Thursday, 27 November 2008

The art of war

I visited Duxford Imperial war museum today with my daughter. It was a beautiful clear skied day with a strong wind which cooled us as we walked from hanger to hanger. Whilst in the incredible Norman Foster built American Hanger I was minded of the amazing price young men paid for my freedom during the Second World War. The hell some of them went through. I remember watching a documentary about the making of Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks paraphrased Spielberg by stating that we all know war is hell, but that war films never really portrayed this, always erring on the heroic and 'glamorous' side of army life. Well Spielberg certainly changed the war film genre as we know it huh?

But I digress somewhat. My main point was that as I saw memorials I wondered about the art of war, and realised that martial art means literally that. "relating to, or characteristic of war, soldiers, or the military life" (Collins). Further investigation sees the term coming from the Roman god Mars (god of war). Having recently read a story about a spitfire pilot who had (during the war) shot down a Dornier and watched the crew bale out only to realise, in horror, that one of the crew's parachutes had become entangled in the tail structure, I wondered whether martial arts as I practice would have helped this military man? Surely they aren't related. And less so these days with more precise and modern weaponry...

I can see how a martial code and training in a fighting school may have helped hundreds of year ago. Saxon soldiers stood on Senlac hill (picture above with the Abbey of Battle in the background) holding shields in the famous 'wall' as well as their heavy battle axes holding off a strong horse-mounted Norman foe in 1066. I'm sure that both these protagonists would have needed schooling in the arts of war. William of Poitiers said, "It was a strange kind of battle, one side attacking with all mobility, the other withstanding, as though rooted to the soil". Different martial philosophies being tested in battle. Surely this is martial art-kicking and punching and hacking limbs in a mortal struggle to annihilate the enemy?

Can I really develop a sense of what it's like to be at war and use this in my daily life? For example Zanshin is an element of modern training which we aspire to, but I'll never acquire the level of total awareness that this guy did: Terry L. Bryan was in a K-9 unit serving deep in the jungle with just his rifle and his dog. After spending so much time in the jungle and listening outwardly and inwardly theybecame so attuned to the senses of the jungle they could smell people who were out of sight and even be able to judge whether they were Asiatic or American. Read his amazing story here on Fighting Arts.

No, I don't think I'm cut out to be a soldier, but I am a martial artist: someone who uses combat tools and strategies to appraise his own life: not only in a metaphysical way but a bodily one too. My studies help me in my daily life either by working through a situation clearly in my mind or being focused on the moment in order to do something truly well, or even just to sit correctly aligning my spine and muscles as I sit and type a blog.

Some schools of martial arts insist that theirs is still a way of killing and I don't think we should lose sight of this heritage as it clearly lays out our techniques for combat and immobilisation but I like to take elements of these strange (almost archaic) fighting or war arts into my daily life as it's clear I am no soldier. Warriors do however have warrior codes such as 'Noblesse oblige'. a code which helps the warrior lead their lives in society as well as martial times.

These codes can also help us set out clear goals in our lives.

Happy training in your chosen art.

Sunday, 23 November 2008


Another good seminar. As with the last seminar it was high energy and up-tempo from start to finish. Three hours seemed to whizz by and I think we were all a little surprised when time was called (although we extended it a bit by going to the pub). I got a lot out of this energetic session and from its theme of movement. We worked on moving out of the line of attack and countering, moving in between techniques and remaining fluid, staying focused and following your opponent. Within juho we looked further at movement in circles in the footwork and in the hands for gyaku gote and a two handed grab I wasn't familiar with (possibly maki gote?).

Unsurprisingly we were soaked with sweat and tired out when the session closed-just as it should be! The only thing I felt it lacked was a bit of guidance during zazen on breathing techniques. 

Overall a fantastic seminar with much learned and sweat dripped! Thanks!

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Happy breathing.

It's difficult to put my finger on really. I mean, why do we train? Why do we endure difficulties and hardships in order to exercise within our chosen art? Is it so we can put a black belt on one day? Well, I can buy a black belt from a martial arts shop anyday so I think it's deeper than that. I do know people who attained black belt and then, rather than seeing this as the start of an amazing journey, simply left the platform and headed home, never to be seen again. They'd achieved all they needed to.

It's in my fibres though. When I don't train I get itchy. I pace like a caged animal. The energy needs to be expended. But again, there is more to it than making myself out of breath. I can do that by taking up smoking, surely. We go back to the dojo week in and week out as if there was an obligation or something drawing us there. Something about repeating well trodden systems of punches and kicks, repeating these over and over again striving for the perfect technique. Knowing we'll never attain it brings us back even keener to learn because this is a process- a way of learning and feeding your body and mind. What is important is how we as martial artists deal with this process and how this comes into our lives on a daily basis. I read a story about someone who was asked at a grading how often they had had to use their martial arts skills outside of the dojo. Never they replied to which the instructor replied that martial skills should be used on a daily basis. Of course he didn't mean kicks and punches and self defence. He meant that the attitude that we craft and the outlook we aspire to when practicing our techniques should be with us always- in our work and play and maybe even when we're at rest. When we're resting we can visualise our desired successes or play through conflicts we have at work and figure out the best way forward in the safety of our mind-dojo, or maybe we can simply breathe deeply. Breathing deeply is something we've hopefully all benefited from in our training.

Happy breathing.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Joe Hyams dies at 85

"Joe Hyams, a former Hollywood columnist and bestselling author of books ranging from biographies of Humphrey Bogart and James Dean to a popular tome on Eastern philosophy, has died. He was 85.

"Besides his reputation as a Hollywood chronicler, Hyams also was known as an icon in the martial arts community.

"Hyams, who studied martial arts for more than 50 years, was the author of the 1979 book "Zen In the Martial Arts.",0,6624967.story

Gun's lane run near Histon

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Great 3 mile run around fields and along ancient lanes: the greatest way to spend a bright November day!


Just for fun....

Yours for only $1286. Oh yeah and you have to speak Chinese.
Go see the fancy promo video here.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Nagasone Kotetsu 1597-1678

Nagasone Kotetsu (長曾禰虎徹) (c. 1597-1678) was a gunsmith who later took to making swords and earned a reputation for making simple sabres which were extremely strong. Said to have only made 31 swords in his working life which bear his name, he later became a Buddhist monk whose successors were Nagasone Okinao and Nagasone Okihisa.

Practice is like...


I didn't originally say this although anyone who knows me will feel it very fitting for me.

"You can’t even trade a single fart with the next guy. Each and every one of us has to live out his own life. Don’t waste time thinking about who’s most talented"
Sawaki Kôdô Rôshi

I read this as being described as a metaphor for making practice your own: the guy next to you can't practice for you just as he can't fart for you!

Another run...

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1.62 miles and a wonderful view of swans, moorhens and ducks. Just ignore the noise from the A14!

Building up strength and stamina by running

I've been feeling a little stodgy lately. Maybe it's the weather coming in cold or maybe the extra chocolate biscuits I pack into me but either way I knew one thing: I had to run...

One Saturday morning was a turning point for me. Flo took the kids for the day and I planned a good long route along the roman road near Cherry Hinton and into Wandlbury ring (an iron age hillfort). I obtained details from this really informative site: and parked where suggested but ran straight along the road to the start of the roman road and on to Wandlebury. What an amazingly beautiful, autumn day. The run invigorated me and when I got home I was tired out, sweaty and getting cool so I jumped in a really hot bath with a cup of green tea. The bath was so hot I nearly burned my balls off. 

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Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Tunnel vision

Tonight in training I was consumed. Consumed with a feeling of well-being. Unfortunately this meant I lost all focus on the techniques I was executing. The exercises we were doing demanded attention on distance and visual focus, especially limb length and penetration. When the teacher explained which techniques we were to do I very ably visualised what I had to do- I imagined myself moving thrrough the technique and where the problem areas might be and ironed those out. Problem was half way through the sequence I realised I had this warm fuzzy feeling. Maybe I was feeling smug but I managed to drift off whilst still going through the motions. My execution was perfect. Well, it was good but I lacked focus on what was ahead of me, my opponent, my reach-where was I hitting? Where was my target. 

I looked up Zanshin as I felt that this was what was lacked but wasn't sure of the phrase and found this sentence which sums things up I think:

"When body, breath, speech and mind are broken from each other and scattered in concept and strategy, then no true action can reveal itself."

