Sunday, June 23, 2013

Understanding your violent potential

Here are a couple of videos that struck a chord with me regarding violence against women - and violence in general.  In a roundabout way, they led me to start thinking more generally about martial arts and its relationship to violence.

I've long been a fan of the actor Sir Patrick Stewart.1  In the first video below you will see him bringing all his considerable gravitas to bear on a very serious issue.  He shows himself to be a true humanist, as well as a man of great insight, wisdom and compassion.



Stewart talks about the abuse his mother and he endured at the hands of his father.  It is a most touching and revealing account of what it means to live with the constant threat and fear of physical violence.

I've included the second video below because Stewart goes one step further to reveal the most likely cause of his father's violence: untreated, chronic and severe post-traumatic stress disorder from fighting in World War II.



It is important to note that at no point does Stewart intimate (nor am I somehow suggesting) that finding an explanation for such violence provides an excuse.  The conduct of such violence remains reprehensible in every way.

Finding the explanation might have no bearing on the condemnation we give to such acts of violence.  But it is important nonetheless.  Why?  Because it helps us understand the origins of this violence - which in turn helps us identify and manage/prevent it in our communities.

Had Stewart's father been properly diagnosed and treated for his post traumatic stress disorder, he might never have inflicted lifelong scars on his wife and children.  He might never have been guilty of such heinous acts.  And it is worth noting that he himself might never have borne the guilt, shame and self-loathing that (according to his own son's account) he seemed to suffer as a result of his own actions (in addition to the mental scarring he suffered in the war).

In other words, understanding violence is not part of excusing it.  It is part of avoiding it.  It is part of treating it.  And, most importantly, it is part of preventing it.

How many other veterans come back from wars bearing similar scars?  And how many go on to inflict further scars on their families?  How often does this perpetuate a cycle of violence that goes on for generations?

I know that my own grandfather suffered terribly during World War II - both at the hands of the German forces and later at the hands of the Communists (under whom he became a political prisoner simply because he was a former officer in the Yugoslav Royal Army).  He emerged from prison after the war - alive, but broken.  He drank.  And when he drank, he became abusive.  His story might as well be exchanged with that of Stewart's father - and countless other returning soldiers, across all of human history.

We can condemn the violence such men perpetrate without hesitation and without qualification.  But we simply must understand its causes.  And we must address them: for the sake not only of the victims first and foremost, but also for the sake of the perpetrators.

I know that the last comment has the potential to draw the ire of some.  "I have no pity for such criminals," they might say (and in the case of many victims, such a sentiment is perfectly understandable).  But, speaking as objectively as I can, I feel I must follow Patrick Stewart's humanism.  Because I think there is nothing wrong - in fact, I think there is everything right - with feeling empathy for those who are themselves part of a vicious cycle.  Empathising with their plight does not excuse their actions.  It merely shows that we are human: that we aren't cold and unfeeling - even towards those who have done us wrong.  It shows that we can see more than one tragedy is being played out.

Now let me make this abundantly clear: I am only too aware that there are some people out there who don't warrant our empathy: not even one iota.  I'm talking mainly about people who are themselves without empathy or remorse, or hope of any realistic rehabilitation - the sociopaths/psychopaths: those who are truly evil (under my definition of that term anyway).2  For example, I wouldn't waste any time empathising with some brutal rapist and murderer like Adrian Bayley.

But was Stewart's father such a man?  Was my grandfather?  Or were they just ordinary men - caught in a vicious cycle that was not of their doing?  Can we condemn their actions unequivocally while finding some understanding (and even sympathy) for how and why they came to be how they were?  I think so.

Consider: how would any of us cope with the brutalising effects of war?  I know there are some who would say "I'd never become so violent."  And it is easy to think that way when you've spent a lifetime without expressing, or even thinking of, physical violence.  But this is a trap; it is not someone else's pespective: it is still the view through your own lens.  Thankfully, few of us know what it would be like to grow up being, say, a child soldier in Sierra Leone.  We can assume all sorts of things about what we might and might not do in a certain situation.  But unless/until it happens to us, we simply can't know.
Budo - the martial way

Which brings me (somewhat circuitously) to martial arts:  Over the years, I've had any number of people express some horror at the violence taught in traditional civilian defence systems.  I recall holding a class in the mid-80s where I was demonstrating a particularly brutal application of saifa kata involving a smash to your opponent's ears and a twist of your opponent's head after that.  A woman watching the class approached me afterwards and said: "I'm sorry - but I could never be party to such violence as you teach."

Another time, in the mid-2000s, I was teaching taijiquan to a small group in town at lunchtime.  I showed an application of a particular technique involving a finger strike to the eyes.  One student said to me, somewhat accusingly: "Why would I ever want to do that?"  My references to "only in necessary self-defence" were met with a skeptical shake of the head.

In both cases I was seen to be supporting - indeed advocating - violence of the most reprehensible kind; the kind people like Patrick Stewart would rightly condemn without hesitation.

And so why do it?  Why engage in, and teach, such a violent past-time?  Am I just an apologist - even facilitator - of what is most wrong in the world?

I have a long history of writing about wu-wei - avoiding aggression unless it is a regrettable necessity.  I have very strong views on this.  If anything, I think I am accurately described as a pacifist.  I have (touch wood) managed to avoid almost every instance of (sometimes, almost certain) physical conflict in my life with some sort of "diffusion".  As an individual I abhor violence.  I can't recall any instance where, as an adult, I felt remotely motivated to strike in anger.
Yet I practise and teach arts that are sometimes unquestionably brutal in nature and scope.  Why?
It isn't just because I believe there is a possibility that even we pacifists might have to engage in almost unspeakable violence in order to save ourselves or our loved ones (ie. that we might have to choose such a course as the lesser of evils).  No - it is because I am only too aware when listening to Patrick Stewart talk about his father (or my mother talk about my grandfather) that there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.  Yes - men, women and even children (considering, for example, the child soldiers in Sierra Leone).

