Posted by: B Gourley | March 3, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Pyjama Game by Mark Law

The Pyjama Game: A Journey Into JudoThe Pyjama Game: A Journey Into Judo by Mark Law

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This review has also been posted  on my website.

Mark Law’s book contains two types of book in one volume, unified by the theme of judō. On the one hand, it’s a microhistory of the martial art and sport of judō–and, no, it’s not redundant to say the martial art and the sport because while these aspects overlap they aren’t identical. On the other hand, the book presents a personal account of Law’s experience as a judōka who began his practice at the ripe age of 50. The two elements of the book are interwoven together, and aren’t forced into distinct sections by the book’s organization. The history is obviously organized in a chronological fashion, but personal accounts are peppered throughout, and sometimes stories appear in history chapters.

As a history of judō, Law begins with the pre-history of the art in its ancestor martial art of jujutsu, he travels through the arts influence on off-shoots like Sambo and Brazilian Jujutsu, and he examines how the art has contributed to mixed martial arts—the 800 pound gorilla of present-day combative competitions. Particular emphasis is given to Kanō Jigorō’s role as founder of the art and the evolution of judō as an Olympic sport. Interestingly, besides founding Kodokan Judō, Kanō’s other claim to fame was in being the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). However, he never saw judō become an Olympic event, and—ironically–at least a few among those close to him doubted that Kanō would’ve been pleased with his art’s inclusion in the international games.

While Japan dominated judō when the sport first entered the domain of international competition, it wasn’t long before there were a number of other countries including the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Cuba, and Korea that were producing first-rate judōka. Law devotes considerable discussion to the global blossoming of this sport, including entire chapters on some of the more prominent nations. The book discusses the double-edged sword that Japan faced. On one hand, the Japanese were heart-broken when other nations started beat them at their own game. On the other hand, it was clear that this had to happen for the sport to retain a global following. (Otherwise, the sport might have gone the way of baseball—being pulled out of the Olympics because only a handful of North American, Caribbean, and East Asian nations had any interest in it.

There are also chapters on women’s judō, a development that no doubt faced a good deal more misogyny than many sport’s bi-genderifications. There’s always been resistance to encouraging women’s participation in combative activities—even judō, a martial art whose dangerous edges were supposed to have been rounded off through rules, equipment (e.g. sprung flooring), weight classes, and close monitoring. Law discusses the hard-fought evolution of the women’s side of the sport.

As a personal narrative, Law talks about the lessons he learned from training in judō and from testing for rank—an arduous process that requires beating other rank-pursuers in randori (free-form grappling, i.e. the grappling version of sparring.) Many of these lessons will be familiar to anyone who has practiced a martial art (e.g. while it’s more intimidating to fight someone who’s much more experienced in the art, it’s usually vastly more safe—both because senior players are more in control of their bodies and because they have less need to prove anything—i.e. they won’t injure an opponent to protect a fragile ego), but much of this discussion is specific to the culture and practice of judō.

If you’re interested in the history and development of judō, I’d recommend this book. I found the book to be at its most interesting when it addresses the history and globalization of the sport. However, those who haven’t practiced martial arts may find Law’s personal insight to be useful—particularly if you’re considering taking up judō and all the more if you intend to take it up past mid-life.

It should be noted that—judging by the identical table of contents and subtitle—this book was also released under the title Falling Hard: A Journey into Judo. The book does is annotated and provides references. Law is a journalist, and the niceties of that discipline are followed throughout.

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Posted by: B Gourley | January 22, 2015

2015 Martial Arts Movies

[This is a repost from my website, where it appeared on January 8, 2015.]

My third annual preview of martial arts movies will be presented in two installments. Many of the movies in the latter half of the year do not yet have release dates or trailers by January. Ergo, I’m posting the first part now, and will do a revision in mid-summer.

“Martial arts movie” is a bit ambiguous. Almost every action movie features martial arts. The leaked teaser for Ant-Man was pretty much a sequence of Scott Lang (Ant-Man) fighting his way through a corridor to access an elevator. So, does such a movie get included? I’ve opted against putting every action film with a kick in it into this post. Yet, I don’t want to stick to films that feature martial arts cliches (e.g. they killed my master, an evil billionaire is hosting a death match tournament, they killed me and left me for dead, etc.)  I, therefore, use the admittedly subjective litmus test of whether there would be a movie if one took away the martial arts and replaced it with brawling–not just whether it would be a less slick movie with a diminished “woo” factor.

I’ve tried to go as international as possible this year, including Bollywood (using the term colloquially if not precisely) and SE Asian releases in addition to the usual Hong Kong & Hollywood fare.

Underdog Kids (January 16): Described on IMDb as: “Inner city kids from a poor neighborhood go up against the undefeated Beverly Hills Junior National Karate Team.” I’ve seen no trailer for this, just a poster:

Wild Card (January 30): This may be a cheat given what I said above. However, it’s a Jason Statham film, and like the “Transporter” films it probably doesn’t amount to much without the ass-kickery. Let’s face it, you’re not going to see Jason Statham for his extensive acting range.

Dragon Blade (February 19): Featuring Jackie Chan, John Cusack, and Adrien Brody. This is a period piece, and–as you can tell from the casting–is big budget as martial arts flicks go.

Wolf Warrior (March 1) [China]: This looks like more of a shoot-em-up action film than a martial arts film, but some have listed it as a martial arts film and the close quarters action is definitely reminiscent of a martial arts film.

Skin Trade (April): This film stars Tony Jaa and Dolph Lundgren as the good guys and Ron Perlman as the villain. As the title suggests, it’s set around a theme of human trafficking.

Bollywood Dragon  (May 15) [India]: The blurb for this one is: “An English martial arts instructor travels to Mumbai to identify her twin sister’s body, discovering she lived a mysterious life among the criminal underworld and decides to investigate by being her.”
There is no trailer up for this movie as of yet.

