Ground fighting Chinese martial arts style….

28 Aug

Set aside fanciful stories about Buddhist and Daoist monks, spiritual alchemy, achieving enlightenment and later history of cultural appropriation and examine Chinese martial arts for what they originally were intended, combat. The sooner we accept these origins, the sooner we can examine a correct history and appreciate its consequences. The sooner we can realize that the evolution from battlefield combat method to personal combat method is not all that different from the same evolutionary path that took place in Japan, and even took place in Europe. With the proper context we can understand the proper application.


As a battlefield combat art, there is very little place for ground fighting. On a battlefield, a man who falls or is taken to the ground is likely to be stabbed, speared, crushed or trampled to death. When we talk about battlefield combat, casualties are both unavoidable and accepted, a price of doing business. The single man is NOT a consideration, so the man who finds himself on the ground is NOT a concern.


As these methods trickle down to the general population and become methods of personal defense, the frame of reference changes. The man training to defend himself is not a general willing to sacrifice troops to achieve victory, he is the very individual the general would sacrifice to achieve larger aims. The man training for personal combat wants potential solutions should he find himself on the ground. He may known that his chances are reduced in combat with weapons, against multiple attackers, etc, but he won’t abandon all hope and resign to his fate. That is not human nature.


The first ground fighting skill is learning to stand back up. If you can’t get off the ground quickly enough, the next tier of defense is defending against the standing attacker. The most common Chinese martial arts ground fighting tactic is indeed kicks from the ground.

ground fighting scissor stomp

A lot of people who identify themselves as traditional Chinese martial artists are highly critical of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Unfortunately, most are not that educated regarding the actual art. The original Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as developed by the Gracie family (as opposed to sport jiujitsu which has come up rather recently by comparison) was a self defense art. It was also designed for “Vale Tudo” or no-holds-barred fighting. The original Gracie family jiujitsu contained a lot of kicks from the ground upwards at an attacker, techniques that would seem familiar to Chinese martial artists. Also, those who really are familiar with the diversity of Chinese martial arts might find techniques similar to Gracie jiujitsu.


Most Chinese martial artists have learned the scissors legs (“Gaau Jin Geuk”) that appears universally in all traditions’ ground fighting teachings. It is often seen as simply a way to get up. But it is an extremely complicated movement for simply a method of returning to a standing position? Many students of Chinese martial arts have seen it used as simple leg sweeps, but what if it also could be used for the guard sweeps so common in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? Or perhaps even the arm bars and triangle chokes used from the guard?


If we consider that originally Chinese martial arts, as a battlefield combat method, had no ground fighting techniques, only developing them later, can we not ask why we can’t continue to develop our ground fighting methods? When Chinese martial arts were adopted for personal combat, ground techniques were developed, but within the context of that period. Today, we are in another period. Should we not continue to develop?


A theory for counter attacks

26 Aug

The “five elements” (五行) is essentially a universal concept within Chinese martial arts. Its cycles of “creation” and “destruction” are often explained as methods of technique linkage or as methods of counter attack. Students are often told that one technique is followed by another. Or, they are given formulas of counter attack; a “metal” technique overcomes or destroys a “wood” technique, just as an ax cuts down a tree.


Upon closer examination, systems like Hung Ga have five element techniques, but they do not follow the order of either the creation or destruction cycles? In fighting, believing the answer to an attack is as simplistic as a universal counter measure is both illogical and dangerous. Thus, if the entire scheme appears questionable to you, I agree fully. In fact, I have found others, notable Chinese boxers who also shared this view.