Okay, so you might never have expressed anger physically.  But we've certainly all expressed it verbally.  And it is important to recognise that even this is a form of violence: maybe not remotely in the same class as the violence Patrick Stewart witnessed in his father - or my mother witnessed in my grandfather - but violence nonetheless.

I remember once in Law school walking past a senior lecturer's office and hearing her screaming at her secretary for some mistakes that had apparently been made.  The verbal abuse was unfair, unbridled and brutal to the point of sadism.  In other words, it was violent.

Granted, there was no physical violence - nor even any potential for it.  But it was a kind of violence just the same.  And it is important to note that any kind of violence can have significant consequences for the victim.  (Indeed, I think it is fair to say that psychological violence can sometimes have more far-reaching consequences than the physical kind.)

So I think it is important to note that while physical violence is most typcially perpetrated by males, violence itself isn't a "male issue". 
It is a human one. 
We all have the potential for violence.  Understanding that potential within ourselves helps us manage our own behaviour (whether this means men seeking help before they abuse their female spouses, men not assaulting other men, parents of either gender not beating their children or people of all ages and descriptions not bullying, humiliating or otherwise abusing others). 

More importantly it helps us identify, understand and manage the violent potential of people in our communities - often through lines of least resistance (wu-wei).

Accordingly I, a self-avowed (and, I think, demonstrated) pacifist, will continue to practise martial arts.  I will learn the arts of "war", so as to find (or at least, affirm) my own path to "peace".

This is the paradox of the martial arts: budo - "the way by which the sword is never drawn".3

Footnotes:

1. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a bit of a "Trekkie", and while I don't think that The Next Generation was the best series of Star Trek (I am fan of the original), I have always felt that Jean-Luc Picard was the best captain - largely because of the gravitas Stewart brought to the role.

2. Those who share my view that there is no such thing as "evil" per se should read my article: "A glimpse into the heart of evil" to see what I mean by this term (ie. I mean something like: "a harmful act committed by a being who has consciousness but has no conscience").  My definition of evil has little to do with "blameworthiness" and "free will", and nothing to do with "retribution" or "vengeance".

In this regard I adhere to the views of Sam Harris on this topic.  Indeed, I think it is logically true that psychopaths like Adrian Bayley are ultimately the product of a mix of environmental and genetic factors.  So they aren't any more or less "blameworthy" than war veterans who commit similar acts; both do what they do largely because of how they were born and raised, and how other major life events have affected them.  Of course they are still "blameworthy" in the sense that they are people who have deliberately done things harmful to others.  And the only sense in which this is relevant to me is this: what do we need to do to stop them/others from doing it again.

Nor am I interested in "retribution"; revenge on them won't bring back the lives they stole/ruined (however much I understand that motivation on an emotional level).

So if I don't think they are entirely "blameworthy" (in Sam Harris' sense of "free will") and I don't feel "vengeful" towards them, then why don't I empathise with them?  Because empathy is something I reserve for those who themselves feel empathy: ie. people who have a conscience.  If people have no empathy or remorse (ie. no conscience), extending one's own empathy to them makes as much sense as trying to empathise with a tornado, earthquake, tsunami - or an attacking crocodile or shark; events of nature that cause us harm but do not have a "conscience".

The difference between these "events of nature" and psychopaths and sociopaths is that we expect the latter to have a conscience - because we know they have consciousness.  This mismatched expectation is the nearest I can get to actually defining (objectively) what people think of in colloquial terms as "evil", hence my definition.  But it should be clear that my definition carries no actual "moral assumption" about some "good and evil" existing as abstract concepts outside human society.

3. It is  worth noting that "budo" (martial way) comprises 2 characters: 武道.  The first means "martial" - however, somewhat paradoxically, it is made up of the elements of "sword" and "never to be drawn" (the character 武 consists of two characters 戈 and 止 which mean “sword or weapon” and “stop” respectively).

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Enter the interception

Most martial artists - in fact most people - alive today know of Bruce Lee.  And many of will know what he called his personal martial arts system:
Jeet Kune Do - the Way of the Intercepting Fist
 Okay - so what did he mean by that?  Lee goes some small way to explaining his system in this (famous) episode of Longstreet (set to start at the correct point):


But I suspect that you, like me, are left with a sense of dissatisfaction after watching this.  What does "interception" mean in this context?  Does he mean "stopping"? Or does he mean "preventing" by some other means?  And what exactly is he "intercepting"?  Is he intercepting a particular attack (ie. an aggressive movement)?  Is he intercepting some physical cue of the attacker's intention?  Or is he intercepting the attacker generally (assuming "interception" has any meaning in such a context)?

All of this serves to present a kind of "apparent paradox" of which many "philosophically-minded" martial artists are often fond: words so general, perhaps even ambiguous, that we can give them whatever meaning we want.  Or words we can pretty much ignore.

Well I'm going to do neither.  I'm not going to fawn over Bruce Lee's words as some kind of Buddhist-style mantra, nor am I going to dismiss what he said as merely trite or tautological.  I think he was really onto something here: something simple, yet profound - and I want to give you my thoughts on the subject.

The first thing we need to note is the actual translation of "jeet kune do".  Literally it means "intercepting fist way" (截拳道 jiéquándào in Mandarin).  It should be clear from the above video that Bruce wasn't talking about "intercepting with a fist".  It could be the foot.  Or anything else.