The Kickboxer: City of Blood: (May 15): This is a different project than the Bautista / Van Damme / Carano film that was originally titled “Kickboxer” and is now going by “Kickboxer: Vengence,” but there’s no graphic publicity out on it yet. It may not come out as scheduled.

The Transporter Legacy (June 19): Another “Transporter” film, but Ed Skrein plays the role of Frank Martin in this one. As with “Wild Card” it may be a cheat to include it as a martial arts film, but car chases don’t get these movies all the way to watchability.
I haven’t seen a trailer, but there are still photos.

The Boy and the Beast (July 11) [Japan]: This also may be a cheat because it’s an animated film, but martial arts does seem to be a prominent feature of the work. (I believe I included one of the Kung fu Panda movies in one of my past posts, so I think this is fair game.)

Brothers (July 31) [India, in Hindi]: An Indian remake of the American film Warriors. In the American movie, two estranged brothers must fight each other in an MMA bout. (Hence the name of the Indian version, Brothers.) There’s not a proper trailer out, but there is this:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend (August 28): Interestingly, this sequel to an immensely popular film will be released on Netflix and IMAX simultaneously. If this were some risky, low-budget film, going straight to Netflix wouldn’t be at all surprising, but this is the sequel to a movie that was (maybe still is) the highest grossing foreign language film playing in America. If this bold move pays off, it could be the beginning of a new paradigm of movie releases. [Also with The Interview going with an unconventional release owing to North Korean threats and intervention, there maybe a great deal learned about alternatives to a traditional film release.]

The Bodyguard (undesignated Summer release) [China]: Featuring and directed by Sammo Hung.

Movies with unspecified release dates:

SPL (Sha Po Lang) II / A Time for Consequences / SPL2: Rise of Wong Po [China]: This Hong Kong film will feature Thai superstar Tony Jaa. (Is he in everything? Have they cloned him, or does he not need to sleep, eat, and poop like the rest of us.)

The Chemist: A grain of salt on the 2015 release, please. This is an “assasin-who-can’t-bear-to-kill-his-victim-and-ends-up-protecting-her-instead” film.

Pound of Flesh: Jean-Claude Van Damme. The blurb says: “A man’s heroic attempt to help a woman in distress ends up with him waking up the next day without a kidney and plotting his revenge.”

Kickboxer: Vengence: Featuring Dave Bautista, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Gina Carano.

The Martial Arts Kid: As the unimaginative title (generic knock-off of the alliterative “Karate Kid”?) suggests, this is low budget. It features past martial arts competitors like Don Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock.

Ultimate Justice [Germany]: The blurb on IMDb reads: “A team of former elite soldiers are drawn back into action when the family of one of their own is attacked.”
I haven’t seen any publicity for this movie yet.

The Monk (Summer) [China]:This movie is based on a popular Chinese novel entitled Dao Shi Xia Shan (A Monk Comes Down the Mountain.)
I’ve seen no graphic publicity on this one, and the novel has apparently not been translated to English, so I don’t have much to tell you.

Unlikely 2015 Releases:

Stan Lee’s Annihilator: IMDb has it listed for an unspecified 2015 release. If so, those involved are better at keeping secrets than anyone else in Hollywood.

Showdown in Manila: Featuring Mark Dacascos. It’s supposed to begin filming early in February, so a release this year is unlikely. It’s said to be like “The Expendables.” I assume that means that it’s a big cast of past super-stars, but it might just mean that it sucks badly.

Posted by: B Gourley | January 22, 2015

Learning to Leap: Why?

IMG_1631[This is a repost from my website, where it appeared on December 16, 2014.]

Leaping maneuvers are ever-present in martial arts movies and in some martial arts (e.g. Indian Kalaripayattu and some forms of Kung fu). However, these acrobatic techniques are rarely seen–and are even less often successful–in combative encounters (neither in sport nor in the real world–excepting those sports that highly reward such maneuvers and create rules that make them feasible for entertainment value.)


Why leaping, spinning wildness is popular in movies is easy. We thrill to see extremely demanding action that draws ooohs and ahhhhs. It’s the same reason one wants to watch a parkour runner vault over a car (presuming it’s not one’s car), even when it would be infinitely more practical to walk around it. It’s why we want to see gymnasts tumbling and flipping through the air even though walking across the floor is both easier on the joints and less hazardous.


However, the question of why martial arts that aren’t purely for entertainment practice leaping maneuvers. Even a few of the quintessentially pragmatic Japanese martial arts, which follow the motto “eliminate the extraneous” have some leaping techniques. One of the schools I’ve studied, Kotō-ryū Koppōjutsu has a scroll devoted to leaping techniques, despite the fact that it’s otherwise a grounded system–both literally and figuratively. Muay Thai, which also values tried and true winning basics over snazziness, also has leaping knee strikes in its repertoire, though one doesn’t see them a lot in fights. It’s true that the arts that emphasize practicality but have leaping and spinning techniques tend to have a different approach to them. The Kotō-ryū Hichōjutsu (that school’s leaping techniques) emphasize eliminating big wind-ups, and going straight into the leap from a natural posture. This gives one less air, but is much less obvious. It’s particularly useful if you don’t really want air, but you just want to leap as much as you must.  But why leap at all?

Creating this kind of spring loading of the legs may not fly.

Creating this kind of spring loading of the legs may not fly.

This kind of windup would be anathema to schools.

This kind of windup would be anathema to some schools


There are a number answers to this question. First, while it’s hard to make aerial techniques work, when they work, they can be devastatingly effective. There are few ways to put more power into a strike than to literally put all of one’s body-weight in motion under the force of gravity. There’s understandably something unsatisfying about this explanation. I think it mostly has to do with the dearth of second chances in combative encounters. Few second chances make one want to have the highest likelihood of success on the first go.


