Sunday, December 31, 2017

Wing Chun - Tradition and Innovation

Hoping to meet you on that higher evolutionary plane in 2018

Sometime around 1980:

Rick was sweeping the floor of the Wing Chun Academy hall. He lived in the Academy in the role of what the Japanese call an Uchi-deshi. He trained, ate, slept and lived in and for the Academy and Wing Chun.

Sifu entered the hall. He took up a position where Rick could see him, and began to execute the Sil Lim Tao form. Rick knew better than to stop work and watch, but he certainly kept sweeping and watched.

This version of Sil Lim Tao used different stances. And footwork. Plenty of footwork. Lots of footwork.

Sifu completed his form, and left the hall, not speaking to Rick or even meeting his eyes.

Rick, once he had picked his metaphorical jaw off the floor, kept sweeping but made sure he filed that away in his internal dashcam memory. If he had the facility to upload a backup of the last five minutes of his brain activity to the cloud, had the cloud then existed, he would have done that for sure.

True story.

The danger with adhering too closely with tradition and following exclusively what your Sifu instructs and demonstrates is that your copy of his Wing Chun will necessarily imperfect, as we are all imperfect creations.

Following this path down the generations would be like taking a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a ... of the Mona Lisa. Before too many generations pass, you've turned a priceless artefact into something only suitable for the trash.

On the other hand, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. You have to understand the rules before you can break them. Where is the right place, where we are surfing right down the dividing line between Yin and Yang?

I move from the Japanese concept of an Uchi-deshi to that of Shu Ha Ri.

From Wikipedia:

Aikido master Endō Seishirō shihan stated:
"It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shuha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws."[1]

In other references, I've seen right duration of each stage as being of around ten years. Around the average time you'll have been teaching Wing Chun for at least a few years, or to reach a black belt level in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

So after about ten years, according to this philosophy, you can and you should start experimenting with the rules, and seeking new sources of learning and information to bring back to your practice.

I always teach students the Wing Chun forms as close as I can to what I have been shown by my own instructor, to the best of my ability.

However, that same instructor has always encouraged his more advanced students, including myself, to experiment and become creative with the stances, footwork, movements, sequences, etc. of the forms, generally following some well researched mechanisms for creative problem solving.

He naturally had developed ideas of his own, some based on pivotal past events like that in the introduction, which he shared with us.

I now see the three forms, not only as a manifestation into the physical world of the Wing Chun concepts and principles, and a vocabulary of techniques, but as frameworks on which to experiment with new ideas and make Kung Fu my own.

 (yes, three forms, we used to have four but now only three - the first now includes elements of both the former first and second).

Eventually leading to a fully integrated synthesis of the best the Wing Chun tradition has to offer, with personal insights and those that can only come with changing times and circumstances. Or so I hope - there's still a fair way to go ☺.

Followers of Dr Jordan B Peterson's work will be familiar with the myth of Horus and Osiris.

Osiris (tradition, old, and wilfully blind) is beaten down into fragments and sent to the Underworld by his brother, Set. Isis, Osiris' wife, follows him and finds the reproductive part of him, thus conceiving and giving birth to Horus (Innovation, nature, the Zeitgeist, paying attention).

Horus has a titanic battle with Set, during which he loses and eye. After defeating Set, he ventures into the Underworld to rescue his father, and recover his lost eye. Rather than replace his eye, he gives it to his father and they return to the World, ruling together, Tradition with its sight restored by Innovation.

The Eye of Horus. This is deep.

Tradition and innovation. In my opinion, we and Wing Chun need both and will not survive otherwise.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Internal Kung Fu and Invisible Jiu Jitsu

As an avid student of Kung Fu (Wing Chun since 1989, other styles since 1977) and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (since 1998), I have sought out the higher level subtleties as well as the fundamentals. An ongoing quest.

Travelling such a path, one continually comes across claims of "Internal" Kung Fu, and "Invisible" Jiu Jitsu, and how abilities with such aspects of the respective arts are the hallmarks of the highest level practitioners.

I argue in this post that the intersection of these two concepts is significant. Perhaps much larger than practitioners of the individual arts might care to admit.

Internal Kung Fu

The definition of "internal" with regards to the broad and diverse spectrum of Kung Fu styles is highly problematic. To a huge extent it depends on who you ask, and just about everyone's answer is self serving.

Among a host of definitions of what makes a style "internal" are:
  • Arts based on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, rather than on animal movements or human kinesiology
  • Arts associated with the native Chinese Taoist Temples of the Wudang mountains, rather than those associated with the Shaolin monasteries, into which Buddhism was imported from India by Bodhidharma - a definition based on politics as much as anything else
  • Arts embodying the use of the Six Harmonies, specific and non-innate methods of force generation and movement
  • Practices, methods, and implementation based on softness, employing relaxed force, body unity, sinking the bodyweight and using the ground as a base for applying and receiving force, redirection of force and using it against the opponent, integration with breath and internal structural alignment, rather than muscular force and aggressive, direct opposition of force. It is used for health cultivation using the principles of TCM as much as it is for combat.
I trained in the Wudang martial arts of Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang from 1980 to 1985, under an instructor who was also one of the first Gwailos to study and be formally certified in acupuncture in Asia. I studied the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as an adjunct to this training, including a course on acupressure massage of about four months duration conducted by a very capable and knowledgeable (and entertaining!) associate of my instructor.

I met Sun Lutang's grandson on a trip to Shanghai with my instructor and fellow students. I watched an old lady perform a perfect Baguazhang form with double hooked swords, then drop into a full split, in People's park in the same city. I didn't do any rooftop Wing Chun challenge matches in Hong Kong, but I worked Taiji push hands against some guys who tried very hard to push me over on a rooftop in Taipei. With a few shouted tips from my instructor, I held my own, more or less.

My instructor's claim and belief was that the each of the Wudang arts was based on the concepts of TCM:
  • Taijiquan (Supreme Ultimate Fist), was based on the principles of Yin and Yang
  • Xingyiquan (Mind Form Fist) was based on Five Element Theory
  • BaguaZhang (Eight Diagram Palm) was based in the principles of the I Ching
As well as the martial techniques of these three arts, I also practised a form of Taoist Yoga under the same instructor.  This consisted of five exercises, each corresponding to one of the elements of the Five Element Theory of TCM, upon which, as mentioned above, the Wudang art of Xingyiquan is also based.

The three main Wudang arts themselves (there are a few others) also work towards health cultivation and the balancing of Qi along the acupuncture meridians, though their primary purpose was for fighting.

The Wudang arts are also those belonging to the political demarcation I mentioned above.

Others claim that the Wudang styles embody the Six Harmonies, three external (the hands harmonize with the feet, the hips harmonize with the shoulders, the elbows harmonize with the knees), and three internal (the heart harmonizes with the intention, the intention harmonizes with the Qi, the Qi harmonizes with the movement). A type of movement named Silk Reeling, purportedly using muscle and tendon channels associated at some level with the acupuncture meridians, typifies the movements and techniques of the internal arts. The use of "external" muscular strength allegedly invalidates and nullifies this style of movement, and fighting. This is deep and confusing, and interested readers could start further investigation with this blog post.

Most, though to be fair not all, practitioners of the Wudang arts regard their arts as the only Kung Fu styles worthy of the term "Internal".  They regard their arts as superior to others ... Oh, yes you do. Calling your art "Supreme Ultimate Fist" allows you no plausible deniability or false humility.

So if that includes you, the use of the term "internal" will be irrelevant and misplaced. Think of "soft" vs. "hard" if you are gracious enough to stick around.

Even that delineation is inaccurate where the Wudang arts are concerned - my instructor claimed that Xingyi is a very hard martial art, harder than Kyokushin karate, as hard as a fist of diamond.

The rest of this article deals with the last definition, loosely equating "internal" with softness and the use of breath, relaxation, "energy" (qi, jing) rather than strength, absorption and redirection of rather than opposition to the opponent's force, and internal body structure  to power the engine of combat, rather than muscular strength, speed and aggression.

A loose and wide ranging definition, a wide net to attempt to catch an extremely slippery fish.

Most non-Wudang martial artists understand "internal" arts as associated with health cultivation, softness, and qi; and external arts with attributes such as strength and speed.

Some practitioners of non-Wudang arts, such as Wing Chun Kung Fu, claim, based on such definitions, that their style therefore has internal aspects and can allow the practitioner to develop internal skills, as their arts rely on sensitivity, yielding and redirection of the opponent's force and using it against them.

Aikido is strongly grounded in the use of Qi (called ki in Japan). To my mind it qualifies as an internal art under my working definition.

Arts like Judo have soft and yielding aspects. Jiu Jitsu, the Arte Suave, the gentle art, in its advanced forms and outside of competition, relies on the practitioner remaining relaxed and using the opponent's movements against him to engineer his own defeat.

Is Wing Chun internal? And why would this matter?

The big big question is: superior for what?

Fighting? We have yet to see Wudang arts win big in the UFC, Bellator, or anywhere else.

