Black Belt Forum Topic:
Drawing from the Source
The Okinawan island nation was a satellite of China for most of their history. Their wealth came from shipping – they moved goods between China and what is now the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The key route of travel was Naha to Fuzhou. They also had a permanent Okinawan community, serving as a diplomatic and trade mission, at Guangzhou.
From these ports they would travel overland to the centers of commerce and imperial power. The sons of the elite would stay in China for years, to study, preparing for official posts back home at Shuri.
The sailors, guards and traders would spend months or years at the ports, until they were called for. While they were there they learned martial arts like Shorin Ryu White Crane. They traveled, and they found new knowledge and new perspectives they never would have encountered at home.
Martial artists today travel from the west to Okinawa in the same spirit. There is a lot to discover that may be unavailable at home. There is new technical knowledge. There is a level of mastery that is high. There is a simple, unpretentious dedication to training.
Even now there are new worlds to encounter and new ways to experience martial arts.
One thing you may notice is that among the accomplished practitioners of martial arts on Okinawa there is mutual respect, and a genuine interest in one another’s art. The sharp delineation or enmity between styles is not prevalent there.
Over the years Sensei Brooks, while practicing in the Shorin Ryu White Crane style, trained closely, in person and through correspondence, with Sakiyama Sogen Roshi, a master of the Goju Ryu style of karate.
Over the years, Sakiyama Roshi presented Brooks with his hand drawn calligraphy pieces, marking various important points in the path of training.
While not religious in nature they do mark significant steps in martial arts, expressed from person to person, between teacher and student, expressed in light of the insights and culture of Japan, China and Okinawa.
Next Black Belt Forum Topic:
Perfect Bi-lateral Symmetry Is Not Your Friend
In martial arts we put a lot of effort into rectifying the imbalance between left and right. Most of us have a difference in strength and dexterity between our left hand and our right hand. To overcome this we use weights and resistance training for strength, contact drills, kumite and technique applications from both sides, for skill. This is good.
In armed combatives we refer to the ‘strong side’ and the ‘support side’. If you are right handed the strong side is your right, the support side is your left. These sides, these hands, have different jobs to do. The right holds the gun, the left supports it or operates the light, or supplies the fresh magazine, etc.
And although we train the support side to be able to do the work of the strong side, to be adaptable enough to continue the fight in the event that the strong side is injured for example, it is still referred to as the support side. There is no confusion on this point: there is a difference between the two.
Is martial arts more natural then? Is the effort to overcome the apparent imbalance between left and right and creating a more complete bi-lateral symmetry better and more noble than the shooter’s acceptance of the inherent difference between left and right.
No. It is not more natural and it is not more noble.
The body looks like it is formed on a mirror image in the vertical. The beauty and harmony of the human form has not been kept secret.
But the human body is not symmetrical, in significant ways. We are designed to be upright. Our spine is vertical, with a top and a bottom and the two poles are not interchangeable. Even an accomplished yogi who can stand on her head for an hour without effort does not say ‘I am going to the store now,” and then walk out on her head.
We are designed to move forward, not backward. Anyone in any sport, including any martial art or combative technique can tell you that. It takes special training to move backward or side to side for more than a step or two. Moving forward is natural. That is another asymmetry.
Many microorganisms are pretty much symmetrical.
Humans are not. Most of us intuitively feel this is a good thing, without really knowing why.
Its true that microorganisms are designed to live random lives, drifting through space. Humans are not designed to do that.
Another aspect is this: There is a survival advantage in being stronger on one side than the other.
For most of our history human beings lived close to the edge of survival.
Our family members from ages past, who gave birth to our generations, faced challenges every day we can barely imagine now. We can barely imagine them in part, because what they did worked.
One of the things they did was rely on the strength and skill of their body and mind to stay alive every day. No stores. No news reports. Few theories. Lots of listening and looking around at the land in front of them and the sky at night and into the rivers and lakes into the trees and under the dirt to see what they could find. Hunger, cold, shelter, food, animals, things that grew from the earth, what they imagined and remembered and dreamed, fighting, walking, throwing, mating and taking care of your people. That was what they did.
