Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Strengths and Weaknesses

Fluidity in combat is based on understanding yin and yang, which express the direction in which energy is flowing. We move through positions of strength and weakness. What we want is to maximize our strengths and minimize exposure to our weaknesses, while exploiting weaknesses and neutralizing the strengths of our opponent.

Musashi wrote that to one who understands strategy, a battle with thousands is the same as a one-to-one duel. In what ways might this be valid?

An army occupying a secure position might have to move out to engage the enemy on other ground. To minimize vulnerability, it may employ advance scouts, strengthen the flanks, and move under the cover of darkness or weather.

A fighter might use footwork or feints to draw his opponent’s response, keeping elbows in tight to the body and utilizing environmental factors to evade or hinder the opponent.

The goal is always the same – to defeat the enemy. How that is accomplished is completely variable, determined only by one’s strategic and tactical skills. This is true whether negotiating a contract, playing a sport or running a war. The terms of engagement may differ, but the desired outcome is essentially similar.

This is where careful analysis of one’s technique is helpful, as I opined in the last post. We move from position of strength to position of strength, passing through areas that may be weaker due to unalterable physiological causes.

Some martial arts may focus on those strong positions. Think of katas that emphasize locking punches or deep stances with a loud kiai. On the other hand we need efficient movement between those positions. Motion and focused point of concentrated energy are two sides of the same dynamic and are mutually complementary. One without the other is incomplete.

Can we identify our powerful positions? How can we tweak them for maximum performance? How does raising the peak broaden the base of our capabilities? For example, developing a powerful punch as a strength deletes weak punching from the liability side of the equation.

Just as in a yin/yang symbol, weakness and strength contain their opposites within them. Weakness can be a lure to draw an opponent; strength can create rigid overconfidence. For instance, a punch at full power is the point where balance might be most easily compromised or the joints most effectively attacked.

Weaker positions are generally those we gloss over on the way to more advantageous ones. For instance, we sidestep a punch; the step weak moves us from a vulnerable position to a less vulnerable one. We need to have a strong position for our counter to be effective, whether a block or strike. How many of us only concentrate on the end result of the punch while ignoring the dynamics that set it up?

This isn’t to say a soft parry can’t be effective while we transit our opponent’s line of attack. That is, in fact, the counterpart to the more powerful example preceding it. The fact is, soft and hard can both be utilized. There are no perfect positions, just appropriate options at the right time.

At a certain level, it doesn’t matter what attack comes, it’s all just timing and angles. Everything else is simply descriptive detail. This is the genius of the Filipino martial arts, that they study angles of attack and perfect timing through live practice with partners.

How can we test strength or weakness? Generally this is through partner practice. Wing Chun has chi sao, Tai Chi has push hands, FMA has hubud hubud. One must be able to feel emptiness in one’s own technique as well as read it in another’s, allowing one to absorb and redirect attacks. This is where slow practice is valuable. It allows one to stop and examine the dynamic exchange of energy at any point, and even, if both people are paying attention, to back up and re-examine positions already passed.

Sometimes one can realign a weak position to make it stronger. For instance, a block that extends the arm might rely on just the shoulder muscles, which are relatively weak, but that block might be accomplished by keeping the arm in stronger alignment closer to the centerline while turning the waist to achieve the same or better result. In general the closer we stay to our own centerline, the stronger we are because we draw more stability from the core muscles of the body.

Techniques of muscle testing from Applied Kinesiology or other healing modalities can be applied to understanding strength or weakness of internal alignments. The better we get at “reading” our opponent through touch, the less time and energy it takes to understand intention behind movement.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Tight defenses, old offenses

It’s winter. When it’s cold, energy sinks to the roots. Time to focus inward, do things that take a slower pace. Core work. Conditioning. Fundamentals.

Today I worked on the latter in front of a mirror. I want to see what an opponent sees. I want to know what I’d think if I had to fight myself. This was a breakdown of movement, looking for that one-inch gap, subtle shifts from one position to another.

