Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Back to Basics or Whoa, ho, ho it's Magic!

"When I got my black belt, I realized that the best techniques were the ones they taught white belts. They were truly magical."

- Sifu John Angelos (1952-2002) speaking about his
experiences learning jujitsu. -

After last week's battle with the weather limited me to only two workouts, I knew I had to change something in my schedule. It's not very convenient doing my workouts earlier in the day because I like to stay focused on my writing. Also, when the weather is decent, I can let my son go outside to play while I get my workout done.

But when I'm battling the weather, it's just to
o much of a hassle to stay in my carport and supervise and/or entertain my son. As a result, I had to be the responsible parent and forego my workout in order to keep my son safe from lightning and keep my wife happy.

I decided today that I should do my workout dur
ing early afternoon. That way, I can get it done without having to worry about keeping my son inside during afternoon thunderstorms. Today's workout brought me out into the hot, humid, noon-time Florida sun in order to avoid afternoon storms.

Today's workout focused on basics. I did a circuit of three Yau Kung Mun forms: the Tung Jee Kuen, YKM's first empty-hand set; Luk Hup
Guan, YKM's first staff set; and the dan dao, the single sabre.

All three forms are short, each one has less than 20 moves, not counting repeaters. It takes less than a minute to do each one. But, as is typical of Yau Kung Mun, the forms are very aggressive and direct, with several drops to one knee, jumping kicks and fast, phoenix-eye fist blows, directed to the solar plexus, the armpits or the nipples.

In that respect, the first YKM set is very similar to advanced sets, like Gau Bo Toi (Nine Step Push) or Sup Baht Mor Kiu (18 Devils Bridge).

But short doesn't necessarily mean easy. Especially when I resolved to do eight runs of the circuit, going from empty-hand to staff to sabre. It plays a lot with your mind and your body, going from form to form, each with radically different body mechanics and demands on your strength, stamina and focus.

I'm not much of a traditionalist, but I did eight runs of that circuit. Asian martial arts in general, and Chinese arts in particular, tend to
do things in patterns of threes and eights. Those are lucky numbers in Chinese numerology. I suspect it is due to Buddhism's influence on Asian culture. There is a Buddhist trinity of Buddha (the Enlightened One), the Dharma (His Teachings) and the Sangha (Community of Enlightened Souls). Eight is the number of Buddha's Eightfold Path of how people should live their lives.

Though I am a Christian, I have profound respect for Buddha's teachings. Though I don't revere him as a deity or a messiah, I do consider him one of the greatest philosphers. I believe he was as Divinely-inspired in his teachings as were Moses, Solomon and Isaiah.

But I digress. As I said several days ago, weapons work will take a lot out of you. But the switch from weapons to empty-hands really taxes you, both mentally and physically. As I concluded, I had little time left but to do a set of crunches and a set of pushups. To my amazement, I managed to do 50 pusnups between the bowling balls.

It takes balls to do pushups like this.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Rain, Please Go the *%$#& Away!

Next to illness, rain is one of the biggest deterrents to training in my carport kwoon.

I should mention that my carport is barely big enough for my wooden dummy and some other gear. There's very little room to move around. I do most of my work, particularly forms, bagwork and shadow boxing, outside.

As a result, when it's raining, I'm confined under the carport.

That normally wasn't much of a problem when it was just me and the missus. But now that I have a son who looks for any excuse to go outdoors, it's trouble. I can't invite him to stay under the carport with me because there is not enough room for the two of us. He won't stay inside while I'm having all kinds of fun outside. And the wife will kill me if she finds out I let him play outside in the rain.

It's not the rain she's so afraid of - it's the thunder and lightning.

Yes, I'm well aware that the Tampa Bay Area is the lightning strike capital of the world. But I'm also aware that getting hit by lightning is a longshot no matter where you are. That's why they always compare the odds of a longshot happening, (like winning the Lotto) to getting hit by lightning.

My next house will definitely have a garage. But until then, I gotta figure something out so I can train, keep an eye on the kid, and keep the wife off my case.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Living By The Sword Will Kill You

I meant to get in a workout Friday, but Thursday's session with the swords killed me.

I get a laugh out of all those people who seem to think that using swords, or any kind of weapon, is easy. To them, I say that there's a lot more to it than "pointy end goes in here."

Each broadsword may weight only about a pound or so, but swinging that one-pound weight around for half-an-hour or more, with your arms at varying extensions, incorporating all the footwork and body twisting is like a full workout with Nautilus. Even more so.

