work, more like the 6x daily Bulgarian power lifter workouts than fatigue-and-rest body building. It was harder to start these last few workouts because of the soreness, but once I'd done a couple of sets to warm up, everything felt fine. I also supplemented the push-ups with yoga stretches, Indian clubs, kettlebells, squats, pull-ups and planks.

After the focus and consistency to get ready, today almost felt anti-climactic. Last night, waiting for midnight, I meditated and examined my mental state of readiness. In my mind, I felt I had already accomplished my goal. After the stroke of midnight I did 7 sets of 20 before going to bed, so that I wouldn't feel pressured for time when I awoke. By noon I'd finished half, 300, and then late in the afternoon I did the rest. Almost. I got to 580, only one more set of 20 to go, and couldn't just do it. I felt the distance I'd come, all the emotional and mental energy driving the physical work, and had to let the moment marinate awhile. Finally, as with every other set, I felt the time was right, and then it was done.

So how do I feel, now that it's done, besides sore, or tight from pumped muscles? My posture is better and I stand taller. I feel more fit and energized. There's currently a calm sense of euphoria, that I accepted and followed through on a crazy, spontaneous thought. There are lots of deadlines in life, but a challenge for its own sake is different. Unlike work or bills, there are no external consequences if we choose not to do something of our own volition. Everyone who competes in any sport, however, knows the feeling and sacrifice of preparing for an event, as do those who take on solitary pursuits for their own sake.


Having done this, I'm enjoying the feeling of accomplishment, and also the urge to build on it rather than see it as a single endeavor. I don't know what my next will be, but it won't focus on push-ups! Perhaps 100,000 punches on a heavy bag before the end of the year? Hmm .....

Monday, September 08, 2014

Disputes between martial artists are like disputes between academics. It's as though a geology professor in Montana were to declare exclusive purview over the entire field, and declare those credentialed professors at other institutes of higher learning to be unqualified in the discipline all have studied from the same sources. Outside a narrow group of initiates in the field, does anyone take that seriously or even care?   

At best titles reflect achievement; our society is a meritocracy, where pieces of paper declare worth. At worst they feed the ego, all too often poisoning a person's self-inflated sense of importance. Introducing oneself as a grandmaster might raise an eyebrow in an elevator, as much because of the esoteric reputation it connotes than any real appreciation. It's no different than a lawyer introducing himself as a senior partner in some law firm of which you've never heard. You may appreciate the long climb it took to reach such a position, but even if you are interested in services offered, which will probably be a narrow field of specialized expertise, you would probably be wondering how much coin he would charge, and in reality much of the work on your behalf would be done by much less exalted, and certainly less expensive, low-level "associates" grinding their way through the corporate hierarchy.

When I was starting my journey in martial arts nearly half a century ago, actual grandmasters were as common as real dragons. If you were to meet one, it would probably be at a distance. Even if it was in a seminar, the actual hands-on mentoring would almost undoubtedly be from lower ranking instructors. That may be less true nowadays, especially in some arts, but that is because rank, like the dollar, has inflated. I can meet more grandmasters at a party now than I encountered in my first 30 years on the mat. Does this somehow diminish the value of what was learned from those other teachers? Certainly not. If anything, without developing a background and depth, encounters with the higher ranks would be no more significant than that introduction in an elevator.

My Tai Chi teacher, the late John Wong, held rank of 5th degree or higher in at least 4 systems. He trained under William Chow, was a trusted associate of Adriano Emperado, and taught his grandfather's system of Tai Chi at his Wu Shing Academy. He told me that my knowledge was like a PhD in martial arts, but to a novice, little of that matters. It is the basics that they need, and it takes years to pour so much information into those just starting their journey.

Back when I was a freshman at Cal Berkeley in 1973, it was explained why that university had more winners of the Nobel Prize and other high honors than almost any other school on the planet. It was because professors there had teach classes for underclassmen, unlike other institutions where tenured professors could reside in their ivory towers amongst their peers and learned journals. What this meant was they had to constantly ground themselves in the fundamentals of their discipline. It's a lesson that applies to many areas of life.

Aikido, an art in which I spent some time back in the 70's and 80's, has one of the most logical ranking systems I've seen. First and second dan black belts assist more senior instructors. By third dan their skills are more clearly evident, but it generally takes a fourth dan to teach at one's own school. Fifth and higher were quite rare, generally encountered in seminars or as visiting teachers, a practice I truly appreciated in that style. It was a rare privilege if you trained at a school where such presided, but again, much of the hands-on monitoring and correction came from those under the head instructor.

Back around 1990 I met an elderly Taekwondo teacher who held a fifth dan in that art. He flatly stated that ranks beyond that were for politics, not skill. In truth, by the time most get to such a level, their physical skills are diminishing with age. Their value is what they can pass on to those below them. In my own chosen art of Escrima, my teacher, the late grandmaster Angel Cabales often said that his Master's certificate was "for politics. While rank such as that is generally reserved for the closest and most dedicated students, the truth is much of the art will be passed on by the much larger pool of instructors and even advanced but uncertified students. some of whom might be as skilled in the art despite lacking a piece of paper.


