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Weakness With A Twist 

Internal Martial Arts, Theatricality, and Daoist Ritual Emptiness


Water Yoga

I went to an Acro-Yoga class the other day.  It was fun, lots of young people excited about learning movement.  The funny thing is everything we did in the class was actually the same as the acrobatics I learned in my 20's.  They have just tacked the word yoga on the end.  Cool?

So that got me thinking about Paulie Zink's comment to Paul Grilley that ended up inventing Yin Yoga.  Zink basically said something to the effect that yoga is too yang and it needs to be balanced by yin.  Practically speaking from the five element theory that frames Daoyin, most yoga is heavy on the wood element (naturally extending and growing) and also on the metal element (strength and holding poses or shapes).  He suggested adding the earth element which is very relaxed stillness for extended periods of time.  Earth practice is good for meditation and goes deep into the ligaments.  It is a very individual practice because at that level of relaxation we are all structurally diverse.  That is what modern Yin Yoga adds to the practice.  

So I was looking at the Yoga calenders for various local studios in Boulder and I noticed that some of them were having like one or two days of Yin Yoga a week.  That makes a lot of sense to me.

Then I noticed that they had Kundalini Yoga one or two days a week too.  (My wife went to a Kundalini class and loved it so I think we are going to be a mixed household for the near future.)  Kundalini is the fire element that the standard Yoga class is missing.  Smart.

I know that there is Yoga and then there is Yoga!  Like people are doing all sorts of experiments and I think that is great.

But that still leaves out the element of water.  Modern Yoga is still weak on the water element.

The basic partner acrobatics we were doing has one person being the "base" supporting the other person being the "flyer."  Learning the role of "base" involves strenght and range of power exercises while weighted.  That is the metal element again.  Being the "flyer" means having a very relaxed fluid body so that one can balance in the air on the "base." That is the water element.

But as the "flyer" gets better he/she actually becomes very strong and able to hold powerful shapes in the air, while the "base" becomes more fluid and able to do the balancing for the "flyer," dynamically moving the "flyer"  around to different positions.  They switch back and forth between metal and water, metal and water--or in Daoist alchemical terms between cinnabar, mercury and gold.  This type of theater is, after all, an enlightenment teaching tradition.

So anyway, I'm thinking about trying to teach straight Daoyin to the Yoga world and perhaps I can explain it via the metaphor of adding more of the water element to practice.  As I'm fond of saying, "Your downward dog needs to wiggle its tail and scamper around the room!"




Samisen Fighting Class

I got excited today because I met a samisen player who was interested in playing for my fighting class in Boulder, Colorado, where I am now teaching.  I got this idea that I should teach drumming and fighting together because there are so many things that tie the two together.  But samisen would be really good too.  I want it to be live music because that interaction between tempo and rhythm is key to working with mood and timing and letting go.  I want to foster the kinesthetic conversation between freedom and chaos, order and spontaneity.  


Teaching and Enlightenment

There are three basic approaches to teaching that match the basic approaches to enlightenment.

I use the term enlightenment loosely, because I think people ought to lighten up about it.  (That is a joke, sort of.)

These approaches to enlightenment could also be understood as the orthodox daoist framing of religious expression.  This framing has a universal quality to it because it is easily re-discoverable, not because it is an absolute truth.  It is not religion specific but refers more generally to three views of what the human relationship to nature is.  None of these three views are exclusive either, in fact there is an experientially based/tested assumption that humans inherently have access to all three.  

They are:

1) Wuwei.  A non conceptual experience of being/emptiness.  Without preference, progress, hierarchy, equality, individuality or community.  It can not be framed or limited by words, images, names, or descriptions.  

2) Perfection.  Tantric enlightenment.  Becoming a god.  Perfect body mechanics.  Superior anything.  Sudden enlightenment.  Games.  Glowing health.  Accumulating qi.  Perfect circulation.  The achievement of effortless skill and technique.

3) Subordination.  Making alliances with any form or embodiment of power.  Shamanism.  Survival strategies.  Devotion.  Discipline.  The gradual approach.  Contracts.  


This formula is in many of the chapters of the Daodejing.  Laozi the author of the Daodejing, keeps coming back to the first one as a natural process of return, like water returning to the sea.  

I don't know anyone who has gotten good at martial arts without taking the third view.  But I also don't know anyone who has gotten good by exclusive fidelity to the third view.  In that sense, I understand practice as a conversation between these three views.  They have a way of refreshing each other.  

With regard to teaching children I start with the third view because it creates a container for experiencing the first view.  Children find it deeply relaxing and satisfying to be given tightly channelled directions, to be surrounded by percussive order and explosive command, to be welcomed into a safe guided challenging total environment.  That relaxation leads directly to self-respect and self-acceptance.  From that base, they then have the option of choosing the second view, self-directed, self-gratifying, self-disciplined self-improvement.

