Ben Judkins on perfect practice in martial arts

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Really nice article over at Kung Fu Tea by Ben Judkins called Facing Down a Wooden Dummy, and the Myth of “Perfect Practice”.

Here’s a quote:

“Simply going through the motions is not enough. One must be self-aware, actively choose goals when practicing, and strive to improve those one or two things until you could do them “perfectly.”  In a moment of frustration Nihilus called on a student not to “be perfect,” but to make a conscious choice to put himself on a path to mastery.  At its best, this is what the challenge of “perfect practice” can be.”

If you liked this article then you might also like:

How to practice effectively for just about anything

Ben Judkins on Yip Man, Globalisation and the growth of Wing Chun Kung Fu

Angry Baby Gods and Lightsaber duels: A visit to the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016

4 ways Conor McGregor can improve your Kung Fu

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Another article of mine has appeared on Jetli.com – this one was fun to write as I’m a big fan of The Notorious’ fighting style:

4 Ways Conor McGregor can improve your Kung Fu.

 

If you liked this article you might also like:

Review: Notorious – The life and fights of Conor McGregor (Jack Slack)

Warrior scholar: A Jack Slack primer

Ido Portal and the possibilities of Neijia

Kung Fu in MMA

Kung Fu: Old style Mantis

There’s a new YouTube channel called Jiang Hu that’s just launched containing ‘old’ types of Kung Fu performed by a couple of Western Kung Fu practitioners based in China. The first video clip posted caught my eye. It’s an old Praying Mantis Kung Fu form called Luan Jie performed by ‘Will’ who also runs the Monkey Steals Peach blog.

The description reads: “Luan Jie 乱接 is the oldest form recorded in Praying Mantis Kung Fu. It is made up of 36 Mother Techniques, the core of the system. Here, Will performs the Luan Jie form from the Taiji Mantis lineage of Zhou Zhen Dong.”

I’ve heard of this “Taiji Mantis” name before, but I’m unsure wether that’s Mantis influenced by Taijiquan, or whether just a coincidental naming convention. Either way, it’s a really nice performance, and I like the hooking techniques done with both the arms and legs.

 

There’s also this informative video about the use of the characteristic Mantis hooking hand (Gou Shou) in application:

A great talk by Daniel Mroz on Tao Lu (“forms”) in Chinese Martial Arts.

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I was in the audience for this talk by Daniel Mroz at last year’s Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff – (and I think I asked a question at the end). Daniel is a great orator, so if you’re looking for a good example of how to deliver an engaging and entertaining talk, then look no further. Plus, he quotes the legendary Steve Morris, so he gets some extra cool points. 🙂

I’d bumped into Daniel earlier in the conference and he instantly felt like a kindred sprit – just before his talk we were busy demonstrating Choy Li Fut moves on each other!

The full video of Daniel’s talk is available to watch for free.

Here’s a blog post about it by Plum Blossom about it with some comments from Daniel.

If you liked this post you might also like:

Angry Baby Gods and Lightsaber duels: A visit to the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016

Adam Frank keynote 2016

Ben Judkins on Yip Man, Globalisation and the growth of Wing Chun Kung Fu

A true hero – Geoff Ho interview

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Jetli.com asked me to write a story about Geoff Ho, the journalist and martial artist who was caught up in the London terror attacks on June 3rd. Geoff bravely fought back against his attackers, giving other people time to get to safety. Unfortunately, he was stabbed in the neck in the incident and nearly lost his life. He managed to get to hospital where he was treated and has since recovered.

Rather than just write up somebody else’s story I wanted to get a martial artist’s perspective and talk to Geoff about how his martial arts training helped him that day. Luckily I managed to make contact with him through a mutual friend and he granted me an interview from his hospital bed.

Geoff is a true hero and his attitude is an inspiration. It was an honour to talk to him. You can read the whole article here.

You might also like the other articles I’ve written for Jetli.com.

