Analytic Martial Arts

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Thank You, Sirs, For Teaching Me Humility

Yesterday I had the opportunity to work with a couple of advanced (7th and 8th degree) instructors who were visiting the school on a foundational aikido wrist lock. The 8th degree was good. You couldn't even really see him apply the lock; there was a subtle motion with his hands and then all of a sudden the attacker was lying on the ground. That's especially impressive considering that us beginning students were struggling to get the lock at all even with completely compliant partners. You could at least see the 7th apply the lock, but at one point he made me flop myself all over the floor just by twisting my wrist in different directions. Hence the title of the post; I occasionally forget that there are people out there who are not just better, but orders of magnitude better, than I am.

The lock we worked on was interesting. Way back in the dark ages I learned the same, basic wrist lock that everyone learns: Push the metacarpophalangeal joints of the hand in question towards the inside of the arm. When done correctly this places tremendous stress on the wrist and, pardon my french, hurts like a motherfucker. Of note is that the discomfort feels like its distributed more-or-less evenly across the wrist joint.

So the one we worked on was a little different and, perhaps, more effective. I say more effective for two reasons:

  • A beginning student about ⅔ my size was able to successfully apply it against me a couple of times with minimal visible effort.
  • It seems to hurt more with less physical force on the defender's part.

The difference is that the variant we worked on causes all of the discomfort at the outside edge of the wrist, in the vicinity of the head of the ulna. If all the force is being concentrated at one point rather than being distributed across the entire wrist joint that could explain why it takes less force to achieve the desired effect.

The complication is, of course, that the mechanics of the lock aren't obvious. As I alluded to above all the students ended up failing to successfully apply it as often as not. There seems to be a very small range where the locks works as intended; minor changes in hand/wrist position can cause major changes in efficacy.

As near as I've can tell, based on the lesson and self-experimentation, the basis of the lock is bending the metacarpophalangeal joints of the little and ring fingers towards the inner forearm. But I believe there are two additional pieces as well:

  1. While maintaining pressure on the joints and keeping them at ~90° to the forearm, rotate the hand between 15-30° around the axis defined by the middle finger, towards the outer edge of the forearm. This should result in an increase in discomfort at the head of the ulna.
  2. This is the part I still don't quite grasp. While in this position the hand needs to be rotated around the axis defined by the forearm. If done correctly it, too, hurts like a motherfucker. If not done correctly it doesn't hurt that much. I'm still trying to grok the difference between "correctly" and "incorrectly" in this case.

There are some other, macro elements in play as well, such as the position of the attacker's wrist relative to the defender's body (closer is better) and the angle of the arm grasping the attacker's wrist (vertical is better).

That I, and other students, were having trouble applying this lock in a repeatable manner represent a (minor) failure of pedagogy on the part of the instructors; they either didn't, or couldn't, show us how to get the lock consistently. Rather, when one of us was having trouble they'd either demonstrate the lock themselves or make subtle adjustments in the student's positioning which all of a sudden made the lock effective. I didn't find that either of these methods helped me find the small "sweet spot" for the lock. I would have appreciated something along the lines I described above, demonstrating the component rotations for the lock in sequence and showing how the application of each on in sequence increases the discomfort of the lock.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cost-Effective Uniform Display

Moving a decade's worth of uniforms yet again finally convinced me that I should either do something with them or toss them. I decided that I wanted to frame them and put them on the wall, and then I went and looked for appropriate cases. Ouch... expensive... the local framing store wanted $300 per case, and a lot of online shops want $100. Too rich for my blood.

Eventually I found Pennzoni Display, which sells a decent case for ~$45. It's not archival quality, to be sure, but I don't need it to be hermetically sealed. It just has to hang on the wall and display a gi top, and it does that just fine.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

More On Studio Y

I'm about a month and a half into study at the new studio and generally finding it to my liking. It's an interesting beast in that it bears certain hallmarks of a for-profit self-help program or multi-level marketing scheme; advancement in the middle ranks is specifically tied to boosting the school and, if I wanted to, I could spend thousands of dollars on seminars and specialized training programs. At the same time, however, there's a lot of substance to the program itself; they do most things at least as well as, and some things notably better, than other places I've studied.

Contrary to my initial assessment, the Studio Y program doesn't throw people into the deep end of the pool1. Beginning level students start out with very basic material; I think I've officially learned a couple of punches and a couple of kicks. And there's instruction on how to punch/kick properly, combined with a modicum bag work, which compares favorably to Studio X. I'm starting to form the opinion that this sort of focus on the basics at early levels is the best way to promote long-term development.