This is not to denigrate those who rose to high rank, but simply to point out the pyramid structure of hierarchy. Much like an iceberg, what is seen is only the tip, supported by the vast mass often undetected beneath the surface. In truth, what rises to the top once was below; do not presume those who toil without recognition are less worthy than those who once were such themselves.

Friday, June 13, 2014

An interview I did in 2014 with Professor Paul-Raymond Buitron (visiting from Laredo, Texas) at VEA Martial Arts in Manteca, Ca., in which I talk about my personal history in Escrima:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5CGjOQtQmA

Check out all the other interviews with various masters and grandmasters by Prof. Buitron under "Sages of Escrima" on Youtube!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dogs are psychic.  I learned this back in the late 1970's.  I began training in a couple of martial arts and in yoga in 1978, figuring I'd decide which one to focus on after getting a taste of each.  I soon set aside Tai Chi for later, focusing on Kenpo, but I kept up the yoga practice with private instruction for about a year.  In hindsight, I wish I'd stayed with it longer; if I'd realized how popular it would become worldwide (especially with young women) that probably would have enticed me to stay. Regardless I did get a lot out of the principles, which I continued to use in my martial arts stretching over the years. 

So what does this have to do with dogs?  I had two malamutes living with me back then.  Every time I would start a routine, they'd immediately crowd around, making it impossible.  It wasn't that they were trying to stop me, it's that they loved the energy of what I was doing.  My solution was to put them in the back yard, and this is where I discovered their ability to sense things.  The spot where I would practice was not visible to them.  I could sit there for any length of time and they'd be content to lie on the porch.  The second I started a routine, however, they'd immediately begin howling and scratching at the back door to get in!  This wasn't random either; it was every time!  It took a lot of focus to ignore them; it wasn't easy, and perhaps one reason I abandoned that particular practice.  Instead I began doing the Tai Chi stretching routine I learned at the Wen Wu school.  These are standing stretches, so I could do them with the dogs in the house.  Being upright, I wasn't down on their level where I was vulnerable to their interference, and for whatever other reason, those didn't excite the same response.

In more recent years I've noted other times dogs take to act in response to what I'm doing.  In particular, they always seem to know when I'm going to the bathroom.  The dogs can be quietly out in the yard, but the instant I'm unable to run out to correct them, they begin barking at neighbors or fence fighting with their dogs!  Yelling from inside the house won't work when they know I can't come out, and how they know this is a mystery known only to them.

So what exactly is it to be psychic?  If nothing else, it's the ability to sense things unrecognized by others.  The first time I recognized this in dogs was the behavior of our miniature schnauzer in the  2-3 days before my father's death when I was 14.  It was odd, my mother noted, how the dog was slinking out of the room whenever my father walked in.  That was unusual, as they had a good relationship, and my father would often take the dog with him on long walks.  Suddenly the dog was nowhere to be found when dad got the leash. On the last day of my father's life, the dog was missing.  Eventually I found him quivering under the couch.  That night, after dinner, my father had a massive heart attack; I found him slouched in his chair when I went to play chess with him.  The ambulance arrived, and my mother, usually a slow and cautious driver, tailgated it across town to the hospital while I was left home alone.  That dog and I had never been close, but that night he crept into my room and joined me on my bed, the first time he'd sought me out in the five years he'd lived with us.  Though he and I never closely bonded (he was definitely my mother's dog) it was the turning point in our relationship.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Spontaneity

There are different priorities in training.  One of mine is spontaneity.  This involves the abilities to both think and act in a quick and fluid manner, all terms that can be further qualified.  Working backwards:

Fluid means smooth.  Smooth can be fast or slow; what matters most is timing.  Impeccable timing will neutralize many things. 

Quick is acceleration, the ability to get from A to B in as short a time as possible.  Fast is the speed at which you are moving when you get there.  In longer performances, such as a foot race, winners may not be moving as fast as second place, but they get there first.  The faster runner, not being as quick to reach speed, plays catch-up.  In longer races, though, the overall speed of the winner will be decisive.  It matters not how quickly you initiate movement off the line in a marathon.

Action springs from the mind; of that there is no question.  Training increases neuromuscular connections, building faster, more efficient responses.  How well one performs, though, is as much about the clarity of mind and will as it is about the condition of the body.  Whatever we do when we train, we are training our minds how to use our body.

Notice I used "minds" in the previous sentence, the plural form of the word.  We have both conscious and unconscious systems in operation.  Which is in charge and how well they cooperate is key.

We spend a lot of time being aware of our conscious thoughts.  Seems self-evident, but we really spend most of our time in unconscious states.  It's when we tune in that we become self-conscious.  This state of awareness is fantastic for thinking thoughts, analyzing information, reading this or having a conversation.  It is good for directing the unconscious mind, which is where willpower comes in, but cognitive perception is always the last link in a chain that starts from physical stimuli interpreted unconsciously and then elevated to immediate attention.  At that point, decisions are made, and the unconscious mind sends signals back downstream to activate physiological responses.

