Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Forward and Backward

A few years ago, my instructor was asked to do participate in a regional tournament's demonstration. This evening show has been one of the yearly highlights in our Region as we get to see the skills of our area's Master Instructors and a few of our other senior instructors. My instructor agreed to participate, and when people asked, he told them he would be demonstrating "Bassai."

A few people's body language unintentionally revealed their disappointment. "Oh, I've seen that form a million times. Whoopee!" was the unspoken sentiment from a few. And really, who could blame them? They were probably hoping to see a cool Master level hyung, possibly performed blindfolded while on fire, or sparring against an angry bear, or using the spinning techniques of a staff to ward off an angry hive of hornets. You know, something entertaining!

Then the surprise hit.

He demonstrated Bassai, and it was an excellent demonstration. After the last move, everyone expected him to return to choonbee jaseh and bow. Instead, he did something a little different. He started going through the form again. In reverse. From the last move to the first move, like a video in rewind (for the most part.)

As he finished the form in reverse, he returned to choonbee, and the audience began to applaud. But wait; there's more!

He then started with the first technique, then the last technique, 2nd technique, 2nd to last, etc, doing the form both forward and backwards at the same time. To this day, I've not had the discipline to try and work that one out. It starts out pretty simple, but there's a point where those two forms must meet, and it is extremely difficult to remember whether you are going backwards or forward.

When he was finished, the crowd gave him his due. The next morning, I saw one or two people trying to do it, and a few even asked him how he managed to pull it off. As always, he gave a frustratingly simple answer: "practice."

In our school, re-arranging sequences of a hyung is not uncommon, and most of our students are encouraged from a very early time in their training to perform a mirror-image version of the form, as well as a backwards version. If you want to make a green belt's head explode - you know the type: the one who thinks they know everything about Pyung Ahn E Dan, and think it is perfectly reasonable to start working on Rohai from videos -- ask them to perform Pyung Ahn E Dan backwards and mirror-imaged.

(It does help if YOU can call their bluff and casually demonstrate it for them after they get stuck about 6 counts into the form.)

This is me performing our most basic hyung in reverse. Sorry for the video quality, but my little digital camera is several years out of date. I've found that performing the form in this manner really helps students pay attention to their footwork and transitions. In order to do the form in reverse, they REALLY have to think about their forward motion. It isn't good enough to just think "low block." Now they have to think about how they distribute their weight, how they chamber, timing, everything.

Once your students gain this deeper understanding of the form, they will begin to truly take ownership of that form and make it theirs. They will literally know the form inside and out, forward and back.

It's a great tool, try it with your students (after you've practiced it!)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More thoughts on E Sip Sa Bo

A few weeks ago, I posted my demonstration of Esipsabo on Youtube. It has been viewed a fair number of times, and I did receive a good piece of feedback. Someone asked me why I had omitted the Sanchin stance.

An excellent illustration of Sanchin Dachi from

The truth is pretty simple: I don't know anything about the Sanchin stance. I have a rough idea of where the feet should be, but aside from that pigeon-toed look, I'm completely ignorant of the stance. It is simply not taught in my flavor of Tang Soo Do. I have a few people I can ask, but until I see them, I'll just be doing a shorter front stance. To me, that currently feels more appropriate, as my performance currently represents my understanding (or lack thereof) of the form.

There seems to be a lot of variation out there, and to be honest, I'm not knowledgeable enough to know if the differences are because of aesthetics or because of a biomechanical advantage. I wouldn't be shocked to hear that the stance had changed in some groups to conform what a set of tournament judges preferred.

I'm curious if the White crane folks (from which Sanchin is derived) use the pigeon-toe stance?

This is fun for me, and it's one of the benefits of trying out this form. Obviously I don't know everything, and I have to ask questions, do some research and experiment. In the end, I will have learned more than a "cool form" but also a little bit about some other arts, mechanics, stances and more.

Monday, June 23, 2008

stumbled across...

Karate Thoughts Blog. This blog is written by Mr. Charles Gooden, head of the Hawaii Karate Museum, which sounds like the coolest job in the world.

I really enjoy his brief postings on karate, in which his main idea sticks with me a bit after I've left the page. That's a pretty rare moment on the internet these days.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ow! My Brachioradialis!!

I know, one doesn't say that very often, but I find this to be one of my most common injuries after a sword workout. The brachioradialis is the muscle responsible for flexing the arm at the elbow. If you've ever done a lot of sword work, you may recognize this as the muscle which is especially tight the next day on your right arm. especially in that fleshy point just to the side of the elbow.

Big deal. People hurt themselves all the time during martial arts. Why is this little muscle so special? Well, unfortunately for me, it takes all the fun out of several other toys such as nunchaku, rope dart and sai to name a few. I also feel it for a few days afterwards at work, making me even less productive than usual.

