Thursday, December 31, 2015

A wonderful new review for Essential Jo

I've received an absolutely wonderful New Year's Eve gift from Dr Arnold Rosenstock in the form of a 5 star review of Essential Jo.

Thank you Arnold!

Edit: and a great 5 star review from Josh Fiebig - thanks Josh!

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Essential Jo - an official Amazon bestseller!

After making an entry several times this year into the "hot new release" list (but languishing in the top 200 generally), last night "Essential Jo" finally cracked Amazon's Martial Arts Bestseller list overall, reaching at least 46. [Edit: as of 31/12/2015 it is at 33!]

Given that the sales have steadily been increasing from month to month - and the fact that I'm about to release the companion DVD in the next week or two, I have no reason to suspect the situation will change except for the better.  Every single month brings increased awareness and sales.

Either way, I'm officially a bestselling writer!

So much for the two publishers who, after a full year each of wasting my time with indecision, finally rejected my text as "not commercially viable".  (One of them had the gall to write to me recently asking me to review their titles on my blog!)

Anyway, look out for the DVD folks!

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, December 21, 2015

Physical prerequisites for grades

Our Wu-Wei Dao syllabus at the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts contains physical prerequisites for grading.

The first reaction I tend to get from more mature students is one of horror.  I guess that is understandable: the older I get, the less I like the idea of having keep up with 20-somethings.  I guess I feel a bit like some ancient police sergeant having to do an obstacle course in under a certain time.

There are the usual arguments I face - like "I'm learning martial arts skills - not training to be an MMA fighter, a law enforcement officer or soldier.  Why the heck do I need some kind of physical test?"
And the answer is: "You don't."
We have plenty of students who train in our non-grading classes - in particular my Chinese arts class.  There we don't have any gradings at all.  I teach certain techniques and coach students in developing their skill in these techniques.  And all of this is done without any reference to a particular physical "standard" or goal - other than the general aim of helping the student feel mentally and physically healthier - creating a more positive, active lifestyle.

But there are plenty of students who want to be part of the grading system in a functional, practical civilian defence art.  And for those students - students who actively want to be assessed as meeting certain targets - a physical activity like a martial art necessarily involves certain minimums in terms of physical conditioning.

We believe that if you are so out of shape that you can't go into a stance at all, or do a kick, you can't really say you've met the requirements for a particular grade.

Within this context it is important to note that modifications are always made for those who are older or who have disabilities.  We aren't trying to build superheros.  We're trying to maintain a standard that gives a grade some meaning.

I'm reminded of the time I went to Ray Hana's Superstore years ago.  A boxer came in to buy some equipment and we got to chatting.
"Do you do skipping?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied.
"Good.  I see too many 'martial artists' out there who can't jump rope.  Or run a block.  Or punch a bag for more than 30 seconds.  They might be some kind of 'artists' but they sure as heck ain't 'martial'."
He had a very good point.  We spent some more time talking about the necessity for fitness: how the average person training in a boxing gym (even the so-called "white collar" boxers) are far fitter than the average suburban karate/taekwondo/jujutsu/gongfu practitioners, some of whom spend virtually no time raising a sweat during training.

These people can hardly call themselves "fighters".  The problem is, many do.  A cursory glance at YouTube will show you hundreds of thousands of fantasists in all martial arts - people with a 10th dan  (or 'duan') in dozens of styles.  Heck, sometimes they boast an 11th dan/duan.  Shades of the movie 'This is Spinal Tap'...

Inevitably they are middle-aged, totally out of shape people who can barely raise an arm or leg.  Indeed, I'm sure many have never even done the "hard yards" (I understand how some old masters lose conditioning - but more than a few of these guys look like they have never been in shape in the first place).  In the case of these 'masters', their list of 'impressive' titles and grades means diddly squat.

Which brings me to our physical prerequisites.  In our school we have chosen 3 benchmark exercises to test whether or not a grading candidate can meet the physical minimum for the particular grade.

