Why Do It?

I recently had the chance to spend another weekend training with my friend Sensei Russ Smith. He ran a small weekend training at his dojo in Florida. Once again his focus was on the whys of application in Goju and how they relate to some of the southern Chinese systems. Whys are difficult to frame sometimes. The word “principles” has become common lately. People keep using it but I do not think it means what they seem to think it means. To me principles bind a practice. They are limiters more than anything else, taking away options that do not conform with the ideas they represent. More often I seem to see vague “principles” that instead of limiting allow the teacher to fit just about any technique that occurs to him or her into their rubric. Not really helpful, at least to me.


Great group of people to share a weekend with.

 Russ sensei has put together an approach to training that is principle centered in what seems like a very functional way. Instead of vague ideas that sound like a translation of the Book of 5 Rings the principles he is talking about are directly linked to physical action. One example might be Strong on Weak. That can sound esoteric but in practice it simply means not using the weaker parts of your body against stronger parts of the opponent- not trying to lever the elbow out of the way with the wrist for example. Attached to the principles are simple drills that demonstrate them, so the ideas are not just hanging out there but are immediately accessible.

This last one is really important. Ideas and principles are great, but if you cannot put them into action they are pretty much useless. One nice measure of that action is if they enable self-correction. Can a student, or anyone new to the principle, use it once it has been explained and they have done some time with an appropriate drill to feel it in action? I watched people over the weekend take an approach they were using and, when it didn’t work, go back to the ideas we were talking about and try to figure out why. What principles did it violate and how did that make it fail? This is was in unscripted practice, not set drills. In this environment people new to the material were able to use it, to break down their movement and application and use the ideas that bind the art to adjust it.


Learning through touching. Only way, really. Fun too!

That seems like a good approach to the whys of practice to me. Why do something? Because it works. Because it fits the moment. And the same goes, really, for spending the weekend training with friends. Why do it? Because it works. Russ sensei runs a good training weekend. He has a lot to share and a good platform developed to do it with. And that format is important, because instead of a lecture or repetition of forms or basics (all necessary but able to be done mostly alone, IMO) I believe we learn better by interacting, testing each other and the ideas. That is a better way to spend time than memorizing yet another drill or form or technique, doing hundreds of reps you could have just done at home, or going to “get instruction” from someone who is just going to tell you to do it their way. Instead  share, grow, and have fun doing it. Taking some time with the whys can enable you to better direct your own practice. That and a glass of usquebaugh and good conversation at the end of a fun day seems like good whys to me indeed!

Who Are Your Teachers, Pt 2: Who They Are Not

In an earlier post I suggested that looking at it honestly you should probably expand your definition of who your teachers are. Here I would like to suggest the opposite- reigning it in. I think it is important to give credit to those training partners and students who have helped you develop and grow. At the same time, it is also important not to try to make teachers out of people you just don’t know that well. If you have been training for a while you will probably have spent some time in other peoples’ dojo, and taken a seminar or two from visiting teachers. Some of these people might even be famous, in karate circles anyway.

In Midori Kenji's dojo in Koniya, August 1991. After training we had a nice dinner at his house. Unfortunately I spilled soup on him, Fortunately he has a sense of humor.

In Midori Kenji’s dojo in Koniya, August 1991. After training we had a nice dinner at his house. Unfortunately I spilled soup on him, Fortunately he has a sense of humor.

Take me as an example: looking just at my karate, over the years I have spent a week training one on one in a small dojo in Amami Oshima with Toguchi Seikichi. I have had dinner with Mas Oyama and trained Kyokushin with Midori Kenji. I did a seminar on Sepai with Shinjo Anyu and have visited and briefly trained in a variety of Goju dojo on Okinawa as well as around the US and Canada. I had private lessons in Okinawa Kempo from Irei Isao, and I’ve trained some in Uechi Ryu. The list could go on, but why? These have all (or mostly all) been fun things do to. I may have gleaned a little insight here or there from them. But these people are not my teachers. I was friends with Midori Kenji and we trained some but I have no mastery of the Kyokushin of that time or his Shinkyokushin now. I was never a member of the Shoreikan, never a part of the Jundokan, and am not a Uechi or Okinawa Kempo yudansha. A few hours in a seminar hall, a visit to a dojo, a weekend training intensely or a friendship that includes some training cannot, does not, make someone your teacher. I have no right to claim any real connection to, or knowledge of, these people or their arts, and I do not.

