Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Silat Suffian Seminar

I had the good fortune to attend a 2-day seminar this weekend with guru Maul Mornie of Silat Suffian Bela Diri.  It's a Bruneian martial art and mostly weapons-based.

This weekend, we did knife-knife, knife-hand and machete work.  It was my first time working with machete (apart from my teen years hacking acres of blackberry) and although we didn't progress much beyond the fundamentals with it, I still found it fascinating.

We started Saturday with an hour and a half of basic drills - the basic cuts with a knife (over/fore, back, thrust), and the basic defenses against those attacks.  These formed the basis of the rest of the seminar.

It was interesting to me that all basics began as knife v. knife.  Everything we did for the seminar (even the empty hand v. knife) went back to this basic premise.  It was also interesting to my uneducated viewpoint (I have done bugger-all knife work before) that the knife was never used to block/check/intercept the incoming knife (no metal on metal).  As almost all my previous weapons work has been sticks of varying lengths or with bokken, I am used to using a weapon to deal with a weapon as a normal response.  Although I did not ask about this, two potential reasons were highlighted.  The first was to do with initiative and simultaneous attacks - using the knife (or machete) to defend the incoming attack puts you back to square #1 - neither has the initiative, and it is slower/harder to counter-attack.  Using the empty hand to deal with their incoming attack means that your knife can immediately attack them, thus gaining the initiative.  The second was to do with the risk of damaging or breaking the weapon with a metal-metal clash.

The initial drilling was broken down, first as single attack-response flow drills for the 3 attacks, then combined, then footwork added, then the same drill with knife v. open hand.  As far as I can make out, the reason for this is several fold:  to give a sense of how to read the body-language of an attack from a particular angle (and it worked pretty well - we were giving full-motion attacks in this drill, and by Sunday afternoon when people were tired and not thinking, and giving short attacks that were not what the technique practised was, I was finding I could read and intercept them fairly well); to familiarise ourselves with a blade coming towards us so that we desensitise and lose our fear (while still maintaining a healthy respect for the weapon); to develop a natural, unthinking response to any particular attack; and to provide a foundational platform for the rest of the seminar.  On the Sunday, we also started morphing these into 'freeform' drills, where any attack, in any order could be thrown.  The drills were designed to deflect/control initially, and worked well against multiple attempts (eg. 'pistoning' stabs)

One thing that attracts me to Silat Suffian Bela Diri is the foundational 'simplicity' of it.  Everything we did or saw this weekend was based around these basics.  The footwork, stance, everything sprang from these basics.  And there was a lot of apparently complex stuff, but throughout, there werethe foundations at its core.  On the topic of 'fear' in the paragraph above, the body structure and maintenance of an appropriate body structure seem essential to make this martial art 'work' as efficiently and effectively as Maul was showing; a 'fearful' reaction (flinching the body away, for instance) would break that and concede initiative to the attacker.

As we were doing these basics, there were a number of different training approaches taking place.  We were made to change partners regularly, to talk to our partners while we performed the drill, and to make sure we were jumbled close in with other training pairs so that we became used to acting in a busy, imperfect environment.  Other variants included trying to do the drill while keeping an eye out for Maul as he wandered around with a pool noodle, whacking those whose back was to him; it was a good way to train out of weapons-focus, and simultaneously practise moving your opponent while still performing the drills.

Sunday to start was similar, except we did machete fundamentals.  Again, very similar to knife, but with its own unique aspects due to the length and nature of the weapons.

Maul Mornie is as good a martial artist as I have ever seen.  He has that quality of making absolutely anything he does look effortless, regardless of his partner.  He also (and this is from the viewpoint of a teacher) has a very sound ability to explain how and why he is able to do things to his audience.  This was reflected, not only in his immediate teaching of techniques, but also in the structure of the seminar, where what we did in the first hour of the first day, was built on and still used in the last hour of the last day.  We not only did lots of "what" (10 hours of partner-training) but we also had a highly structure "why" and "how" built in.  It was as good an instructional session in a physical pursuit as I have ever attended (and I've done a lot over the years, not just martial arts).  The focus of the seminar as far as I could make out was to introduce the foundations of the art - it was not a specific self-defense focus, and not a senior-students-only focus.