Second, while tried-and-true, go-to techniques work because they are hard to defeat and /or they minimize one’s risk of a fight-ending counter, some techniques work because they catch the opponent off-guard. Such techniques work because the opponent can’t believe one is actually trying something so wild on them. However, failing to anticipate the unusual, the opponent hasn’t trained a response into themselves. This answer gets us somewhere in cases where either the situation is dire or one knows something about the opponent.


Third–and I would argue most importantly–these techniques produce explosively powerful legs that are beneficial to a martial artist even when he stays on the ground. In other words, maybe they are more important in the role of capacity building than they are as actual techniques to be emulated.

The split kick allows one to kick two opponents at once--as long as they aren't moving and are  perfectly spaced. However, it does require a multidimensional fitness that's beneficial for martial artists. (Which is why I can't do it well.)

The split kick allows one to kick two opponents at once–as long as they aren’t moving and are perfectly spaced. However, it does require a multidimensional fitness that’s beneficial for martial artists. (Which is why I can’t do it well.)


Finally, there’s one more reason that is important but was last because I didn’t even learn this lesson until I was reviewing the photos for this post, and that’s that these techniques require a whole new level of bodily awareness and control. I would generally be considered to have pretty good bodily awareness. I’ve been doing martial arts a long time, have practiced various kinds of yoga and chi gong, and have done my share of other physical training. Still, when I looked at my photos I found that I often had body parts jutting every which way. While one may argue that one doesn’t need that brand of bodily awareness if one is not using that kind of motion, I think that it probably helps with one’s awareness at high-speed in general and that many arts don’t adequately prepare one for keeping one’s body under control when there are those extra forces (e.g. centripetal & centrifugal, and gravity) acting upon it.

In my mind this looked completely different. I didn't have my arms out to the side like I was on a cross and my heel standing leg heel was still up near my buttock.

In my mind this looked completely different. I didn’t have my arms out to the side like I was on a cross and my heel standing leg heel was still up near my buttock.


One aspect of bodily awareness that is particularly important for these maneuvers is control of the eyes. In the arts I’ve studied, there has always been emphasis on the placement of the eyes. However, given all the little details one had to keep in mind, it was a reality easy aspect to half-ass. However, when one is leaping, and particularly if there is a spinning component, wandering eyes translates to crash and burn.

Entering the spin.

Entering the spin.

Mid spin / mid kick

Mid spin / mid kick. I have no idea why my right index finger is pointed down.


I’m not built for leaping. It’s not so much the leaping, but–in the immortal words of Tom Petty–“Coming down is the hardest thing.” I figured that getting to the level of Kalaripayattu training that involves a lot of leaping would be the end of that art for me. As I mentioned, there are some leaping techniques in the martial art I studied, but I was never particularly good at them. When I was young and had the proper body for it, I didn’t have the right mindset, and when I got older I was lacking the physical capacity for them. However, I’ve learned quite a bit about my body through the practice of these techniques, and I’m interested to see what level I can take it to.





[This is reposted from my website, where it appeared on December 15, 2014.]

I see people staring at the railing on which they will stretch their hamstrings just like they would look at a side-by-side refrigerator unit that they have to move down a flight of stairs, psyching themselves up for the stretch. Or maybe they are weighing the question of whether they really need to stretch as one might ponder whether it would be better to get an engine overhaul or replace a car altogether. The point is that there seems to be an element of anxiety or dread associated with actions like stretching that aren’t necessarily pleasurable.


I have a theory about why this is the case.

First, people falsely equate discomfort with pain.

Second, the entire point of true pain is to tell one how not to move so as to avoid exacerbating an injury.

Third, this results in a desire to avoid pursuits that cause such physical discomfort.

Fourth, people create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they tense muscles in the area of the stretch to counteract the aching stretch, but this just increases the discomfort level.


Your body has a clever little device called the myotatic reflex arc (MRA.) That’s when a muscle tenses to avoid injury because the muscle seems to be stretching too fast for comfort. However, that reflex is only relevant to dynamic movement and the fact that it’s a reflex arc means that the signals don’t go through the brain–thus–aren’t consciously controlled. The MRA is different from the tension one holds in a slow and controlled stretch. It’s fun to see people who’ve been encouraged to breath and relax into the stretch realizing that the stretch isn’t as bad as it seems.


Of course, many intense physical activities that cause discomfort may also result in a sufficient endorphin (natural painkillers) inflow and adrenaline / cortisol (stress hormones) outflow to result in net feelings of pleasure. While stretching results in endorphin release, the action of holding the muscle stretched may be too much for our natural painkillers to counteract, particularly when one is breathing easily and thus the body is not under the level of whole-body stress that might encourage the big endorphin dumps desired.


The problem is that one can’t achieve flexibility without pressing against one’s limits any more than one can make strength gains without lifting more or by employing more repetitions. If one just goes to the point at which one is no longer comfortable, you may be able to prevent losing flexibility, but you’re not going to make gains.


Another part of the problem is that people often go into stretching cold, and thus maximize their discomfort. Doing warm-ups and joint articulations before any kind of intense stretching is a good practice. These warm-ups should not test the fullest range of motion, but should move with sufficient quickness to get the muscles and the synovial fluid in the joints warmed up.


The problem with seeing stretching as painful is that it discourages it. Some individuals fail to stretch altogether, and others focus only on the major muscle groups (hamstrings and quads) and miss muscles that adduct, abduct, rotate, and generally stabilize and support the primary agonist or antagonist muscle pairing. The most common injury in the Japanese martial art that I study is a knee injury attributable in part to insufficiently flexible external rotators and abductors and the inability to keep the knee in line with the toes–thus putting too much torque on the joint and too much load on the ligaments.


Wrong: knee is not pointing over toes

Wrong: knee is not pointing over toes


Martial artists, in particular, need to avoid equating discomfort with pain. When discomfort becomes pain, pain becomes agony, and agony become intolerable. There are many factors that can determine the outcome of a combative event, including technical proficiency, physical fitness, and the ability to persevere. The last one may mean the ability to take a licking and keep on ticking as the Timex people used to say.


The good news is that it’s possible to rewire one’s brain to avoid equating the discomfort of stretching with pain.

Step 1: Get a yoga face. In the martial arts, we talk about having a warrior face, which is an expression that conveys one’s intensity and seriousness. For yoga and stretching one should ditch the agony face and replace it with a serene face. My personal recommendation is that you aim to emulate the faces on the Bayon at Angkor.

Yoga face as seen on the Bayon at Angkor

Yoga face as seen on the Bayon at Angkor


Step 2: Keep your mind on your breath, and away from the sensation of the stretch. There’s a reason yoga teachers harp on breath, it will help one reduce one’s overall tension.


Step 3: Stop using the word pain (in your own mind or when speaking out loud) to refer to the feeling of a stretched muscle. You may not be able to replace the word “pain” with something as euphemistic as “stretch bliss,” but try to avoid giving it a name with a negative connotation. It’s simply the sensation of a stretched muscle


Step 4: When you find yourself wearing an agony face and squeezing out the protective muscular tension, ease off the stretch until it’s comfortable. Then ease back into the stretch, keeping the surrounding muscles relaxed and the breath even and deep.  You can visualize expelling the tension with one’s exhalation if that helps.


Step 5: When you experience real pain, have no guilt about heeding it and giving that part of the body time to heal. Of course, this requires an ability to differentiate stretch sensation from true pain.


Now I’ll segue into a discussion of actual pain. When I was having a lot of problems with my lower back–eventually diagnosed as arthritis–I had a bizarro interaction with my healthcare provider. When I first went to the doctor, I faced this unsubtle wall of suspicion because back injuries are a common fraud device for persons addicted to painkillers. That’s because there are many forms of back injury that are hard to witness externally. However, when they x-rayed my back they could see clear indication that something was wrong. Then they were surprised when they tried to foist painkillers on me, and I wasn’t interested.


Here is how I look at painkillers. Imagine the “check-engine” light came on in your car, and you took the vehicle to the mechanic. The mechanic has your car for a brief time and comes back to you with a nominal bill. At first you are thrilled, and then you ask the inevitable question, “So what was the problem?” Your mechanic then says, “Oh, I have no idea, I just disconnected the light. That light won’t be giving you any more trouble.” Needless to say, you are decidedly less thrilled. You wanted the underlying problem fixed.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s no place for pain-killing medication. If one has pain that is so severe that one cannot rest, one’s body won’t be able to heal itself properly.


However, if you pop painkillers to do away with bodily aches, you should reconsider. Those aches are what being alive feels like, and if they come from exercise or labor they should be welcomed and not be framed in a negative light. If they are an indication of a postural misalignment or some sort of systemic problem, you should look into fixing the underlying problem.


[To be fair to my aforementioned doctor, I think people aren’t conditioned to the notion that they are the key participant in their own healthcare and that fixing problems will often require hard work on their part. So a part of the problem in some places–most notably America–is that healthcare isn’t profitable unless they are pushing surgery or expensive medications. However, another part of the problem is that people just want to go to the doctor and have the expert fix them without requiring the personal effort of fixing postural deficiencies or cutting weight. I can understand why doctors are a bit fed up with suggesting people do the work only to get no response. I saw a statistic recently that only 1 in 8 people threatened with a lethal illness would make a behavioral change recommended by a doctor to reduce the threat of the ailment–e.g. stop smoking, stop drinking, cut weight, etc.]

Posted by: B Gourley | January 22, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Zen in Motion by Neil Claremon

Zen in Motion: Lessons from a Master Archer on Breath, Posture, and the Path of IntuitionZen in Motion: Lessons from a Master Archer on Breath, Posture, and the Path of Intuition by Neil Claremon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[This is reposted from my website, where it appeared on December 12, 2014.]

When one thinks of Zen, one thinks of stillness. Sensory and motor deprivation is what scientists call it. But stillness is a favored term among Zen Buddhists. Being someone who is fascinated by movement and activities at the body-mind intersect, this title immediately snagged my attention despite the narrow print on this thin book’s spine. The value of a Zen state of mind in the practice of movement arts is clear and well-established. Zen in Motion recounts the lessons of the author as a student of the Japanese style of mounted archery (kyūdō.) Claremon studied with a Japanese Kyūdō master residing in New Mexico.

It will be clear to many why mounted archers might take allegiance in Zen. Charging down a trail on a horse towards a small, round target, there’s no time for conscious thought in calculating pull and release. Furthermore, there’s stillness in motion (sounds like a koan) that must be maximized because the slightest imperfection in movement can send an arrow astray.

It should be noted that this is neither the first nor the only book written on the nexus of Zen and Kyūdō. (Though it’s the first one I’ve read in full.) Probably the most famous book on the subject is Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, but there’s also a more recent book by John Stevens, entitled Zen Bow, Zen Arrow that tells the story of Awa Kenzō (who was Herrigel’s teacher.) The logical question is what is the value-added of Claredon’s book. If we have two books by more famous authors on seemingly the same subject, why should one read this one? I believe Claremon carved out a good niche with this book that makes it sufficiently different from the books of those other authors.

What is Claremon’s niche? The body portion of the mind-body equation is at the forefront in this book. Claremon directs most of his energies to topics such as breathing, posture, grounding, walking, and balance. While I haven’t read Herrigel’s book completely, I did skim through it. Zen in the Art of Archery seems to focus more heavily on the mind portion of the equation—i.e. the philosophy / psychology of Zen, if you will. This may make it sound like Claremon’s book isn’t much about Zen, which is widely considered a mental pursuit. However, one must remember that postural alignment and breath are crucial in zazen, and that Kinhin, walking meditation, is a well-established practice in Zen Buddhism. Furthermore, I don’t want to imply that Claremon leaves out the mental piece altogether, just that the balance of the discussion is toward the physical. (Whereas, it seems like the balance of Herrigel’s discussion is in the realm of the mental—but Herrigel gets into physical topics as well.) Having said all that, an argument could be made that a more appropriate title might be “Ki (Chi) in Motion” as the author devotes a great deal of space to discussing life energy (Ki in Japanese or Chi in Chinese.)

Another valuable piece of Claremon’s work is that there is plenty of value to individuals who don’t practice archery, but who are interested in discovering how these lessons might apply to other movement arts. For example, I found the topic of the 10-point “Diamond Being” that is a central concept in the book to be quite thought-provoking. The 10 points that are roughly arranged in a diamond shape (vertical alignment of 3 nodes down the left side of body, 4 nodes down the body’s centerline, and 3 nodes on the right side, and all these nodes connected by edges (line segments)) and map to the human body. While much of what Claremon said about this construct was esoteric and not of much use to the scientific-minded reader (i.e. sending ki between the various nodes), the construct had value in thinking about postural alignment, for example. There is an entire chapter devoted to healing that, of course, has a value to non-archers as well as archers.

Some of the concepts that are mentioned can be thought of in terms of the modern-day construct of “Flow,” which is related to Zen states of mind and which has gained a following among modern practitioners of high-speed / high-risk sports.) For example, the idea of perceiving time at a slower rate, which is an established part of Flow states valued by skiers and skydivers, would be a valuable state of mind for shooting an arrow from a moving horse toward a small target. Another example is discussed on the chapter of the fear of falling. Whatever one calls the mental state, avoiding an adrenaline dump and the fear associated with it is critical.

The only graphics are drawings, but they seem adequate to the task.

I enjoyed this book. For me the book’s greatest weakness was a tendency to be ethereal and esoteric. While the author denied believing in magic, there was a fair amount of explanation that no scientifically-minded person could hang his hat on. To be fair, this may in part be because the science of some of these experience isn’t yet well-established. (I recently watched a clip from a Discovery Channel program called “Human Weapon” in which there were some Chi related activities that the technicians and experts said they couldn’t explain for all of their state-of-the-art equipment.) However, it could also be that false experiences were arrived at by the leading statements of a trusted teacher.

I’d recommend the book particularly for those who have interests in activities at the intersection of body and mind.

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Posted by: B Gourley | January 22, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Pirate of the Far East by Stephen Turnbull

Pirate of the Far East: 811-1639Pirate of the Far East: 811-1639 by Stephen Turnbull

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[This is reposted on my website, where it appeared on November 30, 2014.]

Unfortunately, the first thing one notices about this book is what seems like a typo in the title. Instead of “Pirates of the Far East,” it’s Pirate of the Far East, which suggests piracy wasn’t so much of a problem in the region because there was only the one pirate—and that the author isn’t a fan of either definite or indefinite articles. I’m sure this was done intentionally, but it does read oddly and sounds tinny.

This slim book is a typical edition of the Osprey military history series. All of these books are less than 100 pages, illustrated, and focus on a specific class of warfighter over a defined period. In this case, the book presents a class of pirates called wako for the period from 811 to 1639. Wako literally refers to Japanese pirates, but–in fact–these marauders of the high seas were often mixed nationality crews. The book also provides information about counter-piracy activities and those groups of warriors, such as Shaolin monks, who fought against piracy back in those days.

This book covers a range of topics including: the life of a pirate, pirate ships, strategy, tactics, and weapons—as well as the history of these groups. The book has five actual chapters, but there are short units providing important information that would usually be appendices, e.g. a chronology, a discussion of museum exhibits, and an annotated bibliography.

The illustrations are mostly drawings, but include maps and photographs as well. Some of the art is drawn in the present-day by the illustrator Richard Hook, but some are historic pieces from art collections. The photographs also include some present-day photos of locations that were once bases of piracy, as well as photos of museum exhibits (e.g. topographic and other models.) The graphics are helpful in showing how pirates dressed/armored and were armed. The maps and drawings are particularly helpful.

I’d recommend this book, but I do think it’s overpriced at full price. At a mere 64 pages—a pamphlet more than a book–paying $10 or more seems a bit pricey despite the useful graphics and the fact that the author is among the most renowned authorities on Japanese warriors and medieval military tactics. All that said, there are relatively few books on the topic, and it’s not easy to get this information from other sources.

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The Medical Care of the Judoka: A Guide for Athletes, Coaches and Referees to Common Medical Problems in JudoThe Medical Care of the Judoka: A Guide for Athletes, Coaches and Referees to Common Medical Problems in Judo by Anthony J. Catanese

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


[This was also posted on my website.] I’d recommend this book for anyone who holds a position of responsibility in a dōjō or a combative sport gym, including: teachers, coaches, senior students, trainers, etc. It’s intended for those involved with sport judō, but because there aren’t a lot of sport or martial art-specific books of this nature this may be one of one’s best option to get this information. I haven’t stumbled upon other books like this, but performing a search did result in similar books either generic to martial arts or for other martial arts. However, all of the others that I saw were either old / out-of-date, only available in hardcopy (usually at great expense), or were not by physicians. This book is available on Kindle and is quite inexpensive.

While it’s geared toward sport judō, many of the injuries will be common across martial arts. This is truer of grappling-oriented martial arts, but things like mat infections, students with various chronic ailments, and participants being knocked unconscious. (The latter is covered extensively, but arguably being even more of a concern for strikers.)

