Sifu Liu Changi’I will be doing a seminar on his family’s Feeding Crane system (Shi He Quan) with us on November 8&9, Saturday and Sunday. It will, as always, be a great time, with dedicated and engaged people to train with and excellent instruction from Liu sifu! There is more information on the Events page of our site, and the sign up and information sheet is here. Please contact us if you would like any more information. There are a limited number of places, so if you would like to join us please sign up early. We are looking forward to a fun, and sweaty, weekend and hope to see you there!
One of the most common places to see ego in the martial arts is in the need for teachers to “be the best” with their students. On one level it is appropriate: the teacher is supposed to be the highest level practitioner in the room. But how that plays out can be unfortunate. It is easy for a teacher to structure training so that it plays to his or her strengths, to keep the students guessing, and to substitute parceling out information for developing understanding. By, sometimes unconsciously, doing these things teachers keep the student-teacher relationship consistent. The teacher has the information and skill and parcels out what the student needs, the student learns. Again, on one level that is fine. On another it is pretty dysfunctional.
A good teacher should be assisting the student in their pursuit of both knowledge and understanding, should be moving them towards mastery. This requires understanding the subject, knowing how to teach, and a desire to see the student excel. At their base martial arts are about control and power. That often permeates the dojo. This can be healthy, as in the ideal sempai-kohai relationship where the teacher is looking out for the student’s best interest. It can also be unhealthy, in dojo where the students are taught, implicitly or explicitly, never to question the teacher, that the teacher is somehow special and they cannot be as good. This can be pernicious; students, particularly early in their training when the skill gap is huge, easily get in the mental habit of thinking of the teacher as better. By staying in this habit the student can unconsciously limit himself, keeping the teacher in the position of superior skill, of greater power.
That unconscious limitation is dangerous. If we are teaching people to develop themselves, we cannot teach them to stay under our thumbs. Particularly if you are teaching self-defense it seems criminal to inculcate any sense that one is inherently inferior to another person. That is a terrible lesson to teach, and one that can have consequences.
To break this the teacher has to let go of his or her ego. He has to work get his students to excel, hopefully to be better than he is. This can be hard on the teacher, as a student with higher skills can call into question the teacher’s validity. But a good teacher can have a student who is better than he is in some elements of the art and still maintain his standing by simply being a good teacher, a good leader, and a good person. By gaining respect. But if you need the standing the teacher’s role gives you, you probably can’t do that.
Most people want to do a good job. I am betting that if you teach you are thinking “yes, that’s me, that’s how I teach. I want my students to excel!” But is it really? Have you gotten around your own unconscious desires to keep the power relationships where they are? Are you actively undermining your students’ sense of you as an unassailable authority? I wonder how you might answer a few simple questions.
If you have been teaching more than 10 years, do you have students who are better than you at any aspects of the art? Can you name them? Do you have students who understand the principals behind the art and can therefore build from them as opposed to just follow your direction? Do you say so when you don’t know something? Do you allow your senior students to question you? To have a different perspective? Can you describe the difference between respect and status? Do you participate in exercises with your students in which you can “lose”, and do you ever? Have you ever had a student observe and critique your technique? Have you taken this criticism to heart and changed what you are doing?
If you are teaching your students well they should know what to look for, and your seniors should be able to see mistakes and other divergences from the ideals you have taught them. They should be able to see them in you as well as in each other. Unless you are perfect, of course. Then your authority should be unassailable.
Martial arts supposedly help curb the ego. Personally, I don’t often find that to be true. I find it least often true in people who teach or run a dojo. For some reason, instructing in the martial arts seems to inculcate an inability to really admit that you are not the end-all and be-all of your art, your system, or of the arts in general. Looked at objectively, of course it is very unlikely that any of us running a small dojo of like-minded people is going to be the pinnacle of our arts. Of course someone has to be, and I definitely have seen a lot of good teachers and practitioners out there, but is it likely to be you? No. And honestly, I have seen way to many people who seem to believe they are the best, all evidence to the contrary.
Right now many of you are thinking: “Well, not me, I know I’m not the best. (I’m just really good.)” Probably followed by “my teacher is better”. Fine. I would hope so. But that doesn’t count for much, in my opinion. Even if he or she isn’t, you have probably been believing that so long it is gospel anyway. But other than your teachers?
Can you name three people, besides your teachers, who are better than you? Who you know have better skills in at least some aspect of your art, than you do? Try it. If you can’t, I’d suggest you get out more. Chances are you are training with the same few people too often and not seeing what other people are doing and how they are training. That does not mean shooting off to seminars with “big name” teachers- those are usually a waste of time, with lots of people in a big room but little actual learning going on. Instead try visiting other dojo, crossing hands with other skilled people in a small setting, sharing ideas and letting yours get examined and taken apart. It means questioning your practice, pushing your assumptions, and seeing how others you respect practice. (If you don’t respect anyone else’s practice, I don’t think this post is for you.)
Training with just the few familiar faces is great. It is most of my training time, and I love it. But in a small group it is easy to get further and further down the garden path. Techniques work because attacks conform to them, assumptions about how people attack and counter get reinforced and deeply ingrained, as do patterns and responses. Essentially, stylization is a danger. So while it is nice to have your training reinforce your sense of capability, I would again suggest pushing yourself. Put it out there. Find some people you respect, and let them put a critical eye on your practice. If you are really lucky you can find a few who are better than you, and then you will have a chance to learn something. Isn’t that what curbing the ego is about?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
A Saturday morning, good hard training, and perfect weather. What more can you ask for?
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.