Now imagine you are in an environment you do not know well. You are exploring it. It may be lethal. It may hold promise. You might find food. You might meet an enemy. You might find a fruit tree. You might meet a sabre tooth tiger. You do not know. You do know that you have to make progress and get food and shelter or get back to your camp before you get too weak to go on.
For many of the things you need to do to keep yourself and your people alive – for hunting, for attack or in defense – with a stick, rock, javelin, sword, spear or lance – upper body asymmetry was an advantage not a disadvantage.
It was an advantage in gathering, climbing, herding and building as well.
Moving through a deep ravine, a cave, a dense forest, a long way in, lets say, your way is obstructed.
Or imagine that you are searching a building. You face a barricade. A heavy piece of furniture, tipped on its side, is blocking a doorway. It weighs two hundred pounds, and lets say that it takes your maximum power to move it.
To displace two hundred pounds of inertial resistance you put both hands on it and push. If you do this with the power of the body divided evenly, 50% left and 50% right, the object moves and falls back. If you step one step forward with one foot, and rotate the object to the side, you can still use 50/50 upper body power and get it moved out of the way.
If you push it with a stronger right than left, say 60/40, you will have the same total power to use, and you will still tip it out of the way. No advantage or disadvantage in this instance, of pushing straight ahead, between bias and symmetry.
But what if on the other side of that piece of furniture, is an attacker. As soon as that obstruction moves out of the way the attacker springs forward toward you. You have an instant to respond. With nowhere to go your response is to punch, lets say.
What would be more advantageous: to have a 50/50 upper body power distribution or 60/40? Would it be better to have half your maximum in this example or more than half?
For generating ballistic power, projecting power away from the body, it is advantageous to be biased, to have more power on one side than to have an equal distribution of power.
For fine motor function this advantage works the same way. Surgeons, violinists and cabinetmakers, performing at the outer limit of their skill, do not benefit from a 50/50 distribution of upper body skill. They benefit from a massed force in one location. Like any tactician would.
In other words handedness is a benefit in ways beyond the projection of physical power.
The same was true for our ancestor exploring and adapting to the natural world. In defense – with a stick, rock, javelin, sword, spear or lance, upper body asymmetry was an advantage not a disadvantage.
In gathering, climbing, planting, herding or building, it was as well.
It still is.
So in martial arts we work to increase the skill and strength on both sides, a good and necessary process. In combatives we optimize the use of the structure of our design. No conflict there. A different emphasis in the training demands, but no conflict.
We get more strength, more successful expression of intention and a larger range of performance options from the inequality of our left-right capabilities that we would with perfect bi-lateral symmetry.
Applied to martial arts this design also introduces an inclination and capacity for skilled rotation into a structure which appears optimized for linear forward motion.
Post by J. Michael Brooks
Next Black Belt Forum Topic:
Three “Jins” or Energy Transmission Techniques
Some good perspectives came up recently about the difference between hard techniques, hard-soft techniques, and soft techniques. Here is some useful information about what they are and how we use them:
This distinction is made between techniques that use these three kinds of ‘jins’ or energy-flows as they are described in Chinese and Okinawan martial arts. All three are used in Shorin Ryu White Crane and all three may be needed to meet the demands of combative interaction.
There is some mystification around the distinction because some claim that you should prefer one or the other. Some claim, for example, that karate styles use one jin and tai chi uses another.
That is not accurate. Hard and soft, internal and external are starting points in learning styles of movement, but every style of martial arts will include both internal and external training, hard, hard-soft and soft energy transmission techniques, to meet the demands of application.
The three ‘jins’ are tools. They are not difficult to use. You already use the first two of them. If you train consistently you will be able to use all of them appropriately and spontaneously.
They are not mysterious. They are natural.
It is natural to use a hard-soft technique when you punch. If you have average athletic ability it does not take any special training. When you ‘throw’ a punch the fist is launched ballisticly from the initial position of the fist, toward the target.
To project power out into the target instead of absorbing the power in your own fist, you tighten your fist on or just before impact. Anyone in a fight in a schoolyard, a barroom or on a street corner might use a hard-soft technique.
Boxing is hard-soft technique. If a boxer says he will ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ he is describing soft-hard technique, and it will be applied to every punch and body shift.
No boxer will use rigid arms and legs.
