One day a student saw his Sensei punching a wooden post that had been thrust into the ground. The student inquired: "Sensei, what is it you're punching?"
The student walked over and began striking the board gingerly. He had noticed months earlier that his instructor's hands were rough around the knuckles and that his punching power was far greater than his slight frame belied. Could this simple board be the key to his power? The student had to wonder.
"Now I want you to practice on this slowly and lightly at first. In time we'll increase the impact, but I must be certain you're technique is correct."
For a month the student struck the board deligently, feeling it bend and snap back into place. He was growing more comfortable all the time. Sadly his trip to visit his Sensei was brief and soon he flew back to his home town. Motivated and confident, the student set out to construct his own makiwara. His Sensei had given him a few tips on construction, so he felt ready.
Wandering the aisles of the local hardware store, the student noticed a similar looking board in both length and width. However, next to it was a sturdy and thick piece of oak. Certainly, the student concluded, that if the thin board had succesfully developed his Sensei's striking power that a thicker and more durable board would elicit even better results!
He bought the thick oak and planted it firmly in his backyard. Later, finding the outdoor makiwara a bit inconvenient, he decided to secure a thin foam pad to his concrete basement walls and strike that instead.
Unfortunately the student's Sensei never visited his home dojo and failed to inquire about the specifics of his makiwara practice. Perhaps such an intervention could have helped avoid the severe damage and arthritis the student would experience in later years.
More is a Tempting Proposition
The previous story is entirely fictional, however it might as well be true considering the amount of martial artists who have suffered in a similar way. Makiwara training is not inherently dangerous and can be executed safely. However, it is easily abused for the sake of quicker or more significant short term results.
The fictional student saw what his instructor had done and came to a natural conclusion that if he were to do more/harder/longer he would experience better results. This is a tempting mindset but can be very dangerous.
The classical martial arts were developed over decades (sometimes centuries) of careful analysis and adjustment. As times changed so did the specific needs of practitioners, so the arts continued to grow and evolve. Good classical arts, ones that helped practitioners defend themselves without damaging them in the process, eventually developed. Unfortunately, no matter how far back in time you look, the struggle of patience vs results and ego has always existed and tugged on exponents.
More Examples of More
Excessive makiwara training isn't the only way we as practitioners can upset proper training balance. Consider the following hypothetical scenarios:
- A teacher decides to enlogate stances so as to develop the leg muscles of students. The next generation decides that if long stances are good, even longer stances must be better. So long in fact that perhaps each student's belt should touch the ground when settling into stance.
- A student notices a fine flow that his teacher executes during freestyle practice. The student decides that flowing technique is clearly the best and sets out to eliminate all hard, impactful and linear technique.
- A practitioner attends a seminar with a known vital point fighting expert. Amazed by the effectiveness of the vital point techniques, he shifts his entire study and marketing efforts to the propogation of vital points. He decides that there must be even more to it and creates a tangled web of fact and fiction surrounding the "energy" of the arts.
- A skilled kata exponent discovers the existence of tuite and the reailty that kata can contain more than just striking. She then decides that the true application of each kata is an elaborate series of joint locks and grappling maneuvers and focuses purely on these ideas.
- After a few years of study a student realizes that his teacher has studied both a hard Japanese art and a modern style of boxing. He decides that since cross training two styles is beneficial he would study five styles, combine them, and name his own art.
These are fictional situations like the story told above, but some of them may sound familiar and ring true to your experience.
Awareness as the Solution
The trick to managing "more" is realizing that it can exist in your school and in between your ears. It has the power to affect any of us (myself included). When coming up through the ranks of Okinawa Kenpo, I was inundated with a wide variety of empty hand and kobudo kata. At certain points I distinctly remember focusing on the next set of kata I needed for testing to the exclusion of all other matters. In order to progress through kyu ranks and acquire the more "advanced" kata I fell victim to "more".
Eventually I realized what I was doing and was able to pull myself out of that collector's cycle. Even now I frequently ask myself: Where is my focus? Have I become too obsessed with a single aspect of training?
More vs Specialization
An important distinction is that "more" is not the same thing as training deligently or finding a specialty. For example, if a teacher were to decide that body conditioning was important to her and thus her students, it's logical and understandable for her to incorporate frequent conditioning drills. But if she obsesses over drills and methods that sacrifice mobility, technique, and even personal health all for the sake of increasing body hardness then she would have committed an error of disharmony in training.
When observing your art and your methods of training it's important to consider both diminishing returns and off-balance practice methods. Sometimes in your established art you'll come to notice things that help you early on but eventually become a hinderance. At those times you can explore ways to improve your technique without forgetting the value those initial methods brought.
A teacher's job is even harder, as the temptation to change things can be strong. Well meaning instructors often wish to increase the speed of student development or cut to the "no nonsense, nitty gritty harcore stuff" that took them years to figure out. Of course, they are unwittingly discarding things of high value that can ultimately result in not just a well balanced martial artist, but a deligent and humble person as well.
Good classical training is diverse and not readily understood at a glance. It challenges each student to obey faithfully and keep the system true to its roots while at the same time thinking independently and finding balance. Such a mental and physical struggle as in one of the most subtle yet lasting benefits of the old ways.
I recently had a chance to review the DVD "Kung Fu Body Conditioning (2)" by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, and would like to tell you about some of my findings.
Most martial artists starting out have a rather romantic vision of what traditional training should look like. Especially in the realm of Kung Fu, the imagination conjures up images of clandestine monks meditating on rocks, leaping through trees, and balancing deftly on top of slender objects. Most of us settle into more modern environments for our training, but the students at the YMAA retreat keep some of the old spirit alive, and this DVD lets us in on the fun.
I was particularly interested in this video because it relates closely to the Okinawan concepts of kiko and hojo undo. Kiko is a term that refers to the Okinawan methods of energy movement throughout the body. It is a combination of breath, meridian opening/closing, posture, muscular coordination, and mindset. Kiko practice often shows up in kata like Sanchin and Tensho, where the form is executed slowly and deliberately. Hojo Undo is a term referring to basic practice methods that often involve body developing implements like chi ishi, nigiri game, makiwara, and more.
When put together, kiko and hojo undo form the basis for body conditioning in karate. When done properly, karate strikes can become exponentially more effective and the body far more resistant to taking blows. Concepts such as iron palm, iron shirt, and kyusho jutsu are all related to these methods of training.
Interestingly, these aspects of karate which blend internal and external have a close relationship with Chinese arts. As is well known, karate's forebearer tode (or just "ti") was heavily influenced by Chinese sources. Whether it was Okinawans traveling to the Chinese coast to study White Crane or Chinese sapposhi visiting the islands and staying in Kumemura, the spread of chuanfa (kung fu) was subtle but deliberate.
Viewing the Kung Fu Body Conditioning DVD was an excellent chance to "compare and contrast", as well as learn new things about the intricacies of internal development.
What's On the DVD?
In short – a lot. Normally when you purchase a martial arts DVD you can expect somewhere between 1-2 hours of content. Some are even stingier. This DVD provided FOUR HOURS of content, and it wasn't fluffed out with unneccesary repetitions of drills.
That being said, here is a quick run down of the major sections of the video:
- Basic Qigong – Grand circulation, hard/soft white crane movement, taiji ball, candle staring. This section is a nice mixture of groundwork ideas that seem simple but are difficult to execute proficiently. For hard stylists it's full of useful drills to ponder, soft stylists may find it remedial.
- Arm and Leg Conditioning- candle punching, use of weighted body gear, bag punching, brick rooting, jumping technique. Normally when you hear the terms "arm or leg conditioning" you think of beating your body with various implements to toughen them. That's not really the focus here. Instead the body is conditioned to behave properly to transmit power and move energy effectively.
- Kicks and Stances – Useful for individuals looking to integrate more kung fu into their repertoire, although not critical for understanding the other concepts in the video.
- Partner Drills – reaction speed, reaction time games, bridge hands, distance drills, arm conditioning. A series of useful activities that two or more students can use to develop enhanced ability. Included is body toughening exercises.
- Outdoor Training – post punching, weighted exercise, cinderblock flipping, monkey running, tumbling and trampoline. Ideas for integrating nature into development activities. Low tech body conditioning solutions.
- Philosophical Discussions – Dr. Yang pontificates on some of the finer aspects of preserving kung fu, the deeper meaning of training, and focusing on character development.
For the visually inclined, check out this short video filled with clips from the DVD:
How Good Was the DVD?
There's no question, this video is a welcome addition to my collection. From a sheer value perspective, YMAA has done an excellent job of giving customers the most for their money. Many companies would have broken this information up into four DVDs, one hour a piece and charged $30-$40 each. This DVD is one disc, $39.95, and they didn't cut corners on production value. While you wouldn't mistake this for a Hollywood movie, the quality of filming and clarity of information is well above average. Interestingly, this particular video is the second in a 2-part series, yet it doesn't feel as if the first is needed to understand the content. Both parts appear to be separately functional.
The format begins and ends with discussion from Dr. Yang. He guides the viewer through qigong exercises and philosophical discussions. The bulk of the actual physical training is done by his retreat students. They perform aptly, and while their presentation is a bit more stiff than the veteran Yang, each exercise is thoroughly understandable.
I approached this video looking for ways to enhance my kiko and hojo undo training, and I got just that. The internal qigong aspects emphasized throughout the tape are very interesting and clearly applicable to classical training. Individuals who don't care for discussions on chi or energy may find some of the drills too esoteric for their taste, but that's ok. With so much content, the viewer can easily pick and choose which pieces they want to incorporate into their own regiment. I, for example, have no real use for tumbling or parkour-esque monkey running. I won't be utilizing those drills, but I did appreciate the skill it took to do them.
Any Gripes, Complaints, Curmudgeonly Mumblings?
I have one complaint. Throughout the video we see the young students executing various body/technique development exercises. But what about Dr. Yang? Sure, tossing cinderblocks helps build good core and grip muscles when you're young, but at what time do you stop doing that? What kind of body development training does Dr. Yang do at his age and skill level?
I would have loved to see a "mature" version of each exercise. As the young students wailed away, Dr. Yang could have shown how a 40-50 year old might do it. After all, many martial artists are middle aged or older; they can't be jumping around from railing to railing all day.
One of the great pleasures I get from studying under good senior Sensei is watching them execute techniques and training at a higher level. This video missed a chance to show off Dr. Yang and the subtleties of his expertise.
If you're interested in low tech training and want to gather new ideas for combining the internal and external aspects of your art, this DVD is a fine choice. I found a few drills I can put to immediate use, and others that may take time for me to understand.
Hey everyone! The end of our most recent giveaway has arrived. Today I'll be reaching out to the three randomly selected winners for the IkigaiWay and NaturalKarate T Shirts.
I'd like to extend a special thanks to everyone who was able to participate. Should any of the winners not respond I will redraw and select a new winner. If you were unable to participate in this giveaway, don't worry – I hope to offer many more in the future.
About the Winners
Two individuals will be drawn randomly from the pool of link submissions. One subscriber to the new Natural Karate project will also be drawn. These individuals will be contacted privately in order to protect their personal information.
Special Thanks to Fibers
This event was made possible by Fibers Custom T Shirts. They have been kind enough to work with me and provide the prize materials.
My experience with the Fibers process was very enjoyable. Their site demonstrates a focus on fun and quirky shirt ideas, and the business aspect of their company helps support small enterprises such as this one.
When designing the shirts, I felt completely at ease with the process. The technology in place to import personal images (jpeg, png, etc) was very intuitive, as was resizing and placement. They even had a ton of stock images and color options to help enhance the on-shirt creatives. Had I wanted to, I could have designed shirts right from their stock material.
Placing and arranging the visuals was done by drag and drop, allowing for quick maneuvering. This was useful in that I could get a sense for which placement I liked and which I didn't, and make adjustments accordingly. In addition, I was able to save each project for later review and easy access.
Quality End Result
Fibers was gracious enough to provide me with a sample shirt. I'm very pleased with the end result. As you can see, the fit and quality of the print is excellent (click to enlarge):
Should you need custom printing I would definitely suggest giving Fibers T Shirts some consideration. This positive review has been an honest opinion of my experience and was not required as part of the giveaway.