Most modern weight training isolates parts of the body. It's designed more for sculpting individual members, not the body as a whole. Using weapons takes the whole body. Controlling a sword or staff uses the legs, the waist, the torso and, yes, the arms. And every one of those parts was hurting like hell Friday morning.

So I returned to my workouts with a little more common sense today. I'm still determined to focus on the broadswords this month, but I'll take it a little slower.

I was also hamstrung by the stormy weather here in the Bay Area. Growing up, I wasn't about to let a little rain or snow stop me. But I'm not only a little older and slightly wiser, I also live in the lightning strike capital of the world. Practicing in the rain is risky enough. Practicing while holding a hunk of metal in your hands is downright reckless.

When the weather let up this afternoon, I took up my wooden broadsword, went into the yard and ran through alternating runs of the single dao and the Sup Baht Mor Kiu fist set, (18 Devils Bridge). The latter set is typical of most Yau Kung Mun and Bak Mei forms - short, but very fast and aggressive. When considering the aggressive, nasty nature of Bak Mei forms, it's easy to see why the character of Bak Mei (also known as Pai Mei) is frequently depicted as a villain in Chinese culture and cinema.

I returned to my carport, alternating between individual drills on the dummy, claw pushups and the ab wheel. Following about 15 minutes of that circuit, I closed with a round of the Wooden Dummy form, some classic sit-ups on an incline board, and two sets each of standard pushups and dips on the Power Tower.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Today's Workout Part II

After picking up my son and nephew from school, helping my son with his homework and getting him ready for his dance class, I managed to squeeze in a good half-hour strength training workout.

For most of the past few years, I did a lot of circuit training. Basically, I would intersperse strength training, like pushups, chinups, etc., with forms, shadow boxing or bag work.

I've been wanting to split the workouts into two separate sessions for a while. The earlier workout focused on martial arts. The later workout will focus on strength.

While my son, Vitaly, and my nephew, Gavin, played outside, I alternated between leg raises on my power tower and dead lifts. The dead lifts I was taught in high school focus almost entirely on the lower back and glutes.

I start by standing on something sturdy, like some cinderblocks. I take a light barbell, hold it in front of me with my arms down. Then I slowly bend at the waist until I can't go any farther. It not only strengthens the back, it stretches the hamstrings.

Following a few sets of those exercises, I did a couple of small sets of chinups and arm curls.

I closed with two sets each of sideways crunches and a set with the wrist roller. It would have been two sets, but the sword workout took a lot out of me and I hadn't recovered even four hours later.

You Got Me!

Three days ago, I wrote about the importance of setting aside time for your workout. Treat it like a chore that must get done. After all, good exercise is important for good health.

It's easy to say that you're not going to let life get in the way of workouts. It's quite another thing to put into practice, especially when faced with simultaneous computer and car repairs, as well as babysitting my son and nephew, and getting my son ready for his violin recital at school.

So I'm determined to get in a good workout today. At least, I've got two mini workouts on my agenda.

In addition to my resolve to set aside time for working out, I have another resolution for the month of May. I'm going to focus on my broadsword training. It's not my favorite weapon. I'm partial to the Wing Chun butterfly swords sets, both the Yip Man and mainland Chinese versions, the Yau Kung Mun butterfly swords or the Taiji straight sword.

Earlier this week, I studied my treasured Yau Kung Mun/Hung Gar sets DVD to get back up to speed on the single broadsword. Today, prior to my workout, I studied the double broadsword set and transcribed the first third. I've found writing them down is a good exercise to help remember the sequence of forms.

Since I had some business in that area, I decided to treat myself and head down to Lowry Park to practice. The grass was freshly mowed right around my favorite spot under the trees. The water from yesterday's thundershowers seem to have cleared the air. My allergies feel better than they have in weeks.

It feels very peaceful to practice outdoors, especially near the Hillsborough River at Lowry Park. It's one of those things that makes me glad to live in Florida. Not only because of the warm weather and the beautiful scenery, but because of this state's lenient weapons laws. In my former homes in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and California, I'd get arrested for taking my swords outside.

I started with six runs of the single set. It felt pretty good. I still remembered the sequence and it flowed well. The well-maintained fields at Lowry Park make for a nice training area, unlike my yard which looks like a sandbox as a result of the ongoing drought.

Following a short rest, I broke out my double swords and the written instructions for the first third. It's pretty simple. There's only six moves going one way, you repeat them going the other way, then I added a false close.

Weapons work is not easy. Whether you're speaking about any of the Asian or European versions of fencing or stick work, it takes a lot out of you. A sword may only weigh a few ounces, but it'll take a lot out of you, especially after doing the same set five to 10 times.

One of the strongest girls I ever knew was a baton twirler at my high school. That was her sole form of exercise. As she pointed out, the baton may only weigh a few ounces, but after twirling it for several miles on a parade route, it feels like it weighs a ton.

I could sure relate to that today. Following five runs of the single sword and 10 runs of the double-sword subset, I was winded. Inspired by Don's recent posting on his own Yau Kung Mun blog, I decided to do five runs of the Say Mun Bagua Kuen set.

After all that sword work, I could only do four runs of SMBK before I had to quit.

But I felt pretty good when I checked my watch. I got all of that done in less than 40 minutes. I rewarded myself with a half-pint of fried rice, returned to my computer and sat down to plan my afternoon strength training workout.

Stay tuned.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Living by the Sword(s)

Several paying assignments kept me busy for most of the day. But I've resolved recently that I won't let work get in the way of my workouts.

I used to take the attitude that you should find something to do that you enjoy when it comes to exercise. I still believe that.

But my former editor and writing mentor, Susan Ladika, told me that she makes it a point to set aside time for her yoga, just like she does any other chore. She depends on yoga to keep her healthy, especially for minimizing some back problems. If she didn't treat it like a chore to get done, she says she'd be too tempted to postpone it in order to work on more paying assignments.

I've also concluded that barring a miracle, I am not going to be able to get to Dallas this year to compete in the Legends of Kung Fu Tournament. It's somewhat liberating because, as much as I love it, it means I don't have to focus the bulk of my workout on Wing Chun forms and techniques.

So today I decided to brush up on my Yau Kung Mun. Following the full-body stretch, I launched into runs of the single and double sabres. It took longer than I planned because I was very rusty on those forms. I had to keep stopping what I was doing, go to my laptop, and play the DVD I made of the Yau Kung Mun sets.

Still I managed to do eight runs of the single sabre and three runs each of the opening moves of the double sabre. Afterward, I followed with five runs of the Gao Bo Toi (Nine Step Push) set, with sets of claw pushups and the abwheel between each run of the form.

I closed with a set of crunches and 30 pushups between a couple of bowling balls.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Thank God for the Throwback!

I don't smoke. Haven't since I was 16.

I hardly ever drink. I can't remember the last time I used beer for anything other than as an ingredient in chili or marinara sauce.

Easily, my biggest vice is my sweet tooth. And my drug of choice is Mountain Dew.

I wasn't always crazy about Mountain Dew. I made it through most of my 30's without drinking any caffeine. But as I got older, I found that I sometimes need a little something to get going. As I never acquired a taste for coffee, I developed a taste for highly caffeinated soft drinks, particularly, Mountain Dew in its various flavors.

And in recent months, I've come to learn that I was doing greater harm to my health than my usual consumption of cookies. I've come to identify a new food-based enemy.

Two words - corn syrup.

The local listener-supported radio station, WMNF, had a number of shows recently about the effects of corn syrup, how it is harder to digest than other sugars. It's possibly one of the biggest culprits in the modern-day scourges of obesity and diabetes.

What's more, the corn industry has been pushing corn syrup as a cheap alternative to sugar. Corn syrup turns up in everything from ketchup to salad dressings, but one of the biggest users of corn syrup is the soft drink industry. Because it is so much cheaper than other sugars, it is the reason restaurants and convenience stores are pushing those monster-size, bladder-busting cups of soda.

Wanting to do something about my own weight, I decided to try to reduce or eliminate corn syrup from my diet. I'm researching recipes for barbecue sauces and salad dressings, as well as storage methods so I'm not having to cook a new batch every time I make dinner.

I'm also looking for products that don't use corn syrup.

Enter the new Mountain Dew Throwback. Unfortunately, it's available for a limited time. But I've been using it instead of the regular Mountain Dew. I have to admit. Natural sugars do taste better. It's much sweeter going down and it doesn't have the aftertaste other sodas have.

I realize that switching soft drinks may not seem like something so outstanding when it comes improving my health and watching my weight. But it's a start. As Lau Tze once said, "The journey of 1,000 miles starts with the first step."

After recently abstaining from red meat for nearly two months, I'm looking forward to this next health challenge of reducing, and hopefully eliminating, corn syrup from my diet.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Not That Hardcore...Yet!

Chojun Miyagi, the legendary founder of Goju-Ryu Karate was famous, or infamous, for his devotion to the kata, Sanchin. Some accounts say that for his students would do nothing but Sanchin for the first two years of training.

It's a relatively simple kata to learn. Inspired by the form, Sam Chien or Sanzhang, there are probably not more than a half dozen moves repeated over and over. And there are probably nearly as many versions of Sanchin/Sam Chien/Sanzhang as there are practitioners throughout Asia and the rest of the world.

The version I learned came from my friend and instructor, Don Weiss. He picked it up during a trip to Malaysia from a teacher of Five Ancestor Kung Fu. Even the version that Don learned could be practiced several ways, including: slow, with dynamic tension; slow, but relaxed like a Tai Chi set; full speed; with spear hand techniques; or with the phoenix eye fist.

I'm no fan of dynamic tension, so I skipped that. But I did it all the other ways, slow and relaxed, fast and hard, with spear hands and phoenix eye fists.

For a half hour, I also experimented with the form following versions I've seen online. As Don taught me, I did it with both hands doing the same techniques simultaneously. But I also experimented with doing it with alternating hands. After several repetitions of alternating hands, I dug out my sais/tjabangs and did the set with them. It took a little doing not to cold cock myself as I flipped the sais back and forth while still being mindful of the integrity of the form.

Between several sets, I did sets of leg raises, barbell curls or wrist rolls.

I felt invigorated, but tired. Not wanting to push myself too much so soon after a cold, I did one run each of the Siu Lam Tao and the Mook Yan Johng Kuen, with both Yip Man and mainland sections of the latter form.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sleep It Off Or Sweat It Out?

When it comes to treating a cold, that seems to be the question.

Whether 'tis smarter to crash in bed, bundle up and let the virus take its course and hopefully flee, or hit the gym, raising the body temperature, jump-starting circulation, thereby taking arms against this bug, and by opposing it, ending it?

Experience shows me that there is no pat answer for that problem. As a kid, I used to push through almost anything, refusing to let a runny nose stop me. When practicing karate, my old instructor and my classmates were firm believers in sweating it out. We would do hard and fast repetitions of forms, and lots of free sparring.

My instructor, Phil Suffredini, took pride in being a sadistic son-of-a-bitch, but he never asked anyone to do anything he wouldn't do. Only once did I see an illness slow him down.

But as I got older, I realized that training with others while sick was a great way to spread disease. Also, as I got older, I found I couldn't do a lot of the things I did as a teenager. I developed allergies and asthma, partly as a result of living in Florida. As I tell newcomers to the Sunshine State, if you didn't have allergies before, you'll develop them now. It's part of the price we pay for having a growing season that's 10 months long.

I also suffered from a large, benign tumor in one of my sinuses for several years. By benign, I mean it wasn't cancerous. It caused me a lot of other health problems, including chronic and recurring ear and sinus infections. It also deprived me of my sense of taste and smell, and affected my hearing. I learned to read lips without even realizing it.

Thankfully, the tumor was removed and my health including my senses of smell, taste and hearing, were restored. But it did make me very cautious. Every time I started to get a sniffle, I'd be hitting the sack and consuming mass quantities of vitamins and medicine to head off a potential infection.

My point is, there has to be a middle ground. I don't think it's a good idea to work out when you're sick, but I do think you can sweat it out if you catch it early enough. Gichin Funakoshi, considered by many to be the Father of Modern Karate, wrote in his biography, "Karate-Do: My Way of Life," that he rarely suffered colds. When he felt one coming on, he would do some hard runs of his katas to sweat it out.

I tried that this past Friday, but still got sick. For four days, I let discretion be the better part of valor. I rested. I ate little. And I consumed mass quantities of chicken soup and grapefruit juice.

I got better, but still felt a little sniffly today. I decided to "take arms" and sweat out the last of this bug.

Hitting my kwoon, I started with a full-body stretch. Afterward, I did a good 25-minute run of the Siu Lam Tao (Little Idea) form, or as Don likes to call it, Saam Bai Fut (Three Prayers to Buddha).

The stretching and the form did a lot to bring me back to life, to get my energy going again. But not wanting to push it, I closed with a mini-circuit of the ab wheel, claw pushups, the Chum Kiu, Biu Jee and Mook Yan Johng forms.

So far, I feel pretty good. But I'm still going to finish this half gallon of grapefruit juice sitting next to me, the fifth I've drunk in as many days.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

This Morning's RX - Rest, Relaxation and Writing.

It’s Tuesday morning and I still have that last little bit of a head cold hanging on. I’ve got about a pint of grapefruit juice in the fridge and I expect it will be gone by the time I finish this.

I might try a light workout this afternoon after I bring my kid home from school. If I do, it’ll probably emphasize stretching, a key and often neglected part of any athletic training. It’s also good to do if you are getting over a cold. It’ll help wring out those lymph nodes and get things moving again.

So instead of a morning workout, I’ll try to satisfy a request for information on the mook yan johng, AKA, the wooden dummy.

The dummy plays a great role in martial arts, not just Wing Chun or Jeet Kune Do, two arts normally associated with the wooden dummy. Taiji Tanglang (Tai Chi Preying Mantis) Kung Fu has a form on the dummy. I have a manual of that set and studied it on Youtube many times. Though I haven’t yet learned the whole form, I have incorporated parts of that form into my training.

The Yip Man version of the dummy form has also been incorporated into Bak Mei (White Eyebrow) and Yau Kung Mun (Soft Power) styles of Kung Fu. And there are also several mainland Chinese versions of the Wing Chun dummy set.

In my experience, I found that the dummy can be used to practice techniques from a variety of arts, including Shaolin, Xingyiquan, Muay Thai, Silat, Escrima, Kali, Arnis and even classical and sport versions of Karate.

It is one of the greatest training aids. You can practice real techniques on it, as opposed to just generating power like you would with a makiwara or a heavy bag. (Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those training aids. I use them, too.)

It teaches about angles, placement, develops coordination and yes, even speed and power. And you will develop good, hard hands, feet and forearms, though that should not be the primary use of the dummy.

Almost 12 years ago, I wrote an article about my experiences making a wooden dummy for INSIDE KUNG FU. That article was reprinted in the book, ULTIMATE TRAINING FOR THE MARTIAL ARTS. Since I’ve seen versions of that article floating around in cyberspace, I’m not going to repeat it here. The book is also on sale very cheaply at Amazon.com.

But I do wish to say that at the time, I built the dummy body out of a telephone pole. After coming across this video on Youtube, I look forward to making my own dummy body using the method shown by laminating hardwood.

(My apologies. I haven't yet learned to post Youtube videos to my blog. If you have any suggestions, let me know).

One last thing. As much as I love the wooden dummy, don’t stick with just the usual Wing Chun or Jeet Kune Do exercises on it. Use your imagination and try to see how you can incorporate into your other arts as well.

Don’t let the experience of building a mook be a chore. Let it be a learning experience. There’s always things laying around, things that can be used to improve your martial arts or your fitness training. Improvise.

Above all, don’t let yourself become a slave to an art, a method, or a routine.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Friday's Workout Three Days Late

I'm usually good about posting my workouts the same day they happen. I promise, I'll do better from here on out.

All last week I was feeling more tired than usual. After comparing my symptoms to those of swine flu, I decided that it was just my allergies acting up. This is the time of year when I have the most problems.

I wasn't even too worried on Friday, despite the itchiness in my sinuses. It's one of those things that could be symptom of a cold, a flu, a severe upper respiratory infection, or, as I said before, simply my allergies acting up. Secure in the belief that it was the latter, and having to entertain my son on his day off from school, I bulled straight ahead.

I started with taking my son on a three-mile bike ride around Al Lopez Park. It's a popular place for bicyclists and joggers because of the level three-mile loop around the park. It's just a nice place all around, though I really, really miss the old wooden castle they used to have for kids. The castle, built by the Tampa Woodworkers Club, was demolished and replaced with the usual impersonal, mass-produced equipment you'll find in any modern playground.

Still, Vitaly enjoys it. After our ride, I let him play in the playground while I did my own workout. I packed along my rattan hoops for some Wing Chun practice.

It was a pretty standard Wing Chun-style workout. After running through the empty-hand sets of Siu Lam Tao, Cham Kiu and Biu Jee, I did some work on the basics, including straight blast punches and work with the hoops. I did what I could to exercise my forearms and shoulders, and to simulate some hand-trapping exercises.

I closed with two runs of the wooden dummy set, first with a small hoop around my wrists, then in the air, pretending I had the dummy in front of me. It may not make sense to practice the dummy form when you don't have a dummy available, but you do the best you can. Besides, such training forces you to think and think hard about what you are doing. It's easy to react to the dummy. It's hard to keep an image of the dummy in year head and move accordingly.

Despite the itchy sinuses, I felt pretty good. But then it hit me all at once on Saturday. A good old fashioned head cold. I began the usual standard response of Chinese medicines, Vitamin C, and conspicuous amounts of grapefruit juice. I'm half-way through my third half gallon since Saturday.

Maybe by tomorrow I can shake this.