Sometimes Cool Things Happen in the Dojo

So in the summer our dojo can get pretty warm. It is a brown cinderblock industrial building with a black tar roof. There is no insulation and the exterior wall of the dojo gets direct sunlight from mid-afternoon on so the building just soaks up the heat. We have a window but no cross-breeze so the heat just builds even if it is cooler outside. Since we put in a couple of layers of rigid insulation and sheet rocked that wall it no longer feels like a radiator on summer evenings but often it is in the mid 90s or more in there when we start. I know for certain that on the 2 days I have canceled training it was over 110. 

For the last 5 years we have shared an AC unit with the contracting company we share the building with. It definitely helped take the edge off but on the hotter days it didn’t really make it any more than just-bearable. Our thanks to them for sharing- without it we would have not been able to train in the space on some evenings. It is under powered for the whole space and us being ducted in definitely reduced the efficiency for them, so it was more than just a gesture. But today thanks to some generously donated effort and time from Bob we now have a brand new ductless AC in the dojo. That should make some of those evenings just a little more bearable from now on.

The traditional party line is that AC is verboten in a dojo. Deal with the exterior temperature, summer or winter! Be tough! Get in touch with nature! You can’t dictate your environment, you have to deal with it! It’s hot in Okinawa, isn’t it?  Sure. It is hot in Okinawa. In August it is brutal. And sometimes they turn on fans. Some dojo even have AC. And, shh, it’s a secret, some sensei will cancel training if it is too hot. Most folks also train in the evenings when the temp goes down, in buildings designed for the climate, so they have ventilation and cool down in the evenings. So 90 and fairly humid, fine. Assuming you are reasonably healthy and pay attention to how your body feels it is a little rough but no problem. But 110, humid, and no air movement? 110 inside when it is 80 or so outside is not natural conditions. I don’t know about you but I believe that training is supposed to make you healthier. Training in conditions like that is similar to slamming your fist into a concrete wall. In the short term it proves how tough you are, but in the long term it damages to your body. That is not toughening up it is just being dumb.

I don’t really like AC. I barely ever use it at home and I much prefer a fan in the dojo if needed- the conditioned air on my skin or a wet gi doesn’t feel that great. But I like the symptoms of hyperthermia even less. It can simply be too hot to train safely, and I would rather control the climate in the dojo than not train, so given our conditions this is a pretty cool thing!

Even cooler is the contribution Bob has made to the dojo. He didn’t have to spend his time doing it. Sure he benefits, but it is really a gift to the group as a whole. It is one of things I love about our dojo. Every time I enter the space I see the work the community has put in- gifts from teachers and friends, David helping make the space possible, Corey, Tania, Mike P, Per, David, Mike L, Jill, Mike Ph, Jay, Jim, Keith, MaryPat, and everyone else I have not named laying the floor, plastering, cleaning, painting, hanging drywall, setting the makiwara, etc., etc. And now Bob putting in the AC. The space shows the care that everyone who trains with us has for it. Much as our actual martial arts are, the dojo is a clear demonstration of effort and dedication. I like being reminded that our space is not a gift, and not something we just buy, but that it has required the shared work of our whole dojo community. Thanks for the latest contribution Bob, that is pretty cool.

Back wall of dojo going in

Back wall of dojo going in

Back wall of the dojo later on

Back wall of the dojo later on

A complete system?

So you train in a martial arts system. Ok. But what does that mean? Miriam-Webster defines a system as “a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole”. That definition works pretty well for me. I think defining the concept of system in regards to a martial art is important, as there is a large difference between a system and a collection of techniques. A system implies a larger context- a tool that can be used to solve a variety of problems and a method for using that tool. Calling a martial art a system to me says a number of specific and important things.

First of all it says that there are rules to follow, for both training and application. In Goju concepts like “rise, sink, spit, swallow”, angular movement against incoming linear attacks, keeping the elbows in, all  both constrain and generate movement and application. These rules should be applicable to all elements of the system, they should be simple enough to learn quickly, and they should be easy to communicate. Then one needs to work on a deeper understanding of the system to see how these rules play out in different situations, how they generate answers to problems.

Second, it says there should be a reason for each part of the system, and you should be able to relate that piece to the larger whole. For example in Goju Ryu we have a variety of supplementary exercises, like work with the chishi or tetsu geta. These certainly improve fitness, but that is not their point. Instead, they develop specific muscle groups and connections (as well as breathing, etc.) that support the techniques of the system. If you cannot relate the exercises back to fairly specific elements of the system’s application, it is probably a good bet you don’t really understand their purpose very well.

This is consistent for all elements of the system. The stances support the tactical choices. The power generation supports the techniques used. The techniques support the strategy imbedded in the system and its kata. These are all interrelated- each part supports others, and practiced properly they create a unified whole.

So, thirdly, it says that since the parts are not stand alone items to understand them you need to have some understanding of how they fit into the whole. Using Goju Ryu again we have a practice called kakie, a form of push hands. I often see it done very hard, almost as strength training. When I see It done that way I know that the teacher does not really understand it. Kakie is an interactive practice. It develops sensitivity to your opponent and control of their center, among other things. The system has other methods of strength building. But without an understanding of the whole it is easy to apply inappropriate emphasis to the components. It is like using a chisel as a screwdriver. It works but it is not the right way to use the chisel and can leave the chisel unusable for its proper job.

Fourthly it says that details matter. Small details can make a large difference, but they must be understood to be trained properly. Various Okinawan systems use a neko-ashi dachi, often called a “cat stance”. In it the weight is primarily on the back leg, the butt is stuck out a bit, the shoulders are over the hips, and the front heel is raised slightly. But if the shape is all you understand it is easy to emphasize appearance over content. I often see the front heel lifted sharply or the toes pointed. While that may look nice it creates tension in the calf and possibly around the knee and hip joints that changes the weight distribution and slows down the leg for both kicking and moving. This contradicts the reasons for using the stance. You need to understand why things are being done to train them without devolving into stylization over function. The details are in the function, not the appearance.

Higa Seiko

Higa Seiko




Therefore, and fifthly, it means you have to be very careful about adding, removing, or changing the parts since the influence of changes on the gestalt of the system is often hard to see. For example in the Shoreikan lineage of Goju Ryu there are 10 toitsu fukyu (standardization and dissemination, often called “training”) kata, like gekisai, gekiha, etc..  Most have accompanying paired sets which generally position opponents directly in front of each other. Toguchi sensei said that he added them to make learning Goju easier (among other things) and because Miyagi sensei had said that was how he wanted the system to develop. But because of how they move they train people to stay directly in front of their attacker. This is contrary to the basic tactics of Goju, making many parts of the system ineffective and therefore, in my opinion, denatures the system. Good intentions can have unexpected consequences.

Finally, a system has boundaries, parameters. These systems were designed by people, not gods, and are finite. I think that is a good thing. Too many options is more likely to lead to a freeze than a good solution. In our kobudo I joke with my students that we really only have 5 or so techniques. That is because the same mechanics and concepts are used over and over again. It creates in some ways infinite variation, but in a very simple fashion. For example we use the same mechanic for a naname uchi with a bo, with sai, or with any other weapon. This can be hard to see, as the shifts demanded by the different tools can easily mask the commonality of the mechanics if you don’t have a good overview of them. But they are not hundreds of different techniques, they are just a few adapted to different circumstances. When I see different weapons or techniques taught in a format that requires memorization of dozens or hundreds of separate items I see that either the teacher does not understand the system or there is no system, just a collection of techniques masking as one.

This last can really trip people up. Martial arts are full of assumptions, and of fantasy. Many people have an image of what a system holds. A “complete system” is sometimes defined as containing striking, grappling, groundwork, and (sometimes) weapons. I find that an interesting definition, as it gives a list of components but does not address system as a concept. Indeed, not all systems will conform to what people wish for. For example I once helped teach a class at the Kaosiung Police training center with Liu sifu. Afterwards he got a variety of questions. One was about how to use Feeding Crane to safely subdue or control a subject, something very pertinent to the police officers present. Sifu’s answer was enlightening: “Someone asks me this every time I come here. I don’t know. Feeding Crane does not have subdual or control techniques, we practice quickly causing a lot of damage to the enemy. I can’t teach you how to just control with Feeding Crane.”  Since it is a bad idea for police officers to severely injure, blind, or kill someone they are arresting, the answer was not that satisfying for some of the people present. But that does not mean that Feeding Crane is not a complete system, it means that that system’s boundaries didn’t contain what the questioner wanted. That is not a fault of the system. Our bodies do not have gills. Personally, I find this frustrating, as I would really love to be able to dive without SCUBA gear. But that is not what this system contains, so I’m stuck with it.


So the definition of system in the martial arts is very important. It is not something that includes what a given person thinks they need. It is not a list of components at all. It is the concept behind the practice, whether or not the practice is a unified collection of training and application methodologies that, working together, generate a simple and consistent way to solve the problems it was developed to solve. This is very different from a collection of techniques. A collection of techniques implies that you have to collect specific solutions: if a person attacks this way, do this then this. A system means that the body and mind are being trained to generate solutions on the spot, instead of needing to have one pre-made.

My experience of classical martial arts systems (Goju, Feeding Crane, Jigen Ryu, among others) tells me that they are strict In their details for reasons beginners often cannot see. The gestalt of the system takes a while to open itself up to a serious practitioner and changes to that gestalt can prevent the system from working well. A poor student, a poor teacher, or, and they certainly do exist, a poor system, and a good result may never come. But if the student works hard, the teacher has the background to convey, and the system is good, they create possibilities that a collection of techniques, no matter how interesting, never can.

Crane Drinks From Empty Cup

It is definitely a season for seeing teachers and friends! Over the last few months I have been in Japan and Okinawa, had a good visit from Kimo sensei, and most recently have hosted Liu Chang’I sifu. It’s been busy, but great fun! Sifu came for a short visit this time, but it is always good to see him. When he comes he stays with me, we train and talk about his art, eat too much duck, and have a weekend seminar. I met him in 1996 when he was visiting the US for the first time with Kimo Wall sensei. It was a good meeting and he taught a few of us some of the basic power development exercises from the system. We practiced them but it was over 10 years before we saw him again. He asked about the “thunder power” and where we had gotten with the ji bei gong he had shown us and was surprised to hear we had not got much result from them. Then he took a closer look and said simply: “oh, yes. You are doing them wrong. You will never get thunder power that way.” That started was has become a more in-depth practice of the art in the years since. I have hosted him here every year and have visited him in Taiwan to train. His visits are always fun, and the seminar we do here in Boston is a great time- we have interested and dedicated practitioners from a variety of arts that come together to train and touch hands. Hard training and good spirit!

The seminars are great, and a good opportunity to get a “taste” of the system. But when we do have them it also makes me think about how hard it can be to learn much in a couple of days. We train hard, and sifu is very open with his instruction and advice. You can certainly come away with something to practice. But I can’t help but get reminded of 10 years spent sort of doing the exercises and getting little result. Things like the ji bei gong from the Feeding Crane can seem very simple. They are not very complex movements. Most are done in a standing position, in one of three stances, and some use a single turn or a simple triangle step. But do them improperly and you get little out of them. You can even hurt yourself doing them if you do them wrong. Most importantly, you must practice them using the framework they were developed in. One of the biggest mistakes I was making when I first did them was applying Goju “rules”. For example in a number of the Feeding Crane movements the elbow joint is fully extended, 100%. That allows the arm to transmit energy in a way that it cannot if even slightly bent. In Goju we rarely if ever lock out that joint- it is considered bad mechanics and bad tactics. Neither is correct, both are right in the appropriate context. But apply one rule to the other system and you get a poor result.