The unconscious mind, however, is capable of making its own decisions, whether it is to jump if we hear a rattle in the bushes, or to reach for the phone when it rings.  In a sense martial art training is very Pavlovian; we see/hear/feel a stimulus and we respond reflexively.  It is possible to react even before the conscious mind is activated because there are sub-brains throughout the body.  These are the major ganglia, such as the solar plexus and at the tailbone.  We used to mock dinosaurs that were so big they had brains at each end of their body; it turns out that isn't such a bad model after all.

There are other levels of the unconscious, however, beyond just mastery of the physical body. 
There is a higher level of awareness, so refined as to be unbeknownst to many people.  This is a place where things like wisdom come from, and root awareness.  Nothing can happen on any level without recognition.  How we move through the world, how we project ourselves, is all an image chosen on such a deep level. 

When we train, we can practice mindfulness, becoming aware of every thought, move, nuance in each and every moment.  Conversely, we can practice no-mindfulness, where there is no thought, or more correctly, no awareness of thought.  Paradox is wonderful; there are many ways to the mountaintop.  Either way, the inhibition of conscious thought is removed from the director's seat, relegated to a more appropriate role as spectator.  Sometimes I've experienced it as a commentator, like a sports announcer, but such is a distraction, a ploy to pay attention not to the action but the chatter, a status once-removed.  Thought may become awareness of one's thinking; the point is there are ways to capture or corral the monkey mind.  What is hypnosis but fixating the mind very specifically?

Now that we've popped down the rabbit hole, how does this apply?  When we learn to flow, we learn to think more quickly than other people.  We recognize possibility in motion; we respond to changing circumstances before they overwhelm us.  We allow intuition and feeling to operate tactically, while our conscious mind strategizes goals.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Keeping the details alive

I see many videos of Serrada these days where people are doing things that Angel worked so hard to train me not to do, things like cocking a #1 strike back behind the shoulder, or reaching in with the check hand automatically in lock position at the end of techniques, or stepping into daga range on basic techniques.  Those are details I try so hard to pass along to my students so that Angel's insights don't simply disappear.  After all, he had reasons for ever inch of movement, and we went to train with Angel to gain his insights from real combative experience, so why would we ignore what he shared with us?

Most of those details should be familiar to direct students, certainly those from the 80's when Angel claimed to open up his teaching completely.  There are of course some variations between practitioners, based on skill and application in the moment, but overall the folks who were training during my time with Angel are technically very similar to how I was taught.

Passing along a martial art is like the childhood game of telephone, where kids sit in a circle and pass along a message whispered from one to the next.  By the time the message goes full circle, it is often completely scrambled from the original.  This is common to many arts, and one reason why different lineages appear.  It's one thing to innovate and explore, making the art one's own, but it's another to lose sight of the original intent and practices.

I'm by no means saying I'm the sole repository of Angel's knowledge.  He taught many people, and some lessons may only have come from a specific question in a class or been shared with those whom he trusted.  This is why there is benefit in training with a variety of instructors.  That's one thing I really liked about Aikido training, that teachers would visit each others' schools and share their insights.  An arm bar is an arm bar, but there are different ways to make it effective, after all.  Still, Angel was as sharp and discerning a teacher as I've ever met, and it would be a pity if years from now the art bearing his name were to become something he would not recognize or acknowledge.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Twirling For Power

Why twirl a stick?  There is a reason for this if done properly; it isn't just to look cool.  First, the downside.  It can leave you open to a high counter if you're not careful.  Timing and positioning are important considerations.

The reason to twirl is to generate power in a very compact motion compared to a linear strike.  If I throw a #1 strike (high right forehand) in a linear motion from a fully retracted position, my hand travels approximately 20 inches.  I can add some arc, either by cocking my wrist or positioning the stick over my shoulder.  Both add power, but affect timing because my hand has to travel the distance, and the over-the-shoulder position leaves my face unguarded.  A twirl moves the tip of the stick a tremendous distance, further and more quickly than retracting and reversing direction. 

Let's do some math.  The circumference of a circle is pi (3.14) times diameter (C=pD).  If I have a 20 inch stick, the diameter of a twirl is 40 inches but the distance the tip travels is approximately 10.46 feet!  That greater distance allows tremendous acceleration.  With a 28 inch stick, the tip covers some 14.65 feet!  All this is done with minimal hand travel;  add a short "pump" to the motion and the effect can be devastating. 

I've often demonstrated this by having someone hold out their stick for me to strike.  First I hit it in as linear a motion as I can, as though I'm throwing a punch, a relatively weak hit given the lack of mass in the stick even compared to impact from a fist.  Then I tell them to hold on tight as I strike with a twirl, moving my hand as little as possible.  If the stick doesn't fly out of their hand (I warned them to hold on tight!) they'll certainly feel a much greater shock.  If that had been their wrist, the fight likely would have been over.

Of course there are other reasons to twirl, such as reversals around blocks or for secondary hits to targets, or to hide intention before attacking a target, but as a hidden way to hit hard, it's something that is often overlooked.