Archives for the month of: August, 2012

Hello whozits!

So 4 months, and several missed classes into Systema, and my most recent class was a near-complete debacle. I was distracted, and tense, and was only mildly comforted at how much cleaner the mats were from my being wiped all across them. I’m also fairly certain I got partnered with Snake Pliskin:

(That first guy in the beginning; that’s how I felt)

Anyways, despite my freshly humbled self, I’d like to compare and contrast some aspects of Karate and Systema. Now, while I will try to be as general as possible, do keep in mind this is from my experience in both. This is by no means a comprehensive survey of the two martial arts.

For God’s sake, don’t cite this in your thesis!

With that said, thusly we proceed.

First of all, I’ve noticed that they both seem to be complete martial arts, at their highest level, and by that I mean that if you train sufficiently long in both martial arts then you’ll be proficient in all aspects of hand to hand fighting, including, but not limited to striking with hands, elbows, knees, and feet, stand-up grappling (applying locks, chokes, and takedowns from standing), and ground-fighting. I’ve seen balance points, finger locks, and pressure points in both arts. They are both sufficiently complex systems that their mastery involves enormous physical, intellectual, and spiritual investment.

However, there are some important differences in focus, and perhaps more importantly pedagogy that can helpfully distinguish the two.

Karate originated as a method of self-defence. It has origins in family styles of kung fu, and in regional fighting styles of Okinawa. It has many tenets, but two of relevance are: “There is no first strike in Karate,” which can be interpreted as a karate-ka only responding to an aggressor, never instigating an attack; and “One strike, one kill,” which emphasizes the importance placed on ending a confrontation immediately. Thus, karate is strongly rooted as a civilian martial art, and while it has been adopted by military and law enforcement, that was not its primary purpose.

Systema, on the other hand, developed directly out of the Russian military, and Ryabko Systema is specifically designed by Mikhail Ryabko who is heavily involved in the Russian military. While the class work is definitely not of an aggressive nature, there is definitely a military focus. Deception and the ability to completely end and control an encounter are emphasized. Whereas some martial arts (karate included) advocate running away from a conflict (not a bad plan), so far I haven’t seen this at all in Systema, which suggests its designed for encounters where running away isn’t an option. To my way of thinking, this seems decidedly military. So the first important difference would be that Karate emphasizes civilian self-defence, whereas Systema emphasizes a more military approach.

The next difference is in the expected progression for a student. While a karate-ka will begin very tense and static in their movements, they will eventually become proficient at fighting in this way, and then move towards developing a more comfortable, soft way of fighting. This is a reflection of it being designed to quickly enable somebody to survive basic violent encounters. Systema, on the other hand, maintains its softness from the start. Tension is the enemy right from the beginning. In my opinion, this makes the beginner Karate-ka a more effective fighter than the beginner Systema student. However, as the Karate-ka becomes proficient at fighting in a hard way, the Systema student becomes a better fighter through softness, and at this point any advantage held by the Karate-ka may no longer exist.

The last (important) difference is pedagogy. While Karate is taught through practising techniques and kata, and sparring, Systema is taught almost exclusively through partner drills. This, I believe is a more effective way of teaching (though it doesn’t conform so easily to a nice, orderly line-up of students, which I suspect would have offended traditional Japanese sensibilities on some level). Working with a partner immediately gives you feedback on the technique you’re working on, and how it needs to be modified, or perhaps that it won’t work with a particular person. It also keeps you aware of the other aspects of using the technique (in a standing armbar, for example, it’s easy to forget that the person has another arm). In fairness, however, partner work would not be an effective way to learn a kata, and being able to practice kata without a partner is a significant boon (as surely some practitioners were practising in secret, and therefore had no partner). As well, my particular dojo emphasizes a lot of partner work in the advanced program (I’m sure, due in no small part to my Sensei’s having trained in a number of other martial arts as well).

So, to summarize, Karate is a civilian-oriented, initially hard, and solitary martial art, while Systema is a military-oriented, consistently soft, and social martial art.

But now for the important question-

Which is better?

And the answer:

Don’t ask dumb questions.

Cheers

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Yes, it does indeed.

On Sunday, I took part in a 10-mile adventure race/obstacle course known as the Tough Mudder. That’s what this is about.

The day started at 5:30, when I woke up. Actually, that’s a lie. It started at 1:30, when I woke up and wondered if I’d slept through my alarm. Then it continued at 3:30, when I woke up and wondered if I’d slept through my alarm. Then I woke up to my alarm, “The Cave,” by Mumford and Sons. I gathered my things:

  • towel
  • running shorts
  • running shoes
  • normal shoes
  • 2x small elastic gauze bandages
  • medium elastic gauze bandage
  • hockey tape
  • phone
  • wallet
  • keys
  • banana

I ate a bagel with peanut butter, and at about 6:15 set out with my travelling companion/S.O. on our way to Oro county, about an hour north of Toronto, where the “Toronto Race” was being held.

We made the trip in good time, arriving at Burl’s Creek Family Event Park around 8:45. We collected our things from the car and made our way to the line up of school buses shuttling people off to the actual course (Burl’s Creek was just the parking area). The bus ride took about 15 minutes, getting us to Mount St. Louis Moonstone Ski Resort for 9:00. My heat ran at 9:30, so the pressure was getting on a little bit to get ready.

Self + S.O. smiling shuttle selvesie

I made my way to the registration line, and after sorting out that and my waiver, it was 9:15, and I hadn’t seen my teammates. I decided the best course of action was to get ready and then find them. So I went over behind a tent, quickly changed into my running shorts, wrapped both feet using the smaller gauzes and hockey tape, and wrapped my left hand in the larger gauze and hockey tape.

(Note: I neglected to replace the shoes I ruined doing the Spartan Sprint until last Friday. Expecting terrible blisters from using these non-broken-in, cheap, Payless Shoe Source-purchased shoes, I used the gauze to tape the blister-prone areas of my feet. Having gone over the handlebars of my bike last Monday, my left palm was scraped up nicely, and to help avoid an infection and/or bleeding on people, I wrapped that hand in gauze as well).

Tough Mudder WRECKS shoes

By the time all of this was sorted out, it was 9:28, and I could hear them pumping up the first heat. I checked my phone for messages from my teammates, or S.O., since I was still holding all of my other stuff, not having had time to check it. I saw that they had been on a hill just in front of the start area, so I went up there, did not see them, and left my stuff there (what a trusting fellow I am).

I figured my teammates had already gone into the start area, so I went in to check. This involved passing a 6 or 7 foot wall right off the bat. I didn’t see them anywhere, but I was right at the back and the pen was pretty full. When the race started I kept looking around for them, hoping I wouldn’t have to hop back out to find them. To my utter relief they both hopped over the wall at that point, before the pen had even cleared. We had a brief (but emotionally intense, I assure you) reunion and started off after the pack. They had been looking for me outside and I had been looking for them inside. But it didn’t matter; the Mudder was on.

So on

So we run for a little while, and then we come to the first obstacle: Kiss of Mud. Barbed wire is stretched across some shallow trenches, and you have to crawl through on your stomach. I, being worried about my cardio mainly, and not wanting to weigh myself down, went shirtless for this. The muddy trenches also contained a good number of rocks. This was unpleasant.

Those ants are people… mildly masochistic people.

The next obstacle is a little ways away, and is appropriately called Arctic Enema. You know those days that are just so hot, and you want to fall into a freezing pool of water immediately, and you think this would feel very good? Well, this was the case, and it actually kind of did. But then it didn’t. And then you have to go right under the ice filled water to duck under a low wall so you can get out the other side. It was probably about 15 seconds of this ice bath, but it was also not very pleasant (but actually not as cold as I was expecting). My teammate had been taking cold showers exclusively to prepare for this obstacle, and he said it wasn’t quite as cold as his showers.

Hills

After this was more running, but up a ski hill. We managed to run for parts of this hill, but it was also necessary to do some walking to make it up. The next obstacle we encountered was the Berlin Walls #1: a pair of 8 foot walls with a slight toe hold at about 2 feet to help people get up and over. We all cleared these without much trouble. Next were the underwater tunnels. These consisted of floating barrels in a small lake. You have to swim under each barrel to get through. This was the first potentially serious difficulty I had. Swimming to the other side after the barrels, my left knee (which has a habit of being rather messed up) tracked (read: kneecap pulled to the side). This was somewhat painful, but more just worrying for the rest of the course. It’s not a big deal if it happens when I’m not bearing weight, but I can do some decent damage when I am. Fortunately, when I came out of the water it had mostly sorted itself out. After a climb up some mud (Cliffhanger), we came to Hangin’ Tough: a series of rings suspended over water. I knew I’d be having some difficulty with things that required hands, thanks to my antics on Monday, but did not anticipate that my bandage would reduce my grip so that I fell on the second ring. Oh well. I swam across and reminded myself to come back next year and get that one.

Hills

After this was the Mud Mile (clambering over trenches), Spider’s Web (climbing up and over a cargo net), and Trench Warfare (crawling through covered, small trenches). Trench Warfare brought out a little bit of claustrophobia in me, but I just focused on moving forward, and before I knew it I was out.

Boa Constrictor – Halfway

Boa Constrictor – Conquered… now just to get out

Next up was Walk the Plank (a jump into water), Boa Constrictor (crawling through plastic pipes that were just narrow enough I couldn’t get my knees under me), and Log Jammin’ (going over and under approximately waist-height log walls). Through these, there was some very nasty hill work, and eventually going up, my calves started to cramp. I had to adjust my gait so that I wasn’t using the muscle so much, and consciously focus on relaxing my legs. Then came Greased Lightning which was basically an improvised water slide down part of a hill.

Down-Hills

We then came to one that I had been dreading: Funky Monkey (monkey bars, going up and then down). Knowing the state of my hands, and now anticipating the difficulties of my bandage, I was understandably concerned about making it across this one. I pulled the bandage as far down as I could so I could use the top half of my palm on the bars. I found that so long as I went slow, and made sure I had a good grip with my left hand, I was able to make it just fine.

Some more unpleasant hills brought us to the Electric Eel: the same as the first obstacle, except there are electric wires (lots) hanging down from the barbed wire. Every now and then (probably between ten and fifteen times) you get a painful electric shock of 10 000 volts (but low enough amperage for it to be safe). For this one I just kept my head down and kept moving. Some people try to avoid the wires, but I didn’t want to take the time, and I figured the shocks would feel worse if I tried to avoid them. Getting out the other side was a welcome relief.

We now met Berlin Walls #2, which were 12 feet high. One of my teammates was having trouble with his knee, so I helped him get a grip on the top of the wall and he was able to pull himself over. Next was my turn, and it was fine, except my calf cramped as I grabbed the wall. I let myself hang there until it relaxed (just a few seconds), scrambled over, and then went to the second one. This time I went straight to hanging to try and avoid the cramp, which worked.

Next the whole team grabbed a ten foot log, and carried it up a hill and back down (Hold Your Wood).

On the way down the rest of the hill, my hamstring started cramping as well. This was not a good sign, especially with the last two obstacles being difficult ones. The first up was Everest (a greased 12 foot high quarter pipe that you run up and have to grab the top of). My first teammate makes it up no problem. My second teammate (with the bad knee) makes it up no problem. All the while I’m kneading my hamstring to try and work out the cramp enough to make it up. It’s my turn, and I start running towards it, legs okay so far. I start running faster and the leg still hasn’t cramped. I’m at the pipe now, and I go for it. One step, two steps, three steps, and I’m eyelevel with the ledge. I grab it and manage to pull myself up: no problem.

…people with strange ideas of how to spend a Sunday

A little jog later and we’re at the very last obstacle: Electroshock Therapy. It’s a bunch of shallow trenches with electric wires hanging down. Most people either try to sprint through or try to dodge the wires. I convinced my team to do neither. We were going to look more badass than any three guys holding hands ever have: we would hold hands and walk through slowly, as a team, so that everybody took every shock.

I don’t know why they listen to me.

Anyways, we do this, it’s awesome, and we cross that finish line 2 hours and 42 minutes after we started, a time that we were all more than happy with, wearing our orange headbands.

Correction: Awesome Orange Headbands

Getting clean afterwards (except you’ll never be clean again)

I would like to note that after twenty or so electric shocks at the last obstacle, my toes wouldn’t uncurl until I sat down. I don’t know how to feel about that.

Also, my stuff was on the hill where I left it. Mudders are awesome people.

All in all: awesome day.

Tough Muse

Hello Interdwellers!

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot, lately, about different approaches to being happy in life. It seems like it would be awfully easy to proceed down a particular path, because that’s just what people do, or because you won’t be successful otherwise. But if in the end you’re not happy, then what was it all for? With that in mind, I’ve been searching for people’s ideas about how to lead a happy life. What I like the most, so far, is Leo Babuta’s sites, zenhabits.com and mnmlist.com, in which he advocates for a number of things: working towards goals, simplicity, family, exercise, and mindfulness. He advises, each day, setting out three (or four, or two) Most Important Tasks (MIT’s), at least one of which is moving you closer to a longer-term goal, and completing those above all other things in your day.

I like this.

By following it, every day could have a sense of purpose. So long as those things were completed, at the end of each day you can legitimately say, “I’m one step closer to achieving something important to me.” A good first step in this, then, would be knowing what’s important to you. So, I made a list of long-term goals for myself. The criteria I used for these was: a) it could not simply require a single large effort, b) it had to be reasonably specific (e.g. “travel” would not be specific enough), and c) it had to be something that I would feel a sense of accomplishment for completing (while I would love to go skydiving, I wouldn’t feel that much accomplishment. The plane and parachute are doing most of the work). Thus, without further adieu, here’s

Jared’s Long-Term Goals
(in no particular order, or organization)

  • Become an early riser
  • Design and build a puzzle-box
  • Learn to sing
  • Compete in the Iron-Man Triathlon
  • 100 perfect push ups in 100 seconds
  • Learn to play piano
  • Meditate more seriously
  • Achieve full front and (both) side splits
  • Start a non-profit organization
  • Learn to play the violin
  • 50 perfect, dead-hang pull ups
  • Learn to draw
  • Complete the Spartan Death Race
  • Start an (eventually successful) small business
  • Write and publish a novel

Clearly, many of these goals will take years of work, but by breaking them down over the course of my life, and using some strategies for maintaining focus and motivation, I think that they are more than doable (except possibly 50 dead-hang pull ups. I get tired just looking at that).

Since I don’t particularly want a mid-life crisis, and barring any serious extensions to our lifespan, I would like to complete all of these by the time I’m 40, which gives me 20 years. Since I’m at the point where gains in my physical aptitude will get more difficult over time, I should be working towards my physical goals first, along with anything that will take the longest time. So then, over the next 10 years, I’d like to work towards:

Jared’s 10-Year Goals
(in no particular order, or organization)

  • Compete in the Iron-Man Triathlon
  • 100 perfect push ups in 100 seconds
  • Achieve full front and (both) side splits
  • 50 perfect, dead-hang pull ups
  • Complete the Spartan Death Race
  • Start an (eventually successful) small business
  • Start a non-profit organization
  • Learn to play piano
  • Learn to play the violin
  • Become an early riser
  • Meditate more seriously

Since I’m still in school, and depending on the direction I take regarding Masters or PhD studies, could be for upwards of 7 years, and since I want to maintain a balanced lifestyle, I should be working towards my physical goals now, along with school, and saving my non-physical goals for afterwards. As well, since competing in the Iron-Man is part of my plan for progressing to the Spartan Death Race, I can exclude that from further entries. Thus, we have:

Jared’s 5-Year Goals
(in no particular order, or organization)

  • 100 perfect push ups in 100 seconds
  • Achieve full front and (both) side splits
  • 50 perfect, dead-hang pull ups
  • Complete the Spartan Death Race
  • Meditate more seriously
  • Become an early riser

Now we have something to work with.

For achieving 100 perfect push ups in 100 seconds, I’ll start off by following http://hundredpushups.com/, with the modification that every time it says “push up” I’ll replace it with “perfect push up.” Once I’m able to do 100 push ups (6 weeks by their estimate; 10 weeks seems more likely), I’ll develop a plan for increasing my pace.

For achieving 50 perfect, dead-hang pull ups, I’ll develop a similar progression, possibly using Brett Stewart’s “7 Weeks to 50 Pull Ups.”

For achieving splits, http://www.unique-bodyweight-exercises.com/splits.html

As far as meditating more seriously goes, I’m going to begin meditating 5 minutes before and after my workouts, gradually increasing to 10, and 15 minutes (I find it surprisingly difficult to sit and not do).

For becoming an early riser, I’m going to simply do all of these exercises early in the morning. If every week, I can get up 15 minutes earlier, until I’m comfortable getting up at 5:00, then I’ll be satisfied with my early-rising.

Finally, working towards the Spartan Death Race. My progression, in general will be:

  1. Tough Mudder
  2. marathon
  3. Spartan beast
  4. triathlon
  5. Ironman
  6. Spartan Death Race

probably repeating everything done before as I work towards the next level. The way that I prepare will largely depend on which stage I’m at. Since I’m currently “getting ready” (working 10 hour days and not exercising) for the Tough Mudder, my performance on that will also partially determine my preparation for the marathon. With the exception of the Ironman race, completion will be satisfactory for moving on to the next step. For the Ironman, I’m setting that I have to be in the top 25% of finishers to move on to the Death Race, otherwise I repeat the Ironman.

As a side note, since I’m currently working 10 hour days, and next term I don’t have classes before 11:00, I’m probably going to hold off on starting these until September. Possibly bad idea? Yes. Better than burning out one week in? Also yes.

So. That’s that then. I’m sure this won’t be the last post I write on these goals, but until then,

Cheers.

-Jared

Good Yester-morrow!

Over the last couple of months, on weekends, I’ve been working with two of the students at my dojo, Scott and Hayden, on developing some demo routines. The first we decided to tackle was expanding and refining a sequence of knife defences that they put together one class. It brought me back to the days when I was just starting on the demo team at Dynamic Arts, and reminded me of how far I’ve come (in a less prideful way than that sounds). My first practices were spent sitting and watching as the students who were already on the team practised their routines and got more help from Sensei Lachapelle than the rest of the school. Eventually the other newbies and I got to join in on the fun, starting off learning their foundational routines in which places would be found for us, to eventually being integral parts of an exciting new routine, to finally performing individually, or at the front of a group. It was quite a journey, and its sad that it ended the way it did.

But maybe I shouldn’t say ended, since now I’m getting to pass on what I learned there, and what I’ve learned other places to a new generation, and maybe build a demo team that’s as good as what we had there- or even better!

So, with that in mind, here’s a slightly outdated video of Scott and Hayden performing their knife routine:

Looking at it now (a few weeks after actually filming it) little things are starting to bother me, many of which we’ve already fixed or improved. I’ll post an updated one next week, showing where they’re at now.

Hello webbies!

Yesterday, I read every article on mnmlist.com. It’s a good blog, and was a good read. Leo (the blogger) is a minimalist, which for him involves owning few possessions, simplifying his work schedule, and following a vegan diet. Minimalism is an aesthetic movement that seeks to find the essence of something by removing everything unnecessary. An example of this would be an architect using flat clean surfaces to create a particular shape. Much of Apple’s products also have  a minimalist aesthetic. As a philosophy, though, minimalism seems to be about simplifying to find greater happiness and contentment. For example, Leo owns a minimum of clothing (it sounded like about a drawer’s worth!), has no car, a small house and no icons on his desktop. He also has a wife and 6 kids (Ha! Not very minimalist in the child-department, are we, Leo? Just kidding; he addressed this in his blog…).

So far, the philosophy has inspired me to clear out my facebook. I’m now down to about 70 friends (all of whom I actually care to keep up with), down from 200+. What I like about this philosophy is that it is extremely well-defined. In considering any choice, it is usually very easy to apply minimalism to help make it.

(LOLNote: I had this entire next paragraph written out in math-ese, to show how well-defined the philosophy was. Then I realized that’s ridiculous.)

Simply ask, “Will my life be simpler, or at least not any more complex, by making this choice?” If the answer is yes, then it’s a good choice; otherwise, it’s not. But, presumably, given the choice between a simple life, or a more complex one, we all would make the choice to have it be simpler. The problem, then, is that we don’t ask the question, and thus never frame the question that way. It’s a constant process of evaluation, and re-evaluation, looking for things that you don’t need or that are unimportant and getting rid of them, thereby discovering what’s truly important.  It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” (but presumably in Greek).

As a way of life, it’s a very interesting, albeit simple, philosophy that I think deserves merit. What I’d like to consider, however, is applying this philosophy to Karate (and to a lesser extent, all martial arts). Is there a way that our training can benefit from minimalism? I think there is, especially when we consider the origins of Karate, and Karate for self-defence. Most modern Karate-ka will learn at least 5 or 6 kata before their black belt, and I’ve heard of curricula with upwards of 10 kata. As far as individual techniques go, at my old dojo we had:

  • high block
  • low block
  • inward block
  • outward block
  • head block
  • leg check
  • reverse punch
  • jab
  • cross
  • hook
  • vertical punch
  • ridge hand
  • spear hand
  • back fist
  • hammer fist
  • half fist
  • throat strike
  • eagle’s talon
  • chop
  • palm heel strike
  • reverse crane
  • crane’s beak
  • middle knuckle
  • tai-chi palm
  • eye strike
  • tiger’s claw
  • front kick
  • lift front kick
  • round house kick
  • power-roundhouse kick
  • side kick
  • pumping side kick
  • spinning side kick
  • jump-spinning side kick
  • back kick
  • spinning back kick
  • jump-spinning back kick
  • knee strike
  • hook kick
  • spinning hook kick
  • inward crescent kick
  • outward crescent kick
  • wheel kick
  • axe kick
  • tornado kick
  • front fall
  • back fall
  • side fall
  • front roll
  • back roll

And don’t even get me started on self-defences. For my first black belt grading, I had to know upwards of 50 self-defences for things like “double wrist grab from behind” or “hair grab from behind” or “bear hug from behind”… huh, apparently all of my attackers are cowards…

I’m not the first person to suggest that this sort of “feature-bloat” is ultimately detrimental to a martial artist’s development, but what then should be done? We want to be prepared for all situations, and each of those techniques has a situation in which it is extremely useful.

Well, my Sensei has told me that before Karate spread from Okinawa, the old masters would know 1 or maybe 2 kata. They would practise these kata exclusively, and guard them closely. By doing this, they gained insight into the kata, not just understanding its practical applications, but understanding the subtle variations required for different body types; the flow from one movement to the next; where to breathe and how to breathe; when to be tense, and when to be relaxed. By reducing the breadth of their practice, they were able to increase the depth. During my preparatory period for my grading, I found the same thing, that by focusing on Seipai almost exclusively, I made more progress in understanding that kata than in all the rest put together. This is minimalism; narrowing your focus, to appreciate something to a greater degree.

By understanding these techniques better, their training became simply to get to a position to apply one of these techniques.

We must then decide what our goal is in training in a martial art. Are we looking to be devastating fighters? Or are we looking to be impressive athletes and acrobats? Or perhaps (as is my case) some combination of the two? I believe that in the former case, adopting a minimalist philosophy is wise, and having a small set of tools you’re extremely proficient with, will serve you much better than having a whole toolbox that you only kind of, sorta, “I-saw-this-guy-use-it” know how to use. In the athletic case, I think that training all of the movements is a perfectly legitimate path, will give you variety and will allow for more exciting performances. In the latter case, I think a combination of both methods is necessary. Train all movements, but focus on a particular set to develop proficiency for practical purposes.

Yes, I can do a butterfly kick, but I’ll stick to Seipai when my attacker gets a choke on me…

from behind.