As we moved into techniques, what struck me was how from the instant of contact, the opponent's body-structure was broken/controlled, and this was not lost for a moment until after completion of the technique.  Maul seems to have an inexhaustable supply of techniques, but what was revealing was how he would demonstrate the technique we were to perform (often explaining the salient principles to get out of it), then would say 'but in reality', and show how with a knife in hand, that technique is unnecessary as they have been cut/stabbed in an instant.  The techniques were not the point: the principles that underlay them are. 

As far as the techniques themselves went, many were superficially familiar to me from my other arts.  But, I found doing them as Maul showed to be, well, better.  There are at least three techniques (2 armbars, one takedown) that I am never doing the old way again (unless I need to for a grading, but since my sensei feels the same way, I doubt I will).  I fell in love with the efficiency and control that was inherent in them, and sprang from the fundamentals we had been practising all morning.  And yet as I said before, the techniques were not there to be "this is what you do", they were to instill the core principles of the style.

A number of the techniques were presented to us as "empty drills"; that is, they were to practise something in a perfect environment so that it became a commonplace response for us that could later be used as a need arose in a chaotic environment.  The nature of the seminar was not to do that, but we were encouraged in our own training to view them as such and to work with them in chaotic/resistive/novel situations.

It may be that I was in a receptive frame of mind, as I have been practising recently in throwing and offbalancing people more regularly, but as the seminar progressed, some of the principles of how to break a person's body structure and offbalance them really started to click with me.  It was that classic moment of something that had seemed so complex suddenly becoming so simple that I almost felt stupid I hadn't got it before.

Basically, I had a ball.  I ended up sore (but in a good way), tired, and a better martial artist than I was at the start of the weekend.  It  was a privilege to see an expert in their art at work, and a pleasure training with so many different people from many different arts.  Maul Mornie is returning in July, and I'm definitely going again.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thoughts on daily training so far

Now that I've been going for a couple of months, my thoughts and attitudes to daily training are changing. 

Organisation of time is so important - without my weekly schedule, I would waste each session by frittering away my time wondering what to do next.  But more organisation is needed within session.  Without someone else to motivate me, I need to break my sessions down in more detail so I can actually get maximum benefit from what I am doing.  How to push myself well beyond my comfort zone without anyone else there (either to push me by direction, or through competition) is still problematic to me.

One side-effect of my daily training is that I find I now have the time to iron out flaws in what I am doing; a change from only training a few times a week, where I am mostly concerned with learning new things.  One thing I am trying to avoid, however, is doing to much of anything on autopilot - I am attempting to train mindfully.  This is having a flowover effect in my training during karate lessons, where what I am working on by myself is not necessarily what is being worked on in class, and yet I am loath to change what I am focusing on, because I am seeing the benefits of it. 

Another side-effect that I didn’t initially expect, is that I'm actually working on fewer things, not more.  I expected to be going through all the kata I know on a regular basis (13 + the beijing 24 + baduanjin), but I am mostly concentrating on 4 of them:  tensho, sanchin, sanseru, happoren, with more than half my kata time spent on these.  The majority of the rest of that time has been spent on saifa and seisan.  I just seem to be ironing out problems better using these kata, and the few times I am practising the others, they seem to be improving parallel to my improvements* in the more practised kata.

The hardest thing is not getting out there and training, it's trying to train with all the bloody mosquitos around!  With all the rain that Melbourne has had this summer, and with the Yarra and Wetlands less than 100m from our back garden, I have spent most of the last couple of months trying to fend of the little bastards.  Every step in sanchin has been accompanied by a small cloud of them leaving my ankles momentarily only to descend again as I settle in to place.  Thank goodness with the cooler weather, they seem to be diminishing in numbers.

*by improvements I am talking about power generation, body structure, flow of technique, weight distribution and not about how it looks - that improves as a corollary of the other things

Thursday, March 17, 2011

75 days in - a New Year's Resolution Update

A brief update on my New Year's Resolution to train at least once every day of the year.  Well, I have failed.  Not miserably, but I missed training on Saturday.

In my defense, I did 6 hours of gardening - shifting soil and mulch, pruning and mowing; and then went out for dinner and a movie.  However, I knew that this was going to happen and didn't plan around it (Actually, I had intended to get up around 6:30 to do some taiji, but my youngest had me up at 1am and 4:30am, so that fell through).

So, I have done 74 of a possible 75 days so far - still on track to top 360, and I should break 300 days without any problems.  I know at the start of the year, I thought that would be acceptable, but now I'm in the rhythm of daily training, I will be disappointed if I don't get to at least 350 days.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Karate and Evolution

Karate and Evolution.

Over on the Blitzmag forum, I have been peripherally involved in a few conversations recently regarding karate, its efficacy, what constitutes "real" karate, and the concept that much karate that is being done is either not true to its origins (either okinawan, or if talking about okinawan karate, to China), or not true to the principles of "real" karate.

What follows are my musings on issues and points raised in some of those conversations, from an evolutionary perspective. None of which, by the by, is of the least importance to the training or practise of karate. (And is, quite possibly, very wrong).  But it's fun to think about.

Social v. biological evolution.

Evolution in biology is inter-generational and Darwinian - in other words, the inheritance of characteristics caused by genetic mutation and 'favoured' over other characteristics in a population due to the influence of selection pressures.  Individuals cannot evolve; their genetic information is passed to the next generation, assuming selection pressures permit this to occur.

Social evolution is both inter- and intra-generational and  Lamarkian; individuals, societies, modes of learning or doing can all change within their own lifetime, as well as passing on their characteristics to the next generation.  Lamarkian evolution is often simplified as the inheritance of acquired characteristics - the thought experiment of giraffes reaching for leaves in the treetops, and passing their stretched necks onto their offspring is the classic example given.  Selection pressures are still a part of Lamarkian evolution, and play a similar role.

And unlike in biological evolution, where genetic information tends not to cross between species or between higher taxon (with some exceptions), in social evolution, cross-pollination and re-fertilising from outside can and does occur.

Mainline, Offshoots and Diversity

In one thread http://www.blitzmag.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=17129 , "Magpie" wrote the following:

The JKA style of shotokan karate which has Funakoshi as the master, and Nakayama as the innovator.    And:

 I dont like shotokai at all, shotokan and shotokai may have come from the same background but they are like chalk and cheese to me, totally different in everything.

In the same post, implying that JKA is the true, undiluted line and shotokai is, by implication, not of the true line and therefore not an authentic example of Funakoshi-line karate.

One way to view this, and I get the impression that this is Magpie's view (although I stand to be corrected) might look like this:

The mainline of JKA is a seamless whole from inception to currency; other "breakaways" are like sideshoots that are not as valid or "authentic" as their parent.

From an evolutionary viewpoint, this is not so. The splitting of one karate group into another can be likened to a speciation event.  One species, with a degree of diversity within its population is separated by some sort of barrier (physical, behavioural, physiological) that causes them to diverge from each other over time.  Neither is the superior, each is adapted to their own particular set of environmental pressures.

If we were to view the same splitting from an evolutionary perspective, it might look something like:

As you can see, JKA and Shotokai diverged at the same point; each are equally related to the 'common ancestor', Funakoshi-ha shotokan.  By the same token, so are all the other offshoots on the JKA side of the tree.  None is more or less 'mainline' than any other.

The number of splits in the tree do not indicate distance from the common ancestor.  Shotokai is not closer or "more pure" than JKA because there is only one split between it and its progenitor, whereas the tree shows half a dozen between JKA.  The true measure on this type of tree is distance from the point of origin.  Shotokai and JKA (and every other group on the tree) are identically distant.

A view such as this makes no claims to degree of similarity to the "original" common ancestor.  What is most likely, is that none of them are.  Generally, every modern day 'species' will have certain features inherited from their common ancestor, but will have their own unique features that are the result of adaptations to their own unique history and environmental exposure.

The degree of difference from the features of the common ancestor is influenced by the strength of the environmental pressures.  In martial arts, these pressures include the other martial experiences of the founder/senior students, societal constraints or cultural differences due to the art being taught outside its country of origin.  So, conceivably some lines could retain more of the ancestral features than others if they are subject to different types or strengths of environmental pressures.

This is a common claim of many martial arts - that of "purity" or "as taught by the founder".  Again, evolutionary theory can be used to show why this may never be the case.  In biology, in the absence of a directional selection pressure, evolution (as measured by genetic or phenotypic change in a population from one generation to another) can still occur.  The mechanism that causes this is known as genetic drift, and is caused by random mutations in DNA that are known to occur at a relatively constant rate. 

Genetic Drift, as applied to a martial art (or any other generational social activity where oral/personal transmission is the norm) can lead to differences in techniques or kata, or differing emphasis on certain principles or training methodology.  This is where Magpie's line about JKA and Shotokai ring true - they do have different approaches, but neither can honestly claim to be any closer to the original than the other.