Speed in combative technique means learning to shorten the reflex arc – from soft to hard to soft and back, as rapidly as possible. At the same time we learn to increase the amplitude of the muscle response – maximizing muscle contraction and the completing the release of muscle tension. That is something every trained boxer, martial artist or any other combative athlete in baseball, tennis or golf, for example, strives to improve.
The defining quality of hard-soft punching technique is that it is ballistic, that is it is thrown while minimizing resistance in the opposing muscles of the arm. It finishes with enough focus and compression of the muscles to prevent the fist from distorting, and so to physically penetrate the space occupied by the target. Although makiwara training has other benefits, ‘full-arc punching’ is one of skills that makiwara training provides.
Each move you learned in your first week as a beginner in Shorin Ryu White Crane – each block, punch, body shift, and kick – will be most effectively executed as a hard-soft technique. You will get better at reducing resistance in the flexors when projecting your punch or kick. You will get better at reaching full compression in the contact alignment – from the fist through the forearm into the shoulder, hips, stance and feet – as you land your technique, as well.
Although we all get better with practice the principle itself is established immediately. And although we call it a ‘hard-soft’ technique, following the Chinese naming convention, the energy cycle of the technique is soft-hard-soft, for intiating, executing and finishing the technique, and connecting it either to the subsequent technique or to conclude the encounter.
It is sometimes necessary to use hard technique in sport wrestling and in ground fighting, and it is useful in some of our kata movements as well.
For the most part hard techniques are required in a clinch and when grappling. In grappling, especially if the opponent’s hold has been applied or locked, you cannot afford to relax the part of your body that is being attacked. There are effective ways to maneuver out of the hold, and to counter it, without releasing the tension in the part of the body that the opponent is trying to restrain or manipulate.
If your joint is locked at a point that is at or close to the limit of its natural range of motion, releasing tension under the opponent’s pressure and control will result in injury to your joint or cavity, or to defeat.
Therefore we learn to move with resistance maintained in the body. You can do this by using the body in a single unified movement like a leaf spring, without ever releasing tension. This resembles the movement of a carp in the water.
You can do the same type of movement using the koshi and compression, whether you are on your feet or on the ground, to control the opponent’s balance point, distort his stance, weaken his posture and cause him to release momentarily, somewhere. That provides you with your opening to counter.
An example of this type of application where dynamic tension is maintained while shifting position, are the side-stepping techniques in naihanchi kata.
Any time there is fist to arm or palm to arm contact shown in a kata posture – as in pinan 1, pinan 4, wankan, etc., we can look for a possible application of a hard technique.
Those moves can be interpreted in other ways, with hard-soft applications, but they can be interpreted as grappling moves that can be defeated by hard technique if the opponent has made contact and has applied the grab or lock.
The technique is ‘hard’ in the sense that maintaining resistance in the opposing muscles of the limb in contact, and in the architecture of the rest of the body, is an advantage in the effective application of the technique. It is possible to use a dynamic hard technique in other situations, such as a knee, hip or shoulder strike, but the grappling techniques mentioned require a hard jin application.
Soft technique is less familiar to our ordinary way of moving but it is easy to do when someone shows you how. It requires a more highly developed sense of the strengths and weaknesses of your posture and of the posture of your opponent, with less margin of error than the other techniques.
It also requires a more precise coordination of the flow of energy from the center of the body out to the target: sending an unimpeded energy wave from your root on the ground, generated by the central reservoir of energy at the hara, coordinated with the central rotating physical structure of the koshi at the pelvis and lower back, transmitting the energy out through the limbs to the target using the arches, the mechanical and energetic pathways of the body which link the root, center and limbs in to a coherent whole.
Hard-soft technique is resilient; hard technique is rigid. Soft technique functions like a wave moving through a whip.
The important component of the soft technique’s effectiveness is not the material it is made of – your arm, leg, etc., but of the wave of energy that passes, unobstructed, through it.
A boat is sailing along on the water. A wave comes up and turns it over. It is not that the water around the boat was suddenly rigid material, or that the water itself had any special effect on the boat. The energy moving through the water was communicated to the structure of the boat and affected the boat’s position. Then that energy wave was gone. The water itself was completely the same before, during and after the wave passed through it. Soft technique works this way.
