Sunday, December 31, 2017

Wing Chun - Tradition and Innovation

Hoping to meet you on that higher evolutionary plane in 2018

Sometime around 1980:

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

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

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

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

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

True story.

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

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

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

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

From Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eye of Horus. This is deep.

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

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Internal Kung Fu and Invisible Jiu Jitsu

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

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

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

Internal Kung Fu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Wing Chun internal? And why would this matter?

The big big question is: superior for what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Jiu Jitsu

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

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

BJJ - Fundamental Principles - Rob Biernacki

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

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

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

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

Rickson's "Invisible Jiu Jitsu" mount escape 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

"Real Internal Wing Chun"

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

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

Rickson Gracie: Invisible Force

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

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

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

May the Invisible Force be with you

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Jordan Peterson and the Self Authoring Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eye of Horus. PAY ATTENTION

The guy has read EVERYTHING and analyzed it deeply.

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

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

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

Quote from 'Flow' by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Transformation; a Personal Odyssey

Metamorphosis, M.C. Escher

Many people say how martial arts has changed their lives.

I've heard people say the same about attending a Barbara Streisand concert. I didn't go, they may be right.

I do feel that my martial arts training was a driving force behind, not just a series of mental transformations and attitude adjustments, but an actual physical transformation and real physical healing. A transformation that would not have happened otherwise.

I am by nature a reserved and introverted person. Jordan Peterson's "Understand Myself" Big Five Personality Test has me very high in Agreeableness, and very low in Extraversion (that's how he spells it) and Assertiveness. If I'm not paying attention, I'll let people walk all over me and think it's my fault.

My wife may take exception with the Agreeableness part.

I have, by necessity, developed strategies to work around these traits, to make my way in the world after a fashion.

I had moved to Canberra in 1977 to take up my first real job. I was grappling with the issues of early adulthood, heavy Impostor Syndrome, my first time living in a different city alone, dealing with the cold, and the soul-crushing loneliness of Canberra. I took that job because that seemed to be all that there was to do.

I was adrift in the ocean of life, buffeted around, I had no sense of there being waves to catch, waves you could ride.

An affable workmate organised for another guy who worked in the same building, and was a kung fu instructor, to run some informal introductory training sessions in the park across the road from work. This was David Crook. He was a wonderful teacher, a fabulous technician, and managed it all as a regular working stiff and family man. No guru here.

He would occasionally give us a moderately painful punch to the solar plexus, or dig his fingers unerringly into painful pressure points, while demonstrating a technique. "A good boxer is stung frequently and hurt occasionally" was one of his mottoes. More than one student suggested he enjoyed inflicting pain and could not be truly happy otherwise. Perhaps, but I suffered no injuries at his hand.

I found I could take the knocks. With some surprise, I found I was not a total wimp after all. I began to see warriorhood as a possibility.

I saw great potential here. A path with heart. A means to self-transform.

I also ran up against my limitations PDQ.

I had suffered a back injury, resulting from a fall from a wharf at a school swimming carnival, onto hard sand. I had a lumbar spondyliolisthesis with L5 slipped anteriorly on S1. My L5 vertebra is misshapen.

My sole treatment at the time had been six weeks enforced abstinence from physical activity, as ordered by my GP. Nothing else. These days, your GP will happily send you to an orthopaedic surgeon and for a course of physiotherapy for just about any injury. At the time of my injury, sports medicine was in its early stages, and only in the communist bloc.

I found my hip mobility and flexibility, especially abduction (the side split), was terrible as a result. I developed a pretty good front kick, but had godawful trouble with round and side kicks.

This was incredibly frustrating. And, it seemed, unfixable, at the time.

Despite this limitation, I persevered, and progressed. David waived the one dollar per session he was charging me, once he saw I was sincerely keen on following his path. He wasn't teaching a class while I was there, only a couple of private students, who I got to meet and train with. I was taught privately for eighteen months at little or no charge. I was incredibly fortunate, and David incredibly generous.

