When it comes to fiction, I’ll generally consume it in whatever medium is convenient: traditional paper, ebook, audio, hypertext. It’s all good, it’s all valid, it’s all fun.
But when it comes to non-fiction, and especially to my martial arts reading, I have a vast preference for paper, which isn’t to say I don’t do a lot of reading online, but when it comes to heavier or longer stuff, I’d really rather hold it in my hand or put it on the table or desk in front of me.
Because I highlight stuff, make notes, mark stuff for additional research, and circle or underline things for emphasis so things jump out at me when I pick up the book again or decide to make my own notes from it. I’m studying this, not just reading it. It’s more involved and it takes longer.
So I won’t, usually, buy an ebook of a martial arts text even if it’s vastly cheaper or otherwise out of print. I’ll wait until I find a used copy, someone mentions they have one I can borrow, or it comes back into print. Whenever my supply of marital arts reading gets low, I’ll look at the first eight or ten books on my ‘to read’ list that I don’t have, check prices and availability, move the OOP stuff out of the next 10, check on the OOP titles that are really appealing in the moment, and order a book or two to carry me through for a while.
I’m within spitting distance (what a weird expression) of finishing my current book and down to only one left to read after that, so I went through the list a few days ago to complete the ritual. A book I’ve wanted for a long time that I can’t remember the last time I saw as available when I checked was listed as in stock and at a price tag that surprised me a bit. Into the cart it went, arriving this afternoon in the mail.
If you’re interested, the book is Fortress Storming by John Burke and is supposed to be as detailed a breakdown and analysis as has ever been done in book form on one of my favourite kata, Bassai Dai.
It may have moved to the top of the reading pile. Mostly because I’ve been waiting for it for so long, but maybe just a little bit because of the last sentence in the warning in the front of the book, something I haven’t ever come across before in a technical martial arts manual, though I’m sure I just haven’t picked up the right book before now. “Everyone should be aware of the Law and how it pertains to ‘Use of Reasonable Force’.”
My interpretation of that is two-fold. First, the author is being responsible to his audience and reminding us that some of the stuff we practice in martial arts can be very dangerous. Second, he’s telling that audience that he considers at least some of what’s in this book to fall into that category.
Now, I know there’s some nasty stuff in Bassai Dai, and I know that I’m probably only scratching the surface of what’s there to find, even remembering that I practice two different lineages of this kata. There are a lot of things in the kata that only make a little bit of sense or I haven’t figured out how to look at yet and there are a lot of things hidden in the transitions that I just haven’t seen. That’s the beauty of karate and, I expect almost every martial art: there’s always more to learn.
And I’m hoping this book will show me more than I know now. I expect it will and there will be pencil marks and highlights to trace the path.
Stay safe and be well, everyone.by
It’s funny how the human brain works, sometimes.
Although, in this case, I mostly mean my brain.
A lot of methods of teaching seem to be to break things down to a very fine level, teach the first piece of it, and then build from there, either piece by piece or layer by layer depending on what it is you’re teaching. And there are a number of different ways of teaching and learning, frequently depending on the methodology that works best for the student and often involving how very senses contribute to the process for that student.
Most big things are made up of little things, but a lot of the time those little things can be complete things on their own.
Considering the primary purpose of me keeping a blog relates to writing, it would seem obvious that I should take a writing tack on this, looking at the various basic skills involved from the basics of grammar up through the elements of style and all of the disparate pieces and nuances of storytelling.
But I don’t teach writing and most of those basic skills are ingrained enough that, whether or not I still consider myself to be learning each one (and I do, a lot, on the storytelling angle), to break things down far enough to make sense to build on and then do the building would likely take a fairly large book to do to my own satisfaction.
Writing a book about writing is not on the near-future menu for me.
From a martial arts perspective (my hobby that means the most to the core of who I am), there are experiments I can run on myself.
I’ve always been a visual and linguistic learner. I learn by seeing or reading things, doing some background mental processing to figure it out, and then doing them to solidify the skill or lesson. The linguistic piece can be audio, but doesn’t need to be; I’m just as comfortable with a book as a lecture.
