Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Yes, I Have Been Training!

From Sup Baht Mor Kiu (18 Devils Bridge) from Yau Kung Mun. I've been doing this one a lot lately.

Just to reassure all of you, I have been doing more than reminiscing this month over changes in my workouts and comparing my life in Connecticut, California and Florida.

As I said at the start of the month, there would be some changes to my workouts. The first, and most noticeable was that I'm temporarily eliminating certain forms from my repertoire. Namely, and form with knee drops or duck-walking, which includes most of what I've learned from Yau Kung Mun.

I also decided to return to some strong basics in an effort to strengthen my knee. I'm doing my full-body stretch two to three times a week, instead of my usual one to two times. I'm already seeing a big difference in my leg flexibility. My knee is also taking much less time to fully recover from workouts. I'm sure the glucosamine condroitin and vitamin C are helping that, too.

I'm doing more qigong practice, including a seated hand qigong I learned from Lucjan Shila. I don't know why I'm doing it. Probably since I'm spending less time on forms, I had the time to do this.

I've been very pleasantly surprised. Since doing hand qigong regularly, my hand strength is increasing, my arthritis pain is decreasing, and my hand speed is better than it has been in years. When practicing on the wooden dummy, it almost seems like the rest of my body can't keep up with my hands.

I'm also working on my stances. I've started to return to an old form of stance training which was recommended by one of my old sifus. While Kung Fu is famous for its horse stance, my sifu didn't let it stop there, requiring time spent in the cat stance and bow-and-arrow stances as well.

In concept, it's a simple routine, but it will take a lot out of you in a short time.

Start with a two-minute horse stance. Then two minutes in a cat stance, on both sides. Then, two minutes in the bow-and-arrow stance, on each side.

Close with another two minutes in the horse stance. If you're feeling ambitious, you can include two minutes on each leg in the crane stance as well.

Altogether, you're looking at eight to 12 minutes. Not much, but if you're taking your stances as low as you can in the horse, cat and bow-and-arrow stances, you'll really see some results.

Filling a bag with beebees, throwing it in the air and catching it is a great way to build total body strength and a powerful grip. (See photos above).

Another exercise I've been getting into heavily is catching the bean bag. Of course, this bean bag is filled with 15 pounds of copper beebees. NOTE: DO NOT USE LEAD SHOT FOR THESE BAGS. LEAD IS TOXIC AND WILL BUILD UP IN YOUR BODY OVER TIME.

While 15 pounds may not seem like much, when you've been throwing and catching it in the air for sets of 108 reps, you will feel it.

Of course, I always include my wooden dummy. In addition to doing the classical Wing Chun dummy sets, I find that next to a live partner, there is no better training method around for brushing up on individual techniques or for creating your own combinations.

Face the dummy (or your partner if you have one). Reach out with your lead hand.

As soon as you make contact with the arm, shoot in with a tan sao da (palm up or "wedge" block and punch)

Follow up with a pak sao da (palm block, punch combo)

Close with a right lap sao/backfist. Note: Though you do this combination from a stationary position while on the dummy, in actual use against a partner, you need to keep advancing.

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Fists of Florida" or "Hardcore on the Hillsborough"

"I'll just sit right back and watch the river flow!"
- Bob Dylan -

I had a lot of changes in my life in 1991. I got married, took a job at The Tampa Tribune that I would hold for the next five-and-a-half years, became a dog-owner for the first time in five years, and, became a homeowner for the first time.

Roxanne and I settled into our home in Seminole Heights immediately after our honeymoon. It was a small, one-bedroom house in what was still a rough, yet up-and-coming neighborhood in Central Tampa, with a huge, level lot.

The previous year, I'd burned out of martial arts, primarily after getting my butt handed to me by two guys I'd brought up for white belt in a karate tournament. I'd become discouraged with Tang Soo Do and was looking for something new.

I threw myself into Yang Taijiquan, Judo, Jujitsu and Aikido. And, having this large yard and covered back porch and carport, I had lots of room to practice.

I bought myself a small mat for practicing rollouts and breakfalls, a set of weights, and later set up a couple of makiwaras and a heavy bag. I had everything I would need to train.

I attracted a lot of attention to myself when rolling out on mat or doing uchi-komis with a judo belt wrapped around a palm tree. I didn't really care, though. Years of outdoor training got me used to sarcastic wise-guys singing "Kung Fu Fighting" or nosey busybodies trying to start a conversation with me while I was in the middle of my workout.

