Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Taiji and yoga: poles apart?

My Chen Pan-Ling brother and good friend Mark Small sent me a link to the Camp Tai Chi site run by John Crewdson. John's home page has the intriguing heading "7 Ways Tai Chi is Different From Yoga". I don't disagree with any of John's points, particularly his observation that taiji (tai chi) is a martial art, where yoga is not. But I can't help thinking there is much more to the distinction between these 2 disciplines, particularly since taiji is very rarely practised as a combat art. Rather it is seen as health and well-being discipline not unlike yoga.

Despite their common objectives, it is my view that yoga and taijiquan are so different in function that in many respects the question of "how they are different" is misconceived.

Arguably the impression that taiji and yoga are similar activities is fostered by the fact that "new age" adherents often lump them together as both "spiritual" and "physical" disciplines. Put another way, both are seen as a physical medium by which one can attain spiritual enlightenment, peace of mind or insight. They are seen as a means of "unifying mind and body".

I have previously referred to my disdain for Cartesian or other "dualism" - ie. the notion that there is a separate "mind" or "spirit" on one hand and a "body" on the other.1 In my opinion philosophers like Gilbert Ryle were quite correct to ridicule Rene Descartes' dualism as a "ghost in the machine".2 I think it really is incontrovertible that we are one unit; not a machine for a "spirit" to inhabit, then leave.

As I've said elsewhere, everything that happens to us, every thought process, every emotion, every memory, every impulse, can all be traced to an electrochemical process that occurs inside your body. It might well be convenient to speak in dualistic terms in particular circumstances (eg. we might well speak of "psychological factors" knowing full well that all such factors are also physiological) however in the end we must be aware that such dualities are merely fictions.

They are fictions in much the same way as the law has "legal fictions". For example, a corporation is regarded in law as a "person"; to the extent possible/necessary it has the same rights and liabilities as an individual. Yet we know it is not a "person" in a literal sense.

Laws have traditionally created such fictions by using words like "deem" (eg. a person who is under the age of 16 is deemed not to have the capacity to consent to sexual relations; and a person who has sexual relations with a person under the age of 16 is deemed to have sexually assaulted him/her).

Fictions might be necessary or convenient for daily discourse - be it social or legal. But they are fictions nonetheless.

Most "new age" followers cling to the notion of a duality while paradoxically acknowledging its fiction. They speak of bringing the "mind and body into harmony" while the very philosophies they purport to follow dictate that such a duality is illusory to begin with.

If anything, it is this underlying philosophy of "unity" that links the practise of taiji and yoga.

Yoga has its philosophical roots in Hindu thought and is derived from the sanskrit word "to yolk" or "to unite". The latter is a reference to the concept man and "the divine" are one. In other words, not only are mind and body united, they are also indivisible from the universe - and the practise of yoga can lead to this realisation.

To quote Lawrence Galante (48):3
    "Dualities are a product of "Maya" (illusion caused by the mind's preferences prejudices). The mind sees the division but fails to see the unity. It becomes man's destiny to realize Brahman... the spark of Brahman contained in all (called the "Atma"). Once the Atma is realized as man's essential reality, man will penetrate the veil of Maya and realize the Unity within diversity... Hatha Yoga is a system of preparing and purifying the physical body in order to create a better vehicle with which to gain realization of the Brahman."
By comparison taijiquan has its roots in Daoist/Taoist thought. It is true that in this philosophical tradition there is the well-known dualism of yin and yang, manifested as male and female, light and dark, hard and soft, etc. But to a Daoist this dualism is also just an illusion. The cosmology of the classic text Dao De Jing refers to "the Dao" or "the Way" as that which existed before any dualism; before the universe was split into "heaven and earth" and the "myriad things". This "split" is not "real". The "unknowable" Dao remains whole. The split is merely a result of our (flawed or limited) perspective.4

In fact, you will note that even the "taiji" - the traditional symbol of the yin and yang - comprises 2 halves that not only "swim" into one another, but even have a small element of the other within their body (represented by 2 small circles of the opposite colour). This depicts the Daoist concept that the dualism exists only temporally. It is fleeting or transient, existing like a snapshot of a flowing river, but not otherwise.

The transient or flowing nature of reality is something that is central to the classic neo-Confucian/Daoist text, the Yi Jing (I Ching). In his translation of this work, Richard Wilhelm (280) writes:5
    "These two cardinal principles of existence are then symbolized in the two fundamental hexagrams of the Book of Changes, the CREATIVE and THE RECEPTIVE. In the last analysis, this cannot be called a dualism. The two principles are united by a relation based on homogeneity."
So it is true that both yoga and taijiquan are both based on a unitarian philosophy; one that describes dualities as either an illusion or merely the view from a transient perspective.

It is also true that both yoga and taiji are both physical exercises and meditative disciplines. Practitioners of both might indeed experience the "realisation" of mind/body unity. In fact, when practising something that requires a great deal of time, effort and thought to master, it is hard to avoid noticing just how intricately bound our physical responses are to our thoughts. [You might even have some "realisation" about just how intricately we, as individuals, are bound up with the rest of nature/the Dao/the "Divine".]

We know some of this intellectually: we aren't surprised to hear about corporate executives dying from over-work and stress, or that a caged tiger's lifespan is shorter than that of one which is able to wander in a more natural enclosure. However we somehow don't quite "get it" until we see both the "psychological" as well as "physical" fruits of activities such as yoga and taiji, eg. a lighter, more contented mood, extra energy, improved blood circulation, greater bowel regularity, you name it.