It is important to note that these exercises are not the sum total of the physical conditioning required in our gradings.  Our gradings go for a few hours and have their own challenges, including sparring with multiple consecutive partners and performing physically demanding techniques and forms. Rather, the physical exercises (usually done at the end of the grading) are merely benchmark tests for strength and endurance in certain muscle groups - carefully chosen for practical use, and relying on your own body weight as a testing device.

As I said, we're not trying to make supermen/women.  We're looking to make sure the candidate has sufficient strength and endurance to actually do the techniques required at that grade - and do them under a bit of pressure.

This doesn't mean one needs to have '6 pack abs' or bulging biceps.  It just means that you have some sort of base level fitness for the task you're required to perform.

This is where I part company with that boxer.  Back in the day he asked me this question, I was a lot fitter.  In fact, I was doing skipping with my obi (belt) which, as anyone who has tried will tell you, is difficult: the belt is wide and catches the air slowing it down and making you work harder to swing it, particularly with double skips.  At the time I was actually trying to build up my double skips and got to 21 without faulting.  (Of course my friend Jeff came along the next lesson and on his second attempt did 36 - which made me give up my quest to set records in that regard!)

But a martial artist training for civilian defence is not facing the same demands as a boxer.  The civilian defence practitioner doesn't need to last 15 three minute rounds.  He or she just needs to be able to survive bursts of fighting in an attack.  This means the student needs a specific kind of fitness - and our gradings are designed to test not only your skill in technique, but also whether you have that kind of fitness (scaled, depending on the grade you're trying to attain).

In other words, we're trying to set a minimum base standard of strength and endurance in certain muscles with the concept of martial usability in mind.  Notice I mention both strength and endurance: we aren't after strength or endurance alone, but a mix of both: a kind of conditioning that is applicable to anaerobic environments like those encountered during bursts of furious fighting and when dealing with adrenaline dump etc.
So what are our benchmark exercises?
As foreshadowed, we test chest and (pushing) arm strength and endurance using your own body weight via push ups.  Since women and men typically have a different ratio of muscle to fat, women are permitted to have their knees on the floor.  The requirement starts low and peaks at 50 for shodan (1st dan black belt).  It stays there until godan (5th dan).  Otherwise it's embarrassing (and pointless) to have a 30 year old 3rd or 4th dan who can't do 5 push ups (never mind 50).  What the heck is that?

We test back and (pulling) arm strength and endurance using your own body weight via rope or inverted stick pull ups (where two people hold a stick/pole and you lie down between them, grab the stick/pole and pull yourself up).  Chin ups might seem like a good idea for a generalised test, but in my experience they are way too hard for most people.  Again - we're not trying to create superheros.  The requirement for these peaks at 35 for shodan to godan.

The last thing we test is core/abdominal strength and endurance.  For this we use a double crunch exercise we call the "ab blaster".  The requirement peaks at 10 x the sequence of 6 crunches (ie. 60) for shodan to godan.

Our prerequisite exercises.  Note that the pull ups can also be 
done on the ropes on the walls - but not everyone has these.

Legs are not subject to a specific physical prerequisite, since the students do enough squatting and other low stances and movement during the grading to reveal whether they have sufficient leg strength and endurance.

After 5th dan the grades are honorary and are really based on your martial knowledge, teaching and contribution so there is no formal physical prerequisite.

The other day, I undertook our black belt physical prerequisite requirements on a random training night. All black belts in our system are required (barring injury or illness - and taking into account age) to be able to meet our prerequisite - any time, any place. No excuses.

I was pleased to see that despite not training in these exercises for quite some time, I still had the requisite conditioning.  No excuses were necessary for me!

I'm particularly pleased that I achieved this despite the fact that I was still stiff from the previous lesson - where I had attempted a special "49th birthday challenge" of my own devising (doing chin ups - which I hadn't done for a very long time indeed)!

It's important to remember: no student is obliged to undertake these tests.  It's a matter of choice.  We have many students who are more mature and who do not have any intention of having their physical conditioning tested.  Others do, but require special dispensations due to age, injury or illness.  All this is accommodated.

