Saturday, March 16, 2013


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.