Doctors keep telling us to keep fit for all these reasons. We know that those who suffer depression feel better when they exercise. We know that those who are suffering stress feel better after hitting a punch bag. In the case of the latter, it won't be because they have "vented their frustrations" on the bag. Rather it will be because they have had a chance to forget their frustrations through a vigorous physical activity. Pounding a bag and imagining it is your boss is likely to leave you even more "worked up" when you finish. The best stress-relieving exercise is one that takes your mind as far from the source of your frustration as possible.

Both yoga and taiji are especially well suited to stress relief because they require concentration; the kind of concentration that takes your mind away from your worries. When you run/jog/cycle/swim you can still think about your problems. If you play a game of football or tennis you can still encounter frustrations that come with competition. In yoga and taiji there is no opponent but yourself.

So taiji and yoga are really one and the same in their final goal. I think it is this observation that has prompted some writers to refer to taiji as "Chinese yoga".3

Yet how do I reconcile this with my opening remarks that taiji and yoga are fundamentally different?

The answer lies in how the 2 disciplines function. Yoga and taiji might indeed foster the same goals. Both aim for the same summit. But they start on opposite sides of the mountain. They might have the same objective, but in terms of their function (ie. how they achieve that objective) they are as different as surfing and cricket.

Why do I say this? Surely both require the solo6, 7 perfection of certain physical exercises?

Once again I will address this by referring to the Yi Jing - the Book of Changes. Taiji is about the process of change; it manifests as a series of movements that flow like the water in a river. There are no pauses, only a continuum. Taiji might be examined by reference to certain fixed points, but only for convenience of learning. Like the water in a river, any position in a taiji form is transient. In short, the function of taiji lies in the process of change or transition from "posture" to "posture" - not in the "postures" themselves. I have put the term "posture" in quotes because there are in fact no postures in taiji.

You might be familiar with certain "trademark" images of taiji - eg. the end of the "single whip" sequence or the middle of the "snake creeps through grass" sequence. You might be forgiven for thinking that these are "postures". However these are snapshots of a continuum; ie. they are points through which the body passes without pausing. Because the movement in taiji is often very slow,8 you might sometimes be forgiven for thinking that there is a pause at a particular point. But if you look closely, the flow of movement is constant.

It is constant in much the same way as a calligrapher's brush stroke must be constant; there can be no hesitation, no jerk, no "clumping" of movement. My friend Jeff Mann noted the following in relation to my article about the elderly calligrapher I met in Taiwan:
    "One of the hallmarks of a good calligrapher is that there is absolutely no hesitation while the brush is in motion - which you were able to witness, it seems. I have read that you can see the difference between an expert and a novice when you look at their work through a microscope. It has to do with how the microscopic particles of ink lay on the paper and line up smoothly. The impression we have at the macro level exists because of a real difference at the micro level."
Yoga practice, in its typical Hatha manifestation as a system of physical exercise,7 takes the form of a series of postures called "asanas". It is true that one posture can flow into the next: the series known as the "salutation to the sun" provides an apposite example. However the function of the yoga lies not in the transition. Rather, yoga focusses on the postures (asanas) themselves. The movement from posture to posture is important and controlled, however it is a means to another posture.

In taiji the movement is the means in itself. To quote Lawrence Galante (49) once more:3
    "Hatha yoga has many static postures and there are slight rest periods in between one posture and another. These rests are required because the body has been taxed by the nature of holding the particular posture. Tai Chi Chuan is continuous and the body does not need to rest because postures flow too quickly to tire the body."
I have had some yoga practitioners approach me to learn taiji only to express their disappointment in relation to the art. In some cases I could see that they had misapprehended its purpose; they insisted on seeing it as a string of postures. The "string" was ultimately far more complex sequentially than what they were used to, yet the "postures" themselves did not seem as challenging. Looked at in this light, taijiquan might then be misinterpreted as an inadequate form of yoga with pointlessly complex choreography.

I've found this criticism particularly among those who practise one of the "flow yoga" variants that are becoming popular. These are highly functional and laudible forms of exercise, but they remain essentially a subset of yoga - not taiji. The "flow" one employs in moving from one asana to another (or within an asana) is very different to the type of "flow" one employs in taiji. For a yoga practitioner to appreciate the taiji concept of "flow" they need to let go once and for all the notion of a "posture" in taiji. They need to understand that the goal of taiji is not to attain and hold a posture, but to attain a particular quality of movement; a continuous flow analogous to the brush stroke of a master calligrapher. This is a very subtle concept that is "poles apart" from the perspective of a yogi (yoga practitioner).

Clearly criticisms of taiji as a "poor man's yoga" are as flawed as a taiji practitioner saying that yoga is a "poor man's taiji". "Flow" in a taiji sense is not relevant to a yoga asana, and any attempt to denigrate yoga as "too static" misapprehends its function entirely.

Both taiji and yoga are superb forms of exercise. Their differences don't mean they are antagonistic; rather the differences accentuate the fact that they are complementary. I've often thought that the ideal combination of exercise for health and well-being is yoga and taiji.

It is worth noting that many taiji practitioners practise static "qi gong" postures, just as yogis often practise "flow" forms. Perhaps this is because both seek to augment their practise with the strengths of another, opposite discipline.