“One should know that the original ‘Xingyi’ …. It did not have the theory of the mutual promotion and restraint of the five elements, there were just the five elements representing five kinds of forces… This is the syncretism of the five elements. It has nothing to do with one technique overcoming another technique as the modern people claim”.

alternate jit application

The above quote is Wang Xiangzhai, Xingyi teacher, noted fighter and founder of Yi Quan. Sifu Wang further noted;

I remember well the words of my late teacher about the five elements: Metal means the strength contained in the bones and the muscles, the mind being firm like iron or stone, being able to cut gold and steel. Wood has the meaning of the bending but rooted posture of a tree. Water means force like the waves of the vast sea, lively like a dragon or a snake, when used, it is able to pervade everything. Fire means strength being like gunpowder, fists being like bullets shot out, having the strength to burn the opponent’s body by the first touch. Earth means exerting strength heavy, deep, solid, and perfectly round, the qi being strong, having the force of oneness with heaven and earth.

It is somewhat extraordinary, and somewhat disconcerting, to know that for generations most students have been given false interpretations of such a fundamental theory! In my own tradition, I was rather lucky to have never believed that combat was a simple as “A beat B, B beat C, and C beats A”. I always saw the five elements as a metaphor for possibilities; creation cycles showing how one type of technique can set up another, destruction cycles as potential counters.

jaat teui with arm pull

As I have often stated, looking through different lineages and traditions can provide us with valuable insights. We can see how the SAME techniques can counter each other; a kick counters another kick.

cut kick low

In reality, our methods are often contradictory. We punch against a kick…. then we kick against a punch….

kick vs punch

We use knee strikes against throws, but we also use throws against knees.

kick blocking

The cycles of “creation” and “destruction,” can suggest metaphorically how techniques create opportunities or can be used to counter, but we cannot take it literally.

You may not be interested in clinching, but clinching might be interested in you!

25 Aug

Today, most Chinese martial artists are stuck in the kicking and punching phase. Despite how frequently they use the word “kickboxing” in derision, as an insult, that is in fact what they are doing; and doing it rather poorly for the most part! “Oh, but in a real fight I don’t want to grapple / clinch / wrestle” they will tell you… But can they really avoid this phase of combat?

dominant angle

Have you ever watched a professional boxing match? Did you realize that the clinch is actually illegal? Yet it seems to be unavoidable. Then watch a Lei Tai, San Da or Muay Thai match, where the clinch and wrestling is legal, and see who those who have developed these skills dominate. Or, even those who have the skill to ESCAPE the clinch may be successfully, note how they had to DEVELOP the skills to escape! How do you develop those skills if you never engage in the phase / range?

head inside single leg

Whether you chose to close the distance or your opponent does, the clinch happens. Once the distance has been closed, the fundamental nature of fighting changes. In clinching, fighting for position, establishing grips, breaking grips, and unbalancing all become essential skills. They are used to control both the neck and the body and to set up strikes, knees, some kicks, throws and takedowns.

leg blocking graphic

The clinch may be the most important position in a fight but in most traditional martial arts it has been virtually ignored. Despite their best intentions, those who rely upon striking will find themselves in the clinch at some point in a fight. They need to learn clinching in order to remain standing. On the other side of the equation, most grapplers will rely upon clinching as a defense against strikes and to set up their throws and takedowns.

kao graphic

Thus, all fighters must learn to clinch. The first priority in the clinch is to establish CONTROL. The first few seconds are the most important and the most dangerous. Fighting for position, establishing grips, breaking grips, and unbalancing are all essential skills. In general terms, clinching will either be used to control the neck or the body. Once you have established control, you have several options; striking (knees, elbows, etc.), throws and takedowns, or escaping.


The clinch for striking

elbow strike upward 2

If we examine different combat sports we will find that striking in the clinch varies depending upon the format. In Western boxing, the rules limit the options to either (1) punching out of the clinch with short punches such as the uppercut, or (2) throwing body punches, or (3) holding the arms to prevent punching and waiting for the referee to break the hold. In Muay Thai, the cultural aesthetic has led to the development of knee and elbow strikes, with some basic wrestling to throw the opponent to the canvas. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has incorporated elements of both of these sports while also introducing new methods. An intelligent fighter familiarizes themselves with ALL of the options in the clinch and understands their relative advantages and disadvantages.

