Embedding the Skill

Learning any combative art is about practicing until you get it, know it and can sleep walk it.

Someone recently told me that doing CMA should be as easy as walking. He is not talking about the practice being easy. Instead, he is saying that one should practice the chosen skills until it is as natural and as easy as walking.

More than two decades ago my Wing Chun senior was talking about being formless. But what does it really mean, to be formless?

If you look to the art world particularly to the modern masters you may note that even abstract art masters have to study classical painting before they evolve into abstract art. In the context of CMA this means that to be formless you first have to master form.

In Tai Chi we normally just work on one form for years before learning another. This is not saying that you can’t learn another form after you finish learning the first form. You can.

However, you end up with cursory understanding of the form. You need to move your practice from surface scraping understanding to beneath the skin understanding, before you ultimately reach bone level understanding. So the more forms you have to practice the less time you have to focus, to specialize.

Of course, you can also learn many forms but just work on less rather than more. The more you understand the one form the more you know its nooks and corners, not just remembering the sequence but how different parts of the form can be used to form new sequences.

In the end, your form may have say 10 sequences but by understanding how it works you can easily form another 20 sequences by combining different techniques. Normally, an easy way to help understand this learning process is by doing push hands because when you learn to apply the techniques you are forced to confront what you don’t know.

Its not just in CMA that we learn to be formless. In Kali what is termed free flow is similar to what we call formlessness. Basically, free flow is the ability to take your basics and move through them freely to make whatever meaningful combinations you want to in response to an imaginary attack.

The study of free flow in Kali begins with the study of drills, of sequences of techniques. First you embed the habit through 10,000 repetitions. Then when you thought you got the habit down you are taught to break out of the habit with ironically more drills.

From Kali we can see that more forms (not kata but predetermined sequences made up of different techniques, example an Angle 1 fluid strike + Umbrella + ……….) are necessary to break up earlier learned forms of movements. Conceptually, the learning is not difficult to understand. But when you try it it feels awkward, just like when you first learn to cycle. You get on the bicycle, you wobble a bit, then you start to move, slowly then you try going faster.

The more you cycle the more familiar you are with the act of cycling. In the interim, its not unusual to lose your balance and fall. The first time I took one hand off the handlebar I fell into a drain. Another time I took a corner really fast and ended up sliding on the road which left a scar on my knee. But its these learning pains that eventually allowed me to master the act of cycling till I could take both hands off the handle as I cycled.

Awkwardness gives way to familiarity the more you practice. When we mention the word practice we think of the act of doing. However, practice can also be in the form of thinking about how to do it. This is the mental part of practice. Its a way to embed the process into your mind. Another way is to call out what you are doing. Anything that works for you is fine.

The more I practice the Tai Chi form the more I start to see the component movements clearly. At a certain stage you can easily change the sequences around, rearrange them even as you practice. Just last week someone came to see me about learning Tai Chi and said he didn’t have the room to practice. I stood between a wall and two bicycles and showed him I could practice a long sequence within that square area. I didn’t change the hand movements, just changed the stepping to adapt to the small area.

If you keep on practicing at a certain stage you can practice the form without even practicing the form any more. You can take one technique and work it in different ways. You can string two techniques as well and do the same. This is when you can say that the skill of moving has been embedded in you, when you move “it” moves you, thus fulfilling the principle of first in the mind, later in the body, enabling you to move as easily as walking.

This is one part of the learning. The second part is to work with a partner to help you learn how to apply what you know. True flow is when you can keep moving even as your training partner tries to stop your flow by putting up resistance and fighting back. This is when you discover something interesting about attachment and detachment of the mind and body in being able to flow.

Interested to learn Kali in person for free? The iKali branch of Pekiti-Tirsia System of Kali has an excellent training method for teaching the basics that eventually allows you to free flow. The best part is that it does not take years to learn. Contact me here.

Lunch Practice

This week I have to put in practice every day to prepare for my iKali test.

The hot weather is not helping. I take my tests seriously so weather be damned.

So we have a long sequence to go through to test how well we have learned how to handle the sticks, blade and move in empty hand techniques.

It wouldn’t have been that bad if we are going slow and easy. But no, to raise the bar we have to do it fast and furious. After all, how we train is likely to be how we actually move.