If you don't have a partner, this is a great way to practice your judo. I used to do this by throwing an old judo belt around the palm tree in my yard. It actually made the tree stronger from pulling on it and later, using the tree to condition my forearms.

The following year, I graduated college, only to find myself stuck in the same part-time job with little chance for advancement. I spent four years of chronic underemployment. But if there was one good thing about that, it was that I learned a shitload about different martial arts during that time.

Working out became my means of preserving my mental health. In addition to the above mentioned arts, I'd hooked up with Lucjan Shila, who taught me Lion's Roar Kung Fu; John Angelos, who taught me the empty-hand sets of Wing Chun, Chen Taijiquan silk reeling and push-hands; Scott Collins, who in addition to being my church pastor, was also a former professional boxer and kickboxer; lastly, a man who became like a brother to me, Anthony Chan, who eventually taught me Jeet Kune Do, Filipino Tribal Arts, Escrima, Kali and Arnis.

Outdoor training in Florida gives me lots of chances to commune with nature. Even living in the middle of Tampa, I still see manatees, dolphins and alligators (above) while practicing along the Hillsborough River.

Much of my training with them took place outdoors as well. John took over a section of Ballast Point Park, at the southern-most end of Bayshore Boulevard. Scott would have us practice in his backyard. And Tony and I would use the pool area at his apartment complex.

But most of the time, I trained in my backyard or along the Hillsborough River. There are many nice areas along that river, including the Lowry Park Boat Ramp, Rivercrest Park or Plant Park at the University of Tampa Campus.

To me, that is the way to practice martial arts. Outdoors, where I have all the space I need. I can breathe clean, fresh air, not stale, indoor air. I'm not much for sunbathing, but seeing sunshine does a lot to life my spirits, especially as it reflects off the water.

Despite being in the middle of one of Florida's largest cities, I get to enjoy nature as I train. Between sets of forms or exercises, I've watched mullet jump, I've seen alligators drifting lazily along the river. I've even seen dolphins and manatees seeking warmer waters in the winter.

One other thing I've come to appreciate about living and training in Florida are the state's liberal weapons laws. As I've complained about in other posts, in other states where I'd lived, I'd be committing a felony if I took an unsharpened sword, staff or other practice weapon to a public place to practice.

It's funny how state legislatures and cops can't say shit if someone carries a baseball bat or hockey sticks with them. Those are sporting goods!

Well, I've been threatened with both bats and hockey sticks plenty of times in my youth. And as far as I'm concerned, my kwan dao, my sam jie guan, my gim or baht cham dao are my sporting goods.

Some guys play hockey. Some play baseball. My old boss lived for his Saturday morning tennis game. Another co-worker went running everyday after work.

In the words of Bruce Springsteen, "Some guys come home from work and they wash up, and go racing in the street."

For me, I practice martial arts. It's my sport. It's my art. It's my exercise.

It's what I do.

P.S. I just want to give a shout out to James A. Keating, Master at Arms and publisher of MAAJAK. It's a great online magazine with lots of neat stuff to inform, educate, entertain and challenge. I feel like I made the big time when Keating linked to "Tales from the Carport Kwoon." If you get a chance, check out MAAJAK. It may shock, offend or amuse, but it will never leave you bored.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Placerville Pugilism" or "Fists and Feet in the Foothills"

Financial circumstances forced me to leave Florida in 1986 and return to my father’s home in California. After several months of failing to find any satisfying work in Oakland, I took my father’s advice and took a volunteer position for the U.S. Forest Service.

As a volunteer, I got a weekly allowance for groceries and free travel and dining anytime I had to leave the El Dorado Forest for work. It also got me a free place to stay in a bunkhouse at the Institute of Forest Genetics in Placerville.

The Institute of Forest Genetics, an experiment station for the U.S. Forest Service in Placerville, CA. The bunkhouse in the upper left corner was my home for several months in 1986. It's actually one of the nicer places I've ever lived.

Since I didn’t have much money in those days, my main source of entertainment consisted of watching broadcast TV or practicing martial arts and exercising.

In addition, with a lack of a real gym or even a set of barbells, I was forced to make due with what few fitness or martial art supplies I owned at the time, including:

1. Two gis

2. Two makiwaras

3. A steel gim (Tai Chi sword)

4. A sam jie guan (Three sectioned staff)

5. A six-foot metal pipe, which I used for staff work.

In addition, I had lots and lots of outdoor room to practice on some nice maintained lawns, in the Northern California sun with fresh air in the Sierra foothills.

I also had to admit that for much of the previous few years that I’d become a gym rat, relying on weights and modern machinery like Universal and Nautilus for strength training. As much as I missed that type of training, I had to admit that such training is fairly new in the history of physical culture. I took inspiration in the pages of Black Belt about how martial artists in China, Korea and Okinawa made due with what they had while training outdoors in all kinds of weather.
I alternated between working different parts of my body, like with weight training, but used my own body weight instead of barbells and dumbbells.

It was my first foray into circuit training, working forms, weapons, repetitions of the basics, punching my makiwaras and doing lots of chinups and pushups. I did my pushups on wood stumps from the firewood piles and chinups hanging from the ladder on a cherry picker truck.

My then-roommate, Keith, was fresh out of the U.S. Marines. He offered me lots of suggestions for body weight exercises, including fingertip pushups and one-armed pushups. Though he had little martial arts training, he did join in to the exercise. We inspired and motivated each other during these times and became good friends in the process.

I got some great training in that year, as well as a great tan, coupled with sun-bleached blonde hair and beard.

And I got some great inspiration and ideas that helped me over the years with my training.

TOMORROW’S POST: “Fists of Florida” or “Going Hardcore on the Hillsborough River”.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Outdoor Training in the Nutmeg State" or "Connecticut Yankee Karate"

The woods surrounding Lake Whitney in Hamden, CT. It was one of my favorite places to get away from other people. It was also where I liked to practice Karate and weapons, out of sight of the public but in the fresh air and sunshine.

My love for outdoor training began in 1982, when I started learning Tang Soo Do.

As I've said before, a new year is often used as a time to make a new beginning in a new direction. The previous two years, '80 and '81, sucked for reasons too numerous to get into here.

I was off to a good start in 1981, having hooked up with a couple of good kung fu teachers.* But by March, I had to take time off due to a badly sprained shoulder, the result of learning roll-outs on a concrete floor.

When I recovered, their school had closed and I had no way to reach them.

Combined with some other difficulties I faced that year, I lost any real interest in maintaining my health. I didn't exercise. I flunked out of school. I didn't practice any of the martial arts I'd learned from various instructors over the years. I pretty much became a couch potato.

By the end of 1981, I found out about the Southern Connecticut State College Karate Club from a guy I'd met at a party. At $25 a semester, it seemed like the answer to my prayers. Even working minimum wage, I could easily afford that.

So in January 1982, I B.S.'ed my way into the club, pretending to be a college student even though I was beginning my second sophomore year of high school.

I threw myself into a major fitness regimen, which included joining the Yoga Club at my high school, lifting weights, running and, of course, learning Tang Soo Do at the SCSC Karate Club.

I'd had a strong knowledge of the basics of karate from other teachers. To me, the important thing was learning the forms in Tang Soo Do. But since I felt confined trying to practice sets in my basement, I took it outside.

In those cold, New England winters, I would often do up to five runs each of an individual form in the Putnam Avenue Schoolyard behind my house, wearing my gi pants, sneakers and a sweatshirt.

Occasionally, someone would see me practicing, but they left me alone. I had a reputation as a non-conformist, so seeing my practicing karate outdoors really didn't surprise anyone.

At school, when my friends took smoke breaks, I often ran through my forms in the courtyard. There were actually a few good martial artists and boxers at the small private high school I attended for my second sophomore year. Some of them would join in and show what they could do.

By the end of the spring semester, I'd earned a high green belt and learned the first nine forms, the three Gichus, the five Pyang Ahns and Bassai Dai. I'd also earned straight A's on a report card for the first and only time in my life.

Also in 1982, I'd cross-trained in different arts as I made the acquaintance of other local martial artists, particularly Steve Williams. Steve, who became my boxing coach, also held a shodan in Jujitsu, which he also taught me, along with bits and pieces of other styles of Kung Fu and Karate.

Muhammad Ali, chopping wood at his Pennsylvania training camp. Chopping wood is one of the best exercises for fighters. My boxing coach, Steve Williams, and my father, both spent a lot of time around lumberjacks. Both spoke from personal experience when they warned me "Never get into a fight with a man who swings an axe for a living."

Most of our training was very impromptu. Our sessions often happened when he happened to be visiting his brother-in-law, Alex, who lived down the street from me. Steve and I would spar, practicing boxing drills or two-man Jujitsu sets in our street clothes on Alex's front lawn.

In addition to his knowledge of martial arts, Steve saw himself as a Native American shaman. Seriously. He was quite knowledgeable about Native American art, culture and mysticism. From his home in Northford, he taught classes in survival techniques and did his best to educate people on the Indian ways.

He had a love of the outdoors, which showed itself in his preference for training outdoors. He also chopped wood, both as a business and an exercise. Both Steve and my father, who spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest, taught me the same lesson - "Never get into a fight with a man who swings an axe for a living." It strengthens the exact same muscles you use to throw a punch.

By the end of 1982, I hooked up with my old Kung Fu instructors. Through 1983 until I left Connecticut in October 1984, I met and trained with other martial artists, picking up whatever I could from them, whether forms, training methods or skill with weapons.

All of this happened while earning my black belt in Tang Soo Do.

But when I couldn't be with my instructors or training partners, I let the woods or lakes become my dojo. I did my breakfalls and bag work in my basement, but forms, weapons and shadowboxing took place mostly out-of-doors.

I could train in public parks, in wooded areas new my house along Lake Whitney. Because the latter was not public property, I could practice with weapons without fear of arrest since no one would see me.

But more than the privacy, I came to enjoy my time outside, breathing in what passed for fresh air in Southern Connecticut and soaking up sunshine in a too-short New England summer.

TOMORROW'S POST: "Placerville Pugilism" or "Fists and Feet in the Foothills"

*Nearly 30 years later, I gotta admit, their way of teaching breakfalls and rollouts not only sucked, but it was downright dangerous. I would never, ever advocate practicing breakfalls or rollouts on anything but a well matted floor, at least not in the early stages. Even then, practicing anything on concrete is stupid and dangerous and I have only three words on that subject - DON'T DO IT!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Saturday in the Yard. I think it was the 15th of May.

Don came by today for the first time in a couple of months. The life of a secret agent* is a busy one that takes him away from town for weeks at a time. When he gets back, he has a lot of catch-up to do with his wife and kids. As much as we enjoy our workouts, I gotta respect that he puts his family obligations first.

Today's Saturday session was pretty typical. We pick each other's brains about various forms and applications from Chinese gung fu, discuss the latest in personal fitness and try to get as much done in between breaks to watch the Tsarevich do his latest bike trick.

But the latest entry in today's Dojo Rat blog got me thinking about my long history of outdoor training. As journalist and martial artist Joe Hyams once said in his classic, "Zen in the Martial Arts," - "Anyplace can be a dojo."

Easily, one of the greatest books ever written on the martial arts.

Don and I have trained together for nearly 10 years. It started when I read an ad he put in a weekly newspaper, looking for training partners interested in Yau Kung Mun and Hung Gar Kung Fu. I'd had some training in Hung Gar and was interested in learning more about that art.

For the most part, our training sessions did take place outdoors, sometimes in Don's backyard; sometimes in the cul-de-sac where our friend, Tony Chan, holds his workouts; but usually, here in the Carport Kwoon.

I should mention that the carport is the only shelter for my practice area. When doing some heavy weapons work or a lot of forms, I use the side or front yard. The backyard is for the dogs to shit in.

One of the first times Don came over to practice, he was reluctant to use the front yard. He's always been a very private individual and I try to respect that. But in addition to the greater open space in the front, I also prefer to practice on grass.

You gotta admit - a sight like this will slow traffic on your street.

Wood is my second choice for a training area. A padded floor, like the floor of my carport, is somewhat better than bare concrete, but not by much. Over the years, I've learned that exercising on concrete is a recipe for rheumatoid arthritis, among other health issues. Truth is, I'm not even sure I believe it is safe to stand or walk on concrete for extended periods, let alone exercise on it.

Don relented when I convinced him that my street is generally pretty private. It's not a major through-street, so I don't have to worry about cars constantly going back and forth. After 12 years here, the neighbors have gotten used to me.

They also know that some strange behavior on the front yard is a small price to pay for a great neighbor like me. I don't mean to brag, but I don't drink, I don't throw loud parties, I don't blast my stereo or have a loud muffler on my car.

And since I started swinging my kwan dao or sam jie guan in the front yard, it has slowed down traffic as people try to take a look at what I'm doing.

Occasionally, someone does stop and try to talk to me about what I'm doing. I remember one morning in particular, one of Tampa's Finest came by in a plain brown wrapper** while I was working the kwan dao.

He slowed down, pulled up and said "hi."

"That thing looks pretty heavy!" he said, leaning across his seat.

"Yep," I said. "That sucker weighs about 15 pounds. It'll give you a helluva workout. Wanna give it a try?"

The officer said "thanks" but that he was looking for someone in the neighborhood who failed to appear in court.

"Well, have a good one and I hope you catch him," I said.

It's times like that that make me glad to live in Florida. In other places where I've lived, I'd be committing a felony for training outside with a weapon.

TOMORROW'S POST: "Outdoor Training in the Nutmeg State" or "Connecticut Yankee Karate".

*Look, I don't know for sure what he does for a living. All I know is that he travels abroad, often for weeks at a time. Calling Don a secret agent is just a lot easier than just admitting I don't know what the hell he's doing.

**Policeman in an unmarked car

Monday, May 3, 2010

Let's try this again! A new month, a new beginning.

Breaking out with my kwan dao for the first time in nearly a year.

I had some high hopes at the beginning of March.

My health was good. My back recovered from a major sprain. I'd been doing the Gung Gee Fuk Fu Kuen and the Dai Pa almost every weekday for a month, sometimes as much as five times each.

But shortly after my last post, I got hit with that flu that was going around, along with a major sinus infection. It kept me from training for more than three weeks.

In early April, I joined a gym. Actually, it is the weight room at the Cordelia B. Hunt Recreation Center, at Al Lopez Park. It's not much better than my home gym, but it gives me a place to train indoors.

April had its own monkey wrenches. I'd been stepping up my job search and getting some new writing assignments. Nothing major, but every bit helps these days. Also, Vitaly had his spring break. Roxanne wanted to do some traveling, so we went to the Phosphate Museum in Mulberry, Ft. DeSoto Park for fishing and swimming, and Solomon's Castle in Hardee County. The latter is a real Florida treasure I can't recommend enough for someone looking for something out of the ordinary.

After spring break, I decided it was time to ease myself back into some regular workouts. I've been dealing with some knee pain for much of the past year, so I used the time off to re-examine my workouts.

As much as I hate to say it, I'm putting a number of forms on hiatus because of the demands they put on that joint. Anything with any duck walking or knee-drops is out of my repertoire for the time being. Sadly, that includes many Yau Kung Mun sets and the Dai Pa.

It does, however, allow me, actually it forces me, to improve on the following forms, techniques and training methods:

1. All the Wing Chun forms, including Siu Lam Tao, Chum Kiu, Biu Jee, Mook Yan Johng Kuen.

2. From Yau Kung Mun, that leaves me with the Yin Ching Kuen, the Gau Bo Toi and the Sup Baht Mor Kiu.

3. The Gung Gee Fuk Fu of Hung Gar.

4. As far as Chinese weapon sets, that leaves me with the Luk Dim Bun Guan (Wing Chun giant pole); the Baht Cham Dao (Wing Chun butterfly swords, both Yip family and mainland versions); and the Kwan Dao from Yau Kung Mun.

The kwan dao. That sucker weighs about 15 to 20 pounds. It'll give you one helluva workout!

Today's workout emphasized the last weapon. Since I overslept this morning, I decided to eat bitter and workout at noon. That's no mean feat in the 90-degree Florida sun.

Following a run of my full-body stretch, I completed my first run of the Gung Gee Fuk Fu Kuen in more than two months. Thankfully, the light workouts of the past few weeks have paid off. Though I was winded, I still managed to do the set with proper attention to stances and body mechanics.

During a short break where I watched a video of the kwan dao, I went outside to do five runs of the first third of that set, which I call the "Attacking and Retreating Section."

In some ways, it's easier than it looks to wield a nearly 20-pound kwan dao. It forces you to let gravity and momentum do most of the work. Once that weapon gets going, it is very hard to stop. Even though the blade is unsharpened, the sheer weight of that thing could do a lot of damage. I found out the hard way last year when I sliced through a shoe and sock while practicing with it. I kept my toes, but I needed a tetanus shot after treating a three-inch gash on my calf.

But it's also hard because you still need good stances and good basics to control the flight and fall of your kwan dao. Otherwise, it could pull you off your feet or fly out of your hands. I'm sure the latter would cost points in a tournament if you happen to kill one of the judges.

Part of a new combination I developed for the wooden dummy.
1. Pak sao da (Palm block, hit)
2. Pak sao, elbow
3. Seven Stars Throw. The last move is from Preying Mantis Kung Fu, but I like it so much I'm incorporating it into my Wing Chun forms and repertoire.

The heat got to me. After the fourth set, I returned to the carport to close with some dummy training. For today's practice, I did the classic Yip family form on that dummy, but I added a few things to it. I don't claim to have a better way to do that form. I simply wanted to work on some combinations for my own use either in competition or self-defense.

It wasn't about correcting any shortcomings in that form, but about correcting some of my own shortcomings, especially my own lack of good combinations at close range.

With the dummy form completed, I knocked off and returned inside, to blog on this workout and plan for tomorrow's.