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, January 31, 2017

The Mind and Body Reflect One Another

We know through martial arts practice that the mind and body reflect each other. By working on one, we are also working on the other.

We also know that different martial arts practices "shapes" the body in different ways. It stand to reason as you are using different muscles, doing different movements, etc. 

A recent study has shown that different forms of exercise actually effects different parts of the brain! 

Martial arts are not only different physically, but perhaps mentally as well. 

Below is an excerpt from an article which discusses how different exercises effects the brain differently. The full article may be read here.

Pumping iron to sculpt your biceps. Yoga poses to stretch and relax. Running to whittle your waistline and get fit fast. There are loads of reasons why it’s smart to exercise, and most of us are familiar with the menu of options and how each can shape and benefit your body. But we are discovering that there are numerous ways in which exercise makes you smart too. Many of its effects have been going unnoticed, but if you were to peer inside the heads of people who like to keep active, you’d see that different exercises strengthen, sculpt and shape the brain in myriad ways.

That the brains of exercisers look different to those of their more sedentary counterparts is, in itself, not new. We have been hearing for years that exercise is medicine for the mind, especially aerobic exercise. Physical fitness has been shown to help with the cognitive decline associated with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and depression, and we know this is at least in part because getting your blood pumping brings more oxygen, growth factors, hormones and nutrients to your brain, leading it — like your muscles, lungs and heart — to grow stronger and more efficient.

But a new chapter is beginning in our understanding of the influence of physical exercise on cognition. Researchers are starting to find more specific effects related to different kinds of exercise.
Specifically, high-intensity intervals, aerobic exercise, weight training, yoga and sports drills are affect different areas of the brain.

They are looking beyond the standard recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate, aerobic exercise a day, for the sake of your brain. Are there benefits to going slower or faster? To lifting weights, or performing sun salutations? Whether you want a boost in focus for an exam, find it hard to relax or are keen to quit smoking, there’s a prescription for you.

“Lifting weights helps improve complex thoughts, problem-solving and multitasking”

The first clue that exercise affects the brain came from rodent studies 15 years ago, which showed that allowing mice access to a running wheel led to a boost in neuron formation in their hippocampi, areas of the brain essential for memory. That’s because exercise causes hippocampal neurons to pump out a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of new neurons. The mice showed improvements in memory that allowed them to navigate mazes better.

The findings were soon translated to humans. Older adults who did aerobic exercise three times a week for a year also grew larger hippocampi and performed better in memory tests. Those with the highest levels of BDNF in their blood had the biggest increases in this brain region.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Taijiquan: Inventing in Loss


Before we get to today's post, today is Chinese New Year! Specifically, it is the year of the Rooster.

Over at Move with Life, there is an article about two principals of Taijiquan: Invest in Loss and Return to the Root. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


There are two principles we hold to be paramount in our Tai Chi Chuan. 1. Invest in loss, and 2. Return to the root. These two principles hold infinite potential for growth and self-discovery, but what do they mean, and how do they accomplish the former?

These are questions I’ve asked myself ever since I first learned of the principles. They have granted me a road map out of depression, and into progress. I share the answers I’ve found so that they may also help you in such a way.

In my practice I made the mistake of trying to apply these principles separately. This is a terrible mistake because one principle builds on the other.

When I started I was only seeking to invest in loss, by yielding in every aspect of my life. It took me a while, but I found out this is not a good way to live. Sadly it took going through divorce, losing everything I had a couple of times, and living in a roller coaster of emotional upset to figure this out.

On coming to my senses I remembered an important lesson my grandmother had been teaching me my entire life. It’s that by knowing our spirit/true-selves we find our root. My Tai Chi teacher expanded on this saying “It is by returning to the root, we are able to invest in loss properly.”

Knowing your true self is a daunting task which takes perpetual work. This work consists of truthfully looking within. Finding your true self is done by seeking, questioning, reevaluating what you believe in, what your goals are, and prioritizing what you find to be most important. It requires self-reflection and building the confidence to hold your findings firmly as well as creating boundaries to let it take root in your being. This is the foundation of returning to the root. Investing in loss is part of this work but more in the external sense.

Returning to the root is the internal practice of seeking our personal root. Investing in loss is the act of getting there. This means that in order to return a few things need to be present.
  1. We need to know what we are returning to
  2. We need to have confidence to hold onto this in the light of hardship
  3. We need to objectively examine all challenges to our foundations.
Once this foundation is in place we are able to add the second piece to the puzzle. Invest in loss to get there. Investing in loss is the act of getting rid of unnecessary things in order to return to the root. This means taking action, then correcting errors in that action and trying again.