My experience in the martial arts is that we typically break things down into bite-sized chunks and feed those chunks to you one at a time. But there are bites and there are bites, and bite-sized to one person can be a choking hazard for another or not worth picking their teeth with for a third.
The simplest example of this to express quickly is a kata or form, a prearranged sequence of movements and techniques designed for solo practice. I’m going to leave the description of kata at that – there are plenty of books written and yet to be written for as deep a dive as you want to take.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve recently started on a new martial journey, one of Okinawan kobudo, traditional weapons training. Recently being something like a year ago now. No need to go into the major whys here, just know that it’s fun. I’m looking just ahead into the middle of the coloured belts now; it’s still a couple of years at least before I’m thinking seriously about black.
COVID, however, has brought with it some martial bonuses to go along with the difficulties. We get no in-person classes, no partner work, no contact. But we have virtual classes and a significant part of that is a focus on solo work – basics and kata – at various levels. As our chief instructor wants to be sure we’re all getting something out of the classes, he’s teaching to multiple levels simultaneously and exposing many of us to weapons and kata that we wouldn’t normally get if we were still living in a pre-COVID world. I’ve learned basics and kata beyond what I need between now and shodan. Ultimately, I’m learning it all at the expense of the two-person forms and partner drills I should be learning at this stage, but things will come around eventually.
But I said I was going to conduct experiments. I’ve started the first one.
One of the benefits of all that online instruction is that there’s often available video to reference. So I picked two different kata that are both well beyond where I should be worried about practicing but which I have access to detailed video of my chief instructor breaking down and which are for weapons I already have at least basic familiarity with: bo (staff) and tonfa.
The experiment is to find out how it’s better for me to break things down: a bunch of small pieces or one big piece.
For the tonfa kata, I’m taking a handful of moves at a time, watching the instructional piece until I think I can repeat the sequence without it. Once I can manage the sequence five times in a row without referencing the video, I add it to the rest of the kata I’ve built so far and make sure I can do everything up to the point I’ve just finished learning three times.
For the bo kata, I’m doing the entire instructional video segment for the whole kata, during which sensei builds the kata from the first move finishing with three repetitions of the full kata at increasing speed and power.
I’m doing both of these things every day so I’m learning two kata, one at the beginning of my workout and one at the end, alternating which comes first each day. The net effect, theoretically, is that I’m teaching myself two advanced kata at the same time. The objective is to find out what should be the size of a bite for me. Whichever kata sticks fully in my brain first will at least lead me in the direction I should be learning things in, right?
Well, maybe. Remember, these are both advanced kata, stuff that would normally be considered beyond me at the level I’m at. Probably well beyond me. But things aren’t normal right now. The tonfa kata is ahead. The parts of it I’ve taught myself are sticking well from beginning up to what I learned this morning. The bo kata hasn’t gelled yet, but I have moments where whole sequences just happen, so it’s getting into the brain cells and I wonder if I’ll have a day where it just clicks. I wonder if that will happen before or after I have the pattern memorized for the tonfa kata, which is slightly longer.
That’s actually an important side note: pattern. I’m not learning what all of the movements mean, although I can figure out more than I expected, at least at a basic level, or all of the applications. I’ve got plenty of time for that. Right now, for these two kata, I want to establish the pattern in my head. I’ve got years for the applications.
But it does occur to me that a better test might be two mid-level open-handed kata. That’s been my primary martial wheelhouse for a decade or more now and there are any number of interesting forms that might be fun to try, and a couple that are actually on my list.
Which might be the next experiment, in a similar format to this one. I’ve got a couple of non-martial arts ideas, too.
Stay safe and be well, everyone.by
A while back, so I had some different things to hit than just the heavy bag, I built myself a pair of makiwara. One is a hang on the wall version, currently hanging in the garage:
And the other is a portable, fits in the palm of your hand kind of thing that can go with me anywhere:
I love my makiwara and have every intention of putting a full version somewhere at some point, but that may wind up waiting until after we move into the house we plan to retire in, which is a year or two out, at least.
More recently, about two months into COVID precautions and isolation, I made myself a pair of tecchu to see if I could. (I think I’ve written about those before.)
While not even vaguely professional quality, they feel a lot better in my hands practicing than a pair of cut-down chopsticks.
A few weeks later, I decided I needed something to practice kobudo on, not really willing to risk my heavy bag. So I built this:
You can punch and kick it, if you like, but I made it to be able to unload on with staff, sai, and tonfa. It takes the punishment very well and gives me a little feedback on how a variety of techniques actually feel. Plus, no risk of puncturing or tearing my heavy bag. The top of the upper tire is about five and a half feet off the ground, but the chains will let me adjust that upwards almost another two feet if I like. There are a few small drainage holes so I can avoid breeding mosquitoes, too.
Lately, I’m feeling the lack of partner work in my training. It’s been more than four months. And I’ve always wanted a Wing Chun dummy, so I thought maybe I’d stretch my carpentry skills a bit. But space is limited and budgets are tight, so I decided to start with the flat, wall mounted version. Here’s where I’m at so far:
I’d like it to look nicer, so there needs to be some sanding and staining. I’d like to be able to hit it in a couple of spots, so there probably should be some padding, too. But I’m quite happy with it so far.
The ultimate goal in this vein is theoretically something like this:
But I’m a long, long way off from being able to manage that, and I think I should probably work with the one I’ve got for a little while to see if I like it.
I’m thinking about this as a traditional pursuit. Making use of what you have or what you can put together to build your skills and further your training. Plus, it’s fun to stretch myself out of my comfort zones. Added to home and yard improvement projects, I’ve spent more time with tools this year than probably in all the time we’ve been living in this house before this year. You can hardly call me Al, but I can manage more than I thought I could.
And there are definitely still other things I’d like to make.
I do need to reclaim more of the garage, though, and not for the car. The home dojo is slowly taking shape, though I doubt it will ever be completely done.
Stay safe and be well, everyone.by
There are certain events in the martial arts year that somehow speak to me. In April, we have the 100 Kobudo Kata Challenge. The basic idea of that is that you do 100 repetitions of a weapon kata. Ordinarily, this would be done as an event, as a group, or as a dojo. That’s not really how things work right now.
My kobudo journey is still young. I “know” a few kata, but none of them really well yet. Still, I thought this might be something I would like to try. I mean, 100 repetitions of the same kata in one day? It may not sound exiting to you, but it’s more than I’ve ever done of a weapons kata before. (There’s a similar karate challenge in the fall that I have done in the past.)
Officially, the home of the event is Sakiyama Park, Shuri, Okinawa and it takes place 10am-1pm on April the 5th this year. Adjusting for time zones, that was beginning at 9pm tonight Eastern time. Staring a 3-hour physical event at 9pm seemed a little bit much, pushing too deep into the night, so I started at about 545, finishing about 830pm. A little ahead of official, but it worked for me.
I picked Shushi no Kun, a bo (staff) kata. In fact, the first bo kata in our system. It’s not a short kata but not super long and 100 repetitions in 3 hours seemed reasonable on the surface of things.
But I knew it was going to be a good workout.
And it really was. Also a very interesting experience. And harder than you might expect. I’m not wired to do one thing continuously for very long so focus was hard to keep for the whole 100 kata and I wonder if I would have been better off to split the effort between several kata.
After every set of 10, I gave myself time for a water break (or an apple if I needed calories) and a moment to scribble down a thought or two.
The thoughts along the way:
10 – my footwear may be inappropriate for the whole exercise, but I am on cement. (The cement pad next to the deck in our back yard – I didn’t want to monopolize a large fraction of the main floor for the evening as that isn’t fair to everyone else and there are five of us living in the house.)
20 – I think I’m correcting my stances too much.
30 – I haven’t kiai-ed once yet. I mean, the neighbours already think I’m crazy…
40 – Mmm. Apple.
50 – That set was harder to focus for some reason, but I’m half-way!
60 – Time to come inside. It’s getting a little chilly. (The sun has gone down and the breeze is picking up.)
70 – Wait, am I stepping correctly there? And this move doesn’t feel right. Time for some video… I am stepping right and I’m missing a kamae in one spot.
