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Weakness With A Twist 

A place for qi-jocks & qi-nerds to explore internal martial arts, Daoism, health, performance, shaolin, and inner cultivation.


Rooting and Uprooting

I'm teaching a workshop called Rooting and Uprooting
At Soja Martial Arts
Sunday 1/13/2013 
 From: 11:00 am - 2:00 pm
Soja is located at:  2406 Webster, Oakland, CA, 94612 between 24th & 25th Streets.

Rooting is the skill of being unmovable and it is also a way of generating power.

This class will lay out a progression of exercises for developing perfect rooting skills. The better one's understanding of rooting is, the easier it is to defeat those skills in others. Thus, the internal martial arts are infused with the saying “Know your enemy better than he knows himself!"  Most of class will be lively two person partner work, beginners with some athletic experience are welcome.

For Acupuncturists and Bodyworkers we will also cover the exact method for correctly differentiating the movement of the yin and yang meridians so that qi will spontaneously rise up from the bubbling-well.

Workshop cost: $25 early bird, $30 day for Soja current Adult martial arts members; and Early bird / day of $35 / $40 for non Soja Members. Soja offers partial scholarships for those in financial need.

Sign up by calling: Peter at 510.832.7652    or Emailing:

or got to and click through to Schedule/Adult Workshops.


Perfect Upright

One of the most important basics that most martial artists teach is having an upright posture.  This is often the very first lesson.  Cat stance and horse stance are usually the first two stances taught in Northern Shaolin and both require an upright posture, and the same is true for the vast majority of martial arts.  A good martial arts teacher will correct a student's uprightness incessantly.

The Chinese word for upright is zheng 正 and it carries a lot of different meanings.  Like our English term, it invokes the notion of an "upright character" but is perhaps even stronger in that it implies good posture comes from being a virtuous person and visa versa.  It also implies a correct way of being, and by inference good citizenship, and is even used to mean "government approved."  

The ritual culture of China is ancient and until the 20th Century was a defining characteristic of both national and local governance.  So rituals were refered to as upright or not upright, meaning they were conducted in a way and for a purpose which was either orthodox or heterodox* depending, I suppose, on whether it served the interests of a given authority.   

The Daoist influence on ritual frames this uprightness as a form of naturalness, available to everyone.  Having upright qi is the basis of the ritual master's prowess.  Upright qi is also the result or the fruition of ritual, much like the result of meditation is stillness.  For that reason, upright also means to rectify, that is, to heal through returning to simplicity.  

Theater (which is traditionally understood as ritual exorcism) makes the notion of upright and upright character vivid by contrasting the upright glowing qi radiance of one character with the rumpled hunched character of another.

So given all the cultural significance of uprightness, even if it had no martial function it might still be a key part of Chinese martial arts; however, uprightness is also an essential part of martial arts skills and self healing.

In a surprise attack, the simple act of fighting to recover an upright posture can be decisive.  For children and smaller adults a head attack or a punch straight upwards is the quickest route to unstoppable force. Having an upright centerline is a necessary step to many other skills including evading with small movements and turning around ones central axis to attain a superior position or execute throws, to name a few of the more important ones.  

But this post is titled "Perfect Upright."  Knowing "upright" is pretty easy, it's the sky, it's always there.  It's also the spontaneous ability of all the liquid aspects of ones body to go immediately to level, like water in a glass or the mast of a sailboat pointing at the sky.  Even better, every cell in the body has fluid in it, it is as if we are made of sand and every grain of sand knows where up is.  Perfect uprightness is effortless.  Anything less than perfect uprightness requires effort.

Why is this a problem?  If perfect uprightness is effortless, why would it need to be taught at all?

The first reasons is that humans are really good at carrying things.  When as toddlers we learn to carry things, we find it very amusing because anytime we pick something up or drop it, we have to completely re-balance every cell in our bodies.  By the time we can speak we are already perfect masters of this skill and it has become unconscious, so we don't even notice we are doing it.  In addition, we master more complex skills, like carrying a glass of water without spilling it.  That requires loads of unconscious tension because half the cells in our body are doing twice the re-balancing work to compensate for the part of our bodies which remains still.  Normal face to face communication, like conventionally holding our head in one position to show we are listening also requires loads of unconscious tension.  

Bao Zheng, The Upright Judge, A Deity & Theatrical FigureThe second reason is that humans are really good at pushing.  I recently spent a lot of time with a few two week old baby goats.  They are already masters of pushing because they use it socially to establish dominance and submission.  They love pushing on a persons hand.  If there is no break in the person's structure they will change position and try again, if there is a break in structure, they will plow right through.  They do this with a lot of sensitivity. Humans are the same, and it is an unconscious process.  Ask a few eight year old boys to stand on roughly the same spot and they will start pushing each other, usually on the shoulder, each trying to control the spot--back and forth, stumbling then recovering--they love doing it and it's totally automatic.  When people learn martial arts they often get social dominance behavior mixed up with good fighting skills.  Pushing is not a martial skill, it is purely for social dominance purposes. If the person you are pushing is stable you will push yourself backwards. 

Upright power is among the most basic and most advanced skills.  Perfect upright power is one of the most exciting things a martial artist can experience!


*Orthoprax/heteroprax are better terms for ritual because it is something one does not a specific way of thinking.



Hat tip to Rick Matz over at Cook Ding's Kitchen:

I recommend this article in the Wall Street Journal by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  What Taleb says has interesting implications for martial arts training.  I'd love to hear what my readers think of this.  Here is his book, which I'm planning to read over the holidays. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder


Also, this article may be useful for getting us to think about how we condition ourselves.  What is the right metaphor here?  Is this a tough nut to crack or have we just discovered a few pieces of the puzzle?


The Super Hero Complex

Many people take an interest in martial arts because they treasure the image of a righteous and powerful do-gooder, also known as ‘the super hero complex.’  My goal is to inspire or re-inspire the superhero in you!  Yes, there is irony here, but there is and has always been irony in martial arts.  

Not too surprisingly, many people have tried to find an antidote to this irony by carrying a gun or pepper spray, or some other magic bullet.  And there are a whole slew of “reality based” martial arts, which (of course) are not.  Martial arts irony is robust.

click on the image to purchase it from the artistPlanning for a possible sudden attack at sometime in the future requires fantasy--lots of fantasy.  And fantasy requires an enormous amount of energy to maintain.  The best answers in self-defense are based on asking, what kind of person am I? and what kinds of violence are statistically most likely to happen to me.  But identity isn’t set in stone, it requires a lot of fantasy and effort to maintain, and if you use violence statistics to minimize risk, your risk starts getting very small. So the Daoist answer to the problem of persistent irony in the practice of martial arts is to invest in the power of emptiness.  

And then to pile irony on top of irony, in discovering this natural emptiness we also discover our inner super hero powers.  Wow.  

Why are there so many naysayers?  What is wrong with knowingly entertaining ourselves?  What is so contemptible about delighting in self-discovery?  In exploring the possibilities of human nature?  

No doubt, some will poo-poo this idea by saying that what is learnable always falls within a clearly discernible and measured curriculum.  But I say to them: what is most exciting to learn happens in the face of dark chaos.  And I venture that where there are many short-cuts, there are as many blind alleys.  

Would you stake your identity on being an effortless emptiness super hero?



Experience and theory talk to each other.  New experience (hopefully) causes theory to be either re-worked or thrown out and replaced by new theory, which prompts experiments which in turn lead to new experiences.  

However, language is not very good at communicating experience.  There are may places where language can fail us.  I have the sense that my body-mind-experience has real limits, but where they are is often unknown. Those limits are sometimes presumed based on what I can remember, or think I can remember, of my own experience, they may even be based on what I've heard about my potential.  So I have limits but I don't know what they are.

Language can be burdensome.  

So there is experience (mixed with uncertainty), and there is a portion of that experience which can be felt as a kind of knowing.  And that knowing can be translated into language as some sort of metaphor, often metaphors on top of metaphors.  Some of those metaphors are unconscious.  Some are just useful because they point to some pivotal aspect of experience, but may otherwise be misleading. And these metaphors are put together into theories we then use to formulate experiments to test and replicate our experiences, and to share with others.  

If we could simply and effectively demonstrate and describe the experiments for replicating an experience we could, theoretically, by pass the need for theory.  But experience is uncertain, metaphors are imperfect, and experiments have artificial boundaries, so nature has stuck us with a never ending conversation between theory and practice.

So always approach theory with doubt.  There probably is another way to solve the problem, whatever it happens to be, no matter how insistant your teacher is about a particular method or your lineage is about a particular way of stating things.

Which seems like a good enough intro to this video which attempts to answer the question, why do we have a brain?  There is a funny joke about 2 minutes in.   


Lost Knowledge

I love this video because when you see it done right you instantly realize that everyone else is doing it wrong.  
How did this type of knowledge get lost?  Did a generation of archers go to their graves bemoaning the advent of the gun?  Or did pieces of knowledge get peeled off bit by bit over time?  It is also amazing that this knowledge can suddenly go viral on Facebook and everyone interested in the subject gets to see it right away.  The inventor guy doesn't even have to get famous.
backwards complexityI went to the Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City last week.  The sandals and shoes of native Americans caught my eye because there was an exhibit of backwards complexity, the oldest shoes 1500 BP (Before Present) were the most intricate and developed while the 500 BP ones were kind of shabby.  There were also some 1600 BP boots that had been re-produced to look like a sweet pair of waterproof Uggs.
I hear my musician friends complain that, yes digital is great, it has so much potential, but people mostly listen to small files that filter out all the complexity and detail in the sound.  
I'm not romantic about this.  I don't think we all need to live in houses with hand made nails!  Then again, hand made nails are pretty cool. The "global market" seems to be providing us with a lot of choices lately.
Lifestyle, diet, health, birthing and dying; what did our ancestors have that we have lost? what are we losing right now that we take for granted? what are we discovering or re-discovering right now?  what will the future bring?
Again, the video is shocking because it is so obvious, now.  But there must have been a generation for whom it was not obvious.
I feel like I've made a lot of progress with this blog.  When I started out, there was a lot of resistance to the idea that martial arts and theater are siblings of the same family.  That the skills of fighting and the skills of acting and dancing and improvising and playing music and performing exorcism and mediation and trance all fit together.  Now-a-days, some people I meet look at me like I'm crazy when I explain what my blog is about--like duhhh, everybody already knows that.  
But of course it's not that simple, most people can say it without being able to see it.  
But I'm excited, I think internal martial arts are going to make a big new splash soon.  Call it the fourth wave.  The first wave was hippy inspired, "go with the flow."  The second was exercise is too painful but I'm a yuppie so I do "qigong for health and fitness."  The third arose from the ashes of the historical post Boxer "New Life" and "Pure Martial" nationalist movements having seduced a generation of utilitarian "Westerners" into believing that martial artists of the past were all professional fighter dudes, we'll call it the "I wish I could kick your ass with qi" movement.  The fourth wave is going to be totally different.  People will step into training environments, total body mind awareness lifestyles.  Like sacred cities or holy mountains, but with free wifi and capracocoa.* It will be called the "Oh, That's how it works!!!" movement.  
If you are in or near the San Francisco Bay Area, please come to my workshop this Sunday at Soja.  See for yourself what fourth wave internal martial arts are all about!
*(hot chocolate made with fresh goat's milk--do try it)


Quoting from Wikipedia:

The OODA loop has become an important concept in both business and military strategy. According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle and gain the advantage.


There isn’t all that much to say.  Training can shorten your loops, allowing you to get inside a less trained person’s loop.  Fast loops are good, slow loops are bad. Being unpredictable even to the point of chaos is generally an advantage if it keeps forcing the opponent to re-loop without being able to execute an effective action.

The problem with martial arts games of all types (wrestling, boxing, MMA, push-hands) from a fighting point of view is that they limit you.  When you have a lot of training and you are suddenly confronted with a new set of rules which deny you those training options or action, you will likely get stuck.  Why?  Because you train for speed, and when you train for speed certain conditions will trigger a certain kind of action.  If you train to pull off particular types of set-ups, or throws or strikes, your body will just start doing them when the opening appears.  If the rule set doesn’t allow it, you will have to spend a second stopping your body from making the move.  Your mind can get stuck making sure that you really aren't allowed to do what your body has trained to do.  Your body won’t believe that it isn't allowed to do that thing which has worked so well in the past until it has had time to adjust to the new set of rules.

If you are training self-defense, you are training people to break the rules, to do the unexpected, to temporarily abandon social constraints.  

This is related to the observation that oftentimes martial artists aren’t able to use their training in a surprise attack. The conditions just don’t seem right, you’d have to keep telling yourself, yes, go, do it now.  The second time you get attacked it probably has a better chance of working, but who gets surprise attacked twice now-a-days?  

The OODA loop is also important for training to win games in which both people are trained with the same set of rules.  It is still possible to be faster and more difficult to predict.  There are also things you can do to disorient or shock your opponent.  A great deal of tai chi is focuses on the disorientation aspect of the OODA loop.  


One of the interesting training questions that comes up in partner work is the distance vs. action ratio.  Acting first usually trumps waiting because it forces the opponent to re-loop, dealing with an attack rather than attacking.  But if you are ready for an attack there is a certain distance where any action is a mistake because it will reveal your intent too soon, giving the opponent time and options for a powerful response.  This is why in Greco-roman wrestling, for instance, there are these long stand-offs where both wrestlers are waiting for the other person to make a mistake.   Swords and knives have this quality too, as long as both parties want to avoid getting cut any thrust of the knife makes the hand vulnerable to attack.  Tai Chi is famous for playing in this close quarters realm where whoever acts first loses.  But of course a player of great skill will disorient their opponent on contact.


OK I've said enough about that.  It came up a while back with Tabby Cat, who has a new video.

The problem is obvious if you watch it.  The guy Tabby is pushing with looks like a loaded gun forced to keep the "safety" on.  He sees ways to act, but then remembers he isn't allowed to do that: OODA loop shut down.  It's very different then two people who train with the same set of rules.  There is something else important and valuable to see here, namely that Tabby is easily uprooting his opponent by using his opponent's tension.  It is a very difficult skill to learn because you have to comprehend what is happening and melt all the tension in your body.  But what I always look for in a Tai Chi guy is, can they do it in the form?  Can they do it in a big range of motion?  Can they do it to the side?  Up, down, left, right, front, back, circle? From behind?  On the ground? or over their head?  (While sipping tea is my goal.) Notice he only has the skill upward from a low position close to the body.  That would be the easiest position.  Sort of like treading water in the deep end of the pool.  Swimming in the arctic it ain't.  

Anyway that is my conceited opinion and that is what I was thinking when I got to the later part of the video where he wraps the red pregnancy cloth around his arms.  OK perhaps it is because I've been doing too much relaxation of deep unconscious tension lately, but when I saw that, I just about busted a gut!  Now that we know you can tread water in the deep end, why not try it in the kiddie pool!


Well, if you've read this far I have a little treat for you which is mostly unrelated.  I have been thinking about advice to give beginners who what to go far in internal martial arts.  Here is my advice.  Don't try to make any technique work.  It is quite counter intuitive, but the problem is, if you try to make a technique work you will be conditioning yourself to feel either 1) a type of active resistance, or 2) success.  The problem with the feeling of active resistance is that when you actually have the internal gongfu you won't feel any resistance.  The problem with the success feeling is that when your technique fails in a violent confrontation you are likely to freeze.  Now I don't know from experience that the feeling of success in a flaw, but my gut tells me it is.  Anyway, to win by force is a mistake.  What we want is that you just practice the techniques, if there is resistance change, if not keep going.  In the beginning it is the outer forms that really matter.  Know the technique, don't try to make it work.  A subtle difference perhaps, but I'm finding it is a powerful teaching key.


Identity and Cosmology

From about the age of two, we start carrying things around.  These are our things.  These things are somewhat like the 150 or so people we recognize as our group, and the much smaller bunch of people we call family and friends.  Belonging is not the same thing as owning, but it takes up space in our body memory in a similar way.  We carry these identity objects around with us.  I know what books I have on my shelf even when I’m a thousand miles away.  When I go backpacking I know that I’m carrying 42 things and I know exactly where each of them is.  

This stuff we carry around is the stuff of our identity.  Likewise we learn ways of walking that match up with the groups we belong to.  We learn ways of holding our head that communicate who we are and our status within these groups.  Identity changes when it is confronted by reality.  Sometimes it changes fluidly, sometimes it is very resistant to change.

Our place in a family seems stable, and may in fact be stable for a very long time, but it is what it is because we agree that it is.  It can be disturbed.  Certainly the things we own can come and go, some things much more easily than others.

Identity floats on the edge of the unconscious.

Cosmology is similar to identity.  In its simplest form it is just the world around us.  In reality we only see a very small field of our vision in focus, we only feel contact on our skin, but our mind imagines a much bigger field in focus and sensory awareness all of the time.  The feeling of the world around us is a very strong feeling.  

I’m sitting in a cafe right now looking out the window, but I have a strong feeling sense of where the espresso machine is behind me, also where the bathroom door is and how many tables are in the corner.  Now it is entirely possible that someone just moved the tables (I’m wearing ear plugs) or stole the espresso machine, and if I were to turn around right now and see those things gone it would be a shock (Don’t worry, I just checked and they are all still there.)  This kind of cosmological presence is entirely in my mind, yet it is somehow stored in my body.  I can very clearly imagine the feeling in my body of walking up the carpeted stairs in the three story house I grew up in, I can even remember the feeling of wrestling on and rolling down those stairs.  If I were to go visit that house and find that it had been torn down I would still have these feelings.  

The sun and the moon both move “across” the sky.  Our feeling of the sky is the beginnings of cosmological awareness.  The word “across” is in fact a pretty vague concept, but we all know what it means.  That’s cosmology.  At some point we learn or we envision that the sun and the moon go around the earth.  And then we learn that the earth is actually spinning and that while it is spinning around itself it is also spinning around the sun, and that the sun is spinning around the universe and that the universe is expanding.  

Cosmology also floats on the edge of the unconscious.

Identity and cosmology often overlap.  For instance, part of what we think we know about muscles is cosmology, part of it is identity.  Part of the concept “muscles” is found in how our body feels, part of it is the way we feel emotionally about our bodies, and part of it is how we understand muscles to function in relationship to movement.  Each of these experiences has a kind of built on top of, interwoven layered quality.  It is part identity, and part cosmology.  We pick up part of this “muscles” concept and carry it around as an aspect of identity, it has changed a few times since we first picked it up at around age four.  Our cosmological notion of muscle functionality has also been changing with the accumulation of knowledge and experience.  

Identity and cosmology are both vulnerable to reality.  They can be altered, torn down, shocked, disturbed, wrangled, bolstered, tested, and abandoned.  

I bring all this to my reader’s attention because I want to say something about the roles of teacher and student.  

In the professional dance world, a complement teachers would bandy about fairly regularly was, “I like the way you take correction.”  This complement signified that the dance student was receptive to changes.  Perhaps it also signified a degree of fluidity in identity and cosmology.

My job as a martial arts teacher is to identify the student’s problem, and then to state, demonstrate, or show him or her what is right and what is wrong.  9 times out of 10 this will challenge the identity of the student to some degree.

The student’s job in this identity challenging situation is to understand why a particular attribute or action is correct and why another is incorrect.  It is not usually the student’s responsibility to fix the problem on the spot, but rather to recognize the quality or attribute in question.  

Another part of my job as a teacher is to keep changing metaphors, descriptions and activities until the student sees or feels something new.  9 times out of 10 this is a challenge to cosmology.

The student’s job is to appropriate this new cosmological “idea” or “experience” into his or her daily practice.  That generally involves some kind of perceptual shift, which, with practice, becomes a new way of being.

Change can be fun and/or scary or subtle and/or unconscious.  I suppose that sometimes identity and cosmology shift in gradual ways and other times they make quantum leaps.  I suspect that it is a teacher’s sensitivity to the process of these changes that makes him or her a good teacher.  As Keith Johnstone  put it:  Teaching is not a substance, of which a little bit is good and a lot is better--bad teaching is deeply harmful!

Identity and cosmology (this is from Daoism now) are illusions maintained by effort.  That effort requires energy from food and the (original qi) stuff we have stored deep in our kidneys.  When we weaken ourselves carefully, we automatically put less effort into identity and cosmology making them slightly more vulnerable to softening and flexibility.  But of course becoming too weak too suddenly can cause a sudden collapse of identity or cosmology leading to a kind of snap back, effectively strengthening our perceptions of self and world.   We evolved this way because it was good for survival.  For instance, when we have a close shave with death, the moment we are safe our bodies release hormones in our blood which cause us to feel strong family-like bonds with whoever we happens to be with, changing our identity to improve our survival.   

In case you are wondering, there is a short cut to all of this.  It is to become completely empty in totally undifferentiated chaos.  That, by the way, is what the name Tai Chi actually means.


Internal Power 101

Hey Everybody!  I'm teaching a workshop called Internal Power 101
At Soja Martial Arts
Sunday 12/2/2012 
 From: 11:00 am - 5:00 pm
Soja is located at:  2406 Webster, Oakland, CA, 94612 between 24th & 25th Streets.

The workshop will be an overview of the power generation methods used in all traditional Chinese martial arts: Tai Chi, Xingyi, and Bagua Zhang. 

Workshop cost: $90 for non Soja Members, 10% off for Soja current Adult members.
Here is the skinny:

What is perfect structure and what are its limits? Laozi said, “Knowing when to stop is wisdom.” How do we know when we’ve had enough of a particular type of training? How is it possible to have a calm body and a wild mind at the same time? How can we prepare emotionally and physically for the hardships which happen after a violent encounter? Is it possible to attack in such a way that the opponent can not figure out how to resist? How can a martial art be consistent with the Daoist cultivation of emptiness (xu-kong), non-aggression (wuwei), and natural spontaneity (ziran)? 

Because comprehending a kinesthetic idea requires actually being able to do it, the answers to these questions became a list of solo and partnered experiments that fall into three general categories:

Jing 精- Discovering the underlying structure expressed in traditional Chinese concepts of anatomy and physiology through the exploration and testing of daoyin and shaolin movements and postures.

Qi 氣- Dissolving conscious and unconscious tension in the body in order to reveal the unconditioned freedom of our water-baby-like original nature.

Shen 神- The development of an active spatial awareness which is unconstrained by the trances of everyday living.

11 am - 5:30 pm  6 hours with an hour lunch break (12:30-1:30) $80 (early registration) or $90 after.
Please note:  Soja does not offer refunds for this workshop for any reason, but in case your schedule changes at the last minute in most cases we will apply your funds toward future workshops or regularly scheduled classes.

Scott P. Phillips taught the Tai Chi and Qigong programs at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, before that he spent ten years studying Daoism with Liu Ming the founder of Five Branches University, and he has practiced martial arts all of his life. He is a senior student of renowned masters George Xu and Bing Gong. He has an extensive background in ethnic dance and improvisational theater, and also teaches Baguazhang, Luihe Xinyi, Yiquan standing meditation, Northern Shaolin as a performing art, and Daoyin.


Sign up by calling: Peter at 510.832.7652    

or Emailing:

or got to and click through to Schedule/Adult Workshops.



I predict that in my lifetime not knowing self-defense will become like illiteracy was 100 or so years ago.  

If you line up the arguments for teaching everyone self-defense and the arguments against, side by side, the arguments in favor are much stronger.  Sometime back in the 1990’s my former stepmother (who is an internationally known civil rights lawyer and can be seen eating cookies in a Michael Moore movie) and I were discussing sexual politics, date rape, and behavioral norms.  I said something on the order of, “The solution is to teach everyone self-defense.”  

Now, at that time, the apocalypse was a distant unlikelihood, Buffy had not yet staked a single vampire, nerds were still nerds, and nobody even knew how zombies were created. 

There was no internet, no youtube, nobody had a video cell phone, no Rory Miller, no Devi Protect, and no Gift of Fear.  There were Wimin’s self-defense classes at that time, like IMPACT which started in 1985, along with loud whistles, mace, and permanent ink spray.  

But there wasn’t to my knowledge anyone explaining in plain legal language, the way they regularly do on cop shows today, the importance of Intent, Means, Opportunity, and Preclusion.  Outside of castle law, back then, the “right to self-defense” was down right murky.  The difference between predator violence and social violence was unexplored territory in the popular imagination.  There was also no popular critique of terms like victim and victimizer, they were as irony-free in normal conversation as “bread & butter.”

At the time I was practicing martial arts and dance about 8 hours a day and since I didn’t believe in cars, I was riding my bicycle or my skateboard everywhere.  

My former stepmother’s response to my suggestion that everyone learn self-defense was memorable, “Women will never be equal to men in physical strength, and besides it is totally impractical.”

I knew then that she was wrong, but I didn’t have the arguments or the examples to prove my point.  If self-defense was the equivalent of becoming a skillful martial artist practicing for hours everyday, she might have had a point.  But it turns out that self-defense is really much more like a form of literacy.  It is a way of thinking about and seeing the world.  Surely it involves martial arts skills to some degree, but it is a mistake to think that self-defense skills require you to be superior in any physical sense. 

The arguments for teaching these skills to everyone before they reach puberty are getting stronger as the list of topics that should be included in a basic self-defense education grows: Good guy modeling, monkey dance awareness, personal responsibility, emotional bio-chemistry, the nature of autonomy, cultural and social “othering,” citizenship, talking to the authorities, the cultural and historical links between fighting, dancing and improvisation, etc, etc, etc... 

Thinking back on her comments that day, it is striking how similar the old arguments against teaching women how to read are to the arguments against teaching women self-defense.  

In fact, I would like to caution anyone who uses the “totally impractical” argument  to look back at all the people who were later face-palmed by inspired people who didn’t seem to notice that impracticality was an obstacle.  


World Music Festival

The San Francisco World Music Festival Starts tonight.  The theme is Asian Opera.

Check it out.  Reviews to follow.


External Internal Mixes

Just wanted to share this video of one of my class mates from the early 90's.  Stan was a strange kid, about 17 in this video, I remember him having some mental development problems that made him a bit shy and awkward in conversation, but he was fun to practice with.

And here is Shifu Qing Zhong Bao, George Xu's main teacher before George left China around 1980.  He is 95 years old in the video.  Lanshou, the system he is a master of, and the one Stan is demonstrating above, is considered a mixed internal and external system.  Whatever right?  Looks like it is pretty good for health in old age as well as training young people for maximum versatility.  


Theory and Metaphor in Martial Arts

I’ve been trying to write about theory for a few weeks.  The problem is simple, but explaining the problem is not. The problem is that martial arts theories are built on metaphors.  Notice that in the previous sentence we have three metaphors.  “Built” is the most obvious one here, implying that a foundation is laid followed by a construction project.  Another metaphor in the sentence is “problem,” implying perhaps a puzzle requiring contemplation, or alternately an agent causing systematic disruption.  In addition we have “martial” and “arts” nagging for explication, “martial” implying war, and “arts” implying the harnessing of beauty while piling up skills.   

But if we look back at that sentence the most challenging term is “metaphors.”  All theory is built on metaphors, mental constructs in place of actual experiences.  Someone might protest at this point that martial arts can only be based on physics.  But physics is made up of metaphors too; we are a liquid body of mass filled with solids of various densities, structured along lines of potential force and contained by a semi-porous wrapping with an elastic surface tension.  To make that description of the human body useful in martial arts practice it has to be both simplified and abstracted so that possibilities and probabilities can be measured and predicted.  It is a lot more efficient and useful to just say, “Your finger on the end of your arm is the pool cue, and his eye is the ball.”

Metaphors are always imperfect because kinesthetic experiences are far more complex than language.  I suppose someone might want to challenge that statement, but even if we could speak in a language as complex as kinesthetic experience it would have to be robust enough to survive the learning and testing process.  And then there are mundane concepts like communication breakdown.  

So it follows that if we clearly understand a metaphor and we diligently put it into practice, it will fail.  It will fail because it was imperfect to begin with.  It was an inaccurate description of form, method and fruition.  A quick example: Many martial arts schools use the metaphor of circulation, but all the substances which are known to circulate in the body circulate too slowly to be useful outside of passive processes.  If in this case circulate is meant to refer to forces from an opponent being returned to the opponent, the liquid aspect of the metaphor “circulate” is an inadequate description of the aspects of structure and mind necessary to accomplish this function.

The majority of Tai Chi classes are containers for the trivial.  I recently heard about a teacher who had created three “new” tai chi forms, one for diabetes, one for Alzheimer's, and one for Parkinson's disease.  My first thought was, “Wow, cute.”  No doubt there is some talismanic effect from self-selecting to learn and practice a form which has a specific health benefit.  Unless of course you are that person who thinks, “Hey, I did my my diabetes form today, bust out the triple chocolate cake!”

In most of these trivial classes the students simply follow the teacher through the form and get an occasional posture correction.  The same metaphors are repeated ad nauseum; relax, root, flow, spiral, sink, be stable like a mountain, flow like a river.   

The same is true for most martial arts classes.  There is very little metaphor analysis going on.  Some schools frown on talking in class at all.  Some students just want exercise, their base metaphor being, “I am a machine that gets rusty and needs motion and heat (oil?) to maintain optimal functioning.”  Some schools cater to parents metaphorical expectations that their child will become either a robotic fighting machine or a caring disciplined servant of all that is true and good.  Some schools take enormous pride in maintaining the same metaphors over time.  Some schools are proud of their simplicity, others of their clarity.  The more systematic the approach, the more entrenched the metaphors will be.  Rotary Engine

Thus, those of us who can actually think kinesthetically are constantly changing the metaphors we use.  We need to use one metaphor to test another.  The process involves continuously reformulating and refining the metaphors we use, while also pairing and juxtaposing them to birth new metaphors and kill off old ones.

The process of training should allow metaphors to be replaced by precise feelings and experiences.  But both the maintenance of skills as well as the teaching of skills requires that metaphors function as containers for kinesthetic knowledge.  The same is true for those metaphors which define our identity.  The freer we are, the freer we are to change and adapt the metaphors we live by.  

The identity piece is also important because the martial arts we practice transit between cultures which often have different deeply embedded metaphors which can act either as  lubricants or friction in the transmission of ideas.  (For example Chinese language posits that time is a man facing backwards, while English posits time is a man facing forwards.)

I know for sure that if a teacher can describe a kinesthetic experience with perfect clarity it is wrong and it will fail.  It may however, be very, very useful.  Lion's Head Meatballs

Playing with Majia and swords yesterday, she offered the metaphor that if you put your arm too far out to the side it will get ground up in a blender.  Metaphors are so much fun.  George Xu has a similar one; cut off your opponent’s arm with your spinning airplane propeller.  He has a whole bunch of new and unusual metaphors, as well as reformulated and recycled ones.  For instance, be a giant meatball hanging in the sky.  (I believe he is referring to Lion’s Head Meatballs, yum!)  Or, be a tree trunk falling on your opponent when you chop.  Also, use your rotary engine against his piston engine.  And, punch him with three heads and six arms while being empty like Romeo staring at Juliet as it begins to snow.  

Please share your favorite martial arts metaphors.



Thogs are unfinished thoughts.  I could let these percilate for a few weeks and perhaps they would turn into full on thoughts, but I've got lot's of other matterial to slice and dice so I'll just toss these ones to the crowd.  


First up, Neanderthal Martia Arts!  Yes, I know what you are thinking, MMA right?  But no I mean the real thing.  And there are some intreging links about pre-historic giants with popeye arms in the article if you get into it.  


Then there is Camille Paglia, always a hoot.

My friend Elijah Siegler writing about David Cronenberg and Religion.

This intersting website of temptation.  How do I get a copy of this?


According to Stanley Fish, there are two types of intellegence, Foxes and Hedgehogs.  Hedgehogs are experts in one thing, one type of thinking.  Foxes are broad thinkers who know a little about a lot of things.  The problem is our current era is creating a lot of fake foxes and imposter hedgehogs!  When you can Facebook-google-Youtube-blog your knowledge it is possilbe to appear to have a type of intellegence you don't really have, at least for a few minutes.  True foxes are very rare.  What is the implication of this for matial arts?


Look, a free book on Taoist Alchemy!


If the toughest things about fighting happen after the fight, what can we do to prepare for this?  Does this question lead to a good explanation for the development of internal martial arts and their connection to meditation?


Vector force from the ground to the point of impact does not contribute to mass unity.  We just can’t get away (whether thinking about avoiding self injury or fighting) from the idea that mass plus velocity equals force.  The larger and more unified the mass, the less it has to gain in velocity to effect an equal amount of force.  Momentum is mass plus acceleration, acceleration is the rate which velocity increases over time, so the more mass unity, the less time or velocity is necessary to exert the same amount of force.  Therefore:  Pushing off the ground with the foot reduces power if it reduces mass unity, which it does if force travels along a line (or a curve) through the body.



George Xu Workshop

There is a George Xu workshop this weekend in San Francisco, check it out!

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