In the physical practice of Tai Chi Chuan investing in loss means seeking to accomplish all the principles in the practice of form, push hands, and application. In short the principles are the root of our practice. We take this root and then expand it into the healing/martial applications. They help us achieve relaxation in movement and the most efficient use of our bodies. To find the most efficient use we must practice the correct way of moving returning to the root, in seeking this we must lose our bad habits hence investing in loss.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Fukien Five Ancestors Boxing

At Tambuli Media, there is a very good article explaining the forms of Fukien Five Ancestor Boxing. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

Ngo Cho Kun became popular in China’s Fukien province because it was constructed by Chua Giok Beng of five of the most famous styles of the area: Grand Ancestor Boxing (Tai Chu Chuan), Lohan Chuan (Shaolin Boxing), Tat Chun (Da Mo’s Iron Body Method), Pe Ho Chuan (White Crane Fist) and Kao Kun Chuan (Monkey Boxing). Each style brought something different to the new art of Five Ancestor Fist. Tai Cho Kun specializes in chang chuan (long fist boxing); lohan kun specializes in whipping strikes; kao kun specializes in agile legwork; peho kun specializes in clever techniques. By integrating the essence of these styles, Chua Giok Beng crafted Ngo Cho Kun, which became a distinctive style in its own right.

There are roughly 200 individual techniques in ngo cho kun, each with unique uses and combined applications. These techniques are learned through the practice of empty-hand forms known as kun-toh. The forms increase in length, difficulty and diversity as training progresses and advances are made through the system. Proficiency in ngo cho kun is gauged in part by the number of forms that a practitioner understands and can correctly perform. Correct delivery of the ordered movements consists of proper body positioning and mechanics, smooth transitions from one technique to another, with proper expression of power, timing, and precision in each moment.

Empty-hand forms are the nucleus of ngo cho kun. The transmission of the system itself is embedded in their movement sequences. As one progresses through the ranks of the art, they will see many of the same techniques repeated over and over again. To outsiders, this makes it seem as if there are only a handful of techniques in ngo cho kun and that the forms are excessive in number. This is not actually the case, as certain techniques are grouped with others in different offensive and defensive ways, with different footwork and varying timings. Yes, certain techniques are found in abundance within the 44 emoty-hand forms, illustrating their significance to the system as a whole. Moreover, it is these “repetitive” techniques that not only “bind” the system, but give ngo cho kun its distinct “flavor.”

Each form in whole is not to be thought of as one long fight sequence against one or multiple opponents. The individual techniques that comprise the forms are sometimes performed in such a way for the student to practice their specific motions. At other times they are trained in combinations as attacking or counterattacking movements. The techniques are linked or grouped together according to mini sets of combinations. These combinations or linked techniques are identified by the timing of the forms. Where cadence starts and breaks, the combinations begin and end. When one knows the correct timing of the forms, they can know the correct number of individual techniques that are grouped into a mini set or combination sequence. The forms then begin to make sense in pragmatic and practical ways.

As students begin their training they are taught the gross movements of the forms, which they practice until they are ready for the specifics. Specifics include the application of proper strength, power, tension, release, speed, timing and breath cycles. The movements and combinations of the forms are repeated ad nauseam, but their actual use or application against an opponent is only understood by training in the qi kun structure tests, developing the five parts power, understanding the four movement concepts, then through the two-person forms and applications training where specific combinations are taught in specific combative scenarios.

Although the world is filled with thousands of traditional martial arts, many are believed to have “lost” their authentic applications. This is the case, many believe, because the founding fathers and subsequent generations of head masters had obscured their real use by “hiding” the movements within the forms. This, it is said, was done so convert onlookers from other systems could not “steal” their deadly secrets. Of course, over time, the hiding was done so well that not even the head masters knew what techniques were for what application! This is not the case with five ancestor fist.

If we look to the forms of ngo cho kun as an inheritance, as a record of the physical martial ways of one specific fighting art, then the reason for so many forms becomes apparent. Chua Giok Beng, the art’s founder, did a diligent job of categorizing the techniques of his art, and of setting out their combinations and applications for future generations of practitioners to not have to “discover their meaning.” In fact, if we take kung-fu forms as a whole, those found within the five ancestor fist tradition are among the most accessible for immediate use. The movements are clean, the combinations clear, the techniques make sense and require no special or “secret” knowledge to apply. Indeed, the quantity of forms, each pulling techniques from past forms while introducing new techniques and movement concepts in measured ways, serve this end well.

     

Sunday, January 22, 2017

3 Essentials of Taijiquan

Over at DiscoverTaiji, there is an article about 3 key elements of good taijiquan: Timing, Placement and Power.

An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

 Timing, Placement and Power

An article by Adam Mizner

When I am teaching classes or workshops on taijiquan I always emphasize the three principles of timing, placement and power.

These three skills are not only fundamental to acquiring real world taijiquan skills but are fundamental to the successful application of any martial arts technique.

TIMING

Bruce Lee and other famous martial artists often talk about speed as one of the most important attributes of a successful martial artist.  This is not untrue, though I would say that timing is more important than mere speed. It is certainly possible to miss the mark because one arrives too early or is too fast.

Understanding this we should strive to master timing rather than just speed. When we arrive “on time” in this way, our opponent is where we perceived him to be and our technique is neither early nor late.  In tai chi chuan this ‘correct time’ is when the opponent has “fallen to emptiness”, he is off balance and frozen or double heavy.  This is the right time to attack and finish the confrontation.

