Thursday, December 17, 2009

Your sensei is not Dr Phil

One thing that I have noticed in some martial art schools is the not-so-subtle deification of the martial arts teacher into some sort of all around guru is capable not just of teaching a front kick, but also someone who is qualified to give you advice on your love life, finances, career etc. It's as though that person by virtue of the fact that they can move their hands and feet in circular movements, suddenly gains enlightenment in counselling skills.

So my opinion is this:

Your sensei is not a superman. He is not your priest, guru or enlightened noble leader either. He can't do your taxes (or maybe he can if he has a CPA!), he shouldn't be fixing your car and he can't tell your future about who you should marry or not. He's not Dr Phil, Warren Buffet, Martha Stewart or Kobe Bryant rolled into one. He's just a man. Granted, a man with great skills but at the end of the day, he puts his pants on one leg at a time and still gets hungry, thirsty and cranky; just like you and me.

I blame Karate Kid's Mr Miyagi for this wrong impression of a sensei. Come on, one moment this kid is learning karate and suddenly, he's flying half way around the world and ends up in a castle in Okinawa fighting for his life against some guy with a spear. That's the sort of positive guidance and advice he got from his sensei?!?

You should find less of this deification in martial arts like Judo, BJJ and arts that emphasise alive sparring. That is, against a resisting opponent. In fact, I esteemed my instructors even higher when I saw them take to the mat in randori against all comers. Even when some of them were at seventy years old, they could still pull of their techniques against others. That's amazing stuff. I look up to them and use them as a example of the kind of Judoka, BJJer that I want to be when I get much older. They should be accorded much due respect..

..but I'm not gonna get them to do my tax return next year. :-)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Passing the torch, but keeping the light

One of the recurrent themes in hero based mythology is not just the archtypical journey taken by our main protaganist in search of adventure (and this is a metaphor for examining oneself, but that of the young hero replacing the old. What always follows is a tale riddled with tension and dramatic conflict. Witness King Arthur and Lancelot, Menelaus and Paris in Homer's Troy. Or King Saul and David.

At the heart of this intergenerational warfare is the aspect of an old man who's power and influence is on the wane and there is a young buck rising to challenge the incumbent for the seat of power. It is more or less apparent in the martial arts as well. How many times have we heard ridiculous stories of the Old Master getting more dangerous as he grows older, because his 'chi' or whatever increases proportionately with age

I suspect such tales are generated to secure the position of someone who already knows the plain truth: You will die someday and after peaking, your martial skills are not going to get better. They will only decline as your physical body ages. That's a brutal medical fact

A few weeks ago, I got a taste of this in Malacca when I visited a Judo dojo with a contingent from the Bangsar Judo Club. It quickly became apparent that 40 is not the new 20, or 30 for that matter. The calesthenics blew our best fighter out the water, and he's only 28. Most of us could only look miserably as their young, fit competition fighters did exercise after exercise.

Then when it came to the 'friendly' matches, it quickly became obvious that I was aging too gracefully. After some initial attempts to do judo in a calm, zen sage like way; I realised that this was a recipe for getting my satori butt handed to me in a heartbeat. So I did what any mature adult who has held a responsible managerial position in work did; I unleashed my inner young punk. It worked for a while, except..

I wasn't young anymore

It was as if the ego couldn't take some young whippersnapper intruding in on my territory. Plus, he was making me look bad! No way this old dog was going to roll over and play dead. So, I put my game into overdrive but like most machines when you do that, baaaaaaaad stuff happens

My body knew and wanted to say "No mas!" but my mind refused to accept it. Here's a tip. Mind over matter is B.S. Pretty soon, the body will just say 'Well, fine, you wanna play Mr Macho..I'm not going along for the ride'. And it caves. That's how I fractured my toe.

Of course while the adrenalin was pumping, I was still talking trash worthy of a bratty MTV watching teen. After it stopped..well, the hurt began. And it really hurt. Really.

So I learnt an important lesson that day - you can't stop the tide of time. If you've had a good run, be grateful that you had the chance to do so. It's not your time anymore - it's theirs.

With as much class as possible, accept your new role now as adviser, coach, wise teacher, class comic relief or whatever. Anything except trying to be the World's No.1 bad-ass fighter. That time has pass and you'll never, I repeat - never, get it back again.

And then maybe you'll avoid the nasty endings that befell the various old codgers in mythology who didn't step aside and retire peacefully into the night when the young 'uns came-a-knocking on their door. They either died violently or looked like absolute idiots trying to hold on to power like water in a hand - eventually, it slipped through

I guess in that context, I'm lucky to get away with just a fractured toe :-)

You have to pass the torch to the next generation, but the light that you got from holding that for a while..well, that's inside you now. You can keep that and it's far brighter than the one coming from the torch because this one comes from the Heart

See you on the tatami!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Beautiful Judo Part 3: It really is beautiful!

When I first wrote that article on 'Beautiful Judo' over a year ago, I had no idea what I was in for. There were months of sheer frustration and butt whipping (me being the receiver) and the Judo looked about as beautiful as two slugs wrestling encased in resin. I was really, really beginning to wonder if all this was just a pipe dream and Kano and Co. were smoking the tatami mats.

Then I broke my foot.

This precipitated a real bout of depression where I questioned if I ever even wanted to do martial arts. Let alone Judo. And still further from my mind, beautiful judo.

But when I came back, very oddly, I had no choice. My aching, ageing body couldn't do all the WWF bastardised wrestling moves that I was throwing on the mat (very unsuccessfully I might add). So, I went back to Sensei JAL (remember him?) and worked with him on regaining whatever little form I had before I injured myself. All this while, the monkey on my back kept chattering " You fool! This isn't going to work"

Oh, but it did.

I can't for sure remember when. But it started with me getting some kuzushi (unbalancing) on my opponent when I randoried. Then, these became minor scores. Who cared? I was ecstastic, even with the small scores. Then the minor scores became larger, until finally...


With an uchimata: the hardest, most singularly revered throw in Judo that defines the beauty, grace, power, harmony and lethality of Judo. For ten years, I heard that small men like me should forget uchimata and concentrate on throws like seio nage (shoulder throws),that I was wasting my time. But somehow, I persisted with the big man throws. Maybe there's a big man in this small frame, maybe I'm just stubborn. Or an idiot

But I'm an idiot with an Ippon :-)

I owe it all to Sensei JAL. What a teacher and a man. His advice was secondary. Everyone has some good advice in them now and then. It was his patience, his example as a teacher that I almost revere and totally respect. He knew that it would come, even though I was whingeing like a spoilt brat incessantly but he knew that beautiful judo is painful, and it takes time

And it really is beautiful

Monday, August 3, 2009

Get out of the gym and onto the mats for a REAL change

I used to be a member of one of those franchise gyms many years ago. It was so way back that it was only one of a two gym franchise, and still, it was the biggest operation then in Malaysia. I liked it, and went quite regularly but never really lost any weight. In fact, I kind of gained some kilos during my time there. This could have been due to the fact that after the workouts, I would head to the Hotel restaurant in which the gym was located, for a buffet dinner. (200 calories burnt up, 1000 calories in; you do the math…)

There are two problems with going to the gym, or engaging in what I would call individual centered workouts. They are:

1) It is too easy to fool yourself. I could lift 40kilos on one day, then 50 a week later and suddenly I have a notion that I’m superman and can do anything, including saving the world, curing cancer and winning the Noble prize. Actually, all it means is that you can lift a cable assisted set of weights 10-12 times over your head in an air-conditioned hermetically sealed environment. Period.
2) I have no accountability. One week I could be as passionate as Sly Stallone in ‘Rocky’ and the next, I’m scarfing Rocky Roads watching Sly Stallone on DVD in my couch. But hey, I can get away with this because no one is checking on me
3) Lastly, and this is the most worrying. I cultivate the idea that it’s all about me. My workouts. My improvement. The ego gets a major workout

One great thing about alive training in a combat sport is that it strips that vanity of the self away pretty quick. And it teaches one very important lesson that the gym doesn’t – that life is unpredictable.

When I spar in my CMD class, the one thing I have to be is switched on constantly. Total awareness. If not, then a 6 foot 2 inch, 90 kg Frenchman called Pat is going to steam roll me, or if I lose concentration, there’s a chance that those heavy hands from Charles is going to take my head off. Or Adrian “the new Randy Coutere” will double leg me on the mats.