knee face

The primary method of clinching for strikes is to use the neck tie or double neck tie (often seen in Muay Thai). A neck tie keeps your opponent from escaping while also maintaining enough distance to strike. There are some opportunities to strike from other positions like the “50/50 clinch” which we will also discuss

knee to body

The clinch for throws and takedowns

middle inner hooking graphic

The advantage of using a throwing technique is obvious. A good throw can inflict as much damage, if not more, than a combination of strikes. You are hitting your opponent with the ground. For the purposes of definition, a full body throw involves both of the attacker’s feet leaving the ground as the body goes up and over your center of gravity. A properly executed throw also places an opponent in a position where you can strike, including STOMPING on their head!

vertical lifting uchi

A takedown is a much simpler undertaking. Any technique which puts the attacker on the ground and which is not a full body throw is considered a takedown. Full body throws can be devastating but are more difficult to set up and complete. A takedown is much easier. The disadvantage of takedowns is that they seldom disable the opponent and thus require a submission technique to complete the encounter.

body contact two

More to come
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Preparing the body for war 練功

21 Aug

Chinese martial arts are war arts, arts of combat. That is how they originally developed and how they were primarily used for most of China’s history. In fact, the fusion of what were originally military methods with Buddhist and Daoist concepts and practices arrived only in the Ming dynasty, comparatively late. However, I think for many, the existence within Chinese martial arts of yogic like practices is a major reason for the frequent confusion that these traditions were rather health, meditative or spiritual in nature.

neck bridge

There is no question that Chinese martial arts promote health. Nor is there anything wrong with those who practice them strictly for health or recreation. But the original purpose of these yoga like practices was directly related to their combat utility. The body must be prepared for war. IN an earlier blog I already touched upon this. In “making pain a friend” I focused more upon the hardening of the body and the acceptance of pain. This time around, I am going to discuss flexibility, particularly in the waist, back and shoulders.

push ups

Circular, long arm striking is a feature of many systems, both “northern” and “southern” and both “external” and “internal” (despite the fact I hate these terms, they are in fact artificial and of very limited use). The Lama Pai I learned from the late Chan Tai-San is particularly noted for its long arm strikes. They can be extremely powerful, but all to frequently I see people throw these techniques with limited power. Ironically, in trying to develop power, they are usually stiff and the end result is limited power. The true power of long arm strikes comes from relaxed power and flexibility in the waist, back, and sholders.

alternating arms

Shoulder exercises, the “arm wheels” that contemporary wushu has become noted for, are so common to Chinese martial arts they can be found in every manual. As with most things, begin with the basic and advance to the complex. Stretch up, feel the shoulders release, and alternate in dropping each arm in a arcing manner. As you become more comfortable, only then begin to include the martial intention of a chopping (劈) strike / palm.

arm circles forward

Circle the arms forward, both in unison. People almost immediately appreciate the calisthenic nature of these exercises, but often fail to understand their martial aspect.

alternating arm circles

Alternate the arm, but keep the motion continuous (連還). Begin with relaxation, then introduce the martial intent.

waist flexibility
waist flexibilit 2

Martial artists usually recognize the value of strength, and so push ups, cat push ups, bridges, etc are all common drills. As in “yin and yang” all practice must be balanced, so we must realize that strength often compromises flexibility. Since we realize we need BOTH, we must engage in a careful balancing act.

arm wheel downward
arm wheel upward

From the waist and back flexibility, we return to shoulder flexibility done in stance to teach the INTEGRATION of the whole body. Now it is essential to maintain martial intent. This is not just calisthenics, this is preparation for striking.

double arm whieel

I suspect people have seen variations of the double arm wheel in contemporary wushu and thought it was there only for aesthetic value. The movement does originate in traditional Chinese martial arts and is used not only for striking but also for wrestling, throwing and joint locks. However, that is another blog.

Structuring your curriculum

18 Aug

“Teaching is a constant revision and expansion of methods based
on a training program which is systematic and progressive”
– Donn Draeger, 1962

fun gam choih

Some of you may already be familiar with the concept of a “rotating curriculum”. Here, I’ll explain not only how it works but also address aspects and features unique to a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) program. These are suggestions based upon my personal experience. Each instructor will have to determine for themselves specifics and make modifications based upon their unique circumstances.

control the indoor area two

The rotating curriculum concept is not necessarily a new idea, but it has gained popularity and is now used by most commercially successful schools. First, let me explain how it works. Then we can discuss why we use it and the benefits. Using a rotating curriculum, the whole class is working the same material.

superman 1b

The most popular model is to set up six “semesters” of two months each. Since the sequence is not what is important here, let’s instead label the semesters with letters.

Semester A is January/February
Semester B is March/April
Semester C is May/June
Semester D is July/August
Semester E is September/October
Semester F is November/December

It’s up to the instructor to determine what material will be covered in each semester. Most instructors will want to mix up different skills in a semester; i.e. certain boxing drills, kickboxing drills, throws, and self defense techniques per semester. In a traditional martial arts program, each semester might include learning one form.


The example above is simplified and intended only to help you grasp the concept. Another suggestion is that you might want to offer separate programs for striking, clinching/wrestling and your ground / Jiu-Jitsu, in which case you will develop separate rotating curriculum.

knee to body a

The key to this concept is that EVERYONE will be learning the same material during that semester, whether they joined that month or three months ago. Most traditional instructors initially have trouble with this concept. They can’t imagine a student who has been studying for 6 months learning the same material as someone who just joined that month. It’s something you’ll have to get used to, but experience will show you that this sort of program works.

For traditional martial arts programs, belts and/or ranking figures into this arrangement as well. In a year period, a student progresses through six semesters and, if you are using a belt system, you can award a belt after successful completion of each semester. You’ll probably immediately observe that if you implement a rotating curriculum, two students with two months’ training (in most martial arts systems, the equivalent of a gold belt) may not know the same material. The student who joined in “Semester A” at the end of two months knows different material than the student who joined in “Semester D”. I am also aware that in some systems, like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, belts are never “given away” and even the first rank of blue belt is considered an achievement.

public class

In response to those concerned that a rotating curriculum “waters down” or “cheapens” rank, I offer a different perspective. Remember that under a rotating curriculum, after a year of training each student will all know the all the same techniques. In my opinion, these are the sorts of benchmarks we should be worried about. After a year, whether you call it “first level” or “blue belt” or “star spangled red belt” a student should have the basics of your program. A rotating curriculum will make sure this happens.


Let’s start examining why this happens, why having a rotating curriculum allows us to organize our classes better and make sure everyone is learning the material correctly. Think about the traditional model of teaching. When a student joins, the first thing he learns are punch #1, kick #1 and block #1. So “Joe” joins your school in January and by February he has learned all those techniques. It’s time to teach him punch #2, kick #2 and block #2. However, in February, “Mike” has joined the class. So in February, according to the traditional model, you have to teach “Joe” the #2’s and “Mike” the #1’s. March rolls in and “John” has joined. Now you have to teach John the #1’s, “Mike” the #2’s and “Joe” the #3’s….

In reality, you’d all better hope you have a lot more than one student joining a month. In reality, you may have 12 people in class, representing four different groups. Do you have three other instructors so you can run a mini-class within a class? Do you have four different time slots to teach the different groups? The answer to both is probably not. Nor would you want to. You’re dividing up your resources and you’re dividing up your energy. You’re also denying your students a diversity of partners to work with. If you use a rotating curriculum, everyone in your school gets to work together. This also means your students can all become friends. This adds to the excitement and enjoyment of their classes.

I hope by now you are starting to understand the idea of a rotating curriculum. I also hope you are starting to see some of the advantages.