In a warm room at mid-day trying to go fast, trying not to stop too long, but keep the pace moving along is tough. I am breathing hard but I don’t want to stop. My doctor once told me to exercise the heart through brisk walking to pump it harder. Nothing like killing two birds with one stone.

This blade exercise is what beginners learn. Well, maybe a total beginner won’t move as fast initially. But with a little practice anyone can move fast.

This is another knife counter exercise. Its the last exercise in the sequence.

Doing this and the rest made me sweat so much I felt like I just went to the sauna.

These blade counters are kinda cool. Yeah, I’ll say they are cool but they are really practical and deadly. Wish I could post our training videos to show you the applications then you will see what I see in them.

If you live in SG and have the interest to learn drop a line in the comment below.

Basic Kali Punches

In Tai Chi I normally strike at a slower pace. In SKD we strike a lot faster with the arms moving like a whip. In iKali we use evasive body movements and punch fast.

Punching the Kali way works the legs since I stand in a lower stance to facilitate the body evasive movement. Moving the body this way helps to train the hip and waist. And punching is good to work the lungs especially when doing it many times non-stop with power and speed. If I have a punching bag that would add another dimension to the training.

I like the body evasion. Its a nice complement to what I do in Ngok Gar Kuen which uses body evasion also, albeit in a different manner.

Actually, what this body movement is making me feel like dancing though I am terrible at it. But hey, an old dog can always try learning a new trick or two. Never say never, till you really can never.

Questions & Improvement

Did you know that a fast way to make improvement in your own learning of Tai Chi or any other arts is by asking the right question at the right time.

It is my experience that students do not take the opportunity to ask questions or have many questions. In the old days it is difficult to ask a teacher a question because some teachers are not approachable and some will give you painful physical answers.

Today such teachers are rare. So if you don’t ask questions then you are basically telling the teacher that :-

a) You didn’t really practice so you have no questions

b) You did practice but you are the type of “monkey see, monkey do” learner so if the teacher does not tell you then you will not ask

c) You don’t need to ask because you already got it

Below is a clip of Jordan Rudess, the keyboardist in Dream Theater. I listen to DT but never really appreciate Rudess until I watched this clip. What struck me is Rudess’ enquiring mind.

In fact, in asking questions whether of his teachers or of himself he has discovered and learned new skills. Just by watching this clip I learned something that I could teach my SKD students.

I had previously mentioned one way to do the 6-Blocks but not seeing anyone demonstrate the flavor that comes from understanding this tells me that either they did not practice or they did but can’t get it and did not pursue it. Plus if no one asked this could also mean that they are not interested to improve their 6-Blocks.

So on top of the way I had brought up in one lesson what Rudess talked about from 4:04 – 5:00 can be used to improve our arm movement. In fact, if I add in one more teaching from an old Wing Chun style then any student who really practice the 6-Blocks will be able to develop soft, willow-like flavor in the way they move their arm.

Not asking questions for starters is a great learning tragedy. I used to have a list of questions for my Tai Chi teacher. He expected me to ask questions. He would teach and then ask if I have questions. But it was not just questions about what he just taught. He was also interested to know if I have questions from my practice of what he taught previously.

This was an indicator of whether I had practiced, thus demonstrating that I was a serious learner and worthy to be taught more. In case you are thinking of just asking questions for the sake of showing that you have practiced, don’t do it. A teacher can tell from your questions whether you are just putting on a show or got the questions from your own practice. Practice sincerely and ask the questions that come from it is the way you should do it.

Certain things in Tai Chi can only be taught to you if you are ready to receive it. Otherwise, you will find yourself in over your head. In SKD I arranged the training sequence such that the most important fundamentals come first. So if you didn’t practice you will not be able to understand even the most basic of CMA principles especially those from the internal arts.

I can explain until my mouth is dry but it wouldn’t make a difference to the person hearining it. Its just a lot of words, a lot of noise. To those who practice a single word or line of explanation can be like a drop of water to the thirsty person in the desert.

For example, I see clips that my fellow students in Kali put up for feedback. Asking for comments indicates that they don’t have any idea of where their own problem area might be. So while they do get feedback which hopefully can lead to improvement, in general I don’t see as much improvement as I know they potentially could make.

If I have any advice to give them it would be to not ask for general advice but just pick two areas that they think they have a problem with and ask how to fix what they think is the problem. Then evaluate all the comments, try them out and come back to show that they have tried. If there are improvements then good and they are on the way to better skill. If not, then ask why for help.

Many times the learning road map is very clear but not knowing how to read the map or understanding what the map is telling them is the obstacle. I know that sometimes too many details can be a problem to a person starting out. So no more than three suggestions should be the norm.

If let’s say a student has a problem executing Entry 4 with power a suggestion for improvement would be for each practice session to :-

a) Practice Broken Strike in stationary position for at least 50 times

b) Next practice Fluid-Reverse for 50 reps

c) Put the above two together and practice Broken-Fluid-Reverse for 50 reps

d) Now try Entry 4; you should see and feel a visible improvement

I had a look at the clips of five students before I wrote this. I could post my comments there but they may not necessarily believe what I say so I decided to write here for a wider audience. I gave my friend Paul the same advice and this is his performance of Broken-Fluid-Reverse on our 14th Zoom lesson :-

Before that this is Paul doing Entry 4 on the 6th lesson :-

By the 11th lesson Paul has improved so that his strike at least looks like it could hit with some force :-

In summary, to progress in your training remember to practice a lot and ask the questions.

Long Pole Body

In SKD our body posture is in many ways similar to the way we use a long pole.

I am currently stitching together the drills I have taught so far into a sequence. I would prefer not to have any forms so having a sequence is a compromise.

In this video I am explaining how to position the rear hand properly. I am going through this in relation to the long pole as it provides an easy way to self-check the posture.

I am expanding on my explaining of using the long pole to align the body here :-

Finally, here’s a picture of Master Leong using the long pole to thrust :-

Dealing with the Unexpected

Peace is good. Violence is bad. But when sudden, out of the blue, unexpected violence such as this hits what do we do?


Dive for cover?

Fight back?

Call police?

Whip out the phone and start shooting video?

We can give all sorts of answers as to what we can do and want to do. However, the reality is until violence visits us and stares us in the face we can’t say for sure what we will actually do.

To paraphrase Tuhon Apolo Ladra, my teacher in iKali, it is what you don’t see that gets you. For example, you may be fighting with someone and chain punching him into oblivion until his buddy comes from behind and hits you in the head. Then your imminent victory becomes sudden defeat.

We can never be sure what violence and when it will come down on us, if ever. The only thing we can be in control of is our training, what we train, how we train, what is our skill level like, how is our reaction, and so on.

If you are attacked by a knife wielding person tomorrow what would you do assuming you can see it coming? Run? Can you? What if you can’t? What then? Fight without knowing how but at least you die fighting, right? Or fight with some idea as to what to do?

Just because I know Tai Chi does not mean I can handle a knife attack. That’s a fact. Fajing ability does not equal knife handling skill.

Tuhon Apolo said something else that makes sense – you can’t handle a knife attack if you do not know what a knife attacker can be capable of. I know some knife disarms before I learned Kali and I have seen videos of masters teaching how to fight against a knife attack.

After learning Kali knife method and strategies I would advise to run when you see a knife attacker and if you can’t then you better have a good plan that you have trained for when this day would come. I know I don’t which is why I must train.

I have seen videos where the person playing the attacker would do an attack and then wait for the master to counter. Is this realistic? My advice is learn how people in Kali use the blade and then assess for yourself if such counters would work. You don’t even have to learn advanced and fancy knife skills, just the basic skills would.

Your life is basically in your hands. Its not in mine and it is not in your teacher’s nor the police. When something like a knife attack comes you can either run or you have to handle and pray that what you know works. My prayer is simple – that I never have to use what I know. Until then I would follow Tuhon Apolo’s advice to hit 10,000 repetitions to ingrain the muscle memory and develop further from there.

Gorilla Power

In CMA we like to talk about animal shapes.

In this video I talked about what we can learn from the gorilla

I don’t want to call this internal. It should be as it is. You take a principle, you take an analogy, you learn from it and if you get something out of it then its a bonus.

Most of the stuff we do in SKD can be learned fairly easily. It just takes practice.

For the purists and elitists we can make the explanation complicated but what’s the point. We want to get the skill not titilate our mind with the knowing.

As an aside take a look at the clip below; you can see how gorillas fight at the beginning of the clip :-

The Tai Chi in SKD

Here I am explaining a countering movement found in Sao Chui.

This counter is derived from the hook hand movement from Single Whip.

If you learn the form normally you might not see this connection due to the timing of how this movement is taught.

It is when we change the timing that this appliction becomes obvious.