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Okinawan -> Japanese -> Korean forms

Some time ago I was researching the origin of the matial art of Tang soo do, particularly the forms we practice (or Hyung) and I came across an interesting thing while training with a local karate club. The teacher is an impressive martial artist called Malcolm Howlett who was trained in (I believe) Goju Ryu and is very knowledgable with an instantly easy rapport. The revelation I made when training with Okinawan and Japanese stylists was that the forms I had taken great care to learn have a strong heritage in the Okinawan forms! I could happily follow a kata class with these guys, even understanding the names of the forms. I believe also that the Korean hyung have vestiges of an older style, that is to say the Japanese kata seem to have evolved in a different way and often the instructor would remark that I would perform an 'older' variant. 

The lineage of Korean karate is often disputed: certain exponents believe it has a pure lineage back to the 3 kingdoms era with no Japanese influence and mostly some Northern Chinese teachings (Northern Chinese kung fu or Mountain style is typified by higher stances, high and jumping kicks). what cannot be disputed though is the similarity between Tang Soo Do's hyung and the Japanese and Okinawan style katas.

Okinawan karate was influenced by Chinese traders who practiced Chuan Fa (chuan meaning 'fist'). The Okinawans developed this into a hard style which they referred to as 'Te' (or fist).  Kara te (originally meaning Chinese hand) was then taken to Korea during the early twentieth century occupation. Note the similarity between Kara te and Tang Soo (China Hand). Of course the nomenlature does not in itself make an argument in itself and it is true that Korean karate is typified by spectacular jumping and spinning kicks with high energy but I believe the structure of the Tang Soo do forms is irrefutably linked to a Japanese and Okinawan heritage.

Okinawan kata Japanese kata Korean Hyung
Pinan Heian Pyong Ahn
Naihanchi Tekki Naihanchi
Passai Bassai Bassai


Rohan Meikyo Rohai
Chinto Gankaku Jindo
Kusanku Kanku Kong Sang Koon
Useishi Gojushiho  
Seisan Hangetsu  
  Jitte Sip Soo

I'll get round to making this look prettier soon!

Friday, 14 November 2008

The new gladiators

Interesting clip on Youtube with some great Benny The Jet footage. This guy moves really fluidly and I love to watch this sort of sparring. It's high energy, focused and hard.

This next video shows him knocking down Koshikawa. Check out Benny's duck at 15 seconds. Takes a lot of balls to do this and much confidence. Great counter blow to the body as he rises up from this.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Book reviews

Traditions: Essays on the Japanese Martial Arts and Ways (Tuttle Martial Arts),
I'm a big fan of the Dave Lowry series of books which give helpful insights into the bridge between martial arts and our daily lives.

Living the Martial Way : A Manual for the Way a Modern Warrior Should Think,
Written by a committed and dedicated martial artist who's been around the block and come back to his house with a load of bruises, experience and a different take on how to progress in the martial ways.

Zen in the Martial Arts, 
Good short read about the contemplative side to the martial ways.

Moving Toward Stillness: Lessons in Daily Life from the Martial Ways of Japan,
Fantastic insights into how Dave Lowry leads his life through martial ways. This is not a technical tutoring book but what you learn from this anthology of short essays can help your attitude towards your martial training as well as in your daily life.


Well the grading went quite well, but not without a few pre-exam nerves. As I didn't have a partner I asked others to help me revise some problem techniques but as they were busy cramming themselves they weren't too chatty. Understanably so.

Upon registering I was told I'd work in a group of 3 with 2 Cardiff Kenshi who were (naturally) charming. These guys helped me out throughout the grading. I needed it as the acoustics were terrible in the hall- lot's of kiais alongwith shouted instruction meant I had real trouble making out what was being said. At one point I interpreted kiritz ('attention' or 'line up') as Chris, so I stood forward only to be looked blankly at and told, again kiritz.... Doh!

Gradings are a great way to pressure test techniques. When you're nervous and have lots of other stimuli to contend with it requires a lot of focus to stay on task. Occasionally I found it hard. Disecting how it went with one of my partners, Beth, she made a salient point: focus on the positive and when a mistake is made, leave it behind- move on.

Important points brought out at the end of the exam were that:  there must be improvement, from one grading to the next. Moving on and focusing on improvement with constant learning is essential. 

Needless to say I came away from this charged for more training and more learning....