80 – This is harder than and my brain is getting a bit mushy.
90 – I should have stretched more.
100 – Whoo hoo!
There’s no video. Since I haven’t started outdoor clean up yet (too wet and I like to wait until the weather is a bit warmer so that the various early-spring inhabitants of the leaf detritus no longer need it to avoid freezing at night, though I did allow myself a victory selfie.
This was an interesting experience, but not something I’m going to repeat too frequently. Aside from the overall intensity wearing me out a bit, I think I need a little more variety in my regular practice.
Anyone else discovering new depths or hidden facets of their hobbies or past times?
Be well, everyone.by
Well, what I’m striving towards, anyway. There are still a few bits missing or building.
I joked in the time we were winding down to close off the building completely, that if the shutdown went on long enough, I’d come back in the best shape of my life.
At some point not long after I left the building on the last day, and long before we thought it might be more than a few weeks, I decided that wasn’t going to be a joke. I’ll never have the cardio fitness I did at my peak as a long-distance runner, especially since I’m not allowed to run anymore because of a knee issue, but I can absolutely be a lot healthier than I’ve been for a while.
So I came up with the idea of the building of a real workout routine that can be done daily instead of just on weekends with the bits of it squeezed in between the various household chores and jobs I need to get done.
What I want it to look like when I’m finished ramping up:
Warm up = 20 minutes -> this consists of targeted basic movements, techniques, and isometrics (push-ups, crunches, and so on).
Kata = 20 minutes -> solo form practice that builds from basics and combinations to create a “recipe book” of applications and techniques.
Kobudo = 20 minutes -> weapons training. This is mostly bo, sai, and tonfa for me right now, with a few other weapons mixed in but in a smaller way, with a rotating focus each day.
Hojo Undo = 10 minutes -> strength and muscle training with specific equipment. This involves a lot of lifting things and hitting things.
Cardio = 30 minutes -> struggling here. The plan was a solid bike ride building up to the 30-minute mark and adding 5 minutes of cool-down walk, but I don’t have the ability to repair either of the two bikes I have access to. Working on that. In the meantime, since I can’t run, I can walk and I’m mostly turning these into short hikes.
Cool Down = 20 minutes -> what I’m incorporating here is a routine that takes in some beginner’s Yoga for flexibility (which I have a lack of) and Tai Chi.
Yes, if you’re keeping track, that’s two hours of working out. And I’m building this to be a daily workout. Yoga and Tai Chi are both new to me and in-class instruction isn’t a thing at the moment, but there is plenty of video available and if you can find something basic enough, you can follow along. You don’t need to be perfect to be making progress.
I’m not someone who can sit still at one task for long. I can’t binge-watch in the way most people mean it (binge-watching for me is 5 or 6 episodes of something in a week, not in a row), and I can only do housework for so long.
So, instead of trying to teach myself to sit still and watch something for hours or do housework or yard work for an entire day at a time, those get to be smaller parts of my day while I spend the effort on getting better at something I want to get better at.
And then there’s the saxophone mocking me in the corner.
Be well, everyone.by
In my post on karate, I alluded to the idea that I’m walking other martial paths, too.
I’m going to draw your attention to kobudo which, many sources seem to want to tell me, means “old martial way”. More descriptively, traditional Okinawan weapons. In the case of the system I’m studying, there are four primary weapons.
And the Nunchaku:
Note I said primary weapons. Depending on the path you’re taking, there may be fifteen or sixteen you’ll encounter along the way, but these are “the big four”.
There are some out there who are probably already asking why? Kobudo isn’t like empty-handed self defense. You can’t carry around a set of nunchaku in your back pocket, or a pair of sai or tonfa tucked into your belt, so what’s the point?
Well, I could talk about how it expands your experience, teaches you to use your brain and body in new ways, puts you in touch with a tradition and a culture that you wouldn’t otherwise get to experience, develops reflexes, strength, and coordination, and a whole bunch of other mental and physical benefits.
Or I could tell you how it’s just plain fun. Because that’s really what it comes down to. Not just the rush from moving quickly and feeling the impact of wood on wood (or metal) or the swoosh the end of the staff makes through the air when you swing it just right, but the joy you get from the practice and the participation with other people who feel the same way.