There are many other differences that one can ascribe to the traditional theories behind taiji and yoga, eg. the breathing, the manner by which it is said the flow of "prana" or "qi" through the body is fostered, etc.9 I don't propose to go into those traditional theories however you might wish to read Lawrence Galante's comments on this subject at page 49.3

To me, taiji and yoga are an archetypal manifestation of yin and yang; two opposites swirling around and into one another; a functional duality that, in goal, ultimately coalesces into one.


1. The notion of a "trialism" comprising mind, body AND spirt as separate concepts is even more absurd and one that I'm going to ignore.

2. Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 1984.

3. Galante, Lawrence. Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate. York Beach, Maine. Samuel Weiser. 1981.

4. See chapters 1, 25 and 34 of any translation of the Dao De Jing and note this article.

5. Wilhelm, Richard (trans. Baynes, Carey F). The I Ching or Book of Changes. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press 1977.

6. Taiji does have partner work, but we'll leave that out of the equation for the time being.

7. When I refer to yoga exercises I'm referring to what is known as "Hatha" yoga which is a physical discipline. There are other, purely medidative, yoga disciplines such as Sahaja or Kundalini Yoga.

8. When I was in Hong Kong I encountered a taiji group in Kowloon Park that moved so slowly through the form I could barely notice any movement at all - even when they were mid-step...

9. In my opinion, labels like "qi" or "prana" are traditional paradigms quite like the "yin and yang" duality. They were created to enable a discourse or description. They are, at best, inaccurate and, at worst, entirely fictional.

However this does not mean that they are functionless. I see labels like "qi" and "prana" as temporal; they change their meaning depending on the context.

When taiji practitioners speak of "qi" they sometimes mean "momentum". In other cases they mean "intent". Sometimes they mean concepts known in physics as "force", "impulse", "work", "power" and, yes, even the oft-misused "energy". Ditto with "prana" when used by a yogi. Such "flexible" or "temporal" labels were probably more useful in the pre-scientific world in which yoga and taiji were developed but some still find them useful in terms of relating or visualising an experience relevant to their discipline.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, July 27, 2009

"Tag" competition: how "useful" is it?

Recently the subject of what is often called "bouncy tag" has reared its head at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum. In particular comment was made about the Youtube footage of George Alexander undertaking a 50 person kumite in celebration of his achievement of his judan (10th dan) grade. I have embedded the video below:

George Alexander undertaking a 50 person kumite

At the outset I'll say that I think Mr Alexander's demonstration was reasonably impressive for a man of his age. I am not going to comment on the issues pertaining to his grade (for me the rank "judan" would surely be an honourary grade more than anything - a kind of "lifetime achievement award"). Rather I will simply observe that he shows skill at what he does in that video.

So what is he doing? Is it karate? Or is it something else? Many on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum argue that it is not traditional karate, and I would respectfully agree with this position. As I have previously outlined, this is an example of "sport karate". This is not a derogatory statement, merely an observation that it is a particular, sport-specific activity and is not to be confused with the use of karate as a civilian defence system or as a traditional artform.

You'll notice from the title of this article that I've chosen to differentiate "tag" and "bouncy tag". "Tag" type karate competition is I think a reference to what is known as "ippon shobu" (a style of competition that draws heavily on the Japanese sword-based "ikken hitsatsu" philosophy of "single strike, certain victory").

Whether or not they "bounce" is a separate issue. "Bouncing" is to me a superflous "faux boxing" method often "tacked on" to sport karate (but not necessarily part of it).

I have heard arguments about how "bouncing" can help you in sport karate (via adding a ballistic momentum to your attack), however this to me argues only for the odd bounce here or there - not the continuous rhythm of bouncing that one commonly sees in sport karate. If you consider for example someone like MMA/UFC champion Lyoto Machida, you'll note that he was, in the past, a very successful "tag" or sport karate competitor without bouncing. Take a look at the video below:

Lyoto Machida in a sport karate competition

In the above bout it is clear to me it is clear that Machida takes full advantage of the rhythm set up by his opponent's bouncing, enabling him to win. Machida is, in this video, doing "tag". His opponent is doing "bouncy tag" - ie. sport karate with a "faux boxing" overlay.

So how useful is "tag" karate (leaving aside the bouncy stuff)?

I've already noted my opinion that Lyoto Machida uses his karate experience in MMA. I think he even draws on his "tag" karate training which is evident in his "in and out" style of fighting. He draws on this experience, but it is by no means the sum total of his approach. In fact I think sport karate plays only a small role in his fight game today. I think everyone would agree that if he were to rely only on sport karate he would have never achieved any real success in the UFC/MMA arena. Rather, I think he would probably have been mincemeat. Yet, at the same time, he does use elements of his shotokan karate - even the sport karate aspect.

But does this mean all karateka should practise "tag"?

Overall I don't think tag contributes enormously to fighting skill, be it in a combat sports arena or in civilian defence. Furthermore, I don't see it as a time-efficient training method by any means. It is requires grooving a unique subset of martial skills that suit a specific sport.

To the extent that it can help fighting skill, how does it do so? What aspect has someone like Machida transferred into the MMA arena? I'll answer this by reference to my own experience of sparring with those who are highly skilled in sport karate:

One of my sensei, Dave Goodwin, was a former shotokan black belt who changed to goju ryu. His courage and commitment in free-fighting were unbelievable. He would dart into a furious melee with complete control and land a superb punch. He had years of timing in that regard; he must have been able to see it kind of "slow motion" where I would have been reticent to run into a barrage of panic-stricken kicks and punches. This kind of timing and single-minded purpose is certainly a very impressive skill that Dave used to his advantage in other, more naturally flowing, fighting. And he never bounced...