There was the "Taiji Master" who got schooled by an "MMA fighter" in China some months back. Some had it that this was a young punk beating up an old man, but no, the MMA guy was 38 and the Taiji guy 41.

Josh Waitzkin, author of the excellent The Art of Learning, was a chess grandmaster and champion. He was also a world Taiji push hands champion and coach. Unlike what you see people doing in parks and Taiji studios, he makes Taiji push hands sound and look like Greco-Roman wrestling, with discussion of underhooks, overhooks, etc. He also discusses how he worked on his cardio, not a common subject in Taiji circles. There wasn't much talk in the book of silk reeling, IIRC.

Josh Waitzkin in 2004 Taiji Push Hands World Cup. Compare with wrestling, and explain how internal force makes it qualitatively different

Significantly, Josh diversified and now holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Marcelo Garcia.

As an aside here, much of my class time at the Wudang school was spent doing fairly strenuous calisthenics - basic stuff, pushups, situps, jumping jacks. We would also run laps around the block in black Kung Fu uniforms barefoot near Central railway station in Sydney. Yeah, weird. My feet got tough, though.

I became as fit as I have ever been. In hindsight, I could have done the fitness program on my own and would have preferred to spend more class time on actual techniques and sparring. It was about as much to do with internal martial arts as aerobics.

As it happens, we had a lovely and charming female aerobics instructor among the students for a while, who took us through some workouts in class. Good times.

So ... fighting? Supreme Ultimate? Not lately.

Google "Internal Wing Chun", You will find a tonne of videos. I have yet to see one that defines what it is, other than in vague terms of qi, energy, expansion and contraction, softness, relaxation, lengthening and aligning the spine, not using muscular strength, etc. Some claim no more than that, and that's fine. Others seem to hint at something more, something demonstrated in controlled conditions or drills like chi sao, on compliant students or paying seminar attendees. Few against a skilled, resisting opponent.

Some may want to tell me "you don't know enough to understand". I had a boss in my IT job who tried that approach with other managers, it didn't go well for him.

I suggest two possible allegories apply to my allegedly ignorant situation (and their allegedly informed one):
  • Pearls before swine
  • The Emperor's new clothes.
John Will has suggested that real practitioners of such apparently supernatural practices should stop hiding their lights under a bushel, do a show in Vegas, and get rich.

A prominent Chinese Wing Chun practitioner has said, "if all that stuff were true, China would win every medal in every Olympics."

So what about health cultivation and being able to train into old age, embracing the Tao and living in harmony with the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Legends abound of Taoist mystics and the like living well into double centuries. Many anecdotes exist of people at death's door who were restored to glowing, abundant health through the practice of Taiji or Qigong. Even from watching someone else practice it from their sick bed.

The Australian writer and cartoonist Geoff Pike, who knew my Wudang instructor fairly well, and who I once met briefly, wrote a book called "Live Longer, Love Longer - The Power of Chi" detailing his battle with cancer, the recovery from which he attributed to meeting a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine who helped him cure himself with herbal and other treatments, and the prescription of various Qigong exercises. He avoided surgery ... but accepted radiation therapy.

Arguably, two of the best known Wudang practitioners of the last century were Cheng Man-ching, popularized in the West by Robert W. Smith, and Wang Xiangzhai, the inventor of a Xingyiquan derivative called Yiquan. Neither made it to eighty years old.

Whereas we have Helio Gracie living until 95. The factors leading to extended lifespan are many, and interact in ways that make Chaos Theory look trivial, but you'd probably expect a better average than this amongst lifelong committed practitioners when the claims made are so extraordinary. We should await a comprehensive and rigorous scientific study on such matters before deciding finally either way, probably. It is worth considering that Helio and Carlos Gracie were both deeply involved in health cultivation practices of their own, most specifically with diet.

Rickson and Kron Gracie were and remain committed students of Yoga and related breathwork, as taught by Orlando Cani.

The use of internal martial art principles should allow us to vanquish our adversaries while expending a minimum of effort. We can avoid injury by not opposing the opponent's force directly.  But every martial art under the sun makes those claims. Even the highly external art of Western boxing makes a good case for embodying that approach.

Invisible Jiu Jitsu

Jiu Jitsu as performed by experts is an art that does not rely solely on strength or speed. Good Jiu Jitsu practitioners use concepts and principles of
  • Base (connection to the ground and using the ground as a platform to apply or receive force)
  • Structure (correct skeletal and tendon alignment and kinesiological principles to manage force, rather than reliance solely on muscular strength)
  • Posture (which is arguably a subset of structure)
  • Frames (use of the skeleton an the body's structural integrity to manage distance, rather than muscular strength. Arguably another subset of structure)
  • Levers (Force multipliers. We use levers provided by the opponent's body to control and attack him in situations where our ability to apply force exceed his)
Just about any student with a few month's Jiu Jitsu experience can understand these principles and how to employ them at a gross level. They are profound, but not obscure or complex.