So even if I managed to acquit myself quite well in sparring on Monday, come Wednesday and it’s a whole new ball game. The hunter could become the hunted, and in a matter of two days, I could have gone from hero to zero.

But this is the great thing about the combat sports. Done correctly, it’s ego destroying, and well it should be. I should come out learning some new things about myself and what I can’t and can not do. My training partner is my foil. I get immediate feedback about whether what I do works, if I’ve been cheating on my training and best of all, it’s a relationship

In the end, it’s not just about me. My training partner is involved as well, and if he or she is any good, they will know how to run the fine line between pushing you to the limit and going past that. They will also present with an honest assessment of your abilities. And you should do the same with them. A gym machine or inert weights can’t do that. You can adjust them to suit whatever perception you want of yourself. Not so with a live, active training partner

I know some of my friends who have tried both and gone back to the gym. Sometimes, I’m not sure why that is. Maybe the realisation or sudden self awareness is too jarring for them. It could be they don’t like what they see in the mirror and prefer to go back to the illusory world where they feel that they are a god. The ego likes nothing better than that

Hopefully, I don’t come across as someone who sounds like he’s denigrating weights or other non-combat sport activities. I lift weights, run and swim – and love doing it. It’s just that I strongly believe that people could benefit from the mask removing properties in the combat sports done right.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The black? - it means nothing, my friend..

I've been a brown belt in Judo for time immemorial. True, not all of that time was spent training. Some of it was rest for injury, and other moments were filled with inconsistent moments. It happens when one grows older and other responsibilites come in. However, I told myself that I would commit myself to getting my black belt in the near future; and as a result, my training has been more consistent and focussed.

Yesterday, my sensei told me that I was overdue for my black. And my reply was that "well, I don't know. Some green belts still throw me around the place". His reply was amazing

"Don't worry. When I became a black belt, even white belts threw me"

This was a teacher I regard as the sensei of sensei's. A gold standard for everything Judo. And here he was telling me that even if I got my black belt, I would still get my butt kicked?

Of course I would. He showed the greatest wisdom is telling me that, and which brought be back to the heart of Judo; something I had forgotten in my zeal to get that coveted black belt at all costs. In conveying that to me, he was telling me something profound, which was : " It's just a belt. Don't get too hung up over it"

Sometimes, I forget this, honestly, I have to say that the underlying macho philosophy in combat sports can make you incredibly insecure instead of the other way around. Listen closely, and you will hear these phrases:

" I can't tap to him. I'm a blue belt in BJJ, he's a white"

" I can't lose to her - she's a girl!"

" I can't get thrown by him, I'm a black belt in Judo, Why, he doesn't even do Judo!"

" I got hit by his jab? No way!"

..and so on.

The common denominator among all those comments in the pronoun " I can't..". It's all ego and it's all about the person I love most in the world - me.

At times, we need the essence of Judo to permeate what we do in the combat sports. It's called "Jito Kyoei" - mutual welfare. A care for your training partner, teacher, gym, sports and the greater community as a whole. Grandmaster Kano was more interested in the character of the Judoka than the Judo he or she did. In other words, he was all about mutual welfare.

We don't get enough of this in submission wrestling and BJJ unfortunately. Maybe it is a particularly western concept to divorce any philosophy from whatever we do but this is impossible in my opinion. No philosophy means you switch to a default philosophy, which is primal, animalistic and selfish in nature. You want to win at all costs. I would love to see a different spirit in these two sports, which I also really like, where mutual concern for the overall well being of the participants in paramount to just blind physical domination

Which is why I love Judo. It has the same characteristics of a combat sport, but the ideas behind it, the small attempts to introduce concepts like humility, a sense of purpose and character development testify to the real genuius of the founder, not just his synthesization of techniques.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Stones in the road

Okay, so much for my last post. Long story kept short - I'm back on the mats, and sorry Rizan, you can't have my gi! :-)

What does it feel like to be back training again? In short most of the same emotions are there. I feel elated when I pull off a technique. Other times, relaxed and refreshed after a good workout. Relief when I end the week with no major injuries. Shame when I willfully go a bit too hard and injure my training partner. Anger when I see someone get bullied in class. Melancholy when I think about certain regrets and anxiety when I realise that in my advancing age; it's only going to get tougher