“The people should be very ashamed”

16 Aug

(Chinese martial arts) … are in a chaotic state, thus the people cannot know what course to take. Summed up, they have abandoned the quintessence and kept only the scum, nothing more. Although the martial arts of Japan and the boxing of Western Europe are one-sided, they all have their original points. In comparison to an ordinary boxer of our nation, they are countless miles ahead. The people should be very ashamed of this.

Criticism of Chinese martial arts is nothing new. I’d actually say it has become even more prevalent in recent years. Usually, the most common response to these criticisms is to state that the critic has never seen “real” Chinese martial arts. If the critic were to meet a “real master” and experience their skills, they’d realize just how wrong they are! However, the above quote comes from none other than Wang Xiangzhai (王薌齋)


Wang Xiangzhai (王薌齋) was a Chinese xingyiquan master, responsible for founding the martial art of Yiquan. He he went all around China, studying martial arts with many famous masters including monk Heng Lin, Xinyiquan master Xie Tiefu, southern white crane style masters Fang Yizhuang and Jin Shaofeng, Liuhebafa master Wu Yi Hui, etc. He was also quite famous as a fighter and actually claimed “I have traveled across the country in research, engaging over a thousand people in martial combat, there have been only 2 people I could not defeat”.

According to our research during the past few years, many techniques in the traditional systems are not practical. It is important not to be preoccupied with arguments of traditional versus modern techniques. It is also not a good idea to ‘protect’ traditional systems by tailoring the rules to exclude, for example, foreign styles.

Another “ignorant critic”? Another “mixed martial arts muscle head” perhaps? This quote is from Professor Xia Bai-hua, who was president of the Chinese Wushu Association at the time. Professor Xia was also head of the Technical Institute in Beijing, and was sanshou chief referee at the 1993 Second world Wushu Championship in Malaysia.


In recent years, the central government has begun to promote traditional martial arts, and every province has established martial arts training halls. Besides Chinese wrestling, the most popular arts are the Shaolin and Wudang styles of kung fu, both of which have methods of solo practice. Yet the practical applications of these arts is a subject that is never breached. Those who have practiced these arts twenty or thirty years have never defeated anyone who has practiced Western boxing or judo. Why is this? It is because the practitioners of Shaolin and Wudang styles only pay attention to the beauty of their forms — they lack practical methods and spirit and have lost the true transmissions of their ancestors.

By now, I suspect you realize that these quotes are NOT from those who are “ignorant” or lack exposure to real Chinese martial arts. This third quote is from Liu Jinsheng, the author of the 1935 “Chin Na Fa” manual. If you have been very observant, you might also have noticed that all three quotes compared Chinese martial arts to “foreign methods” such as Japanese Judo and western boxing. Despite the fact these foreign methods are supposed to be “primitive”, less effective and beneath the “developed” Chinese martial arts, these concerns seemed rather important to these three men. Were these three masters less informed than the “internet expert” such as the one below?


I suppose for some, ignorance is bliss. Much better to isolate yourself from the rest of the world and pretend that doing your method makes you “special” and better than the whole rest of the world. Certainly, you wouldn’t want to know that Wang Xiangzhai said;

Combat science cannot be divided into schools, and the boxing theory does not have the distinction of Chinese or foreign, and new or old.

But mostly, I confess, I just put that up that facebook quote just for fun. Returning to Liu Jinsheng’s quote, note how he criticizes the misapplication forms and the absence of other practical training methods. In a recent blog, “practical approaches to Chinese martial arts training” I outlined the traditional training curriculum for Chinese martial arts and noted that forms training is only a part, perhaps even a small part, of a proper training program. But compared to Wang Xiangzhai, I almost feel as if I am an apologist;

Studying boxing routines, forms of movements, fixed techniques, and training hits and beats, all fall into the category of superficial, and although the boxing routines and forms of movements have been popular already for a long time, they are, indeed, extremely harmful to the people…. At large, the numerous schools of our society, generally take the approach of forms and techniques to learn boxing. One must know that this kind practice is just forgery conducted by the later generations, it is not the original essence of combat science.