Progress in evolution, Point of Origin and Diversity.

In the same thread, another poster, baihe, commented to the effect that he had been to Okinawa and that Okinawan Karate was "dead".  The implication being that if real, living karate couldn't be found in its place of origin, then where could it be found?

I thought about this for a bit, and was unconvinced, both of the general argument and the comment specifically for a couple of reasons.  Without knowing his training history (which schools, teachers, length of stay, frequency of training, prior knowledge at that point in time to allow him to make such a judgement) it wasn't possible for me to evaluate his claim, and as it was not supplied, I remained unconvinced. 

But there is also an interesting evolutionary perspective that similarly belies his remark.  It is a corollary of genetic drift; wherever a species (or in this case, a type of martial art) has been the longest, you will find the greatest genetic diversity.

We see this in our own species.  Our species evolved around 200 000 years ago in Africa, and in the last 100 000 years has migrated out to every other continent of the globe (with the exception of Antarctica, as there is no permanent breeding population of our species there).  The continent with the greatest genetic diversity is Africa.  Any two individuals from anywhere else in the world are more genetically similar to each other than someone from Somalia and South Africa are to each other.  (incidentally, this is not an argument for race - the genetic similarity between any two humans is such, that if humans were dogs, we would all be labradors).

Applying this perspective to karate, its place of longest duration is Okinawa.  Thus we would expect the greatest diversity of karate schools and approaches in Okinawa - including crap ones and fraudulent ones.

Emigration, Immigration and Re-migration

Karate emigrated to Japan from Okinawa in the 1920s, in several waves.  Post-war, Japanicised karate made its way back to Okinawa, particularly when coupled with sport karate, taking root there too.  So, Okinawan karate has even greater diversity through the re-migration of other 'species' of karate back to its shores.  Because karate evolution is lamarkian, not darwinian, cross-fertilisation and hybridisation may well have occurred as a result, increasing diversity still further.  This is why I remain unconvinced about baihe's assertion that Okinawan Karate is dead.  With such high diversity, it is impossible to talk about "Okinawan Karate" as a single entity (a bit like we cannot talk about "the tree" - which species?  Eucalypt, Oak, Fir, Acacia?).  This feeds into another blitzmag thread recently about "real" versus "fake" karate, but that's a topic for another post.  With greater diversity, there is also a greater likelihood of poor, fake or unsuitable schools .  Is it possible that baihe's experiences were more with some of these than with their opposite? (Graphic below:)

Phew, that was fun!  I'll probably continue in another post about monophyletic v. paraphyletic origins of karate, the Founder effect, and more.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Viewing things from a different perspective

As part of my ongoing efforts to fix my body structure (which can be pretty poor), I have been trying to get my posture correct for sanchin - head being pulled up from the top, no swayback, not hunching.  My problem is, while I have changed my posture in the last little while (and for the better too), my sensei still keeps telling me that I have some of these issues!  And no matter how I try and fix it according to his instructions, I haven't had much success.

What I needed was a different perspective.  What I was feeling in my body felt 'right', so I couldn't make sense of what he was seeing.  So, I videotaped myself.  Well, that was a different perspective alright.  It turns out, what I was doing, was very different to what I thought I was doing.  It took me about 5 minutes after viewing my video and doing another couple of takes until I had what now looked like a posture my sensei had described. It felt very strange, but somehow'right'.

The upshot was, yesterday at training, I was trying to do everything with this 'improved' posture, and while it still feels artificial, I was finding that certain techniques were quicker or had more power behind them as a result, particularly when doing pad work.  I also checked with my sensei and I am on the right track (but, as usual, still need some more improvement).

This is where videos are invaluable for learning.  Just as person-person  instruction is essential for learning a physical pursuit, so too is the ability to truly see what your body is doing.  Our bodies lie to us all the time, and while having someone else give feedback can assist us in improving, the raw, uninterpreted footage from a camera gives me a more detailed and comprehensible understanding of what's really going on.  I know what I think my body is doing, so when I see it is different, I see how my body is lying to me.  A mirror can give similar feedback, but is not as useul, as it only gives front-on views, and is instantaneous with the movement - part of my attention is always on the doing, not on the looking.

But video feedback is only useful if you have the perspective of knowing what it is you are looking for.  Without that, what's the point?