On the flip side, most "tag" kumite is exactly that; tag. In other words you are training to "touch" or "almost touch" someone with a fully extended arm. I've had mates who were excellent "tag" fighters who missed their opponents in a civilian defence scenario; they were simply out of range. "Tag" fighting can groove some seriously bad habits because it can teach you to throw every punch/strike/kick out of range.

Often enough judges scoring the bout will award you a point only when they see your elbow lock - ie. so that they see a straight thrust that fills a space between you and your opponent and that does so with power, speed and focus. However they don't seem to care a great deal about distancing. Even when the punch doesn't fall entirely short, it is still too far away for optimum transfer of momentum. The punch ends up with an actual or potential penentration depth of only one centimetre or 2 (that's half an inch to an inch for you Americans). This is the kind of punching evident in the demonstration in the makiwara punching video below: the gentleman's penetration depth is, with the greatest respect to him, not deep enough.

Makiwara punching that could, in my opinion, benefit from deeper penetration

The net result is that unless you're careful, you might just groove to punch with insufficient depth or to miss entirely. This kind of grooving is different to grooving deliberate "control" as I've argued in my article "Control vs. 'Missing'".

So I think that apart from being a sport, "tag" karate can be put to use as a training aid, provided you ensure that -
    (a) you don't groove the habit of "missing"; and
    (b) you don't neglect other, more practical, training methods.
I say this assuming your purpose in training is to achieve some proficiency in civilian defence or to practise traditional karate for some other purpose (health, art etc.). [If your purpose is to become a sport karate champion, then of course my caveat above doesn't apply.]

Despite any potential use of "tag" for non-sport purposes, I remain of the view that it is an inefficient use of time in training for civilian defence. Nor is it "traditional" karate. Accordingly I choose not to do "tag" training as part of my curriculum. I nonetheless retain a healthy respect for many of my martial colleagues who excel in this activity and who have demonstrated to me nothing short of a fearsome fighting ability.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Contamination" and learning a "new" martial art

My good friend Jorge Morales-Santo Domingo recently posed the following question to me:
    "Watching your Taijiquan videos it occurred to me to ask how you avoid "contaminating" your internal arts practice with your former karate experience, or vise versa. This was always a problem for me as I inadvertently "slipped" into Goju intent at the slightest similarity of movement. This was the prime reason why I returned fully to karate. Although a lot of what I experienced during that time has surfaced in my Goju practice."
This was an interesting question. I couldn't think how to answer it, so I decided to pour myself a (very big) glass of red wine and "mull" it over.

Me performing the second section of Chen Pan-Ling's taijiquan form

The red wine didn't help. I stood in the kitchen feeling progressively more and more inebriated but none the wiser. So I decided (as I often do) that it was probably best to write down the first thoughts that came into my mind.

I recall the last time I trained with my goju teacher (who also started me on the Filipino and Chinese martial arts). We were training in the dead of night - somewhere near 2 a.m., doing peng quan (splitting fist) from xingyiquan. Lao shi Bob (as we addressed him) was flying out the following day and we had to make the most of the available time. It was the last day of a mentally and physically exhausting 2 week visit. We had crammed in more than 10 hours of training per day for that entire time, but still it wasn't enough. I'd lost about 4 kg.

In the early hours of that particular morning he had us holding the finished position of peng quan (san ti - 3 heavens) as a standing posture for 20 minutes or so. He kept adjusting my hands with a heavy "tsk, tsk". No matter how hard I tried to follow his instructions he would keep shifting my hands this way and that. He'd turn his attention to my brother and then come back to me. "No - not hiki uke from karate. Your hands should be like THIS." And he would demonstrate. No sooner would he adjust my hands, than they would drift off line and he'd have to shove them back. The night was old, we were all tired and, dare I say it, cranky.

After he had exhausted the possibilities in correcting our hands he would go to the stance - zhan bu or "battle stance", xingyi's principle stance (sometimes called "rowing stance" and similar to an elongated "seisan dachi" or even the san zhan stance of yong chun white crane). "No - not kokutusu dachi from karate. Sheesh!" (Lao shi Bob's favourite exhortation was "sheesh!"). "Longer. Not THAT long. Now narrower. No - not SO narrow - one fist distance. No, no. It's looking like a kokutsu dachi again! And look at what's happened to your hands..."

When we finally left him that night I was utterly deflated. It seemed I was being asked to bridge an impossible chasm (for that is how one feels when all one's ready references are inappropriate). No matter how hard I tried, I could not "get it".

Yet, more than a decade later, I reflect on the fact that pi quan now feels quite comfortable; familiar like one's favorite woolen jumper.

What had happened in the intervening years to bridge this gulf? How was I able to divorce myself from the goju "paradigm" and make the internal arts one "my own"?

Whatever it was, it wasn't something that happened easily.

I recall my first trainings with my current teacher, Master Chen Yun-Ching. I remember him making similar adjustments, only with a different set of phrases from his limited English. "No beautiful!" he would shout as he slapped my hand into a different position. In particular I remember struggling with heng quan ("earth" or "crossing fist"). No matter how hard I tried it came out looking like a chudan uke (chest block) from karate. He would approach me with wide eyes and pursed lips - a look my own late father used when he was both incredulous and exasperated.

Then there was the taijiquan. "No beautiful!" he would shout as he mimicked my stiff movements which contrasted with his own snake like fluidity (sometimes I caught the expression "bu hao" meaning "ugly") . Despite years of training in the Yang style of taijiquan under Lao shi Bob, it seemed my karate was still "contaminating" my movement so that it did not match the "soft" movement that characterises taiji.

At some point things changed. I remember at the end of one visit Master Chen praising me in front of the whole class. Through a translator he said that I had learned in the 4 days of that particular visit what he would normally expect a student to learn in one year. I was so elated that I felt like I was walking on a cloud. What had happened? How had I bridged the gap?

I've kept writing this stream of consciousness hoping that the answer would come to me. And I think it just has. All this reminds me of what happens when you try to learn a new language. I have related how, in Taiwan, I went with our group photographer, Lucia Ondrusova, to visit an elderly calligrapher. In that account I described how how Lucia and I managed to communicate to each other in our respective mother tongues - Serb in my case, Slovak in Lucia's. This occasion, and watching a documentary in Slovak on Australia's SBS television network which I was occasionally startled to find myself understanding without having to read the subtitles, made me assume that the languages were sufficiently similar so that, should I choose to do so, I could absorb the Slovak and Czech languages with some "minor study". Some cursory research quickly revealed how wrong I was.

The similarities (which are substantial) really serve as a double-edged sword. For example, as a Serb I would happily recognise words like "ako" (meaning "if" in Serbian) and assume they had a cognate meaning in Czech/Slovak. In fact, "ako" means "how" in the latter languages (where "how" in Serbian is "kako" while "if" in Czech/Slovak is "ak" not "ako"). The danger of misimpression is even greater when you consider that a word like "zavolem" in Czech/Slovak (to "call back") sounds an awful lot like "zavolim", which in Serbian means "to fall in love"!

The same issues arise with other languages similar to Serbian. Russian is arguably far closer to my native tongue, yet I could get into serious trouble if I assumed that my language would serve me well in Russia. For example the phrase "imam ponos" means "I have pride" in Serbian. In Russian it means "I have diarrhea"...

Terms that sound similar but have different meanings are known in linguistics as "false friends". More obvious examples to the English speaker can be found in French: These include such terms as “demande” which means to ask, not “demand”, and “opportunité” which means timeliness not “opportunity”.

Individual words are, of course, just the beginning. One might also make incorrect assumptions about grammar, syntax and intonation.

In respect of the latter, Serbian has borrowed from the Latin-based languages of the Mediterannean. When visiting the former Yugoslavia in 1990 my wife and I had dinner with my wife's childhood best friend and her husband, an Albanian Kosovar. Listening to him speak to his family I was struck by how similar the Albanian language "sounded" in relation to the Slavic Balkan languages. The words and grammar were largely unrelated, but the stresses fell on similar syllables making it sound like I "ought" to understand what they were saying.

By contrast, the central and northern Slavic languages have a very different stress pattern, making them seem, at least initially, mutually unintelligible despite a very large common base in terms of vocabulary and grammar. For example, we Serbs would pronounce the name of the Russian composer "ShoSTAkovich". Russians of course say "ShostaKOvich". Czechs and Slovaks would say "SHOstakovich". And so it goes.

Despite these kinds of similarities my late father was fluent not only in his native Serbian, but in Russian (as well as English and German, which are of course related to each other).

I guess the point of this "stream of consciousness" analysis is this; learning a different martial art is quite like learning a new language; one will initially suffer the pitfalls of assuming that some familiar movement is, in fact, the same as that found in an earlier art one has studied. This assumption can be a major hurdle to progression. However it is not insurmountable.

At first one will stumble at the hurdle. One will the probably negotiate one's way around it. Eventually one will learn the correct way to jump the hurdle.

Of course, people have been learning new languages since time immemorial. My own father first began to learn English as a new migrant to Australia when he was 32. This was no easy task. For the purposes of his oral driver's licence exam he memorized the entire licence handbook by rote, even though he understood barely a single word. Yet by the time he was in his late 30s his engineering note books, initially meticulously written in his elegant Cyrillic script, had changed to English. When I read through them recently I could find virtually no errors in spelling or grammar. He had even mastered that which we Slavs find most difficult - the use of definite and indefinite articles ("the" and "a").

I know of many people who have learned to communicate in a new language at far more advanced ages than my father (perhaps not to the same degree of exactness that he achieved - but to a functional level nonetheless). This proves to me that even an "old dog" can learn new tricks.

So the answer to the opening question is I suppose this: one must accept some element of "contamination" when one is learning a new martial art in addition to one's "base" art. However with enough effort this "contamination" will be limited to an "accent" - it will not affect the meaning and function of the new art.

In this regard I suspect I will always be recognised as a "karate man", just as I will always be asked whether English is my native language (despite the fact that it is now the language I know best by far). However in the end I have no doubt that my accent does not detract from my ability to communicate effectively. I have every hope that the same applies to my studies of the internal arts (or any of the other arts I have chosen to examine in addition to karate).

There are those who would confuse "accent" with "function". In the internal arts particularly there are many who note my "accent" and scoff. I remember attending one particular internal arts seminar where a student of a mere 12 months with whom I was paired began to lecture me on how to do a particular technique. His attitude was that my (then) 20 years of training amounted to nothing. I hadn't been doing the "real thing".

What this person did not realise is this: with every language that you can speak, learning another becomes progressively easier (accent aside). Having a foundation in one gives you a "leg up" into the others. And with every language you acquire, the next becomes easier - particularly if they are similar.

So it is with martial arts.