Adults present a different challenge.  My preference is to initiate adults into the first view via a year of standing still practice supplemented by hanging out time.  But everyone is different.  And more importantly everyone has a unique way of relating to me.   So it is my goal as a teacher to re-invent a kind of theatrical temple culture.  I want to offer an environment or milieu that students can enter where all three views are available.  An environment where dance, games, techniques, solo discipline, learning through doing, immediate feed back, edge experiences, identity challenges, deeply comforting personal retreat technologies, awareness expanding experiences, chaotic containers, and ordered experiments are all simultaneously available.  A space where failure is fun.  Where performance is a direct way to access the capaciousness of beauty.  A space emotionally big enough for both gentle healing and the serious experiential examination of human violence and aggression.

One of the problems I face is the culturally static model of a class and a teacher that we are all accustomed to.  For the theatrical temple model to work, individuals have to feel free to experiment and get support for changes in their entire lives.  

The hobbiest model is actually fine.  It is just that my challenge is to get students to understand that the subject we are working with is the alchemy of all their appetites: sleep, work, play, nutrition, intimacy, social life, risk taking, heroism, reclusiveness, etc. etc. etc....


Here is my attempt at one of the Daodejing Chapters that presents the three views, Chapter 23:

To seldom speak is to follow the Dao.

A gust of wind can not last all morning,

A downpour can not last all day.

What causes these?  Heaven and Earth.

If the actions of Heaven and Earth do not last long, how much less the actions of human beings.

One who cultivates Dao, will experience Dao.

One who cultivates perfection, will experience perfection.

One who cultivates need, will experience need.  

Dao, Perfection, and need all have their own fruition.  

Trust without a basis is simply faith.



My Teaching Philosophy

Learn through doing.  All the talking and thinking and conceptualizing and dreaming has a place.  But no one has ever gotten even remotely good at anything without the direct experience of doing that thing.  

The test comes first.  In everything I teach, the test comes first.  Otherwise how would you know it is worth learning? If you pass the test right off the bat you don't need to learn it.  If you fail the test, in the real world, you know exactly why you want to learn something.  Also if the test comes first, you can keep re-testing yourself until you personally know you know what you know.

Support Mindfulness: Read this article by one of my students who is far more articulate than I am, saying what I wish I had said about the way I teach.  (it's a PDF)

Aggression is Natural, so is Enlightenment:  People show up with all kinds of history, meet them where they are.

Great teaching requires a profound level of trust and mutual consent.  Being explicit about physical and emotional boundaries is always a sign of maturity and responsibility, practice and model it.

First create an emotionally safe place to practice physically dangerous skills.   Then, when the student is ready, create a physically safe place to do emotionally dangerous things.   I took this from martial arts hero Rory Miller.

Fun, Games, and Seriousness:  Appropriate teaching means being inclusive and adaptable by using a wide range of teaching strategies.


More Video's for the Master Key (previous post)

This next one is Thang Ta see Wikipedia.

What an awesome training ritual from Manupur.  I spent a few days with some Manupuri dance masters in Calcutta, they were awesome.  It is a bit like Kathak but with lots of jumping.  

And here is a documentry!


The Master Key

The sound quality on this podcast of Rory Miller is poor, but it is still a fun talk. (I'll come back to it in a moment.)

I was talking to Daniel Mroz yesterday and he said that his friend who is a Beijing Opera (Jingju) master of martial arts roles made a very bold statement.  He said that there is a basic movement of the whole body, making a flower with the hands, which is the master key movement out of which all other Beijing Opera movement comes. 

This particular movement is nearly identical to a basic movement used in Kathak (North Indian Classical Dance).  It is also important in Filipino knife fighting Silat, Maija Soderholm showed it to me the other day.  George Xu uses identical whole body coordination as his favorite warm-up for teaching Chen Style taijiquan but working from a horse stance.  

The movement is probably essential for anyone who masters handling two single edged blades at the same time.

Now that I've had a day to play with it as a key concept, I'd say it is key to all Baguazhang and is very helpful to staying integrated during shaolin movement.  It is not key to Liuhexinyi, but I may change my opinon on that.  As an underlying integration of right to left and homo-lateral to contra-lateral symmetry it can be used as an internal measuring stick of whole body integration in almost any complex movement. 

I've been doing it for 25 years, but I never thought of it as a key movement before.

I read one of Namkhai Norbu's books last fall in which he recommends using the Vajra posture for standing until one is past the experience of fatigue before laying down and relaxing into emptiness as a way of going directly to the experience/expression of Dzogchen (non-conceptual enlightenment).  Basically the Vajra posture is the same posture used for this movement in Kathak dance.  It all fits together so well.  And the term Vajra means a weapon of uncuttable substance, like diamond I guess.  I also recently read an article by Meir Shahar about the widespread concept among martial artists in pre-20th Century China of creating a Vajra body.  Here is the title (you can get it for free if you have access to JSTOR):

  • "Diamond Body: The Origins of Invulnerability in the Chinese Martial Arts." In Perfect Bodies: Sports Medicine and Immortality. Edited by Vivienne Lo. London: British Museum, 2012.

So all this is to preface that I met Adam who runs West Gate Kungfu School here in Boulder, Colorado.  We hit it off right away. We both care deeply about the arts and we both see performance skills and having maximum fun as master keys of the martial arts experience.  He invited me to hang out with his performing troupe the other day.  I brought my instruments and accompanied their warm-up routines, which went really well, I also taught some Daoyin which they immediately wanted to teach to the kids classes.  I had a great time and I have deep sense of respect for what Adam is doing.

His students have a lot of talent and enthusiasm and they have some great butterfly kicks too! Butterfly kicks, by the way, use the exact same body coordination as that Vajra flower movement I was just talking about above.  

So I was an argument on Facebook with a Police Officer about whether or not Capoeira is utilitarian in a self-defense context.  He was particularly adamant that flips are useless for fighting.  I eventually got him to agree with me, which was awesome because he is obviously a really smart and experienced guy.  To win the argument I went through some of the stuff you can hear in that Rory Miller talk at the top of this post.  For instance, martial arts training rarely, if ever, kicks in the first time a person is in a violent situation.  It is more likely that it will kick in after 3-5 violent situations.  And when it finally does it can be amazing.  But before that it is all conditioning and that includes what you conditioned as little kid.  From a purely self-defense point of view having a lot of techniques to choose from forces a person into his or her cognitive mind which generally precipitates a whole body freeze.  So one of the most important things martial artists need to train if they care about self-defense is breaking that freeze.  

Conditioned movements should be designed relative to what a person is likely to need.  This is very different for a police officer who may have a duty to get involved, and a citizen caught in a self-defense situation.  Criminals most often (this material comes from Rory Miller) attack children and women from behind, and surprise attacks are also most often from behind.  The practice of doing a back flip involves moving huge amounts of momentum backwards and up.  If the attacker is taller than you are, your head is going to slam into either his chin or his nose, and you will probably both end up on the ground.  The motion of a back flip is actually a really good thing to condition as a response to a surprise attack from behind.  

In general, practices which use large amounts of momentum, practices which condition comfort and ease with flying through space are great for self-defense.  Why?  because of this maxim:  If you are winning try to control the fight, if you are losing add chaos and momentum.  If you get attacked by surprise, you are already losing, so add chaos and momentum.  The practice of spinning around the room while holding on to a partner is also great conditioning, most judo classes train this a lot.  Add butterfly kicks and you are doing even better, practice using those kicks off of walls and tables and you are approaching ninja territory.  


Someone just posted this on Facebook and it is a great example of the same base movement used to organized a routine:


New Blogging Routine

I'm going to try to write a new post every other day for a few weeks.  Since I'm new in Boulder there are probably new people reading, and I want get into a new routine.  

I've done a bunch of updates to other parts of the website, with more to come and I'm open to suggestions reader might have for changes or new pages.

I've been working on a paper that is going to be delivered at the end of the month at the Daoist Conference in Boston.  I'm excited about it.  Adam D. Frank wrote an interesting book about 10 years ago and here is a review of it by a friend of mine who is a growing figure in the field of Anthropology.  If you track down to numbered paragraph 10, you can read the justification for my paper.  I spent 4 days talking to Georges so perhaps I had an influence on him but mostly I just think we think alike.  My paper is called Cracking the Code: Taijiquan as Enlightenment Theater.

As Ben Judkins noted, D.S. Farrer has a bunch of interesting stuff on, which is a great site, as is Dissertation Rewiews.

I've been thinking a lot about how I want to structure my classes and how to charge for teaching.  This rather boring article actually raises many of the basic questions.  His point about me needing to choose exactly what I'm teaching is probably correct.  I should probably institute some mandatory introductory classes too.  But there are two basic problems I have that he doesn't address.  (1) I don't believe there is any inherent order to the subject and I believe that all the normally discrete subjects from improv theater to baguazhang to meditation benefit from being presented in a common milieu--as a single megasubject.  (2) Hardly anyone with the free time to study with me in depth has the money to pay me what I'm worth.  The author of that article seems to think that if he just raises his prices students will be paying him what he is worth, I don't think it is possible to pay me what I'm worth using the model of monthly dues. I'm looking seriously at models whereby people who care about the arts can make a donation to the preservation and promotion of the arts on a 5 to 25 year scale. I'd love to hear peoples thoughts on these issues.

I read these two articles on Yoga, the first is funny, if like me you have been following the yoga is ours debate.

