The Art of PeaceThe Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[Note: This has been posted to my website as well.]

The edition of The Art of Peace that I read is divided into three parts. Part I is a brief biography of Morihei Ueshiba, who was known as Ō-sensei to Aikidō practitioners and other admirers. Part II contrasts the art of war to Ueshiba’s art of peace. Part III is a collection of aphorisms and brief statements outlining the art of peace.

Ueshiba is the founder of Aikidō, a martial art that was derived in part from Daitō-ryū Aiki-jūjutsu, but which is distinct from that art in many ways. (e.g. the lack of set forms and emphasis on randori.) Along with Jigorō Kanō, Gichin Funakoshi, and a few others, Ueshiba is one of the pioneers of gendai budō, modern Japanese martial arts that take as their primary aim non-bellicose objectives like sport and self-defense. This is in contrast to the koryū budō (kobudō) which evolved primarily for war fighting. In contrast to Kanō’s Judō, which was first and foremost a competitive sport, Ueshiba’s Aikidō offered a particular approach to self-defense that was purely defensive and in which movement was harmonized to the opponent’s actions so as to perpetrate the least violence possible.

The biographic portion of the book is intriguing, but on a few occasions drifts from biography to hagiography. I feel that the suggestion of supernatural abilities does a disservice in the telling of Ueshiba’s story. By all accounts, Ueshiba was an accomplished and highly skilled martial artist, and I would like to read a full biography of his life (a biography exists, but I can’t comment on how well written it is yet.) Given Ueshiba’s pacifistic views, it would be easy to dismiss him as a pie-in-the-sky idealist who had no idea of the realities of the world. I don’t believe that is the case. However, when the biography tells stories of god-like superpowers, it makes it hard to take the man seriously as a martial artist. Either Ueshiba was skilled as an illusionist / mentalist (a distinct possibility) or some of the stories were embellished to deify the man. The story that comes to mind is one in which Ueshiba voluntarily faced a firing squad and emerged unharmed due to either ninja-like or Hollywood vampire movie style actions. This story is attributed to one of his students, Gozo Shioda, who passed away in the 1990’s.

We may get an indication of the roots of this appeal to the supernatural in an early statement about Ueshiba’s childhood fascination with individuals like En no Gyoja and Kukai who are themselves attributed supernatural abilities in stories. Ueshiba is clearly a man of faith. He suggests life should be lived on basis of 70 percent faith and 30 percent science. Full disclosure: I’m more skeptical than Descartes, and obviously favor an outlook more firmly rooted in science and rationality.

Part two includes extensive quotes from Ueshiba himself. It contrasts the arts of war with Aikidō in mental and physical aspects. A core theme of the book is that the martial arts shouldn’t be about learning to die, but rather learning to live. Ueshiba criticizes the past Shoguns who used the art of war to control people. Ueshiba’s views on the purpose of martial arts are stated in this part. From a physical point of view, Ueshiba emphasizes the lack of forms in Aikidō (Bruce Lee echoed similar sentiments on this subject.) There is an interesting comparison of Ueshiba to swordsman and Zen master Tesshu Yamaoka (about whom John Stevens also wrote a biography.)

Part three reads like the work of an ancient yogi in places, and, in other places, offers the stern admonitions to train hard that one would expect from a martial arts teacher. A recurring theme is that the martial artist should purge himself of pettiness, be it in the form of being judgmental, materialistic, fearful, selfish, or malicious. He goes as far as to say, “Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people.”

Another theme is that one should strive to be natural and to make one’s movement natural. Ueshiba’s advice in this book is about virtue and the mind, and rarely strays into the subject of physical tactics. It does offer a little advice about types of distancing, where one should place one’s gaze, the power of circular movement, as well as discussing technique in the abstract. This is not a criticism. There are other books to learn more about physical technique. However, one should be aware that if one would like to know what Aikidō looks like, this isn’t the book for you.

This thin book provided me with a great deal to think about. I’d recommend it for martial artists, as well as for those interested in the life of this extraordinary man.

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Posted by: B Gourley | July 21, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Inside the Lion’s Den by Ken Shamrock

Inside the Lion's Den: The Life and Submission Fighting System of Ken ShamrockInside the Lion’s Den: The Life and Submission Fighting System of Ken Shamrock by Ken Shamrock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[Note: this review has also been posted on my website.]

Inside the Lion’s Den is two (thin) books in one. The first, and longer, part is an autobiography of MMA fighter Ken Shamrock, and the latter part is a guide to his approach to submission fighting.

The first fifteen chapters form the biographical portion of the book. As is common in the modern biography, it doesn’t follow a chronological format. It begins at the height of Shamrock’s UFC career in the mid-1990s and introduces Shamrock and the Lion’s Den (his dōjō in California.) The book does, however, go back in chapter 3 and pick up with Shamrock’s childhood, beginning in 1969 in Savannah, Georgia. Shamrock had a suitably turbulent childhood to merit inclusion in the book. He lived with an abusive father and then a step-father unprepared for such a handful as Shamrock, before he ended up at the ranch of Bob Shamrock who would eventually become his adoptive parent and an important member of his entourage. Ken Shamrock had a raucous and—as is constantly repeated—rage-filled youth.

As might be expected of the biography of a fighter, one trained to psych himself up and psyche opponents out, the book can read a bit narcissistic in spots. Having said that, a fair amount of space in the biographical portion is devoted to topics beyond Shamrock’s fight career. There’s some space devoted to the development of UFC, but even more devoted to Shamrock’s fighters. There’s a chapter that follows a day of tryouts to get a slot as a Lion’s Den fighter. It’s entitled “500 Squats,” reflecting the fact that individuals must first do an insane number of squats as the first round of elimination during the tryouts. Later they’ll have to engage in sparring/rolling with legs burned out as an indicator of how the individual can gut it out. The book offers insight into how an individual goes about breaking into a career in Mixed Martial Arts.

An important theme of the biographical portion of the book is how Shamrock becomes less rage-prone and grows into an adult. This is both the result of the practice of martial arts and his familial relationships–most notably his spousal relationship. This is the human interest part of the story that centers around the man’s most prominent UFC accomplishments.

Perhaps the most important question one can ask about an autobiographical account is whether it’s accurate or not. There’s obviously an incentive to paint oneself in a more favorable light than an objective account might. There’s a professional co-writer of this book, Richard Hanner. One might expect that a professional journalist co-author would lend credulity to the work as that individual has a professional interest–based on reputation–in making sure the details are accurate. Whether Hanner’s presence lends credibility is hard for me to judge (he’s not a national name), but the work does read authentically. Shamrock, unlike politicians, admits many mistakes over the course of his life, and lets the reader know what his takeaway lessons were. Of course, as a public personality, there’s a lot that he couldn’t be duplicitous about if he wanted to, e.g. his fight record and details in the ring.

The last nine chapters are Shamrock’s guide to his submission fighting method. He covers a lot of ground from nutrition to advice for the day of a professional fight. Martial artists will not find a lot of groundbreaking information in this section, but rather will have to dig for nuggets of wisdom in the details. The submission techniques will be well-known to practitioners of judō, jujutsu, and submission fighting. The “crucifix” was the only technique I hadn’t seen before, and for all I know that one may be well-known to Greco-Roman / Pankration wrestlers. The photographs in this section are helpful in communicating Shamrock’s message, but are relatively sparse and small-format compared to the typical martial arts manual.

I enjoyed this book. Shamrock came across as an intriguing multi-dimensional character, and the manual offers a good overview and some important tips on subjects including nutrition, fitness, striking, grappling, and submissions.

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[Note: I posted this on my website as well.]

There are many rules of thumb that are used to convey useful generalizations to martial arts students. One that I’ve heard for years is:

“Use as big a movement as you have time for.”

The idea is that big movements are more powerful and, thus, more likely to be effective in damaging/dissuading the opponent–if they land. Big movements use major joints and muscle groups, and allow one to put one’s body-weight into the target. There is, of course, a trade-off that’s recognized in the latter part of the tenet, and that’s that big movements are slower movements and slower movements are less likely to succeed. (i.e. One needs to streamline one’s big movements.)

Like any generalization, this tenet can be valuable only as long as one recognizes where its truth falters. I think this rule of thumb is great as long as the student does sufficient sparring / randori (after they’ve learned the basics.) If one doesn’t (e.g. if one only practices forms,) one can easily develop a false impression of how much time one has against an opponent who doesn’t practice the same art–and how big a movement one can make work. In other words, one’s enemy may dance about pummeling one about the head and neck as one lunges with big (futile) movements.

The aforementioned tenet isn’t the only way of looking at the question of whether to favor big (long/slow) or small (short/fast) movements.

One might also suggest:

“Use as small a movement as will sufficiently damage the opponent.”

Again, there’s a trade-off. While small movements offer relatively high odds of success–they are hard to see and counter–they aren’t as likely to achieve a much sought-after coup de grace (meaning a fight-ender, not necessarily a killing blow.) The risk one faces if one follows this second tenet too blindly and without sparring is becoming extremely fast while unable to punch one’s way through a wet paper sack. This is kung fu movie style martial arts, very impressive to look at but not so so effective in a combative sense.

I would argue that one should take advantage of any opportunity to deliver substantial damage with small movements (quadrant IV of the first graph), but be aware that these opportunities don’t grow on trees. How does one defy the trade-off? As an example, I have found that moving an elbow into the line of attack of an incoming limb can destroy said limb’s effectiveness briefly, offering one an exploitable opportunity. This is extremely hard for the opponent to see and respond to once they are committed to an attack.

 

Size v Damage

 

So the ultimate question is whether one favors big/slow/low probability/high consequence movement over small/fast/high probability/low consequence movements. As per my second graph I would suggest one finds a way to employ tactics that are as close to quadrant II as possible, while realizing they’re a tall order in a combative situation.

Likelihood v Damage

 

Figuring out how to manage these trade-offs requires a journey to the intersection of accuracy and power.  It’s extremely difficult to be precise in a combative environment, everything is in motion and time isn’t aplenty. However, as one  fine-tunes one’s technique, one should consider what trade-offs are being made and how one can increase power without sacrificing accuracy and vice versa. Ultimately, it all boils down to practicing conscientiously, constantly, and with as much realism as is safe.

power&precise_venn

Now I know what you are thinking, “What kind of nerd puts three graphs in a martial arts blog post?”

This kind [Jutting both thumbs in my own direction simultaneously.]

Posted by: B Gourley | June 9, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Bruce Lee by Davis Miller

The Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts MemoirThe Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts Memoir by Davis Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[I posted this on my website several weeks ago, and forgot that it was quite appropriate for this venue.]

While one expects this to be a biography of Bruce Lee, the first half of it is much more an autobiography of the author that is loosely themed around Bruce Lee’s influence on his life. It’s an unusual book in this regard. However, while my description may induce visions of a dismal read by a self-absorbed author, it’s really not so bad. The latter half of the book is much more tightly focused on the events of Bruce Lee’s life—or, more dramatically, his death.