I speak my native Serbian and English, but I was also (at one time) fluent in Afrikaans (a Dutch dialect spoken in South Africa). On the flight back to Australia from Taiwan I managed to converse quite well with a Dutch girl who was seated next to me. During our conversations I noted the same issues with "false friends" ("het" in Afrikaans means "had" but in Dutch it means "the"). I could see the issues, yet I could also see that at some point, with sufficient practise, I could become fluent in Dutch.

My wife is Swiss German and was once fluent in her native dialect as well as High German (she's a bit out of practice nowadays). I have a basic level of German yet I can see that with a little practice I could become quite conversant.

Yes, it might be challenging to learn a new language - especially with the "false friends" I have referred to above. However this is not nearly as challenging as learning a language as an adult when you have grown up not speaking any language at all (which regrettably has happened in history).

In the context of this analogy, the internal arts student criticizing me was a mature-age beginner in the martial arts. He had grown up without any "martial language". His only experience comprised the taiji he had learned in the preceding year. This could not compare remotely with my 20 years experience in at least 5 different Japanese, Okinawan, Chinese and Filipino arts - some of which I had commenced when I was still in my formative years. I merely nodded and accepted his criticism. He was confusing my martial "accent" for lack of knowledge, in much the same way that people sometimes assume that my English is not going to be up to par because of the way I sound.

"Accent elitism" and snobbery are all too common in the martial arts. I am fortunate that my teacher Chen Shifu sees past "accent". After almost 30 years in the martial arts it is, I guess, unsurprising that I should learn in 4 days what he teaches raw beginners in one year. Had this not been the case I should be wondering what I have been doing for all this time.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, July 17, 2009

What's in a name: the "do" and "jutsu" debate

I have often read in recent years about the difference between a school practising "karatedo" and a school practising "karatejutsu".

"Do" (道) of course means "way". This is a philosophical term referencing Daoism/Taoism as well as being a more practical, everyday noun (it could simply refer to a pathway or road). As with any Chinese character (hanzi or kanji), there are mulitple meanings, often simultaneously applicable. "Do" is commonly used as a suffix in naming multi-faceted traditional Japanese activities that are analogous to both traditional Western rituals/ceremonies and performance arts.

"Jutsu" (術) on the other hand means technique, method, spell, skill or trick. It is often used as a suffix in naming a practical activity (eg. battōjutsu (抜刀術) meaning "the method of drawing a sword").

Accordingly it is ofen said that "karatedo" best describes karate as an activity that is largely ritualistic or artistic in nature; ie. where these are the primary motivations behind its practice. Conversely, "karatejutsu" is said to describe karate when it is used as a practically-focussed civilian defence system.

On today's forums there is no shortage of alternately (a) derision about "karatedo" as just an impractical art form "for art's sake" and (b) resistant defence from traditionalists who take umbrage at their chosen activity being denigrated.

Is it even accurate/possible to divide karate schools neatly into the "do" and "jutsu" categories? If so, at what point does a school fall from one category into another? In other words, how useful are the suffixes "do" and "jutsu"?

I thought I'd start by detailing my own use of "do" and "jutsu":

I call my school/system a "do" (muido or wu-wei dao). I intend this reference to encapsulate not only the physical fighting techniques that form part of the school's curriculum, but also its philosophical underpinnings; its credo as well as its approach to the pscyhology of conflict management. In picking a label for my school it accordingly seemed fitting to choose one that had a wider meaning. Ending the name with "do" or "dao" seemed particularly apposite given my own predilection for Daoist philosophy.

However in describing the karate component of the wu-wei dao "system" I have used the label "karatejutsu" (ie. the method of karate).

I feel that the use of "do" and "jutsu" in this way is entirely appropriate. I am not troubled by any apparent conflict.

However am I just creating a "false duality"? Is it possible that these labels create a divide that simply doesn't exist? To quote my highly esteemed colleague on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum, Victor Smith:
    "Somehow I've always felt karate was stronger without the duality of the Japanese concepts of Do and Jutsu.

    I've always felt both therms explained a theoretical world that doesn't exist."
I can see his point. The problem that exists in relation to the labels "do" and "jutsu" exists with any name/label.

I think this is what the author/s of the "Dao De Jing / Tao Te Ching" (道德經) meant with the opening words of that classical Chinese text: "The Dao (way) that can be named is not the nameless".

Labels define but as a natural consequence they also limit. For example, in laws we don't talk about "defining the boundaries" of a national park etc. for nothing. The moment we describe the boundaries of the park, we are circumscribing it; ie. we are limiting it.

The names of activities "chado" and "shodo" (the art of calligraphy) are labels that describe a kind of ceremonial/ritualistic performance and a visual artform. The labels describe those activities from a traditional Japanese perspective. However it remains true that a person engaging in chado is also drinking tea; a person engaging in shodo is writing. They are doing these things whether it is an artform or not.

If you choose to examine karate from the perspective of traditional Japanese arts you might use the suffix "do" as your label. If you are using karate to prepare for civilian defence or for a full-contact competition this label might seem inappropriate; it won't match the perspective from which you are examining the activity.

Now just because an activity can be either a "do" or "jutsu" depending on who is looking at it (or how the same person looks at it at different times) does not negate the usefulness of those labels. In other words, just because a label is "limiting" doesn't mean we can't/shouldn't use it.

Rather, we use labels as a shortcut for describing our perspective. It would be cumbersome to communicate without such shortcuts. After all, life would be very tiresome indeed if we could not use the word "psychology" as opposed to "physiology" (even though everything "psychological" is an electro-chemical process and is accordingly "physiological").

One just has to keep in mind that the activity being described is not limited by those labels; all that is limited is the reference by the person at that point in time. If we understand what the person means by using the label, then we are able to communicate with that person. We don't have to go a step further and accept that the person's perspective is the only valid one.

For example I might look at a school and describe its students as training in "karatedo", intending to convey my impression that the purposes behind the training seem similar to those of a chado ceremony or the preparation of a shodo scroll. Someone else might then come along and note the practical fighting skills of the students of that school; he or she might validy describe their training as "karatejutsu".

So something does not have to be a "do" or a "jutsu". It can quite easily be both. If you want to limit the scope of your own reference you will do so by using the appropriate term, but, as I have said, this doesn't limit what you're observing. You can look at the summit of a mountain from the north, south, east or west face - or anywhere in between. The summit remains the summit. Any of the descriptions from the various faces is limiting and insufficient to describe the totality. Yet each of the descriptions is entirely valid. And each can apply simultaneously.

So it is with "karatejutsu" and "karatedo".

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

忍 - Endurance and Spirit Training

Those who know me know my occasional reference to the Chinese character 忍 - "ren" (or "nin" in Japanese) - meaning "to endure" or "to persevere".

For me this character has special resonance with martial arts training. It reflects not only the years of blood, sweat and tears poured onto the dojo floor; it also reflects the psychological challenges, the fears, the disappointments. In one word it conjures all the barriers that have confronted me along my martial journey. Some of these I have overcome. Others have bested me. Yet, despite the latter, what is critical is this; I do not define myself by the moments where I lay defeated in a crumpled heap. I choose to define myself by the moment I picked my sorry self up again.

Some moments of defeat are almost too humiliating to confront. I let them loiter in the recesses of my mind, pushing them back whenever they try to intrude into my consciousness. I do so with the aid of my steadfast ally; the memory that I did not give up. I came back to fight another day.

From my early days I remember my senior Sensei Dave Goodwin; a fearsome figure who was not given to levity or joviality. A former shotokan black belt who had joined my instructor's goju school, he had adapted quickly to our kata but relinquished none of his fearsome kime, his uncompromising attitude and his single-minded fury in attack. When, as a white belt, I ignominiously revealed to the whole class my ineptitude (caused by my sheer terror) at performing forward rolls onto the bare wooden floor, it was Dave Sensei who was asked to take me aside to "teach me". Dave took me out to the concrete; there I fell time and again upon a battered and bruised shoulder, sliding ever deeper into ineptitude; fear giving rise to injury, injury giving rise to greater fear, all in an endless downwards spiral.

When I got home it seemed to me that I faced 2 choices; (1) quit or (2) learn how to roll, then go back to training in triumph. In fact, I did neither. I spent many an hour after school on my front lawn, willing myself into a forward roll - alternately crunching my shoulder or flipping onto my back and jarring my kidneys. I went back to training not with any sense of victory or accomplishment. I just went back.

Gradually my rolls became better and less painful. Gradually the humiliation eased and then disappeared. One day mats appeared and we began to roll on them. I did not, at any point, return triumphant. I merely returned. I survived. I endured. I have come to regard this is as the true marker of martial spirit. One cannot always respond to defeat with a "all singing, all dancing" victory. In many cases, true victory lies not in triumph or valour, but in simple surivival.

And so it was that for many years I watched as successive white belts who joined after me were elevated in rank - to green and brown and black - all surpassing my meagre achievements; all pushing ahead of me in line; all humiliating me in hard sparring.

How well I remember another senior, Sempai John Hoal (now a highly regarded architect and lecturer), sweeping me mercilessly; it seemed that no matter how solid my stance, how strong my resolve, within seconds I would find both feet swept high into the air and my body plummeting to the ground. [I have always meant to look John up and ask him about the "secret" to footsweeps; no one I know has ever had quite the same knack for them.]

Most relevantly, I remember the many "thumpings" administered by my principal teacher, Bob Davies Sensei (we have addressed him as "Lao shi" since his time training in Taiwan). I can recall a particular occasion where, when grading for nidan, I was battered black and blue for a full half-hour. At the end he left me in a heap with the hopeful phrase: "Now when someone hits you in the street, you can say 'I've had better'". I retreated into a toilet cubicle wanting to let loose the torrent of tears pressing behind my eyes like steam in a pressure cooker - tears of shame, fear, anger. Somehow I could not. The tears never came.

I reflected bitterly on my hopeless tactics; the desperate lunging headbutt when all else had failed (and which also failed spectacularly when my face butted Sensei's hammer-like fist). Or the desperate clinches which only meant that he would take me to the floor, where he would manipulate me like a doll, pinning my joints into impossibly painful, floor-slapping locks. At one point I was choked out, only to find myself "coming to" into a "ground and pound" with solid punches raining onto my throat (from which I escaped by somehow managing to sink my teeth deep into his big toe: "Good," he said). Or the couple of full-throttle kin geri (instep kicks) up into my groin - following which there was no respite in attack; he pressed on relentlessly and, Michael Jackson crotch-grabbing and all, I had to fight back.

Sitting there on the closed lid of the toilet cubicle, lips, nose and eyes swelling and nausea welling from the depths of my throbbing groin, I could find no consolation in my "survival". I felt I had failed. The tears trapped behind my eyes were, I felt, tears of failure.1

Perhaps it is truly fitting that the tears never came. Because I did more than fight back - however ineptly - during the "thumping". I endured. I endured because, at the very next lesson I was back on the floor.