Sifu checking ma bu

Sifu checking ma bu

Much martial arts training is that way. It can seem simple, but proper instruction is required. Many of the important details are difficult or impossible to see if you are not told what to look for, and observation and correction from someone who understands both how to do and how to teach is essential. This is particularly true if you have experience in a different art- many of your “rules” will have become habit, and you may not even know you are following them. In my case, a few simple corrections and by his next visit some “thunder” was emerging. But to get there I needed both the corrections and the hard work that followed them. I needed to empty my cup and engage with a new system; if I had decided what I already knew was right and that I should not lock out the elbow, for example, I would still be getting poor results. So I had to admit that what I already knew may not have all the answers. In the process I’ve also learned a new appreciation for the “rules” of Goju, how they affect mechanical and tactical choices, and that I need to empty my cup there too. Win-win, really.

Seeing and training with sifu reminds me of that. It has also just been good to see one of my teachers again. Liu sifu is very personable, cares a great deal about both his system and his friends, and has a lovely family. I like spending time with him. That is important to me on a very fundamental level. His art is impressive. I have been around the martial arts a while now, and I have yet to see anyone else who is capable of delivering his power at such close range with such rapid succession. His methods work and I always learn something from him. But honestly if he was not a good person I would not be training with him. I have a full life, and no space in it for jerks. Unfortunately you see a fair number of those in the arts, but Liu sifu is not one of them. He is a great guy.

He is also very open with his knowledge, and wants to share it with anyone who is interested. That is something I have tried to keep part of our crane practice here. Members of our dojo and  Anthony Mirakian sensei’s Meibukan dojo get together every two weeks to train. Our versions of Goju are slightly different, but the spirit is the same. Mirakian sensei’s students have an excellent teacher, and it is great fun to train with them; they have a strong base, work hard, and have a really good attitude. Good people, and I am lucky to have been able to train with them the last few years. It is a rare opportunity to make some martial arts friends, and to touch hands with other people, and I look forward to it every time. In fact, over the years Mirakian sensei has been very generous to us. He has allowed me to teach his students in his dojo, which is very good of him. He has had us use his dojo both for our bi-monthly training sessions and for hosting the seminars and the closed training our two groups do when sifu is here. He has also hosted some very nice dinners for people participating in the annual seminars, and they have been great evenings. It is clear to me that he sees the value in sifu’s art, and in all of us coming together to practice it. I do too- it is such a good feeling to see people working together to share, sweat, and train!

Basic application

Basic application principals

Sifu is now on his way back to Taiwan. We’ll see him again in the fall. In the meantime we’ll keep training together, and I may teach some Feeding Crane to a few groups that have shown interest, among them students at George Mattson sensei’s annual Summerfest. Hopefully we’ll see some of these folks come together for sifu’s next visit. Meanwhile the training is hard and continues to require me emptying my cup. But it is worth it. It is a fascinating system- among other things it has a clear teaching methodology for power and other attribute development and a vicious take on application that I appreciate. (To quote sifu: “we are Feeding Crane, we eat our opponents as our dinner”.) I also appreciate the friends that I have made through the practice and look forward to seeing them, and Liu sifu, again soon.

Park Training

A Saturday morning, good hard training, and perfect weather. What more can you ask for?

Fred & Corey in the park, about 2009

Fred & Corey in the park, summer of 2009

If you don’t train outside periodically, I would suggest you do. The dojo is good, but nothing beats training outside on a beautiful day.

Who Are Your Teachers?

A long-time student and friend is leaving the dojo this month. We’ve been training together for about 12 years and he and his wife are moving back to Sweden. He has been consistent, he trains hard, and he is one of the people I regularly see at the dojo working out before class. He has recently earned a well-deserved ni-dan, and continues to push himself and grow. I always look forward to his carefully thought out questions about training, and to the interesting conversations we have about history and politics. It has been a pleasure getting to know him, and he will be greatly missed.

I’ve been his teacher for a long time, and his leaving has me thinking about the role of a teacher, and who one’s teachers actually are. When I talk about my teachers I mention people like Kimo sensei, Sakai sensei, Gakiya sensei, and Liu sifu. But there is another group that often gets left out of lists like this. Most of my learning has been with the help of students who trained alongside me and, in more recent years, with the help of my own students. They are the people that I have worked out questions and problems with. The people I have done thousands of reps with, and whose questions have driven me to examine my practice, correct my mistakes, and keep learning. In a very real sense people like Corey, Mike, David, Shinji, Michael, Nagata, and of course Per have been the most important teachers I have had.