To be fair, there’s not much material for a Bruce Lee biography. Few lights have shone so bright that, while brief, they provided decades of afterglow. Bruce Lee was just in the news last week as he was made a character in a new MMA video game—over 40 years after his death. (It might seem odd for Bruce Lee to be featured in an MMA game, but while movie Bruce Lee showed us high-flying, high-kicking kung fu, Bruce Lee the founder of Jeet Kune Do emphasized the ability to fight at all ranges, against opponents of any style, and in a pragmatic fashion.) But Bruce Lee the movie star delivered only four completed movies as an adult (though he had a childhood acting career unrelated to Kung fu.) Martial Artist Bruce had only one real fight that anyone knows about and even it remains a subject of great controversy to this day. There are competing claims about who came out on top, to what degree, and how. According to the book, there’s not even much of a sparring record of which to speak.

With the proceeding information in mind, it might not be such a surprise that the author took the tack he did and still produced only the slim volume that he did. Miller’s description of his own life pulls no punches and he spares himself none of the embarrassment incumbent in being a young man seeking to emulate the squealing man with the fists of fury. He doesn’t come across as the narcissist that one might expect from a person who devotes at half of a biography of a global superstar to his own obscure juvenile years. In fact, his profile is of a scrawny kid who got his fair share of wedgies and other bully-induced torments. The autobiographical parts are more homage than self-aggrandizement.

Just as Miller is honest about his own lost pubescence as a scrawny kid, he will win enemies with his frankness about Bruce Lee and those in the gravitational pull of the kung fu superstar. Those who deify Lee will no doubt be displeased to read intimations that he died not on a walk with his wife and from a rare adverse side-effect of a prescription—but non-illicit–drug, and instead died on the bed of a lover from a hash or pot overdose.

Furthermore, Miller tells of how Bruce Lee told his students to stop teaching Jeet Kune Do, because Lee was worried about where it was going. Miller goes on to report about how Bruce Lee’s martial art went awry according to many. Then there is the suggestion that Lee had little first-hand fighting (or sparring) experience on which to build such a combative art in the first place.

However, the overall portrait of Lee is of an exceptional human being, and one who had such a wide range of influence, from fitness to philosophy. While the Bruce Lee physique is now much sought after and regularly seen among movie stars, all the leading men of Lee’s era were doughy by comparison. (One may look no further than his Way of the Dragon nemesis, Chuck Norris.) Lee wasn’t just a movie star and martial artist; he was also a philosopher and thinker. While it’s true that he didn’t produce much in the way of novel ideas, by Hollywood standards he was a regular Algonquin Roundtable member. Lee oozed charisma so powerfully that after all these decades he’s almost as likely to be seen on a T-shirt as Che Guevara—don’t ask me why the Latin American Guerrilla fighter is so popular in silk screen, but that’s beside the point.

To sum it up, this isn’t a book about Bruce Lee, it’s about how his life and death shaped so many other lives—starting with Miller’s. While I didn’t count pages, there seems to be about as much space devoted to the events surrounding Lee’s death as the events of his life. Of course, there’s a bit of sensationalism, but inquiring minds want to know. People are intrigued about how a man who looked to all appearances to be one of the healthiest men on the planet could have died so young. (It’s an interesting irony that Bruce Lee’s almost complete lack of body fat—estimated at under 1%–could well have exacerbated his oversensitivity to whatever substance killed him.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone curious about the life and death of Bruce Lee.

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Posted by: B Gourley | June 9, 2014

Kalaripayattu FAQ

Source: The Kerala Tourist Office

Source: The Kerala Tourist Office

[I posted this concurrently on my website.]
Outside of India, Kalaripayattu isn’t a household name like karate, kung fu, or judō. However, within India, this homegrown martial art is a source of great pride. It’s said to be one of the few indigenous martial arts that survived into modernity (with unbroken transmission, i.e. without a period in which no one was diligently practicing it.) Some consider it to be the mother of Asian martial arts (for reasons I both address and critique in an earlier post.) It’s a mainstay of Bollywood (and non-Bollywood Indian cinema—yes, there is such a thing) and makes frequent appearance in dance performances and plays.

 

I’ve been attending Kalaripayattu classes for the past 4 or 5 months. While this hardly makes me an expert on the subject, it does give me some insight into the art beyond reading or watching videos. I’m also able to make comparisons to other martial arts–one in which I have an extensive background, and others with which I also have limited experience.  I’ve, therefore, put together a collection of answers to questions I’ve been asked as well as others that I can imagine being asked.

 

Pre-Question Question: “Kalaripayattu” is a long name, can I call it by something shorter?

AnswerKalaripayattu is often just called “Kalari.” Note: “Kalari” also refers to the place where the martial art is practiced (i.e. not unlike the words “dōjō” or “training hall”.) If someone refers to “the kalari” or “a kalari” they’re probably talking about a physical location, whereas if they say “Kalari”– without an article—they’re likely talking about the martial art.

As an aside, a kalari, historically speaking, has a precise design approach and dimensions. It’s dug into the ground so that from the outside the building can look like it’s for Hobbits, but inside its ceilings are adequate even for the long weapons used in the art. This method presumably began in an attempt to reduce the effect of the south Indian sun.  Of course, in modern times, kalari take many forms (e.g. the kalari I attend is on the 3rd or 4th floor of a building.)

 

Q1: The most common question is, “Kalari? So, what’s that like?” [In this case, the questioner wants to know what classes are like.]

 

Answer: My stock answer to what classes are like is that if one imagines a class which includes yoga, modern dance, and a hard style of Okinawan Karate, one wouldn’t be far off.

 

Of course, most people have a tough time imagining such disparate elements in a coherent class, so I’ll describe what a typical class (at least at the beginner level) is like. Each hour-and-a-half class can be divided into five parts. The first is warm-ups, which consist mostly of joint articulations, dynamic yoga poses, and—lastly—leaping drills. Warm-ups may also include those old martial arts mainstays, running laps and side-to-sides (facing one direction and moving to the side without crossing one’s feet.)

 

The second section is a series of leg exercises, which are mostly kicks done on alternate legs in laps up and down the kalari. These get more challenging as one progresses. The highest level that I currently practice involves going into scissors splits (Hanumanasana) as one does these laps.

 

The third section is animal poses or movements (depending on one’s level.) One does animal poses in the first level. Now that I’m in the second level, I’m doing animal movements, which involve movement repeated up and down the length of the kalari. I believe there are more challenging versions of the animal movements in the subsequent level(s.) There are eight postures and eight basic movements that are designed to emulate animal behavior.

 

The fourth section is stretching. This involves a series of yogasana (yoga poses) and core work common to yoga.

 

The final section involves what in Japanese arts might be called kata (memorized forms–or set sequences of strikes and kicks) and striking drills.

 

Q2: The second most common question is, “Kalari?  So, what’s that like?” This sounds like the exact same question, but in this case the inquisitor is asking what the martial art is like, more generally. [I blame the modern educational system and Twitter for this lack of clarity in language.]

 

Answer: The answer to the first question gives one a little insight into this question as well, but I’ll expand upon it. First, Kalari is a comprehensive combative system. That mouthful just means that it involves unarmed striking, grappling, and a range of weapons. This should come as no surprise as any martial art that predates sport martial arts is likely to be comprehensive. (In combat, one has to be well-rounded because one can’t plan on a combatant sticking to protocol.)  Oddly, we think of “mixed martial arts” as the latest craze, but arts that specialize in either striking or grappling are the new kids on the block.

 

Second, I have read that the warriors in the area of present-day Kerala (i.e. where Kalari developed) didn’t use armor, and—in a related fact—tended to use weapons that were faster and were employed with greater agility than in other parts of India where armor was more common–as well as, the heavier weapons needed to be lethal against armored opponents .

 

Third, besides including wide-ranging unarmed and weaponry techniques, Kalari has a massage and medicinal component that has been handed down along with it. Readers familiar with either the Japanese and Chinese forms of acupressure massage (Shiatsu or Tui Na, respectively) and either Kobudō or Kung fu, will not be surprised to learn that the same vital points that are manipulated in massage in one way are exploited in martial arts in another. In Kalari, these points are called marma.

 

Q3: Who practices Kalari, and for what purpose?

 

Answer:  At the risk of angering some readers, Kalari has little value for either self-defense or for preparing for combative sports (beyond the choreographed competitions that are Kalari-specific.) Because these two objectives are among the most common reasons for learning a martial art, it’s often asked what type of person practices Kalari and what do they hope to get out of it?

 

It looks to me like practitioners fall into three categories. First, there are those who want to get fit. Kalari succeeds tremendously in this regard. If one practices diligently, one will likely see growth in flexibility, cardio-vascular stamina, agility, and both core and extremity strength. (To be frank, this fitness building is why I said that Kalari has “little value for self-defense” rather than saying that its techniques are “of less value than randomly thrashing about in a fight.” One’s physical capacities rise considerably, and that might serve one even if the motions that are drilled into one’s body have no pragmatic value in fighting a skilled opponent—except in surprising them with one’s flamboyantly acrobatic but excessively expansive and vulnerable motions. I’ll also note that there’s a degree of fearlessness that results from training with metal weapons—even choreographed movement with unsharpened metal weapons—that shouldn’t be ignored as a potent benefit if one were ever to have to fight an advanced Kalari practitioner.)

 

[For those who haven’t seen Kalari and think I’m being excessively douche about its combat ineffectiveness. Below is a video of a couple of very athletic and skilled Kalari performers, and you can ask yourself–in your heart of hearts–if these moves seem likely to be effective against a focused and experienced opponent who has done a lot of free-form sparring.]

 

 

Second, there are dancers and performers who want to impress with the martial moves of Kalari. Hopefully, I can make amends to those who I’ve offended in the preceding paragraphs. While someone employing Kalari techniques would likely be thrashed to within an inch of his or her life if they employed them against someone using Krav Maga, Systema, or even Muay Thai, on stage Kalari moves are far and away more impressive to watch than any of the aforementioned systems. Kalari makes for a great show. The things superheroes do in movies aren’t very realistic either, but we “oooh” and “aahh” when we see them.

 

Third, there are people like me who are interested in the art in a scholarly sort of way from a historical, cultural and /or movement interest. I want to see what this system has in common with other martial arts, and to think about how it might have evolved.  I should point out that I suspect that Kalari was at some point much more pragmatic as a combat system (and correspondingly much less thrilling to watch), and that it evolved to a new purpose over time. This same thing could be said of many arts that evolved into sports or entertainment enterprises (e.g. many forms of Kung fu are also unlikely to gain one success in a fight, but are nonetheless beautiful to watch. Also, I don’t know whether Capoeira evolved away from combat effectiveness or was born that way, but it certainly got there somehow.)  One can also learn about movement in a generic way that might be applied in ways that can be useful.

 

Q4: Is Kalari a unified art or an umbrella term? (To make this clear, consider the word “karate.” If someone says that she studies “karate,” one really knows very little about the art that person studies. However, if one says he studies Isshin-ryū Karate or Shōtōkan Karate, then one might know what that person’s training really looks like.)

 

Answer: As I understand it, there are two different styles encompassed in Kalari. The northern style is called Tulumanadan, and the southern style is Vadakanadan.  By “northern” and “southern” we’re talking about the northern and southern parts of the southwest tip of India, i.e. what is present-day Kerala, but which includes parts of other states–such as Karnataka. I don’t know how much variation is contained in each of those two styles.

 

Q5: How fit do I have to be to join Kalari training?

 

Answer:  Like any physical activity, you certainly don’t need to be able to do what you see the advanced practitioners doing when you start. There’s a gradual build up from simple movements to ones that are more challenging. There is also, some allowance for one’s (temporary and permanent) physical limitations–because we are all different and have our own unique set of strengths and weaknesses.

 

Having said that, if someone apparently non-athletic asked if they should sign up, I’d probably suggest they first take a few yoga classes of a challenging nature (e.g. Power yoga, Hatha Vinyasa, or Ashtanga Vinyasa.) The Kalari classes will ask every bit the same of one’s flexibility and core strength, and substantially more of one’s extremity strength and stamina.

Posted by: B Gourley | April 21, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human PerformanceThe Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[Note: I have concurrently posted this on my website.]

This is NOT a book about the comic book hero. It’s a book about a mental state called “the flow” and how adventure and extreme athletes have used it to make tremendous strides in their sports. The characteristics of the flow include extreme focus, time dilation / time distortion, a vanishing sense of self, extremely high performance, fearlessness, and a falling away of everything non-essential to the task at hand.

Kotler is by no means the first author to write about the flow. The term was inaugurated by a book entitled Flow first published in 1990 by a University of Chicago Psychology professor named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in the process of conducting a study on happiness. He found that happy people tended to engage in activities in which they could immerse themselves and find the zone. Contrary to the early part of Kotler’s book–in which it sounds like adventure athletes cornered the market on flow–Csikszentmihalyi says that said activity could be work or hobby and that the flow is to be found in poetry writing, yoga, martial arts, copy writing, or potentially any activity in which the skill level and challenge are both high.

(To be fair, Kotler does get around to recognizing that extreme athletes neither invented nor exclusively exploit the flow. However, his—well-taken—point is that such athletes are unusually good a finding, and dropping deep into, the flow in part because risk-taking behavior is an important trigger. And for free climbers [rock climbers without ropes], mega-ramp skateboarders, and bodysuit skydivers sometimes there are only two possible states of existence—the flow and being scraped off a rock.) It should be noted that some of the elements of flow sound a lot like the states that have been described by various mystical religious traditions for centuries, e.g. the dissolution of a feeling of separation between self and the rest of the universe. Warning: religious readers may find it disconcerting to read that there are scientific explanations for states that were once attributed to communion with god or the like.

While I’ve given Kotler’s book high rating, I haven’t yet given one reason to read it—and I do recommend people read it. First, while Csikszentmihalyi is the “father” of flow research, his methods were decidedly low tech–i.e. surveys and interviews—but Kotler reports on more recent studies involving neuroanatomy, neuroelectricity, and neurochemistry. Second, while Kotler delves into the science of the flow, he does so in a manner that is approachable to non-scientists. Finally, all of the narrative accounts of extreme athletes interspersed with the more technical commentary make for a very readable book, even if one is not particularly knowledgeable of—or interested in—such sports. I gave this book a high rating both for its food-for-thought value, and because of its high readability.

I will admit that I was not so enamored of the book when I first began it, and other readers may find the same irritation. For one thing, Kotler’s adoration of extreme athletes comes off sounding like diminishment of mainstream athletes and others involved in “flowy” activities. A prime example of this is seen in Chapter 1. Kotler gives us an endearing description of how gymnast Kerri Strug won the gold in the 1996 Olympics by sticking a landing on a shattered ankle. However, he then comes off a bit douchey when he suggests that Strug’s achievement pales in comparison to Danny Way’s skateboard jumps at the Great Wall of China.

For another thing, in his zealousness to prove that extreme sports practitioners are full-awesome while mainstream athletes are “meh,” Kotler makes some comparisons that seem apples and oranges to a neophyte such as me. If they are fair comparisons, he certainly doesn’t explain why they should be considered so. The best example of this is when he states that Olympic divers took decades to achieve increases in rotation that extreme skiers and skateboarders surpassed in much less time. This seems unreasonable for two reasons. First, divers have a very standard distance in which to achieve their acrobatics. In other words, they don’t get to build a “mega-platform” that’s 50% taller like Danny Way creates “mega-ramps” that were bigger than ever before. Of course, if you can increase the distance between yourself and the ground you can increase your spins, rotations, or whatever much more quickly (yes, your danger goes up vastly, I’m not diminishing that.) Second, the divers gained zero advantage from technological improvements, but the same cannot be said for skiers and skateboarders. In other words, if you go from skis made of oak to ones made of carbon nanotubes (that are 50 times stronger and 1/100th of the weight) of course you’re going to make gains faster.

Perhaps, I’m overstating Kotler’s disdain for mainstream athletics, but that’s what happens when one uses a national hero as a set up to show how much more awesome a relatively unknown skateboarder is (among skateboarders Way is extremely well-known but he’s not a household name as the Olympian was–at least for a short time in the late 90’s.) I suspect that Kotler was just trying to convince a general audience that the athletes he’s speaking about aren’t pot-smoking knuckleheads who are as likely to be seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos crushing their nads on a handrail as setting a new world record. These men and women are serious people engaged in serious activities, and they give it their all. They do deserve more respect for that than they are probably given by broad sectors of the populace. Perhaps, the importance of what these folks are achieving does need to be conveyed because the demographic that reads books and the one that follows extreme sports probably has wide wings of non-overlapping area. (I’m not saying skateboarders are illiterate or bookworms don’t skate–just that the Venn diagram has substantial areas of mutual exclusivity.)

