Chi Sao, Hubud, and Other Sensitivity Drills

I recently received an email asking what I think of the value of sensitivity drills and figured the topic would make a good blog post. This is somewhat controversial, as a number of traditional martial arts rely very heavily on such drills, and most sport and MMA fighters consider them to be completely ineffective.

What Are Sensitivity Drills?

For those of you who don’t know what sensitivity drills are, they are a little difficult to define.  I’m not certain about this, but I think the term may have come from Dan Inosanto or someone in the Jeet Kune Do Concepts area, where it was applied to drills like chi sao in Wing Chun, hubud in Kali, pushing hands in Tai Chi, and so on.  The drills tend to take place only at one particular range, and are designed to train reactions to different energy your partner “feeds” you.  The idea is that you become more sensitive to your partner’s energy or force, and learn to respond to it with techniques from the system you’re studying.  If you search YouTube for chi sao, hubud, or pushing hands, you’ll find many examples of such drills.

The term sensitivity drill is usually applied to drills that don’t closely resemble actual fighting.  Although a training drill that works particular counter punch responses to a jab, a cross, and a hook could also be viewed in terms of reacting to energy or techniques fed by your partner, I’ve never heard anyone call such training a sensitivity drill.  From my perspective, it’s possible that the term sensitivity drill was invented to give purpose to drills that are at least a step or two removed from actual fighting…they don’t teach you how to fight, but they increase your sensitivity or qualities that you can use in fighting.

In the JKD Concepts area a distinction is also made between “self preservation” training and “self perfection” training.  The sensitivity drills are considered to be self perfection training whereas sparring or drilling techniques in a realistic context are considered to be self preservation training.

Do Sensitivity Drills Work?

First, I trained and taught such drills for many years.  At the time I felt they were beneficial.  I learned concepts from the drills, honed techniques, and eventually applied some of them in sparring.  So can a person learn something from sensitivity drills?  Certainly.  But the question I asked myself as both a practitioner and a teacher was, are sensitivity drills the most efficient and effective way to learn whatever is supposed to be taught through them?  The answer is no, at least with respect to the drills commonly grouped under that term, and the way they are practiced.  Furthermore, most sensitivity drills also ingrain bad habits.

In my experience, using sensitivity drills to train techniques and qualities is like using a screw driver as a hammer.  You can hammer a nail in with a screw driver, but a hammer would be a much better tool for the job.  The hammer would not only be a more effective tool, but it would also be a lot faster.

Better Alternatives

Think about what it is that you’re trying to train or improve with any given sensitivity drill.  Does it actually provide benefit in a real fight or self defense situation?  If it does, then think about how you can best train it.

Most if not all sensitivity drills I have seen, practiced, and taught, include techniques or combinations of techniques that would not work against a fully resisting uncooperative opponent.  Some of the drills have almost zero resemblance to actual fighting or self defense.  If your goal is to increase skills that can be used in a real self defense situation, then your training drills should mirror what actually happens in a self defense situation as closely as possible.

If you look at how people who fight for a living train, professional fighters, you’ll see that the techniques and drills they use correlate 100% to what they and their opponent’s do in the fight itself.  But let’s look at a sensitivity drill like chi sao in Wing Chun:

Brue Lee Chi Sao

Bruce Lee Chi Sao

Does the above image look even remotely similar to what you might see in a fight?  Unless you’ve been brainwashed, you will have to admit that it does not.  This is exactly why Bruce Lee moved away from such drills and into western boxing.

You can learn techniques and concepts through chi sao that can be used in real fighting or self defense, but if you pull those techniques and concepts out of the drill you can train them exactly as they work in reality in a more efficient and effective manner.

Let’s take a look at two skills people try to increase through chi sao training: controlling and dominating the centerline, and trapping your opponent’s limbs to prevent his offensive and defense.  Both of these skills can be trained exactly as they would be used in self defense, in a scenario based context.  Both of these skills can be practiced in the context of sparring.

My goal in teaching is to provide students with the most efficient and effective path to functional skills.  Rather than learning to trap an opponent’s limbs through a drill that has no resemblance to actual fighting, why not learn to trap an opponent’s limbs in a drill or in training that exactly mirrors fighting?  I can’t think of a single good reason.  Of the two following images, which would be a more functional place to learn to trap your opponent’s arms?  Which would be more likely to lead to skills that you could actually use against an opponent?



Chi Sao

Chi Sao

Both are contrived for the purpose of training, but one is more realistic than the other.  At this point in my teaching and training, I’m fairly certain that anything that can be learned from sensitivity drills can be learned more efficiently and effectively from training methods that more closely resemble actual fighting or self defense situations.  I can get a student to be able to use trapping much faster in the context of boxing than in the context of chi sao.