While I visited a fair number of times I can't really claim Matayoshi sensei was my teacher. But who recognizes the fellow on the left...

While I visited many times I can’t really claim Matayoshi sensei was my teacher. But who recognizes the fellow on the left, 26 years ago…

But look around the net and you often see long lists of teachers under people’s names. Everyone they ever visited, it seems! They certainly did not have time to actually train with all these people. It is kind of a shame, really. In some ways it belittles the teacher-student relationship. It takes a long time to get to know someone. To be your teacher someone needs to know you, your personality, your strengths and weaknesses. If they do not, how can they shape their instruction, help guide you in your training? If you think that a few insights make a teacher, or that you can teach well in a standardized manner, you might think that a brief visit is enough. But it isn’t. You can learn a kind of shallow martial art that way, but you will be missing out on the real content. You will be missing the part where your teacher challenges you to face the deepest rooted problems in your art, the little but important pieces he or she only knows you are ready for but missing because they know you and how you train.  The places where they push you in ways you didn’t know you needed to go. You might think you are getting something great from a short meeting, but unfortunately that may really just show how shallow your experience, or your relationship with your teacher, is. You are still missing the real content because that requires more understanding of where you are than any teacher can get in a short time.

cake for Kimo sensei

It is not much, but a birthday cake is always appreciated.

And by thinking the teacher-student relationship can be so transitory you will also be missing the other real content, the development of a lasting relationship that is based as much in what you are doing for your teacher as what they are doing for you. Give and take, not one way, not just taking and learning but giving something in return. It is important. And if you can’t imagine doing anything for your teacher? I would really suggest taking a closer look. If they are your teacher they have been working hard for you and you really should do the same for them. If you have not, if that idea seems foreign instead of normal, you either need to take a closer look at yourself, or you might not really have a teacher at all. So to finish I’ll ask you: who are your teachers, and what have you done for them lately?

White Crane Leaves the Nest

It has been a while since I posted, in part because after sifu Liu’s visit I had a bit to catch up on, both at home and at work. The visit was, as always, great fun. We trained daily, either in the dojo or in my home. We shared some nice meals, spent a day up in Maine (and enjoyed a fresh Maine lobster) and spent some time with friends in the area. The weekend seminar was excellent, and we had the usual mix of folks from all over- New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado, California, and so on. Great to see a bunch of familiar faces and to meet a few new people. Also excellent for our group to have a couple of new folks start training regularly with us here. Welcome!

One thing that occurred to me while sifu was here was how quickly time flies. Both in training- the weekend seminar felt like it was over in a flash- and between visits. It does not seem possible it has been a year since he was last here! Part of that is good- it is nice to be able to pick up where you left off the last time you met. And part of that is a little startling- it seems hard to find the time between visits for the practice and investigation needed to really make the training time as useful as it can be, to get the most out of our limited time training together.

A growing student, already asking about learning Thunder Power!

A growing student, already asking about learning Thunder Power!

You see the thing is that with my sifu so far away I do not get the benefit of daily or weekly correction and advice. Instead my development is on me. I have to work to understand the lessons imparted, and figure out how to work towards the goals I have on my own. I have to understand the principals of the art and self-correct. If I don’t do that I don’t progress, and I do not have the excuse of “sifu is not guiding me well” to fall back on.

I like this, to be honest. It is like that if your teacher is right there as well, just harder sometimes to see. But your growth is always up to you. This fits in well with sifu Liu’s approach. As he phrased it one day of the seminar: “if no one asks questions, I know no one has been thinking. They might become good students some day, but if they are not asking me questions and questioning the system then they will never really understand it”. You have to investigate yourself, not rely on others.

Of course I look forward to correction and instruction. This time around we got some good private training in, and I was introduced to some more elements of the system, ones I found very interesting. But I kept returning to this concept of time. Mostly because I feel I need to be using my time well, growing between ourr visits so I have the chance to take in whatever new material is presented. Not training the same year over and over but doing a new one each time.