As I indicated above, in each chapter we get both some insight into the nature of the flow and its triggers and stories of adventure / extreme athletes that serve as examples of what’s being discussed. In chapter 2 we learn what the flow looks like in terms of brain waves (i.e. high theta/low alpha, or between meditation and a relaxed / resting state of wakefulness.) In chapter 3, we learn about the neuroanatomy of the flow in terms of what areas of the brain it lights up, and that it’s at least as important what areas shut down. In chapter 4, we learn about the neurochemistry of the flow and that a cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin makes up the chemistry of flow, but, critically, not so much with the adrenaline. The subsequent chapters deal with triggers of the flow, and what conditions best set up achievement of this state of mind.

Chapter 9 stands out as an important, but quite different, portion of the book. It deals with the downside (or dark side) of the flow. This has a lot to do with the fact that the aforementioned internal substances (and the flow state in general) are quite addictive. While it’s unfair to say, and unlikely, that the extreme athletes Kotler writes about (i.e. the ones at the top of their games) are drug addicts as some might assume of skate boarders, snow boarders, and the like, it may not be unreasonable to say that they have a kind of monkey on their backs—albeit a perfectly legal one.

As I’ve said, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in this state of mind. One needn’t be interested in extreme sports to get a lot out of the book.

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Posted by: B Gourley | March 7, 2014

Yoga for Martial Artists

[I posted this to my website as well.]

Long before I ever took a yoga class, I was doing a kind of yoga. It may have even had its roots in India, but it also might have blossomed independently. In the Japanese martial art I study, we called it junan taiso, and many of the poses would be recognizable to a yogi. While it didn’t include the complex and balance-challenging poses seen in yoga, stretches like the butterfly (Poorna Titali Asana), straddle stretch (Upavistha Konasana), and the back stretch (Pashchimottanasana) were virtually identical. As with yoga, the manner of breathing was as important as the nature of the stretch.

Butterfly Stretch (Poorna Titali Asana)

Butterfly Stretch (Poorna Titali Asana)

Back Stretch (Paschimottanasana)

Back Stretch (Paschimottanasana)

Straddle Stretch (Upavisthakonasana)

Straddle Stretch (Upavisthakonasana)

Flexibility is key in the martial arts, and not just the one’s with high-flying kicks. Even grapplers and practitioners of the less fancy striking systems gain from increased flexibility, but it isn’t only increases in range of motion that yoga offers.

Let’s consider a modest front kick to a target no higher than the solar plexus. One might be inclined to say, “I don’t need yoga to help with that, I do that kick all the time, and have no problem reaching my target.” Do an experiment. Take a full 30 seconds to do the kick, from the time the foot leaves the floor to the time it extends out, and then hold it for 15 seconds, or so. If you succeeded in this without any problem, you may be good to go.

Front kick, slow-motion style.

Front kick, slow-motion style.

However, there are three problems that might plague one, and yoga is tailor-made to fix two of them. First, you may not have adequate range of motion. You may have thought you did because you can kick at speed and reach the target. But, you say, “Why would I need to kick in slow motion?” You wouldn’t, but this exercise shows you that you are having to use inertia to kick through the resistance of your own muscles. Unless you’re a hardcore bodybuilder that resistance might not seem too daunting, but you are essentially having the brakes applied–albeit softly–to your kick and that’s costing you speed and power.  Yoga can help you develop that range of motion. Consider the pose below, which requires the same type of flexibility.

Hand to Big Toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana)

Hand to Big Toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana)

Maybe you can raise your leg, but keeping it cantilevered in place is too much for you. This means you don’t have the strength to support your own leg. Either your leg is  heavy, your strength is lacking, or both. Building this kind of strength isn’t necessarily yoga’s forte. There are styles and approaches that may help you build that strength, but there are other things you can do that may be more efficient for that purpose–not the least of which is doing a whole bunch of kicks one after the other without a break until your leg is burning, and then doing some more.

You may have had the strength and flexibility, but found it hard to stay on balance. The naysayer says, “Yeah, but that imbalance would never be noticeable at speed. That is (as with the lack of flexibility) one can hide weaknesses with speed. While there maybe some truth in this, a lack of balance will cost you in subtle ways, and yoga can help. There are a number of postures that enhance one’s balance, balance on one’s foot, one’s head, or one’s hands (the latter could be useful for the ground grapplers.)

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

Headstand (Shirshasana)

Headstand (Shirshasana)

The Crane (Bakasana)

The Crane (Bakasana)

Tree (Vrksasana)

Tree (Vrksasana)

There are a couple of other areas in which yoga can help one’s performance as a martial artist. One is expansion of bodily awareness of issues of alignment and posture. These might not seem so crucial, but if you are in the martial arts for the long-haul, then having the awareness to make small adjustments can be the difference between chronic ailments or a lack thereof. It can be difficult to discover a misalignment in the quasi-combative environment of martial arts training. It’s easier to notice these issues in the slow and controlled practice of yoga.

Postures like Warrior II and the Side Angle Pose and show you where you are holding tension that you might not otherwise be aware of.

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)

Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)

It must also be remembered that asana (postures) are only a part of yoga. Another aspect that can be extremely helpful for martial arts is pranayama, or the discipline of breathing.  There’s no substitute for cardio, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t benefit greatly from learning more about how to breath, and the science of breath. This is an area in which yoga excels. The great yogis made extensive study of breath and the effects that are achieved by various types of breathing, and these exercises can expand and strengthen the diaphragm and the muscles of the rib-cage. One tends to see the coup de grace strike and think, “There’s your problem.” However, often it’s fatigue that’s the underlying culprit. Better breathing can reduce fatigue.

Of course, meditation is another critical skill for calming the mind and learning to live in the present. Many martial artists already practice some form of meditation, but this is another option.

There is one more benefit and that is building greater confidence in your ability to exercise control over your body. There are many challenging postures in yoga. I don’t advocate all asana that have been taught historically because there can be such a thing as too much flexibility for a martial artist and some poses exercise joints in ways that were not meant to operate. There needs to be a proper balance of strength and flexibility, a proper tension within /between the skeletal and muscular systems. However, there are many poses that just take a bit of time and effort to develop the skill without putting too much wear on the body.

8-Twists Pose (Astavakrasana)

8-Twists Pose (Astavakrasana)

Posted by: B Gourley | February 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

Tao of Jeet Kune DoTao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[Posted on my website as well.] Jeet Kune Dō (henceforth, JKD) is Bruce Lee’s “styleless style” of martial arts. Its literal meaning is “the way of the intercepting fist.” However, Lee cautions one against attaching too much significance to that name (or any name) in the book’s final chapter. Long before “Mixed Martial Arts” became a household word, Lee was constructing this fighting system that borrowed heavily from the Western traditions of boxing, fencing (conceptually speaking), and wrestling as well as from Kung-fu, Savate, and Judō/Jujutsu. While JKD employs techniques and concepts from these systems, Lee remained adamant that no good came of organized styles built on fixed forms. In fact, that might be said to be the central theme of the book. That is, each fighter should begin with sound fundamentals and build an approach that is ultimately his or her own.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is an outline of the martial art. In many ways, it looks like and reads like Lee’s personal notebook. It’s illustrated with crude (but effective) hand drawings of the type one would see in a personal journal, and they are annotated with hand-written notes. (My biggest criticism is that on the Kindle version the graphics are largely unreadable. I’d recommend you get the print edition if you can, which is large-format paperback as I recall.) The book combines a philosophy of martial arts with nitty-gritty discussion of the technical aspects of combat. The philosophical chapters bookend the technical ones.

As others have pointed out, there’s not much that is new in either the philosophical discussions or the technical ones. Lee’s value-added is in how he states these concepts, how he selects the concepts of value (informed largely by a love of simplicity and a hatred of dogma), and the weight lent to the lessons by Lee’s great success story—albeit in a life far too short. Lee was a man of charisma, and one who approached endeavors with gravitas.

Now, I can imagine some readers saying, “Why are you recommending a book on real fighting by a movie martial artist? Would you recommend a book on how to conduct gall bladder surgery from someone because they were on the first two seasons of ER? Would you take martial arts lessons from Keanu Reeves because his moves looked pretty nifty in The Matrix?”

I’ll admit that there is nothing about making kung-fu movies that makes one particularly competent to give advice on close-quarters combat. However, as I said, Lee seemed to devote himself entirely to everything he did. Consider the Bruce Lee physique, which seems so common place among actors today (no doubt in part chemical and in part owing to live-in Pilates coaches) was virtually unseen in the 70’s. Yeah, he probably had good genes, but he must have trained like a maniac as well. Lee’s constant mantra of “simplicity” lends him a great deal of credibility. (It should be noted that pragmatism is not a virtue in the movie-making industry.) Lee demonstrates that he’s given a lot of thought to the subject and done the training when he discusses technical concepts. For example, while he gives high praise to Western boxing and emulates boxing moves in some regards, he also notes that boxers are insufficiently cautious owing to the rules/equipment of their sport (a comment—it should be noted–that can be leveled against any sport martial art.)

The technical material is organized in four chapters. The chapter on “tools” deals with the techniques of striking, kicking, and grappling. A chapter on preparations explains Lee’s thoughts on faints, parries and manipulations. There is a chapter on mobility that discusses footwork and various types of evasions. The last technical chapter discusses the approaches to attack, focusing heavily on JKD’s five types of attack.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is undeniably repetitive, but that repetition has value in hammering home key concepts. It’s also consistent with the JKD philosophy of not getting into a great deal of complexity, but rather drilling home the basics. There’s an old martial arts adage that says, “One should not fear the man who knows 10,000 techniques as much as the one that has done one technique 10,000 times.” This seems apropos here. Besides, the concepts that are repeated are often worth memorizing. e.g. Simplify. Eliminate ego. Avoid fixed forms. Be natural. Don’t think about building up as much paring away.

I’d recommend this book for martial artists of any style. Non-martial artists may find the philosophical chapters interesting, but may not get much out of the list-intensive technical chapters.

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Posted by: B Gourley | February 21, 2014

Animal Forms and Poses in the Martial Arts

Snake

Snake

[I posted this at my website as well.] Part of the most basic of basics that I’m learning in <em>Kalaripayattu</em> class are 8 animal poses (Wild Boar, Elephant, Cat, Lion, Snake, Rooster, Peacock, and Horse.) While animal forms and postures are common enough in martial arts, this is an entirely new concept to me and one that I’m trying to wrap my head around.

Animal forms are most commonly associated with Chinese Kungfu. There are entire styles devoted to five animals (i.e. tiger, leopard, crane, snake, and dragon [yes, I realize dragons aren’t really animals.] Of course, from Kungfu Panda we know there are also Monkey style and Mantis style, but that’s only just the beginning.  There are many different animals that play a role in martial arts, some–like tigers–are not unexpected and others–like peacocks–are harder to imagine.