Left untreated, the tightness in the forearm starts radiating into the hands and wrists, making them feel stiff and painful. In fact, this is why I really started paying attention to the problem, as it was becoming very painful to do other things, and I was really starting to worry about wrist problems or carpal tunnel. Over Thanksgiving, my future aunt - a massage therapist -- gave me some excellent advice on my wrist problems. After talking to me for a little bit and getting some ideas about the motions I was performing, she grabbed my arm and jammed her thumb into my upper forearm. My jolt and yelp confirmed her theory (and made me wonder if she was a secret ninja.) that my "wrist problem" was really a forearm problem.

I had not considered this option. To me, if my wrist hurt, it was because there was a problem in my wrist! Then I thought of my back injury, and how we spent so much time in PT warming and stretching the hamstrings and I started to understand how tightness in one area can radiate throughout the body.

Afterwards, I started doing a little research, and came across this article in EJMAS. It's title, "Iai Elbow" says it all for me.

Prevention: Try stretching! The Aikido wrist exercises work great for this. In the last few years, I've come to put a greater value on stretching. Maybe some strengthening of the area could help as well.

Recovery: Ice and Advil. Contrast baths may also help. I've found massaging the muscle helps a great deal as well.

I'm certainly not an expert in sports medicine or pain management, but I've found that this helps me a great deal. I hope that someone with hand or wrist pain comes across this and it is helpful to them. I know that the thought of hanging up the sword or nunchaku was very depressing to me, and I'd hate for the solution to be hidden from someone else.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What color is your awareness?

If you begin the study of self-defense, everyone reaches a point when they realize how awful the world can be and how violence can arbitrarily enter their lives. At this point, a little knowledge becomes a dangerous thing, and we find ourselves living in a state of hyperparanoia. Awareness is heightened, but too distracted to really process an actual threat. Police scenario drills find that cadets assigned to clear a room often pull the trigger on anything that moves: something that tends to reflect poorly on a department in real life.

An excellent guide was created by Colonel Jeff Cooper, a renowned small arms training expert, and has been in use for almost 30 years. According to Cooper, the odds of surviving a truly dangerous encounter have very less to do with physical skill and your weapon, but rather a combat mindset.

The color code progresses as follows: Condition White, Condition Yellow, Condition Orange, and Condition Red. There is plenty of excellent literature out there on this subject, but allow me to hit the high points:

  • Condition White: You are completely unprepared and unaware of your surroundings. Ideally, this is when you're home, behind locked doors with the alarm on and enjoying some quiet time. Unfortunately, this is how far too many people walk, act, and drive. Being on the street in this condition is essentially asking for something bad to happen and for you to be ill prepared to deal.

  • Condition Yellow: You are relaxed, but taking everything in, looking for anything that trips your Spidey-sense. Most people only get to this point if they are already a little scared for their safety (dark parking garages, in traffic in a bad neighborhood, etc.) Ideally, you should be in Yellow anytime you're out and about. The key concept is that you're relaxed and observant, NOT paranoid. The nice part about being in Yellow is that you may notice something wonderful you've never seen, heard, or smelled before. So it's not all about looking for death lurking on every corner. :)

  • Condition Orange: Something is out of place and has triggered that gut feeling. Maybe it is a person who doesn't appear to belong, a strange noise, a usually noisy area that has fallen quiet, etc. At this point, you're not karate chopping or breaking out the nunchaku, but you've recognized the potential for a problem and you begin planning your response. "Oh, that screaming derelict is making eye contact with me and walking in my direction. I should duck into this shop or be prepared to bash him into the corner of this building." In other words, you have recognized a threat and have recognized that action MAY need to be taken.

  • Condition Red: The doo-doo has found the fan and is being blown into your vicinity. If you are not yet actively engaged in the fight, you are on the cusp and are prepared to do what is necessary to end the fight. You have said to yourself "if he does X, I will (insert strong action verb) to end the threat."

This system has nothing to do with the one developed by DHS, and I'm not sure if they were inspired by a mix of this and a DEFCON type system. Cooper's system is actually useful, or as he he more tactfully says:

"Now, however, the government has gone into this and is handing out color codes nationwide based upon the apparent nature of a peril. It has always been difficult to teach the Gunsite Color Code, and now it is more so. We cannot say that the government’s ideas about colors are wrong, but that they are different from what we have long taught here.

The problem is this: your combat mind-set is not dictated by the amount of danger to which you are exposed at the time. Your combat mind-set is properly dictated by the state of mind you think appropriate to the situation. You may be in deadly danger at all times, regardless of what the Defense Department tells you."

Quick breakdown:

White: relaxed and switched off. Maybe you have a good drink in one hand and you're enjoying a fire.

Yellow: relaxed but aware. Think of your mind as a radar screen, looking for blips.

Orange: A potential problem has been recognized. You think "If things progress, I may need to shoot this guy."

Red: Lethal mode. "If X condition is met, I WILL shoot this guy." Your weapon is probably out, but not necessarily. If it's pepper-spray on a keychain, you've probably released the safety tab and you're ready to go.

If at Orange, the POS sees you in an elevated state and flees, or it turns out to be a false alarm, you get to relax and work your way back down to yellow. Chances are, switching to orange will emit non-verbal cues to the attacker that you are not the bipedal cheeseburger he thought you were, and he will look for another snack.

condition white: don't be that guy.