Shihfu Wang didn’t feel the need to mince his words apparently. Perhaps this was because anyone who has spent time in the Chinese martial arts community becomes aware of the dangers of believing in secrets, training only in forms and avoiding the hard work (sweat, and blood) of application drills and training. Perhaps because something (I am not sure what) makes Chinese martial arts prone to these deficiencies, more so than the “foreign methods”. In 1928, Zhao Daoxin was only 20 years old and at the beginning of his martial arts career, yet managed to achieve 13th place in the Lei Tai tournament. Zhao was a disciple of Zhang Zhaodong, and would become famous in Tianjin’s martial arts community. Of the Lei Tai tournament, Zhao noted;

“Those ‘orthodox inheritors’ of traditional martial arts, regardless of whether they were lofty monks or local grandmasters, were either knocked out or scared out of the competition”


Liu Jinsheng establishes in his comments just how pervasive and long standing these issues were in teh Chinese martial arts community;

In the Ming dynasty, men such as Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou advocated this type of realistic practice and opposed any empty practice done for the sake of appearance. This is why these men have proud reputations in history.

General Qi Jiguang (1528-1587) was the author of two books, “New Book of Effective Discipline” (1561) and “Actual Record of Training” (1571). While the modern martial arts student probably has never heard of General Qi or either of these books, they are pretty important because they reveal that even well before Qi’s time, the martial arts practiced in the villages as part of militia training had gradually evolved into a form of recreation as well, and had become characterized by the “flowery” movements.

殺人的勾當,豈是好看的?” “除此複有所謂單舞者,皆是花法,不可學也””凡比較武藝,務要俱照示學習實敵本事,直可對搏打者,不許仍學習花槍等法,徒支虛架,以圖人前美觀”

“practical is not pretty, pretty is not practical”

Clearly, there are tendencies within Chinese martial arts that lead to inordinate concentration on forms practice and the loss of practical training. Clearly, those who warn against this are not “ignorant” nor failed to have seen the “real stuff”. Quite the contrary, some of the most esteemed men in the Wu Lin saw the dangers. Now ponder that for a bit :)

Capturing truth in a bottle?

9 Aug

“You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti


Krishnamurti was looking at issues much larger than the martial arts world, but his teachings certainly have influenced a number of martial artists, the most famous being Bruce Lee. Every time I read this quote, it reminds me of the many curriculum I have composed over the years, only to deviate from them, at least in part, within days. If a martial art is “real” it is most certainly alive. And it is impossible to completely capture something that is living in a stagnant form.


As an instructor, you begin each class with certain ideas in mind. Of course, you must almost immediately adjust those ideas based upon who is in your class; their level of experience, their body builds, how tall they are, possible injuries, and a host of less tangible factors. The class also produces opportunities for the students to ask questions. Those questions may (perhaps SHOULD) take the class in a different direction, and perhaps even a demonstration of different techniques or strategies; perhaps techniques and strategies that are not even in the “curriculum”.


I am sure some instructors have insulated themselves from such issues simply by refusing to deviate form a chosen curriculum; but then their art is dead, it is stagnant, and I’d argue it has limited utility at that point. Myself, I am constantly cross training. So I frequently see variations on things I am doing, but variations none the less. Then I am exposed to material I have never seen before, but can immediately identify as useful and important. So my art is always alive, always seeking truth….

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path.

The above quote, Jiddu Krishnamurti again, from the same speech. And infuriating to those trying to organize a program… Partially I joke. But then there is the issue of how you DO teach people when organization inevitably removes an element of truth?


Every instructor knows, you must have some structure to teach. You tell a student “Put this foot forward.” Then you tell them “to generate power, alternate hips and shoulders so left, right, left right”. These are little lies; stances change, you can “double wind” or use footwork to “double up” on the same side, etc. But you have to start somewhere and you have to get them started. You have to get them to begin absorbing basic ideas and they have to “feel” how technique works.