The book is useful in two ways. First, it discusses first aid and treatment for common injuries in the martial arts. It’s not a first aid manual, and will not replace training. (In fact, the book assumes it’s talking to someone who’s in a position where they’ve had at least minimal training / experience.) However, it may provide useful information about what injuries one should make sure to be trained in when shopping first aid courses. It also gives one ideas about differences of opinion on certain approaches to treatment or the decision as to whether a given participant is safe to participate.

Second, the book discusses whether prospective students with common chronic ailments can safely participate, and under what circumstance. In many cases, this book goes about this by saying what the judō rulebook says. While this may not be a perfect guide for practitioners of other arts, it may give a reasonable idea about how serious one should take a given disease or infirmity.

The book consists of 20 chapters. Most of the chapters cover common injuries and ailments in judō, generally arranged by anatomical systems. However, there are also chapters covering nutrition/hydration, issues for athletes going abroad / older participants / and special needs athletes, drugs and doping considerations, injury rehabilitation issues, psychological challenges, and the traditional Japanese methods of resuscitation and first aid (kappo and katsu.)

In addition to the core chapters, there is some useful ancillary material. First, there are vignettes interspersed throughout the book that could be beneficial. These vignettes reflect the benefit of having an author who is a medical doctor, a long-time judōka, and an experienced match physician. The vignettes may be more likely to stick in one’s head than the blander presentation of information, and these sidebars often address unusual cases. Also, there are two glossaries—one that deals with martial art / sports terminology, and one for medical terminology.

While written by a physician, this book is not written exclusively for other doctors or medical experts. That is to say, it’s easily readable by a lay audience. Medical jargon, when used, is explained the first time in the text, so one doesn’t need to keep jumping to the glossary.

At least the Kindle version is graphics free. That would be problematic if it was a first aid manual, but that’s not this book’s purpose.

As I said in the beginning, if you have responsibilities for the well-being of martial arts students / athletes, you should read this book.

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Posted by: B Gourley | October 31, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Kalari Margam by Ranjan Mullaratt

Kalari MargamKalari Margam by Ranjan Mullaratt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[This review was also posted on my website.]

This is one of the few books on the Indian martial art of Kalaripayattu–particularly written in English. [There are English and Kannada editions–Kannada being the language spoken in Karnataka, the state where the book was produced.]Kalaripayattu is believed to be one of the world’s oldest martial arts and many believe it to be an ancestor to many popular Asian martial arts.

This will be a quick review because this is a pictorial book–i.e. like a coffee table book. While there is text throughout, the book primarily seeks to convey the feel of the martial art through photographs. In that regard the book succeeds tremendously. The photos, often full-page format, are vivid, engaging, and bring Kalaripayattu to life. The photographer, Arabind Govind, did an excellent job, as did all of the practitioners who served as demonstrators for the photos.There is pleasing use of natural lighting for both the photos taken in the kalari and outdoors. The acrobatics are awe-inspiring.

The text is well-written and concise. There were a couple tiny typos that didn’t detract from the meaning in any way. (It’s a first edition and a photo book, so I don’t grade hard there.) The text is most extensive and useful toward the front of the book in the discussions of history, philosophy, and mythos of the art. Throughout most of the rest of the book the text consists of sparse paragraphs used to give a little additional information on the weapons and techniques–including the massage style.

The book starts with background, then it delves into the physical exercises that are used to build fitness, then the unarmed fighting approach, followed by the arsenal of weapons employed in the art, and it concludes with a discussion of vital point massage.

I’d recommend this book for students of the martial arts who are interested in Indian martial arts, or who are just interested in martial arts generally.

I will say that the book may be difficult to get one’s hands outside of Bangalore because it is self-published by the Kalaripayattu Training and Research Center. I will, therefore, give their address: Kalari Gurukulam, 102 Maple Meadows, Chikkagubbi, Bangalore, India 562149.

Their website is

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Posted by: B Gourley | September 22, 2014

Muaythai Training in Thailand for Certificate or Freestyle?


[Note: this has also been posted on my website.] The Muay Thai Institute (MTI) in Rangsit, Thailand is uncommon in that it offers two different approaches to training. The first option is a program that will allow one to test for a certificate showing that one mastered the skills required at one’s respective level (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, Professional, and Teacher.) The second option is daily/weekly/monthly training, which the teachers refer to as the “freestyle” tract.


MTI’s website covers details of pricing and timing, but one may not be clear about what the differences will be with respect to actual training. I’ve trained at MTI on two occasions–the first time for one week and the second time for two weeks–and have trained in the freestyle track on both occasions. The majority of students at MTI seem to pursue the rank certificate approach.  This is probably in part because there aren’t many gyms at which one can get a certificate and transcript recognized by Thailand’s Ministry of Education. There a vast number of places to train Muaythai in Thailand, but few at which one can build rank that has some recognition beyond one’s own teacher.  (Which is not to say that certification is the only reason to train at MTI versus elsewhere; I’ve been back for training without certification.)



Advantage Freestyle Advantage Certificate

Broader training experience

No need for planning

No minimal time investment

Focus on fighting skills


Greater perfection of fundamentals

Doors open to progress

Systematic approach to learning

Learn Wai Kru (respect) in detail


Before I elaborate on some of the differences, it should be noted that at least one’s first few days (and perhaps more depending upon one’s physical acumen) as a freestyle student will be spent training with the Level I (Beginner) certificate students. If your stay is short or if you have trouble grasping the basics, your whole training period may be identical to a Beginner certificate student. However, after a few days the training a freestyle student receives is likely to be different from the Level I student.


I’ll elaborate on the notations made in the above table:


PRICE: It’s a little cheaper to train freestyle. As of the time of this writing, it cost 8000 Baht for the Level I certificate program, which involves 10 training days (i.e. 20 sessions, or 40 hours). So if one trains the usual twice a day schedule without many (or any) days off, one can do this in two weeks. At the weekly training rate, one will pay 5000 Baht for two weeks. Note: CHECK THE WEBSITE as pricing details may change over time.