I’m studying kobudo because it’s fun. Yes, all of those other things add up to it being fun, but my journey isn’t the same as anyone else’s. If you’re doing something for a hobby and don’t get any joy out of it, why do it?
I’m not very far down this particular path yet, but that means there’s a whole lot more fun ahead.
Be well, everyone.by
So with all of this extra time, what am I doing?
Well, I did mention that there were a bunch of lists of a bunch of different types of things that I wanted to get done while I’m off with most of the rest of the province (by today’s press conferences, that’s being boiled down to essential services, whatever that means to our current government.
Occupying a significant place on one of those lists is martial arts. My primary art is karate. I’ve been studying it for a solid ten years now and I don’t see that changing at any point in the future regardless of my life situation. An injury might slow me down, but karate is never going away.
Warning, I’m about to get a bit philosophical about things.
I had occasion to think about the why of that in detail before a grading a few years ago and came up with the same reason I’ll never give up writing, something it took me a long time to understand about myself: that I’m often happiest when I’m creating something or learning something new.
Karate gives me the second one of those constantly and in a lot of ways. It gives me the second one, too, but that’s a bit more subtle.
For the learning, on the most simplistic level, there is always another kata or technique or drill to look forward to. A little deeper, you can always get better at whatever that kata or technique or drill is and what it’s designed to teach you. Smoother, stronger, faster. There is always something more that can be done, or some new application to be learned, discovered, or improved.
Karate gives me not just the opportunity to learn new things, but the necessity of learning them, physically and mentally. Physically is often the easier of the two. Teaching your body to do new things may mean just repeating a motion exactly over and over again until it seems natural and fluid. But this is just the beginner’s piece.
Continued practice may start to bring understanding on its own, but only in a very basic way. Reducing karate, or any martial art, to just a sequence of techniques robs it of its heart. While we can, and should, find great joy in the learning of new skills, new techniques, new kata, there’s so much more to the art. The mental and spiritual aspects are critical to any art. To paraphrase Sensei Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, karate is not merely about self-defense and physical development, it’s a path for the improvement of the character of its students.
A little deeper, and coming at it from a different angle, karate is a Japanese art, so it borrows a lot of words and phrases beyond naming techniques and stances, concepts that come to us from the “old masters”, or earlier, things that sometimes we have a difficult time translating into English. We get things like shoshin, the beginner’s mind, mushin, no mind, and go no sen, sen no sen, sen sen no sen, frequently reduced in english to merely levels of awareness or timing. We have shu ha ri, the sometimes linear and sometimes circular stages on the path to mastery of a skill, and we have shido geiko, training or learning by teaching.
None of these things are new, but all of them are new to every student at some point in their training. In the years since I began my martial arts training, I’ve encountered all of these concepts and many more. Each of them, in its own way, has stirred excitement in my mind. There are so many perceptions, so many ways of looking at things, and I’ve really just begun to scratch the surface of any of them. If I take great joy in learning something new, or learning something deeper, karate promises to give me that joy for a lifetime.
But there’s still more.
Karate doesn’t just provide that learning, those concepts, it provides the opportunity for self-exploration and discovery
And more importantly, it also provides the opportunity to learn about the people around you, helping them find their way further along the path.
There’s a lot of satisfaction found when you see a small child finally make a fist properly, when you watch someone perform a new kata from beginning to end for the first time, when you can give another student a small piece of advice that makes a technique or kata just a little bit better, and realized that with every incremental improvement, every tiny change, they are walking farther down the path as well.
There is always progress and hope of doing better, for you and the people around you.
And that’s the beauty of karate. There’s always more to learn, always a horizon in the distance, and always more beyond the horizon that you just can’t see yet.
So, the joy in doing something new, the joy in learning something new, the joy in experiencing something new. And the joy in watching the same sensation awaken and grow in other people.
Ten years in, I recognize clearly just how little I know, and have only the vaguest idea of just how much more there might be still to learn.
And I take great joy in that recognition.
See, I told you I was going to get a bit philosophical.
We’ll talk about how karate is a creative art another day.
And then there’s kobudo.
And the bits and pieces of other arts that have found their way into my practice.
Be well, everyone.by
by I don’t really talk about it a lot on here, but it’s no secret I train in karate, and have been for about four and a half years now.
It’s also not a secret that I’m in my forties, and while I trained for six months or so just before my son was born, I didn’t take up karate seriously until a little while after my 39th birthday. Four and a half years on, I’ve learned a lot and definitely ramped up my fitness level, but I’m not ready to start feeling my age yet, so I’ve been trying to expand my personal definitions of what I need to do in order to keep pushing my limits without injuring myself.
Hence, Martial Arts After 40 by Sang H. Kim.
The book is broken into four parts, of which I’m just starting the third
- Beginning Your Journey 1-4
- Getting Fighting Fit and Staying that Way 5-15
- Your Martial Arts Journey 16-25
- Mastery Points
The first section breaks out things like fitness basics, nutrition, and a little bit of motivation. This is the first four chapters. And is light reading, a preaching to the choir section that doesn’t hurt to get you into the right frame of mind.
The second focuses on specific attributes like Agility, Flexibility, Power, and so on, providing important points in each and ten or so exercises targeting each attribute with a slant towards developing for martial arts. Eleven Chapters.
The third looks at fitness in martial arts in detail. This, for me, is the meat of the book. Upcoming chapters target skill development, forms, sparring, and a lot of martial arts specific skills and fitness. This is where I start taking notes, I think.
The fourth section is the shortest, and titled “Mastery Points”. I’m refusing to read ahead, at least at the moment, but I’m anticipating the wisdom of the ages here. Or at least some solid advice and ways to think about things to continue to grow in your chosen art as your number of birthdays continues to grow.
Available on Amazon and probably wherever else fine books are sold.
Be well, everyone.
by We had a grading at my karate club recently. Every grading is important, a benchmark to test yourself and make sure you are where you’re supposed to be. It can be an exciting, and occasionally stressful, event, depending how you feel about performing in front of an audience. Because there is an audience. Family shows up to watch and it’s usually the biggest class you see every three months. But demonstrations at the end of class are a frequent teaching tool anyway, so there shouldn’t be too much performance anxiety, right?
I can’t speak for other clubs, so I’m not sure if we do things differently or not, but the grading list is posted a couple of weeks ahead of time. If you’re on it, you’re going to receive the stripe or belt listed beside your name. It’s not a foregone conclusion: I believe it’s possible to screw up the grading or something related to it bad enough to make Sensei reconsider, but I’ve yet to see it happen. Sensei is always watching and measuring (as are all of the senior instructors, I’ll bet). If you’re not ready for the next belt, you’re not ready for the next belt and you won’t get it. Oh, you’ll probably add an extra stripe to mark progress, and that’s fine, too. As long as you’re always learning.
In my case, the recent grading was an important one. Brown Belt, the final colour before black. (And grading for Shodan is a different beast, but that’s another subject entirely.) Brown belt, the one that marks you as a senior student for everyone to see. You’re supposed to know what you’re doing and it’s time to start being able to teach for real. Brown Belt is a big deal, at least for me. Yes, it’s just another marker on the path, not a step in and of itself, and I try to remind myself of that. I still have a great deal to learn, and that actually brings me quite a bit of happiness on its own.
The belt is still new. For all I know, it might squeak when I turn around too quickly. Some days I feel like I’ve earned it, and some days I wonder how I managed it. But there are nearly four years of learning and work and sweat invested in that belt and I know the effort I’ve put into it.
That also brings me a lot of joy.
And now it’s time to step it up, start figuring more things out on my own, and get truly consistent in my attendance in classes where I serve as an instructor. Note to the world: teaching kids is not as easy as most people think. Getting a group of five or ten (or more) completely different kids to listen to you all at the same time is both an art and a science, and not to be underestimated, especially when they’re younger. But it’s fun, and I’m learning a lot.
Still walking the path, and looking forward to the grueling trial that will be my shodan grading that still seems comfortably far off, but is probably only a little over a year from now.
Be well, everyone.