Per at Yoi

Per at Yoi

It is sometimes hard to quantify just what different people teach you. Per rarely misses training. When he does, it is usually because he has been doing a project at home and has either had  a minor injury or is completely worn out. Both his stories and the matter-of-fact way he delivers them have become part of our dojo lore. Some of my favorites include: “I shoveled an entire truck load of gravel into my basement through a window yesterday and my back is a little sore;” “I was replacing a beam in my basement and a steel plate fell on my head. I think I need stitches.” and most recently “I had oral surgery this afternoon. I wasn’t going to tell you because I figured I would be able to come anyway, but the anesthetic has me feeling off.”  I think it honestly does not occur to him that any of these are a reason to miss training until he gets up to go and realizes perhaps he needs to recover a bit more.

Training is holistic. It is partly about learning new material- mechanics, tactics, etc., but it is also about integrating what you bring to the table. One thing Per brings is that attitude. I  remember looking down a line of people doing body conditioning, contorted faces flinching at the pain of impact. Per was down the other end, a rather serene look on his face as his partner’s shin met his right thigh. His left was off limits due to a knee injury so he had his partner double up on the right. When we finished that drill he said “Are we done? OK. What’s next?” It never occurred to him not to come to training due to the injury, he just worked around it.

Per and Corey

Per and Corey

That attitude is something that is hard to cultivate. While we try to inculcate it in the dojo, it is also something Per brought with him. When he used to travel for work he would bring a step in his luggage so he could work out in his hotel room. That is the same thing: circumstances do not dictate what you can and cannot do, you do. Aside from details of technique and application, and from questions that have made me re-think what I thought I knew, this attitude is something that I have hopefully learned from him. It shows me he understands one of the core attributes of our practice.

I really hope I have an opportunity to introduce him to some of my friends and teachers in Okinawa someday. I think they would recognize kindred spirits in each other. Gibo Seki, for example, is 76 this year and trains every day. One afternoon in his dojo he removed his gi and his back was covered with analgesic patches- he had been helping install a floor the day before and his back was really sore. No reason to miss training though. Per started training with us when he was 62 and just turned 75. In our culture it is somewhat unusual for a person in their 70s to regularly do vigorous and hard contact training with people 30 years (or more) younger. Not so in Okinawa- most dojo are intergenerational spaces, and for good reason: the older teachers and students have a lot to teach the juniors, both in the art itself and in a more experienced approach to the process of training.

Gibo Seki sensei

Gibo Seki sensei

For Per, his age is just a circumstance and he trains without worrying about it. For me, it has been a benefit because, much like my teachers in Okinawa in their 70s and 80s, he is an example of what dedication and perseverance can accomplish. His hard and consistent training is something to aspire to, regardless of age. The disciplined and can-do way he approaches training is something else to aspire to. He trains hard, no caveats involved, and has no problem out-conditioning people 30 years his junior. He has also carefully adjusted his training over the years, keeping up the hard work but making sure he stayed healthy doing it. The lesson is simple- if you let circumstances dictate when and how you train, eventually you won’t be able to train at all. If you don’t there is no reason you have to stop. I plan to be doing this for the rest of my life, and he is one of the people who is teaching me how to do just that.

So we will miss him. The stories of why he might miss training. The can do attitude. The constant presence in the dojo, and the hard work he is always willing to do. It has been great training with him, and an honor being his teacher. He is part of our community and it will change without him. I know we’ll see him when he is back in the area and he will always be a member of the dojo. But it would be nice if he could still be here every day.

As I get a little older, and my training partners and students age along with me, it is easy to fall into the trap of “well, I’m not in my 20s anymore”. Sure, I’m not, and I would be foolish to try to train the same way I did then if I want to be able to train in another 20 years. But the next time I’m looking down a line of people in their 30s and 40s (or a little older) and someone notes that x was easier when we were 22, I won’t have Per sensei looking back, without saying anything, wondering when we youngsters were going to stop whinging and just get on with it.