CERTIFICATE:  In the certificate program, one gets a handsome certificate, plus a transcript that breaks down how one did on all of the requirements so that one knows what items one kicked butt upon and which ones one eked by upon. As I mentioned, this is recognized by the Thai Ministry of Education, and so holds a little more gravitas than one’s teacher saying, “Hey, you can move over to the Intermediate ring now.” If one wants to teach Muaythai, it might not even be a question of what track you will pursue.


Sadly, for those in the Western world rank tends to hold a great deal more importance than it does throughout much of Asia, where one is either the teacher or one is a student and the respect others  grant one is based more upon what one can do and how hard one trains than what color belt one wears.


IMG_4914BREADTH OF TRAINING EXPERIENCE: Freestyle students usually spend more time doing pad work, unrestricted shadow boxing, and sparring than (Beginner or Intermediate certificate students. Freestyle students will also be exposed to a range of techniques from the Beginner through the Advanced levels. A Level I certificate student will focus on mastering the material for one’s level, and that will mean mostly doing footwork drills without and with punches /basic defenses, as well as bagwork.


DEPTH OF TRAINING EXPERIENCE: The flip-side of the previous entry is that certificate students will likely develop better technique because they’ll drill the basics more and will be corrected on smaller errors than will freestyle students. Which of these approaches is better is a personal question that depends on the student’s background and what they hope to get out of training.


THE NEED FOR A PLAN: A freestyle student just needs to show up every session and do what the teacher tells one, when he tells one.  If one decides to take a session or even a day off, there’s no issue other than personal nagging guilt (not that one shouldn’t take a day off once a week or so—depending on how long one is training for.) However, if you are in it for a certificate, you need to be conscious of the effect that dropping classes will have on having the minimum number of classes needed to take the test.


The certificate student may also need to put in time outside of the training sessions. Beginner students must show they know the Wai Kru, which involves an elaborate sequence of moves that one will usually practice in class at most once per day. While one usually has plenty of free time, if you haven’t experienced training Muaythai for four hours a day, you may not be aware of how much energy it takes to go practice even the relatively slow moves of the Wai Kru outside of training sessions.


PROGRESS: For those who want to be able to teach Muaythai eventually, it’s important to start checking off the intermediate steps. That requires progression through ranks. If one has no intention of working toward a high level, the certificate my hold little value. Also, be cognizant that Level 4 and the teaching levels require that one have a certain number of professional fights under one’s belt. That may or may not be feasible for some.  So don’t think you will work your way through to the teacher levels without fighting.


MINIMUM TIME INVESTMENT: The first time I attended MTI, I had only one week and I couldn’t have done the certificate program if I wanted to. If one wants to do the certificate, again, one needs to make sure one has adequate time to get in the minimum number of sessions.  If one has only a week or even a few days, one can get value out of training freestyle.


SYSTEMATIC APPROACH TO LEARNING: If one is new to martial arts (and to movement related activities in general), it may be beneficial to begin sticking solely to a small set of the most basic techniques—as per the certificate program.  The freestyle approach could be frustrating if one doesn’t have some experience using one’s body fluidly and adjusting to changing conditions. While the details of techniques vary considerably from one martial art to the next, there are a set of skills related to bodily awareness that people who’ve practiced movement arts for many years develop that can translate to relatively smooth and rapid acquisition of other approaches to movement.


FOCUS ON FIGHTING SKILLS: For a Beginner certificate student, the Wai Kru is the single most challenging item on one’s list to learn. The Wai Kru is very important, as it’s how one shows respect to one’s teachers and lineage. However, if one is primarily interested in picking up skills to apply to self-defense or to one’s mixed martial arts stand-up game, spending lots of time on getting the entire sequence perfect may not be the best use of one’s time.  (As opposed to if one wants to fight in Muaythai bouts or teach the art one day, in which case it’s worth taking the time to perfect this activity early.) [I should point out that freestyle students do get the opportunity to learn and practice the Wai Kru. It’s usually how one of the day’s sessions is finished each day. However, I will say that in two weeks I was nowhere near fluid in having memorized the full sequence, hence the suggestion that one be prepared to put in some overtime on it if one wants to earn a certificate and get high marks. ]


LEARN WAI KRU AND OTHER “ANCILLARY” SKILLS: There are skills like the Wai Kru that one will probably not master going about the freestyle tract. This may or may not matter to one, and whether it does or doesn’t matter is an important consideration in one’s decision.


These are my views on the difference between training freestyle or for rank at MTI. If you decide to train there, I hope it will be of some value.

Posted by: B Gourley | July 31, 2014

9 Self-Defense Tips for Women

[This was posted on my website as well.] Today is a day of protest in Bangalore to decry sexual assaults on women and children. It seems like an apropos time to offer some advice on self-defense.

1.) NEVER GET INTO A VEHICLE or allow yourself to be taken to another location:

This is line in the sand #1.  He’s telling you to get in the vehicle because he wants to do something that he’s scared to do at the present location. That means your chances if you scream, run, fight, or some combination of the above are better than if you get in the car. A thief wants your money/possessions and then wants to put as much distance between you and he as possible. Don’t believe anything a thug tells you about why he wants to take you somewhere–no matter what kind of soothing tone he may use. He means to do you harm at the end of that ride.

2.) Never allow your freedom of movement to be restrained:

Line in the sand #2. The same logic applies. He wants to bind or handcuff you because he’s scared to do what he wants to do with an unrestrained victim. Your chances are better if you scream, run, fight, or all of the above than if you allow yourself to be hogtied.

3.) If you remember nothing else from this post, remember points 1 and 2. 