As I’ve mentioned before, old style Japanese martial arts–at least the one’s I’ve studied–invoke nature commonly, but in a more subtle form. In Japanese <em>budō</em> one does not imitate animal movement or positioning–except in a very limited and general sort of way.

I’m interested in why one should imitate the postures or movement of animals. After all, it’s hard to argue that a human being can move more efficiently or effectively imitating a [non-human] animal. We are uniquely bipedal mammals, and to imitate–for example–a legless reptile (for example) doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

One explanation I’ve heard is that these animals are natural fighters, and are, therefore, to be emulated. I don’t put a lot of stock in this explanation. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that humans are less naturally capable of close-quarters fighting than pretty much any other animal. But it’s got nothing to do with the nature of our bodies and everything to do with the condition of our minds. Humans are emotional beasts and have trouble living in the moment. That’s why we aren’t natural fighters compared to a tiger–which doesn’t get paralyzed by fear, doesn’t get plagued by guilt, and never walks through dangerous territory with iPod earbuds in its ear, thinking about how it needs to update its Facebook page. Humans excel at making weapons that allow us to stay as far away from the enemy as possible–preferably on another continent. But close-quarters combat is an uphill struggle all the way.

Wild Boar

Wild Boar

There is an explanation that I find to be more sound, and that’s that these postures are meant to facilitate a certain mindset. Just as people condition themselves to associate certain hand <em>mudra</em> with certain states of mind (I know that’s not necessarily how they see it), one may use these postures to invoke a certain state of mind. This is somewhat related to what I was discussing in the preceding paragraph. Human’s are challenged to get into the right frame of mind for combat, and animal forms and postures might be one way to hasten that state. For humans there are two aspects of the problem. First, people are naturally scared of being injured or killed, and for many this becomes debilitating. Second, except some psychopaths, humans really don’t like to kill. This is true of other species by the way, we are genetically hardwired against killing our own kind. However, other animals can’t worry about it like us. (Here I mean worry in the sense that W.R. Inge described, “Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due.”)

Another explanation that I think has some merit is that some of these poses and forms are more about the exercise than combat effectiveness. In essence, they are like yoga; they build range of motion and strength in core muscles. One can certainly see this in the exceedingly low animal stances that require a great deal of flexibility.

The only other reason that’s popped to mind is that animal imitation is used to try to create a feeling (e.g. fear) in one’s opponent. This is closely <em>related</em> to the first point. One wants to create a perception of ferocity (or otherwise) in the eyes of the opponent as well as internally.

Rooster

Rooster

Posted by: B Gourley | February 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Write the Fight Right by Alan Baxter

Write The Fight RightWrite The Fight Right by Alan Baxter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

[Note: This review has also been posted to Goodreads and my website.]

I was going to pan this for being the wrong book, but then I read through the blurb (and even the subtitle) and realized that it was largely my fault that I got the wrong book. Furthermore, I recognized that the information contained in this tiny e-book is good and that it’s packaged in a concise form. I, thus, concluded that this is the right book for someone—just not me nor many of you. I’ll, therefore, devote the bulk of this review to differentiating for whom the book will be beneficial and for whom it won’t. Because of the dearth of books on the topic I was interested in, I can imagine others erroneously purchasing this book and having (the albeit tiny) $2.50 worth of buyer’s remorse.

I purchased this book (and another one that returned on the search for “writing fight scenes”) because I’m rewriting a chapter in my novel in which fight scenes are prominent. I realized that there is a fine art to writing a good fight scene, and that I could use some help in being more effective at it. One needs fight scenes to have fast pacing and to be visceral. At the same time, one must avoid getting bogged down in detail even in the face of multiple attackers or unfamiliar and complex weaponry. This book won’t help you one iota in this regard, and, to be fair, it says in the blurb that the book will not help with one’s writing.

The book is about what it’s like to be in a fight and how to separate Hollywood myth and misconception from reality. As a long-time martial artist with both military and law enforcement training as well as an avid reader, there was nothing new or interesting in this book—though there wasn’t much I would disagree with either.

Three criteria for readership:
1.) You haven’t witnessed or experienced a fight (outside the choreography of the silver screen) since middle school. This book describes the experience and effects of fighting and what skilled fighters try to do in close-quarters combat. It aims to help writers purge theatrical nonsense from their fight scenes and inject some verisimilitude.

2.) Your fight scene is a standard 20th/21st century brawl. What is discussed is one-on-one fighting–unarmed or with weapons that one might see wielded today. One won’t gain insight useful in historical fiction, or anything that doesn’t echo today’s form of fighting.

3.) You don’t want to put a lot of time or effort into reading and / or researching the subject. The author does advise the reader to take martial arts or self-defense classes as a superior way to learn what he is trying to teach. What this book has going for it is that it’s only a 43 page (and a couple of dollar) investment. If one is interested in getting a much deeper understanding of the topics covered, I would recommend a combination of Lt. Col. David Grossman’s On Killing in conjunction with any number of full-length martial arts books (I’m reading Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do presently, and it’s certainly an excellent candidate.)

To summarize: this book is useful to teach one about realism in fight scenes, and not about structuring such scenes. There are only three examples (2 short and one long) in the book—none from what would be considered exemplary works. If you’ve taken a martial art or had military or law enforcement experience, there’s unlikely to be anything new or intriguing in this book. Even if you just watch MMA regularly and / or read about fighting or combat, there’s a good chance you won’t learn much.

However, if watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Rumble in the Bronx and say, “So that’s what a fight looks like,” you should definitely give this book a read.

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