I disagree with those who take a totally one dimensional "banzai" view of training. Who say things like " Dude! I'm gonna train hard forever! Be like the UFC fighters, man!" Most times, I'll put it down to the perceived immortality and invincibility of youth. But like most things in life, it's an illusion

There's a magazine called "BestMan" in my newsagent. It's one of those men's fitness/lifestyle rags which exhort you to eat well, live a full life and maximise your time of this planet. Sounds good, right? It was until I saw the cover, and that's when I laughed out loud - scaring the clerk at the counter. It said:

"Stay young forever'

The problem with our present society is that you can't stay young forever. You will get older. I'm sorry, but all the botox and situps in the world won't change that

We idolise youth and vigour and demonise anything else. So we make it an obsession to maintain what we are doing and exist only to serve ourselves- damn what anyone else is doing or thinking. Thus, it was that way with my martial arts. It was all for me. Do something for yourself. it's about you

Then I realised that the problem with this is that it breeds a negative, self-centered view of the world and yourself. It may be less satifying to give up your training to spend some time for your kids and family but in the end, isn't the world a better place if your son growns up having spent time with his father? A friend in need could benefit from the one hour of your time you could have spent lifting weights. His or her life could be changed as a result

These perceived obstacles are not really barriers to growth - they are assistants to it, actually. They are stones in the road. When you trek a hill path, it can be pretty boring at times. The stones in some of the trails provide a fascinating change to the long, sometimes unending scenery of the road. And at times, they even provide traction and sure footing when the trail is slippery

So, I'm training. Not for myself. But for God. And that is the path that's been laid out for me

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Can you live without the martial arts?

I haven't updated this blog in a while as most of the activity has been on my christian one (Free plug!) Thus, it is odd that I choose to update at a time when I am severely injured and will be out for a good 2 or 3 months

Therefore, no better time to ruminate and reflect on that old question: What do the martial arts mean to me? But sorry, being the academic that I think I am - there's an intellectual proposition I want to make first, from a psychological and sociological viewpoint

There is notion in current society that says that it is good to have pursuits, or hobbies. But for the first time in history, we have never had as much spare time or affluence. So, this affords us the luxury of indulging in your inane hobbies for amazing lengths of time. Your basic Maslowian needs are met. So, the rest is spent in search of what he called the journey for self-awareness. Or if not, time fillers such as watching TV...

Currently, martial arts are pursued as a hobby for most people. Because you don't work in agrarian china anymore, you have your saturday afternoons to go to open mats instead of repairing the bullock cart. There is no need to learn the martial arts for life and death situations because the mongols are not likely anymore to come galloping over the plains. So, you can do it for fun and as a recreational activity

Which comes to the question: can you give it up?

Sometimes, when I speak to certain individuals, they speak about BJJ or MMA as if it is oxygen to them. They miss one session and their whole world collapses. Depression follows and don't get me started on what they are like outside of the gym. They are never outside the gym. All they want to do is talk again about that technique, that fight, get the point. It's an obsession. A way of life

What bollocks.

You will find that the majority of people who hold to this view are young males with loose social ties. If they run in a pack, they run with other of the same ilk. You are less likely to find this when the person is settled down in a relationship, married or has kids. Or they work and are involved in other activities outside. Sometimes, I hear my friend's moan when they say their wife stops them from going to training. You know what? At times, this may be a good thing.Maybe she has a sense of perspective

I think that this is a subtle distortion of the self-awareness psychobabble that is pitched through the media these days. Find your bliss. Make your self happy. Sure sounds good as a sound bite but let me know how relevant that is when you get older. When there are bills to pay. The electric company is not as concerned about you finding your self fulfilment as opposed to getting paid ontime. Time and impending mortality have a way of reinventing your personal wheel

If it's a recreational activity, you can give it up. Trust me, you won't die without it. And even if you do die, what use was it anyway if it caused your demise?

Thus, I am finding that the answer is yes. I can live without the martial arts even though I have spent many years, money and sacrificed much for it. It's not a vehicle to unlocking the secrets of the universe nor is it salvation for your soul - it's just a set of exercises. And while it was fun, it's not the alpha and omega.