Archives for category: Martial Arts

I just don’t want to die without a few scars, I say. It’s nothing anymore to have a beautiful stock body. You see those cars that are completely stock cherry, right out of a dealer’s showroom in 1955, I always think, what a waste.

-Chuck Palahniuk,   Fight Club

I didn’t sleep well last night. I’m not sure how much of the night was spent trying to find a comfortable position for my leg, and how much was spent dreaming about finding a comfortable position for my leg. It’s the third night in my life I’ve spent like that. I’ve never broken a bone, (except possibly a toe), I’ve never even stayed overnight at a hospital, but three times in my life I’ve damaged a knee to the point that I couldn’t sleep properly. It’s always near the end of training, and it’s always doing something that should be easy. It probably goes to show that I’m careless with things I’m competent at. It sucks. It really sucks. As I was turning in the air, I could tell I wasn’t going to land on the leg I’d intended to. I thought I could swing my other leg around fast enough to get me on to my feet. Had I of bailed, I’d be fine. For a moment I felt silly for crashing a 540 kick in front of the people at gymnastics. Then I stop feeling silly and things move in slow motion. My body is about two feet off the ground, with my right foot swinging down from over top of me to try and land (left side of my right foot is approaching the ground). It contacts before my body does. My foot and lower leg stop. My upper leg does not. There’s a sickening feeling as my knee briefly dislocates towards the ground, and I can feel the tendons and ligaments stretching (tendons are supposed to do this a little. Ligaments are not.). Before my body hits the ground, I feel foolish again. I feel foolish for throwing a move that I’m not good at at the end of a practice on a day when I’d had to walk for thirty minutes in the cold and I hadn’t been able to jump properly all practice. I feel foolish for damaging the knee that was still perfect.

I feel foolish for trying to show off.

Then the pain comes. I’d be lying if I said it was the worst I’ve ever felt, or that it was blinding. It was neither. But it was tremendously disheartening. A string of obscenities followed, not from the pain, but from the pain that was to come. In that moment I could see 6 months of recovery, hobbling about, wincing with every step. I calm down, and focus on my breathing, and the pain gets better. Practice ends. People offer to help. I stubbornly refuse. I get home. I wake up, and it’s today. I call in to work. I can’t make it down stairs let alone to work. A shower helps a little. Gradually, while reading in bed, the mobility returns. I currently have almost full extension, and can get to about 30 degrees of flexion. This is a good sign. I don’t think it will be as bad as the first time, and only marginally worse than the last time, which saw me back training within two weeks. What follows are the reasons I’m thankful for this injury, and for the others I’ve sustained.

  1. Freedom -Once I was up on my feet, I joked with one of the other people who had been at practice that I’d spent 8 years favouring my good leg, afraid of re-injuring my other leg. Now I don’t have a good leg, and I can become a more balanced athlete. Fear comes from having something to lose. There’s no reason I can’t make my leg stronger than it is now. My other leg is certainly stronger than when I injured it. Now I don’t have a “perfect leg,” to lose; instead I have two legs that can be broken, and can be fixed, and can be built stronger than they are. 
  2. Feedback -I know that if I had been at the same fitness and strength levels as before I came back to karate I would not be walking today, and would probably need surgery. My knee is (well, was, and soon will be again) more flexible than it has ever been and stronger than it has ever been (pistol squats were pretty unthinkable two years ago). The muscles around my knee protected it from a more serious tear that could have required surgery. As well, this tells me that I need to improve my discipline even with moves that don’t seem dangerous. I took my mind off of what I was doing, panicked, and hurt myself. Lastly, this shows me how much I’ve learned about my own body, and the body in general since my first injury. Rather than feeling at a complete loss for how to proceed, I feel comfortable assessing different aspects of what I’ve done, and am beginning to think of a regimen to get me back into fighting form (after a few days rest that is).
  3. Challenge -It’s relatively easy to keep your spirits up and persevere through something like the Tough Mudder, or even a black belt grading. You’ve got this great goal that you’re about to achieve. You’ve put lots of work in, and you’re finally going to be rewarded if you can just get through the next few hours. Injuries, on the other hand, are a different sort of challenge. They come uncalled and they seem unfair. Perseverance is the only option. You put in weeks, months, and sometimes years of work to heal completely, and what are you left with? You’re back to where you started. The challenge then, is to keep up hope: to see every difficulty as an opportunity to grow as a person and to meet the difficulties head on. There will be pain. There will be days when you don’t feel like stretching, or squatting, or getting out of bed.But at the end you’ll move smoothly and easy again, and nobody will ever know that you were injured. But you’ll know, and you’ll know that you paid for your right to move freely with your blood sweat and tears.
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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

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.

Good day, all!

So I’ve been living in Vaughan, Ontario for the last three months on a co-op term. That means I’ve been working full-time, approximately 90 km away from the dojo I train at. Since I’m also car-less in the interim, I haven’t been to a single week-night class. I have, however, been back on weekends to teach classes on Saturday mornings.