What we don't want is to be giving black belts to those who don't have the requisite strength and endurance to actually apply the techniques.  The standard is not "high".  It is a minimum.  We believe those wearing a grade from our school should have met that bare minimum.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Kata-based defences against combinations

Over the last 2 decades I've noticed an explosion of interest in karate in "bunkai" - applications of karate's kata (forms).  There was a time (in the not too distant past) where karate had stagnated badly.  Kata were practised almost in a vacuum: forms as a series of movements and no analysis on one hand - sparring or two person drills with no nexus to the kata on the other.  This seemed to be the case since karate became popularised in Japan in the 1930s and was diluted for teaching to school kids.  It only got worse in the 1950s and 60s when it spread to the West.

By the 1980s I noticed a few teachers trying to claw the way back to bunkai as the primary source of karate knowledge.  As just one example, Higaonna Morio sensei of goju ryu released his 8mm and later video tapes of kata and applications.  Meanwhile, other teachers, like Hirokazu Kanazawa sensei of SKI shotokan, handled the dilemma in a totally different way, cataloging hundreds of two person sparring drills that ran parallel to the kata.

But in the mid to late 1990s it seemed the kata bunkai method started to go mainstream.  Since then it has snowballed.

Now in the YouTube era, every man and his dog has kata applications up for all to see.  Obviously I'm one of those men with dogs.

But one thing seems to be largely unchanged from that period of "bunkai stagnation": overwhelmingly, applications are applied against a single straight punch.

And it's usually still a leading lunge step punch.  After all these years.

In this regard I think karate has at least some high ground over many gong fu schools where applications run form "hand crossing/touching"; or from arts like aikido where applications are against wrist grabs or bizarre "downward chops" - all launched by someone charging from across the other side of the room; or from arts like American kenpo where techniques are often commenced from some totally innocuous, zombie-like movements, like a slow hand on the shoulder (leading to an attack string of such overkill that it would make Master Ken's "restomp the groin" look tame).

Ignoring the whole "you don't have an attacker at all issue", here's the thing: people don't attack with lunge punches.  They just don't.

Some modern masters have gone a step further.  Patrick McCarthy sensei has pioneered a new direction with his "HAPV" (Habitual Acts of Personal Violence) analysis - examining bunkai from the perspective of the kinds of attacks humans "habitually" perpetrate.  Whether or not you agree with his choice of what are "habitual" attacks, there is no denying that McCarthy sensei has lead the charge with an intelligent reform of karate bunkai analysis.

Others like Iain Abernethy and Kris Wilder have done their own research in this direction.

But most karate bunkai I see on the internet still base bunkai analysis overwhelmingly on a single attack - and usually a lunge punch.  Yet, as my MMA student Armando often says, people don't tend to attack with just one punch or other technique.  Sure, they will launch an initial attack.  But more often than not they will throw a second and third etc.  
In other words, you have to prepare to face combinations.
Over the last 10 years or so I've made it my special mission to examine kata techniques to see how they work against combinations - whether it is a "one-two" punch combination, or a kick followed by a punch - or anything else for that matter!

Indeed, I don't really do any applications at all without considering what the attacker might do as a follow up.  In other words, I always take into account the most likely follow-on attack.  I always assume that at least two attacks will be thrown at me in succession - often more.
I never assume there will be one attack and only one attack.
And I've discovered that kata inevitably work very, very well in dealing with multiple, consecutive attacks.  Every time I come to a kata application, I look at the initial defence and wonder what attack it could be defending against.  Then I think what follow-on I'd throw if I were initiating the attack.

So here are some videos taken from just one recent class where we ran through some kata bunkai analysis:

Consider this defence from gekisai (ichi or ni) kata to a one-two punch combination:

I think it's self-explanatory, so I won't go into any sort of discussion here.

Here's another one: a defence against a low roundhouse - followed by a reverse punch once the kick has been thwarted:

Now this one needs a bit more explanation. I've had a number of people already say to me that "it's a bad idea to put hand down exposing face for right hook or cross."

I see this as a variation on the "don't drop your hands to block kicks as you will expose your upper body to attack" argument, which I've already dealt with comprehensively in my articles (in particular "Low blocks against kicks - are they ridiculous?").  

Yes, it's partially true: lowering your hands is always risky.  But those who voice this concern forget that your hands are moving constantly in fighting.  They forget that everything you do leaves an opening - attack, defence... all of them.  

In the end, it's all about choice and being aware of what your'e doing.  The technique I've shown here is a conscious choice.  As you can see, you take a calculated risk, but then again, this is a risk you can take because
  • you know pretty much what he 's going to do as a follow up (you can guess the follow up, hence you're prepared for it and practically inviting it); and 
  • it's very hard for him to punch (effectively) as he roundhouse kicks, which means he will punch after his kick which gives you the timing edge, giving you plenty of time to raise your hand in response.  
Also my students in the last part are not doing enough body movement sideways to take them away from the right cross.  Remember that kicks have a longer range than punches.  The side movement in saifa takes you away from the right cross.  The only danger (hand wise) comes from the left - which is the logical hand to punch with after a right swinging kick (you've wound up the right side, not your left) - and is the only punch you could launch simultaneously - which is precisely why your left high sukui happens simultaneously with the low hand.

In any event, the movement in the kata will always have risks because one hand is dropping.  So long as you remain in some sort of range, dropping one arm is problematic.  That is why there is sideways movement (which the students at the end don't show - but then again, this is just class footage as they were learning, and I think they did very well!).

The last video below is another defence against a one-two punch combination - perhaps followed by a third punch.  It's from the kata seiunchin.

The salient feature of this bunkai is that it incorporates (shock horror) a duck/weave.  You'll note my discussion that the move is small and reverts so quickly to a vertical posture that it is unsurprising that it would not be visible in the kata: particularly when traditional evasion prioritises keeping your posture/balance intact at all times due to the vagaries of street conditions (uneven, hard surfaces, objects, multiple opponents etc.).

You'll also note that the technique uses the "sukui uke" (scooping block) featured in my previous article "Blocking the jab".  This should make it clear that any "jab" won't be defended with just a "block" but also with some element of evasion (in this case a drop/backwards movement into shiko dachi (horse stance).  The old "blocks don't work because you don't use evasion" is another straw man - all "blocks" in karate kata are accompanied by some sort of evasion.  Even if it is not shown literally in the movement it is usually necessarily implicit if one understands how the kata is structured and why.

Basically, all our kata bunkai start with this assumption: that there will be a follow up attack.

So the next time someone shows you an application of a karate kata technique, ask yourself: "Would someone really attack this way - and if they did, would they just stop there?"  Answering these questions might just be the key to unlocking karate as a truly applicable fighting art in the modern age.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Blocking the jab

"You can't block a jab - and that shows blocks don't work"

I recently made a video on this topic and I'm surprised by the reactions - especially the private ones: my inbox this morning is full, mostly of some very strongly worded negativity towards what I thought was a fairly honest, unremarkable analysis of the possibilities and limitations of blocking jabs.  I guess people can't seem to understand that a video filmed in class doesn't provide a full analysis of a topic and relies on some background.

I made the video recalling an event that occurred some 20 years ago.  I was training in a gym which had boxers training.  One young trainee there knew I did karate, so he came up and challenged me.  "Blocks don't work," he said.  Then he mimicked a jodan uke and a chudan uke, showing he'd done bit of cursory study in karate.  "You couldn't possibly use these to stop my jab."

I'm going to put aside the obvious absurdity of his position: that difficulties in "blocking" (ie. deflecting/parrying/intercepting) a jab is in no way indicative of blocking every other form of attack.  But in point of principle, he was wrong: you can block a jab - if your arms are up.

So some time ago I made this video in which I showed how it could be done.

Indeed, this is precisely what I did to the young man. I "blocked" every single one of his jabs (he did about 4 or 5 in succession).  Indeed, he didn't even get close (and he wasn't all that bad in handspeed either).

A question of range

It's important to note that he threw all his jabs from a decent range - like most combat sports fighters do.  Jabs are, after all, "approach shots" - they aren't something you throw when you're in the "thick of it" - in the melee range.  There, people use "straight" punches - not "jabs".

After I successfully deflected his jabs, the young man said: "Aha!" he said.  But you weren't using a "block".  You were using an abbreviation!"

My response was: "So what?"  The basic block explores a full range of motion and teaches you a plane and angle of interception/deflection.  It isn't a literal technique but a full range movement to inculcate muscle memory, proprioception and kinaesthesia.

It ended with him muttering about how I wasn't using karate and that he was being kind (which he was) by not fully committing to hit me.  The fact that I didn't commit with my counterpunch, nor throw/grapple him when he came into a clinch after I closed the gap with my deflection, seemed to escape him.

But it is important to note that at the usual jab range (being an "approach shot"), I was able to deflect a fast punch with a retraction - which he had asserted was an "impossibility".

[Note: I'm not suggesting I would use a deflection against a boxer in a ring.  This would not work.  For a start, gloves are too big to allow forearm use - they get in the way and change dynamics.  Apart from that, from a civilian defence perspective there are better ways of dealing with a jab launched from a longer range.  I'd probably default to what boxers do and just dodge it or lean away.  That's assuming I got into a sort of "ring type fight" where I was circling an opponent, waiting for openings - something that very rarely happens in civilian defence encounters.]

What happens when you're in closer?

So what happens if you're in closer - dead in the melee range?  Can you block a jab there?

Well this is a moot question because very few people are likely to throw jabs in that range.  As I've noted, combat sports fighters just don't.  They just punch.  They don't "jab" when either side can throw a full power cross/hook/uppercut etc.

Nor do people in the street tend to attack with "jabs" - at least in the strict sense of what is technically regarded as a jab in boxing etc.

But the other day I faced the same argument from someone online.  "You couldn't block my punch - it's too fast.  I'd have retracted it before you even got your block into position!"

Now I'm going to leave aside the whole "retraction" issue, which I've done to death.  Retraction speed has nothing to do with outward speed.  But the other night I thought I'd examine the whole issue of what happens in the melee range - which is where civilian defence plays out.  Can one block a jab there?

I already knew the answer - but I thought I'd put it on video.  The following footage is taken from an ordinary class.  (You'll note that I expected to cop a few hits, so I put in a mouth guard!)

For this example, I used a "sukui" (scooping) deflection suitable for the inside.  Why?  Just because we were exploring its applications from the goju katas saifa and seiunchin - no other reason (we were just in the middle of a class, as usual - this is not specially filmed for YouTube).  If it were up to me, I'd do an outside deflection like the hiki uke above.  But never mind.

So what happened?

The results

I found that if I had my hands down at my sides I had pretty much zero chance of intercepting his punch - regardless of where Xin's arms were.  That's because I had to move almost as far as Xin did to intercept his punch, yet he had at least a 0.3s advantage (I'm getting older so my reaction time is probably around 0.35 on average now!).

If we both had our arms raised (bearing in mind we're in the melee range and can reach each other's faces without much of an effort) then it was really 50/50: what advantage Xin had in being the initiator (with me "waiting" and responding) was negated by the fact that I only had to move a tiny fraction of Xin's distance in terms of effecting a deflection.

[At this point I'll note that Xin retracts his arm on the left but not on the right.  This is simply an artefact of Xin being an orthodox puncher who seldom jabs with his right.  It is also totally irrelevant to this rather artificial test - an isolation of reaction times.  Someone debating with me on Facebook started on about how important the retraction was to combinations, yadda yadda.  Yes, yawn.  This wasn't an instruction of "how to fight".  It was a test of whether one could block a jab.  The outward speed is what we were measuring - not what happened afterwards.]

However, when Xin did the whole "monkey dance" routine and moved up to eyeball me, arms down, then suddenly threw a punch (which one could call a kind of "jab" since it is straight), he didn't stand a chance.  Like the boxer punching me from a distance, I had plenty of time to deflect his punch.

[To further answer my correspondent on Facebook, I'll also note that I closed the gap straight away to deal with multiple punches and immediately countered.  So the retraction thing really is a red herring.]

The lesson: don't "wait" for punches to block!

The main lesson I sought to obtain from this analysis is that once you're in the melee range and both sides have arms raised, you really are smack in the middle of a full-blown fight.  You have zero reason to "wait" for a punch that you might block.  There is no rule in traditional martial arts that states this.  Never once is it mentioned in any of the classic writings or old tales.  There is no kata or form that requires you to "wait" for anything.  "Karate ni sente nashi" (there is no 'first strike' in karate) doesn't mean you are required to stand around, passively responding to aggression.  This is plain daft.  And everyone who raises this appalling argument against traditional martial arts is simply erecting a straw man.

Where do you "wait"?  There is only one instance: where you don't know if your antagonist is really intent on fighting.  I'm sure most of you will be well aware that most little aggressions out there, in queues, parking lots and over neighbourhood fences, are mostly verbal.  There may even be a bit of chest bumping.  But most of the time you have two very frightened males trying not to show it and not wanting to be humiliated.  Neither wants to fight.  You'd be an absolute moron to escalate every such situation into a full-blown fight by throwing a first punch the moment someone you're arguing with stepped a "bit too close".  And, as I've previously argued, you'd likely also run foul of the law.

So there might be situations where you raise your arms passively above what I have called the "centre sternum line".  This will help you deal with any punch that might suddenly come your way.  I'd be confident that in 90% of most Western interactions, nothing much will happen and the whole thing will simply fade away.  But in about 10% you could face a sudden punch - usually from lowered hands (if your antagonist raises his hands to fight, then the situation is totally different).

In terms of chances of intercepting/deflecting a punch, the absolute worst case scenario is that you face a straight, "shortest distance between two points" punch.  You can call this a jab, or you can just call it a lead punch.  But what my video above demonstrates is that a properly trained traditional martial artist will easily deflect that.  This means that any other circular punch - be it a looping cross or a haymaker, will be easier due to the increased travel time.

So you can block a jab.  It just depends on what you mean by "jab".

If your opponent raises his hands to fight, and he is in close (melee) range then you have a very different situation.  You are already in a fight.  You have to be proactive.  You don't have to "wait" for his attack and no one has ever said so (other than ignoramuses who peddle this tired trope).

My conclusion

The whole "you can't block my jab so that proves blocks don't work" is a nonsense.  First, I stand a very good chance of "blocking" your jab if it is launched from a longer range.  I probably won't, but that is an entirely different issue.

If you are jabbing from within the melee range, then something is very odd indeed.  But chances are we are toe to toe and both punching.  I won't be arms down, waiting for your punch (where I have zero chance of not being hit by your jab).  I train to position myself very differently in that range, so I won't be facing off with you, "waiting" for your jab (and certainly not with arms down).  I'll be doing my own punching, thank you very much, as well as trapping, grappling, pushing, throwing etc.

If you come at me with the "monkey dance" and throw a punch, I'm fairly confident that, if I keep my wits about me and make sure my hands are sufficiently raised, I'll deflect your punch.  Then I'll rapidly close any gap, deal with any combination you're throwing and deliver my own counter, all more or less at the same time.  Obviously if you throw any other, longer, more telegraphed punch, I'll be able to intercept that even easier.

Am I certain that I will do so every time?  There's no guarantee.  I might have a bad day.  I might face someone whose hand speed totally eclipses this rapidly aging suburban martial artist.

All I can say is that there is nothing wrong with the method.  It works as well as any for its intended purpose - civilian defence.  It's just that there are never any guarantees.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, December 19, 2015

DVD launch in Perth

Today I launched my 3 new DVDs, Internalising Karate, Bridging Hard and Soft: Vol 1 Fundamentals and Chang Dao: Chinese long Sabre at the Ray Hana's Superstore in Perth WA.

It was great to meet some new people and wonderful to see some old friends too!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Videos now ready for download

And just like that...

All of my 3 new videos have been approved for download and are available from Amazon.  Just click on the links or pictures below! [Note: Amazon have just confirmed that the download option is only for the US and its territories.]

Internalising Karate

Bridging Hard and Soft Vol. 1: Fundamentals

The Chinese Long Sabre: Chang Dao

Three DVDs published today!

Just in time for the Christmas season, I'm proud to announce the publication of 3 of my instructional martial arts DVDs today (one is a re-issue to facilitate a download version which is coming soon).

These are:
For a description of these DVDs go here!

The direct download versions of the above videos are now available in the US but it will take another week or two for them to become available in other countries.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic