Monday, July 8, 2013

Fire Good!

So, last weekend, I did this:

My wife, who is awesome, gave me a fire staff for my last birthday. Basically, the fire staff is an aluminum tube with dowel on both sides for weight, rubber wrap in the center and kevlar wick wrapped on both ends. You dip these for a few seconds in ultra-pure lamp oil, spin off the excess into a bucket, light and start going.

This was my very first time spinning a staff that was lit. The weight was a little different, and the fire garnered enough respect that I wasn't very keen on moving or being overly ambitious. I felt like I was going insanely fast as the heat whooshed past my head. The video would seem to indicate otherwise, though as I built confidence it did speed up a little.

The staff is an amazing weapon and teaching tool. Many schools of kung-fu refer to the staff as "the great teacher" and I find a fire staff to be a very strict teacher as well. You will respect the lanes of motion, you will understand how to control the movement and you will learn to be efficient in your movement. Otherwise, you will be punished.

Staff is simply circles repeated at different angles and planes, and stacked on each other.

This is around the body and behind the head and waist. Keeping the staff perpendicular to the ground is very important during this technique. Any little wiggle, and I lose hair.

I have confidence in my lanes of motion because I know where they are going to be. Long exposure photos bear this out as I keep several circles on top of each other:

By practicing the technique thousands of times (sound familiar?) I know where it will be and can rotate my body in relation to the spin and move into figure-eight movements, etc. Spinning in one direction gives me "forward movmenet" and the other direction gives me "reverse movement." The circles don't change much, but my relation to them does constantly.

This, my friends, is what I do for fun. If you're not ready for this sort of commitment, here's another fun idea. Take a pair of nunchaku, and tape a few sparklers to one end. As another July 4th has passed, you should be able to buy tons on the cheap. The downside is that sparklers burn REALLY hot, and they also don't last very long.

Don't be like me, wear eye protection. See those cool trails flying off the path? If one of those hit me in the eye, I would be a sad panda.

Also, watch your handoffs. May want to do those on another day. :)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What's in your bag?

Over the years, I've been through many bags. Some have lasted years, while others maybe lasted a month or two. I carry a lot of stuff to and from class: uniform, training knives, mouthpiece, cup, pens, notebook, nunchaku, and a few other things from time to time. The bag weighs a lot, gets tossed around, shoved into the trunk, etc.

There is one thing that has stayed in my bag since I got it: my white belt.

I've carried it with me all these years for many reasons; some of which have changed over the years. At first, it was largely a pragmatic reason. It was always handy to have an extra belt, and I could bail out a new student who lost or misplaced theirs. Sometimes, new students who hadn't yet invested in a uniform needed a belt for the drills.

It has been a makeshift staff for flow training. Figure eights with a completely flexible object is a challenge.

It's been used for Shuai Chiao style "cracking" training.

It's been used for slip rope training drills.

It will one day be used this way when I get a chance to try:

I could do most of these with my own belt, or heck, even a long stretch of rope. The main reason I keep the belt now is to remind me of where I came from and where I've been. It reminds me of how far I've come and how far I still have to go. It reminds me of our first classes in a dingy racquetball court and the lessons my instructor instilled in me. It reminds me that I have that same obligation to my own students.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

True Martial Spirit

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an amazing martial arts movie.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi has exactly 00:00:00.00 of martial arts.

I will let you contemplate how those two sentences can both be true. Here's the preview:

For the martial artist, how many of these concepts sound familiar? Here is a man at the top of his field, seeking perfection in simplicity, yet feels he is not yet there. Through constant practice, he strives to achieve better results. There is no flash or pizazz. Yet, people make reservations months in advance and spend hundreds of dollars on a meal that may last 10 minutes.

Watch how he treats his apprentice chefs. Hard training, simple tasks repeated over and over again to earn trust and sound fundamentals in the basics.

I don't want to give much more away that this, for the surprise ending should inspire all instructors. If you have Netflix, it is on instant view. Go watch it.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Youtube Dojang

"When you learn new techniques, learn thoroughly the theory and philosophy as well."

-Attitude requirement number 12.

Just to make a tongue-in-cheek point...

Green Belts: Don't look or read any of this. Scroll down until you see the part where I say it's OK to start reading again.

I learn a lot from watching Youtube videos.

There are a lot of excellent instructors and practitioners who are sharing their theories and ideas with the entire world. For free, no obligations. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of material out there that is just terrible. Not just terribly done, but unsafe and dangerous as well. I am a little concerned that my students will try to search for something on Youtube and end up not being able to tell the difference between the good and the bad.

As a student of hyung, I greatly enjoy using Youtube to watch countless variations of hyung that I know. One of thing I like to do is search for "WTSDA hyungName." and see what comes back. Even within our own Association, there are subtle variations and trends in hyung performance that vary from dojang to dojang and Region to Region. As a student, I greatly appreciate seeing how different students and schools emphasize different portions of the form. I love it when I see someone doing the same things I do, and when I see something different, I try really hard to understand where they are coming from. They have to do it for a reason. Or, at least, their instructor teaches it that way for a reason. Or - and we're talking worst case scenario -- someone along the line changed it for a good reason!

After seeing what's out there I then check out how other Tang Soo Do groups approach the hyung, [sarcasm]and then I look down on them with contempt, for my way is obviously the best.[/sarcasm] (On a related note, the W3C really needs to settle on a sarcasm tag for HTML.)

From there, it is very fun to go further down the rabbit hole. Does Shotokan have a version of this hyung? Shito-ryu? Shorin-ryu? Isshin-ryu? Holy moly, how many different Seisan variations can there possibly be? The answer: a lot.

The challenge is trying to see the differences between styles, and not immediately dismissing them as being silly or inferior. Others may always be attracted to things that are different, and they need to be reminded that just because it is different, or from an "older" style does not make it automagically better, either.

One of my favorite jokes:

How many black belts does it take to change a light bulb?

15. One to change the bulb, and 14 more to tuck their thumbs into their belt and mutter "That's not how my instructor does it.

I am a strong proponent of the idea that once you know a hyung, you should strive to make it your own. To only stop with what you were taught is a terrible disservice to those who came before you. You can bet your butt they made changes, whether they are aware of it or not, everyone makes subtle changes. The best analogy anyone ever shared with me was that of a suit. Would you wear your instructor's suit? Chances are, it doesn't fit. Different heights, body types, etc. I'm guessing the hyung is performed with these same constraints in mind, so why would you strive to carbon copy your instructor. Yes, do it like your instructor for awhile. Make their version the goal, but from there, look to add your own emphasis to the hyung, and perhaps you will one day be fortunate enough to contribute to the greater knowledge of Tang Soo Do.

Green Belts: Feel free to continue reading from this point forward.

So remember, kids, YouTube is the devil. It will corrupt what your instructors are trying to teach you and fill your heads with rot. Stick to what your being taught and train hard.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Kyung Yet

In my training, our instructor stressed the importance of bowing as a measure of respect. We went over the intricacies of when and how to bow, how long we should hold the bow, where our hands should be, if we should look up or down, etc. As a result, I thought I had got a pretty good hold on the subject.

In my own classes, I am not such a stickler for bowing. Mind you, this isn't because I'm trying to go against the grain, or I don't believe in bowing. I would say "Cha Ryut. Kyung Yet." and bow to my students, but if someone didn't feel like bowing to me or did a piss poor job of doing so, I simply didn't care. Essentially, I came up with a passive-aggressive way of teaching bowing: I provided the example to follow and if they cared to emulate me, they were free to do so.

Why would I come up with such a solution. Believe it or not, it wasn't out of laziness; I just didn't want to be this guy:


Or, this guy...

I've always been a little wary about creating a bizarre cult of personality centered around me and my mediocre martial arts skills. I've seen my share of people who demand a borderline cultish ritual of worship. These are usually the people who remind you that they are a MASTER.

I fell into one of the classic blunders of teaching students. In the words of my instructor, I had solved one problem by creating another problem. New problem: my students suck at bowing.


If we stayed within the confines of our humble dojang, this would not be a problem. However, as my wife so astutely pointed out, our students would look like total boneheads in front of other members of our group if they didn't understand the protocol. I may not care if they bow properly to me, but other instructors may misinterpret my honest attempt at preserving my humility for a lack of respect. I also didn't want catty students from other schools to look at my students and whisper:

"tsk, tsk, little Johnny did not properly place his index finger along the crease in his pants. I didn't realize that Tom cared so little for the traditions of our art! Clearly we will be superior on the fictional battlefield!"

