Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Yoga and the Martial Arts

Yesterday, one of my students lent me The Martial Artist's Book of YogaKnowing that I incorporate a variety of yoga stretches in my martial arts classes he thought I might find it useful. After five minutes of flipping through it, I ordered my own copy.

I've always considered yoga a wonderful complement to my martial arts training. Though I don't often have time to do classes, I do 20-25 minutes of yoga every morning after my 20 minutes of sitting meditation. Since I took up this practice, I've noticed a number of benefits: increased flexibility, greater overall body strength, improved balance and posture, and quicker recovery time after training.

There is a reason why yoga complements the martial arts so well. They come from the same roots. Bodhidharma developed a number of exercises, borrowing from yogic systems, and introduced them to the Shaolin monks in the 6th century in order to prepare their bodies for long periods of meditation. These exercises later served as the base from which Shaolin Kung Fu was developed.

With the rise MMA and UFC, an attitude has developed toward martial arts training that deemphasizes the mental and spiritual development, making it more about just learning to fight. I am of the opinion that the mental and spiritual aspects take your training to a higher level that cannot be learned when training solely for the ring.

No matter what your reasons are for taking up a martial art, The Martial Artist's Book of Yoga will introduce you to exercises that will help develop your body and mind for martial arts training. It's definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fighting from the Clinch

Today I had another private training session with my MMA instructor. Though his primary training was boxing (he's an ex-pro boxer), he has a broad base in other martial arts and is training me to integrate skills from them all. Today's lesson involved fighting from the clinch.

Clinch work appears in a variety of martial arts, including muay thai (Thai boxing) and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. Both approach the clinch somewhat differently due to the two arts different styles of fighting, but the two methods can be used together, as I experienced today.

To use the main muay thai clinch, you slip your arms around the attacker's neck, connecting them tightly around the back of the neck while keeping the elbows tightly together and close to your body. Once in this position, you can easily drive your knees into your attacker.

There are various kinds of clinches used in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, they even incorporate the muay thai clinch as previously described. Today, we worked on using the skills that are trained in BJJ's commonly taught pummeling drill in which you slide your hand under your attacker's armpit, keeping your shoulder forward.

After training both skills, we integrated the two approaches and combined them with punches and kicks, which were used to create opportunities to enter the clinch. Using the BJJ skill of sliding your hand under the arm pit, you can create an opportunity to slide into the muay thai clinch so you can use your knees. It's also important to remember that when you finish your sequence of knee kicks to exit on an angle so you are less vulnerable to counterattacks. Even better to throw out a jab while exiting to further discourage retaliation.

I thoroughly enjoyed today's lesson, particularly because it reminds me of the importance of keeping an open mind when it comes to cross training in other martial arts. I'm not a huge fan of the macho attitudes that have arisen as a result of the popularity of MMA (mixed martial arts) competition. That being said, I believe that it has encouraged more sharing between the various arts, leading to innovation. This is one of the ways that the Western mindset has positively influenced martial arts training.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Gloves Are Coming Off!

Last night, Chris, a former student of mine, was back in town and came out to train at my dojo. Chris is a brown belt in another style of Jiu-jitsu in addition to being a yellow belt in my style. I took this opportunity to experiment with an idea I had for sparring.

When we spar in our dojo, we usually wear 16-oz boxing gloves for our own and our sparring partner’s protection. This is because we make contact when we spar. There is no limit to our targets, groin, head, face, etc. Our sparring is to learn skills for self-defense, not for competition. We don’t necessarily hit as hard as we can when there’s an opening in the face, but we'll still hit it. This helps us get an idea of what it’s like to be hit so we can learn to shake it off.

What I wanted to try was the same as our usual sparring method, but using open hand strikes instead of punches. To do this we would have to spar without the big, poofy, protective gloves. Given that Chris has a long history of training, I figured he was a good candidate to experiment with this. I figured he would have sufficient control to do open-hand strikes to the head without following through fully.