Energy propagated through a medium – a wave in water, wind in a storm, sound through air – is familiar to us. We use this same principle in our soft technique.
It is not that it is ‘better’ to punch a target softly. That is goofy. It is not that it is better to minimize the resistance in the muscles at all times in all combative encounters.
If you have done push-hands training you can feel that there are moments when it only takes the slightest, feather-light redirection to destabilize an opponent, even a very strong and aggressive one, if their posture is over extended or biased.
Just as in a dynamic combative encounter – there may be a permutation in which you are able to redirect an incoming technique, sweep, pivot, body shift, continue an opponent’s overextension, retreat or other similar moment, in which it is to your advantage to have your energy transmit to the opponent’s body flow without tensing your body or distorting your own body dynamics or energy flow. That is one way in which a soft technique works. It is fast.
Soft, whipping posture changes and strikes are featured in pinan 3, naihanchi 1, naihanchi 3 and kusanku. Rohai, a White Crane derived kata, features multiple soft jin techniques, as do Gojushiho and Kusanku.
The soft strikes depend on an unimpeded wave of energy passing through your body to the target, and then reversing at high speed, like a whip.
The contact point of your body – fist, fingertips, toe tips or whatever you are using – will transmit energy out of your body and into the target without stopping or slowing down. The feeling of reversing direction suddenly, like the snapping of a whip, will project more power than is apparent because your intent to reverse comes slightly ahead of the reversal of the extended limb. The limb is very relaxed at the moment of contact, penetrates, and then withdraws. A benefit of this commitment to instant retraction of the technique is that if it is grabbed you have a high likelihood of releasing your limb or destabilizing the opponent if he is able to establish a secure hold.
There are many techniques in our kata that can be interpreted as soft jin applications, but they do not have to be interpreted that way.
The ones that require soft jin techniques are cavity strikes. Most cavity and pressure point strikes rely on simultaneous counter-pressure at the target point to be effective. The techniques in our kata that demand a soft-jin interpretation are cavity or pressure point strikes that do not have a counter-pressure component.
Instead these soft, whipping, cavity strikes depend on high-speed ‘fa jing’ energy transmission into the target along with precision targeting, to make use of the inertia of the mass of the target itself as counter pressure. This kind of application will work at high speed, against a destabilized opponent, and is generally applied to weak target structures.
This takes a little longer to learn to do well that the other applications mentioned above.
There are many well-proven ways to develop all of these techniques, some of which you are already using, to good advantage.
Next Black Belt Forum Topic:
The Arches of the Body
What if your entire body could act as a super-sensitive antenna? What if you could perceive your opponent’s intention and contact everywhere on your body and respond without any reaction time at all?
As we begin martial arts training we acquire new techniques. But as we mature as practitioners we are concerned as much or more with changing the deep constitution of the body.
Whether you are a practitioner of tai chi, aikido, kendo or karate, this is a fundamental concern of advanced training and no mater how many advanced techniques you have memorized, until your body and mind transform deeply, you will not be able to deploy the skills you have learned with true mastery. Everyone can achieve this. It just takes consistent practice and an understanding of what you are going for.
As advanced practitioners we are learning to unify the body. Transforming what we experienced as beginners as the “parts” of the body into a unified system of “arches.” Like arches in architecture, experiencing the body in this way allows incoming pressure to be distributed over the entire structure of the body, from head to toe, so that the perception of the opponent’s incoming force is not localized at the point of contact, but sensed by the entire body. This allows an immediate adjustment in response, instead of a delayed reaction.
The change in the way we experience the structure of our body from beginner to advanced is similar to the change in architecture from the Greek to the Roman period. The Greeks created structures using columns for vertical support, spanning them with cross beams.
With a stone column it was very strong — as long as the stress was applied from the top down. If you stress columns from the side, or from an angle, stressing the joint of the vertical and horizontal, the structure is weak and unstable.
As a beginning martial artist we learn to move by dividing the body into parts and analyzing what to do with each part – move the foot like this, turn that way, keep shoulders down, keep elbows in, the wrist like this, the ankle like that… etc. This is a useful and necessary stage of the process of learning to move skillfully. It is similar to learning the alphabet before learning to read. But if we get stuck in this thinking, if we take the body to be a collection of “parts,” we will never appreciate the body’s coherence and immense ability.