I'm particularly enamored of their approach to forms. There's one main form, "Pal Gae" (pronounced "poll gay"; I'm guessing at the spelling), which everyone learns and which often forms the basis of warm-ups/calisthenics. Structurally the form is a relatively simple series of Bagua-style stances2 and strikes, but its hard to do right. Performing each stance correctly, and transitioning between stances, is physically demanding; I (think) I'm getting better, but I've still got a ways to go before I'll be able to do the entire thing decently.

What I really like, though, is that it's clear why this form exists and why its a focus of practice. It wraps up essential conditioning and instruction into a concise package that works both sides of the body equally; whomever designed this particular exercise knew exactly what they were doing. Again, this compares favorably with other studios where many of the forms lack an obvious raison d'etre.

Now, on to the list of negatives. It's not apparent that they do any sparring; I've seen no evidence of it in the studio and no one has ever mentioned it. I don't think that's a huge deal for me personally; I like sparring, and think I'm pretty good at it, but I'm not going to suffer in its absence. However, I'm again starting to form the opinion that some sort of sparring is important for the development of beginning students. Some students are so concerned with hitting their partners, and consequently so tentative in practice, that it's hard for them to learn techniques correctly. I watched a number of newcomers to Studio X become better martial artists, in part, because sparring encouraged (or, in some cases, forced) them to get over their natural reluctance to punch people. There's at least one student at Studio Y who's obviously in need of this treatment.

The only thing which has really annoyed me so far, however, is the studio/s approach to conditioning. Here they really do throw students into the deep end of the pool; everyone does the same set of calisthenics, same number of reps, holds for the same count, and so on. And the instructors invariably spout the typical balderdash about mental discipline and "powering through". Really, people, no amount of mental discipline is going to allow the typical beginning student to do 50 pushups in a row, so why even ask them to try? Recognizing that this is high-touch, but there's a lot to be said for ramping students up in reasonable increments. In many respects it's almost exactly like weightlifting; you start small and work your way up.

If I ruled the world I'd have a separate class just for conditioning. The problem being that, if you're really putting 100% into the conditioning portion of class, you may very well end up too tired to get much out of the instruction proper.

In general, however, I feel like the pros vastly outweigh the cons. There's something to be said for having studied under a number of system; I really do feel like I'm getting a much better handle on what works and what doesn't.


1 It looks like the instructor showed me Koo Yung Bōp because he knew I had previous experience.
2 Which are taking me awhile to get used to; they're a lot different from the straight-ahead kung-fu that I've done in the past.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Koo Yung Bōp

Actions

  • BS: Bow Stance
  • FP: Front Punch
  • IB: Inward Block
  • LHS: Leg-Hanging Stance
  • NS: Natural Stancer
  • OHMB: Outward Horizontal Mantis Block
  • PS: Palm Strike
  • RBS: Reverse Bow Stance
  • RPB: Rising Palm Block
  • TS: T Stance

Regions

  • A: Abdomen
  • F: Face
  • SP: Solar Plexus

English Translation: <something> Dragon Technique

A short, rank 0 form. Each motion/small group of motions has its own "step" which is used for instructional purposes. The form has a "right" and "left" section which are mirror images of each other.

SP
BS
PS
F
PS
3

Step 6
A
RPB
A
LHS
RPB
Step 5
TS
PS
2

Step 4
PSRBS
1
↺180
OHMB
LHS

Step 3
rotate hand 180°
fist becomes HMH
Step 2
IB
FP
Step 1

Right Side
NS
NS
F
PS
SP
BS
PS
3

Step 6
A
LHS
RPB
A
RPB
Step 5
PS
TS
2

Step 4
RBSPS
1
OHMB
↻180
LHS

Step 3
fist becomes HMH
rotate hand 180°
Step 2
FP
IB
Step 1

Left Side

1: Right arm/hand remain extended behind the body following mantis block.

2: Left hand comes to waist, open and palm up.

3: Twist torso 90° to the right and lean over while delivering palm strikes.

Step 1: Blocking hand is open, palm faces right. Implied blocking surface is inner forearm. Blocking arm and punching first should be aligned with center line.

Step 2: I'm relatively certain this step exists purely for pedagogical purposes. In full-speed performance Step 1 would blend seamlessly into Step 3.

Step 5: Hands aligned on center line, left in front of right, elbows in. Trying to present as small of a target as possible.

Updated Typesetting Scripts

Found a couple of bugs, fixt:

  • DocumentParser.pm: Expat was carping about unknown entities and automatically trying to expand them, behavior which has mostly been disabled. There doesn't seem to be any way to turn it off completely, so in some cases you may need to use the following workaround: encode entities as "&amp;<entity name/code>;", at which point Expat will expand the ampersand, leaving "&<entity name/code>;" in the resulting HTML markup. As a byproduct of the work to fix the entity problem it's no longer necessary to include the top level "<doc>...</doc>" tags.
  • HTMLFormatter.pm: Fixed two-column layout.
  • NotationParser.pm: The regexp for literals is now appropriately robust.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Studio Y First Impressions

Had my first class at the new studio a couple of days ago. The workout kicked my butt, I got to hit a heavy bag for the first time in forever, started learning a new short form... all good so far. This one is more formal than others I've attended and puts non-trivial emphasis on the hierarchy: different ranks bow in different ways, instructors are addressed using their full titles at the beginning and end of class, and lower ranks bow to higher ranks. The class itself is highly-structured as well which, given my complaints about the chief instructor putting up with too much at Studio X, is probably a good thing.

One interesting feature of system which the chief instructor pointed out to me is that they attempt to combine external (<something>-gong, I forget the exact phrase he used) and internal ("neigong") conditioning at the same time. I'll buy that provided that neigong is interpreted to refer primarily to cardiovascular conditioning. The first part of class consisted of, among other things, 50 high kicks with each leg, controlled breathing exercises, and 75 iterations each of 4 different blocks. All said and done we were moving more-or-less continuously for the first 25 or 30 minutes of class. Which, as I said, kicked my ass.

The first form I started working on, which I get the sense is beginner material for everyone, was also pretty challenging. I'm starting to notice a marked difference between systems synthesized in America (as represented by USSD) and those developed abroad (everything else I've done). The former has a very "crawl, walk, run" curriculum which focuses on basics first (how to punch, how to kick) while the latter throws the students into the deep end of the pool from the start ("Ok, now you pivot into twist stance while hook blocking and throwing a palm strike"). I wonder how representative my experience is? Do domestically-produced systems reflect a specifically American approach to pedagogy?

Also, apparently this new system uses a lot of herbs... y'all should know my feelings on that by now. I may have the opportunity to do some TCM debunking in the near future.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Studio X Post-Mortem

I've taken a new job, which means moving (yet again), which means I'll no longer be able to train at Studio X. This makes the third system I've studied, so I'm starting to get a feel for what I like/dislike in a studio. My history, briefly:

  • I started at USSD (many moons ago), which taught a contemporary synthesis of karate/kung-fu (heavy on the karate).
  • Later I studied Seven Start Praying Mantis at the Rochester Shaolin Academy.
  • Most recently I've been doing the pure kung-fu system (along with a little tai chi) they teach at Studio X.

So, things which I particularly liked about Studio X in comparison to other places where I've been a student:

  • Good warm-ups, based in part on the I Chin Ching. They've a basic routine for beginner's class and a more "invigorating" routine for advanced class (which regularly kicked my ass) which they stick to consistently. One of my big complaints about the other studios is that calisthenics tended to be "instructor's choice" and so often lacked any sort of rhyme or reason.
  • Padless sparring. Nothing teaches you to finally keep your hands closed quite like jamming your fingers for the gazillionth time. Not wearing gloves also allows you to practice a greater range of techniques. Compare with USSD, where sparring was done in full pads, or the Shaolin Academy, which didn't really do any sparring at all.

Moving on, things I disliked:

  • Low-quality feedback. One of the things that I liked about USSD was that I felt like I had an accurate picture of how I was doing. It might just have been the instructors I got to work with, but it felt like the standards of the school were high and praise was genuinely earned. I didn't get that same sense at Studio X.
  • The chief instructor put up with a tremendous amount of chatter in class; sometimes it was hard for her to get people's attention. That's probably symptomatic of the studio's highly-informal atmosphere, but it could be annoying at times.
  • Woo... woo... woo woo woo woo. There was a tremendous proliferation of woo and credulous repetition of MA apocrypha. I mostly just tuned it out, but I really wish that people would just knock it off already. Repeating the unsubstantiated feats of some grandmaster really doesn't serve any purpose.
  • Rigid, lockstep schedule. Once you got to brown belt everything was taught on a calendar-based schedule. This month is form X, next month it's form Y, you'll be testing on the material at the end of the quarter. This is more of a personal preference than a generic criticism; some people might benefit from that sort of organization. Didn't work out so hot for me because I traveled a lot for work and was perpetually trying to catch up.
  • Form-based curriculum. There wasn't a big emphasis on practical punching/kicking; we hardly spent any time at all working with pads. Which means I'm probably going to end up breaking my toes at the next studio until I learn how to pull them back again.

That's about it for Studio X. I've already identified Studio X+1; stay tuned for further adventures