4.) 2 ways a cluttered purse can be perilous:

First, if you decide to carry some form of weapon (e.g. pepper-spay or a stun-gun) or the ineloquently named “rape-whistle”, it will do you less than no good if you can’t put your hand on it instantaneously. (Why less than no good? Because your eyes will be on your bag, instead of on the threat.)

Second, see point 5, below.

5.) How to be robbed, a primer:

You’ve probably heard the mantra, “Never fight over money or possessions, they can be replaced, you can’t!” That’s sound advice. However, you must keep in mind that violent criminals use “gimme your money” as a ploy. They wait until your eyes go down and then they pounce with much more ominous intent.  This is the second way a cluttered purse can be perilous. If you start looking through your purse, you’re at risk. Pitch the whole purse, let them find it. If they don’t go for it, then it’s time to flee or fight.

What’s the “proper way” to be robbed? You throw the money in the robber’s direction (preferably between his feet and behind him) and then you run the other direction. If he’s a robber, he’ll grab the money and in the opposite direction from you. If he chases you, then it’s time to be ready to fight for your life.

IMG_40726.) Choose classes wisely:

There are a lot of offerings of self-defense and martial arts classes. The first thing to know is the difference between self-defense and martial arts classes. Self-defense classes will teach you a few basic, easily remembered techniques to get out of the grasp of an unsophisticated attacker so that you can run. If you know that you don’t have a lot of time and energy to devote to learning to protect yourself, this is the type of class you should pursue. You probably won’t learn what you need to get safely away from an athletic psychopath, but–fortunately–such individuals are rather rare. I’d recommend this type of training periodically even for women with no interest in martial arts.

There are many different primary objectives one may see in various martial arts, including: sport, entertainment, sustaining a historical lineage, or preserving historical / cultural events and ways. While self-defense is one of several objectives of almost all martial arts, it’s the primary objective that will shape the martial art and its relevance to you. Sporting martial arts will get you in fighting shape and teach you to take a hit and keep moving, but may leave you with systematic vulnerabilities around the rules of the game.

For example, if punches to the head aren’t allowed, you won’t learn to defend yourself from the head punches that a real world attacker won’t hesitate to employ. If fighting on the ground isn’t allowed, then you’ll miss out on some beneficial training. Also, in a sport you may spend a lot of time punching with a closed fist. This is great if: a.) you’ve built up bone density with bag work and exercises, b.) your hand is wrapped tightly, and c.) you have a padded glove on. If not, there’s a good chance you’ll break one of the tiny bones in your hand on the attacker’s thick, bony skull–and it may distract you enough to lose advantage. This isn’t to imply such a martial won’t prepare you better than the next woman (and better than an attacker, for that matter), but you should only do it if you’re interested in the sport as well as in defending yourself.

Martial arts for entertainment may have you spending a lot of time practicing complex, spinning, aerial maneuvers that will not be useful against an attacker on the street. Again, if you enjoy this kind of martial art for its own sake, I’m not suggesting you should abandon it or that it isn’t benefiting you at all from a defensive standpoint.

Historical martial arts often offer the advantages of being combat-oriented and not rule constrained, but you may spend a lot of time working with archaic weapons and may not practice sparring or free-form fighting–which, I would argue, is essential to being ready to defend yourself. Again, these arts are awesome, but you need to be aware of what you are studying and what it’s value is to you.

Questions to ask:

a.) Can I watch a class? I’ve heard clever explanations for why this isn’t necessary for such-and-such martial art, but if they won’t let you watch a class, I’d move on to the next place. The observation class allows you to see whether that art is right for you and whether the teacher is skilled and professional.  Now, don’t expect a school to keep allowing you to show up and watch, but one class should give you enough idea. You may want to ask ahead to make sure it’s a fairly typical class. Some martial art schools occasionally have atypical classes to communicate some ancillary information to students which isn’t at all that typical. (Alternatively, some schools have classes that are rigidly identical from one session to the next.)

b and c.) Will you teach me how to stay on my feet?  and Will you teach me how to fight on the ground? The ideal answers to both is “yes.” If they answer the first question by saying, “All fights go to the ground, we teach you how to get down and control the situation.” You have some sort of submission sport school that would likely make you tough. However, there’s a reason there are weight classes in those sports. You don’t want to default to the ground voluntarily with someone who outweighs you by 60 pounds and who can bench press you two or three times over.

That being said, if the answer to the second question is, “No. Going to the ground is ridiculous,” you might want to move on to the next school. To summarize, you want a school that will teach you how to stay on your feet so you can get away, but, also, you want a school that’ll prepare you for the worst case scenarios.

d.) Do you do sparring, randori, rolling (as in ground-fighting free-form training), or other free-form training? Note: In most martial arts, you’ll need to spend some time learning basics before you get into sparring (and that’s a good thing, in my view.) However, if the school doesn’t do any of that type of training at any level, it probably won’t prepare you for what you are likely to face. There are some old school martial arts that only do form and technique training, but with no unstructured training.

My final word on looking for a school: Don’t be scared off by the students looking haggard, sweaty, and exhausted by the end of class. Such a school will prepare you much better than one in which the students look the same going as they did coming in.

7.) Drill with any weapon you carry:

Believe it or not, I’ve seen a professional law enforcement officer who accidentally sprayed himself full in the face with pepper-spray. (Among my varied and sundry past occupations has been in law enforcement.) No weapon is a magic talisman that you can put in your bag and expect to have it ward off evil.

8.) Don’t expect the Hollywood plop:

Squirting an attacker with pepper-spray, shocking them with a stun gun, or even shooting them with a handgun will not necessarily immediately and definitively incapacitate them. They may keep coming, hopefully impaired, but possibly just angered. There is an old samurai saying that goes, “Even in victory, cinch tight your helmet cords.” This means, even when it looks like your attacker is down for the count, maintain caution.

9.) Remember items 1 and 2, NEVER GET IN THE CAR and NEVER LET YOURSELF BE TIED UP.

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