Every Day Is

Right now it can feel like every day is the same. Working primarily from home. Not seeing friends, not going out, not traveling, just the same 4 walls. Training can also feel the same. Keeping distance and training outside has meant for a real change in our practice, with a focus mostly on kata. That is great, I love kata, but it is a very small slice of the pie.

And yet, as happens so often to me, training has become the vehicle for another important perspective check. Sure, the days can feel like the same day over and over, Covid Groundhog day ad-nauseam. But training has forced me to notice something else.

Every day is different.

As we’ve been pushed outside we’ve been pushed to interact with the world differently. We have always done our Saturday mornings outside for much of the year. But now even on days, and nights, when the weather is inclement we are in the park. So I’ve trained through moonrise, rain, sleet, rainbows, snow, frigid temperatures, brilliant sun, mud, large dogs running at us, pitch darkness. It has been lovely, and challenging. We feel the weather, feel the seasons change. One evening heavy clouds hung low over the area and I expected it to be really dark, as we train after sunset right now. But the cloud cover dispersed the moonlight, and caught and reflected the ambient light from the towns around. While the week before, on a clear cloudless night, it had been hard to see each other 10 feet away, this evening I could see a squirrel at the far end of the park. I suddenly remembered playing hide and seek with the neighborhood kids over 40 years ago and saying “its cloudy, its going to be harder to hide!”. I had no recollection I once knew that, but yeah.

In our “regular” lives it is easy to miss it. Much as we keep our bodies insulated from changes in the weather, the seasons, we can easily feel we are able to keep other things stable, that some things are constant and won’t really change much. But being pushed out into the world reminds you that regardless of how you are feeling inside the world around you is changing every day. And so are you. Every time we come down to train it is different. The weather, the light, the feelings and thoughts we bring with us. Right now it’s particularly easy to feel you are stuck on repeat, but we are not. And letting yourself fall into that feeling is letting all the good things happening now be wasted. The time to be wasted, never to return.

And there are good things happening. Not just silver lining Covid good, but actual benefits. In training, not being able to do certain things has reinforced how important they are, and made me think about the appropriate place of kata in our practice. Having to focus on a smaller amount of material has given me more time to just train, or just teach, without also managing a hovering set of goals and material that can feel overwhelming. Being reminded that picking that stuff up and putting it down is up to me is a huge benefit.

On top of that, with fewer elements of our practice in the mix I have had to change my teaching substantially. This has been a fantastic lesson. I’ve never taught 8-10 kata to anyone in less than a year before. But literally everyone training is running with it. It is fun, and fantastic to see. It will leave these folks with a larger body of material to draw from when we can return to our regular focus on paired practice. It will also help me continue to stretch people, to hopefully be a better teacher and training partner.

Keeping every day different is one reason we have covered so much material. Creative disruption, perhaps. While our training is subject based, as always the goal is skills not content. My challenge has been to decide what essential skills we can focus on with so much fundamental material out of bounds. One down side to having what seems to be a steady dojo experience is that it feels like things are always available, eventually. But they are not. You or your teacher can move, have a health issue, or simply get old. Life can get in the way. Sometimes scarcity is a blessing. It adds emotional weight to things, a need to learn them now or lose the chance. So I decided to keep stuff flowing, perhaps a little too fast. Keep people working to keep up. Develop the “waza wo nusumu” mindset, in part by keeping learning opportunities limited, putting the onus on students to get it before we are on to something else. Fostering skills in observation, mirroring, taking and holding information. Doing so without getting bogged down in some details we cannot address at the moment and instead pushing everyone to apply what they already know to each new thing, and hopefully see the way they are woven together. Like fighting- dealing with confusion, and not enough time.

The goal, as always, is to have the dojo be stronger, more knowledgeable, more skilled. If we use this time as a place holder, that won’t happen. You can’t pause. But so much is out of bounds it is easy to feel we are stuck on repeat and just waiting to be able to do more. That feeling is a lie. Our minds, with that sense that we can keep things stable, are tricking us; if we just wait entropy takes over and we lose skill, knowledge, and time, and we may never get it back.

Having to deal with the pandemic is making me reassess how to teach and how to interact with our traditions. It is making me look at priorities, and in the dojo it turns out they are pretty simple. Train and keep learning myself. Share what I know with people who want it, and in turn learn from them. Make sure everything we do supports our goals and if it doesn’t, discard it. There is no time for it. If there are things I am “waiting” to share, or do, stop waiting. And I want to be sure training is supporting those goals now. It must be bringing people, and myself, up faster, better, and with a personal hold on what we do right now.

As the seasons change, I can feel those changes in my body, my training, daily. It is a wonderful reminder. As we do mokuso at the end of each training I find myself listening to the stream, feeling the wind, figuring out if I have to move my feet off the uneven slippery lump of snow I am standing on so I won’t fall over (and so I can let my body relax, feel my structure, and in turn find and release areas of tension in my frame). Internal, external, they interact. And even the “inclement” days, like last week’s wet half frozen sticky snow that required the slowest ugliest turns I have ever done so I wouldn’t torque my knees or ankles, are beautiful.

We are all changing, and one point of our practice is to make sure that change is what we want it to be. Don’t get trapped by that sense that we can wait, or that things are going to stay stable. They aren’t, and even if you don’t see the changes till later they are still going to happen. Embrace it. Feel the seasons, and the discomfort, and the beauty. It may be a little hard to feel it right now, but every day is indeed different. The question is, I guess, can we see those differences, can we be part of them as they happen, and if we can what will they bring?