I’m not implying that techniques from Wing Chun, Kali, and Tai Chi can’t work in self defense.  I use and teach trapping that can be found in Wing Chun and Kali, and techniques that can be found in Tai Chi.  My book is full of them.  But many people don’t recognize them because the context is different from the context they are traditionally taught in.  The traditional context is in my view something that slows students down rather than speeds them up.  In the context of a stylized dojo I can understand how such training could evolve.  But just because many people do it doesn’t make it ideal.

What are your thoughts on this?  Can you think of a quality or skill that would be better to learn in a sensitivity drill than in a more functional/realistic training context?  If so, please let me know in the comments.

How Many Reps Should You Do?

I’d like to share an idea I read about on another blog this morning that I find very useful.  How many good vs. bad repetitions do you need to practice in order for whatever you’re doing to stick correctly?

When you’re learning something new you’re not going to do it exactly right the first time around.  Let’s say it takes you 20 attempts to do it more or less correctly.  You got it “wrong” 19 times but right on 20.  According to what Noa (a sports/performance psychologist) wrote on the post Adequate Learning vs. Overlearning, the optimal number is around 20 more correct reps, or 100% more correct reps.  This makes a great deal of sense to me.

Whatever we learn is stored in pathways in our brains.  Incorrect repetitions create incorrect pathways.  So if you’ve practiced something wrong 19 times and right only once, you’ve trained your brain to do whatever it is you’re doing wrong.

Of course it’s not quite so simple.  It may be that each repetition was better and better, so instead of ingraining a bad pathway 19 times you were actually modifying/changing one from wrong to right.  Nevertheless, what you really want to ingrain in your brain is the best pathway.  So it makes sense that you’d want to do at least as many correct/perfect/ideal repetitions as incorrect or sub-optimal reps.

In my own practice and teaching I probably don’t do enough correct reps after learning a new technique or skill.  This leads to coming back the next day and doing worse than I did at the end of the previous day.  Then I wonder why I “got it” the day before, but lost it the next day.  Based on Noa’s post and the corresponding research, the reason makes sense.  I did it wrong more than I did it right, so the right path wasn’t optimally ingrained.

I’m definitely going to try to integrate this concept into my practice, and I think you should too.  I also highly recommend subscribing to Noa’s blog.  Although it’s related to music, most of his posts are about learning or performance, have excellent insights, and apply equally to any performance art.

You Need to Fail



In one of my recent posts, Is Your Training Realistic, I mentioned two important aspects of functional training. First, if your training partner isn’t really trying to stop you from succeeding with your techniques then you need to tell him “don’t let me do this”. And you need to hold him to it. Second, you need to make sure the techniques you’re using in sparring are the same as those you are using in drills and other training methods. If your training partner isn’t trying to stop you by any means, and if the techniques and applications you’re drilling are not what you’re using in sparring, then your training is not realistic.

The Value of Failure

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: You need to fail. If you’re not failing in your practice, then you are not realistically training and you are not maximizing your ability to learn. If you’re not failing, then you’re not pushing to your limit. If you’re not pushing to your limit, then you don’t know where your limit is, or where the borders of your skills are.

You need to know where your limits are in order to most effectively work on extending them, on increasing your skills. You shouldn’t be training to fail, but you should be training until failure at least some of the time. When your partner attacks, resists, or fights back more than you can handle, causing your defense to fail, it provides the best opportunity for you to learn. At which point did you fail? Why did you fail? Repeat it again. Slow it down or lighten up just a little until you no longer fail, and then gradually increase the intensity to extend your skills. If you need to, break whatever you were doing down into different components to figure out exactly where your problem areas are. Focus on the problem area until you’ve solved it, put the parts back together again, and repeat.

Continuously training above your level, where your instructor or opponent is always beating you, is not productive at all. But training well below your level, where you’re always winning, is equally unproductive. The ideal place to train is right below the edge of your skills, having your partner push just beyond them to gradually extend your limits.

Strength Training

If you’re doing strength training, and you should be for health reasons, this same principle applies. The growth of muscle and strength is a biological adaptation. Your body is not going to adapt unless it thinks it needs to. You have to send the signal to your body that it must adapt. How do you do that? With failure.

If can lift 100 pounds ten times, and you continuously go to the gym and lift 100 pounds ten times, you are never going to increase your strength. If you want to increase your strength, you need to fail in your workouts. You need to attempt to do more repetitions than you can, or more weight than you can. When you fail, it will send the signal to your body that it needs to adapt. Otherwise, your body will have no good reason to add strength or muscle.