I recently saw a reality show on aspiring MMA fighters. One talked about learning to “protect his home”, meaning his belly. In close quarters the key is keeping forearms tight, elbows straight down and touching the body.

You can see this in Muay Thai. At longer range the elbows are out from the body, hands high. As the action gets closer, the defense closes up to protect the ribs and belly. All an attacker sees is bony forearms and elbows.

Lifting the knee to defend against kicks extends that bony armor to cover the body from top to bottom, especially when the knee and elbow reinforce each other seamlessly. This is why mirror practice is valuable, because what feels secure may reveal a gap through which an opponent can wedge an attack.

There are also ways to psychologically exploit those gaps. Throwing a kick directly at a protected area that you wish to hit, like the floating ribs, may cause an opponent to react by moving to cover an area he feels is exposed, effectively unlocking the vault for you. In other words, the tendency is to strengthen less defended areas, thereby weakening the secured ones, which are probably the more high-value targets.

Another example of this is watching a boxer pound away at the liver or solar plexus. Like water eroding a rock, each blow weakens resistance. If nothing else, it spreads the defense by forcing coverage of that area at possible expense elsewhere.

I’ve been watching some MMA lately. I like so much of what they do, but there seems to be a consistent paradigm in this style of fighting. It’s different than martial art fighting in the 70’s or 80’s. MMA has its advantages, one of them being “combat tested” all the time, and the strength of the ground game. At the same time, there is a self-reflective quality that they are all working the same material.

Is there room to look outside of that? I feel like I’ve stepped out of a time machine, because I look at the stand-up sparring and see opportunities for attacks that are not thrown. Mostly these are straight-line moves. I rarely see aggressive jabbing, for instance. I almost never see straight kicks, either front or side, that were bread and butter at one time. My Kenpo teacher used to “teach us to fly” with those kicks L

I’m not saying my old style is better than MMA, just that from these eyes I’m seeing things nobody is using. While I have no doubt there are effective counters in their repertoire, a lot of fighting is about seeing opportunities. You can’t exploit what you don’t perceive, and conversely you may not defend what isn’t thrown. A move that’s been long retired can seem new and innovative when revived. After all, isn’t that what the Gracies did by repopularizing grapping in the arts?

These techniques are not some secret sure-fire way to beat another style, though a good side kick to the brisket can be a spine-altering experience, but different ways to put pressure on an opponent. Any time you force an opponent to react to your lead is an advantage. Think of fights where fighters circle each other, pawing the air. If one steps up and applies pressure, it can create opportunities that aren’t to be found in dead space.

This is where a good short punching game is a strength, as is a robust defense. Elbows often feature prominently in both aspects, and arts like Wing Chun or some FMA are able to attack and defend at the same time by angle of elbows while punching.

Pressure up top can create openings below, so it’s useful to integrate some techniques utilizing both hands and feet to strike, just as punching combinations coordinate left and right hands. Arnis has four-corner patterns of high/low left and right, as do Kenpo and probably many other styles. While these offer sound defenses, on a deeper level they’re counters that probe for openings through which to strike.

Low kicks can be a high percentage move if used judiciously in the right situations. If you can get an opponent to react or look upwards, the kick comes in under the radar. For instance, against the speed of a stick one might feed a high strike that is countered by an umbrella. As the opponent’s hands move up, you kick underneath.

This is why the mirror work is important, to spot your own gaps and tendencies when moving. You need to see the possibilities both defensively and offensively.

Understand Principles of Energy

Understand principles of energy. This is the most important thing.

There is only one principle, motion, which has two phases, yin and yang. These define the direction in which energy is moving. Yin energy decreases. Yang energy increases. This is all you need to know.

Do not waste time thinking in terms of duality. Direction is the key.

Apply this to fighting, your opponent cannot fool you. His intentions are clear to see.

