The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Paradox in Taijiquan

Today we have a guest post by Greg Knollmeyer. Greg teaches Taijiquan in Ann Arbor, MI. He is also the motive force behind the SE Michigan Push Hands Group where people from all manner of schools and styles get together for some friendly push hands. If you're in the area, please pay a visit!

Rest In Paradox

I love taiji. I’ve been studying and practicing taiji for years. As with any long term relationship, I do find myself frustrated from time to time. The fact that my practice is so indirect frustrates me. While it’s true that I can perform forms or stand when I choose, the actual internal growth doesn’t come from performing forms or standing. It comes from the things that I allow to happen inside of those practices. I cannot force myself to relax. Rather, I can stand with good alignment and allow myself to relax more deeply. When it goes well, my integrity and relaxation feed each other and growth occurs. But often I’ll be seeking growth and will quite literally try too hard.

I’ll get too fixated and my intention puts me in tension. At those times, I’m actually preventing growth. The Dao de Jing 道德經 (Tao te Ching) tells us of this kind of paradox in the first verse. The desire for understanding dynamics often reduces a dynamic merely to its effects.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.          
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations

So practice seems to be a paradox. If I practice with a desire to improve, I’ll flatten the dynamics and end up with empty forms.

If I don’t want to improve, why practice? The opening lines of the Dao de Jing tell us that the paradox of indirectness is built into the universe. It tells us that its subject is actually unsayable.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.   

A literal student would put the book down. If it can’t be said with words, why read a book about it? But the book continues for another 80 chapters. So something more must be going on here. Perhaps something might be gained in trying to understand the ineffable through words when we don’t hang on too tightly to the words. If we begin knowing the truth itself cannot be adequately expressed, perhaps we can pick up some hints as we explore the text. Practice seems like this. If I don’t hang on too tightly to the forms or the stance, but use them to explore internal dynamics, perhaps I’ll find something.

Often I joke with students that much of what I say are “lies pointing in the direction of truth.” There is an inherent limitation in description—particularly when it comes to internal dynamics. How would an opera singer describe the internal sensation of singing and holding a perfect note? We can definitively name what syllable and note are being sung. But it is impossible to express that same definitive quality in the singer’s description of how s/he generates the sound. 

As students advance, taiji increasingly reflects these paradoxes. At the beginning, many things can be communicated in a direct and specific way. Putting feet in the right place for a proper stance can be communicated easily. But to get to real health and martial benefits we need more than that. We need internal skills and deep relaxation while having good integrity. Relaxing into the earth in this stance cannot be communicated very directly.

Nonetheless a good teacher will work hard to make subtle dynamics as observable as possible. In the example of rooting, a teacher might do pressure testing with students so they can feel differences or drop root with a student so the dynamic is more palpable.

An attitude of exploration seems the most effective way to participate with teachings while resting in paradox. If I’m exploring root, I might put myself in proper alignment and then explore my body for tensions and release those. Then I might send my awareness as far down into the ground as I can and try to find new ways of sinking my root. I might try different images—What would it feel like if I imagined I was in an elevator sinking down to the center of the earth?

Exploring that image and its sensations may also provide growth. Eventually I might find paradoxical experiences. Often the feeling of being heavily rooted is accompanied by a sense of extreme lightness in the body. These contrary sensations co-exist quite nicely in a way that is very hard to describe. But focusing on exploration to discover new awareness and new dimensions in practice can help you rest in paradox. Exploration is a wonderful antidote to frustration.

About the Author Sifu Greg Knollmeyer has spent more than fifteen years studying Taiji with world renowned teachers. He teaches taiji at The Spiral Chi Center as well as at hospitals, senior centers and businesses. For the last several years he has been studying with Richard Clear. Previously, he studied with Master Wasentha Young and he has also attended classes with Grandmaster William CC Chen, Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, and some of their senior students. Greg has certifications in several healing techniques and helps clients in his office heal and evolve.

While making instructional taiji videos, Greg also discovered a passion for video. His editing skills in particular have been sought after and he occasionally takes on video projects. You can find out more at

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Book Review: The Structure of Wing Chun

I like this book a lot. It’s very readable and I like the way it is written.

Alan Orr teaches a branch of Wing Chun that is firmly based about six core elements. His is a system of principles rather than techniques.

Orr begins with some personal history, something about various martial arts he has trained in or exposed to, a little about his teachers and a brief mention that his method of teaching and training is based upon some first principles.

He then continues to spiral with more about his martial arts journey, more about his teachers and how he was exposed to the principles.

Orr feels very strongly that if you are learning about combat, that you have to fight. Beating people up in the street is frowned upon, so his students regularly participate in MMA matches. There are vignettes by his students who have trained with him and fought in MMA matches. Some of these students have gone on to teach others as well.

To do this, he’s had to add grappling to his repertoire and so has learned BJJ. Orr is a master within his system of Wing Chun as well as a legitimate BJJ black belt. One of the things I have admired about Judo is that there is a consistent philosophy in both standing and grappling situations. Orr’s take on BJJ fits his Wing Chun philosophy like a glove

We read about Wing Chun history and how it fits in with today’s interpretations. Orr trains with all the traditional forms, weapons and tools as well as the latest in modern methods. Orr doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but I think that it’s worth pointing out that the “traditional” methods that some of us revere WERE the latest in available technology to those who came before us.

Orr writes about the philosophy behind the forms, which is something I have not really encountered before and again ties everything together with the six core elements.

More personal history, more from his students, from his teachers in the form of interviews … and the table is set. By the time we get to the latter half of the book, the table has been thoroughly set for his to explain his six core elements, learn some drills and begin to work with this stuff.

Orr offers some on line options to learn from him, or at least learn more.

I am not a Wing Chun student, but I really liked this book and felt that I learned something from it. I think this book and it’s approach could well be a model for how martial arts books are written in the future.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Which Taijiquan Form?

At Qialance, a survey was done to see how many people practiced which form of Taijiquan. This was an unscientific survey. It was completely dependent on people willing to take part. The survey may be found here.

The breakdown is pretty interesting. Take a look!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Warrior Training in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

Before getting to the main point of this post, I would like to issue the 2016 Advent Challenge.

Today begins the season of Advent in the Catholic Church. It is a time of waiting and preparation for Christmas. Advent begins four Sundays prior to Chistmas and ends on Christmas Day. Advent lasts for a little over four weeks.

As a warm up for the Lenten Challenge, I would like to issue the Advent Challenge.

Beginning today and through Christmas, in spite of the business and general insanity of the season, find a way to train every day. Do what you have to; move heaven and earth, but train every day. Even if it's just a little. No excuses.

These challenges are a form of Shuugyou Renshuu, or "Austere Training."

Won't you join me?

At, a website dedicated to Historical European Martial Arts, is an article about what classical training involved. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here

For someone training in any martial art, looking at how they trained back in the day when the stakes were life and death, is instructive. Enjoy.

"Take great pains in your knightly practices" - A brief review of Medieval and Renaissance training methodologies

Few men are born brave; many become so through care and force of discipline.

- Flavius Vegetius Renatus

Many pages have been written on the subject of medieval and renaissance combat treatises, every year new translations, books, essays and blogs are added to the bibliography of weapons and combat during the Medieval Ages and the Renaissance. However, the subject on how knights and period fencers trained, especially as related to physical conditioning and strength remains nearly unexplored.

There is a mildly generalized understanding that these groups trained their bodies swinging heavy weapons, moving large and heavy objects and throwing stones, but many misconceptions around this subject remain, that is why we will present the advice given by the old combat masters, as well as some statements made in some period documents, and we will briefly analyze some period illustrations, looking for a better understanding of how these men prepared for combat.

Classical Influence

Probably one of the most influential texts during the middle ages and the renaissance, related to combat and military training was the treatise written by the roman writer Flavius Vegetius; entitled "Epitoma Rei Militaris". In the first book, of the four that form his work, Vegetius lists several activities in which recruits should train at. Those activities can be split in four categories: physical work, hand to hand combat, ranged combat and horseback combat.

Related to physical combat he states that recruits should be capable to march near 25 km, in five hours, they should also run, and jump (more likely avoiding obstacles) on a regular basis. During summer months he also recommends swimming when possible. And indicates that it was customary to have three sessions a month, in which recruits should march around 12 km carrying close to 20 kg. Finally Vegetius recommends that all men at arms are accustomed to physical work, such as chopping wood, carrying weight or crossing ditches.

Referring to hand to hand combat, he observes several times the importance to train the recruits on the armatura, which is the use of the weapons, making use of the well known practice of hitting a pole sticked to the ground with wooden weapons, that weighted about twice as much as the real ones. Vegetius also affirms that recruits should be trained twice a day in this fashion, once in the morning, and then again in the afternoon after their meal. Meanwhile the veterans should do it once a day in a non-stop fashion.

He also considers it crucial that the recruits acquire skill handling a horse, and advises that during the winter months, when it was not possible to ride outside, wooden horses were built to train indoors mounting and dismounting techniques. And he constantly puts emphasis on the importance to train the recruits with the bow and arrow, the throw of javelin, and on the use of the sling.

The words of the combat masters

Throughout the middle ages the advice given by Vegetius to keep the troops in good physical shape was maintained almost unaltered. Running, swimming, jumping, fencing, wrestling, riding and what later would be named vaulting were still kept in great esteem.

Hans Talhoffer, a very well known fencing master, in his mid 1400’s work, most likely dedicated to Luithold von Königsegg, recommends to his student, just like Vegetius did, to train twice a day, once in the morning, the second time in the afternoon: “practice for two hours with effort, do not eat much fat, practice again in the afternoon for two hours”. Also, he encourages his student to:
Strive after integrity
апd take great pains
in your knightly practices:
throwing апd pushing stones,
dancing апd jumping,
fencing апd wrestling,
running at the lance апd tournaments,
апd courting beautiful women.



Friday, November 18, 2016

Dao De Jing, #61: The Attribute of Humility

The Dao De Jing is not only one of the world's great classics, it is one of the foundations of Philosophical Daoism. A free online version of the Dao De Jing may be found here. Today we have #61: The Attribute of Humility.

A great state, one that lowly flows, becomes the empire's union, and the empire's wife.

The wife always through quietude conquers her husband, and by quietude renders herself lowly.

Thus a great state through lowliness toward small states will conquer the small states, and small states through lowliness toward great states will conquer great states.

Therefore some render themselves lowly for the purpose of conquering; others are lowly and therefore conquer.

A great state desires no more than to unite and feed the people; a small state desires no more than to devote itself to the service of the people; but that both may obtain their wishes, the greater one must stoop.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Progress in Martial Arts

A very good article was posted at on measuring progress in martial arts training. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

The shugyo spiral 修行スパイラル

// Published February 5, 2016 by George McCall

Just under six years ago I published an article entitled The Kendo Lifecycle. It was quite popular at the time and, based on my site stats, is still visited regularly by people from all corners of the Internet. As an extension to this I started, from about two or three years ago, to attempt and organise Japanese terms and phrases used in the discussion of long-term kendo shugyo. Using these I then tried to sketch out a physical “image” of what kendo progress looks like in theory.
Although it’s been quite challenging to combine somewhat independent ideas and represent them visually, I came to a conclusion about the general “shape” of the graphic quite quickly. After this I kind of sat on it and let it simmer for a year or so. Since I’m not sure I can expand or detail it any further without input from others, I’ve decided to publish it here. If it seems like a random collection of ideas pulled together simply as an academic exercise please don`t worry… that`s exactly what it is!

Here it is …

(Apologies for the low quality of the image… I bought a new MacBook and my scanner stopped working! I also have terrible handwriting – in English as well as Japanese – but don’t worry about that… )

Commonly used terminology
First, I’ll introduce and describe the various ideas/phrases used in the chart.

1. Shu ha ri (shin-gyo-so)
守破離 (真行草)

“Shu ha ri” is a common concept discussed in budo circles so I`m sure all kenshi 24/7 readers have heard of it before. Its basic meaning refers to the progress of skill and understanding in an art by a student under the tutelage of a master. Although we are referring to it in a budo context today, it is used across not only all the traditional arts of Japan (for example tea-ceremony or noh) and also in more modern endeavours such as cooking, baseball, or even software development.

The shu (“protect”) stage is the time when a novice studies diligently under a master. At this time they are like an infant copying the actions of their mother. No deep discussion of theory is needed, they simply look at the master and copy. Needless to say, a bad “master” at this stage often spells disaster for the future.

The ha (“break”) stage sees the student progress to the point where they are experimenting a little bit with what has been taught them, like a teenager rebelling against her parents. Sometimes this can lead to great progress, but at other times a night in jail or a trip to the hospital!

The ri (“separation”) stage is one that few ascend to. It is the point where the student has finally soaked up all that their master can teach and, combining it with their own discoveries in the ha stage (both the good and the bad), they create something uniquely theirs. They now become independent of their teacher.

In arts such as kendo, which has quite a long gestation period, the shu stage is usually what makes up the bulk of an individuals career. A novice who thinks that they have acquired deeper understanding than they actually have and attempts to experiment before they are ready is setting their own progress back considerably. What is needed here is the guidance of a good teacher and humility from the student. There is no sudden line to cross between shu and ha and, I think, most people who get this far spend the rest of their careers hovering above and below the line, alternating between serious study under a teacher or teachers and personal experimentation.

Note that there are also some other terms that attempt to describe what is essentially the same progress of physical skill but sometimes with a different twist, e.g., shin-gyo-so.

The problem with gradings as indications of shugyo

I have seen various charts attempting to equate the shu-ha-ri stages to grades. For example:
Shodan-godan: shu
Rokudan-nanadan: ha
Hachidan+: ri

As I have discussed before, I believe the grading process to be the biggest problem in modern kendo. There are various reasons for this including wide discrepancies in the difficulty of gradings based on area, and the fact that gradings are often the primary (sometimes the only) source of income for organisations. On top of this is, of course, the fact that it`s extremely difficult if not impossible for judge on a grading panel to know or read the mental state of the challengers.

I personally know plenty of people who’s attitude to and skill in kendo far surpass their grade (some even have no interest in grading) and others whose grade surpasses their actually ability. The latter outnumber the former.

At any rate, I think we can safely disregard grade as anything other than a general indication of technical competence, and remove it from our discussion today.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The First Western Students of Japanese Martial Arts

At, there was an article about the first westerners to learn specifically Kendo/Kenjutsu, as well as other Japanese martial arts. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

If one seeks links between historical European martial arts and their Japanese counterparts it is often from a confrontational angle. It seems arduous to imagine a meeting between warriors of these two cultures as something else than a clash, each other being uninterested in actually learning anything and only in proving the superiority of their respective arts. That said when one looks at the historical facts very few fights were to be had between them. What we really witness are a series of exchange on both sides by curious scholars of the martial arts wishing to learn more about their respective passion, regardless of their origins. Needless to say, it would be wise to follow their example.


 But even before any of the two French officers could enter Sakakibara dojo, a German was the first to open the doors. Dr. Erwin Von Baelz arrived in Japan in 1876 to teach medicine at the University of Tokyo. When he arrived, Baelz found the young Japanese people in a state of poor physical and cultural state. Most were dismissing their cultural heritage, a fact described in his memoirs: “In the 1870s at the outset of the modern era, Japan went through a strange period in which she felt contempt for all native achievements. Their own history, their own religion, their own art, did not seem to Japanese worth talking about, and or even regarded as matters to be ashamed of.” Part of this cultural heritage were, of course, the martial arts, of which Baelz had to say: “The native methods of bodily exercise, Japanese fencing, and jujitsu, and alike were placed under the ban. The older generation would not teach and the younger generation would not learn anything but European science.” Critical of this state of affairs, the doctor found these martial arts to be perfect gymnastic exercises and a worthwhile cultural pursuit. He encouraged students to practice kenjutsu and pushed the authorities to let them practice in the university, but the memories of the civil conflicts were still fresh and the government was considering the art too rough and dangerous.

A former military man and quite possibly a participant to mensur in his student days, Erwin would not let such a warrior art fade into nothingness, and following a demonstration of gekkiken in 1879 he chose to join the dojo of Sakakibara. His efforts at once again popularizing the art took hold and the sport of kendo could slowly emerge. As if it wasn’t enough, Baelz also had contacts with a certain Jigoro Kano who was then busy promoting his new wrestling method. Baelz helped the man and judo  eventually became the international sport it is today. He will also take up kyudo or Japanese archery. If it wasn’t for Dr. Von Baelz insistence, perhaps Japan’s martial arts would also have to be learned through surviving literature.

Other European students also joined Sakakibara’s dojo and even participated in the public gekikken tournaments, such as Thomas McCluthie, a clerk of the British embassy. Another German will also join them, Heinrich Von Seibold, a famous archaeologist and an apparently gifted fencer.