Failure In General

Anyone who has ventured out and tried new things will fail. I’ve certainly failed a lot more than I’ve succeeded! But failure should be the best lesson you can learn. It’s a step on the path to success. Failure may teach you that something is harder than you thought. But it shows you where your skill or knowledge gaps are, which allows you to fill those gaps. You may also learn that whatever you were trying to do isn’t worth the risk or the effort. That’s ok too. But if you’re never failing, then you aren’t really trying. Look at failure as a positive sign, and use it to grow. It’s a sign that you’re pushing into uncharted territory, an opportunity to learn or move forward.

Learning Self Defense Through Solo Training

First, an update. I’ve received a few emails over the last couple of weeks asking if I’ve quit. No, I haven’t. I wrote several months ago about my mom’s death. It was accidental and completely unexpected, and it knocked me off the course I was on for several months. I quit working on the weapon use and defense book, and really didn’t get back to it until last week. I have continued to practice though, and I will get back to posting more, finishing the weapons book, adding new content to this website, and eventually I’d like to make a number of instructional videos.

Lots of people have asked about the book. I’ll be finished the text in about a week. It was nearly finished 6 months ago. But I’ve realized that I need another hundred or so pictures. This is more difficult, as I need two other people to help with them, but I’ll try to get them done as quickly as possible and finally get the second book done! Now, on to an important topic…

Solo Training

Solo Training

Solo Training

I’ve written about this before in various places, but I get questions about solo training at least a couple of times each week, so I’d like to specifically address it again. How can a person learn self defense without a training partner? What is the best material to train alone?

You cannot learn self defense without a training partner, and solo training is close to useless for self defense. It’s unfortunate, but true, despite what many other instructors will tell you.

Think about it like this: Your training partner in self defense/martial arts functions about the same as a piano does for a piano player, or as water does for a swimmer. You absolutely cannot learn to play the piano without a piano, and you absolutely cannot learn to swim without water. You can press your fingers down on a table, or in the air, but you’re not going to learn to play the piano. You can do swimming strokes in the air, but you’re not going to learn to swim.

What about hitting a heavy bag or doing striking techniques in the air? These things can be a little useful for a beginner. Hitting a heavy bag can be a great workout, and it’s something that professional boxers still do, of course. But imagine what would happen if someone had only trained on a heavy bag for three years, and then tried to fight a boxer who had fought other people for three years. (In my experience, focus mitt work with a partner who can strike back between combinations is more effective than heavy bag work, for self defense.) Imagine what would happen if someone who had only done solo forms got attacked by an attacker with a knife.

Self defense requires at least two people. Everything you do as a self defense or martial arts practitioner is in relation to another living human who will be moving, resisting, and fighting back. Practicing solo and fighting against another person is literally about as different as ballet dancing and Thai boxing. It would be awesome if we could train alone and develop real skill in self defense, but it’s just not the case.

Solo training can be great for strength and conditioning, and it can be used to increase qualities that will be useful in a self defense situation. But without spending the majority of your self defense training time with a resisting and uncooperative opponent, it hardly matters how strong and conditioned you are. Additionally, there are better ways to increase your strength and conditioning than doing martial arts specific movements only. So, your first task if you want to learn self defense and don’t have a training partner or partners is to find one!

One thing I will try to do soon is add a section to my website where people who are interested in training functional self defense can post their city and contact info, in case there are others in their location who would like to train together. I’ll send out an email once that’s done.

If you have any questions, comments, or thoughts about solo training, please post them in the comments below. 🙂

PS.  I’ve gone ahead and added an FSD page on Facebook:  Please like it and tell your friends about it!

Is Your Training Realistic?

To start, I want to make an important point.  The other day I noticed an online reference to my page on Why Most Martial Arts Don’t Work.  Someone posted a link to the page, and another person commented that my page/site couldn’t be trusted because I’m only trying to sell something.  I do sell a book that can be found on my site, but everything else on my website and blog is free, including instructional videos.  I try not to push the book, as I’m sure most of you reading this have already noticed.  I do this because I’m passionate about self defense and martial arts, I enjoy teaching, and I genuinely want other practitioners to understand what works and what doesn’t…how to train realistic, functional material.