Many attacks delivered with the wrong timing are not as effective as one that is delivered on time, whether it be delivered fast or slow.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems, #62: A Letter to Censor Han

The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in ancient China. Especially esteemed were poems. There was no home coming or leave taking; no event too small to not be commemorated with a poem.

Some of the best poems of that period have been collected into an anthology known as The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. A online version of the anthology may be found here.Today we have #62: A Letter to Censor Han


A LETTER TO CENSOR HAN
I am sad. My thoughts are in Youzhou.
I would hurry there-but I am sick in bed.
...Beauty would be facing me across the autumn waters.
Oh, to wash my feet in Lake Dongting and see at its eight corners
Wildgeese flying high, sun and moon both white,
Green maples changing to red in the frosty sky,
Angels bound for the Capital of Heaven, near the North Star,
Riding, some of them phrenixes, and others unicorns,
With banners of hibiscus and with melodies of mist,
Their shadows dancing upside-down in the southern rivers,
Till the Queen of the Stars, drowsy with her nectar,
Would forget the winged men on either side of her!
...From the Wizard of the Red Pine this word has come for me:
That after his earlier follower he has now a new disciple
Who, formerly at the capital as Emperor Liu's adviser,
In spite of great successes, never could be happy.
...What are a country's rise and fall?
Can flesh-pots be as fragrant as mountain fruit?....
I grieve that he is lost far away in the south.
May the star of long life accord him its blessing!
...O purity, to seize you from beyond the autumn waters
And to place you as an offering in the Court of Imperial Jade.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Lessons from Great Strategic Minds

Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy posted an article at Thought Catalog with 29 brief lessons learned from great strategic thinkers. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here. You could do worse than to adopt these lessons.

Whether you’re starting a business, writing a book, playing a sport, or negotiating a salary increase with your boss, a strategy is essential. Without one, what exactly are you doing?

Most people are not strategic. They are reactive. A critic of the inventor John DeLorean described the leadership style which sunk that company as “chasing colored balloons.” Meaning that he’d chase one thing from the next—there was no plan, no vision, no sense of how one thing fed into the next. That’s not to say he wasn’t working hard—he was, but his passion and energy (and ego) weren’t productive and ultimately, he failed catastrophically.

The same will happen to us without a strategic mindset and strategic plan in matters big and small. 

This strategic wisdom is not something you’re born with. It is developed, both with experience and with education. I’m not saying you have to study the battles of Napoleon to get it, but there are plenty of small and actionable lessons from warfare, the corporate jungle and the wise minds of history that will improve your strategy—both in business and in life. Below are a collection of insights from some of the greatest strategic minds who ever lived, fought or lead.

Let them guide you on whatever you do next.

1. Avoid Tactical Hell — Robert Greene, the strategist and bestselling author of 48 Laws of Power and 33 Strategies of War explains that “most of us exist in a realm that [he] call[s] tactical hell.” As he defines it, tactical hell is a place where we are perpetually reactive to other people’s demands and needs, driven by emotional instead of logical impulses, fighting battle after battle after battle. 

You need to escape it, and as he put it, choose “strategic heaven.” Because as Robert says, “strategy is a mental process in which your mind elevates itself above the battlefield.” Instead of being in the fray you are seeing things from a distance—with objectivity and detachment, gaining the skill of seeing the bigger picture.

2. Plan All the Way To the End — There is another lesson I learned from Robert which is best expressed by the French poet Jean de La Fontaine: “In everything, one must consider the end.” 

Before you jump into anything—say, writing a book—you need to fully envision the end result and have a clear objective before you throw yourself into action.


3. Think Long Term — Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and CEO explained the importance of long term thinking nearly two decades ago in his 1997 letter to shareholders. As he said, “We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term.” 

For companies—as is the case for individuals—there are always pressures to be myopic and narrow in our focus and vision. Bezos, unlike most business leaders, refused to play that game. As he explained, Amazon will always focus on the long term, “rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions.” He understood that the real value lies in thinking decades ahead. His maxim for business opportunities is also relevant here: “Focus on the things that don’t change.”

4. Practice the Art of Negative Visualization — This lesson in strategy comes from the great Stoics philosophers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. They had a term—premeditatio malorumfor visualizing failure in advance. Why would they do that? Because if you imagine failure you start seeing all the ways that have led to that result. And you can start actively working on addressing and mitigating them in advance.

5. Don’t Get Caught Off Guard — General Matthew Ridgway had the following motto behind his desk: “The only inexcusable offense in a commanding officer is to be surprised.” As a strategist, your job is to see the bigger picture and the potential perturbations in what you set out to do. Things never go according to plan—be ready and on guard for whatever comes your way.

6. Utilize the ‘Draw-Down Period’ — John Boyd was one of the most brilliant strategic minds of the 20th century. He was responsible for the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets as well as key concepts like the OODA loop (used everywhere from the military to business). Before he would jump into an idea and go full steam, he had a pre-production phase, a time he called his ‘draw-down period.’ It’s the reflective period after you’ve had the idea, after you’ve put the first round of thinking into your plan and then step back and ask: “Ok, what do I really have here?” “Do I actually have something?” “What is this really going to be?” “What am I hoping to accomplish?”


7. Take the Indirect Way — The historian and author of Strategy, B.H. Liddell Hart, condensed William Tecumseh Sherman’s strategic genius in the following maxim: Attack along the line of least expectation, and tactically along the line of least resistance. In other words, catch them by surprise, right where they are weakest.

8. Stuff Adds Up — A strategist cannot compromise on the essentials and they cannot allow distractions and tangents to slow them down. One of George Washington’s favorite sayings was the Scottish adage “Many mickles make a muckle.” Cutting a corner here and there adds up. Making this exception or that exception adds up. Waste is contagious. Related to this is a strategic concept called “mission creep.” You start out with a clear goal of what you plan to achieve—but you make this addition and that addition and let so-and-so add their pet projects too. Soon enough, it becomes something else entirely.

9. Make Haste Slowly — According to one historian, Augustus “thought nothing less becoming in a well-trained leader than haste and rashness,” which explains why festina lente (or make haste slowly) was one of his favorite sayings. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “his caution was always within an assumption of constant advance.” When we are young, deliberation and caution often gets sacrificed at the expense of rushing unthinkingly into things. If you tend to sway that way, remember the lesson: festina lente.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Confidence in Martial Arts

Over at the excellent Art of Manliness, there is an article on building one's confidence, which is also an essential part of martial arts training. Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here.

In his book, Resilience, retired Navy SEAL Eric Greitens shares letters that he wrote to a fellow veteran, Walker, who was having trouble adjusting to life back home. In one of the letters, he tells his friend the story of a phone call a boxing coach he knew once received. On the other end of the line was a heavyweight champion the coach had trained. Greitens relates how the conversation unfolded:

“Hey man,” the champ said, “I need your help.”

“Okay,” the trainer said. “What do you need?”

“I need you to take care of something for me.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Well, there’s this guy,” the champ said, “he’s in the other room, and I’m gonna take the phone in and I want you to talk to him.”

“Who is it you want me to talk to?”

“He’s my gardener.”

“Your gardener?”

“Yeah, yeah, he’s in the other room and he’s got this bill and he’s trying to overcharge me.”

“The trainer realized at this moment,” Greitens explains, “that the heavyweight champion of the world was afraid to confront his gardener over a bill.”

How could a tough-as-nails athlete who had gone toe-to-toe with boxing’s fiercest opponents be unable to face up to his gardener?

Greitens explains it to his friend this way: “Everyone, Walker, has uneven courage.”

What he labels courage, we could also call confidence.

This story likely seems eminently relatable and yet surprising at the same time. Relatable, because we all know that while we’re confident in some areas of life, we’re fearful in others. Surprising, because confidence is popularly thought of as an all-pervasive quality — we think you either have it or you don’t, and that if you have it, you have it for everything.

That’s not the only aspect of confidence we have mistaken notions about. Most of us aren’t sure how you gain it either. Is it something you’re born with? Something you can get only by doing things like standing up straighter and dressing better? Are there different kinds of confidence? If so, how do you develop its truest form?

For many, confidence seems like something of a mystery. But it doesn’t have to be. We’ll unlock its secrets below.

What Is Confidence?


Confidence is a term that gets thrown around in a lot of different ways to mean a lot of different things. It’s sometimes grouped together with other qualities like self-esteem and optimism, with which there’s certainly overlap.

Yet confidence is its own distinct quality, and is defined by the experts and scientists who study it professionally as the sense that you possess the skill and competence to successfully do a certain task — it’s having faith in your ability to make something happen or in the path you’re taking. It’s not just generally feeling good about yourself, or feeling that things in life will work out; it’s a belief that specific actions will lead to specific outcomes — that if you do X, you’ll be able to get Y. When you feel confident going into a race, it’s because you believe you have the ability to do well. When you feel confident about a decision, it’s because you believe you made the right choice.

Thus, what’s often missed about confidence is that it’s “domain specific.” That is, just because you’re confident in your ability to succeed in one area, doesn’t mean you’re confident in all areas. You might be confident when speaking in front of large crowds, and yet feel anxious when making small talk one-on-one. You might feel confident when working on your art, but nervous when entering a gym.

Since confidence is the belief that your ability matches a certain task, and we don’t have equal ability for every task, we all have “uneven confidence.”

Your Confidence Calculator

Confidence includes both an objective/rational component and a subjective/emotional component.
Research has shown that in predicting how well we’ll do something, or if we made a good decision, the brain conducts a statistical assessment of sorts. It looks at the data — the evidence of our competence, contextual circumstances, and so on — and then makes a forecast as to likely performance or outcome.

We make these kinds of confidence calculations every day. You don’t even have to think about reaching into a cabinet to grab your coffee mug in the morning, because your brain is completely confident it will be there. How your boss will react to your asking for a raise is a bigger unknown. But your brain will look at the data — the feedback he gave you at your last review, the quality of the work you’ve been doing lately, the trajectory of the company’s profits — and then generate a forecast as to your chances of getting a yes.

From this objective calculation we then get the feeling we think of as confidence. If the confidence calculator generates a gloomy forecast, we’ll feel unconfident and unsure, and be unlikely to move forward, make a decision, or try something new or hard. If the resulting forecast is sunny, we’ll feel confident and bold, and be likely to take a risk, make a choice, or attempt a difficult task.

In other words, thoughts lead to judgments, judgments lead to feelings, and feelings lead to action (or inaction). The more sure you are of your ability to do something, the more confident you’ll feel, and the more confident you feel, the more action you’ll take.

This fact obviously has huge repercussions for our happiness, success, and ability to reach our goals.

Leveling up in any area of life invariably involves going outside our comfort zone and taking a risk.

Without confidence, we’ll fail to take action, and our lives will stall out instead of progressing on.

It’s thus vital that we understand what influences the “algorithm” the brain uses to make its confidence calculations, and how we can feed it more positive data in order to generate more confident feelings, and in turn, more bold and life-changing action.

The sources that feed the confidence calculator can roughly be broken down into three influences:

The first two we commonly rely on (sometimes without even knowing it), but are inconsistent, unreliable, and not entirely within our control. The third, as we will see, is the surest, steadiest, most harnessable way to fuel our confidence.






Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Masters Kendo Match

Probably the oldest Kendoka of the 112th Enbu Taikai: Ota (Age: 102) and Takasaki (Age: 93). Ota-Sensei is one the very very few ones (only one?) who holds the title of Hanshi despite being 'only' 7th Dan. The requirement for Hanshi nowadays is minimum 8th Dan.



Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Bible of Ngo Cho Kun Kung Fu


Some martial arts have a key document, a reference, a bible; that students can always go back to and find ways to improve their performance and understanding of their art. The Gold Book of Wu Family Style of Taijiquan is a famous example. Also, a little more loosely defined, but extremely important are the Taijiquan Classics.

Another is Chinese Gentle Art Complete: The Bible of Ngo Cho Kun.

Ngo Cho Kun (Wuzuquan) is also known as Five Ancestors Fist. Ngo Cho Kun is a southern style of Kung Fu which through it’s various ancestor arts, reaches back to the Shaolin Temple.

Chinese Gentle Art Complete was first published in 1917, having been written by Yo Chiok Sam. The Bible of Ngo Cho Kun, as it is known, is the first known publication on this art. Yo Chiok Sam was a disciple of the modern founder of this art, Chua Giok Beng.

It looks to both an excellent reference for those who do study as well as glimpse into history which I personally find intriguing; a throwback to how martial arts was practiced years ago.

Ngo Cho Kun may well have been one of the inputs to Okinawan Karate; some similarities in technique are clear.

The book includes over 700 photographs depicting single and double short and long hand techniques, kneeling and evading techniques, “Nine Section Brocade,” “Nine Rotary,” and “18 Scholar” methods solo and partner drills and finally both empty hand and weapons forms.

The book has been translated by Alexander Lim Co and published by Tambuli Media.


Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Custom Katana Review

Today we have a guest post by Jonathan Bluestein.


SinoSword Katana Review

By Jonathan Bluestein
This is a review of a custom-made Katana which had been produced for me by SinoSword, also known as Jkoo Sword – a notable Chinese forge which has been popular among Western martial artists and collectors for the past few years (www.sinosword.com). SinoSword have provided me with a major discount for this katana in return for an honest review. 




Introduction
For those who do not know, I am a martial arts teacher and author hailing from Israel. I practice and teach Xing Yi Quan, Pigua Zhang and Southern Praying Mantis (the latter of the Jook Lum lineage). Given that these are all traditional Chinese martial arts, you might wander what had sparked my interest in a Japanese Katana.           
One of the weapons with which I practice is the Chinese Dao – the classical curved sword which has been in use in China for thousands of years. The dao methods which I practice have their origins in my Pigua Zhang system. However, personally like many other martial artists, I have a preference for the design of the Japanese katana over that of the Chinese dao. Conversing on this matter with my friend and colleague, shifu Byron Jacobs, he once noted that in fact, for most of the techniques and methods utilized with the Chinese dao, there ought not to be a problem for it to be replaced with the Japanese katana. This seemed even more relevant for the my specific scenario, as the dao we use in my lineage requires a straight handle like that of a katana, while most dao today are manufactured with a slightly curved handle. For many Japanese and Chinese traditionalists, such a combination between traditions will be considered blasphemy, reflecting the still strong cultural grudges held amid these peoples. Yet being that I am an Israeli, I could not care less for such nationalist feuds.                
I sought out to test this idea of using a katana for my dao methods a few months back, initially borrowing a Tozando iaito from a friend of mine. The experiment proved a success overall, with three minor issues. The first had been that some pommel striking techniques required a longer handle than that common in most katanas. The second was that the point of balance for an iaito was, while making the practice much easier, not in line with that of a Chinese dao – much closer to the handle, or less ‘tip-heavy’. The third issue was that of weight, as the iaito was of a slight 850 gram build. Together with a lower point of balance, the weight made the sword feel and move too lightly relative to a proper dao.             

It should be noted that nearly all katana and dao tend to fall between the weights of 750 – 1200
 grams (26.5-42.5 ounces), depending on their length and the size of the person supposed to wield them. Swords historically intended for combative use and cutting tended to be on the heavier side and also a bit more tip-heavy. The design of the classical Chinese dao usually gives it a wider ‘belly’ near the tip, which naturally positions the center of gravity further from the guard. Therefore, a katana made to mimic the feeling of a dao needs to also be a bit tip-heavy. This choice for a larger point of balance is also key for building up momentum in many circular dao techniques.
I opted to order my katana from SinoSword, whom as mentioned earlier provided me with a very nice discount in return for this review. SinoSword custom katana swords, without a discount, go from 50-400$ (not including shipping), depending on the materials used and the amount of work required for manufacturing them. This is a very affordable price for carbon-steel swords. Japanese manufacturers often sell fragile aluminum iaito for 500-1000$, and Japanese-made carbon-steel swords start at 1000$ and can reach the upwards of dozens of thousands.
With several Chinese forges, and SinoSword in particular, every single part of the swords they make is customizable, and it is vital when working with them (and with Chinese manufacturers in general) that every designs detail is described in your order. Failure to specify a certain element will sometimes lead to the forge making an independent decision concerning that part. Though usually if you forget something, they will let you know in advance. This begs a certain level of knowledge of swords and their components on behalf of the customer. The first step is to study the katana-specific terminology, nicely organized by SinoSword on their website:  http://sinosword.com/Japanese-sword-nihonto-glossary.html  . Later one will do well to visit the community-favourite Sword Buyer’s Guide, and read thoroughly the instructional articles present there (www.sword-buyers-guide.com/). For those of you who are beginners, I would recommend giving yourself at least a week of research on the subject before making a substantial financial investment in a sword. Also bear in mind that a good sword can last a lifetime of training – at least the blade, that is. It is worthy of your solemn consideration when making a purchase.    
The review         
The following are the specifications I requested for this particular katana. Those of you unfamiliar with katana terminology should refer to the link provided in the previous paragraph. Note that each and every detail is catered for.       
             
Blade length: 74cm     Blade sharpness:  Unsharpened.
Blade shape: Shinogi-Zukuri with  Bo Hi on both sides.   

Blade steel: 9260 steel, through-hardened    Blade polish: Mirror polish

Blade Hamon: None      Kissaki: O-Kissaki, with geometric yokote.

Tsuka length: 30cm. With two black mekugi-ana. 

Tsuka Maki: Black cotton ito, criss-cross wrap, with hashigami.

Samewaga color: Black. Material is real Stingray skin (the common choice).

Tsuba and Kashira:  GS-051     Fuchi:  A04     

Habaki: 12  (golden)       Seppa:   02 (golden)

Saya:  Y23  (plain black)   Sageo: E04  (plain black)

Koiguchi, Kurigata and kojiri:  Black horn.

Menuki: M05 (Dragon). Positioned at the center of the tsuka.

Overall length:  104cm~  (blade 74cm + tsuka 30cm + tsuba width)

Weight:  Between 900 - 950 grams. No more, no less.

Point of balance:  12cm - 14cm  from the tsuba. No more, no less.



The sword was sent to me, as usual, via EMS – which is slow but cheaper and reliable. When ordering from China, make sure to arrange a price declaration appropriate for the customs in your country (will say no more, you ought to get the clue). Also make sure you have import permits if required. I sent SinoSword my permit to be included with the package and there were no issues. The sword came packed very well in thick styrofoam and opened easily. With it was a complimentary simple sword case. You can buy fancier sword cases from SinoSword or elsewhere online for very cheap. Many designs and materials are available for these.
Unfortunately the weight of the sword was slightly off - 1300 grams with the scabbard, and 1050 grams without it. The sword was supposed to be 950 grams without the scabbard. A difference of 100 grams might not seem like much, but with a katana or a dao it is significant. Fortunately I was used to training with a 1100 gram suburito, so for me personally that was not too bad. What I think likely happened was that SinoSword thought it more important to be accurate with the point of balance, which they succeeded with brilliantly (playing with the POB often requires compromising the overall weight). The correct point of balance makes a heavier sword feel much lighter. The sword is still slightly tip-heavy as intended.

One of the most important points for katana construction is making the koiguchi right. It is the mouth of the saya, the entry point of the blade into the scabbard. The koiguchi needs to be structurally firm, allowing for easy unsheathing but also holding the blade firmly enough so that the katana can be held upside-down inside the scabbard and not fall out. This was achieved with their katana, and is no easy feat. The saya itself is just as requested and meticulously made. The only minor flaws were a few tiny scratches here and there, likely to have occurred in the factory or during packaging and went unnoticed. These are barely visible.


The handle and fittings could not have been made better. The tsuka-maki (handle wrap), made of black cotton, is very tight and does not bulge a millimeter. I requested special rice paper triangular holders called Hashigami to be included under the tsuak-maki and they are indeed present and useful for keeping the wrap in place. While this tsuka feels ‘just right’ for my relatively smaller palms, I suspect that this ‘default’ handle diameter of traditional katanas might prove too delicate for tall individuals. For this reason, if your height is above 180cm (5’9), I suggest you give the tsuka diameter more consideration when you research this subject. The tsuka length here was actually longer than usual at my request. This was to allow for some pommel-striking techniques to be used well, and to enable me to practice some Miao Dao techniques with this sword even though it is shorter overall (the miao dao handles are much longer than those of regular katana). 
             
The Menuki is a characteristic katana element – a small, usually elongated piece of ornament, often made from brass, included on both sides of the handle right under the tsuka-maki. Mine is in the shape of a Chinese dragon. It helps with grip stability and hand orientation over the handle. On this katana it blended very well with the tsuka-maki and the samegawa (stingray skin; this is a non-vegan katana).    
The menuki also matches the tsuba (guard), which also features a dragon, rising from the water. The two seppa (small golden brass fittings) from either side of the tsuba were hammered well into it, creating a stable block of material holding the sword together. Within the tsuba are two holes, as is often the case with traditionally-made katanas. The holes were originally intended for passing a ribbon or sash to be tied to the warrior’s wrist. In battlefield combat, when the warrior may have accidentally loosened his grip, the sword will then remain attached to him despite of that momentary error. This is however a strategy which was not used for dueling. The tsuba itself is moderately rectangular – a shape which I have found to be easier to manipulate in various techniques with which the tsuba rests against the palms or wrists.                         

What else is holding the sword together are the mekugi-ana – two bamboo pins which fit into holes inside the tsuka and inside the base of the blade contained within it. Some katanas are made with just one mekugi-ana, but I prefer having two for safety. Some people even ask to have three of them. The mekugi-ana are not visible in some of the pictures because they were painted black and blend quite well with the rest of the tsuka. They can however be taken out with a small specialized hammer, and this allows for the sword to be disassembled for cleaning or replacing parts if needed.
                


The most important part of any sword is arguably the blade. First, because it determines the sword’s function to the utmost. Second, because good, well-maintained blades can survive for hundreds of years, while the other parts tend to degrade much faster and are cheaper and easier to replace.  
The blade for this sword was made from 9260 steel, known as ‘spring steel’. It is true carbon steel (meaning it will rust without care!), containing about 2% silicone, making it rather flexible. It can bend a lot sideways (with considerable force is applied) and still bounce back to its original shape without breaking, cracking or losing its structural integrity. Because of their flexibility, 9260 blades rarely shatter.  For these reasons, this is one of the most popular types of steel used today. This type of steel however benefits less from the traditional folding method of Japanese katanas, with some claiming it is even harmful to it, making a 9260 blade weaker. For this reason I have opted to not have the steel of this blade folded, which is why the blade does not feature the popular ‘Damascus’ wavy pattern on it. Rather, it features a uniform glossy pattern with a mirror polish; meaning that the blade appears even throughout, and is clear enough to be used as a mirror.      
The blade came responsibly covered with sword oil (to prevent rust), which is the reason for the ‘dirty’ look of it in some of the picture. In other pictures the oil was removed to see the true polish. As can been seen in the latter, the blade includes no hamon (wave pattern on the bottom sides). The tip geometry is elongated on purpose, to have a more ‘dao-like’ appearance. The blade came smooth and without any marks whatsoever.  

I am very pleased with the way in which this sword handles. It is neither overbearing nor too light. The weight and point of balance mimic the dao well. The construction feels sturdy and parts do not shake or seem to lose their fit at any time. The Bohi groove generates good, clear cutting sounds when the sword is maneuvered through the air with correct technique, providing ample feedback. The tsuka offers decent grip but does not lock the hand into place. The tsuba design is beautiful, comfortable, and does not scratch one’s hand in practice. The sword maintains decent balance when carried inside the saya, too, and is not at all a burden when carried from place to place.         

Overall I am quite pleased with this purchase. I think SinoSword have done a great job with this one. It is evident that this sword is built to last. One could argue that this is probably not among the best swords being sold out there. Fair enough. But for the price of a traditionally-made katana from Japan, I could likely purchase 10-20 of these swords, or even more! In this day and age, with that kind of money, I would rather buy myself a vehicle… which is needed, of course, to get to work, earn more money, and afford more weapons. So unless you seek time-traveling opportunities to feudal Japan, if you are not wealthy, then by all means go for the SinoSword option. This katana of mine represents a middle-grade class, and they can produce superior specimen, too. Check their website, and let them know Jonathan Bluestein sent you to get a discount, too.

______________________________________________

The author of this article, Jonathan Bluestein, can be contacted directly at:  jonathan.bluestein@gmail.com . Shifu Bluestein is a practitioner and teacher of Xing Yi Quan, Pigua Zhang and Jook Lum Southern Mantis. These arts are taught by him at his academy in Israel, and also in seminars abroad. Shifu Bluestein is also a best-selling author on the martial arts. Be sure to check out his popular books:  Research of Martial Arts and The Martial Arts Teacher



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All rights of this article are and the pictures within it are reserved to Jonathan Bluestein ©. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission, in writing, from Jonathan Bluestein. Jonathan may be contacted directly via email:  jonathan.bluestein@gmail.com

Sunday, January 01, 2017

What Do You Want for the New Year?