With regard to various versions of the horse stance, for example, we can see many practitioners use the “Greek” construction described above: two legs as the vertical supports, the pelvis spanning them, joined at the hips. If our body feels like that, it will function in a way that is inherently weaker than its potential. The limit of that stance from the vertical is in the muscles of the calves and quadriceps, and the strength of the hip, knee and ankle joints.
You can transform it into a stance that is many times stronger, however, if you know what to do. The amazing thing is you do not have to do years of muscle building to effect the transformation – you just have to think differently about what you are trying to achieve in your stance. To do this you use the “Roman” approach to the structure of the stance.
Instead of two legs as posts and the pelvis as a spanner, think of the legs – from foot up through your hara (lower abdomen) to the other foot – as a single arch. Bring the muscles into a fully arched contraction by continuing the form of the arch through the floor – make a full circle with your muscles, pulling the feet through the floor toward each other, using the pelvis like the keystone in the arch. The butt muscles, inner thigh adductors, the arches of the feet, the lower abdominals, the lower back muscles all are part of this unified contraction which creates the arch to support you in this stance.
There is no need to maintain high tension or rigidity in the body to create arches, but it helps to get the feeling when you start to discover them. Once you have the leg arch try this: extend your arms in a “square punch and chambered fist” position. (I put that in quotes because that hand position has numerous applications that have nothing to do with a square punch or a chambered fist, but it is a convenient label for the arm position.)
Now make your arms into an “arch.” Get the feeling that instead of two separate levers hanging from your shoulders you have a single unified system of energy running from fist, across your back (separate the shoulder blades drawing the shoulders forward to get this feeling) and continue the feeling of unbroken energy flow around to your other fist. That is an arm arch.
Extend your spine in an erect vertical chain, feeling the small spaces between the vertebrae, like the pulling up of a ballet dancer. That is a spine arch.
When you start to make the body into arches, it is a conscious, labor-intensive process. Just like learning your first basic techniques when you started. But gradually it becomes natural. And instead of be a static, tight type of feeling, it becomes more and more dynamic, and whip-like. A feeling more like the resilience of bamboo than the rigidity of stone.
Instead of having the body divided into three arches, the entire body, little by little, is trained to perform as an integrated dynamic system of numerous arches, with flows of energy moving as necessary.
This is essential work for advanced martial artists in any style. Using push hands and a variety of our kata styles (from whipping ones to rooted ones) we are developing the ability to unify the body in space (unifying the parts of the body) and time (unifying movement sequences.)
We also unify the body and mind – deleting the time delay between perception, will and movement. Also we can in a sense unify with or at least harmonize with our opponent. As we get better at manifesting this “dynamic arches” feeling in the body we can sense the opponent’s intention and “read” his weak points and threatening points as we interact with him.
||This principle which we call arches is part of a sophisticated system of movement and knowledge of body architecture which was fundamental to pre-modern karate. The enormous speed and power it allows you to unleash is your own power. You have it now. Discovering it in yourself is not just a thrill, but for the advanced martial artist – for the 5 year practitioner who is looking for a new dimension, or for those at the 10, 15 or 20 year mark who may have hit a plateau – it marks the opening of immense potential in your practice that can lead you to the gates of mastery.|
Next Black Belt Forum Topic:
Shut Up & Train
In this photo two accomplished karate practitioners – Kyoshi Glenn Cunningham, 7th degree black belt, and Hanshi Masaji Taira, 9th degree black belt – are holding a small framed print of a mural painted by Tarleton Brooks. It reads “Damatte Keiko.”
This is Sensei Brooks’ expression of the essence of his approach to karate: “Don’t talk. Just train.” Also translated as “Shut Up and Train.”
Our friends training under 10th degree black belt master Kensei Taba, at the Shogen-Ryu Ontario international seminar, appreciate this spirit too!
Sensei Brooks with original Damatte Keiko mural from the New England dojo.
In response to inquiries about ordering the print: Order the Print by clicking here.
Send your shipping address and use the PayPal link at the bottom of the page. The print is $15 including shipping, for US addresses. Also available on canvas in other sizes.