It was quite strange at first. Not wearing the gloves meant that there was a lot more space in the guard, meaning there were more opportunities for attack while being more open to attack. Also, it was clear that the open-handed jab and cross had a shorter reach by a few inches. While the open-handed hook that we use (more like a slap in that the fingers are angled toward the attacker) has a longer reach. This, however, didn’t matter much to me since my reach is so much shorter than Chris’s. He is 6’1” and has arms like an orangutan. I always end up relying on my speedy kicks to make up for my short arm reach.

Another thing we noticed was that it was, of course, much easier to try to do throws or takedowns on each other with our hands freed up. Grabbing and trapping also played more of a role. And naturally, ground grappling was made possible, though in our style, as far as street self-defense goes, we teach that it’s better to stay on your feet. Either way, it was refreshing to have all the extra options.

It would be really nice if we could combine the protective qualities of the 16-oz boxing gloves so we can maintain the sparring intensity, while having the freedom of bare hands. Perhaps the answer is simply to only allow advanced students with good control to do this exercise.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Appeal of McDojos

I was talking to a friend of mine named Slan at work this morning. He was planning to take up Aikido at a local community centre. That is, until the Vancouver civil service strike shut the community centre down for nearly three months. Frustrated by the strike, he complained about it nearly every morning. He even threatened to start a blog about it to voice his complaints. He's a programmer though, not a writer.

"So Slan, have you started your Aikido classes now that the strike is over?" I asked, looking forward to discussing his experiences.

He looked up at me from his desk with a defeated look. "No, not yet. I've been emailing every other day since the strike ended and the instructor only responded once to tell me that 'He'd let me know when things were up and running again.' No timeline, nothing."

Slan trained in the martial arts for most of his life. At one point he was a running a school, a commercial one at that. He recently read my blog posting about McDojos, and fully agreed with my criticisms of them, having experienced them first hand.

"McDojos have their faults, but there are advantages to them, otherwise they wouldn't they wouldn't make it as businesses," Slan put forward. "Someone should write an article about that."

So here I am. I, myself, have trained at a couple of McDojos in my time. There were times when there was an art I wanted to learn that simply wasn't available in a non-commercial school. With my experience, I was able to be sufficiently discerning to be able to take what I needed to learn out of my time there, stripping away the baggage the commercialism carried. That being said, I agree with Slan. In my mind, there are clearly some benefits to the commercialism along with the baggage. These are as follows:

1) Stability. A McDojo with a good business platform tends to have a stronger base. It has full control of its school, its commercial space. It is not at the mercy of a public school's or a community centre's scheduled events, strikes, other programs, etc. This means the schedule and location is more consistent. These things only change if the head instructor decides to change them.

2) Instructor focus. The head instructor of a McDojo has their focus entirely on running their dojo as a business. This means that new students get the care and attention they need when making the decision of whether or not to join their school. If the dojo owner is running it well as a business, he or she ensures that there is advertising that helps people find them and they handle dojo enquiries in a communicative and timely manner.

3) Class flexibility. Because a McDojo has to pay rent, they tend to have more classes available. This is, of course, so they get the most out of the space for which they're paying. But for a student, it means that if for some reason you can't make class on Monday, you can make it up on Tuesday. Or if you do shift work and you can't make an evening class, you can make it up during a day class. This is more convenient for people with inconsistent schedules.

So what does this mean for non-commercial dojo owners? Running a commercialism-free school doesn't mean that the business side should be ignored. You can reject the negative byproducts of commercialism but still make use of some of the good business practices that they follow. Even if you can't offer as much stability or class flexibility, you should always make efforts to communicate with your students. That way you can draw in the kind of students that are best suited to your dojo and retain them better once they get there. Though it can be difficult to find the time to do this if you're also working a full-time job.

It is my life dream to run a basement dojo. No, there isn't as much space as what you can get in a typical McDojo or a community centre class. But it does afford me the stability and control that I want, without having to run my dojo with profit as a primary concern.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Controlling the Gag Reflex

I’ve always encouraged my students to wear a mouth guard for safety while sparring. Even though I discourage my students from using a lot of force when hitting the face and head, accidents happen when the adrenaline is pumping. And when those wayward blows hit home, a mouth guard is an important piece of equipment for protecting against concussions and mouth injuries.