Ryan Hall's "Defensive Guard" DVD set expresses the Jiu Jitsu concepts of posture and structure with great eloquence. The video below by Rob Biernacki gives a pretty good overview of the above conceptual framework. Rob Biernacki admits his debt to Ryan Hall in developing these concepts in several of his videos.

BJJ - Fundamental Principles - Rob Biernacki

However, there are situations where small technical or postural adjustments which, while not visible to any but the most attentive and discerning observers, can make large differences in the efficacy of a particular technique. Most often such adjustments are best felt, rather than seen. Hence the expression "Invisible Jiu Jitsu".

Rickson Gracie and his student Henry Akins are probably the most celebrated exponents of what they term "Invisible Jiu Jitsu"". Another principle of their Jiu Jitsu besides those mentioned, they call Connection.

Employing this principle is often about as close to invisible as it gets. Tiny adjustments, big changes.

It needs to be shown rather than described, and felt rather than shown. Technology to provide the last remotely is not available as yet, so:

Rickson's "Invisible Jiu Jitsu" mount escape 

Prevent the opponent standing in your closed guard with "Invisible Jiu Jitsu"

Detailed discussion of Connection with the excellent Jiu Jitsu blogger Cane Prevost of Straight Blast Gym

Structure and Connection are not always appropriate. There are some situations where you want to deny the opponent any structural platform or connection to apply force or techniques on you, through the principles of "Collapsing Structure"and "Becoming Formless". Kit Dale and Nic Gregoriades discuss this on their "Beyond Technique" videos. I have previously reviewed Volume 2 of that series.

It is this type of "invisible force" that allows Dave Camarillo, who fought as a lightweight, to feel like he is a B Double truck parked on your chest when he wants, or to slither around you weightlessly like a python consisting entirely of ectoplasm.

Coral belt or higher practitioners like Pedro Sauer, and Carlos, Jean Jacques and Rigan Machado, seem to have an understanding of equilibrium and body control that allows them to manhandle you effortlessly and in ways that you find totally unpredictable. Several of my Jiu Jitsu seniors told me that former MMA fighter Carlos Newton could kneel head to head in front of them and make them fall over with what seemed like a cursory touch. None of these gentlemen would claim any arcane or supernatural abilities.


Here we have a video of "Real Internal Wing Chun", looking rather like a Taijiquan demonstration. A judgement on my part which might not sit well either with this Wing Chun practitioner's followers or Taiji practitioners. I've seen similar Systema demos.

This appears to be soft, grounded, sensitive movement. Undoubtedly there is a skill demonstrated here.

A more impressive demonstration would involve successfully employing such skills against a skilled wrestler, judoka, sumotori, or Taiji practitioner, rather than paying students at a seminar. There may be Wing Chun practitioners who are also Jiu Jitsu black belts that would like to experience this, also.

"Real Internal Wing Chun"

I was taught beginner-level drills to develop qualities similar to those shown in the video above at a Steve Maxwell seminar early in 2017 on Gracie Jiu Jitsu: Core Concepts. Under "Non-resistance". The mechanisms may be subtly different, internally, of course. But, if the outcome is the same and energy expenditure roughly equivalent, how does that  matter?

Compare this with Rickson Gracie's demonstration of "Invisible Jiu Jitsu" to Budo Jake on This Week in BJJ.

Rickson Gracie: Invisible Force

I would contend there is a large amount of intersection on the Venn diagram between "Internal Kung Fu" and "Invisible Jiu Jitsu". Do we need to put up mental barriers that lead to unnecessary divisiveness and inhibit cooperation and learning?

Early in 2017 I attended a Qigong seminar given by Stanley Tam, one of China's first BJJ black belts, who I met at the Steve Maxwell seminars. Stanley is also Steve's Qigong teacher. I have kept up the practice and Stanley has provided me with guidance via email, video and Facebook. I occasionally feel the tingling, trembling and throbbing in the extremities espoused by adherents of Internal Kung Fu. I enjoy the relaxation and meditative aspects of this and other breathwork. 

I remain skeptical about the more exalted claims made for this type of training, but intend to continue it on the basis of my own corollary to Pascal's Wager, viz. It might be imaginary, but you have nothing to lose and potentially a huge amount to gain by acting as if it is real. I live in hope.

May the Invisible Force be with you

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Jordan Peterson and the Self Authoring Program

Dr Jordan B. Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada, and a practicing clinical psychologist.

I first came across him on a Joe Rogan podcast. He is embroiled in a number of academic and political controversies in Canada, mainly to do with his strong opposition to a proposed Canadian law requiring everyone to address people by the gender pronoun of their choice, and other problems he sees with modern university education.

They start talking about politics, but hang in, they dive deep about halfway through

His arguments in that debate are well articulated and thought out, but are incidental to the cause of my interest in his work. A look at JP's Wikipedia page can give you some insight into those activities, should that interest you.

He is claimed by the alt-right, Christians, MRA's, and a bunch of others with political agendas, but he is none of those things, and in my opinion transcends all attempts to categorize him.

What interests, indeed captivates me, about JP's work is his multiple video series, many of which are university lectures and public talks, on his Youtube channel. There's several hundred hours of videos there which have been viewed by millions. I found his talks on "Maps of Meaning", "The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories", and "Personality and Its Transformations" to be absolutely enthralling, and they resonate deeply within me, on multiple levels. Hero myths from Sumer and Egypt, Cain and Abel, The Flood, Jungian archetypes, lobsters, wolves, and chimpanzees, Pinocchio, and the Lion King. Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Viktor Frankl. 

Order and Chaos, Horus and Osiris, Tradition and Nature. And lots more. 

The Eye of Horus. PAY ATTENTION

The guy has read EVERYTHING and analyzed it deeply.

I've been loosely following psychology, self-help and spiritual subjects for decades, and this is some of the most profoundly interesting and helpful material I have come across in all that time. 

I'm coming hard up against my limitations as a writer here and risk slipping over the edge into fanboyism, if it isn't already too late. So I'll drill down to a single specific subject.

Jordan Peterson and colleagues have developed a couple of useful tools to help you, as he puts it, "sort yourself out."

Quote from 'Flow' by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The Self Authoring Program is a series of writing exercises to help you understand yourself better and work towards your ideal future.

Understand Myself is a program which provides you with a personality profile based on a personality scale known as the Big Five Aspects scale.

Neither is expensive to purchase, and if you listen to a variety of podcasts that feature Dr Peterson, you may be able to obtain a discount code to make them even cheaper.

I found the Self Authoring Program to be both useful and powerful. It helps you analyze and process your past, present and future by providing a set of written exercises.

Present Authoring helps you analyze your present virtues and faults, makes you think about specific situations where the virtue or fault impacted your life. You are invited to consider the impact and its effect on you, and how you could have addressed the situation better, in the case of faults, or even better, in the case of virtues. For you faults, you are invited to consider how you might deal with the fault in a more general fashion, rather in the particular situation first mentioned.

Past Authoring takes you back. All the way back. You divide your life to date into multiple epochs and revisit and analyse the pivotal events therein, especially those that cause an emotional reaction within when you consider them. Writing about traumatic events has been shown to help people process, integrate, and eventually move past them. Just about everyone has them. I did.

Future Authoring allows you to imagine your life as you would like it to be, maybe five years down the track. Things you could do better, things you want to learn, habits, social and family life, career, an ideal future incorporating all these aspects.

Unusually for such goal-setting methodologies, it also invites you to consider a future to avoid. The place where you might end up if you allowed your faults to run undisciplined, full throttle, and out of control. Having something to run away from, as well as something to run towards, can help focus your thoughts, clarify your objectives and supercharge your motivation.

You are then invited to set yourself a list of goals that will move you towards that ideal future and away from that self-defined Hell. You set strategies and tactics in place to move in the direction of those goals, ways to monitor your progress in that regard, what impacts your work toward those goals might have on self and others, and how best to manage those potential impacts.

Jordan Peterson claims experimental justification in asserting that university students who complete this program have significantly lower dropout rates and improved results compared to those who do not.

There is no philosophical or political agenda here. The program does not suggest specific goals or ways you should act. The ideal future you design for yourself is totally up to you.

For myself, having completed the program, I think I have a better idea of what I want to achieve, and what I need to resist, in the future. I think my attitude to chores and tedious but important tasks has improved. I am more committed to learning, multiple subjects and my attitude to my Jiu Jitsu training and teaching has changed, I think for the better. 

I don't think I ever had a drinking problem, but I was uncomfortable with my relationship to alcohol before this. I've greatly decreased my alcohol consumption as a direct result of completing this program.

Time will tell; focus and the use of momentum are things I am working to handle better.

Dr Peterson has a new book coming out in early 2018.