So why refer to "intercepting fist"?

The answer is, I believe, surprisingly simple: rather than think of the term as
"intercepting-fist way", one should think of it as "intercepting fist-way".  Note the subtle difference: I'm linking "fist" with "way", rather "intercepting" with "fist".  Why do this?

The fist is a general symbol used to denote martial arts in both China and Okinawa. (In terms of the latter, note that despite the traditional use of "ti/te" - ie. "hand" - to describe unarmed fighting in Okinawa, the fist still has an instantly recognisable association with karate: witness the number of schools that feature the fist in their school patch!)

It is for this reason that martial arts in the far east are often referred to as "quan fa" or "kempo/kenpo" (拳法). This term means "fist principles" or "the law of the fist" ("quan" means "fist" and "fa" means "law", "way" or "study").

Of course, "do" (道) means "way" and is often used instead of "fa" (法) in naming a martial system (in much the same way as we might, in English, alternately refer to a "way of doing something" or a "method of doing something").  In other words, "quan fa" and "quan do / kune do" are both terms for describing martial arts systems.  "Jeet" (intercepting) qualifies this more general martial reference.  So I think what Bruce Lee meant by "jeet kune do" was this:
"A martial system (ie. a "fist-way") characterised by interception". 
Okay, so far so good.  Why is this notable?  By "interception", surely Bruce Lee simply meant: "Just hit the guy first"?  It's simple, right?

Well I'm giving the man credit for a bit more than prescribing such a brutish and simplistic philosophy.  For a start, it should be obvious that mere "hitting first" isn't always interception.  It is more often pre-emption.  These are two very different things.  "Hitting first" might even be nothing more than unprovoked attack.

Now it is true that hitting first means being proactive rather than reactive.  And Bruce was certainly a "proactive kind of guy" in general terms.  He wasn't exactly the type to "wait around for people to hit him", was he?

But I'm not referring to any kind of "waiting around".  I'm merely talking about there actually being an attack for you to intercept.

If Lee's martial system was really based on simple pre-emption, it wouldn't have referred to "interception" at all: after all; there would be nothing to "intercept".  You'd be attacking - pure and simple.

Accordingly, you'd only need to practise hitting things - hard! (See also my articles "Boards don't hit back Parts 1 and 2.)

So I'm going to go out on a limb here to say the following:
In calling his system "Jeet Kune Do" Bruce Lee was clearly making reference to responding to aggression - not pre-empting it, and certainly not initiating it!
And why would this be so surprising?  Bruce Lee was steeped in Chinese philosophical tradition.  Whether you go by Confucian or Daoist values - or those of Eastern religions such as Buddhism - you see the same principles of "non-aggression" arising again and again, and manifesting in traditional "civilian defence" arts - right down to specific techniques.

Under these principles, any act of aggression is to be avoided unless it is a regrettable necessity.  Accordingly, traditional civilian defence arts of the Orient are not about fighting.  They are about not fighting (remember Bruce Lee's reference to "the art of fighting without fighting"?).  They are about defence, not offence.

It is worth noting that even the character "wu" or "bu" (武) meaning "martial" (eg. wushu or budo) is made up of the elements of "sword" and "never to be drawn". (The character 武 consists of two characters 戈 and 止 which mean “sword or weapon” and “stop” respectively.)

Remember Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid and how he says: "Karate is for self defence only"?  This isn't just some movie/pop culture cliché: it is a philosophy "hardwired" into almost all Eastern civilian martial traditions.  It is for this reason that we have the famous karate maxim espoused by Gichin Funakoshi:
"Karate ni sente nashi."  There is no first attack in karate.  
The same is true of "gong fu", "wushu", "quan fa", "kenpo" and, yes: even Bruce Lee's "Jeet Kune Do"!

The underlying "aggression only when necessary" nature of traditional Eastern civilian defence arts is precisely why the script writers had Mr Miyagi teach Daniel-san defensive movements first.  Okay, we can laugh at Ralph Macchio's poor technique and the rather implausible training methods.  But every karate practitioner recognises the deflections being employed in "sand the floor" (gedan barai), "wax on, wax off" (hiki/kake uke), and "paint the fence" (ko and shotei uke).  And, I dare say, every taekwondo/gongfu practitioner recognises their own systems' variations of these basic movements:


So what do we call these "defensive movements"?  Previously, I've called them "blocks" - and acknowledged that this term is woefully inadequate.  Because they aren't "blocks" - at least not always.

Rather, they each comprise a response to an attack: a response that intercepts the attack before it can do damage.  Ideally, the interception is effected as soon, and as proactively, as possible - an observation with which I am sure Bruce Lee would have wholeheartedly agreed. But an interception is rarely a pre-emption (note, I didn't say "never" - but "rarely").1


Bruce Lee "paints the fence"
Okay so what do I think Bruce Lee meant when he used the term "interception"?