That being said, until recently, I hadn’t been wearing mine. I had bought a fairly high end one, the Brain Pad Lo Pro for women, which has a breathing channel and protects the upper and lower jaw. I hadn’t even boiled it and fitted it to my mouth, the reason being that I remembered what it was like the last time I wore one. I could only just barely control my gag reflex while I was wearing it.

For some reason, and I don’t think I’m alone here, it feels very unnatural to have that piece of plastic stuck in my mouth. The moment I put it in, I feel the urge to spit it out. I have to really relax and keep breathing to keep the gag reflex from taking over. Usually when I get sparring, the sensation goes away – I’m too busy trying to hit and not get hit – but the moment I stop sparring, the gag reflex comes back.

At any rate, I decided it was high time I get my gag reflex under control. I’m always asking my students to do things to push them a little outside their comfort zones in order to progress and improve. I ask them to learn to throw themselves to the ground, to get hit in the groin (with a cup on, of course), etc. It seemed hypocritical that I was putting off doing something that brought me outside my own comfort zone.

My students now get to chuckle at me as I make massive gagging noises every time I put my mouth guard in before sparring. Yes, it’s embarrassing because it shows a weakness. At the same time though, it also shows strength. I’m facing my physical awkwardness and working through it. Each time I put it in, the gag reflex becomes less pronounced.

Everyone experiences some kind of awkwardness, fear or embarrassment when they first start taking a martial art. The goal is to work toward mastery of the body and mind so we can better use them in training and in life.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

How Martial Arts Improved My Tennis Game

This is not some miracle story about how I was able to miraculously pick up the sport of tennis in an impossibly short amount of time. But my background in the martial arts did help me out on the court.

Up till this morning, I hadn't swung a tennis racket since just over a year ago when I first started learning the game. So this morning I went to play with my parents while on a family visit in Ontario. I remembered the last time I had played, having just received instruction from a tennis pro who had helped me get a real feel for what it was like to hit the ball properly. My game had improved massively. But this morning, as I took my first swings since last year, it felt like I was swinging a log at a basketball.

But even though I had lost all my skill from the previous year, I still remembered how my body felt when I did hit the ball properly. For every ball I hit badly, I was able to correct my shift my body position a little closer to the one I associated with that feeling. After a hour of practicing just hitting the ball with my father, I could feel my old technique starting to come back. Not that I was ready for Wimbeldon or anything, but there was definitely some progress.

Martial arts training made me better at learning new skills by teaching me body awareness, an understanding of the learning process, and the patience to keep me from swearing and throwing my racket across the court over every missed ball.

Miyamoto Musashi, a famous Japanese swordsman and author of The Book of the Book of Five Rings, said that by studying one thing in depth, you can understand ten thousand things. While I'm no martial arts master, I definitely find that my training has afforded me a personal perspective that allows me to be flexible enough to take on many of life's challenges, tennis strokes included.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Knife Defense for Dummies

While this Jim Carrey skit is a hilarious exaggeration, there are many martial arts schools that attempt to teach "realistic" knife defense. They teach specific maneuvres against very choreographed attacks, which bear little resemblance to what happens in a real situation.

If a dojo is going to teach knife defense, they first thing they should teach is the level of respect that should be attributed to knives. They are extremely dangerous. Many cops state they would rather face an assailant with a gun than one with a knife at close range. Against a knife, you're pretty much guaranteed that you'll get cut. This is because the nature of a knife attack is more fluid and changeable and therefore less easy to predict. This makes knives harder to take control of compared to guns at close range.

Because of the fluidity of the knife attack, instructors should never teach entirely choreographed techniques as their primary knife defense. Here are a few things that viable knife defense instruction should comprise of:

1) Blocking.
Should be based around a type of block that is so simple it can be done under extreme stress. The block should also keep arteries protected.
2) Controlling. A method of controlling a knife so you can immobilize your attacker with strikes to vulnerable areas.
3) Barriers. How to put barriers between you and the knife (i.e. using personal items like a bag or jacket or environmental barriers like cars, park benches, etc.)
4) First aid. How to treat cut wounds to prevent loss of blood long enough to get help.
5) Explanation of Risk. Explanation and re-explanation of how dangerous knives are and to avoid altercations involving them at all costs.