When I mention other styles, teachers, or training methods and explain why they don’t work, the point is not to put down other systems or people, and the point isn’t for me to make money.  (I haven’t taught martial arts for a living since 2007.)  The point is for you to see examples that shed light on inefficient and ineffective training.  Why?  Because I hate to see people wasting their time, doing something they think will work, when it will likely fail in reality.  I’ve been there.  I don’t want you to be there too.  So with that said…

Is your training realistic?  Here’s an easy way to find out:  Does your sparring look like your other training?  If not, then your training probably isn’t realistic.

If you’re not sparring, then you have a problem.  Your training definitely isn’t realistic.

Many people tell me their techniques are too dangerous for sparring.  Anyone who thinks that simply doesn’t know how to spar properly.  With protective gear and/or lowering the intensity of the sparring, any technique can be used in sparring.  100%.  In BJJ chokes and arm breaks are trained.  You just don’t take them all the way.  It’s not a problem.  In my teaching/training, sparring includes eye strikes, neck hacks, neck breaks, and groin kicks.  It’s not a problem.  You simply wear protective gear and/or watch the contact and intensity.  You gradually build up in a safe and responsible manner.

What is sparring?  It’s testing your techniques against an uncooperative and fully resisting opponent.  If you’re not doing that, then you have no idea if your techniques and training methods will actually work, even if they seem to work perfectly in the training room!  Many people who train traditional martial arts do not realize what an uncooperative and fully resisting opponent means.  Here’s an important post on that.

So if you do spar, does your sparring look like your other training?  In my experience, in most schools it does not!  In most schools (outside of the sport systems), training and sparring look entirely different.  This is a serious problem.

A Popular School

I was talking to someone yesterday about a big, popular school in my city.  Some of the teachers are very good, and highly skilled.  I imagine they could handle themselves in most self defense situations.  I wouldn’t want to fight them if I could avoid it.  But most of their training is very inefficient and ineffective, it looks nothing whatsoever like their sparring, and it would not stand up to a fully resisting and uncooperative opponent!

Fortunately they do spar.  But their sparring is basically just kickboxing/MMA.  Great.  However, what is the point of all the other training they do, if they are using nearly none of it in sparring!?!?

Their training looks very cool.  It looks really impressive.  Sometimes I look at it and have to think twice before I remember that things don’t actually work that way myself!  But no one is actually applying the techniques and combinations that are used in training.

If your training partner is attacking and then standing still with his arm out in the air while you execute a combination of counter techniques, then what you are training is likely unrealistic.  If the defense you are practicing would not work if your opponent continued to attack, then it is likely unrealistic.  Unfortunately, this is how most traditional martial arts training happens.

It’s not the best video, but take a look at the following kali empty hands video I made as an example.  The first (ineffective) techniques I demonstrate require unrealistic distancing, that the attacker only attacks with one or two strikes, that he does not follow up, and that he does not resist.  The more functional applications I demonstrate (not as well as they could have been demonstrated) in the second half of the video are not like that!  Those techniques do not require a cooperative opponent.  They do not require specific attacks, and they work even if the opponent attempts to continue to attack.  Here’s the video:

Negative Conditioning

I get emails from people nearly every day who tell me that they agree with the material on my website.  Yet when they send me video links or tell me about what they are doing, it usually turns out that they are practicing ineffectively themselves.  They think that everyone else is practicing an inferior system, but their system is realistic.  Their system has been around for centuries, it has stood the test of time, it was created and used by a woman monk, it has been used on the battlefield, etc., etc..  This is really unfortunate.  Through training in a semi-cooperative environment, we humans are easily and quickly conditioned to believe that ineffective material works!  It works in the training room, so we think it will work in reality.  But what people fail to realize is that their training partners are only attacking in certain ways, that they aren’t really resisting, that they aren’t really being uncooperative.

There are two things you must do in order to make sure your training is functional.  First, when you try your techniques, tell your training partner “don’t let me do this”.  You’ll probably need to repeat it, as we naturally begin to cooperate with each other in training.  Second, make sure that when you train it is nearly indistinguishable from when you spar.  If the techniques and combinations you are training are not the same ones you’re using when you’re sparring, then there is a problem with the techniques, or a problem with how you are training them.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

What to Do About Paris

ISIS Beheading for Blasphemy

ISIS Beheading for Blasphemy

As all of you know, there were horrific terrorist attacks in Paris this past Friday.  Having recently lost my mom I feel even worse about these attacks, having some idea how the families of victims will be suffering.  Some of you may not realize that more than 40 people were also killed by a terrorist attack in Beirut the day before.

What should we do about these attacks?  Before we can answer that question we need to be able to see and speak the truth regarding one of the most fundamental aspects of the attacks.  These attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists.  There is no doubt that these terrorists are absolute nut-cases.  But crazy and barbaric as they are, what they are doing comes straight from Islamic doctrine.  Many so-called liberals, including politicians like President Obama, refuse to call these terrorists what they are.  They refuse to acknowledge that a direct line can be drawn between Islamic doctrine and these attacks, that what the Islamic State is doing can be traced directly to the Quran and Hadith.

I am not by any means suggesting that all Muslims are bad people or terrorists.  Two of my best friends are a Muslim couple from Iraq, I have a good friend from Afghanistan who is a Muslim, and I spend an hour or two every day playing the oud, a Middle Eastern instrument.  But when President Obama says “ISIL speaks for no religion” and “ISIL is not Islamic”, he is delusional.  What the Islamic State and other Islamic terrorists are doing around the world comes directly from Islamic doctrine, from barbaric ideas in the Quran and Hadith about infidels, jihad, and martyrdom.  There is a reason the terrorists are screaming Allahu Akbar as they carry out their attacks.

Most Muslims fortunately ignore the violence in their doctrine, and Muslims are suffering far more from Islamic terrorism than non-Muslims are.  But in order to deal with the root of this problem, this Islamic extremism, we have to call it what it is and address it at its source.  There must be an Islamic reformation, a rethinking of the ideas of Islamic doctrine, in order to decrease or stop the conversion of nominal or moderate Muslims into Islamic extremists.  There needs to be a conversation on the subject that what was written in the 7th century must be taken in that context, and amended to fit secular and modern values.  Without that conversation, without honestly talking about the root of the problem, there can be no hope that it will be solved.  Without that conversation, young people hearing hateful rhetoric from crazy preachers will not have the intellectual tools to question it.

I continuously hear so-called liberals shutting down any conversation about the validity of Islamic doctrine, calling it bigotry or racism.  This is not only wrong, but counterproductive.  It is not bigoted or racist to question the validity and usefulness of ideas.  It is a necessary pursuit.  Questioning inhumane practices, sharia law, sub-human treatment of women, and so on, is essential.

I am not suggesting that US and European foreign policy hasn’t played a role in these attacks.  We may be better off staying out of Islamic countries entirely, not supporting military dictators, and not supporting Saudi Arabia, a country little better than the Islamic State.  We’d certainly be better off denouncing Israel’s illegal occupation and continued theft of Palestinian land.  And I’m also not suggesting that poverty and disenfranchisement aren’t contributing to these attacks.  But the core problem is fundamentalist Islamic ideology.  That is what motivates terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

We’re not going to be able to completely stop terrorist attacks in the near future.  But if we want to have a chance at stopping them for our children and grandchildren, we need to find a way to change the ideas that lead to the attacks.  The only way to do that is to be honest about the ideas in the first place.  Here is an excellent podcast on this subject from Sam Harris, who says it much better than I do.  Please take the time to listen:

I realize that this conversation must take place in Muslim communities.  Coming from the west, it’s probably not going to go over well.  But the more the truth is told, the more likely it is to take hold with reasonable people everywhere in the world.  Every good person needs to denounce brutality, especially if that brutality is a fundamental part of one of the world’s major religions.  Hiding behind political correctness or trying not to offend those who hold offensive beliefs, by any humane standards, is unlikely to produce positive results.

EDIT:  Only 8 hours and I’ve gotten a load of emails about this, along with a number of people unsubscribing.  I guess that is to be expected.  But I want to clarify one thing and reiterate another:

  • I’m independent of any grouping, but in general I tend to be very liberal on most issues.  I used the term “so-called liberals”, because the people who are not standing up for everyone suffering under the weight of fundamentalist Islamic doctrine are not real liberals.
  • Again, I am not implying that all Muslims are bad.  I have nothing whatsoever against Muslims.  My problem is with fundamentalist Islamists.  I fully realize that most Muslims are not fundamentalists, not terrorists, and are good people.  What I am saying is that a conversation needs to be had about what is actually in the doctrine regarding infidels, jihad, martyrdom, etc.

Fight From the Void

Komuso Monk

Komuso Monk

If you fight from the void you’ll always win.

There are different meanings and levels of understanding of the void, all of which are valuable.

Technical Void and Physical Space

When an opponent attempts to punch you in the head there is only one small space that is immediately dangerous.  If you move anywhere else it is not dangerous.  When your opponent attacks, his effort is directed at one point.  He creates a large personal void everywhere else.  If you move into that void and attack from it your opponent will have a difficult time defending.

When you fake an attack to a particular target and your opponent reaches out or covers to defend against your attack, he creates a large personal void everywhere else.  When you redirect your attack into that void your opponent will have a difficult time defending.

When your opponent has been deceived and is entirely unaware that you will attack, his body and the area around it is a void.  When you attack from and into such a void your opponent will be unable to defend.

In the above situations there is a technical/physical void, but there is also a corresponding mental void.  Your opponent expects one thing and not another, and you attack with what he does not expect, what he is not ready for.

Mushin (No Mind)

Mushin is a state of “no mind” or “empty mind”.  It is the ideal state for high level performance not only in martial arts/self defense, but in any activity.  When you focus on one thing you are not focused on any other thing.  As a beginner, any activity requires that you focus on particular individual components of that activity.  But as you get better and better and the activity becomes natural to you, you no longer need to focus on any individual component.  You can perform from a state of mushin, with no thought to get in the way or slow you down.  When you perform from a state of mushin you are fighting from the void.

A person who fights from the void can adapt instantly to change.  A beginner will be defeated by the technical strategies listed above (interceptions, fakes, etc.), but an advanced practitioner who fights from the void can adapt to them.  This is a higher level of fighting from the void.

Here is a quote on this subject by the Japanese swordsman Yagyu Munenori translated in William Scott Wilson’s book The One Taste of Truth – Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea:

When practicing archery, if your mind is occupied by thoughts of shooting the bow, your aim will be disordered and wandering.  When using the sword, if your mind is occupied with thoughts of strikes and parries, its tip will not likely be regulated.  When practicing calligraphy, if your mind is occupied by thoughts of writing, the brush will be unsettled.  When playing the koto, if your mind is filled with thoughts of plucking the strings, the melody will be confused.

Yagyu Munenori uses examples from a variety of arts: archery, sword fighting, calligraphy, and playing the koto (a musical instrument).  Anything you do that teaches you to act from the void or get into a state of mushin, including meditation, will give you experience operating from the ideal performance state.  That experience will help you in everything else that you do, as long as you put in enough practice time to make the fundamental movements second nature.

It’s no wonder that out-of-work samurai formed the Fuke Sect of Zen and spent their days playing the shakuhachi…

Blowing From the Void

Mujitsu Shakuhachi

Mujitsu Shakuhachi

The idea for this post came from my last shakuhachi lesson with my excellent teacher, Jon Kypros.  A few of my recent posts have been related to the shakuhachi and how they were designed to be used as weapons by samurai monks.  The more I play and learn about the instrument, the more I realize how perfectly the instrument and its original music complements martial arts practice.  I would go as far as to say that anyone who wants to get deep into martial arts would benefit from playing the shakuhachi for a variety of reasons.

In shakuhachi honkyoku music, it is taught that the empty space or void between the sound is as important as the sound itself.  An ideal is for the sound of the flute to ring out of the void*, and in order to do this well it must be played from a state of mushin.

In my last lesson my teacher mentioned that he spent three years practicing before he felt good about playing a certain two notes in succession.  To sound right they need to ring out of nothingness with the right attack, and the duration of each note must be fitting.  This idea of ringing out of the void gave me a new way to think about strategy and tactics in martial arts/self defense.  As I said, it’s no surprise that out-of-work samurai formed the Fuke Sect and spent their days playing the shakuhachi.

Lauren Rubin writes:

The daily life of the Fuke monks at the temples was quite regulated and disciplined. The komusō monks engaged in suizen meditation (“blowing zen”, meditation through shakuhachi playing), zazen (seated meditation), and sutra chanting. Daily activity at the temple centered on playing the shakuhachi. The daily schedule for the monks included practicing martial arts, practicing the shakuhachi, and begging.

The shakuhachi in the picture above is one I recently purchased from Ken LaCosse (highly recommended!), which he made with a black urushi lacquer exterior coating based on vintage komuso flutes.  Ken makes two types of shakuhachi.  He calls the one I bought in the picture above a mujitsu shakuhachi, and writes that mujitsu “alludes to the contrast/connection between emptiness (mu) and form (jitsu)”.  This idea of emptiness/void and form is common in both martial arts and shakuhachi.

You can hear it in the music my teacher plays below, on one of his much longer flutes (made and for sale by him):

Sorry, this video has been removed.

Again, I highly recommend playing the shakuhachi and lessons with Jon as a compliment to your martial arts practice.  You won’t regret it.

*Two of the three most highly regarded honkyoku are named koku and kyoreiKoku translates roughly as “empty sky” or “empty space”, where empty has a meaning equivalent to the void.  The composition is written and played to express sound ringing out from the void (as the the monk Fuke’s bell rang out).  Kyorei translates roughly as “empty bell” or “empty spirit”, and again the composition reflects the sound of the monk Fuke’s bell ringing out of the void.