In the Longstreet episode above, he demonstrates a punch or kick that he launches after his opponent's attack starts but which reaches its target before his opponent's attack is even a quarter of the way towards him.
But remember: that's just Bruce Lee showing off his incredible speed.
I think it is clear, judging from Lee's written works and picture/film demonstrations that his concept of "interception" involved all of the following:
  • Undeniably Bruce Lee's concept of interception can take the form of using your own attack to "beat your opponent to the punch" (which Lee could do quite easily, utilising his impressive athleticism).  
  • Equally it might might mean effecting an interception very close to the source of the attack - ie. jamming the attack just as it is being launched (see the example below my own taiji example of a "jamming" technique - what Marc MacYoung calls "cutting the supply line").  Indeed, the principles of trapping retained in Jeet Kune Do from wing chun involve trapping the arms so that they are tied up and prevented from launching further attacks.
  • I think it is also undeniable that Jeet Kune do envisages intercepting an attack that is already well on its way.  This is usually achieved simply by occupying the centreline.  The latter involves a movement - whether it be a dedicated traditional "block" (eg. one with which Bruce Lee would have been familiar, such as "fuk sau" from wing chun - see below) or a more typical "attack" (eg. a punch) to intercept an attack launched against you.  Your technique travels directly to intercept the attack, occupies its intended flight path, and displaces it from landing on its intended target (ie. you!).2   Lee would have understood the centreline theory (as discussed in the following video) very well from his knowledge of wing chun:
  • Last, "interception" for Bruce Lee might well have involved something done to catch the attack at the very last moment (ie. some sort of "shield") - but only if there was no other option (eg. if you face a surprise attack, given the time frames there might be little more you can do than simply "cover up").  I can't imagine Bruce Lee advocating this as a "preferred" method of "intercepting" anything.  Catching attacks late is dangerous and hardly consistent with Bruce Lee's proactive method of defence!  Nonetheless, it is within the realm of "interception" as a general concept.  After all, it is better to "intercept" in this way than with your chin!
Okay, so why call these "interceptions"?  Why not call them "blocks"?  Why not call them "parries" or "deflections".  In fact, why call them anything at all?

First, I think we need some sort of label.  There is too much science and skill underpinning these techniques to lump them with "attacks" (or just "do this" techniques).

And I've previously discussed the limitation of the term "block".  It mostly covers the last approach - the "shield".  It also covers so-called "hard blocks" - simply trying to smash your opponent's arm or otherwise place an obstacle in its path.  Both of these have little to do with the science and skill to which I refer above.

"Parry" and "deflection" are all very well for the "centreline" concept of interception.  But they hardly cover interceptions at the source (eg. jams) or at the last moment (eg. shields).  

Bruce Lee "waxes on/off" while punching
So what terms remain?

Well, karate traditionally terms such techniques as "uke": how you receive an attack.  Note Max's comment below that: "The 截 in 截拳道 also translates to "receive/catch", almost in the same way uke means "receive"."

As a term, "receive" is reasonably accurate in its scope.  But as an English translation... well basically, it sucks.  Talk to most native English speakers about a "reception" and they'll think you're referring to the party held after a wedding.  Or maybe the entrance lobby to a building.

Furthermore, I must confess, "receiving" an attack sounds much too passive for my liking.  It has all the negative connotations that MMA fighters typically attribute to traditional "blocks": ie. "waiting for someone to hit you".

This leaves me with "interception".  This is a term I can really "dig" (to use the language of Bruce's era): it accurately describes a technique which travels to the attack by the fastest, most direct/appropriate route - then "receives" it at an optimum angle and on an optimum plane in a way that displaces, thwarts or otherwise negates the attack.  It is "receiving" - but with attitude!

Moreover, as I've previously noted, the science and skill of a "block"/deflection/parry/redirection etc. is all contained in the moment of contact during the interception.  This is where the technique works or fails:  Everything has to be correct, eg:
and so on.

All the "magic" happens at precisely one moment: the point of interception.

Accordingly, from now on I propose to use this term "interception" for traditional (and non-traditional) "uke". In my opinion no other term is remotely as appropriate.  I hope you join me in this endeavour.  Let's change the way people talk - and think - about "uke".3
Enter the interception!
Footnotes:

1. I think any traditional martial arts teacher will agree that circumstances might arise where it becomes necessary to pre-empt certain attacks with  your own - eg. if there is a sufficiently high probability that you will be attacked and if your response to that imminent attack is reasonable.

To some extent, such a response might even be permitted under your law.  However please note that it will always come down to:
  • exactly what your laws say; and 
  • the exact circumstances of your case.  
I cannot advise you in this regard; if you have any questions/concerns about this issue, you need to consult a lawyer who specialises in criminal law in your jurisdiction.

Bruce Lee uses the "bong sau" interception
2. A centreline technique can be achieved as both deflection and counter off the same arm or with one arm taking the centreline while the other launches as supporting attack at the same time (both options are often termed "simultaneous" techniques).

3.  Think about how much more difficult is it for a skeptic to "debate" traditional "blocks" once you call them what they really are - interceptions:
  • "Interceptions don't work.  They are too slow and necessarily involve big movements. Also, interceptions necessarily involve two movements - hah, checkmate."
  • "Pure evasion is much better than interception and evasion used together.  That's why boxers use bobbing and weaving and don't intercept anything."
  • "You don't see interceptions in MMA, now do you?  Anyway, even you're not showing interceptions in your own sparring like you say!"
  • "I don't accept that many thousands of repetitions of a basic movement along an angle and plain optimal for interception, has any function in enabling motor learning of interceptions along that angle and plain."
  • "The flinch reflex doesn't involve your arms going out to intercept the attack with your body shrinking away from it."
  • "Interception of attacks doesn't require any special training above what police and prison guards get in their basic self defence component.  So my video of a prison guard trying (and failing) to throw his arms out to stop an attack shows that interceptions can't work."
  • "The best interceptions are those that involve slapping punches at the last second with your palms or those where you cover your face with the "turtle defence". Accordingly, keeping my guard close to my face is best."
  • My "target focused training" sure beats your "interception focused training".  I mean, why focus on intercepting your opponent's attacks?  Don't worry about them!  Focus on your own attacks - that's all you need!  If you train right, you'll never miss! Think of each opponent as a zombie, then think of smashing that zombie into pieces - I find that's best (and look how impressive I am at smashing zombies)."
All these arguments start sounding as absurd as they actually are.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The secret of the sinking backfist

Master Wu Bin demonstrating the
sinking backfist
(image courtesy of Kung Fu magazine)
Following my previous articles "How civilian defence grappling differs from sport grappling" and "Elbow locks: an introduction", I wanted to discuss one particular technique that warrants special attention in both contexts:

Many of you martial artists will be familiar with the movement depicted on the right (demonstrated by Master Wu Bin - one of China's leading wushu trainers, as featured in the Kung Fu Special Edition 2012 magazine):

This is a technique that features regularly in Chinese martial arts forms (including the feng quan forms taught in the Chen Pan Ling system).
But what in the world is it?
One of its main applications, as often demonstrated to me by Master Chen Yun Ching, is not as a backfist strike, but rather as an arm bar to the elbow.