Discipline is remembering what you want. So what do you want for the new year? Obstacles help us distinguish between those things which we only think that we want from those which we really want.

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Art of Manliness, asking the question "what do you want" and why it is so important to ask yourself and answer that question. The whole article may be read here.

“The best thing is to want what is right (the honesta) and not to stray from the path.” –Seneca
“[W]e go to far less trouble about making ourselves happy than about appearing to be so.” –La Rochefoucauld
“My life … is for itself and not for a spectacle.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
“To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” –Marcel Proust
My biggest fear is to live a life I regret.

It’s easy to fall into the trap Proust is talking about and spend life blindly chasing something you never actually wanted.

Blindly following your desires makes you a slave to your impulses — slave to the assumptions of those around you, the advertisements you’re exposed to, and the confused chemical signals of your body.

Our default is to spend our life as rats blindly chasing the next dopamine hit.

This isn’t a setting easily adjusted, but it’s worth shifting our aims and becoming fully human.

If we don’t pause and ask ourselves what we want to want, we will spend our lives focused on unhealthy aims defined for us by others and the worst parts of ourselves. We will pass these bad assumptions about life onto our children and loved ones. We will reinforce these boring, desperate defaults in everyone we encounter.

To achieve freedom we must be able to think for ourselves. If we don’t cut to the core and reprogram our wants (our desires) then our best-case scenario is to be the most successful, rich, or famous slave. If we never peer into our programming then we may end up the cleverest rat, but that’s hardly worth celebrating.

Asking yourself what you want to want can help you avoid wanting the wrong things.
It can also help with existential crises, disillusionment, and other crises of desire. The current culture has betrayed us in the way it programs our desires. It’s exhausted many of us to the point where we’re wary of wanting anything at all.

Asking this question may give you the ability to desire again — to trust in yourself and your aims:

What do you want to want?

To answer this question seriously we have to understand what it is and why it matters, so we’ll start there.

We’ll then look at two ways in which we can start ridding ourselves of society’s default desires, and discover and shift to living out our own.

Let’s get into it.

You Are What You Want

There’s never been a time in human history where it was easy for someone to trade in their status quo wants for deliberately chosen desires, but we live in a period where this project is particularly difficult.

There’s no single dominant, cohesive culture and there are endless options — a million different lifestyles and beliefs to try on and a never-ending buffet of things to want. There are a million advertisers and content creators competing for your attention, playing on your insecurities. It’s a time of acute cross-pressures, and folks aren’t sure which way to go.

In such a period, people don’t have the willpower to sort through the barrage of options, and they default to the kinds of things that please their biological cravings (food, sex), or the kinds of pursuits that have been desired by humanity for thousands of years (wealth, fame, power).

It’s a dizzying time, but not a wholly unique one.

The ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism was born in a time of anomie, or “normlessness,” similar to ours. Their social structures were breaking down; the normal societal games used to divvy up honor and respect were broken.

Carlin Barton puts it this way in Roman Honor: “With the loss of the rules and conditions of the good contest, the entire language of honor ‘imploded’ and had to be ‘reconstructed.’” Imagine the anxiety this would cause a society that was built completely around living for honor.

The early Stoics had to go back to foundational principles to discover what truly mattered in life.

They had to ask themselves the question we’ll look at here:

What do I want to want?

Many of the stable arenas in which a Roman could formerly earn the respect of his peers had collapsed. Into this vacuum stepped the Stoic philosophers, who offered guidance on how to navigate their newly fragmented world.

For this reason, these ancient philosophers are particularly helpful in illuminating what ails modernity and teaching us how to reconstruct a system in which we can thrive. For example, Seneca makes this observation about folks who didn’t take charge of what they wanted in his time:
“If you ask one of them as he comes out of a house, ‘Where are you going? What do you have in mind?’ he will reply, ‘I really don’t know; but I’ll see some people, I’ll do something.’ They wander around aimlessly looking for employment, and they do not what they intended but what they happen to run across. Their roaming is idle and pointless, like ants crawling over bushes, which purposelessly make their way right up to the topmost branch and then all the way down again. Many people live a life like these creatures, and you could not unjustly call it busy idleness.”
Sounds familiar, right? Such drifting may be as old as civilization itself, but we don’t have to take part.

In times of uncertainty and flexibility, like Seneca’s and ours — when everything seems to be in chaos and nobody knows what’s going to happen next — knowing what you want to want, and being able to reprogram your default desires, is both vitally important and uniquely possible.

Why What You Want Matters

“Every chance of stimulation and distraction is welcome to [the mind] — even more welcome to all those inferior characters who actually enjoy being worn out by busy activity. There are certain bodily sores which welcome the hands that will hurt them, and long to be touched, and a foul itch loves to be scratched: in the same way I would say that those minds on which desires have broken out like horrid sores take delight in toil and aggravation.” –Seneca, Tranquility of Mind