One of my students asked sifu about what he should be doing to train on his own. Sifu was kind of flummoxed by the question. When pressed he went through the important elements of fundamental practice, and some personal training methods for solo training he has developed, but what he said stuck with me: “You have to understand what you need. Then work on that. I can tell you today but what about next month? That is your job. You have to use your time well, and only you know if you are doing that.”

      白鶴出巣拳  White Crane Leaves the Nest

This idea kept coming up over his vist- that you need to focus and develop yourself. That you need to question. One of the things sifu and I worked on were forms outside the introductory set. While there is a list, he was clear that there is no standard order for learning them. The teacher decides what the student needs to keep growing. He was joking around some, but he looked down the list and after some translation back and forth decided we would spend some time on White Crane Leaves the Nest. “It is just what we were talking about”, he joked. And while he was clear to let me know the techniques were just part of the core of the system, and I know I have not received any “secret knowledge”, I found the symbolism both entertaining and something to take with me till our next visit. Hopefully I will have kept myself on track in the meantime.



Feeding Crane seminar 2016

Kodokan Boston will be hosting Sifu Liu Chang’I for our annual Feeding Crane Gong’fu seminar the weekend of October 1 & 2. The seminar is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the Feeding Crane system.

The sign up information is below. Please contact us if you have any questions or need any more information.

These seminars are always a great time! Liu sifu is an interesting and engaging teacher, the system itself is fascinating, and it is always great fun to sweat and touch hands with the people who come train with us. The group always has a real mix of backgrounds, which gives lots of opportunity to learn something from everyone who attends. On top of that, while who comes changes some from year to year we always seem to have a really good group of people- fun, dedicated, and interested in both learning and sharing. It makes for a great weekend of training!

Hope to see you there!

feeding crane kung fu seminar 2016

Seeing Friends

I had the pleasure of spending this past weekend with two friends, Mario McKenna sensei and Russ Smith sensei. We did some walking in the mountains near Vancouver, had some very nice meals, had a couple of classes with Mario’s students (an excellent group), and not surprisingly spent a lot of time in the dojo, the park, and the living room trading technique and perspective, playing, and generally sharing our varied experiences in the Okinawan and Chinese martial arts. It was an excellent weekend!

This started out as sightseeing on the river, but who can pass up an opportunity like open space and a free moment?

This started out as sightseeing on the river, but who can pass up an opportunity like open space and a free moment?

I always enjoy feeling like the junior in the room and with these two gentlemen it is an easy role to fall into. They each have a different background, but for both of them it is one both deep and broad. This is unusual, to say the least, and it makes for great conversation (physical or verbal). When tools you are not familiar with are being brought to the table there is always something to learn. I feel like I have a lot to think about in my arts and my practice from what we did. With some kind assistance with personal research and some more exposure to things I know little about, as well as the periodic laughter that comes from touching hands and finding the other person’s answers to the problems you present both effective and surprising, the weekend was full of great take-aways.

Best way to share- touch hands.

Best way to share- touch hands.

It was also really fun. I have a great deal of respect for the training and experience of both these men. There are few people I have met, here or in Asia, of their caliber. But skills aside they are both good people, and we simply had a good time. People can take themselves very seriously, and in my opinion that gets in the way of learning, and of teaching. These gentlemen take their practice very seriously indeed. But not themselves. We had no exchanging of titles in or outside of the dojo. No constant bowing, no pressure on the students to make sure they were properly deferential, and while we were sharing there was no talking down to or instruction in the right way to… going on. More importantly, there was no sense of competition- no one was trying to prove they had more answers or a better perspective. Instead each of us seemed to be struggling to understand each other’s starting points and see where what we might offer could help create a different solution and then to see where our own starting points might benefit from a different perspective. To me, that ability to lose, to let your solutions be wrong sometimes and to try to see what the other person is offering as a different option, is the best way to actually learn.

It is easy as a martial arts instructor to fall into the trap of needing to be right, or be the best, or to keep control. Not having any of those things come up was, to me, a good indication of the character of these guys, and of their dedication to learning over already knowing. I have also met both their students, and that closes the circle- it is clear that in both groups respect for each other is a core value, one that supersedes winning or even physical skill. Which is not to say skill is not important- these guys both have excellent skills, as do their students. In my opinion that respect is what allows those skills to develop. I read occasional bits about how the Okinawan martial arts are dying, that commercialism and lack of understanding are undermining the core of them. Well, my experience is that while there are plenty of McDojo, and plenty of unskilled or unscrupulous instructors out there there are also plenty of small dojo run by dedicated and honest people who are maintaining our traditions in the best possible way. With people like these passing on our arts I have no fear of them dying, they are in excellent hands.

With Mario sensei's students. What a great group!

With Mario sensei’s students. What a great group!

Anyway, I won’t go into details of what we did and what we exchanged. Some of that is private, some is boring, and some is impossible to convey without contact. But spending the weekend laughing and sharing with a couple of friends was great. My heartfelt thanks to both of them for a fun weekend. Looking forward to seeing you both soon!

Thanks guys!

Thanks guys!

What is in a Name?

A few months ago I was asked by Mr. Michael Clayton to work with him on a short paper about the definition of the term (not the style, but the words themselves) Matayoshi Kobudo. It seemed like an interesting exercise and I said yes. I am glad I did. I have enjoyed the process a great deal, and it indeed turned into a very interesting way to look at the term. If semantics, with a little history thrown in, is not your thing it might have limited interest but it has made me think about how we use words to describe our training, and the groups we belong to, and in that alone it was fun to do. It was also a pleasure working with Michael and I would like to thank him both for thinking of me, and for his hard work on it, as well as for the illustrations which I think came out great! The paper we developed is below, and I hope you enjoy it.

What-is-Matayoshi-Kobudo-Illustrated-Lohse-and-Clayton (2)

Going in Circles?

I don’t really post about technique or form here, as I don’t think the written word is a very good format for that. However, I was speaking with a friend a few weeks ago about our kobudo and he mentioned the circles in our art, speaking in particular about the nunchiyaku. I paused for a second and then kept going. The term “circle” is a pretty common shorthand for a variety of shapes in most martial arts, but the comment stuck with me. That was because there are not actually any circles in our art, at least as far as I can see.

Of course there are curves- pretty much all our blocks and strikes travel in a curve of some sort- but the best way to describe those curves is probably a parabola, or an ellipse. Perhaps a J? Not a circle. Never a circle. The strike or block should have an apex. With some weapons- the bo for example- if the hands do not leave the body-box, as they not supposed to, the tip’s parabola is pretty obvious. With others, like the nunchiyaku, it can be harder to see and, more importantly, to do. This is mostly because it is tempting to move the tip of the nunchiyaku in a circle. This is easier to control, since it keeps the force in the end of the weapon constant and easily predictable, but it is incorrect. There should not be constant force in the weapon, but a tug at the end of the swing where the tip is hitting the apex of the curve and is going the fastest. This gets even harder to see, and do, with longer more flexible weapons like the sansetsukon or suruchin but again the strikes are not circles but parabola. (This is one difference between the suruchin and, say, poi- the movements are designed for striking a target, not just spinning.)

Look at it this way:

A circle travels like this:


On this path of motion the tip of the weapon stays a constant distance from the center and with a constant input the force in the direction of the velocity is constant at any point along its path.

 A parabola travels like this:


The tip of the weapon is furthest from the start at the tip of the curve (the vertex), and if constant energy is applied the force changes along the path of travel, with the tip moving the fastest at the vertex.

Obviously this is hard to explain without a moving weapon, a way to relate it to the user’s body box, a target, and some attention to methods of energy development, (and more advanced, as well as more technically accurate, geometry). But even though it is difficult to describe in words it is an important distinction. The parabola is faster, develops more power (and allows for use of things like compression and expansion of the torso in power development that circles do not), and is harder to both see and predict. On the defensive side it absorbs energy a little differently and stays closer to the body-box, the only area one needs to defend.

Anyway, short comment about technique, or geometry I guess.