Apply this to life and who knows what can be achieved!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Serrada Footwork Revisited

The focus of Serrada footwork is the male triangle, staying on the centerline. Though Spanish influence on FMA is often credited, this seems more akin to Italian fencing, which learned to use linear footwork to eventually counter the circular Spanish style. We do have evasion to the outside, but that is secondary to controlling centerline, so orientation will return to the most direct line of offense/defense as soon as possible.

As we work centerline, we face the direction of attack. If it comes from our left, we face left, from the right, we face that direction. In our basics, we work this with the concept of front hand, front foot, so facing left leads with the right and vice versa. Footwork alignment is like modern sport fencing, front foot/knee pointing towards the opponent, heel of the rear foot, which is perpendicular, on the same line. If you were to close your eyes and lift the front foot, your drop should be straight towards the opponent. This alignment allows us to cut the lines of an opponent's attack. It also protects the low line by keeping the angle of the legs closed against groin kicks. If you face the "wrong" way, ie. facing right with right lead, that target tends to be wide open, which isn't so bad at longer ranges but a tempting target at medium or close range.

Our foot switch is called "papeet" which Angel Cabales defined as "chicken step" (what dialect, I don't know). Many folks nowadays refer to it as the "replacement step". The point (literally) of this step is to hold the ground on which we stand, controlling the apex of the male triangle. Thus we step up with the rear foot, feet together, then back with the opposite foot (or the same one in a "false replacement", which allows rapid readjustment for alignment or balance, or to confuse an opponent as to our intentions). This is different from the chicken step I've seen in other styles, which maintains balance on the rear foot and looks, to me, more like how a chicken steps.

This isn't to say we don't move off a spot. Angel used to say we know how to move already, since we weren't born where we are now, but the goal of holding our ground is to defend a doorway, hallway, etc. where there is little room to move or strategically we cannot allow an opponent to pass. Also, at more advanced levels the front hand/front foot alignment is not absolute, allowing us to throw a right forehand with a left lead, for instance. However, we tend to stay close to the basics as they are fundamentally sound for our system.

Holding our ground means we force the opponent to come to us, allowing us to use his range and timing without showing ours first. A common error new students make in learning papeet is holding ground with the rear foot, stepping in and out with the lead, the "other" chicken step. This changes our range according to lead, and if an opponent advances as we step back, we lose ground we cannot necessarily recover. An advantage of forward replacement is it develops centripetal force to generate momentum for power in a very short space.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fencing Terminology and FMA

This is an assignment, homework for any aspiring (or inspiring) escrimador.

Here is a list of modern fencing terms. Read it. Don't just skim, but think about each category and item. Parts of weapons have names and functions; footwork, timing and other aspects are defined. Terms may differ, but everything listed can be found within the FMA.

Think of examples in your own training. Some techniques may be formally taught, others show up by instinct. Studying a list like this reminds me others have had similar insights; it isn't necessary to reinvent the wheel when the road is so well-trod.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Flyswatters and Plyometric Escrima

Recently some flies showed up at my house and I didn’t have a flyswatter. I had a plastic one for awhile which was ok until it came apart in chunks. Still, it was better than the old wire mesh swatters that bent at every opportunity.

I’d eyeballed the Wimbledon-sized electronic zappers at Harbor Freight but couldn’t really envision myself swinging like Igor Ledochowski in my kitchen. Bang goes the coffee maker; crack goes the microwave! Besides, it’s really too decadent and takes the sporting aspect out of it. At least a tennis raquet has legitimate other uses. Or so they say.

Besides, I’m an escrimador, for goodness sake; I should be able to take out a few flies, right? Flying critters are a challenge, that’s for sure. I’ve heard old-time boxers used to practice catching flies in garbage cans. Ick. The problem is if you succeed! I prefer the finger-flick line drive myself.

These, however, were small flies, hard to see with my middle-aged eyes, and I didn’t really have time to play with them. I looked around for an improvised implement. Towel? T-shirt? I knew from experience that neither was a proven fly-killer. Pushing too much air simply buffets the flies away.