Feeding Crane Seminar, June 2014

Hello Everyone,

Sifu Liu will be here next week! He asked me to say hello to everyone, and that he is looking forward to another visit to Boston, and to training and seeing everyone. We are looking forward to a fun seminar- good training and a group of good people to share it with. There is still space available if you would like to join us for the weekend, or just one day, so please get in touch if you do. As always, it promises to be an interesting, enjoyable, and sweaty weekend!




More Old Friends

So it seems like this is a time for seeing old friends and teachers. I started training Goju Ryu and Matayoshi lineage kobudo early in 1986. I was a new student at UMass Amherst, and Kimo Wall sensei was teaching there. To be honest, I chose my first karate class based on schedule. I knew nothing about karate, except what I had seen in the movies, and I thought it would be cool to learn. There were other karate classes at UMass; knowing what I know now about the quality of that instruction I believe that if I had taken one of those classes I wouldn’t have continued. Instead, I happened into Kimo sensei’s class, and started on a path I still travel. I trained under him, in that class and then in daily club practices, until he moved in 1989. Now I see Kimo sensei just about every year. It is always good to see him, and I always learn something.

The dojo here will be 25 years old next year, and we have had a lot of people through it in that time. Some were originally students from UMass. Priorities change and not everyone keeps training, but one of the best parts of sensei’s visits is the old friends that come out to see him. These are people I sweat (and occasionally bled) with. We shared a part of our lives and it is always good to see them. Of course a large part of sensei’s visit is training time, but equally important is seeing these old friends. It is something of a theme in my posts lately, but I believe the relationships we develop around our training are at least as important as the training itself.

With Kimo sensei, May 2014

With Kimo sensei, May 2014

Why? On a practical level, training takes close personal interaction. If you don’t have long, strong relationships in the dojo, it is hard for me to see how you can possibly have learned much from your teacher. To get through the foundational movements and into the meat of practice takes time. The practice can be dangerous, so it also takes trust. When I see people who have switched teachers every few years, or who have a lot of seminar instruction in their “resume”, I have to wonder: do they really know much? Because they probably have not had the opportunity to learn.

Some people feel Kuden, or oral teachings, are secrets. Nonsense. They are what I call proper instruction. Of course your kuden are oral- your teacher tells them to you. Of course they only get revealed at certain points- a good teacher gives students information that will help at the right time. And of course they don’t get shared with everyone. Passing on the details of one’s art is a personal thing. If I know you, see you share a passion, have discipline and dedication, and I respect you, I will give you everything I can. But if I don’t know you why should I share what has taken me decades of time, effort, and treasure to learn? For money? I don’t think so. Kuden are personal training tips, details that make the waza work, context. They are passed down or learned through hard work. Who is going to share them with someone they don’t know?

That does not mean that you and your sensei need to be best buddies. But it does mean you get to know each other. Kimo sensei and I have known each other since I was 18 (and he was younger than I am now). We share a fair bit of history. Do we always see eye to eye? Probably not. But we respect each other. A lot of the “kuden” he has shared with me have not been in the dojo. They have been over chicken and rice in San Juan, or in his living room in Yokota, or after breakfast in my kitchen. Places we would not have been if I had started studying with him last year, or we had just met at a seminar.

So for training purposes, these relationships are important. But that is only the beginning, in my opinion. Who besides family have you kept in your life for 20 or 30 years? One of the things that I find invaluable about training is that when you find people to share the passion of our practice with you may also find friends, the kind of friends you will still be sharing your life with decades from now. These relationships are rare.

Kimo sensei spent about a week here, and he is off traveling around the US again. It is always great to see him. He was my first teacher, and I have him to thank for my introduction to the arts. When he is here we share old stories and see old friends. We train, and I get some insight on the dojo here and our practice. But most importantly we get to renew these relationships, take time together and with other friends from the dojo. Seeing him reminds me to be glad I have people like my dojo mates in my life, and to look forward to the next 30 years. And I’ll also look forward to seeing Kimo sensei the next time he’s in town.