Sparring beyond exhaustion was, of course, obligatory under my former sensei.

For example, at my 1993 grading we fought continuously (without a break) for 2 hours and 20 minutes - a different opponent every 5 minutes. There was a thick haze in the air from the sweat, some of which had pooled, along with blood, on the floor in slipperly patches. The last few rounds were 2 on one, then 3 on one. I fought till I could no longer lift an arm, preferring to take certain blows rather than defend them due to the exhaustion. When the grading finished we left the hall to the next occupants; a quiet and gentle group of new-age "earth dancers" who entered in horror, gasping in the fog and clinching their noses. As I left, I watched some of the group gingerly and distastefully re-wiping the floor with bits of kitchen paper (we did our best to clean up, but no sooner had we finished than more sweat would condense on the floor, like beads of glistening dew). [The pictures in this article are of my 1996 grading - a comparatively tame affair!]

When I got back home I found an added challenge; for the first time in my life I experienced whole-body cramps. Not one muscle seemed exempt. I was in absolute agony. I had sweated so much that my electrolyte balance had been totally upset. My long-suffering "martial arts widow" ran to the kitchen to grab a bottle of Lucozade which I downed in one gulp through my locked jaws while lying like a wooden plank in the hot bath she had run for me.

Then there was the 1990 "Decadal" gashuku... But that will have to be recounted another time.

Many friends and martial arts colleagues have openly scoffed at my teacher's methodology of this "spirit training" as he called it. They have often asked what possible purpose or justification it could have had. Granted, it seemed extreme. However the answer lay/lies in the character 忍. I learned to endure, to persevere - depsite all obstacles.

I discovered that on a purely physical level, you have no idea how your body will react when you are faced with both anaerobic and aerobic exhaustion. You only know what will happen after you've been there. Then there is the psychological aspect (if it is even possible to divorce mind and body - more on my disdain for Cartesian dualism another time).

Exhibiting perserverence and fighting spirit in this context was what my instructor was looking for. I rather suspect that those who have scoffed at "spirit training" have never faced this kind of test. I think their scoffs hide an uncomfortable query lurking at the back of their mind: "How would I fare if I were faced with this kind of test?"

I've seen people who seemed tough as nails crack under this kind of pressure (and fail a grading as a result or even quit training altogether). I've even seen people crack simply under the pressure of doing the push-ups required for a grading. I remember one student quitting with a disdainful tone after failing that particular requirement. As it happens this also served to expose a rather unpleasant, egotistical character that he had previously managed to hide from me, but which I subsequently ascertained was clearly in evidence whenever I wasn't around.

My instructor's view was that you could not be, say, a yondan (4th dan) without demonstrating that you not only had the requisite athleticism and technique but also the requisite level of fighting spirit/resolve/perserverence - ie. strength of character. That was his criterion within his grading structure and I respect it and see its purpose in building a particular set of martial skills (related to civilian defence at its peak).

My own requirements of black belts are not nearly so stringent. My instructor might think me "soft". Perhaps I am. On the other hand I think I just have a different concept of the right "balance". It seems to me that one doesn't need to push quite so close to the brink in order to know that a cliff is there. Regardless, physical requirements as well as "spirit" tests remain intricately bound up in my concept of what it means to be a "black belt" or any other grade for that matter.

If someone isn't interested in attaining "fighting ability" then I also respect that. Even my own goals are really quite different today from those of years gone by. I see martial arts as being for everyone - not the relatively few in society who are capable of becoming elite fighting machines. But if you wish me to give you a grade within our wu-wei dao civilian defence system, then you will have to demonstrate the requisite level of 忍. This element is as important in civilian defence as technique - perhaps more. As Gichin Funakoshi said: "Spirit first, technique second".

I happen to maintain a level of strength and endurance (as best I can) but I am personally not training under a grade structure. Accordingly, for me physical endurance and "spirit" training are not related to any requirement that might be imposed on me. I last graded under my former instructor to yondan - just shy of godan - in 1996. Perhaps I might grade again some day - who knows? My present teacher Chen Yun-Ching Shifu doesn't award grades. Grading isn't my priority or goal, but I don't have anything against grade structures either. If I were to be graded by someone I would, no doubt, straighten my jacket and go once more unto the breach.

Howevery biggest test of 忍 so far has not come out of grading or any other form of martial arts training. Rather I remember lying in a hospital bed for 3 months following routine surgery that went dreadfully wrong. I remember feeling the full weight of the shame that comes out of not responding as you feel you could/should, ie. with bravery and stoicism. Rather I crumpled into nothing - a scrag of disconsolate negativity and panic. Little did I know all those years ago, sitting with boiling eyes in that toilet cubicle following my "thumping"; resting in the bathtub drinking Lucozade through clenched teeth; in fact, at any other time of my training life: little did I know that I could be quite so reduced in terms of pride, dignity and human worth - to myself and to those to whom I owe duties of responsibility. Even now I shudder and avert my mind from what I became (or what I have been revealed to be).

Once again my only consolation lies in this: I came back onto the floor - in the literal and figurative sense. I'm still here. Should I venture once more into the abyss I will redouble my efforts. Even if I do not win triumphantly I will survive - and this time I will do so with greater dignity than before.

This has been the biggest lesson I have learned from the martial arts.

忍 - endure.


1. I suppose I shouldn't be too hard on myself for my poor showing. I don't want to rely on excuses or anything, but there was the small matter of a fractured vertebra affecting my performance.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic