Sunday, February 11, 2018

the martial context

The martial arts may have begun as an expedient means to train warriors to fight and hone their skills, to improve their chances of survival and success in battle, but they've long since evolved into something far broader and richer than that.

What unites them all is that they take combat as context, but what they do with that, including how literally they take it, varies widely.

That context provides a framework which renders meaningful what might otherwise be random, pointless movement. If near-term utility is a pressing concern, as for soldiers training for impending deployment, that context can also be a powerful source of motivation.

But even when utility is not an immediate priority, or no priority at all, having such a demanding context can help to focus the mind and drive practice towards perfection. One trains to make one's actions real, to invest them with integrity, as defined by the context, even if one has no expectation of ever using the skills developed in combat.

More importantly, through practicing in this manner, one is brought face-to-face with one's frailties as well as one's strengths, and ultimately with oneself.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

grace, speed, and power

Grace will serve you in all things, even those not involving physical movement.

Grace and speed may be enough to keep you safe in most circumstances.

If you've already acquired grace and speed, you have recourse to options not requiring power, and are free to not use it, even after developing it.

Therefore, grace, speed, and power, in that order.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

perhaps not such a bad start after all

Now that I've had some time to get over my initial disappointment, I find there's more value here than I'd been thinking when I quit posting, in early 2014.

So, if and when I do make another pass at this, it will most likely be as a continuation of this blog rather than in any other format.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

that's all, for now

I'm really not happy with how this blog has turned out.

Yes, there are some good ideas here, but what I've posted really doesn't make those ideas as accessible as I would like, and there are problems with the (lack of) organization and with not having had a clear idea of what I wanted to say at the outset.

Also, I can't go as deep into this subject as I would like without addressing the application, self defense, which becomes more important as one becomes more vulnerable with advancing age. I believe that it is possible to incorporate this consideration into one's physical activities without having it encroach into aspects of one's life where it does not belong, but this is something of a balancing act which I don't feel I can do justice to in this format.

So, I'm going to consider this a false start, which I may or may not ever get around to replacing. If not, it will have to stand as is, for however long Google consents to keep it online.

If I do come up with something better, I'll post a pointer to it here.

Friday, August 9, 2013

attentiveness and the integration of practice into life

When your practice is about a quality of mind and motion, rather than about particular motions, every moment becomes an opportunity to apply it and to hone your skills, and this is never more true than when one's body isn't functioning normally.

As one ages, one discovers how easy it can be to handicap oneself. An afternoon of immoderate exertion is all too likely to be followed by days of pain and weeks of tenderness.

While avoiding this in the first place is preferable, the need to favor an ankle, knee, or hip can be an interesting, useful experience, putting a fine point on issues of balance, kinetics, and inconvenient neurological responses to pain, like when your leg suddenly decides to go limp and collapse beneath you.

Avoiding too much stress on the better leg is an important part of this process, just as important as avoiding further strain to the leg causing trouble.

But you needn't wait for an injury to put this principle to work. The first step is to pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you feel cramped, you probably need to readjust your position, perhaps expand your lungs. If you feel fidgety, you probably need to move. If you can't get up and stretch try rocking from side to side or front to back.

Pay attention to posture and body mechanics, especially when doing something unfamiliar or lifting more weight than usual, and don't be afraid to ask for help if that weight is more than you should be attempting to lift by yourself. There's no shame in having limits; it goes with being human.

On the other hand, don't be afraid to cautiously explore those limits. You may be surprised how much latitude they afford, even in your later years.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

the nature of chi and the value of imagination

Just glancing at the title above, you might think that I am about to take the position that chi is imaginary. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my view, chi is very real, but at a level of abstraction that would be intangible, were it not for the immense computational power of the cerebellum.

Understand that I'm not talking about symbolic computation, but something more comparable to what an analog computer does, performing accumulations and other transformations on combinations of inputs (usually either current or voltage levels) to produce outputs in a useful form. In the cerebellum, the inputs and outputs are patterns of neural activity, and the available transformations include rates of change.

In calculus, a rate of change is referred to as a derivative. An example commonly used in conveying the concept is the sequence: position, motion, and acceleration. Motion, being a rate of change in position, is its first derivative. Acceleration, being a rate of change in motion, is its first derivative, and the second derivative of position. The next step in this sequence is variously termed jerk, jolt, surge, or lurch. Jerk is the rate of change in acceleration, and therefore its first derivative. It is also the second derivative of motion and the third derivative of position.

Before getting into how this relates to the cerebellum and the subjective experience of chi, I need to introduce another set of concepts: mass, force, impulse, and momentum. Mass is like weight, and is in fact proportional to weight if gravity is held constant. Weight is the force exerted on a mass due to gravity, and in fact varies slightly from one location to another across Earth's surface, despite being measured using a constant mass. But force isn't limited to gravity. Electrical and magnetic fields can also exert force. So can flowing air or water, or the skin of one's fingertips when throwing a ball.

Momentum is the multiplicative product of mass and velocity (motion or rate of change in position). Velocities are produced by accelerations. Mechanical force is commonly defined as the multiplicative product of mass and acceleration, and impulse is the multiplicative product of force and time. If mass is held constant, force is proportional to the rate of change in velocity, which is to say that it is proportional to acceleration, and impulse (force x time) is proportional to the accumulation of change in velocity. With variable mass, force is the rate of change in momentum, and impulse is an accumulation of change in momentum.

The thing about impulse is that it is agnostic with respect to time. Time is factored out. A given impulse can represent a small force over a longish time or it can represent a strong force over a very short time. To fold this back into the above discussion of motion and its first and second derivatives, an impulse delivered as a small force over a longish time has a low jerk factor, whereas an equivalent impulse delivered as a high force over a short time has a high jerk factor – a sudden, sharp change in acceleration.

Jerk can result from a hard body part, like the skull, coming into contact with an unyielding surface, like a brick wall, or it can result from a coordinated explosion of neuro-muscular activity. Either way there is some potential for injury, and part of what the cerebellum does is to avoid dangerous extremes.

Now, to come full circle, I believe chi to be the subjective experience of momentum, force, and (most notably) impulse [and the projection of these a fraction of a second to a few seconds into the future - 25Sept2016]. Imagination figures in because the cerebellum will just as happily estimate these quantities for imaginary objects and fanciful circumstances as for real objects and circumstances – whatever is presented to it, so long as that presentation is vivid and convincing. Imagine yourself doing some difficult movement and your cerebellum will issue the instructions to perform it, the danger being that if you lack either the strength or the range of motion you may end up on the ground in a heap.

Imagination is seldom as convincing as reality, but it can still produce an effect on the cerebellum's output. Moreover, in some cases, as with the square root of minus one, the imaginary nature of what's presented to the cerebellum can factor out. For example, if you imagine passing a ball back and forth between your hands, the additional impulse needed to accelerate the imaginary ball results in your arms moving faster than they otherwise would, but by the time those forces are transmitted to your legs, there is no discernible difference between an imaginary ball and a real one. Another example, if you want to build strength for faster side-stepping, imagine that you are standing over the pivot of a teeter-tooter, having to push yourself up as well as sideways with every sideways step.

I rather like the effect of imagining the handling of a ball, about the size and mass of a volleyball, sometimes incorporating this into my practice, and, because I spent so much time doing so, it's relatively easy for me to imagine the handling of an end-weighted staff convincingly enough that I can practically feel its weight in my hands. I expect this is similar to arts, like Escrima, in which one starts out using sticks and then progresses to empty-hand.

Caveat: I have attributed neural activity which is distributed through other parts of the brain to the cerebellum as a simplification. It's true that the cerebellum plays a pivotal role in coordinating movement. That it does so in close cooperation with the brain stem and midbrain seems beyond the scope of the present purpose, although the reader may be interested in pursuing greater detail.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

on symmetry and long lines

Whether recirculating or reciprocating, exercises may be bilaterally (left/right) symmetrical, but aren't necessarily so. Exercises that are not bilaterally symmetrical should be performed on both sides (both mirror-image versions) to approximately the same degree.

There are other symmetries, which can usually be described in terms of rotation, either circular movements or the twisting of a hand, foot, shoulder, or hip to its limit. Circular movements are generally reversible and should usually be performed in both directions. Twisting may also be reversed, although doing so usually causes the original motion to become awkward and in need of other modifications if it is to continue to flow smoothly.

Gently oscillating between opposite twists is a fine, and a good way to familiarize yourself with the limits of movement, but doing so can quickly become boring. It helps to combine joints, for instance rotating one hand as far as you can, twisting shoulder, forearm, and wrist all in the same direction, perhaps twisting the other hand at the same time, either in the same direction or in the opposite direction.

By combining arm/hand and leg/foot twisting together, you will discover that there are stress lines, like rubber bands pulled tight, which you could trace through muscles and tendons, extending continuously from toe to fingertip. These are not the meridians of Chinese medicine, but a chain of tissues that are all being stretched at the same time. You'll also find that the second step in reversing the twisting motion (after relaxing the muscles that put you into a twist in the first place) is to contract all of the muscles along that chain, and that if you continue to do so the result will be an approximately opposite twist.

These long lines, composed of chains of muscle and tendon, when uniformly stretched and developed, are capable of generating movement that is both graceful and powerful, because it involves the entire body.