The second thing that my co-op in Vaughan means, is that I’m in a completely new martial environment, one which just happens to include Vladimir Vasiliev’s Systema school.

Yup.

I’ve been cheating on Karate.

But with videos like this, who could possible resist that sexy little nymph of a martial art:

Systema (also known as Russian Martial Art) was founded by Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev (Mikhail’s top student). A quick google (lol, verbing nouns) reveals that Mikhail and Vladimir are both accomplished in the russian military and secret service (read: Spetsnaz). Supposedly both were involved to varying degrees with Russian counter terrorism and black ops, and Mikhail is even cited as having literally written the book on hostage negotiations. Vladimir’s school in Thornhill (which is either part of Vaughan, or right next to Vaughan; I still don’t really know. Supposedly I actually live in a place called Concord right now…) is the Systema headquarters for the western world. So, naturally, living a mere twenty minute bike ride away, I made an effort to try out a few classes.

Okay, so I “tried out” classes the way a bear “tries out” your processed cheese slices; with no intention of ever going back to roots and berries again.  When I stopped in one day, before trying a class, I saw Vladimir hitting some of the students with a big leather whip. It looked painful (it also is painful). Coming from my pressure point work with Sensei Paul Simoes, any class with that level of masochism was immediately attractive.

(Side Note: The purpose of the whip was not punishment. It was an exercise to teach you where the tension is in your body. If you’re completely relaxed, then you’ll allow the energy from the whip to pass through your body effectively. If you’re not, then it will get blocked, which will be interpreted as pain. Big pain.)

The classes involve a multitude of drills unlike anything I’d ever done before. There’s a big emphasis on partner work, ranging from walking over your partners body using your fists, to rolling with your partner on the ground, to walking towards and punching each other, and all sorts of things in between. Some of the conditioning exercises are pretty brutal too. One involves using your fists against a concrete wall, walking down the wall as you walk your feet further and further out until you’re in a superman position, supported by the friction between your fists and the wall, and then going back up. Others involve holding your breath (on exhale, which is much much harder, I’ve learned) while doing push ups or sit ups (or squats or leg raises or running or that wall walking drill or just lying down or…).

I’ve been trying to understand the idea behind Systema (I think all arts are grounded in ideas), and here are the two I’ve learned so far:

  1. Be tensionless

    This is perhaps the most base concept of Systema: all pain comes from tension. No tension, no pain. There are stories of drunks falling over bridges and walking away with just a few scratches because they were relaxed when they hit the ground. Its the same concept here. When you get hit, breathe out and relax. When you hit, stay relaxed. When you move, stay relaxed. If you let tension develop in yourself, then it gives your opponent a method of recourse- a counter. A good way to test and train yourself in this regard is to do push ups while being aware of the tension in your body. If you can do a push up while staying completely relaxed, then you’ve got a good shot at being tensionless in your training. I’m just starting to be able to feel the tension in myself, and it is disconcerting. When I strike, I’m noticing that there are different parts of my body where the energy doesn’t move smoothly, and these areas would be especially susceptible to counters. The other place I’ve noticed tension is psychologically. In Karate, it’s become such a routine that its easy to focus on what I’m doing and clear outside worries, but with Systema, there is much less ritual and routine, so I don’t have the same ease. I often find my mind wandering to other things in my life, and it takes conscious effort to regain my focus.

  2. Do your own work

    In Karate, I’d learned (often from personal experience) that in sparring matches, the person who’s able to play his own game and make his opponent also play his game would usually be the winner. For example if one person had a very aggressive, quick style and was able to make his opponent (who supposedly doesn’t have the same style) spar in the same way, he’d probably win. But Systema takes it further. In everything you do, don’t allow yourself to get bogged down by what other people are doing. If you’re moving, move for yourself, not for your opponent. Similarly, when you take a stance, either to strike or for some other purpose, its important that you’ve taken the stance you want. You should be stable and centred. It’s the only way to deliver power effectively and, more importantly, consistently. I think I’ve improved the most in this regard. I’ve stopped worrying so much about what my partner’s doing, and focused on what I’m doing and what my goals are for the exercise. If I want to focus on taking a proper stance before striking, then I’ll make sure I’ve got that stance before I perform my strike, even if that means my strike misses, or is too late. It’s also good for the ego, being a beginner again.

Systema: it is not a magic system for destroying any attacker, but it is a legitimate martial art in its own right, and its instructors are highly skilled, leading people to alternately claim it as superior to other martial arts, or completely fraudulent. One thing I can say with regard to the sceptics out there: every demonstration Vladimir does looks just like the videos on YouTube, and nobody in that room is trying to make him look good; they’re just trying to learn from him.

I see this training, not as a betrayal of my beloved Karate; oh no! But instead as a complement, so that I can better understand the weaknesses in myself, and properly direct my training. It’s also given me some great drills to torture teach my students with!

P.S. I just learned that in the Japanese penal system, seiza position is an integral part of “correcting” prisoners’ faulty attitudes: http://amblerangel.wordpress.com/2012/07/25/hell-raising-teenagers-in-asia/