Last week, I had the opportunity to train in another dojang in my lineage. In this school, the ritual of bowing was taken very seriously. However, I also know that the instructor's ego was not massaged by this act of bowing. He simply doesn't need the ego boost, as his martial skills have truly walked the walk over the years. It was a skill he expected of his students, and one that he demanded that they pay close attention to. Just like any other skill practiced in his dojang.

I'd like to think I get it a little more. Maybe I really do get it. I often think I've figured it all out when a third-party could easy say "hold up, sport; you're not there quite yet."

My students do look up to me. I can avoid this, or embrace it. Possibly it is just scary to consider how much your actions are observed by your students. In all of this observation there is plenty of opportunity for misinterpretation. I might be trying to give my students the impression that I am humble and down to Earth and haven't let the belt get to my head. But if they don't know that, all they walk away with is "My instructor doesn't care about bowing, so it must not be important!"

So, over the summer, one of my projects is to instill the proper way to bow to my students. A voice saying "Kick, punch. Easy stuff..." echoes in my mind.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hyung of the week followup.

In my last post, I talked about my hyung of the week focus idea. I thought I'd follow up on what I got from the drill. The basic premise was that I wrote the name of every hyung I know on a small piece of paper, threw them in a hat, and would draw a new name every week.

In the process, I drew the following hyung:

  • Dangum Hyung
  • Seisan
  • Bong Hyung Sam Bu
  • Pyung Ahn Cho Dan
  • Pyung Ahn Oh Dan
  • Jindo
  • Naihanchi Sam Dan
  • Pyung Ahn E Dan
  • Sip Soo
  • Kong Sang Koon Sho

I was doing fairly well with this, until I got distracted:

I know, I know: "excuses, excuses, excuses..."

That aside, I think that the exercise has had some benefit. It may not be optimal, but I have found that it allows me to pick one thing and work on it in my downtime. My current levels of downtime are low, so having a solitary focus for the week is nice. I can think about the hyung while walking, come up with a few application ideas, do some youtube research to watch variations, etc.

Downside? Well, first off, a week really isn't very much time. I know a few senior Masters who focus an entire year on one thing. And certainly some people take a single form over a lifetime and specialize in it. So what to do?

Right now, I focus on a concept or topic that spans over several hyung. Sometimes, if I come up with something new in my current form, I go back to previous weeks and see if it works. My current concept focus is analyzing trends and repeated movements in a form. For example, in Sae Kye 1, the low block/center punch combination is obviously a key component of the hyung. The #3/#4 cut combo in Dangum repeats several times. As I put these together, I start trying to assign a level of priority to the movement. Then I mix them up, unfold the form and try putting it together in different ways.

I know that to some, this might be a case of blasphemy, but I truly feel that the forms are folded up into footwork diagrams as a mnemonic for an advanced student to unpack, rearrange and add to as needed. Have you ever used a form in sparring and thought "Boy, that really opens them up to THIS!" but THIS isn't in the hyung? To me, those followup movements are either implied or assumed that you know what to do from there.

An example is in Dangum hyung. We have the 3/4 cut combo in the third count. We end the movement with the knife at center level, pointy end directly at the opponent. To me, this says that it is implied that this ending position should either be a stab, or bringing the opponent to a "bargain" (knife pressed against throat) position.

If we can accept that premise, then we can also accept that from that opening, we can continue onward with another portion of the hyung that works from that position. If we return to our Dangum example, we've finished movement number 3. A great way to continue that flow would be a movement from later in the hyung where we perform high/low, low/high thrusts (those of you who practice this form may think of this as the "sewing machine" combo.) Flow from that, into the upward rising slash in count number 6, and we once again find ourselves in a point forward facing position, and we could either go into the "high/side/center" stab combo that is shown later, or we could loop back into one of the other combinations. I don't profess to be an expert in the knife, but my preference is to keep that blade moving and hunting for targets rather than single strikes.

In my opinion, a drill like this does wonders for a student's ability to understand the form. Performance is one thing, and I too am a big fan of maintaing aesthetic. It is a martial ART, after all, and I hate seeing sloppy technique. Unfortunately, a lot of students never move past performance into understanding. They become teachers and risk passing on empty movements that can be arbitrarily changed.

So now, that I've got some spare time (lol) I've pulled another hyung out of the hat. This week's choice: Bassai.