I understand the desire to teach more complicated maneuvres as they help students develop their overall martial art skills and awareness. I simply believe that knive defense is NOT the correct forum for this kind of development. It can give students false expectations about what a real knife attack entails leading to a dangerous lack of respect for the threat they pose. Just ask Jim. ;)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Friends That Fray Together Stay Together

I recently held a launch party for my book, Weapons of Opportunity, in Ottawa to which I invited a number of old training buddies and students, as well as my instructor, Ed Hiscoe Shihan. The majority of these people I hadn't seen since I left for Japan to teach English and train in the martial arts. Most of them are characters in my book too, including John Nash (known as "Josh" in my book) who wrote a comment about it on his blog.

I was amazed to discover that even though we didn't all email each other regularly while I was away, somehow the bonds that were forged on the mat were just as strong as the day I left. Through years of repeated strikes to pressure points and slams from being thrown to the mat, we have created an affinity for one another that is different from any other kind of friendship.

When you train in the martial arts and commit to it in the long term, you get a lot more out of it than physical fitness, self-confidence, and the ability to defend yourself, you also get close friendships unlike any other kind you make in day-to-day life. When you can hug someone or shake their hand after they have kicked you in the groin, knocked you out, given you a black eye, or twisted your joints in ways they're not meant to twist, you've got the base for a friendship that can last a lifetime.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Enter the McDojo: The Problem with Commercialized Martial Art Schools

Commercialized martial arts schools (or “McDojos” as I call them), like the piss-take version shown here in this clip from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, exist in most major cities. They often have great facilities, convenient schedules and flashy demos that entice many people to sign up without looking around for alternatives.

I generally advise people against joining McDojos for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are usually run as a business first and foremost and secondly as a martial arts school. Unfortunately, when a school is run for profit the students’ technical development tends to suffer. The reason why is that most students want to feel as though they are progressing quickly. And if they don’t go for the belt tests fast enough for their liking, students tend to quit.

To combat this, McDojos often promote students to their next belt levels, regardless of their level of skill in the required curriculum. By the time these kind of students get to black belt, they have a myriad of bad habits and lack true skill.

Other McDojos will create more level divisions, either more belts or “stripe” tests between belts. The school will then require the students to pay for these extra tests, an often costly addition to their regular tuition.

Ultimately, if profit is the main goal for a martial arts school, it shapes the way the school is run, often to the detriment of the art. At a school with which profit is not the main goal, if a student doesn’t have the required patience to develop towards true mastery he or she just drops out and nobody minds. That’s because the school simply wants to develop the good quality students who strive to achieve technical excellence and embody the true spirit of their art.

For more information about choosing a martial arts school, check out this article I wrote for my Jiu-jitsu website: http://www.westcoastjj.com/articles/article/2625523/36687.htm.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Kicking Like a Girl

After the blog post in which I discussed the value of kicks and the commitment required to become proficient at them, I decided to dedicate an entire class to training kicks. In our style of Jiu-jitsu, we don’t practice any fancy kicks, just practical ones. The ones we covered during that class included: front kick (to the groin or solar plexus), side kick, roundhouse kick, and lateral femoral kick (to the outside of the thigh).

For our warm-up we also did dynamic tension exercises using kicking positions. This involves holding the leg up in the cocked position of a kick, whichever kick you like. Then you slowly extend the leg out into the kicking position then back to the cocked position. We did this ten times slowly then ten times fast. We did these exercises for the front, side and roundhouse kicks. Inevitably, my students had sore butts after doing these exercises. In addition to the strength training one gets from doing these exercises, students get to practice emphasizing proper leg position while kicking.

For the rest of class, we trained our kicks in a variety of ways. The side kick, for example, we first trained from a horse stance to emphasize proper technique. We then trained it from a sparring stance (like the one used in boxing) snapping the kick out quickly using the front leg. I’ve used this type of side kick many a time during sparring sessions. When someone attacks me with their fists, the often open up with their ribs. They usually underestimate how close I can be and still kick with my front leg effectively, allowing me to snap my side kick out quickly under their punch, hitting home in the ribs (usually resulting in a bit of a grunt). We also trained the jumping side kick into the body shields. This allows you to cover a great distance and get more power, but has very little practical value. Unless the attacker is half unconscious, it’s not that likely that this kick will land since you can see it coming a mile away. Lastly, we trained the side kick from the boxing stance using the rear leg. This has practical value because it allows you to step into the kick. Plus, it is good for training balance.

During the class, I couldn’t help but notice that the women in my class showed considerably more natural ability with their kicks than the guys, even the ones that were learning these kicks for the first time. For some reason, they are generally more flexible and coordinated in the legs. I don’t like to make generalizations for the most part because it can cause you to see what you expect to see rather than what is actually there. But there is some truth to certain generalizations.

One exception to the rule was my student Dave. He has always been very nimble with his legs despite the fact that he is 240 lbs and top heavy to book. As I watched him kicking, I felt compelled to complement him.

“Dave, that is awesome. You kick like a girl!” I said, in an admittedly cheeky fashion.

“Hey! Them’s fightin’ words!” he immediately retorted.

I was making a point, however. “Why? Girls are generally better at kicking than guys.”

Dave opened his mouth, then closed it again. I couldn’t help but be amused by the look on his face that clearly indicated a struggle between enjoying the complement and being compared to a girl.

I made the remark in fun, obviously playing on the classic insult, “You punch like a girl!”. I’ve never been a fan of this comment. I’ve even heard male instructors try to light a fire under the asses of their female students by yelling this at them. The natural reply is a legitimate rebuttal. “But I am a girl!” Even though the instructors who say this are just trying to push their students, it can be frustrating to some women who don’t see the intent behind the remark, causing them to feel like they will never be able to punch properly because being a girl is the definition for punch badly.

I am by no means a femi-nazi, but I do believe in giving everyone, whether they are a man or a woman, every opportunity to be the best they can be.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Martial Arts Training with an Injury

Oftentimes when a martial arts student gets an injury, whether it’s as a result of training or from some other activity, they stop training entirely while they recover. When one of my Jiu-jitsu students has an injury, I encourage them to come to class anyway. I mark their injury off with a red ‘X’ on their body using electrical tape, to make sure other students remember to be careful performing techniques that could affect the injury. There are a number of benefits to doing this.

Sure, a student might want take a day or two off right at the onset of recovery in order to allow inflammation to reduce and pain to subside to a manageable level, depending on the injury. But beyond that, it’s good to come to class and do only what you’re capable of, going extremely easy. Why? Some people are inclined to become depressed or disconnected while recovering from an injury. It’s a good idea to try and stay as active as you’re able to keep up your spirits, and so you don’t lose your training momentum entirely.

Training with an injury can also teach you things about your techniques you would never have realized while training in perfect health. For example, right now one of my students has a minor shoulder injury. A stout-hearted student, he came to class the very next day after having aggravated his injury, not wanting to miss out on class. He was working on a wrist takedown with which he usually has a tendency to overuse strength to make it work. As I watched him move through the technique during class, I was stunned when he did it with almost perfect hip motion and footwork.

“Glenn, that was great!” I commented. “Where did that come from?”

He looked at me with a quizzical expression, not even realizing how big a difference there was in the execution of his technique. “I don’t know. I was just being careful not to hurt my shoulder, so I was using less strength.”

I slapped him on the back, pleased with his progress. “You should injure yourself more often!”

Another added benefit to training with an injury is how it develops your versatility in defending yourself. In a real self-defense situation, you won’t likely be able to ask an aggressor not to attack you right now because you have an injury. You have to be able to improvise and use your body and any other tools you have at your disposal to fend off the attack, handicap or no handicap.

While there are many benefits to training with an injury, students should still exercise due caution though to make sure they don’t make the injury worse. I’ve seen a number of very optimistic students over-extend themselves during their recovery period, causing re-injury of their wound. I, myself, have made this mistake before. We all want to get back to training at full capacity as soon as possible after an injury, but in the meantime, we should practice another very important aspect of martial arts development: patience.