We’ve had a couple of wonderful training sessions here lately. We are gathering outside, keeping distance, and therefore working mostly on kata right now. I’m used to training outside. We do our Saturday morning kobudo sessions outside for as much of the year as possible. I am used to seeing the seasons change through the window of our morning training: the sun shifting, temperature, humidity, the color of the sky and the feeling of the ground varying as the months go by. But these evenings have been beautiful. A couple of weeks ago we started in the rain, expecting it to turn into a downpour or a thunderstorm, but instead ending with a rainbow and some amazing peach and purple clouds. And tonight we started with a clear blue late summer New England sky and ended with the moon up over the trees and the stars just starting to peek out. A lovely way to share some sweat with the dojo.

These days it feels like a lot is, for now anyway, taken away. I miss contact. I miss our dojo space. I miss the schedule we were keeping. But there has been a lot of good that has come out of the last few months for our dojo, and tonight, as the moon rose and we finished up I was reminded of a poem by Ryokan.


Left behind by the thief

The moon

In my window


Crane Stance, No Can Defend

Hakutsuru, the secret crane kata. Hidden knowledge, supposedly reserved for the highest level students of the Okinawan arts. Rare, deep, powerful. And yet, for all its vaunted rarity there is a plethora of “crane” in Okinawa. Seems every dojo or group has their “secret” crane form. I’ve seen dozens. Really. The forms have names like hakutsuru, kakuho, kakufa, hakkaku, paiho, hakucho, and so on, all essentially meaning “white crane” or “crane method”. Many seem to lead back to Gokenki, most likely a Ming He (Singing or Calling Crane) practitioner. (I recently wrote a little about him here.) Others are of less clear provenance. But really, it doesn’t matter. Why not? Because there is no crane taught in Okinawa. Yes, there are “crane” forms in Okinawa, but none are any different in how they are performed than the rest of the systems they are part of and none of those systems are crane.

Seems like a pretty strong position, given the status the “white crane” seems to hold in the Okinawan traditions. Especially in those systems like Goju or Uechi that claim a direct lineal connection to crane systems this connection takes on a power that is disproportionate to its historical weight;  having a connection to “Chinese” roots can be a powerful piece of both social capital and historical validity in Okinawa. But there it is. Really. Regardless of the stories told, there is no crane taught in Okinawan karate. Perhaps I should explain why this is true. The answer is pretty simple. Energy and power.

Fujian’s White Crane systems use particular types of power generation and specific body energies. That sound esoteric but it isn’t, it just means they train one to move and hit in certain ways. Two of the most common of these are whipping and shaking. They are not present in Okinawan karate. Both of these in general require elements of movement that break fundamental karate rules. To whip you have to move your arms in curves, not lines, extend 100%, no holding back that little bit at the elbow, and drop all power at impact, so no kime. To shake you often have to lift your elbows instead of protecting your ribs, again use 100% extension, and you cannot chamber or “lock in” with kime. There are plenty of other mechanical reasons, those are just examples. There are also technical and strategic examples, as well as postural and movement examples, as well as training method examples, but this is enough for now.  There are similar terms used- some Shorin schools “whip”, for example- but it is not whipping in the Crane sense.


Crane Stance, No Can Defend

The point is (with the possible exception of Matayoshi Shinpo, a discussion for a different post) I have yet to see an Okinawan crane form being done with crane energy. Without the energy it is simply not crane. I think one real issue here is a basic misunderstanding of the place of kata, form. The reason the Okinawan crane forms are called crane is because they conform to certain ideas about what crane is. They look “crane like” with the open “wings” posture and finger tip and wrist techniques. Perhaps they are done “softer”, and usually contain one-legged “crane stances”. But the issue, at least from a crane practitioner’s perspective, is that these things have little to nothing to do with crane. Crane is about the power generation and strategy. The techniques in the forms are based on that, the crane is not based in the techniques. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it matters how it is done.

So no crane. Okinawan karate with crane names, but not crane. To be clear, this isn’t bad. That would be like saying a Ferrari is bad compared to a Lamborghini. Both are pretty nice cars. They are just not the same car. Using Ferrari parts to repair your Lamborghini would not work well. Using karate energy to do crane technique works equally well. And vice versa. Thinking about The Secrets In Kata in this light, I think most of the “crane” forms in Okinawa are rather disappointing, at least if you are expecting special secret knowledge that will make you a more powerful martial artist. They don’t hold anything more than the karate systems they are a part of. They don’t really seem to add much. Except some cool factor, I guess. (Never underestimate cool factor…)

Of course that doesn’t take away from these systems! I love my Goju. It is a powerful and effective art. To return to the car analogy, I would be pretty happy driving a Lamborghini, and someone else driving a Ferrari doesn’t take away from how nice my car is, it just tells me there are other nice cars on the road. Okinawan karate has its own fundamentals, methods of power generation and movement, things that make it unique (in all its variation). Crane isn’t karate either! One is not better. But unfortunately that is part of the secret “crane”, the idea that it is somehow better. (An ancient Chinese secret.) Turns out this is an idea that is hard to defend, particularly when that crane is the same karate in a slightly different shape.



This is a saying from Ming He, Singing Crane. It roughly translates as: if it doesn’t shake/whip, it’s not Crane. It refers to the way Singing Crane (and, in my experience, Feeding Crane, albeit slightly differently) generates power, through variations on a shaking or whipping energy that is both highly distinctive and quite effective. The saying means that regardless of any other elements of practice, if you are not using this shaking/whipping you are not doing crane.

Some Thoughts on Tensho

I did some experimenting with Tensho quite a while back and came away with a look at the kata that I thought might be interesting here. Concepts of structure, pedagogy, and encoding are interesting to me, as is the process by which some people move more deeply into the art and others stay in what seems like the same place for decades. Some of the structural and pedagogical ideas I see in Tensho provide at least one version of what a path onward might look like.

Tensho is, perhaps, the most mythologized kata in the Goju Ryu syllabus. Stories of its creation abound: Miyagi sensei created it from a now-lost Chinese form called Rokkishu; he created it from the deepest secretes of the White Crane system; it is the “soft” accompaniment to the harder Sanchin; he created it from the Rokkishu in the Bubishi; he learned secrets in China when he traveled there that inspired it. These are all good stories, and they play into the myths of our art perfectly- secret knowledge, information from China, the past holding deeper knowledge than the present. But to me, while these stories are great Tensho is actually the perfect vehicle for both embracing and deconstructing the myths of our art.

While all these stories are fuzzy at best, we actually know more about Tensho than many of our kata: we know Miyagi sensei created it in the early 1920’s. While for many the “secret knowledge” that supposedly went into it is the core of its meaning, I see something else. I don’t see secrets and stories, I see a deep understanding of structure and systematized content. A closer examination of the kata, plus some slightly more detailed background, to me explain a lot of the mysteries this kata supposedly holds.

The structure of Tensho is simple. If you look carefully, break it down, it is simpler still. Why did Miyagi sensei relate it to Sanchin? Because it, like our art, begins and ends with Sanchin: the first 3 punches most versions start with and the ending moriote nukite and mawashi uke in sanchin dachi are right from Sanchin. But the rest certainly holds some secrets? Perhaps, but if you look closely you see something else. The mawashi uke that is central to many of our forms is, in Tensho, simply broken down. Take a moment and look at it, do it. Each hand does the mawashi uke in its parts- first kake uke, then soto uke, then the upper palm strike. Then the outside sweep and lower palm strike. Just a mawashi uke but done in pieces, all one handed on one side. Simple. But what about the next movements? Well, in the To’on Ryu lineage there is a stand-alone sequence of techniques called, tada!, Rokkishu. It was passed down by Higashionna to Kyoda, and it would be surprising indeed if Miyagi had not learned it from their teacher. It is identical to the next 4 movements- koken up, shuto down, koken out, palm in. (It was also popular with other Okinawan martial artists- Uechi Kanei included it in Kanchin for example.) So simple again. Then the kata finishes with a complete mawashi uke to tie together the ones that were deconstructed, reinforcing the lesson.

Simple. But also genius- it does everything Miyagi sensei talked about; compliments sanchin, opens the body in a different, softer if you want, way, and reinforces the core of the system. It also incorporates “secret” Chinese knowledge- the Rokkishu his teacher passed down. So all the various stories are true, if you look at them a certain way. (The similarity of the movements to those in many Fujianese arts is also no surprise, at least if there is any truth to the stories of a Fujianese connection at all. They are common movements in so many styles trying to find an “origin” of them is a fool’s errand.)

But while these stories are good, to me the presentation of organized knowledge seems more powerful, more complete. It shows a deep and thorough mastery of the material, and a structured approach to examining it and passing it on. It takes what can become a mysterious practice and turns it into a work of art, and into something we can use, both as a kata and as a concept, to grow our own practice.

Making Contact

So, interesting times. Training through them is, well, different. The last session I had in the dojo was over 5 weeks ago. On a usual week, I am there 3-4 times. Sometimes less, occasionally more. The last 5 weeks? Not at all. And not surprisingly, I miss it. I miss the camaraderie, I miss the shared effort, I miss the physical contact. These things have been part of my life for so long having them suddenly removed is both startling and frustrating.

Now, before people get too worked up, of course this doesn’t mean I have not been training. It also doesn’t mean training requires a “dojo”. Or that training outside the dojo or outside regularly scheduled classes, or alone for that matter, isn’t essential. It is, and it is. Training doesn’t require anything, really, but desire, discipline, and effort. But, well, that is not entirely true. At least not if you are training a martial martial art. That requires other people.

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Martial artists are, in my experience, a voluble bunch. While one ideal the community holds up is a stoic, self contained solo training machine, the reality is different. This is not a community that doesn’t care what other people think, or do! We talk about our art endlessly. Blog about it (see what I did there?). Attend class, go to seminars, write and read books. We pay attention to the most minute social details. Who trained with whom for how long, who changed teachers and why,  where person x learned subject y, who was friends with who 60 years ago, who is friends with who now, people are out, people are in, these folks are full of @#$%, these folks are honest but unskilled, these folks are fantastic but annoying, this guy left and started his own dojo but was really just a green belt, this sensei is the one to look at in that dojo not the head teacher, she is a better fighter than her teacher, he hits on his students, what do you think about this technique, this person does it this way but that seems silly to me, old is better, new is better, I don’t like her, he took my lunch at a seminar once, oh my god the chatting goes on and on! We love it! My wife says our community is like a bunch of high school girls- gossipy, cliquey, and really worried about who is with whom. I gotta say, she’s right.

But is that such a bad thing? It certainly can be. If people are unkind or exclusionary, that is not ok. Lying is always bad. Close minded approaches to what is “right” hurt everyone. Spreading rumors and taking any joy in the tribulations of others is a lousy way to be. And talking instead of training isn’t a trope because it doesn’t exist. But being concerned with the connections between others? Noticing social cues and being aware of the power of relationships?  Having a network of people that share a joy in the art? Sharing the effort of growing, improving, and changing? Supporting others in their growth and having a network to rely on? Those seem like pretty good things to me.