 

Bruce Lee Long Beach Karate Tournament 1967

New footage of Bruce Lee sparring his students Ted Wong and Taky Kimura at the Long Beach Karate Championship in 1967 has recently emerged, and it’s a joy to watch.

The clip was billed on Facebook and even in the national press like the Daily Mail and Mirror as footage of Bruce Lee’s only “real fight caught on camera”, but that’s just nonsense, obviously, as it’s just a sparring session. True, it’s not a choreographed demonstration, but it’s also a long way from being a “fight”. The sparring partner is also frequently, incorrectly, named as Bruce’s other famous student, Dan Inosanto.

I actually trained Jeet Kune Do for a good couple of years, so I can see what Bruce is doing in the clip as it’s pretty much what we trained every class: a strong lead forward fighting stance with the back heel up, the front fist pointing at the opponent, the use of hand trapping, the footwork, the lead leg attacks, but most of all the idea of intercepting the opponent’s attack using superior timing. This is the “Jeet” part of Jeet Kune Do, which translates as the “Way of the intercepting fist”. (Interestingly, I found later on that the Chinese martial art of Xingyiquan is also very big on this idea).

Bruce really was ahead of the game here. His quality of his movement has the same sort of fluidity that you see in modern high level fighters like Connor McGregor, and his timing is excellent. As Connor McGregor says often “Precision beats power, timing beats speed”.

What’s also interesting is the gear they are wearing. When I was training Jeet Kune Do we wore almost identical gear for sparring. I still have it all somewhere in my loft! The lineage of Jeet Kune Do I trained in came down from Tommy Caruthers, who was based in Glasgow, UK, and was influenced by all of Bruce’s students (including Jesse Glover), but at the time I was training it, Ted Wong was a probably the biggest influence.

If you want to get a better idea of what’s going on in the clip then there are videos out there that break down the technique he shows, like this one:

And this one:

Being able to see such good quality clips of Bruce Lee sparring from 1967 is a treat. He was one of the great innovators in martial arts and rightly deserves his place amongst the greats of the art. What would he be doing now if he hadn’t died such an untimely death? We can only wonder.

 

Review: Possible Origins, Scott Park Phillips – Part 1

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I’ve been meaning to review Scott Phillips’ book on the origins of Chinese Martial Arts for some time now, but there always seemed to be something else for me  to read, or to do… Ok, I admit it, I’m just a terribly slow reader. However, the recent uproar over the fight between Tai Chi “Master” Wei Lei and MMA coach Xu Xiaodong that has dominated the Chinese Martial Arts scene has made me pick up Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion, and give it the attention it deserves.

A bit of background to the current situation: Xu (who had to go into hiding after the fight once the government got involved) had started to make a name for himself as the debunker of Kung Fu masters who he claimed lacked the skills required for actually fighting while charging students large sums of money to learn these (nonexistent) skills. He wasn’t particularly respectful in his debunking either – in fact, his profanity filled rants were uncomfortable to watch and hard to follow, but his point was simple.

Wei, the subject of a documentary on Chinese television about his Tai Chi powers,  took umbrage to the implied insult and challenged Xu in an effort to defend the honour of traditional martial arts. It sounds like the plot of every kung fu movie, but it actually happened. Anybody who has seen the fight (which lasts about 10 seconds ending with Wei’s face being ruthlessly pummeled on the ground by Xu) will have realised that Wei was utterly delusional about his fighting abilities. Even after his beating, in his post fight interview, Wei still seemed to be delusional about his fighting ability, proclaiming that he was only hit after he “tripped’ and fell”. In reality he was knocked to the ground by a punch which revealed him to be a bumbling amateur in the realms of pugilism.

You can easily make the argument that Wei was never a proper Tai Chi Master anyway, so his poor performance is irrelevant, but a lot of people obviously did think he was a legit martial artists. What’s interesting to me is how we got here.  How did we end up with a generation of Kung Fu (especially Tai Chi) masters who think they can fight, but can’t? If you went to a boxing coach in Glasgow to learn how to box, he’d teach you how to box, and regardless of how good or bad you were, you’ll at least end up with some fighting skills. But if you go to a Tai Chi master in Taiwan, asking to learn to fight, he’ll teach you a lot of fancy arm-waving stuff, mystical qigong and forms, but after several years you might actually be no different from an untrained person in your fighting ability. In fact, you’ll probably be worse.

Nothing ushers in a period of self reflection like a catastrophic failure, so it’s at this point that we should turn to Possible Origins to see how we got here.

Scott’s book at least proposes some answers to this curious situation that Chinese Martial Arts finds itself in – which is to embrace it. His basic premise is that once upon a time in China, martial arts, theatre and religion were all one thing. Over time, and due to various political and cultural shifts they became separated out, but never truly lost their connection to each other, even if the arts lived on as a pale reflection. The book examines how that process happened, why it happened and what we can do about it. In a way it’s a call to arms for the reader to embrace parts of their practice that have hitherto remained untapped and to restore these connections.

I know plenty of people amongst the martial arts that I know who just laugh at Scott’s theories. (“Oh, no, not that guy…”)*. They tend to be practical people who are more interested in how something works than why it is the way it is in the first place. That’s fine, and there’s no reason to go ‘backwards’ in martial arts. I think it’s equally valid to not worry about any of this, and just focus on what you can do with what we’ve had handed down to us. But the book does open a door to a fascinating world of demons, spirits and ancestors that we’ve left behind. You’d also be surprised by how much evidence there is for his interpretations. He can’t be conclusive about anything (hence the title) but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t present a wealth of information to support his case.

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Martial arts originated so long ago that almost everything about that time is lost to us, and survives only in fragments. I think the strongest ‘evidence’ Scott has for his theories is the Boxer Rebellion of 1899, which happened relatively recently, and was a kind of a last gasp of the old world where martial arts, religion, theatre and ritual were all tied up together. There are documented cases in the Boxer Rebellion of martial arts practitioners combining martial arts techniques with spirit possession and mediumship to help overthrow foreign powers. Unfortunately it turns out that invoking the spirits of demons to give you fighting ability doesn’t, in fact, stop bullets and the Boxers were wiped out, and many of the ‘old ways’ and knowledge with them. Further cultural, political, and repressive regimes buried them deeper and deeper until today we’ve lost all concept of why we do what we do in Chinese Martial Arts.

Besides all this, Possible Origins is a damn good read, and an entertaining, book in its own right. It’s not an academic tomb, it’s an easy to devour. I’m halfway through and loving it. Even if you don’t agree with Scott’s theories, you’ll learn a lot about things you never even knew existed from Possible Origins.

Everybody who practices a Chinese Martial Art should read it.  I’ll post a ‘part 2’ follow up when I’m finished.
Links: Scott’s blog. Scott’s video

* In case you were wondering, Scott’s martial arts lineage is actually legit, and explained in the book.

A blast from the past – Yongquan demo 2003

 

This video is a blast from the past (for me, at least). It was filmed in 2003 and I’m in it!

It’s the film of a demonstration the Yongquan Chinese Martial Arts group did in London. There are lots of the arts I was training at the time shown off here – Choy Lee Fut, Northern Shaolin, Tai Chi, Push Hands, then some breaking demonstrations. I’m doing a broadsword form in the demo that I can’t even remember anymore! There’s some Iron palm (a granite pebble broken with a chop) from Donald and a kerb stone gets broken over Doug’s head with a sledge hammer!

Since I was actually in this demo I know that none of these materials are faked – they’re all the genuine article. Real bricks, etc..

At the end of the demonstration there are some clips of us practicing for the demo. These are more enjoyable for me to watch as they bring back some good memories of training with my teacher and the rest of the guys back in the day.

What I like most in the video is the very last clip, where Doug is practising the Press (Ji) technique from Tai Chi on a line of people. Done right it’s meant to be very minimal physical effort with a big results (using Jin not Li) – the power should penetrate through the line of people so that the people at the back of the line fly away first. He does a ‘not very good’ version of it (too much Li – physical force) so it all looks very physical. Donald comes over to tell him off and show him how it should be done, and without any set up does a perfect Ji – really minimal effort and the guy at the end of the line flies off – then Doug has another go and gets it right. I’m glad that got captured on video.

 

 

 

Full contact Tai Chi. A painful lesson in reality.

A video clip has been doing the rounds on the Internet recently about a “Tai Chi master” called Lei Gong who accepted the challenge of a Chinese MMA fighter/coach called Xu Xiaodong to an actual fight. Here’s what happened:

As you can see the Tai Chi master had his bell rung very quickly and very convincingly. The whole video lasts 47 seconds. It’s clear from the first few seconds of the actual fight that Lei Gong is way out of his depth and shouldn’t be in there with Xu. He had no idea how to deal with an opponent who was actually attacking him, not just dancing around making strange shapes in the air, like his student presumably do for him.

(The stoppage by the ref was a bit late for me, and Lei Gong ended up taking more punishment than he should have. The effects of head trauma are all too real, but it seems that this is the price he had to pay to be woken from his dream of magic fighting ability).

Generally, I think that this fight was a good thing for Tai Chi as a whole. Let me explain.

The challenge arose after Lei Gong appeared on a Chinese Television programme called “Experiencing Real Kung Fu” claiming to have sparring and fighting ability with Tai Chi. He spared one of the hosts of the show in the programme. See below at 9.30:

Xu’s beef with the show was that people claiming these sorts of abilities better be able to back it up.

The sad truth is that most things in China are fake, including their TV shows! I’ve seen so many of these types of shows now where Tai Chi masters go up against Muay Thai or Karate people, or wrestlers. They’re all fake. Does that mean Tai Chi is fake too? I don’t think so, but I think it exposes the complete lack of realism that is prevalent in the Tai Chi culture. It’s not rocket science: if you want to be able to actually fight with any art, then you have to practice actually fighting with it.

Xu seems to have a particular problem with the big dogs of Chen village who charge a lot of money for people to become disciples to learn their special skills. I can see where he’s coming from – if you look at what you learn in a typical seminar from a big name in the Chen style, then none of this is going to prepare you for an encounter like the one Lei Gong was in.

Xu’s argument, which I think is logically valid, is that if you’re going to charge all that money for something you better be able to prove it works. He’s now challenged the son of Wang Xi’an, one of the “4 tigers of Chen village”, but Wang’s son will only send his student, who has also been trained in SanDa (Chinese kickboxing with throws as well) to fight Xu. Xu, understandably says this will not do, because he wants to test Chen style Tai Chi. This will probably rumble on a bit and lead nowhere.

I was chatting with a friend about the whole thing and he said something like “I think that all martial arts, once they actually spar end up looking like some version of MMA”.

I think he’s probably right. I’ve written before about the delusion of grace under pressure and how so many people’s idea of what Tai Chi should look like in a fight is so way off.

MMA is what martial arts look like when stripped down to pure functionality. When all the cultural trappings have been removed. Chinese Martial Arts does contain its own bad-ass martial artists, but still, those arts contain things that are not purely about fighting. And for a good reason – they perform a useful social function. MMA also performs a useful social function, but more in the same way that Western boxing does, not in the way that Chinese Martial Art does.

Perhaps we’re all missing something. There are special skills you can only get from Tai Chi, and I think people have a right to teach these things without having to fight MMA to prove it works. I also don’t believe that all the people who are paying lots of money to become indoor disciples of Chen style masters think they are being given a kind of ‘master-key’ to martial arts that will mean they will be able to fight 21-year old athletes without ever having to spar first. It’s more like they are buying into a tradition. Once they buy in they’ll (hopefully) get the skills the tradition is famous for*, and be able to set themselves up as teachers. The problem comes when they get delusional and start to see themselves as bad-ass fighters when they don’t have a right to. This situation is made worse by the acceptance of fakeness, or cheating, in Chinese culture and TV shows.

It’s a messy situation, but it is what it is. Welcome to the world of Tai Chi. What matters is you and your training. Use your own reasoning to asses what you’re doing and what skills it is actually giving you, and don’t start to claim you can do things you can’t, otherwise you might suffer a painful wake-up call, like Lei Gong did.

*Of course, whether somebody who is not Chinese and not even from Chen village would ever really be taught the real skills of the family is open for debate anyway.

Life Hack: Brush your teeth in a Horse Stance

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We brush our teeth twice a day, morning and night. It’s a ritual that we don’t really think about, we just do it. But how about this for a little life hack? Stand in a Horse stance while you brush your teeth.

If you brush your teeth for 2 minutes a session, then switching to a Horse Stance will mean that’s 4 minutes of Horse Stance a day you’re now doing. That’s 28 minutes a week, 112 minutes a month and 1,460 minutes (or over a whole day) of standing in Horse stance a year.

So, why do this?

Firstly, why not? It’s dead time that you aren’t doing anything else, so you might as well get a bit of training in.

Secondly, training a Horse stance is really good for your health. It makes your legs stronger. I’ve heard it said that the Chinese believe we die from the ground up. If you look at old men they generally have skinny legs. By working the muscles in your legs in a Horse stance you stop them withering away. It’s a bit like the benefits you get from squats, but more evenly distributed over all of the muscles in the legs, not just the big ones in your thighs. Having well muscles legs helps your heart pump blood around your body – the calf muscle (specifically the Gastrocnemius/Soleus) is often described as a ‘second heart‘ because it helps to return blood from the lower leg.

And for the more superficial amongst us, you’re also working your butt muscles 😉

Thirdly, as your muscles complain and tighten you need to consciously relax them, smile through the pain and after a while it starts to feel enjoyable. You might not be able to do a full 2 minutes to start with, but after a few days, you will. You can feel the gains you make very quickly.

This ability to relax through the tension is essential for any sport or martial activity. You’re programming your responses to change from their habitual reaction of tensing to relaxing.

How to do a Horse stance.

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All you need is an old Chinese master to help you.

There are many varied and contrasting opinions on what a Horse Stance is, but I’m going to show you how to do the one I do, which I feel is the most doable, and has the added bonus of being mechanically sound.

  1. Stand with your feet one and a half times your shoulder width distance apart.
  2. Keep the outside edges of your feet parallel with each other.
  3. Sink down until your thighs are at 45 degrees.
  4. The weight is evenly distributed between right and left feet.

That’s it! If you look down you should see your big toe on the inside of your knee. If you can’t then you might be letting your knees collapse inwards, so just gently push them out a bit.

To stand in this position you keep your lower back relaxed (watch out for tension here) and keep your shoulders aligned vertically over the top of your hips (no leaning forward!) Keep your head aligned as if pulled up by a thread from the crown point (your neck should lengthen at the back and your chin tucks in slightly). The spine is lengthening upwards. Remember, don’t lean forwards. Stay upright so you can work with gravity, not against it.

If you do need to bend forward to pick up your toothbrush, etc, then try and hinge your body from your hips. Keep your spine lengthened and your head in the same alignment with your neck and shoulders. N.B. Don’t curve your spine to reach forward – keep it extended.

There are more extreme versions of the horse stance with the thighs parallel with the ground. Leave that for the young and foolish for now.

Here are some pictures of Tai Chi masters showing the type of Horse Stance I’m talking about:

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Sun Lu Tang

 

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Chen Xiaowang

 

And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest that demonstrates the technicalities:

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and another:

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Taking it further. 

You don’t have to stop at just brushing your teeth in a Horse Stance. I like to also wash my face in the stance as well. I would shave there too, but I can’t see myself in my bathroom mirror when I sink down into a Horse stance, so that’s currently a no go for me. Perhaps I’ll get myself a second shaving mirror…