I did my best to stretch and develop more flexibility working toward the side split. I had a huge amount of involuntary tension in the muscles around my lower back and hip. It would take me twenty minutes of stretches to be able to function well enough to train.

A holiday at Christmas on the South Coast, with some old and new friends, motivated me to wind up my affairs in Canberra and move back to Sydney. My only regret was the losing the benefits of David's top notch instruction. He very kindly stepped up the training, and made sure I learned all his forms up to instructor level before I left.

There weren't many good training options back home. There was no internet, you had to rely on word of mouth, and MMA wasn't around to provide that certain level of quality control.

I met a guy who had been training with David a couple of years longer than me, and trained with him, but we were both looking for a decent club.  His brother in law lived a a squat in the back of Darlinghurst where one of the guys had taken up with an older Wing Chun student of William Cheung, under whom both David Crook and Rick Spain had trained. This guy's flexibility was even worse than mine.

Training in the squat was too weird. It was impossible to tell who lived there, who was an invited guest, and who was a stranger who had just walked in off the street. There was a heavy bag hanging in the front room, and one night a guy on ice or PCP burst through the front door and, screaming, started wailing on the bag, trying to destroy it. Somehow the collective managed to navigate him out the door, headed back toward whatever savage fate destiny had in store. People of both sexes were coming in to bathe naked under the tap in the backyard while we were training.  I'm pretty broadminded, but ... talk about distracting. I saw a cute young blonde go walking down the street with a couple of guys, and a little while later they all come staggering back, eyes rolling, drooling like the smackheads they were.

My training bud and I concluded quickly that this was way too ghetto for us.

Chan Cheuk Fai had and has some excellent fighters, but the Jin Wu Koon Double Dragon style looked too different to what I was used to. My training bud suggested that David would have been disappointed, had we taken up so hard a style. Laughable when considering the technical chasm between kung fu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu which I enthusiastically navigated later, and Rick Spain's own pursuit of Kyokushin and BJJ black belts in more recent times.

I took up Xingyi, Bagua, and Taiji with a then prominent instructor, who no longer teaches. There's quite a story there, but I'll just say I found David Crook and Rick Spain to be more suitable instructors. But the guy was also a chiropractor and acupuncturist.

I sought chiropractic treatment for my hip and back issues from several sources, including my new instructor. I tried acupuncture, but mine was a structural problem for which needles and moxa were not the solution.

Over a long time I made small, incremental improvements. But I still had flexibility problems, and my kicks did not improve. Treating the symptoms, but not the disease. Small criticisms, and occasional vague encouragement here and there about my kicks, but nothing that motivated me enough. I was as self critical as they came, and frustrated, but not to the point of formulating a solution.

That academy ceased to serve my purpose - after about five years (!) - and the accumulated negatives of that experience had me take a break. I went surfing and applied myself to my IT work, which started to click, and pay dividends across multiple facets of life. I had already met my future wife at the office.

A dream made me realize that martial arts remained an irritation that would not be salved.

Rick Spain had started up a club in Sydney. At the time he was William Cheung's most senior and accomplished student. I thought Wing Chun would suit my limited flexibility, as it was meant to employ only low level kicks.

Of course, once I started, I saw Rick Spain dropping into the full side split and throwing fluid multiple side, round and hook kicks up in the stratosphere. Something he strongly encouraged his students to also work towards. The easy way out I was hoping for? Not around here.

Rick/Sifu did demonstrate an exercise in class that would allow me to work my way out to maximum flexibility and relax the muscles around my back and hips without unnecessary pain, or taking undue time.

A  year or two after I started there, we had a grading. "Your kicks let you down," was my instructor's blunt assessment. Damn straight. I had one option.

I reread all the material I had on sidekicks. I was an avid reader, and book and article collector, so there was a lot. Video was still in the far future. I spent about an hour a day, over a fortnight or so,  holding on to the kitchen bench top experimenting with lifting my kicking knee, pivoting on the supporting leg and extending out fully so my whole body was in a straight line.

I started to get an inkling. Next time in the academy I was kicking a partner-held focus bag with my new side kick. Sifu said, "Yeah, now you're getting some power." My partner concurred.

I was sparring a while later, throwing in a few round kicks. Rick advised me to stick to front kicks and side kicks. It was pretty easy to connect the dots. *Your round kicks suck, man.*

I had a mortgaged house and backyard with a gum tree, a small heavy bag, and a rope, by this time. I returned to the reading material. I began weekend sessions experimenting with the kitchen benchtop again, but spending more time out in the backyard throwing endless round kick attempts into that bag. My left leg was much better than my right, so I did rounds of a hundred, forty five with the left leg, fifty five with the right. I couldn't do too much, or my back would give me hell for days, but I did do a lot.

I started to loosen up more with continued chiropractic treatment and stretching. I could kick now, but in small doses. Much of the tension had gone, but now something was weak, or too loose. If I pushed it too hard, I'd have pain for days. Sometimes to the point where I needed a walking stick. The chiropractors gave me only temporary symptomatic relief. One of them mumbled something about my spinal alignment being OK now, but that I needed some stabilization exercises. But he didn't prescribe any exercises, and because of the offhand delivery, I discounted it.

For a long time I had to give myself a mini chiropractic adjustment to get everything working properly for training. Otherwise I'd have a restriction in my hip to train under. My personal adjustments didn't always work, either. Always, a veneer of frustration.

A while later, I'm kicking the focus bag again. This time Sifu says, "Ah, Mr Nerlich is showing us a roundhouse kick!"

I felt that I had exhausted what chiropractic had to offer. I had invested much time and cash. No doubt beneficial, but it wasn't going to get me all the way.

I changed tack and went to a physiotherapy clinic in North Sydney. A guy called Kingsley assessed me, and diagnosed significant muscular weaknesses and imbalance around my hips. I was shredded with a six pack, did tons of ab training, but somehow still had weak abdominal muscles in critical ranges of motion. Kingsley prescribed a series of exercises which required close attention to proper form, but were not unduly onerous or taxing.

Maybe ten visits over three months, and my back pain was pretty much gone forever. I might get a twinge every six months or so. The stabilization exercises my chiropractor had mentioned, in passing, were my keys to the highway. I could stretch and kick as much as any student could wish. I was fixed. And stoked.

After a while, my body turned the corner. My frustrating rigmarole of self adjustments became unnecessary. I couldn't do side splits, or kick high without a warmup, but I felt that my body was no longer an obstacle.

A while later in sparring I saw a gap and popped my sparmate with a fast but controlled round kick to the head. A couple of sessions later I popped another guy in the ear with a low/high round kick combo. Another time I faked a round kick, and when the guy reacted, I drove a side kick with the same leg into his solar plexus.

Rick gave a little speech about perseverance and overcoming obstacles during one class. He used my own development as a kicker as the example. As an agreeable introvert, I did not react much. But, I had arrived. I was exemplary. Validation rocks.

I had completed a transformation. It took many years. It was a task in personal alchemy that I would not have begun, except for my strong interest in martial arts, and the attention of my instructors.

My aptitude at the start was probably average, and I had challenges. I am in no way special or unique. Some have dealt with much more adversity than I have.

At nearly sixty-three years old, I have achieved many things I had once thought impossible. Through determination, but also through lots of help.

Perhaps this is what "internal kung fu" is about. Invisible but significant change within. Just because most people can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't real, or isn't profound.

Without fail, my teachers were kind and tried to encourage me in the right direction without driving me too hard. In a class full of students, it's very hard to give the exactly right individual attention at the perfect time.  The windows of opportunity appear and disappear about as fast as those on a car going the opposite way to yours on a motorway.

I needed to be pushed. What ultimately helped me transcend the problems, attitudinal, mental, emotional, and physical, was a realization that someone saw the leap I needed to make, thought I could make that leap, and told me I needed to do it. And once I realized that I could do it, I worked on a plan to do it, executed that plan, and did it.

If one of my teachers had come up and, instead of being so nice, had screamed in my face like a drill sergeant, "Your kicks suck! They are what's holding you back! You have to fix them! Now! Or forget it!" I might have concentrated harder on that weakness, got past it quicker, progressed faster, and been happier.

The Tree of Life from the Kabbalah. Pillar of Mercy on the right, Pillar of Severity on the left 

Sometimes as a teacher, you DO have to be cruel to be kind. The Pillar of Mercy and the Pillar of Severity are managed by the Pillar of Balance, in the Kabbalah. But, Severity seems to be at least a third of it.

The pillars of Severity and Mercy (Bohas and Jakim) also appear in the Tarot

Sometimes you need to back yourself into that corner of the Mirror Maze, where there is only one way out, and all you can see are unflattering reflections of yourself. Sometimes you need someone to force you there, because you can't see what you need on your own.

Seeing yourself objectively, without veils of self deception, is so difficult, but so necessary.

I wish you well in your own journey of self discovery, healing, and transformation. If this article helps or inspires you in some way, all the better.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Living the Dream

Freshwater Beach, November 2017

Wednesdays and Fridays I take a lunchtime Jiu Jitsu class at Lange's MMA, at North Manly. Wednesday is no gi, Friday gi.

Jiu Jitsu always resets my mood. If it's a warm day, or sometimes even when it isn't, the beach is a short drive away, and that makes the day even better.

Most times I go to North Curl Curl or Freshwater, and most often with Luca Altea. Other occasions Sean Quilter, Big Stu "Gut Rupture"Morton, or Sonny Brown have joined us. If I'm on my own, I might go to North Curl Curl and do some sandhill sprints before I swim.

That's what I'm talking about

Sonny, Luca and I swam at North Curl Curl on the 2017 winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Probably not the coldest. Definitely not the warmest.

Winter Solstice, 21 June 2017, after lunchtime no gi class and a swim at North Curl Curl. L to R: Myself, Luca Altea, Sonny Brown

Entering the water is an electrifying but pleasant assault on the senses. Bright sunshine, waves crashing on the shore, the shock of the cool water in your skin, the salt spray in the air, and on your tongue and in your nostrils.

A natural ice bath, aiding recovery, washing away the sweat, maybe a few bodysurfing waves too.

Out of the ocean, now a cold shower with fresh water - usually colder than the ocean.

Fresh, we dry off, change, and chat for a while.

Luca says to me one day, "When we do this, Jiu Jitsu and a swim, I feel like I'm living the dream!"

It's true. For those few hours I'm doing exactly what I want to do, nothing more, but nothing less.

I realize I am even more fortunate to be more or less financially independent with a comfortable home and a wonderful wife. Even if we're getting older day by day. Life rocks.

Those countless Facebook ads trying to sell you the lifestyle with oodles of first class travel, huge boats, Lamborghinis, non-stop parties on tropical island beaches, and the rest, set the bar too high.

Pleasant days or even minutes doing exactly what you want are the fulfillment of dreams. Aim high, but don't discount the temporary paradise that appears right before you, however fleetingly.

North Curl Curl, Winter 2016

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Creativity and Martial Arts Training IV

Tribuna of the Uffizi, Johann Zoffany (1772-78), showing many famous works of European art

This is part IV, the last of a four part article.

Part I Part II Part III

Limitations and Constraints

Unlimited freedom paralyses creativity. You need somewhere to go. You need a problem to solve.

I was rebuked as a black belt by a highly ranked instructor for not being able to immediately think of a problem I was having with my game when he asked me. He was right - my game has no shortage of holes, same as just about everyone.

Freedom of Choice - not always a good thing

Ricardo de la Riva developed his famous and eponymous guard being one of the smaller guys on the Carlson Gracie Team, in a gym full of tough competitors on whom he could not impose a top game, and who were some of the best guard passers in the world. He developed his outside hook guard as a way to keep his opponents off balance; his training partners called it the "guarda pudim", Pudding Guard (a nice metaphor), because of the way it made their base unstable and "wobbly". Accounts vary, but he fought Royler Gracie, then undefeated as a black belt, around 1986, and depending on the account, beat him, or lost a tied match due to a referee's decision.

Half guard was seen as the last line of defense before your guard was passed, prior to Gordo Correa being forced to work from it pretty much exclusively due to a knee injury, which limited the positions form which he could roll. He pretty much turned it form the last line of defense into a position from which many attacks can now be launched, and in which many competitors now specialize.

Many people have seen their guard game improve dramatically after a hand or arm injury which forced them to train one handed. They were forced to make greater use of their legs, and use them in ways that they may not have learned to unless forced to by the injury. I believe Dave Meyer was some such person.

You do not need to wait for injury to strike to take such steps. Put yourself in the positions you hate, deliberately, so you are forced to problem solve. Try wrestling with one or both arms tucked in your belt, or without using one or both legs. Ban yourself from your favorite passes or passing on your favorite side. Ban yourself from certain guards or positions. Come up with your own limitations and see what new pathways emerge.

Positional rolling is a form of limitation which can deliver good outcomes.

In the video below, Jack White of the White Stripes discusses the benefits of limitations and time limits on his own considerable creative output.

Jack White on limitations as seeds for creativity. From the documentary "It Might Get Loud"

I like Seven Nation Army, but I like this even better

Away from the Gym and off the Mat

We've all seen the videos of guys training the berimbolo with chairs and wheelbarrows. If your time in the gym is limited, find other ways to train.

This guy trains Jiu Jitsu in water.

Personally, I came up with quite a few ways to drill techniques with a small heavy bag. What you can do from top positions is pretty obvious, but with a little imagination I worked out how to drill the Hip Bump Sweep, Wing Sweep / Reverse Basic Sweep, Catapult Sweep, and Shaolin Sweep, among others, along with some takedowns. 

I found a foam roller makes a pretty good prop for drilling the lockdown and some butterfly and X guard transitions. I've heard of guys using pieces of wood to drill Ezekiel chokes and become very effective with them in the gym as a result - you can use the foam roller for that too. 

I made a grappling dummy from a coathanger wire skeleton, and a hoodie inside an old full length wetsuit stuffed with rags, and a head made from about a thousand plastic bags. It could benefit from a neck made from pool noodles, as it has an annoying habit of headbutting me if I try to work triangles. It's not great for guardwork but is pretty good for drilling top techniques and leglock transitions.

My silent (training) partner

Nothing beats a partner to drill with, but the right inanimate objects can be useful, because they never get sore throats from getting choked too much, or sore knees, elbows or wrists. Plus they never get tired or make other arrangements when you want to train.

The best training tool ... IMAGINATION.

The Creative Environment

"Environment triumphs will" - Chris Haueter

To really be an innovator and creator in martial arts, your environment need to support you. You need:
  • Time to experiment and think
  • Support from your training partners
  • The ability to take risks and maybe fail without getting injured
  • Freedom to come up with weird and nonsensical ideas without judgement
  • Dynamism and energy
  • Humor and a sense of play to keep things light and interesting
  • Challenge, resistance and debate, but at a level that extends and doesn't crush the participants. argument, not conflict
  • Trust in your training buds
  • Openness to ideas, whatever the source
Do your best to work in and develop such environments, especially when you are the teacher. 

"If you want to improve incrementally, compete, if you want to improve exponentially, co-operate!" - Phil Grapsas

Go for it!

There's a new sweep out there, just waiting for you to create it. Name it after yourself and become a Jiu Jitsu immortal! Develop the Covfefe choke! Get crazy, get creative! Do it now!

Part I of this article
Part II of this article
Part III of this article

Happy trails, Universal Traveler

Sunday, November 12, 2017

John Will Seminar 11 Nov 2017 - Pirate Grip, Russian Tie

Seminar group, I was the photographer

The seminar was held at Universal Combat Arts, Castle Hill. Thanks to Kirk Sicard and Simon Farnsworth for their hospitality.

Russian Tie (2 on 1)

Stand facing your partner, feet parallel, so your four feet form a square.

Your partner gets a neck tie on you with his R hand.

Grab his R wrist with your R hand.

Step around to your R with your L foot and then your R, at the same time lifting your R shoulder and then driving it down and across to your R to dislodge the collar tie. You should now be at his R side. Grab his R upper arm from underneath with your L hand. Get your shoulder on top of his and put all your weight in his shoulder. Try to hover. Also drive your forehead into his R ear to stop him turning back toward you. Drive down hard, stick his R foot to the floor. Your L leg should be behind his R.

Thumbless grips are generally best - though there are exceptions, detailed later.

As you drill the technique more and more, you should develop the habit of grabbing the Russian Tie a quarter second before he gets the neck tie.

This pirate did not tap to heel hooks. Don't let this happen to you!

Russian Tie to Single Leg

If he stays there, drive down so your face is close to his knee. "So you can spit on his knee"- John Will. Drive into him, bumping him so his R leg becomes like and you can scoop it up for a high single leg takedown.

Russian tie to "Muchi Mata", to Ankle Pick

If he tries to square up and gets his R foot behind your L, do a  mini Uchi Mata ("Muchi Mata"), hooking his R leg upward with a backward hooking lift of your L leg. Mainly to disrupt his balance and clear his R leg. Hook your L foot behind and outside his L foot, toes up. Retaining the grip with your L hand, drop down and pick his L ankle with your R hand, lift it and take him down.

Russian tie to Double Leg

He squares up to you and tries to pull his R arm out. Lift his R arm up with your R to around head high, thus crossing it under his L arm and removing that defense. You are in perfect position to change levels and shoot a double leg.

Changing your R hand grip from thumbless to using the thumb will give you better control with which to lift his R arm, for this particular technique.

Russian Tie to Back Take

To get the back from the Russian tie, do NOT turn to your L and try to run forward to his back. You are unlikely to make it. Instead, run backwards to take the back.

John also demonstrated how you can get an arm drag to the Russian tie, then arm drag again from there to get the back.

Russian Tie to Gooseneck Come Along

The gooseneck hold is a control or "come along" technique used often by security or law enforcement.

Get the Russian tie. You need him to bend his elbow, which he will often want to do if you let him. The video below shows another way Slide your hand down to his palm and bend his wrist forward as you bring his hand toward his shoulder. Trap his elbow against your body. Grab over his knuckles with your L hand, then put your R hand on top. The R hand on top is best, if the L hand were on top hie could attack your fingers with his other hand. Apply pressure and lift him up on his toes.


Pirate Grip

Standing Pirate Grip

You have the Russian Tie on his R arm. Now move your L hand to get a fingers-in grip on his L gi collar. Cinch it in. This should feel very strong. This is the Pirate Grip.

John says it used to be called the Double crossed grip or similar, but John took to calling it the Pirate Grip, due to the skull and crossbones, or something.

Pirate Grip to Drop Throw

You get the Russian tie, then the Pirate Grip. He is squaring up and pushing your face away, trying to free his arm. Turn to your L so your L foot is about a foot outside his. Step your R leg between his R leg and your L and drop to your butt and then to your back, effectively pulling him on top of you into a kneeride position, but keep rolling to your L. He will not be able to keep the top position and will be pulled over the top of you. Keep your grips and use the momentum to end up on top on side control on his R side.

Seminar group - I was not the photographer

Pirate Grip from Closed Guard - Two Entries

Pirate Grip from Closed Guard

He is inside your closed guard. Get a cross grip on his R sleeve with your R hand, pull your R elbow to your side. You do not need to pull his sleeve all the way across. Slide your L hand under his R arm and get a deep grip fingers inside his L collar. Flare your L elbow out so the crook of your elbow prevents him pulling his R elbow back and freeing his R hand. This is the Pirate Grip from guard.


Get a deep grip, fingers inside his L collar with your L hand. Pull him down hard with your L hand. Your L arm may even have temporarily trapped his R. Bring your R hand to the centreline and wait. When he brings his R hand over the top to try and get some posture back, grip his R sleeve with your R hand. Flare your L elbow out as above to trap his R elbow. You have the Pirate Grip. This entry is more complicated but higher percentage.

Realise that if he does try really hard to free his R hand, the Cross Collar Choke is always an option.

Hooking Sweep

Get the Pirate Grip. Open your legs, turn on your R side and get your L foot on his hip, Push back and get the L foot on his other hip in an open guard. Move your feet one at a time to a butterfly guard and sit up. You are perfectly positioned for a very strong hooking sweep to your L. Retain the grips and use the momentum to come up on top in side control.

To sweep effectively from butterfly, you need a strong connection to your opponent. Grabbing the belt is the strongest connection, but this is pretty much impossible from closed guard. The Pirate Grip allows a very strong connection without the need to grab the belt. It is fairly easy to get this grip from closed, open or half guard, and then move to butterfly. Very versatile in that way.

A video from a later seminar showing several Pirate Grip options

Locked Russian Tie

A no gi analog of the Pirate Grip is called the Locked Russian. Get the Russian Tie from standing. Bend his R elbow and push his R hand towards his stomach. Release your L grip and grab your own R wrist. Your L arm should loop behind his elbow and upper arm. A bit like a figure 4. You can use this grip in closed guard as well. It may work better if your R grip is overhand rather than underhand, especially in the guard.

Kick Out to Side Back Control

Get the Pirate Grip and move to butterfly guard as above.  Elevate him with your hooks, then lift with your R leg and extend your L leg so he falls to your R, face down. As he falls, come up on your R elbow and then to your knees  on his R, Grips are still in place, your chest is on his back is a side back control position. Transfer your grips to a seatbelt control with your L arm under his L armpit.

Spin the Pig

Get the Pirate Grip and move to butterfly guard as before. Elevate him as before. This time extend your R leg and lift with your L, so he spins to his L in the air, moving him slightly toward your feet. You should be able to spin him far enough to take his back with a good seatbelt control, then get your hooks in. Is easier than it looks or sounds.

"Spin the pig" refers to the spinning action, not unlike rotating a pig on a rotisserie to cook it.

"Side Kick" and Roll Underneath

You get the Pirate grip and start moving to open guard. Your opponent tries to back away. Get on your R side and put your L foot on his R hip, but with the this of the foot pointing to your R, so it is like a Sidekick. Keep your grips, bring your head down towards his knees, rolling beneath him and pulling him over the top of you. End up in the usual position in side control on his R.

Kick Out to Russian Tie, to Head to Head, to Arm in Guillotine

Get the Pirate grip, move out to butterfly guard. Elevate him and kick out and go to your knee and side back control as earlier. Get a Russian tie on his R arm and drive into him, forcing him to post with his L hand. This will give you the opportunity to move around to head to head, catching his R arm between yours as if setting up an Anaconda choke. Grip the blade of your L arm and wrist with your R hand. This way round will be the most secure. Pull his arm to his head - best done by moving your legs to your R rather than dragging his arm with yours.

Come up on your toes and drive his butt to his heels. Come to your feet, running around in a semicircle to your L, trapping his R arm and head next to your R hip with good posture. Change your grip to the opposite side so your L hand is grabbing the blade of your R hand and wrist. Sit down and pull him into your closed guard and finish the choke. 

The first hand position is better for securing the arm, the second better for choking.

Kick Out to Russian Tie, Crucifix

Get Pirate grip, butterfly guard, kick out to side back with Russian tie, head to head with his R arm inside both of yours as before. This time you are less concerned with getting his arm and head together, by accident or design. Come to your knees, drive forward and stand up as before. This time his R arm is between your legs. He will be tempted to grab your R leg with his R arm. Pinch your legs together to trap his arm and move around to his R side. Get a seat belt control on his back with your L arm under his L armpit. Fall down to your L rear, pulling him into the crucifix.

Pirates from Lange's MMA - Anthony Lange's 50th birthday

Other subjects

Books John has been reading:

God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

John's autobiography. Three volumes. Ripping yarns and great advice.

John Will's seminar schedule. Get on board with one of the best Jiu Jitsu coaches on the planet.