And they are, I believe, part of our self defense. What are some of the most vital things we need to protect ourselves from? The data showing that ill health goes hand in hand with loneliness is pretty clear. Particularly as people age having a community that they are a part of is very closely tied to overall mental and physical well being. For most of us physical attack is less likely to be a constant danger than the slow continuous onset of lifestyle related illness. To protect myself from those, I have made my art central to my life. It provides activity, structures a way and a desire to keep me pushing my physical and mental boundaries, and it develops my ability to defend myself and others. So it keeps my body healthy. And I share these goals and rewards with others I respect. We train, we research, we experiment. We communicate. We grow. And we share our lives. I don’t know ANY long term martial artists whose social life isn’t also full with the people they train with. None. And this sense of community is fundamentally part of any traditional art, where social connections- community, clan, family, nation- were often specifically included in the descriptions of the art itself.

So the art doesn’t just keep you healthy physically, but socially. Sure, sometimes that is a bit much. Especially when you are listening to yet another diatribe about how person x does something incorrectly. That’s rude in any social situation. But the relationships that training helps foster are essential self-protection in so many ways.

And so is the contact. Body conditioning, kakie, pushing hands, grappling; all the close quarters work we do requires close physical contact. Night after night we grab, hit, and sweat on each other. Of course it is essential to real martial practice. No amount of solo training can make you a good martial artist. You can develop certain attributes alone but there are essential skills you just cannot learn without a partner. Not a teacher. A partner. Hopefully a number of them, because no one acts or reacts exactly like anyone else. But it is more than that.

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The benefits of frequent close physical contact of just about any type are clearly documented: less aggression, better immune system, greater trust, lower blood pressure, greater learning engagement, and closer emotional intimacy, among other things. These come from simple physical contact with other human beings. I spend a few hours a week in physical contact with people I trust enough to risk injury with. Not only does that help me learn to protect myself against assault, t turns out the act of making contact in and of itself better prepares me to deal with illness, aging, and navigating all sorts of other social interactions.

So without a community of people who trust each other you cannot learn a martial art. You need contact, social and physical connection. Without them your art is hollow, empty of the interaction that makes it martial. And it would also be empty of the benefits, the personal protection, that only that element of community, and the physical contact that goes with it, can bring. Taken together, training this way is indeed holistic self defense.

In these interesting times I find I am missing that interaction, that contact. A few weeks of solo training is not a bad thing. Hopefully I’ll come out the other end with improvement in some areas of my art. But the change in what has been a pretty consistent schedule for decades has made me realize how central that social and physical contact is to the rhythm of my weeks. I knew it was important, but with it taken away I see a little better what it does for me, and for the rest of the dojo. I have a slightly better window on the things that the classical arts bring to the lives of their practitioners, and some new insight into why I have found both training and teaching them so rewarding.

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So yes, I hope to come through this with some good training in, and hopefully some good insights for moving forward. But in the meantime I gotta say I miss the dojo. Not the building (though that too) but the real dojo, the community that carries our arts, and their benefits, within them. I can’t wait to get back to it, feel those connections, and mix it up some!


Feeding Crane Seminar 2019

Hello everyone. Liu sifu has finalized his schedule for the fall. He will be teaching a seminar on his family’s Feeding Crane the weekend of November 9 & 10. As usual, it should be a great weekend of training, with excellent instruction and some great people to share it with. The seminar info and sign up is attached. Looking forward to seeing everyone and sweating together! If you have any questions please let me know.

feeding crane kung fu seminar 2019

意 Intention, Movement, and Results

The dojo just did a short demonstration as part of an evening of traditional Japanese arts. It was a lot of fun for us and I am proud of the dojo, everyone did a great job. The other artists there- taiko, dance, and music- did some fantastic work. Being part of a group of artists like that is always rewarding. For some of us it was also a bit of a flashback. When we trained out of Green Street Studios we used to participate in the annual community show. It was always good fun, and indeed rewarding to see so many fantastic artists and movers at work. Every year we also got a kick out of the different feeling our embu would bring to the show; after various types of modern and folk dance we would come on with a very different energy. This show was similar in that it was mostly dancers and musicians and then us, even though we were all presenting various Japanese arts.

Preparing for the embu made me think about that difference in energy, and in what some Chinese arts call Yi, 意, intent. While preparing we took some time to remember where the audience was, and how some of our movements would look to them. I think that when doing a demonstration you should have your audience in mind, otherwise why are you there? The goal, for us anyway, is to both give them some sort of window on how we train, and to entertain folks who know nothing about what we do.

That last is a real tripper for some traditional martial artists. “We are not about entertainment!” Yup. But if you are so opposed to entertaining anyone, I would suggest you don’t do demonstrations at all. We didn’t do anything other than snippits of our practice, but in doing them thinking about whether the audience could see what was happening or if someone was were presenting their butt to them seemed pretty reasonable. Choosing material that is interesting to watch is a good idea too; who wants to watch interminable rounds of fundamentals, stretching, calisthenics, and so on? I don’t, and I love this stuff. We also adjusted some timing- a little more hang time before or during finishing techniques, making sure they were “big” and visible, and more “pause” at them so people could see what was happening (which has made me think some interesting thoughts about “kime”…). If you understand your art, you should also be able to understand how you might present it to an uninformed audience.

Some arts take this pretty seriously. I wound up comparing 3 section staff techniques with an Eagle Claw teacher a number of years ago. He demonstrated a form and then I did one and he said something to the effect of “oh, yes, fighting techniques only”. I was not sure what he meant, so he demonstrated another form. It had some very acrobatic movements- jumps, spins over and under the body, and so on. It turned out in the system as he had learned it there were forms that were designed solely for demonstration. The idea was that as part of being a professional martial artist you had to support yourself. Paying students were not likely to generate a decent living so as a professional you also had to be able to entertain an audience, among other things. These demonstration forms featured techniques chosen for flash. Big movements, impressive acrobatics, timing and physicality that drew and held attention. The intention, purpose, of the forms dictated differences from the pure martial aspects of the system in what was done, and how it was done. And whomever designed them was aware of this. They understood the art well enough to understand the difference, and keep that clear in practice.

A number of years ago a friend of mine asked about learning something from our practice as research for a piece she was working on. She is a very skilled modern dancer, a well trained athlete. Working with her was a learning experience. First off, she was a much better mover and learner than most martial artists. Balance, body control, timing, her training had prepared her at least as well as any martial artist I have met. She was also a faster learner; part of her practice is doing short focused movement pieces that change weekly as part of taking class. In other words, learning a kata in an hour or so and being able to perform it. Something most martial artists cannot do.

But there were some fascinating differences as well. She was as strong as most of the people I train with. But while that strength was under excellent control her body’s reactions to pressure and presence were different. It wasn’t that she couldn’t move another person- have you ever seen the lifts in some modern dance? It was that she had no training in how to either absorb or resist aggressive pressure, or how to apply aggressive force to another body. So strength, flexibility, agility, posture and coordination alone did not make up the entirety of even the solo movement, what those things were intended for had an effect as well.

Most interesting to me was that even with a broader vocabulary of stance and posture some of our stances and our style of movement were a little difficult for her to move into. She was able to demonstrate places were what we do was less biomechanically optimal than what she was doing, at least based solely on the motion and posture. But here is where intent, Yi, really showed itself. Our stances and movement have a number of purposes. One is moving with control. But that is just part of it. The body both projects and defends against aggressive intent and power so the movement and structure are interacting with external forces, not just internal ones. And the difference that wound up standing out the most was sneakiness. The movement conceals. You want to hide your breathing, the initiation of your motion, your vital points, even your weapons, from the opponent. Throughout our forms this concealment and protection, while often subtle, affects our movement in a variety of ways. She, on the other hand, had been trained for decades in making sure her movements expressed to the audience what she wanted them to, that instead of concealing they showed. This contrast affected arm and leg position, alignment, and a host of other minor things.

In the end, this difference made it hard for her to really copy my movement at times. It also made it hard for me to figure out how to correct her movements, and to see exactly why they were not “right” in my eyes. Her body and hands were in the right places, she learned really fast and very precisely, she moved really well. Why wasn’t it right? It took me a while to see the through line- that the knee position was a tiny bit off because it allowed her to present her torso differently, that the shoulder didn’t naturally cover the movement of the hands and elbows in certain postures but was being shifted to expose them. That opening and shifting the weapon was happening a little further from the body, keeping it visible instead of hidden.

These movements in her body were unconscious. They were accompanied by a precision of movement and fluidity most martial artists cannot match. This quality of movement in ways made it harder to see what the differences were, as there is always variation between people and in general it was all “correct”. While being correct, they were subtly not. Why? These differences were primarily about mental state. They came from different intent. Yi.

As we prepared for the embu, and then again as the show went on, I found myself thinking about Yi. Making sure the audience could see what we were doing required more preparation than the techniques. Our energy was really different from that of the dancers, but so was the taiko- different energy, different intent.  And what does that mean in practice? It means that intent matters. Mental state is crucial. In a good system, in my opinion anyway, one goal is stacking the field. Taking a lot of little things and getting them to add up in your favor. Structure, using two hands, disruptive timing, entering, concealment- none may win a battle on its own but if you have a slight edge on all of them they might add up to an advantage. Giving up the edge in one or two might be what defeats you. With a limited testing field it may not matter much- a competition with no real injury or practice in the dojo say. And that is why intent, mental state, is so important. You cannot really replicate self-defense conditions without serious risk to yourself and your students. So various training methods stand in. We talk about mental training, but rarely clearly describe what various aspects of this are and how you use them. Focusing your intent, understanding what it is and what it means, is one of them.

Changing your intent can create possibly invisible changes in your technique and training in a host of ways. Focusing on kata for demonstration or competition is equally demanding but it might teach you to show more than you hide. It might put pauses on “finishing” techniques that highlight them but also change timing and tension and relaxation. It might also change other elements of mental training, like your zanshin or fudoshin. Focusing on pair work for demonstration might result in hard, fast, powerful technique but with a little more space and larger movements. It might shift timing or targets, for example keeping away from the hands. (And again re-focusing yi away from finishing the opponent to doing the set.) Cooperative partners might make breaking your frame safer and allow for quicker entries but difficulty taking the opponent’s center if they resist. None of these things might be noticeable, indeed depending on the rewards in the environment some might be preferred. Intense training in any of them might also  result in a more capable practitioner than someone who trains less with more “martial” intent.

But intent works unconsciously. It helps us teach ourselves to conceal, coil, keep our frame, protect as we enter, go for vital areas, prevent follow up attacks, and so on. It is a gestalt tool, allowing the mind to juggle too many variables to maintain individually. In some ways it creates order out of chaos, taking the variables and maintaining them in concert while at the same time freeing up thinking space. It is always there, a through line that helps us keep stacking the field. Any through line will work this way. Showing, hiding. Power, speed. Cooperation, resistance. All intent creates incentives that then feed back to the intent.

The show was a great time. I am really glad we did it and hope to be involved if it becomes a periodic event. I am also really glad for the reminder, that these elements of “mental training” that are often given lip service are important in ways that we cannot really even describe without some thought. That I need to keep my intent clear, and focused, to see how it continues to change and focus my practice. And that I need to be mindful of when I am shifting it, so I can remain flexible and use my mind to guide my practice, not the other way around.

Saying Goodbye

As many of you already know, Kimo Wall sensei passed away on Thanksgiving. I have already written something about his history here, so I won’t be going into that again. While his death is not unexpected it is sad news. The last year plus had been very difficult for sensei and so I take comfort in knowing he is at rest. And yet, while I cannot speak for anyone else, the impact sensei has had on my life is difficult to even begin to assess and right now more than anything else I am sad, and wishing we could, once more, be sitting down to dinner after training together.

I first met sensei in 1986. I was 18, starting college, and knew nothing about martial arts. I started training and sensei introduced me to a path that has shaped my life. We shared travel together- around the US, in Japan, and in Puerto Rico. Countless meals, conversations, and so many shared friends and training partners. And of course countless hours in the dojo. He has been part of my life for over 30 years now and his passing, while not a surprise, somehow comes as one.

Kimo 89

In El Morro, Old San Juan, late 1980s.

It is impossible to sum up a person, or more than 30 shared years, in a few words. I can’t really say much about sensei as a teacher or martial artist that has not already been said. Of course he was my teacher, and training with him taught me things I have taken into all aspects my life, lessons of perseverance, will, adaptation, and calmness that have served me well. But that is only a part of it. As he has passed I find myself thinking much more of the person, and our experiences together.

Mostly I find myself remembering little moments- sensei laughing when I dumped a straw filled with pickled jalapeno juice in Mike’s mouth when he was sleeping in a chair in Tennessee- sensei talking about his bulldogs, his “brother,” his family, his students- the deep respect and love he had for his teachers- sensei at dinner eating through what I thought was going to be a couple of days worth of sukiyaki lunches- listening to music together at a street party in Puerto Rico- him having a pan of brownies in his apartment in Japan when I arrived, saying “bet you haven’t had these in a while”- coming home to him parked in the driveway “hey hey Fred san, I am a few days (it was weeks..) early. What time is training and what’s for dinner?”. I find myself remembering his good humor, his occasional bad humor, his discipline and dedication, and what some people may not have noticed but how sentimental he was, and how sensitive to the relationships in his life.

demo dojo w sensei

Opening the new dojo, 2009. 

Of course there was training and the after-training lectures. Things like his taking my feet completely out from under me and the immediate “kamae!”, no break, no room for pause or even checking myself out- us working through part of papuhaku dai bunkai in the big gym in Totman. He hadn’t quite finished it yet, and it felt passing strange to be helping him work through a piece instead of just learning. (Help might be a strong word here, but he did ask me what I thought at one point.)- “ahm bah bunkai”-  “you no be minus, you be plus”- struggles with “chicken fight bunkai” and a room of people in their 40s instead of college students- “sometimes demonstrations go well, sometimes they don’t, let’s eat.”  But even in the dojo, right now my thoughts slide towards silly, personal moments. Yes, some are funnier in retrospect, but that too is a part of all that time.

One thing about all that time is that you come to know someone as they changed. He was not static. There was always something new. Even his last visit here held something I believe we could all learn from. I think we were the last dojo he trained and taught in, just a few days before his stroke. I truly wish I had been able to get him to go home to PR and rest, but he was adamantly having none of it. Instead, he was in the dojo, teaching and training. Utsu bo, kama (a terrifying moment with him, somewhat unsteady on his feet, holding a live blade between my legs to demonstrate a technique….) all sorts of karate and kobudo. At times he asked a student to help hold him up so he could demonstrate. What shone through was the passion. Regardless of his condition there was nowhere he would rather be than on the floor, with students and friends. But what is most important is that he knew it. This was where he wanted to be, what he was supposed to be doing. Do you know what you want so clearly?

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Smiling and training, of course. Spring 2017.

I will miss him, both the sensei I met in 1986 that scared the bejesus out of me when I came to kamae in front of him and the friend I would find sleeping on my couch in the afternoon when he was visiting, one eye opening and then dozing back off with a slight nod and a smile. He was a friend and teacher to many. Over the years and the miles many people had different experiences of him. Much of that I cannot speak to. He was a part of their lives and their practice. As a teacher and martial artist I know that the impact he has had on so many will be a lasting legacy that he can be rightly proud of. But that feels a little distant right now. For me, I will simply miss my teacher, and my friend.

Touguchi Seikichi sensei wrote this about the passing of his teacher, Miyagi Chojun. It seems fitting here.

A Tiger dies and leaves its skin

A Man dies and leaves his name

A Teacher dies and teaches death

And from a book that, for some reason, comes to mind I will leave you with this:

“I repeat again that first thing my teacher or my own madness revealed to me, on the cold stone flags of an ugly brick building, at the raw age of nineteen.

Death is before life and after it and in it all together, suffused with a light as perfect as the rays of the sun. It comes not an an insult, nor as a defeat, nor does it serve as a boundary to the free soul.”

Goodbye sensei. Aloha nui loa, and nifeedeebiru. Rest in peace.

2010-03-19 12.57.02

A Change For the Better

I just had another great weekend at the annual Okinawa Kobudo Doushi Renseikai gasshuku. Training was really good, Stolsmark sensei did his usual excellent job teaching and leading the group, and it was fun to see and train with a group of dedicated and just plain nice people, friends and fellow kobudo-ka. It also made me think about how much things have changed in the kobudo “world”. I started training kobudo in 1986 and got lucky in having an excellent teacher. In those days good kobudo instruction was rare. I remember seeing groups doing bo or sai and being confused by the clear lack of understanding of how the weapon worked. I don’t mean differences in style or flavor, I mean a real lack of understanding of how to even hold a weapon in a way that was safe and would keep it in your hand if you hit anything.

Indeed, back in the 80s while there were certainly people doing kobudo, there was little kobudo being done. Sure some teachers had some experience, a few had a lot and in addition to Kimo sensei there were certainly some good people out there. But in general kobudo was not that popular, and the average understanding and skill level, even among “instructors” was really low, at least in the kobudo I saw. I believe this was mostly due to people simply not having exposure to good instruction; they didn’t have the opportunity. But these days, I see something different.  When Gakiya Yoshiaki sensei founded the Okinawa Kobudo Doushi Rensei Kai in 2002, he also started coming to the states annually. On those first trips I remember still seeing the vast majority of people on the floor having a really hard time with the basics of moving the weapon, and of carrying their bodies in a way that would facilitate using it. But that is more than a few years ago now. (Which I will admit comes as a bit of a surprise at times!)

Under Gakiya sensei, and after he stopped teaching and Neil Stolsmark sensei took on leadership of the OKDR under Stolsmark sensei, I have seen a real change in the group. Where once most people were struggling with the basics and the elementary kata now there is a large group of people who are working with a lot of the system, training hard and bringing on their own students. Where once paired work was primarily paired basics done with a little trepidation now it ranges from beginners to seniors working all parts of the system with energy, creativity, and attention to detail. It is, in so many ways, a completely different group.

This change has, I think, been mirrored in the larger martial arts community in North America. Perhaps it just needed time, as people (to be fair, like me) who were juniors in the 80s, got their time in. But do I see much more good kobudo than I would have thought possible 30 years ago. Ryukyu Kobudo, Matayoshi Kobudo, the kobudo of various specific instructors or karate styles, there is just more of it, and better quality. To me, it is a really welcome change.

Why has this happened? Well, kobudo has certainly become more popular. Nakasone san, the owner of Shureido, remarked to me last January that all of a sudden he simply can’t keep up with orders of kobudo equipment. There are a lot more people interested for all sorts of reasons. But, to my mind more importantly, I also see a lot more quality instruction. People that were coming up under the few good instructors here in the 80s have keep learning and teaching. Other people have gone and spend years or decades in Okinawa and are now teaching here. They have shown people what kobudo can be- not karate with a bo but a deep and difficult art (as well as a ton of fun).  They have also maintained or deepened their ties to their roots, technical and social, maintaining contact with the teachers and seniors of the kobudo in Okinawa, helping it grow and maintaining standards. I believe that inspires people. While a few seminars or (gasp!) a book or video may have once sufficed in community with no real examples to emulate, now there are many more teachers with years or decades in their systems under their teachers and they are demonstrating the value of that depth of experience.

And that is what I saw this last weekend at the OKDR gasshuku. Stolsmark sensei has done a fantastic job moving the group forward. Leadership like that is hard to find. Where once I saw a room full of people excited but struggling to start their kobudo journey, this last weekend I saw a room full of excited, interested practitioners. People who would probably have stood out as “masters” 30 years ago due to their knowledge alone. How many people did I see easily demonstrate paired work with a nunti in 1988? Not too darn many, but I did see a dozen or so this weekend do so without seeming to think it was a very big deal. And most importantly, it wasn’t. It was just part of training, a step on the journey.

I am glad I can be part of a group of people so interested in and dedicated to an art that I love. It is fun just to spend a weekend training kobudo together. It is also really wonderful to see that where once there was a room full of beginners now there is a room full of people at all stages of the practice, experienced to new. Gakiya sensei told me once he hoped one day he could see a whole room full of OKDR members do Shinbaru no sai and guwa and eku, and, and… together. We did that this weekend. Seeing that growth, and knowing I have had a small part to play in it happening, is a fine feeling indeed. Makes me excited about what happens next.


Some Thoughts On Gokenki and the Transmission of His Crane on Okinawa

I will assume most of the folks reading this are familiar with Go Kenki (Wu Xianghui/呉貴賢). I have been thinking about him, his impact on today’s karate, and his possible training background lately.

Wu’s history is somewhat unclear, though his impact on the early 20th century karate world seems to have been quite extensive. Through personal relationships and especially through the Tode Kenkyukai he trained with just about all the most well known karate men of his day- Miyagi, Kyoda, Hanashiro, Yabu, Motobu, and Mabuni among others. He supposedly knew Uechi Kanbun from his time in Fuchow and it is said Uechi sent students to him in Okinawa. He knew two generations of the Matayoshi family, and Matayoshi Shinko also knew Wu’s father in Fuchow. Kata of his, or influenced by him, are officially part of To’on Ryu (Nepai), Shito Ryu (Nipaipo), Ryuei Ryu (Paiho), and less officially are a part of a variety of other systems in Okinawa. The Matayoshi family passed down an at least partial system of his, including at least 6 extant forms and 2 others that may or may not still be known. Itoman Shojo, one of Wu’s students, said he also taught a form not on the Matayoshi list, Zhongkuang, or Chukon in Japanese. Miyagi and he traveled to China together and supposedly he influenced Goju Ryu a great deal even though none of his forms were included in it. So all told a lot of contact and influence on the karate of his day.

But what did he bring to the table, as it were? It is impossible to know for sure, as no one has any clear documentation on his teachers or his system. Everyone agrees it is “White Crane”, but what white crane? It is a very good bet that he taught Ming He, 鳴鶴拳, Singing or Crying Crane, at least based on the forms he taught. Baibulien/八歩連 (Happoren), Ershiba/二十八(Nepai), and Zhongkuang/中框(Chukon) are all Ming He forms, and not to my knowledge taught together in any other system. The patterns of his Ershiba and Baibulien bear a great deal of resemblance to the extant Ming He versions, which is additional back-up for this idea. But other than that? There is very little information available, so it is hard to know.

I can’t help but wonder why? Lineages are important on Okinawa. He lived at a time when people were documenting their arts and formalizing and writing down all sorts of things. Yet we have next to nothing on Wu even though he was considered to be such an important influence on so many. I know I talk about my teachers around the dojo, on both personal and training levels. I take some pride in my lineage and have strong attachments to my teachers. So does every other martial artist I know. But there is no record from anyone he trained with of exactly who Wu’s teachers were, or even what the name of his art was. He had a few direct students, people like Anya Seisho and Itoman Shojo, but it is surprising that they never learned (or passed on) any background of the system they were practicing- what it was or who it came from. Not even the Matayoshi family, who may have learnt and kept more of his system than anyone, seem to have any idea who Wu’s teachers were besides his father, or if his art is called anything other than “Shaolin Crane Fist”.

His actual training and teaching show a similar pattern. Wu knew all the important karate people of his day. He is given credit for influencing many of them, in particular Miyagi, Kyoda, and Mabuni. But even though people talk about him a great deal, outside various versions of a form with the “crane wings” posture, a posture not really even that emblematic of Singing Crane, his actual concrete impact seems pretty limited. He had no students that continued to teach and train, with the exception of Matayoshi Shinpo who certainly didn’t work to develop Wu’s art on Okinawa. A few other people kept a form or two of his, like To’on Ryu’s Nepai (often quite modified like Shito Ryu’s Nipaipo) but they are not core parts of any extant art. There just isn’t much of his actual legacy around.

Looking at what he taught, Wu also seems to have focused on the lowest level Ming He forms. Happoren/Baibulien is the first form, their sanchin, as it were. Nepai is also a junior form. While Zhongkuang, an intermediate form, is mentioned it seems no one really learned it (at least no one who passed it down), though looking at the Ming He version some of its techniques seem possibly visible in the various Hakakku/Kakuho/ Paiho/etc, forms around the island that stem from Wu. But that is it. So if he knew higher level material he either didn’t teach it or didn’t succeed in passing it on.

But most importantly he appears to have failed to pass down the core movement principles of Ming He. None of the kata he did pass down show any sign of whipping/shaking, the base energy of Ming He. (With the possible exception of Matayoshi Shinpo, something for a different post.) Instead, they pretty much all are done with the power generation of whichever Okinawan karate they are a part of. This doesn’t mean that Wu didn’t use this method, but it seems that no one learned it from him, they instead took what they took from Wu and applied their karate methodology to it.

Looking at this together I am led to three possible conclusions:

One, that regardless of his skill he was simply not that great a teacher and was unable to pass on much of his system, inspire anyone to become his actual student, or pass on the core mechanics of his practice.

Two, that he wasn’t that great a martial artist so that while people liked him and his ideas he didn’t have much of meat to pass on or inspire, just some ideas and information that were interesting to the community.

Or Three, that the Okinawans looked at what he had to offer and said something along the lines of “pretty cool. I like bits of that. But otherwise, meh. I’ll stick with karate thank you very much.”

These are not mutually exclusive, and of course there is no way to really know, but they all speak to me of a different relationship than we usually hear about. Instead of a “Chinese Master bringing secret crane technique to Okinawa” we have a friend. A kindred spirit perhaps. A fellow student to share with. For a couple, Uechi and Matayoshi Shinko, a training partner or associate from Fuchow. For the rest, someone with experience they did not have, and insights into “Chinese” knowledge, with all that carries in the way of cultural baggage in Okinawa. But not a teacher, a master, or a bastion of White Crane the Okinawans would value enough to adopt over what they already knew. In short, his white crane was not good enough to inspire the Okinawans to do it instead of their karate. Whether that was due to the art, his ability, or some other reason is immaterial. Simply put, regardless of how important the “White Crane” looms in Okinawan karate legend, when faced with an opportunity to simply learn and practice White Crane, the Okinawans instead stuck with their karate.

Who knows, right? Wu didn’t come to Okinawa to teach martial arts, or even as a martial artist. He came looking to work as a merchant, at around 25 years old. Maybe he wasn’t a master, or a master teacher, just a young merchant interested in the fighting arts. He had some training, and was happy to share it with an active and changing martial arts community in Okinawa, a community of highly trained people who found his ideas and experience interesting but didn’t see enough there to leave their practice to take up his. Influence, interest, exchange. Friends sharing their art, masters or not. Real people interacting and learning. Not what the story is, but seems to be backed up by what actually happened.