Good for you, but unfortunate for someone else who is walking around in Condition White. (Obviously, if a shifty POS is in your area, call the cops and let them sort him out!)

Please don't be a cheeseburger, I don't have enough readers to lose any. :)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Are you a "bipedal cheeseburger": awareness part 2

The simple fact is, there are people out there who are nothing more than a bipedal cheeseburger. They're a self propelled snack pack looking for someone to eat them. There is no helping the truly consumable among us. -- Ken Cook, a term coined at SDF.

Pretend you are a mugger. You want your score, but you also don't want to be caught or shot. So you wait for the right person to come along. After all, you're not exactly going to be late for work. You size up people as they walk down the street.

Are they distracted? Are they looking around, or walking with their eyes up? Do they walk with a purpose, shoulders up, or are they shuffling along with a sort of half-glazed, half-asleep look in their eye?

Which one would you choose to attack? If you're like me, one looks like a harder target, while the other looks pretty easy; a big, tasty, cheeseburger if you will.

Ok, you get it. Walk around with your eyes up and look tough. Right?

BZZZ. Sorry. What's the use in looking around if you're not noticing anything? So how do we become accustomed to processing information? Simple. By practice.

Here's a really simple awareness drill to practice in class with your students.

Line everyone up, and ask them to close their eyes (you can do this at the beginning of class, or wait a bit, doesn't matter.)

Now ask one of them at random: "who is directly in front of you? to your left/right/behind?"

Shuffle the class, and do it again (for example, go from rows of 4 to rows of 5.)

Black belts should be able to close their eyes and name everyone in class.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Teaching Awareness

My teacher Grandmaster H. C. Hwang for example could put out a candle flame by pointing from over a foot away, I've also been amazed by his awareness, I've seen him spot one person in a crowd of hundreds that did not belong. I've seen him on countless occasions catch details that no one else did.

I'll never forget when Master Bonsigniore had tucked folded knife into his uniform which was no bigger than a pack of gum. He was using to as a prop for a demonstration. Grandmaster walked by and after he passed two steps he turned back and reached in Master Bonsigniore's uniform and said 'what's this?'. How he spotted something you couldn't even see if you know it was in his uniform to this day amazes me. His awareness was extraordinary .

- Master Dan Segarra, Warrior-Scholar

Awareness is a key component of the martial arts, and is an attribute that must be built via constant practice.

I teach on a college campus. For a vast majority of the kids on campus, they are walking in a haze, listening to an ipod, checking their latest text messages, lost in their own world. I imagine this is why the obliviously walk into oncoming traffic, usually in front of my car.

"Wake up!" I want to yell, shaking the student by the shoulders.

Maybe it's just a pet peeve, but a lack of awareness is completely unacceptable in a serious student of the martial arts. Subtleties can be the difference between surviving a violent encounter, and the alternative. On a less serious note, a strong leader - which I aim to develop -- must be constantly aware of the class and how to anticipate problems.

Here's an example: Halfway through class, I give the students a water break. They all leave the room, get a drink, and come back. Right?

What if one gets sick, needs to use the restroom, or falls down the stairs? When will a good leader know they are missing one of their charges? Will they notice when they line everyone back up, and see the gap? Maybe they keep going and halfway through drill think "hey, where did Jane go?" If she ran into a friend and got pulled into a discussion, no problem. But if she went to throw up, I'd be very upset if one of her seniors left her behind.

Grandmaster Shin wrote a section on the relationship between hu bae and sun bae, or junior and senior rank (Notice I didn't say lower and higher rank, another pet peeve.) Sun bae watches out for junior rank and takes responsibility for their training. Hu bae offers respect to senior rank, and also work hard to keep senior rank on their toes.

The above example plays exactly into the sun bae / hu bae relationship, and to meet the responsibility of sun bae, you must be aware.

Monday, June 2, 2008

2 birds, 1 stone

In my previous post, I discussed my love/hate relationship with YouTube and its proof of the decline of western civilization. I received some encouragement to go ahead and post a few videos, so I thought I'd make a noble attempt to put 1-2 videos up a month and use them to further my talking points.

Here's a video of me practicing E Sip Sa Bo, aka Nijushiho.

If you recall my previous posts on this form, it is not a commonly taught hyung in Tang Soo Do. In the WTSDA requirements, it doesn't exist. In a nutshell, my goal was to take a form that is well documented in Shotokan, and attempt to apply principles of Tang Soo Do.

Needless to say, I'm still working on it. The double palm strike at the end feels very weak, and I'm not satisfied with the front leg side kick into reverse punch combination either. However, I feel pretty stable (despite the horrid slipping mats) and I can really feel some power behind some of the motions. I'm certainly not ready to compare mine to that of Asai, and I'm sure my rendition would leave more than one Shotokan, or Tang Soo Do, student scratching their heads.

In a few weeks, I'll post an update, and we'll see how I've come along, if at all.

How do I feel about using YouTube? I'm still not 100% comfortable with it, but I suppose it's not that different than performing a form in public, which I've done plenty of times. The scale of the audience is larger, but I'll never meet 99.999% of the people who watch it anyhoo.