“At that time the rich man had this thought: the house is already in flames from this huge fire. If I and my sons do not get out at once, we are certain to be burned. The father understood his sons and knew what various toys and curious objects each child customarily liked and what would delight them. And so he said to them, ‘The kind of playthings you like are rare and hard to find. If you do not take them when you can, you will surely regret it later. For example, things like these goat-carts, deer-carts and ox-carts. They are outside the gate now where you can play with them. So you must come out of this burning house at once.’ At that time, when the sons heard their father telling them about these rare playthings, because such things were just what they had wanted, each felt emboldened in heart and, pushing and shoving one another, they all came wildly dashing out of the burning house”

The story above comes from the Buddhist “Lotus Sutra” and is about using expedient means, or “white lies,” to rescue children from a burning building. My apologies to any of my friends who know this and realize that I edited it a bit. “Expedient means” is a concept which emphasizes that practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques that fit the situation in order to gain enlightenment. The implication is that even if a technique, view, etc., is not ultimately “true” in the highest sense, it may still be an expedient practice to perform or view to hold; i.e., it may bring the practitioner closer to the true realization. For the teacher, the ability to adapt one’s message to the audience, is of enormous importance .


In martial arts, we aren’t necessarily interested in “enlightenment” but “systems” and definitions like “internal” and “external” are expedient means. They are white lies, they are crutches, to get you to move forward. They aren’t “truth,” they are vehicles to carry you to truth. As an instructor I make choices. Those choices are made based upon my experience in teaching students of widely diverse backgrounds over more than two decades. The criteria I use are simple, what is the most efficient way to teach someone the techniques and get them functional? The reality is that there are many ways to stand, many methods of footwork, many methods of defense. However, I have chosen the methods and approaches which have the best results for the majority of the student population. For us, they constitute “the rules.” Of course, along with this comes the realization that once you have mastered the basics, i.e. learned “the rules” then you can break them!

left kick

As instructors, we must carefully balance the vehicles against the truth. It is even more complex than we initially suspect. How much am I drilling technique and how much am I introducing “theory” or “concepts”? One without the other is meaningless. Too much theory/concept and you have lost a real art. Too much “just” technique and you lose the theory that makes it alive, and keeps it growing.


We have those Zen Buddhist stories of the teacher throwing the student out, doesn’t have to be so extreme, but you have to start teaching them to operate on their own without the teacher… careful balancing act and requires a responsible teacher WHO CARES. But there is a higher truth. There are universal truths.

10,000 repetitions is NOT enough…..

7 Aug

“Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong”

I love to cross train, and I’ve had some truly special opportunities over the years to train with great coaches. I try to train with Erik Paulson at least once a year, often twice. Training with Erik Paulson, you don’t just get great technique, you get inspiration from his many experiences.


The most recent time we trained with Sensei Paulson, he discussed his training in Shooto in Japan. Specifically he mentioned how two techniques were practiced HUNDREDS OF TIMES in isolation; switch step (left) round kick and right cross. Yes, HUNDREDS OF TIMES. Yes, single techniques in isolation. If you are familiar with Shooto’s founder, Satoru Sayama, you might have already heard this.


Sensei Sayama’s approach is not all that different than how Muay Thai is practiced in Thailand. The “secret” is that there is no secret. Foreigners traveling to Thailand to train often expect to learn something special, they learn that there is just hard work, sweat, some blood and a LOT of repetition.


Even the clinch, in some respects the most advanced and technical aspect of Muay Thai, is a matter of repetition. Practice every day, for hours, not just until you get it right, but until it is so ingrained you can’t get it wrong.


In the martial arts, everyone wants secrets, but there are no secrets. The secret is hard work, sorry to report…..

The martial art of wrestling

6 Aug

I distinctly remember opening an issue of “Black Belt Magazine” one day and finding in the letters section a diatribe about how wrestling was NOT a martial art? I suppose I should have known that when people feel threatened, they often act irrationally. This was during the period when wrestlers started entering and dominating Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) matches. It was bad enough that a skinny Brazilian kid was pulling people to the ground and making them look like fools, now those “brutes” who clearly had “no technique” were beating martial artists who had so many titles (but no real fights) attached to their names (yes, end sarcasm mode NOW…)


Forget for a minute the obvious; wrestling is a highly developed set of skills that uses a keen knowledge of both anatomy and leverage. It is often a skill developed over decades. A high level wrestler develops the attributes many associate with “internal martial arts”. Forget all that for a minute. First and foremost, remember that wrestling is both a universal activity found in every culture on the planet and is in fact man’s oldest martial art.


In China, references to wrestling predate any reference to what we would call today “striking systems”. We know that wrestling wasn’t just considered a sporting activity, it was prized by Chinese, Mongolian and Manchurian armies. The Mongolians even had differentiating terms for sport (Boke) and combat (cilnem) forms of wrestling. Even in modern Chinese martial arts, “wrestling” (Shuai) is considered one of the four ESSENTIAL skills.


Those who think “wrestling” is not a martial art may have to read up a little more on the subject. In different variations across cultures and time periods wrestling included many tactics that make many contemporary observers quite uncomfortable. In ancient Greece, wrestling (not just Pankration, thought many classicists have tried to obscure the picture) included not only painful joint attacks on all the limbs, but chokes. Wrestling styles in India, the Middle East and Africa included striking with fists, sometimes fists covered in surfaces to make the strikes more deadly.


For those who think wrestling has no place in “real combat” I suggest you investigate medieval and renaissance combat manuals, where grappling tactics are important supplements to bladed combat. Some might be shocked to find even forms of GROUND GRAPPLING in such manuals.


Have you ever watched a professional boxing match? Would it shock you to learn that clinching is ILLEGAL. Yet there is not a single match in which there is not a lot of clinching. That should have been the modern world’s first hint to the fact that the clinch can not be avoided in combat. Sadly, for many, it took Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) to drive home the point. And yet, today some are still not paying attention?


More on the revival of practical Chinese martial arts…

5 Aug

I don’t know if people loved it or hated it, but “A Revival of Traditional Chinese Fighting Arts” got over 1000 views in 24 hours. It continues to motivate and inspire me as I am writing more blogs and here are a few more related thoughts;


1. Whether you are practicing martial arts to develop fighting skills, to be healthy, to learn a new culture or just because it is fun, TRAIN WITH TRUTH. Chinese martial arts were originally COMBAT ARTS. Maybe that isn’t what you are interested in, but don’t for a minute think those who are still doing these traditions as combat arts are “wrong” or “bad”. Don’t attach things that were never attached to these arts and try to paint them as truth. Revisionism sucks.


2. In my personal opinion, things like “Northern” vs “Southern”, or “External” vs. “Internal” at best have limited practical use. At worst, we could argue (successfully) that they were nothing more than marketing schemes in a competitive market place and/or also motivated by POLITICS. Today, these things confuse students, in many respects mislead them. They create divisions at a time when Chinese martial artists should be unified.


3. In some respects, we need a return to the “old days”; by this I mean hard training and comprehensive training in all aspects. At the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid of the “new”; advances in knowledge of anatomy and sports performance, advances in sports, advances in training equipment. Our grandmasters hit sand bags because that is what they had, if they had had a credit card and Ringside’s number on their cell phones, they would have gotten better equipment!

foot jab to round kick

4. We have to police our community. We have too many people who aren’t just unqualified, they are outright frauds. And in our community, we often know these people are frauds and under some convoluted logic we fail to call them out. You want to clean up Chinese martial arts, remove all the nonsense!


5. Somewhere along the way, the idea that fighting, sparring and competition is somehow antithetical to Chinese martial arts got introduced. In a word, this is RUBBISH. We need only look at “Lei Tai” challenges and the national competitions from the Nationalist period to dispel the idea that our ancestors wouldn’t engage in competition!



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