Then my eyes alit on the perfect implement. Hanging on my wall was an African flywhisk! Make that a pair, actually. Now at the upper end, these can have ceremonial value. One of mine is older and has that air of authority. The other is one you might find at a flea market or some place like Cost Plus Imports. It’s sturdier and more functional, basically a decorative stick with a horsehair whisk on the end.

The figurine-carved l6-inch handle and skinny shaft together are 22 inches long, about as thin and rigid as holding a golf club. The lower part of the shaft is wire wrapped but the last 12 inches are wrapped tightly in horsehair, which then extends another 12 inches as a horse-like tail.

Now here’s a paradox. This whisk is indeed a great flyswatter. It’s fast, sturdy and the end is sufficiently large to get the flies yet not so aerodynamically resistant as to brush them aside. This combination makes it very accurate, and a few sweeps cleared my room of the unwanted visitors.

What really caught my attention though was the way in which the air resistance of the whisk slowed down the movement of the stick. While it is sufficiently quick for fly swatting, particularly with the whipping of the tail hairs, it doesn’t move anywhere as quickly as an escrima stick. It feels like the difference between running on dry land and running in waist-deep water.

That’s when inspiration hit me. What if someone could come up with a safe way to make an escrima stick that moved like this? It’s a challenge I’m throwing out there because I see benefits to both training and competition.

The qualifications would be rigid, light, comfortable grip and balance, with enough air resistance to significantly slow movement of the striking end of the stick.

So far I’ve seen few sticks that really satisfy the first four requirements well, let alone the fifth of resistance. There are some that do the latter at the expense of weight, balance or grip.

Imagine being able to spar with the intensity of competition, yet the speed of a controlled moderate flow! Spectators and judges would be able to see techniques more clearly, as would competitors, who would have more incentive to use defense. Surviving combat is a traditional value of the art, something represented poorly in no-defense slugfests.

In training students would be able to practice with as much speed as possible, with the form of their techniques more easily seen, felt and corrected. Ultimately one needs to develop the timing for full-speed, but there are differences between training for speed or for flow. The former implies beating the opponent; the latter is practice at reading intention. They are certainly not mutually exclusive, of course, but when people forget about flow for the sake of speed, most lose touch with the sensitivity that allows responsiveness to the opponent, important attributes for combative reflexes.

It takes little skill to whack someone on the head three times in a row. I’m sure many murders have been accomplished that way, but what if you are the one getting whacked, or if the other guy is simultaneously gutting you with a knife as you’re trying to render him unconscious?

Escrima is built on natural reflexes, but training them to an effective autonomous level of response takes time and effort. I tell my students to notice what works best for them and to get comfortable with those things first. When they have the security of a bread-and-butter core of material, then they can begin working other options into their repertoire.

That is the value of flow training; the constant repetitive cycle creates a hypnotic state of trance that programs the bodymind to respond automatically. Like rocks being polished in a tumbler, rough edges get smoothed away. Finer movement evolves from less resistance. As less effort is expended in reaction, more time is available for response. We see more clearly and move without thinking, moving directly through awareness.

With experience we grow in skill. Fewer things surprise us, and we can even come to appreciate those that do because they help further push our boundaries. Awareness, as I stress over and over, is a key to making things work. That is why so many teachers tell their students to slow down, so things are not happening too fast for the conscious mind to keep up. Eventually the student becomes aware of patterns and can digest bigger “chunks” at a time. Getting there takes patience.

This is where something like a good air resistance trainer would make sense. Like a limiter on a car engine, it could slow down the consequences of our need for speed. I recall a review of an early Toyota Corolla SR-5 that called it a “secret racer”. You could put your foot to the floor and shift furiously, emulating and honing all the skills of a real sports car driver, but you weren’t going fast enough to threaten other drivers or collect tickets. Best of all, according to the article, was no one else would suspect you were having so much fun!