My Mom Died

Meeting in Istanbul Last Year

Meeting in Istanbul Last Year

My mom died one month ago due to a tragic accident.  She was only 63 and healthy, and her death has been a terrible shock for myself and my family.

I’m writing about this here for two reasons.  Least importantly, if you’ve emailed me in the last month I apologize for not answering.  You may have to email me again if you have a question you’d like answered.

More importantly, I want to use this opportunity to make a point my mom often made.  If there is anything you want to do or say, do it now.  Don’t wait.  Just two weeks before my mom died I was writing with her about enjoying life and she wrote:

It seems to be very common that when someone retires they either get sick, they die, or their spouse does the same.  It seems so unfair!!  You have to live every day as if it were your last.

Fortunately my parents did that more than anyone I know.  They lived an incredibly fulfilled life, of their own making, and that brings me a good bit of comfort now.  But so many people don’t do the things they want to do or say the things they want to say.  Many people plan to really live once they retire, and for a substantial number that doesn’t work out so well.

Find a way to enjoy your life to the fullest now, because you really don’t know how soon it will end.  You also don’t know how long your loved ones will be around, or in what condition.  Spend as much quality time as you can with them.  In the end, the time you spend with people you care about will be much more important than how much work you do.  The time you spend pursuing things you’re passionate about will be much more important than how much money you’ve made.

Life is incredibly fragile.  You and the people you care about can be here one moment and gone the next.  Life is short, and we’re all going to die.  Do everything you can to enjoy yourself today.

My mom lived an awesome life.  It was far too short for those of us still living.  But she literally went out having a great time with my dad.  There is no better way to die.

Deception In Self Defense

Deception is one of the most effective tactics you can use in self defense, and using it well will allow you to attack where your opponent is unprepared, all but guaranteeing your success.

Below is a quote from The Art of War, an outstanding book of strategy and tactics written in China by Sun Tzu more than 2,500 years ago:

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

In MMA or fighting sports, deception can be used on a variety of levels.  You can “hold out baits” by leaving certain targets exposed, you can “seem unable” by faking a minor injury or stumble, you can “seem inactive” while actually waiting to ambush when your opponent attacks, you can fake high and hit low, and so on.  But in fighting sports your opponent knows you are there to fight, and he likely knows a good bit about you, your skills, and your fighting style.  In self defense on the other hand, particularly against an unknown assailant, there is no limit to the types of deception you can use.

Pretending to Be Weak

In a real self defense situation your opponent will have no idea if you will fight back.  In fact, in many cases your opponent will probably assume you will not fight back, otherwise he would have chosen an easier victim.  By “pretending to be weak”, acting as if you will not fight back, you can viciously attack your opponent when he does not expect it.  Adopting a fighting posture may help to dissuade an attacker in some situations.  If he believes you are more than he wants to deal with, it may work.  But if you’re pretty certain that you’ll have to fight, doing so when your opponent does not expect it is far superior to giving him cues that tell him to prepare himself.

Most martial arts and fighting sports teach practitioners to adopt a fighting stance in preparation for fighting.  And it’s somewhat natural to attempt to show your opponent that you’re prepared, to put on a show of toughness.  But think about the difference between these two scenarios:

  1.  A guy walks up to you and for some reason he tells you he’s going to fight you.  You back up a bit, get into a fighting stance, and signal that you’re ready.
  2.  A guy walks up to you and for some reason he tells you he’s going to fight you.  From a non-threatening posture you tell him you don’t want any trouble.  Just as he begins to react to your statement you quickly and unexpectedly nail him with the most efficient and effective technique you can use.  Or, you spray him with pepper spray and move out of his way.

Which option do you think would be more likely to succeed?

(Keep in mind that this is only a hypothetical situation.  I would never advocate fighting or physical self defense if there is anything you can do to avoid it.)

Technical Deception & Surprise

Around 1632 in Japan, a swordsman named Yahyu Menenori wrote a text he called The Life-Giving Sword.  In it he wrote about deception:

The truth is hidden within, a ruse is placed without, and in the end one is drawn onto the Path of Truth.  In this way, all deception becomes truth.

Every deception includes an element of surprise, when your opponent realizes that he has been tricked.  Anything you can do to bring your opponent’s attention to one place in order to attack a place where he is unprepared is a successful use of deception.  One great option is to throw something at your opponent’s face, any everyday object (coins, keys, a book, bag, etc.), and then nail him as he reacts to your move.  Everyone will react in some way to having something thrown at their face.  They’ll turn away, close their eyes, attempt to block it, catch it, or even just move their head out of the way.  This will create the opportunity for you to attack while your opponent is unprepared, to kick him as hard as you can in the balls, for example.

In addition to faking or using techniques to bring your opponent’s attention where you want it, using unexpected techniques is a form of deception:

Groin Slap

Groin Slap

In fighting sports there are not only rules and limitations on permissible techniques, but certain conventions in terms of what techniques are used and how.  There are particular sets of techniques that are used in every system, from judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu to MMA.  But in self defense there are no rules.  There are no limitations as to what techniques or weapons you can use.  However, there are general expectations that your attacker will likely have, and violating those expectations can be an incredibly effective tactic.

When the vast majority of people think about fighting, they think about the classic techniques used in MMA, a combination of what is basically boxing/kick boxing/Thai boxing and wrestling.  I’ve trained in MMA gyms, and in my experience everything MMA fighters do is geared toward punching, kicking, and wrestling.  They don’t practice otherwise, and they don’t expect otherwise.

Although techniques like eye strikes and groin slaps aren’t magical moves that will allow you to beat anyone, as you still need to understand and be able to manipulate distance, position, timing, etc., they are extremely effective, and equally important, they are unexpected by the vast majority of average people and fighters alike.

Eye Strike

Eye Strike

The triangular footwork that you can use with eye strikes and groin slaps is unexpected by most people, and when combined with the unexpected targets and the use of deception, they are excellent for self defense.

Whenever you think about potential self defense scenarios, or even fighting/sparring scenarios, consider how you can use deception to your advantage.  As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.”  If you’re not using it, you are seriously handicapping yourself.

4 Steps for Weapon Defense

4 Step Matrix

4 Step Matrix

I posted back in February about my second book, covering weapon use and defense.  I had hoped to be finished it by now, but it has taken much longer than I expected.  I’ve been busy with other work, but I’ve also revised the organization of some of the material and realized I need to have more pictures taken before it is finished.

One of the things I’ve recently revised is the way I name or categorize the steps of the 4 Step Matrix, which you can see in the graphic above.  The 4 Step Matrix is a framework I use primarily for weapon based fighting, but it can certainly also be applied to unarmed fighting.  Previously I had grouped the second and third steps under “covered follow ups”, but this new naming/categorization makes things clearer.  Whether you’re training unarmed defense against weapons or weapon vs. weapon, you need to keep these 4 steps in mind.

The steps may sound like common sense, but in many martial arts one or more of them are ignored.  The first step needs to ideally begin outside of “fighting range”.  You need to strategically enter to a position of advantage.  That can be done offensively or defensively (counter-based, not entirely defensive), but it must be done purposefully.  Unfortunately most systems in my experience tend to start where the second step of the 4 Step Matrix is concerned, where the fighters are close enough for their weapons to hit their bodies.  When your strategy and techniques begin inside of fighting range, you usually end up overwhelmed or simply brawling.  It’s like being dropped into a blender.  Instead, you need to purposefully enter so that when contact can be made you already have an advantage, a good place to “fight” from.

The second step, weapon neutralization, sounds particularly obvious.  But it is so often ignored.  One of the most common responses to my knife defense video on YouTube is that grabbing the opponent’s weapon bearing limb with two hands is stupid…that the opponent can strike with the other hand, etc..  What most people who make that comment don’t understand is that a proper two handed control with the proper body/head position prevents the opponent’s other hand from hitting you effectively.  In addition, you’re not just going to stand there holding the guy’s arm.  You’re going to quickly break his arm, etc..  But more importantly, if you do not control the knife (weapon neutralization) then nothing else matters!  Whether it’s empty hand vs. knife or knife vs. knife, if you fail to neutralize the opponent’s weapon he can literally kill you as attempt to disable or kill him.  He can make a move that kills you even after you’ve made a move that will eventually kill him.

The third step, termination, is what nearly no one misses in theory.  But again, if you forget the first step you’ll have a very hard time getting there, and if you forget the second step you may end up terminated too!

The fourth step, a covered exit, is something that very few people practice.  In theory it’s easy to take an opponent out, but what if he’s still moving?  What if he is still able to inflict damage as he’s going down?  What if he has friends?

All four steps in the 4 Step Matrix are essential if you really want to maximize your chances of survival.  I think referring to the second and third steps as weapon neutralization and termination makes that clearer than simply calling them “covered follow ups”.  Regardless of whether you use the 4 Step Matrix as your own framework for weapon use and defense, I hope you’ll keep each of the steps in mind in your training and strategy.