Ghosts of Yoga Past and Present 

Of course the idea of owning artistic expression in someone else's body is absurd, and the author seems completely blind to the fantastically liberating forces of international commerce, but it is fun anyway.

This article: 

Gender Justice Bla, Bla, Bla, actually incoherent unless you have a very sharp Occam's Katana handy.  But she does raise a very interesting question about the reasons soccer-mom/professionals are choosing to do constantly changing disciplined workouts that are short on play.  Why are they choosing so much structure over games and fun?  It is apparently what a lot of people want, and I see many of the same traits in children who generally seem to find being on a very short leash deeply emotionally satisfying.  The article has too much dross in it to come to any clear conclusion but there is something interesting going on.  As mothers have come to be masters of their childrens' "playdates" they seem to have created the same thing for themselves, but without the play.  Is it new? Is there anyway to track adult seriousness vs. playfulness over time?

And lastly, I think fish is very healthy food and I'm very excited to learn that fish prices are about to fall through the floor.  If other things, like housing prices for instance, were to drop too life on earth might just become too easy! Don't read these last two links if you are uncomfortable with the idea that life is getting better all the time do to commercial prowess.  I call this the green washing solution.  These links have nothing to do with martial arts, but they do have to do with Tantric ideas about enlightenment, and that is part of what I'm teaching these days. Below is Manjushri the deity for cutting through styles of teaching, which my students and my wife tell me is my patron saint.  


Boulder Colorado 

I just moved to Boulder Colorado with my wife Sarah.  Many people have asked me why?  The answer has too many answers.  But I want a big change that will inspire me to do things differently.  

At the moment we are looking for housing, it is shockingly cheap compared to the San Francisco Bay Area.  This gives me hope that there will be enough of a population interested in dedicating lots of time to learning the arts.  I have no idea yet where I'm going to be teaching, but there is a lot of optimism floating around and plenty of spaces.  

Anyone who wants to help with connections or ideas would be welcome.  I'm searching for collaborators.  I love helping other people with their business or art projects and I love learning new stuff, and I particularly love trying experiments.  I also have experience teaching a wide range of stuff, all of which I'm happy to share:

Daoyin, two types: 1) Orthodox hermit floor practice, 2) circus animal yoga.  It can be taught as a classic yoga class, or as systematic enlightenment training (elixir or emptiness), or as games and puzzles, or for ground fighting and conditioning.

Improvisationally loaded fighting class games, with a nod toward tantric forms of enlightenment (see previous post!). 

My classic kids classes using drums gongs, and wood blocks to teach shaolin and daoyin as a creative performing art.

I want to try teaching an African martial arts strategies of conditioning class using drumming to teach fighing. 

Lectures: History, Daoism, Religion, Theater and Martial Arts.  

Tons of different Qigong systems.

Yiquan, for meditation, health or fighting.

Bagua, Tai Chi (three styles), Northern Shaolin, Lan Shou, Liuhexinyi, tumbling, dance.

Workshops:  This is a totally open thing, the idea being that any aspect of the arts can be modularized.


Note that I used the term "fighting" above which can mean a lot of different things from self-defense to games to professional uses of force strategies-- and all of them come with profound identity challenging discussions of morality and amorality.


I was at a wonderful party a few weeks back and a mathematician asked me if I'd ever heard of Long Tack Sam?  I was embarrassed to say that I had not.  There is some very interesting stuff on line if you search around, there is also a film, and if anyone knows how I can get to see it, please let me know.  He was a professional performer from that triangle around Shandong and southern Shanxi that was martial arts 24/7.  After the Boxer rebellion and the start of the Republic Era (1912) all sorts of obstacles were put in his path.  His group's specialty was tricks using the queue, which was banned under penalty of death!  He managed to escape to the United States and toured internationally and was a huge success.  Had he stayed in China I suspect his only real option for success would have been to teach martial arts or go into some completely unrelated field.  Anyway a very interesting case, there is also a bunch of stuff in the movie (I think) about how ashamed his descendants were of his performer caste origins.  


I also came across this short piece on a sword maker in Taiwan.  His story makes a great metaphor for a bunch of the cultural re-texturing that is going on right now.  He is making very high quality steel specifically designed for martial artists.  In order to tap into the authenticity of the ancients he is using an industrial process built on knowledge of engineering and metallurgy.  But there is also a strong handi-craft element, or what I like to call--be your own lumberjack-- his swords get an authenticity and a quality boost because they are partially hand made.  He polishes them for 2 years but the explanation of why is built around chemistry.  And on top of that he has some kind of dreaming practice and transmediumship or "channelling" relationship to the gods which he is reluctant to talk about but which is also framed as essential!  I love it.


Martial Arts Games Workshop this Sunday!

Martial Arts Games  with Scott Phillips 
Sun: 4/6/2014   From: 12:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Cost: $40 for this 3 hour course.  Soja monthly members receive an automatic 10% discount.
The purpose of playing games is to have as much fun as possible and to unleash spontaneity which is the only proof we have that we are not robots.  When we get rid of fear and replace it with exhilaration, competitiveness melts away, leaving behind a joyful cooperative buzz that lasts for days. The martial arts skills we condition and test in games are the skills we trust the most.
Traditionally folks retreated to the quiet mountains to meditate and find equanimity, but martial artists were rebel tricksters who instead invented games that are sneaky down and dirty short-cuts to enlightenment. They are the quick and easy route to joyful comfort in our bodies, discarding limitation, and entering the Void via a secret door.

We will particularly work with creating positive stimulation via soft hand slapping, unbalancing, and games that condition speed with relaxation and increase spatial awareness. Come ready to play, invent and develop ways to improve martial arts games. Bring your own funny bone, you may have the opportunity to hit someone with it.

Sign-up Here at the Soja Martial Arts Website, click on Schedule and then on Adult Workshops.


Occam's Katana

this is a KatanaOccam's Katana is not the name of the book I'm working on, although it might make a good chapter title.  Occam, a rather clear thinking guy who lived in the 13th Century, is the name we give to the use of a mental razor blade used for cutting out all the unnecessary theories and mind farts that tend to get stuck to the facts.  It is often stated as, the simplest and most direct explanation is the one most likely to be true.

But of course that is not always true.  For situations where theories (or even ideologies or hysteria) have had a lot of opportunity to co-opt facts or even pound and shape them, a more hefty device might be necessary.  Thus Occam's Katana is the tool you want for these bigger jobs.  

this is reel to reel filmI once dated a French woman whose name was Super Chick.  She had a job, I kid you not, at the Museum of Modern Art as an expert on painting on film.  You know film, the stuff that goes from reel to reel in a movie theater.  Apparently some artists have thought it a good idea to paint with paint on top of pieces of film.  Not as animation mind you, but as very small paintings.  Anyway it's a thing.  With a history and stuff.  

She also had a full collection of Post Modern theory in her apartment.  At that time I had already read the major theorists and such, my father had interviewed a number of them for his radio show Social Thought, and afterward he gave me the books.  I had also read several when I studied with Angela Davis, and it was a big thing in both the anarchist and dance worlds I travelled in.  But Super Chick had more.  And she had read them in both languages.  In fact, she had the extraordinary distinction of having been a personal assistant to both Richard Rorty, the translator of many of the French Post Modern Philosophers, and the film maker John Waters!  You know, the guy you always see in Facebook images saying, "Do not have sex with people unless they have a lot of books!"  

So I borrowed a short stack, thinking I might as well take this opportunity to up my game.  She had meticulously underlined large sections of text in pencil.  The problem was, I couldn't figure out why.  When we talked about it she admitted (perhaps an influence from Richard Rorty) that none of these books actually had any intrinsic value in the realm of ideas, but that they had an aesthetic value.  That's what she was doing with the pencil, marking things that were aesthetically pleasing.  

At that time there were only a small number of Post Colonial Studies Theorists, James Clifford comes to mind, but my take on them is they are a combination of Post Modern Theory and Marxism.  Which is very funny if you think about it.

Anyway all this is to introduce a book I have not read yet, I have only read this review of it by Paul Bowmen, Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature and Postcolonial History, by Petrus Liu

No doubt, to get through this you will need to sharpen up your Occam's Katana.

Here is what I got out of it.  The idea that martial arts can be learned from a secret manual is an idea associated with a society that privileges the written word.  And a great deal of the martial arts fiction of the last 400 years has had this idea built into it.  Therefore, wait for it..., martial arts fiction was written by the literati-- the elite gentry class.  This might not seem like much of a revelation, like duh right?  Like who else would have written it?  But there is so much ideology piled up around martial arts that it actually took Occam's Razor to cut us back to the obvious truth.  

But the implication of this last paragraph knocked my socks off.  If martial arts manuals were a common element of fiction, they were of course also a common element of theater, opera and popular culture.  We also know that secret manuals that confer immortality and various magical powers or curses are a mainstay of religious literature (also written by the literati).  

The reason this is so important is that it solves a minor problem I've been dueling with.  There are a handful of martial arts manuals produced in China between 1500 and 1900.  Some of them have enlightenment or talismanic content, but they all seem to point to a pure martial arts, a subject fully formed and distinct from theater, opera or religion.  As regular readers know, my working thesis is that martial arts was inseparable from theater and religion historically.  When the history of martial arts is laid out alongside religion and theater, Occam's Razor tells us they were all interrelated and physically integrated.  But how do I deal with this very small number of seemingly pure martial arts manuals?  

The answer is so simple I had been missing it.  These manuals were produced  to feed a kind of playful fantasy that the heroic martial arts of the theater existed in real life.  If the famous General Yue Fei, as portrayed in an opera, learned his martial awesomeness from a secret manual, then wouldn't a literati studying martial arts from a live-in actor (who was also his his lover-servant) want to produce a secret manual too? In fact, wouldn't that be a better way to explain how he learned the martial arts?  A literati probably wouldn't want to admit directly that he studied martial arts with an low caste actor, but if he learned it from a manual, that would be cool.  

In that sense, the very idea of a martial art that can be learned from a manual comes from the theater.  The idea that martial arts could be learned from a book has a post modern ring to it, it is actually a form of the theatre of the absurd.

As an aside, a large number of martial arts styles are said to have been learned via watching an animal, a monkey, a crane a rooster, etc...  Wouldn't that be a great way for a literati to avoid admitting they studied with an Opera trained Animal Role specialist?  

And both explanation fit perfectly with the so called "penny books," which were mini-martial arts books that appeared on commercial presses in the mid-1800's.  If you were an actor who wanted to become a martial arts teacher having a secret manual to share or sell would have been a perfect narrative to explain the origins of your training, or rather, to cover them up.  

This also explains why laymen encyclopedias of the 1500's have references to learning martial arts, the idea of having martial arts skill transmitted through a god, a stranger, or a family member was already well developed in the theater.  If you could watch it on the stage, why couldn't you hire a private tutor?



Five Deadly Venoms

Hey, I'm going to see the Five Deadly Venoms, a great old Shaw Brothers Kungfu Movie today.

New Parkway Theater,


3 PM Saturday March 8th.

Come along, discussion and beer afterwards.



Yes, you read that correctly, I'm going to talk about strength. 

My history with strength is that as a kid I was always winning those presidential physical fitness awards because I was very active.  I could run long distances, I could do lots of pull ups, I was always the first to the top climbing the rope in gym class.  When I tried out for the football team in high school the coaches looked at me, skinny, and probably thought no way, but I out-ran, out push-upped and out sit-upped all the other try-outs so they had to let me on the team. However, I was even more arrogant then than I am now and I figured why be on a team with all these out of shape losers, so I never went to practice.  

I always had the philosophy that building muscle wasn't necessary, just do the thing and the body will give you what you need.  

In the Sea Scouts I learned a different lesson from solo rowing with an over loaded boat in strong winds and choppy waters.  Strength didn't work.  What did work was perfectly smooth technique.  I trained my rowing crew of 4, one small woman, one very small man, and another man, not so small but smaller than me.  We raced heavy wooden whale boats against teams of 6 guys all bigger than me with big muscles and we won.  They were just bending oars and messing each other up.  We were smooth and steady.  

In my 20's I was an animal.  Dance, martial arts, bicycle riding 8 hours a day.  I never tried to build muscle, I just did the thing.  And I had the energy for it.  Yes, after very intense work outs my body would hurt, but it always hurt so good!

In the realm of martial arts I did get muscles for a few years, but as I got more efficient the muscles got leaner and smoother.  Standing practice, for an hour a day, also healed my injuries.  

As the years went by my power got better, there are many ways of generating large amounts of power that do not require much muscle.  And usually people with big muscles are at a sensitivity disadvantage, they don't feel the changes until it is too late. 

But as I age the injuries keep piling up.  In June I was backpacking with my wife and she was struggling a bit so I was taking more and more of the gear.  Then we got on a route where there wasn't going to be water for two days, so I took enough water for both of us, 2 gallons.  The day was very windy and I took a bad step injuring my knee.  We had planned a lot more backpacking but my knee wasn't up to it.  And then we did a huge amount of driving and I injured my lower back.  Yikes.

Then a month went by, more driving, and nothing was healing.  So I started getting bodywork and talking to my expert friends and finally things started healing.  Then in September I was in a push hands game with someone who really did not want to lose.  After I up rooted him, I put him back on his feet and he kicked me in the knee.  Ow.  I thought: I'm so dumb.  Why did I agree to do this?  Will I ever learn?

After that I was up at this Buddhist Center in Northern California working on my book, and clearing brush.  It was often ice cold in the morning for my workouts and I ended up injuring my other knee too, which made my back hurt again.  That was the first time in my life I had both knees injured at the same time.

None of this actually stopped me from working or moving, it wasn't that bad.  But the healing was really slow.  

All of this got me to reflect on all the crazy stuff I've done.  Pushing my body into crazy pretzels.  All of my dance teachers were adamant that we should never dance on concrete, that it would kill our knees.  But I was doing martial arts outside on concrete everyday.  I learned to land softly.  I figured it was fine.  I also did Kathak, North Indian Classical Dance, which was an exception to the rule about dancing on concrete.  Kathak is done with five pounds of bells on each ankle and barefoot.  Hard smooth surfaces like polished concrete or marble simply make the best sounds.  And like clapping with your hands, you can make loud crisp sounds with your feet without hurting your them.  But sometimes, I got carried away and brused the bones of my feet.  

Anyway I did that fight group in Seattle over Thanksgiving.  I was playing a version of mercy with a guy much bigger than me.  It is a technical trick, it doesn't require strength.  But I realized the guy's hands were so strong that even if he couldn't submit me, he might break the bones in my hand.  Yikes.  And afterwards I really felt that having big relaxed muscles in a well trained body is not the same as just having big muscles.  

So I am here in the Southern Sierra of California in a cabin, still working on my book.  It occurred to me that the injuries I got caused me to significantly limit my movement, and I probably lost a lot of strength.  Strength I never thought about training because I always just had it.

So I've been doing this experiment with strength, it has pretty much healed my injuries in two weeks.  Wow.  

Here is what I did.  Normal martial arts workouts but with the intention of building muscle.  In other words, inefficient movement.  I decided to build up my thighs for instance, engaging the muscles which normally would make the stances harder to do and reduce my range of motion.  But a funny thing happened.  The muscles just got big and then got out of the way.  I realized that with big thigh muscles things like bridges and backbends are easier.  So I started building up my biceps and triceps and doing pull ups and handstand push ups and stuff like that too.  

The thing is I really know how to completely relax, so even with bigger muscles they aren't getting in the way, they are just adding protection.  In a sense I'm not using them, they are just hanging on as support.  

And here is the kicker.  All that qigong and daoyin stuff hadn't been doing much for me for quite awhile.  I long ago fully integrated it into everything I do so it was redundant.  But qigong works wonders on muscle.  I've been pulling out all my old "healing" tricks.

The assumption that tendons and ligaments can do most of the job of muscles was correct, and the efficiency and whole body connection and increased range of motion that comes with that approach are all real, and worth doing.  And there are a lot of cool tricks to be learned from using tendons and ligaments instead of muscle.  But the combination of many years of practice and age takes a toll on those soft tissues.  (I think there are significant hormone shifts that effect changes in soft tissue too, also part of aging.)

I lost my jump!  And I was a jumper, I used to do long strings of split leaps and straddle jumps in rhythm across the dance floor hitting the top of my jumps on the beat. Where did my jump go?

So we will see if I can get that back.  Live and learn.  

Feel free to offer thoughts or advice.  I think I'm a beginner again.  

Straddle Jump!


Some Thoughts for the Wood Horse Year 2014

For the wood horse year I'm planning something really big, but I'm about to go into solo retreat for a month in the Sierra Nevada first.

The workshop last weekend went really well, basically my theory is that what I've been doing with kids will work even better with adults.  Conditioning not learning.

I have a bunch of links I wanted to share, so here they are.  

The first one is kind of whatever, but I learned that the classic Bruce Lee movie Fists of Fury (remade by Jet Lee), is called Jingwu in Chinese.  Jingwu means Pure Martial, it was the name of the political martial arts movement that was essentially an exorcism of all the yin stuff in martial arts like ground fighting and magic.  

Dog style is one of the surviviors of that purge.  Check it out.  Dogs and pigs were the very lowest status animals, so it is hard to imagine someone wanting to do such a style unless it was a joke, or they themselves were super low status in the society and they were claiming a kind of reverse awesomeness.

This was how some of it came back in a flood in the 1980's, great pictures of Qigong Fever.

This is an awesome return of the pre-20th Century martial arts narrative culture, unfortunately it got removed, a commenter says that seen from the other side there is a beaver visible.  

This is a fun idea for martial artists, con-men and actors alike.

If you are signed up with you can get a copy of D.S. Farrer's $200 book Shadows of the Profit: Sufi Mysticism and the Martial Arts, for free as download.  It is about Silat, and looks very interesting.  So does the 45 minute video that goes with it!

And this is just a freaky image of the future for no particular reason.

Enjoy the ride!



Martial Games

I'm Teaching a workshop this Sunday at Soja Marital Arts in Oakland at 12 Noon

It's called Martial Games, come on down!

I'm still technically on a writing retreat but I dream about teaching and I have lots of new ideas to try out.  I have a developed a game for transforming jing into qi.


Conditioning vs. Learning

I picked up a few different types of outlining software/apps and I'm wondering if it is a good way to produce blog posts.  The theory being that many people actually want to read an idea in outline form, so they can skip to the parts of a text that most interest them.  I think some of my best blog posts have been outlines or frameworks for thinking about larger issues.

  • people get older
    • I'm 46.  There are so many old injuries.  So many ways I've changed my training and movement over the centuries to accommodate damage, love lost, birth defects, growth defects, public face-plants, and failed experiments.  Annoyingly, there are a number of movement experts I've heard lately who when asked about aging answer: "don't get old."  I think that is a lame answer.  Fun people have more rough spots than they can count.  
  • we are broken,
    • I'm a bit broken, this is the first time I've ever injured both knees at the same time. And I injured my lower back too. The healing process has been hap-hazard. I've made progress numerous times only to relapse or create a new problem. I'm an optimist, so if anytime over the last 7 months you asked me, I'd be like, "Hey, I'm healing up pretty well."  Optimism is what people turn to when reality gets in their way.  I'm conditioned to say it, and think it. Intellectually I know it is a bit flawed. But I am also quite optimistic that my current trajectory is really great. That may be part of my self-conditioning to be a teacher. You can't go out and teach today if you think it is going to make you less able to teach next week.
    • But I'm really not kidding, I am totally optimistic about the training I'm doing now. And the embarrassing part of it is that I'm doing some strength training.
    • I think I understand what muscles are supposed to do better than I ever did before. And it is making me a lot more conservative. Not in the, "limit your range" sense, but in the "what shapes should my body be able to attain" sense. Also I'm giving less value to relaxation. Here is why:
    • I think that for any type of conditioning there is a hormone cocktail that is ideal. In other words, if I can trigger the correct hormone cocktail in my body, it will condition itself. Train itself. My body knows what to do. It knows what feedback to seek, it knows what will work. Relaxation as a hormone response is superior to the other types.  That is why I'm going back to the training I had in my early 20's, because I was so unconscious of what I was doing it had to be 90% conditioning anyway.
  • we are often limited by age 7
    • I've spent a lot of time teaching more than a 1000 kids.  Some kids at age 7 (I was one of them) are not able to walk into class and do a full bottom-on-ankles squat.  Most are able to do it as easily as smoking a cigarette or talking on a cell phone.  Some can do a full monkey squat which involves partially dislocating their hip sockets in a squat so that their bottom repositions between their ankles on the floor.  Actually I could make long lists of all the cool stuff outlier 7 year olds can do.  And, I believe that if you give me 7 year olds with very little natural ability, I can still get them doing amazing things.  
  • we can overcome many limits
    • When I started dancing I had no natural flexibility or rhythm, I could however, jump high and I did have superior energy and endurance.  I learned to do the splits, on the floor, in the air, upside down, and sideways.  I also learned one handed handstands, bridges, back walkovers, and handsprings.  And with all that I still couldn't get into a full squat long enough to smoke a cigarette or make a phone call.  We are not all the same.  Because I thought doing pistols and squats were important I pushed myself to figure it out, and eventually, after years of trying, I developed the ability to do a full squat.  But honestly it never became easy.  A lot of the handbalancing stuff was really difficult for me too because I have very little flexion in my wrists.  No exercise I have ever found improved my wrist range.  It still sucks just as much as the day I started.  
  • even if we can overcome major limits, there will be a price to pay
    • I used to say the definition of qigong is whatever you do such that your work/play doesn't leave a mark on your body.  Everywhere I pushed my body to go beyond what it naturally wanted to do, there is a mark.  That's okay, we can push our bodies to do amazing and insanely fun stuff, but there is price.  
  • any solution is temporal
    • All the magical body training I have done has an expiration date on it.  If it improves something, if it fixes something, if it makes something right; it will eventually become the wrong thing to do.  
  • my knowledge, incredible as it is, is contingent on the unknowable
    • I'm speaking here about my ability to train other people.  The more I know, the more I know about what I don't know.  I have always been honest with students about the limits of my knowledge, but experience keeps showing me that the bigger subject is always going to be what I don't know.  As a teacher I want to burn all the "how to" books! 
  • Learning is over rated. 
    •  Why? Because it is conditioning that sets up what we can learn. If you are not conditioned to be curious, you must rely on love and fear to motivate learning. There is a chapter of the Daodejing that explains this.  (The best kind of teacher is like a shadowy presence....the next best uses love, then fear, and finally she just hacks at you!) For some reason unknown to me, most people stop being able to learn in adulthood. This accounts for why people try to hold on to jobs and status and other failed ideas.  It explains why the catch word of my generation is sustainability. So goes the fashion, I go the other way.
  • I'm conditioned to delight in the chaos of not-knowing.
    • I have no way on my own of knowing if my training is a good long term strategy for a given success. The beauty of learning a classical art, from an older person, who learned it from an older person, is the hope that the flawed training strategies would have been throw out at some time over the generations. But it should also be obvious that in an open society there ought to be better ways to come by "better ways to train."
  • All of this has led me to looping. 
    • I'm experimenting with the training I got as a dancer in my early 20's. It is informed, oh boy, oh boy, is it informed by the years, but it is also the same old stuff my body got good at first. There is some trust there I guess.  Or maybe I'm going backwards in hope of getting back to the very beginning before I ever started learning.  
  • In my optimism I see this new way, this spontaneous way.  I see a way to use pure inspiration.  A pathless path.  
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