Why in the world would you ever want to do an arm bar in a low, cross-legged stance like this, you might ask?

You would so precisely for the reasons I've previously discussed: to be able to apply the arm bar on your opponent, yet remain in the melee range (that is to say, not enter into the clinch or grappling range).

So how does this cross-legged variation help you do that?  It has to do with using your whole body weight behind the lock:

The cross-legged stance (called "kosa dachi" in Japanese) allows you to sink down very low - collapse, if you will, like a concertina - putting your body mass and gravity to work together.
Don't believe me?
The standard arm bar is
always a millisecond
away from a throw.
Well first let's see what martial artists might ordinarily do to "power" such an arm lock.  They might well stand close to their opponents - basically "hip to hip", enabling their entire body weight to be over the elbow (as shown in the top image to the left).

This works quite well and is standard grappling methodology: you don't want to be trying to apply any kind of lock at "arms length" (so conventional grappling wisdom tells us).

But with this tactic comes the inevitable problem I've previously discussed, namely: your opponent is very likely just to dive into a grapple as soon as you start applying the lock.

Even if you manage to get a strong lock in place, the arm bar is quite easily frustrated by such a dive - precisely because it works in the direction of your downward push (ie. your lock will actually help accelerate your opponent's dive downwards).

As pressure is released on your opponent's elbow (because of the dive), your opponent can simply wrap his arms around your legs and just fall backwards - or pick you up and throw you backwards!

From there he/she is only a half-second away from mounting you (in or outside your guard) and starting what people now call the "ground 'n pound".  Nice.

So how can one go about avoiding this problem?  The first thing you could try is to stand further away.  But the problem is this:
That won't work!
The unnamed "master" demonstrated an arm bar at about this distance.
It can't work.  Try it if you don't believe me.
An elbow lock of this sort generally relies upon your body weight being directly over the joint you're locking.  If your body is off to the side, you have, as we say here in Australia, "Buckley's chance" of making the lock work!

A month or two ago, my good friend, long-time colleague and training partner, fellow IAOMAS member and fellow blogger Colin Wee came over for Chinese tea and we discussed martial arts for a couple of hours.

Colin brought with him a DVD released by a "master" here in Australia.  In it, the "master" demonstrated, among other things, applications of a particular form (I think it was the karate kata naihanchi).

I demonstrate the sinking backfist
One of this "master's" applications involved just such an arm bar - effected at a distance of about half a meter/yard.  Of course, the student went down very obligingly.  But in real life, what is likely to happen?
Nothing!  
Your opponent will resist you - and laugh (as Rob is doing in the above picture!).  If you don't believe me, grab a fellow practitioner and try it out (with proper resistance, of course)!

So given this, is it ever possible to effect an arm bar from such a distance?  The answer is - yes!
Using the sinking backfist!
How does it work?  Very simply, the concertina shape of your stance allows you to drop your whole body weight down, like a stone.  Your arm is just an extension of the entire mass which is moving as one unit.  Accordingly, anything under your arm will also be subject to that mass.  Okay, maybe not quite to the same extent as if it were directly in between your legs, but near enough!

I've experimented with this technique and found it to be far more powerful than the standard arm bar, done "close up".  Obviously the closer your are to your opponent, the better the sinking backfist works as a lock.  Thankfully, you don't need to be all that close at all: The technique works from well within in the melee range (or well outside the grappling range - however you want to look at it).

I discuss the sinking backfist in the video below at about 3:55 (set to start at that point):


And for those who want to see this technique in a form, have a look at the following video at about 0:57 and 2:11:


Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, June 3, 2013

Knowledge of the ancients

Image and caption courtesy of Ryan Parker
From time to time I engage in debates with modern combat sports fighters/fans.  After the inevitable: "If it worked, we'd see it in the cage/ring," arguments are played out, we often come back to the same issue: ancient vs. modern technology.
"Why should anyone esteem ancient technology?  After all, we don't do it in any other field of endeavour.  We don't look to the past to decide how clothes should be made, how crops should be farmed, how teeth should extracted/filled, how diseases should treated, how food should be preserved, etc.  We question everything - and so we should.  We take what has been done before and improve on it.  Why should it be any different in regards to martial arts?  Today's fighters have better technology than the "ancients" ever had.  Adhering to their traditions isn't just blinkered - it is dogmatic; unscientific.  There is no reason to assume that knowledge is better because it is "old".  In fact, it is more likely to be inferior."
It is perfectly true to say that "ancients" did not have all the "answers" to martial knowledge.  We should never follow anything blindly; we must question and we must build on what has gone before.

So what then is the use in studying a traditional fighting system?  Why not go to the local MMA gym?  To heck with forms, funny pajama clothes and elaborate rituals.  To heck with tradition.  Isn't the latest technology what we want?

Well I'll do my best to answer this objection:

My reason for studying traditional martial arts is not based on some assumption that the ancients were "all knowing" and "infallible". Rather, it is based on an awareness of the eras - and the sheer time scale covered by the eras - in which their knowledge database was developed.

We tend to view ourselves today as the pinnacle of technological advancement. But in truth, when it comes to our technological know-how as individuals, we are really a woeful bunch.  We might know an awful lot about some minor "cog" in the gargantuan "machine" that comprises modern society: but when compared to our distant ancestors we have far fewer fundamental skills - ie. skills that we can employ on our own, without the benefit of that ever-present "machine".  Consider, dear reader,  that if you or I were stranded on a desert island, neither of us could make a toothpick, never mind a matchstick, and certainly not a silicon chip.

Image and caption courtesy of Ryan Parker
Yet the impression of many "MMAistas" today is that their (comparatively-speaking, shallow) knowledge of the fundamental skill of fighting for survival is somehow superior to a knowledge and skill database progressively developed over at least 1,000 (probably more like 2-4,000 years) unbroken years - years when this knowledge was actually relied upon by ordinary people in everyday life.

In our modern world we might know how to work an Ipad or write in XML.  And because of this "sophistication", we might assume we are technologically "superior" to our distant ancestors. If so, what we fail to realise is that our technological "superiority" only applies to the discreet areas of a complex, interdependent existence. I think it is manifest that we are vastly inferior when it comes to technologies at a more fundamental, individualised level.

Growing up in Papua New Guinea, I was struck by how tribal communities in the Highlands could build 3 or 4 storey buildings out of sticks tied together with vines. They could make stone axes sharper than many surgical steel tools. They could do a lot of stuff - technological stuff - that most of us, working with the same tools as they had, couldn't do no matter how long or hard we tried.  We don't have their technology.

In the same way, they also knew about "baser" things - like fighting: I'm not talking fighting "MMA-style", but fighting to survive. This knowledge was "basic", but in many ways far deeper.  Why do I say this?  "Basic" details were contemplated far more deeply than they are in our modern, hurried, information-overloaded environment.

Today, our attention is split 1000 ways. We all have to navigate a world that is bewilderingly complex.  By contrast, our ancestors had few distractions. Yet they had exactly the same brains. And they had the same drive to analyse, innovate and improve.

A typical PNG stone axe
Accordingly, I believe they had more time, inclination and, frankly, need, to examine and comprehend basic, fundamental, elemental details that elude, or are ignored by, most people today.

Just one is the example I raised recently relating to timing the foot and hand to land at the same time. Another is the issue about range and civilian defence grappling.  There are hundreds more.  My blog is dedicated to preserving and promoting awareness of these details: details that have been preserved by my teachers and that I have now undertaken to preserve.

This knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation, just as the making of stone tools once was.  Such fundamental or individual technological information is easily "lost" in more modern societies where the relevance of the information reduces; where it is no longer likely to make the difference between living and dying.

For example, when I was living in Papua New Guinea, most of the older tribes-people still knew how to make stone axes; they knew how to make fishing spears made with split cane tips. But mostly these sorts of tools were already being made for ceremonial purposes. The stone axe had been replaced by the hardware store bushknife and the cane at the tip of the fishing spear had been replaced with lengths of stiff wire. Today, I imagine it is increasingly harder to find someone who can still make these tools "the old way".

I think that, similarly, people today don't really need to know subtle details about unarmed, life-and-death fighting.  Such details have no relevance to the nearest use of fighting skill, the MMA arena.  There they are either illegal, or take second, third, fourth or fifth place to tactics immediately applicable in the controlled environment that is the one-on-one sports match (however "actual" the violence in that environment!).

Accordingly I will continue to respect the martial knowledge of our ancestors. Not because it is infallible. But because I know that it was built up over thousands of years by individuals applying this fundamental technology in their daily lives. And hand-to-hand fighting is nothing if not such fundamental, individualised technology.

A bow of the kind made for me by the PNG tribesman
So just as I wouldn't be asking a teenager with an Ipad how to make a flint arrowhead and hunt game, I'm not going to be asking some kid at an MMA gym what technique "works" in civilian defence. Yes, these kids might have every bit of modern technology at their disposal, including millions of "how to" Youtube videos.  But they don't have any direct experience of living with this knowledge.

On the other hand, I would ask a PNG Chimbu tribesman about the flint/hunting.  And, for that matter, I might well ask him what it means to fight in a life/death struggle with basic - or no - tools.

As an aside, I remember such a Chimbu tribesman in Mt Hagen - a kindly older man who promised me (then a little "pikinini") that he would make me a real bow as a gift.  And this he did. It was made out of (and with) the most basic materials: wood, cane, twine, sap and fire - all in the traditional way.

It took a whole month before it was ready. It was a true weapon/tool of the kind used by his people for millennia - for survival. I knew even back then that he'd given me something of enormous value in his world, and felt more that a little guilty in receiving such a gift. I also remember realising way back then that this old guy knew stuff my father, a highly educated and experienced civil engineer, would never know. (I had it for decades till it fell apart, from frequent moving to very different climates.)  He had given me a piece of working technology.  It was basic/fundamental: yes.  But it was nonetheless supremely effective for its purpose.

In a similar vein, I think there is a good reason why successive generations of martial arts teachers in simpler, more fundamental times, used techniques that are not being used in MMA today - such as the "block".  I also think there is good reason why they refrained from using certain "modern" techniques - such as the mawashi geri (roundhouse kick) - especially of the swinging, thigh-targeted kind. And I don't think that reason just comes down to these fellows being "old fashioned" and "lacking in technology".  They had an efficient, relevant technology.  Yes, it might have been "old".  But, like that bow, it worked.  It had to: it was to be relied upon for one's very existence.

From "Kingu" magazine: a depiction of
"Choki Motobu" (actually a likeness
of Gichin Funakoshi!) defeating a
foreign boxer in the 1920s.
Sure, Jon Jones would probably have beaten the legendary karate master Choki Motobu in an MMA ring match. But I somehow doubt that Jones' skill set would have provided any kind of useful template for Okinawans of old. They would have rejected Jones' methods as quickly as they would have rejected an Ipad: it would have been interesting, but not all that relevant to what they needed.

What is relevant to my life today?  In civilian defence terms, I believe it is not that different to what was relevant to those old-time Okinawans:  I'm not about to climb into an MMA cage.  The violence I am most likely to encounter is of the more elemental kind that features an element of surprise.

So I still look to the ancients for their wisdom - without ever losing sight of the fact that they most certainly didn't have it "completely right".  Their technology is something that can and should be improved upon.  But it pays to remember that we're talking here about fundamental technology - and that when it comes to civilian defence, this might well provide a better starting point than that of a modern discipline which is geared to an entirely different purpose (ie. combat sport): one I have no interest in pursuing.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, June 1, 2013

How civilian defence grappling differs from sport grappling

An example of a karate arm bar: Note how Rob is kept
just out of grappling range - and off-balance to prevent
him entering grappling range.
There is a tendency among many karateka today to find grappling applications (bunkai) in their kata.  That is fine.  Yes,  karate is (undeniably) a "stand up" fighting art, first and foremost, but it also has grappling applications.

My only problem with grappling interpretations of kata arises when the bunkai strays into "kata has comprehensive, built-in BJJ applications!'" territory. Let's make this simple, shall we?
It doesn't.
Karate and other traditional civilian defence arts are not, and never have been, grappling arts - at least not in the same sense as judo, jujutsu or Greco-Roman wrestling.  If they were, they wouldn't involve quite so many solo "kata", so many obvious punches, kicks, strikes and "blocks".  They would mostly revolve around... grappling!  With a partner! 

[While we understand intuitively "shadow boxing" (to which kata are analogous), it's very hard to imagine "shadow wrestling".  Yes, there are some solo ground drills you can do and you can simulate various movements and footwork while standing.  But are you really ever going to roll around on the ground imagining you have someone wrestling with you?]

Okay, so arts like karate do have some grappling.  How is this grappling different, if at all, from that found in dedicated grappling arts?

It is different in this, very specific, sense:
Traditional civilian defence arts try to control the melee range and keep you out of the grappling range.




Why? Because, to summarise Kris Wilder recently in this podcast, when it comes to civilian defence:
"Falling is bad".  
Just ask your average bouncer at a pub or nightclub: "Who loses when someone goes to the ground?"  The answer is, generally: "The guy on the ground."

This is because, unlike the ring, you don't have the same level of predictability in your environment.  There are a multitude of potential variables that cannot be controlled while you are entangled with one person, ranging from multiple attackers, weapons, problems with obstacles and uneven, difficult terrain, moving vehicles, etc.

As I've said recently, neither attacker nor defender wants a long, drawn-out "fight" in a true civilian defence encounter (and I'm excluding young men having a "dominance settling display" from my definition of "civilian defence").

Why?  Because it is in neither side's interest to take these unknown variables for granted.  The longer you do so, the greater the chances of these variables impacting negatively on you.

What are the most likely variables with which you might have to contend if you are caught with one opponent on the ground?  Obviously the most pressing concern is your attacker's accomplices.  Is this a real concern?  You bet!  As a prosecutor I can honestly say I saw very few civilian defence situations that looked "one-on-one" - and even fewer with a "BJJ flavour".

The only case of the latter I can recall was a particular pub fight where two young men went to the ground and one (who had successfully applied a lock on his opponent) had his nose bitten off.  (The exhibit photos were truly gruesome!)

So yes, that case was "one-on-one".  The rest either ended with one person "going to the the ground" because they were knocked unconscious, or rapidly became "2 or more-on-one", especially when the initial attacker found him or herself in trouble.  In the above video I actually include footage of people coming to the aid of downed fighters (in one case, one is the mother of one of the protagonists!).

A case of "how not to do it": applying the arm bar
in grappling range just means I can take Rob down.
So what do traditional civilian defence grappling methods teach that is so different to those used in judo/jujutsu and other true grappling disiplines?  They teach you to keep a kind of "bubble" between you and your opponent - a gap that is sufficient for you to remain in the melee range even when you are engaged in grappling.

A good example is the standard "arm bar": this technique is often applied by karateka and other traditional martial artists around the world without a single thought as to the prospect that it might place you in danger of being "taken down".  There is an underlying assumption that the other fighter "will fight like the guys I'm used to fighting in the dojo".  In my video above I show how easy it is for  someone to whom an arm bar is being applied to simply shoot your legs and take you down in an instant.

However, if you look closely, karate kata like shisochin anticipate this sort of takedown and include measures to avoid it:

The "arm bar move" in shichochin kata is accompanied by measures to keep your opponent both at a suitable distance and off-balance so that he/she can't dive into the grappling range (see the photo at the start of this article).  In this case, the kata shoots your leg forward as you do the arm bar.  And it does so for a very good reason: it hooks behind your opponent's leg while you're applying the arm bar and pushing your opponent sideways.  These measures, working together, keep the attacker both in the melee range and slightly off balance (to prevent them diving into grappling range).

[In my next article I will detail another traditional method of performing an arm bar from the melee, rather than grappling, range, ie. what I call the "sinking backfist".]

Always look twice at purported "bunkai":
Do they meet the "grappling range
avoidance test"?
It is in this sort of way that most traditional civilian defence arts show a clear tactical to bias towards avoiding going down to the ground at all costs. Their applications are specifically geared to staying in the melee range and not going one step further to enter the grappling range - or allowing your attacker to do so

This aspect of traditional fighting methodology is however something I rarely see considered, never mind highlighted, in modern interpretations of karate bunkai.  All too often I see something like the adjacent images of a purported "application" of gedan uke.

Sure, this "application" seems to work fine in the dojo.  But it completely ignores the reality of how an untrained fighter - never mind a trained grappler - will clinch: ie. move into the grappling range and grab.  From there, there is a universal tendency to stifle the blows further by going to the ground and wrestling.  It is a defensive reflex - especially for those who don't feel safe in the melee range, trading blows.

In this sense, grapplers are in some senses correct when they say "90% of fights go to the ground".  While this might not be literally true in terms of civilian defence statistics, it does describe the reality that if a fight goes on for any length of time, there is high probability that one person will clinch the other - if for no other reason than to negate the effect of blows - and then both will fall to the ground.  

When that happens in a serious civilian defence context (as opposed to a schoolyard or other similar scuffle) you are exposed to the risk of being pinned down with that attacker.  And this increases your overall level of risk significantly.

So whenever you are examining purported karate "bunkai" ask yourself this very simple question: does it meet the "grappling range avoidance test"? 

Going "over the top" in this seipai application is
a classic "no-no" if you want to avoid going to
the ground.
Because civilian defence arts like karate are not grappling arts, per se.  They avoid full grappling.  This is inherent even in their "grappling" techniques.  They are designed to be effected in the melee range - ie. at a slight distance; not in the full "hip to hip and cheek to cheek" grappling range.

None of this should be taken as a suggestion by me that you "shouldn't learn grappling" or that you "don't need to learn grappling".  I'm simply stating the obvious: arts like karate are not grappling arts and their applications have to be understood in the context that they are geared at avoiding full ground grappling - not entering into it (or even entertaining the possibility to any appreciable extent).

Yes, by all means, you should learn how to grapple: it is a very useful skill.  There are many situations where you might need to use grappling skills.  My brother chose to choke out a burglar rather than strike him, for instance.  And to some extent, karate and other similar "stand up" arts do have such techniques here and there (with the appropriate set-up).  But to go further and maintain that such arts are therefore "grappling arts in disguise" is not only foolish; it is irresponsible.  Why?  Not only because it instills a false sense of confidence in grappling ability, but also because it derails the very essence of traditional civilian defence systems: their ability to control the melee range and keep you out of the grappling range.

I liken many of the grappling "bunkai" of karate online as "faux BJJ" - analogous to "faux boxing".  It doesn't stack up against the real thing!  And if you persist with "faux BJJ", you'll be trading skills that actually work for those that don't!

No, what karate and other traditional civilian defence arts have is not an expertise in "grappling"; rather they have an expertise in "not grappling".  And it is precisely this expertise that is so often ignored and diluted by those wishing to press traditional stand-up arts into a "BJJ mould".

Going under reduces your chances of being taken down.
Nor can this expertise be dismissed assumption that:
"A grappler can teach you everything you need to know about staying on your feet". 
Yes, a grappler can teach you a lot of stuff about avoiding going to the ground. But you have to remember that this is all from the grappler's perspective.  Largely, what a grappler can teach you is what a grappler would do - and that's a very handy thing to know. However if you've ever fought grapplers, you will note that they will take every opportunity to get into, and stay in, the grappling range.

The civilian defence practitioner wants the very opposite. My own experience and research, especially in recent years, is that traditional arts like karate are absolutely full of effective tactics suitable to this task - and these are no "poor cousins" to the "anti-grappling" measures of a specialist grappler.

Consider for a moment if you wanted to learn how to avoid a hip throw.  You could go to a judo player and have them teach you a counter.  But what would you be learning?  A grappler's counter!  If you're not good at grappling, this will probably be of very little use to you - especially if the confrontation continues: you'll be either on the ground or, at best, still in the standing grappling range.



By way of comparison, consider the flash video below of a taijiquan anti-hip throw technique (an application of my own Chen Pan Ling style) performed by Su Dong Chen (former student of Hong Yi Xiang who was a student of Chen Pan Ling):


An example of how a civilian defence art (in this case, taijiquan by Su Dong Chen) thwarts a hip throw. As you can see it has very little to do with how a judo player would do it.  The first thing Master Su does is stifle the grappling entry by jamming the incoming foot - keeping the attacker in the melee range.  He then employs a melee range throw or projection - not a judo counter throw.    
(To play this video, right click on it and click "play".)

[For more on this technique see Master Su's page here.]

I think the fact that many traditional "stand-up" practitioners don't know any such tactics from their forms (or can't execute them properly) isn't because they aren't there.  Rather, it is because the practitioners consciously or subconsciously end up "playing the grappler's game" - at least to some extent.

This is probably because in the dojo they know that if they're grabbed, no harm will come of the situation, so they become nonchalant about going down.

Furthermore I'm fairly sure that today they are also influenced by umpteen "judo/jujutsu-style grappling applications" of kata. These are often preferred as "advanced" over tactics that would keep you in the melee range and out of grappling range.

There is a big difference between these and true "civilian defence grappling": the latter keeps you in a position to avoid being trapped in grappling range and taken down while the former does not. The former is all well and fine if you want to make your civilian defence art "BJJ-like": who knows - you might reinvent the wheel and actually make something that works just as well.  On the other hand, you might not...

Regardless, in my view this is not what civilian defence arts are all about.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic