The Secret to Mastering the Martial Arts in the Least Time Possible


The real secret of the martial arts: You’re doing it wrong.

A common feature of martial arts psychology, especially in those who are drawn to the traditional martial arts, is believing that there are secrets that, once learned, will enable a student to progress rapidly on the road to mastery. There is.

After two decades of training martial arts, and one of those being Yin Style Bagua (a traditional combative art par excellence), I’m quite sure that I’m qualified to tell you the secret, but first I want to talk more about a kind of martial artist who, essentially, poisons the martial arts community, especially in the traditional arts. That kind of martial artist is a secret collector.

Some people who train martial arts, like I said, believe that there are secrets, sometimes believed to be mystical, that will enable mastery of the martial arts. Their belief often takes the form that without those secrets, a student will never gain mastery, and the mysterious true masters retain those secrets from undeserving students. The belief usually runs that the master will secretly divulge the real secrets if the student proves worthy, and not otherwise. It’s a kind of elitism that may have some historical precedent but is worse than a farce today (often manufactured by manipulative instructors wishing to main a cult-like following and secure income, whether they’ve deluded themselves similarly or not).

Historically, it was sometimes, maybe even frequently, the case that secretive masters would withhold crucial details until the student was proved trustworthy or hard-working enough to be told. There were relatively good reasons for that. Students might attempt to overthrow their teachers, splinter off into their own sect, or do damage to the reputation of the art by professing levels of skill that they did not have. Even a hundred years ago, at least in Asia, this would have been occasionally a matter of life or death, but it was also a matter of honor and shame, which carried nearly as much weight (or more in some honor cultures). The notion of “inner-door” students who got more accurate teaching and “the secrets of the martial art” isn’t completely without historical grounds. These beliefs inform (or misinform) the secret collector, who often has buried the martial arts under a mountain of mystique.

There is the additional matter of failing to understand that Asian pedagogy can be somewhat different from many Western pedagogies, at least where Western secret collectors are concerned. Pedagogy means an approach to teaching. Asian pedagogies often rely heavily on giving the student enough information to start figuring it out without giving away all the details, and Western pedagogies often tell the whole story up front (often with far too much detail). It’s fairly obvious how a secret collector’s delusions would be fueled by misinterpreting this teaching style. Certain people are getting shown things that are appropriate to what they’re doing that apparently result in their progress, whereas nearly everyone feels as though they’re getting far less than the full story. That mental comparison (he’s got something that made him way better, and I know I didn’t get the full story) fuels the belief that there are near-mystical secrets.

Secret collectors proceed with their training according to a constellation of beliefs that there are high-level secrets to be obtained, and that without them, there can be no true mastery. This rather stupid set of beliefs often also includes the idea that once the secrets are obtained, the road to mastery is both quick and paved. Some of the old masters may have encouraged this delusion in many students as well by making remarks like, “when I was accepted as a full disciple of my teacher, this was the first exercise I was shown.”

Thus, secret collectors often believe that the long years of training martial arts are mostly an act of deferentially and penitentially paying one’s dues until the day when, deemed worthy, the master essentially hands masterhood over on a silver platter. These beliefs are probably as narcissistic as they are delusional, and those who hold them will, in all likelihood, never attain a high level of skill.

Well, just as the best lies are half-truths, so too are the firmest delusions. Secret collectors aren’t completely off-base in their speculations. There are subtle and refined details that are needed to take one’s skill to a higher level, and without them, there will not be much improvement. These aren’t the kinds of secrets that secret collectors are after, though.

Like everyone training under a competent enough “master” of the martial arts, these kinds of “secrets” are being given effusively. They’re a majority of what is taught, in fact, after initial phases of familiarization with gross movements or other remedial exercises. The issue, for the secret collector, though, is that these insights don’t match the content of their delusion, and so they’re dismissed. They’re not the real secrets (often believed to be some kind of exercise that, once learned and perfunctorily trained, will make a master out of a student over little more than the rough duration of a montage scene in a martial arts flick). These insights do not produce game-changing realization or outright mastery in a short time. Discouraged that the “secret” bestowed didn’t produce mastery, the secret collector often strengthens his delusion and his frustration. As a result, the secret collector may train even more poorly than before!

So, secret collectors and, more importantly, serious students of combative arts, I’m going to tell you the secret of mastering the martial arts now. There is only one, and it applies universally to anything are you may be training.

The One Secret to Mastering the Martial Arts: Know what you’re doing, get organized, and train hard to specific goals. (And, it’s not coming quickly.)

Let’s break it down.

Know what you’re doing. There are a lot of things you need to know to master a martial art. You must master the skills and their technical content, your understanding of their use, your understanding of fighting circumstances, the appropriate times and opportunities to apply your skills, and the sensitivity and experience to make it all work dynamically against someone who doesn’t want it to. You have to know what you’re after and why you’re after it, and then you have to know how to create paths from where you are to where you want to be. You have to recognize that fine details matter, but so too do broad themes (say, in how to use force, position, leverage, and so on). Obviously, you must then also know how to walk those paths and know how to do what it takes to undergo the hard road that they represent. Most of all of these, though, you have to know how what you’re training applies to what you want to be good at (which is probably fighting if you’re training a combative art of any kind).

If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll never get good, much less mastery. I’m not one to tell people how to spend their time or choose their hobbies, but martial arts might not be the best use of your time if you can’t get straight on what you’re doing (and why you’re doing it).

Get organized. Once you know what you’re doing, you need to be able to assess how to train to improve your skills. Is your goal to find or refine the accuracy of the technical content in your techniques? Get organized on that point so you can train it. Do you want to hit harder? Get organized on that point so you can train it. Do you want to improve your physical conditioning, range of motion, flexibility, strength, or any other athletic component that could facilitate applying your art? Get organized on those points so you can train them. Do you want to get better with what you already know in a fighting capacity? Get organized on that point so you can train it. Do you want to know you’re making progress? Get organized enough to know what progress looks like, and then you can measure it.

If you fail to get organized, to understand not only what you’re doing and why but also how to capitalize upon that knowledge, you cannot train effectively and will not master the martial art you’re training. It’s not possible because mastery is too high a bar for disorganized training. Your training will simply be too scattered and sloppy if you can’t get clear on what you’re doing and organize your training around that vision of your objectives.

Train hard to specific goals. If you’re organized, the last part of this imperative, to specific goals, is simply achieved; organization means having specific goals that you’re working toward. (“Mastering your art” is not a specific goal, by the way!) Once you know what your goals are specifically and have an organized plan of action for achieving them, you have to train hard. It doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t come fast. High-level skills are not easily attained. Progress is incremental, and thus your goals must be incremental too.

You cannot merely train hard, though. Certainly diligence, effort, perseverance, and the rest of those “train hard” qualities are needed to succeed, but you must also train intelligently. Even getting clear on what you’re doing and organized around your goals isn’t enough. You have to know how to refine what you’re doing and apply that skill constantly. You will make mistakes. You will always have room for improvement. If you want to get better, you have to learn how to identify your mistakes and have a strategy for correcting them. You have to learn how to find mistakes that aren’t even really mistakes, they’re just subtle oversights to deeper content in what you’re working with.

There you have it, then. Know what you’re doing, get organized, and train hard is the only secret to mastering the martial arts. Now you don’t have to keep looking, and you can get to doing it.


If You Are Training to Get Good at a Martial Art, You Probably Won’t


How’s that for a controversial title?

Chances are, if you are training to get good at a martial art, you probably never will. That’s right. By training to get good at a martial art, you almost ensure you won’t get good at that martial art. That’s because by training to get good at a martial art, you’re training the wrong thing, or, at best, you’re training the right thing in the wrong way.

I want to shift your focus now so that you have this opportunity sooner than I did. Getting good at a martial art is at least one step away from what you’re after, and if the evidence of so many martial arts out there today tells us anything, it’s that if you work too hard at getting good at your martial art, you’ll never be any good at your martial art at all.

Mixed martial arts enthusiasts, with their counterparts in sport-combative arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing, often insist that realism is the missing ingredient that sets their art apart from the delusional fluff that passes for traditional martial arts, but let’s get real for a minute here. Traditional martial arts were traditionally both pragmatic and very, very martial, far more martial than any cage match with almost any set of rules, even very bare, licentious ones. Traditional martial artists fought quite literally for their lives or for their militaries. Traditional martial arts arose from that need, and so something must have gone wrong for the MMA guys to have such an impossibly good case on their side.

We can point to traditional martial arts losing their edge because they watered things down, because they withheld crucial information from new generations of students (as is very likely with the Asian martial arts that came to the Americas–including Brazil), or because of any number of other reasons, be those commercial and sport, or stupidity and laziness. All of these reasons have something in common, though: they make practicing their martial arts about trying to get good at the martial art.

Think about it for a second. If you’ve spent any time in a martial arts school, you’ve probably seen someone partway up the skills ladder get placed in a sparring situation with a completely new person and then get their asses completely kicked by someone who doesn’t have a clue about the martial arts–but who knows how to fight. Sometimes it happens to the experts, like the black belts or even the head of the school. What gives? Some of it can be explained by the experts holding back on the beginner, but not all of it. Some can be explained by the outsider’s complete lack of knowledge of the rules to which the insiders have become too accustomed to. Some of it just comes down to training a martial art to become good at the martial art makes you forget that martial arts are about fighting, and that’s not good.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, whatever you think of it as a martial art, has the reputation it does today because in the contexts where it is applied, it works. It works well. Again, we can make a myriad of excuses for this, like accusations that cage match rules-sets were designed to unfairly favor grapplers or whatever else, but tha fails to explain why even among grappling styles, BJJ seems to dominate, at least in the context of one-on-one fighting. The reason is one of their favorite things to trumpet, though: it’s constantly “pressure tested” in exactly the kinds of conditions in which it performs so well. More than that, however, the Gracies weren’t after getting good at jiu-jitsu; they were after getting good at fighting.

The traditional martial arts, or the farce that largely represents them today, seem to have forgotten this entirely. Kata is a series of motions to be gone though. Bunkai, or applications practice, is a charade. Sparring practice is constrained by rules that, while they enable their practitioners to become quite good under them, create unrealistic expectations about fighting outside of them. (Here’s as good a place as any to point out that BJJ and MMA aren’t exempt from this problem too!)

Traditional arts have shifted largely to the goal of getting good at the skills that appear to characterize those arts. Kata performances are perfected as performances. Applications are done under unrealistic play-acted conditions. Sparring is done with restrictive sets of rules. And so we see kata dojos and wushu schools churning out beautiful performers who think they’re good at their martial art. We see self-defense experts who can’t actually fight. And we see sparring-centered programs producing skilled fighters who excel under the circumstances that they’ve trained to. Getting across this chasm to good at martial arts requires accounting for all of those shortcomings in your training, and it requires you to stop training to get good at the martial arts.

Here’s where I have to get to the caveats. Maybe you don’t want to train martial arts so that you can fight. In today’s world, there’s no need for it. You can train a martial art–perfectly respectably, I’ll add–for performance, cage matches, health, exercise, mental focus, or any number of other personal goals. That’s all fine, and my point will remain. If you want to get good at fighting, which is what we usually mean by being good at the martial arts, you’ve got to remember that when you approach your training. If you want to equate some other objective with your martial arts training, then you’ve got to remember that, too, when you train (with the added requirement that you remember what you’re training for and don’t confuse it with fighting skill, which is harder to do than it seems when practicing a martial art).

I’m going to assume for the rest of this essay, then, that when you say that you want to be “good at the martial arts,” you mean that you want to be good at fighting with your martial art. (If your goals are different with your training, you can adjust for yourself.) If you want to be good at fighting with your martial art, then, you need to figure out exactly what obtaining that skill requires and train for it.

The easy and obvious need, the one that’s probably been confusing you up until now if you’ve never thought clearly about this before, is that you actually do need to improve upon and eventually master the skills and basic training requirements for your martial art. That doesn’t guarantee being good at fighting, but if you want to be good at fighting with your martial art, that’s going to be a central necessity. (My opinion is that many MMAers do not sufficiently understand this point, or they do and simply don’t care about it.) If your art is worth anything at all, getting better at these skills should improve your fighting ability, not make it worse. If training is making your fighting ability worse, you’re probably training to get good at the martial art instead of to get good with the martial art.

The next most obvious thing needed if you want to get good with your martial art instead of just good at it is to enhance the skills and capacities that improve your ability to effect a good fighting result. Learning to hit harder is a good example. In Yin Style Bagua, we distinguish, for instance, from regular hitting power and refined hitting power. The latter should drop or stop most people it hits while the former only sometimes will. The saying in YSB is that it takes three years of serious training to find a force, so learning to hit properly, with full-body power and accurate expression of refined force, is a project worth dedicating a lot of intelligent effort to. Learning to apply your footwork in a realistic way for fighting situations in another good example of a skill needed to improve at using your art. Improving your conditioning, endurance, toughness, and so on, are other aspects that also may be immediately relevant. Most important, though, is learning to practice with intent, and this includes practicing having intent.

The intent I mean is fighting intent. If you cannot imagine yourself applying your art in a fighting way, a real fighting way, then you don’t have it. Step one, in that case, is getting it. You absolutely must be able to clearly visualize yourself applying your art, or you have no hope of developing fighting intention that you can use in your training.

The easiest way to start this process, if you’re not there yet, is to visualize applications without a partner present, and visualize taking them to completion. You will need some skill with the techniques and, usually, having done them successfully with a partner at some point in order to make this happen. Eventually, you’ll need to rely upon a partner far less, but early on, it’s crucial to learning to feel how someone’s weight, position, reactions, and unwillingness to get hit or fall down disrupt your fantasies about your techniques.

Eventually, though, it isn’t enough just to visualize applications. You need to put that intent into your training. (That Yin Style Baguazhang demands this skill and training methodology is what makes it an internal art.) It cannot be neglected, for without it the best you can hope for is getting good at your art, not good with your art. That is, unless you happen to be naturally gifted as a fighter anyway.

Even that isn’t enough, though. Eventually this same process has to be repeated outside of applications. It has to be taken to fighting. Your opponent has to be imagined to be more and more dynamic, more and more dangerous, or your intent isn’t fighting intent yet. Sparring is one way that many martial arts carve into this ability to think through a fight because, like applications practice, sparring provides the realistic experiences that let you think about the problem in a realistic way. The higher level of development, though, is going to come from being able to visualize realistic situations in which you can see how your highly refined techniques can be applied. I’m almost sure that it’s only in this way that someone can truly get good with their martial art, and it requires you to think about getting good at it as only a low-level stepping stone, a foundational necessity, for getting good with it.

Six-Step Circle: What’s the Significance?

I was asked why I called this blog Six-Step Circle: what is the significance of that name, both the circle and the six-steps parts? That seems a question worth giving some account, but as with all things baguazhang, the answer isn’t exactly straightforward.


A circle I walked myself, bagua dadao for scale.

The circle, of course, refers to the cornerstone practice of baguazhang, ‘turning the circle,’ or ‘circle walking,’ or simply ‘turning,’ as we call it. For those who don’t know anything about baguazhang, the exercise both is and isn’t any more complicated than that. We adopt fixed postures with the upper body and walk in a circle. This activity is so central to baguazhang that it’s entirely fair to say that if someone doesn’t practice turning, they don’t practice baguazhang. In Yin Style Bagua, we often remark that turning the circle is our most basic practice, and yet it is also one of the most difficult and profound practices we do.

The exercise sounds odd to those outside the art, but it’s quite practical. Try walking in a circle sometime for an extended period, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s harder than it looks, especially if you want to do it right, even without the postures (read: pain) or the many, many strict requirements that separate turning from merely walking in a circle. Different schools of baguazhang do things differently, but in Yin Style, we endeavor to turn for long periods of time and to endure the difficulty of the exercise. The generally given standard for Yin Style Bagua turning practice is an hour a day (preferably all at once and in only one posture).

The invitation to try the practice should immediately bring a question to mind, though, if you really think about it seriously. How big should the circle be? This is where we come to the “six steps” part of the name I gave to this blog. Again, different schools of baguazhang do different things and for different reasons. In Yin Style Bagua, we do everything, even our developmental training, specifically with fighting applicability in mind. That means we walk a circle whose radius (distance from the center to the edge) is roughly the right distance for engaging with another (unarmed) opponent. For most people, it works out to taking roughly six steps to get around such a circle, so the standard introductory instructions for turning the circle in Yin Style indicate that we should take roughly six steps per circle. In Yin Style, though, we strive for pragmatism, not dogma, and so the actual number of steps to get around the circle may vary, and that doesn’t matter much.

Now, in Yin Style Bagua, we also boast of training eight full animal systems, one for each Trigram of the Bagua, and each has its own unique representative posture, fighting strategy, and so on, and so each also has some unique guidelines that might apply to turning the circle. Animal Systems that utilize a lot of reach, like the Lion System, which turns around the point of the finger,turn a somewhat larger circle, usually six steps around.


Turning the Circle in the Lion Posture

Animal systems with postures that hold the arms nearer to the body, and that represent a different fighting strategy, might do differently. The Rooster System, for example, turns the circle around the proximal ulna (the forearm bone anatomically just below the elbow) and the olecranon (the part of the ulna that is the elbow itself). Depending on a few factors unique to the practitioner and the training session, this may shrink a Rooster turning session down to five or even four steps to get around the circle, although six steps as a rough foundation is also correct so long as you can keep your mind accurately on what you’re doing and aren’t hurting yourself. (Generally speaking, it requires more hip flexibility to turn a smaller circle correctly, and therefore if it is attempted without the requisite hip flexibility, the hips or knees may be injured in the process. In that case, a larger circle–six steps–is recommended.)


Turning a smaller circle in the Rooster posture

This may seem quite confusing if you don’t train Yin Style Baguazhang, but it doesn’t need to be. A simple explanation would be that in Yin Style Bagua, we aim to turn a circle that is fighting applicable. Six steps around the circle will trace a path definitely qualifies, and so that’s always an acceptable size for turning, hence the name of this Yin Style Bagua blog. If you are physically capable and turning a posture for which it makes sense, a smaller circle can be turned as well. What’s most important, though, isn’t some hard rule about how many steps it takes you to get around the circle. What matters is that your circle is a size that makes sense for the goals of training Yin Style Baguazhang: gaining fighting proficiency with the system you’re training.


As some readers will undoubtedly want some advice about it, I’ll give some indication of what the “right” number of steps per circle is, to the best of my knowledge, in each of the eight animal systems of Yin Style Baguazhang.

Lion and Unicorn: 6 steps

Dragon, Bear, and Phoenix: 5-6 steps

Rooster and Monkey: 4-6 steps

Snake: 3-6 steps

Again, don’t turn too small a circle for the specific abilities of your legs, hips, and waist (all of which require development before small circles are accessible). Turning a smaller circle isn’t necessarily better, and, in fact, is often worse. It’s much more important to get the technical requirements of the circle-turning footwork than to turn a smaller circle badly. For that reason, even if you can do a perfect three-step circle while turning Snake System, it is still probably in your best interests to turn it with six steps much of the time. Generally, err toward six steps most of the time for most animal systems.


Sparring, Part Two–Sparring Is a Test of Training

Nothing realistic about this, nope, nothing at all.

Nothing realistic about this–nope, nothing at all.

Last week I wrote an essay about sparring being “double-edged,” meaning that it has disadvantages as well as advantages as a training tool. Particularly, I pointed out some of the frequently overlooked ways in which sparring is not a realistic simulation of fighting.

I apparently generated a small amount of controversy with that piece for daring to suggest that sparring isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be and that I don’t use it myself much now (and that it’s not really part of the Yin Style Bagua methodology). This reaction is strange since I discussed the obvious benefits of sparring as a training tool, encouraged sparring for all martial artists, and referred to sparring as “double-edged,” which implies a good edge as well as a bad one. Nuance, perhaps, is sometimes lost upon people who beat each other in the head for sport, though.

Today, I want to elaborate upon the topic further, having cut much that is worth saying over concerns about length (it already exceeded 2000 words, which I consider to be an almost strict upper limit for a blog post–and this one is longer). Here, I want to discuss a couple of matters that seemed to rise up in the dust around the essay: how Yin Style makes sure it’s real without doing much/any sparring, and that I think of sparring as a test of training. I’ll discuss YSB second.

Before starting, I’ll also mention that I sparred regularly and competitively–considering it my favorite part of martial arts training–for at least a dozen years before starting to phase it out of my approach to developing in the martial arts, so I’m not exactly ignorant of what goes into a cost-benefits analysis of sparring as an element of training.

Tests of training

From very early on in my introduction to Yin Style, I ran into a concept that is pretty central to the way we do the art. Applications is a test of training. The idea behind that is that if your training is good, you don’t really need to do any applications practice to continue to improve, but if you want to know if your training is getting you somewhere, you had better check it with something like applications. For that reason, when training with others, I typically spend rather a lot of time doing applications with partners. As I said before, you have to test your stuff against reality to make sure you’re not off in la-la land, and applications give you direct access to some aspects of the reality of fighting not initially available in solo practice.

Over the years, I’ve mulled over the concept of tests of training rather significantly. Applications (or “self-defense” or “bunkai” as it’s often termed in pseudo-traditional karate dojos) is one test of training. For those taiji guys that read this, and the likes, push-hands is another kind of test of training, although it doubles as a sensitivity drill. Sparring is yet another test of training. Whether they double as something else or not, tests of training are training activities that possess the capacity to allow you to assess how in line with reality your training happens to be. (And, let me tell you, there are major functional problems with your art if your sparring practice is nearly entirely distinct from and unrelated to the other things you practice, like kata.)

One thing that I’ve concluded is that, just as you wouldn’t take a test every week in a university course, and just as it is a bad idea to let tests define your educational process, using a test of training as a primary training methodology has some problems associated with it. Namely, tests of training are, as I mentioned previously, almost always nerfed from reality for the safety of the participants, and the degree to which this is a problem is largely determined not wholly by how much nerfing is occurring but more by the degree to which the nerfing is ignored or forgotten. Sparring, in particular–and for all its benefits–seems to be highly prone to letting people forget that it is significantly removed from reality. Sparring is not fighting. It’s just another kind of simulation.

When to test

So how often should we test our training? Well, as often as needed, obviously, but not so often that it starts to substitute for the hard work of studying and training the material, which is probably best accomplished by doing repetitive drills with an active mind, with or without a partner (especially in an internal art and in any art strongly concerned with achieving development).

For example, when learning a new technique or combination, it would be extremely useful, especially for those with less experience, to engage in applications training to make sure that the knowledge-use gap gets closed. This will make for better technique and facilitate the active-mind kind of solo training that I argue makes the best kind. Once you’ve got some grasp on the application, however, it’s time to put it away for a while and just go train the techniques on your own. I think we’ve all experienced that horrible, inevitable moment in applications training where frustration mounts and you just can’t get it. That’s your sign that the test is over, pass or fail, and it’s time to get back to study before you come back to it.

Given both its nature and its potential costs, sparring is probably best done infrequently, then, comprising probably less than ten percent of one’s overall training time. Sparring, especially, has the problem that it’s very alluring to believe that it is fighting and thus the best use of one’s martial-arts training time. It isn’t, even if it’s pretty good.

That said, for those who feel that sparring would be of great benefit to them, I’d urge it to be something they do maybe no more than a few times a month and probably a lot less, like a handful of times per year, unless conditioning (for a protracted fight, like in the ring, or for exercise) is the goal.

Further, when it’s engaged in, it should be done very much so with the attitude of it being a test of your training between sparring sessions. The thought process might go like this: I feel like I really improved at techniques or strategies X, Y, or Z, and I want to see if I have done so enough to apply them to a resisting, non-cooperative opponent in a dynamic situation. That’s a test of training. In fact, I’d urge that keeping this mentality is more important than the frequency with which one spars. It will prevent deluding yourself into believing that you’re practicing (refined) fighting by sparring.

There’s another problem with sparring that I neglected to mention in the previous essay: it deeply ingrains bad habits. Training under the kind of perceived realism and intense pressure that sparring creates really drives home whatever it is that you’re learning when you do it. This is a great thing, in ways, as it will really hone your reactions, assessments of distance and opportunities, and so on, but it is a bad thing in other ways.

As I keep mentioning, sparring is not real, and it rarely has the goal of making real attempts to end the encounter by force (see caveat for jiu jitsu and wrestling in my previous piece, though these kinds of arts have other issues that divert them from reality, as indicated). In a fight, supposing violence is already occurring, pretty much the only goal is to end the encounter by force–and forgetting this fact because of a fetish for the perceived realism of sparring absolutely will ingrain bad habits where fighting is concerned. It is a bad habit to bounce around and poke at your opponent until he starts to get winded, or to throw lots of the kinds of techniques that are prevalent in many kinds of sport sparring.

By way of contrast, applications practice, though nerfed from reality in other ways that likewise shouldn’t be forgotten or ignored, offers a mentality of ending a fight, now, as an avenue.

What about Yin Style Bagua?

For the most part, we don’t really spar in Yin Style Bagua, and what we do that is anything like sparring (e.g. standing wrestling) is ultimately an accessory to our YSB training, not a real part of it. We do applications practice instead,* and we do it in a particular way that I think seems to confer many of the benefits of sparring, although, like all tools and tests of training, not all of them (which is why doing some light sparring a few times a year may not be totally ill-advised, even for YSB folks, if they’re interested).

*This topic gets a little complicated because our applications practice, as I will discuss below, takes on more and more of a quality of what the Chinese call sanshou (free hands, sometimes translated as “sparring”) or sanda (free striking, also sometimes translated as “sparring”) as the practitioners involved progress.

Our applications practice is done in a variety of tones and at different tempos, but at the center of it–and this was a huge learning experience for me when I switched from other martial arts to YSB, so I know other martial arts don’t all contain this attitude toward applications practice–is that in YSB, we don’t give applications away. Even when being very cooperative, it is the responsibility of the person executing the application to make it work. At the beginning, cooperation in the applications effort entails that this is done in a fairly compliant manner, but as time goes on and experience builds, the compliance isn’t a guarantee. Still, compliance doesn’t entail giving the application away.

There’s a lively onus on the (compliant) opponent in YSB applications practice as well. It can be summarized by saying that the opponent carries a responsibility, at the least, not to get hit. A YSB applications “opponent” is expected to do make a reasonable, realistic effort to block or dodge incoming attacks (without being overly onerous about it) and, eventually, to expose opportunities for counters. This gives some aliveness to defending, especially as applications practice develops, because at that point, it becomes less certain which application a person might be practicing at any given time. Because the opponent is blocking and defending realistically to the threat presented, though, he develops some skill at this side of training while his partner develops a sense of how realistic defenses will manifest and how to change with them to other possibilities.

Over time, as hinted at so far, applications practice in YSB takes a form where safety is still considered paramount and yet in which the opponent won’t necessarily know which attacks are coming at him–and it doesn’t matter really because his job in any case is to defend naturally, not according to some pre-arranged script. One can think of the practice at this stage, where it has become more natural and less rote, as being almost a kind of sparring that is done slowly and cautiously instead of using nerfed technique. In this environment, it becomes necessary for the practitioner to apply attacks in a way that is effective and for the opponent to apply defenses that are natural, and both are learning.

The obvious weakness in this method of practice, for those who have seen it, is that there isn’t a lot of counterattacking going on, whereas in a real encounter, we can definitely expect that there would be. My thoughts on this are twofold.

First, there is countering present. We, as the opponent, definitely make it obvious, after an initial learning phase, if we could hit, grab, throw, or otherwise overcome the person applying his technique. We just do it in a contained manner and with the goal of helping the practitioner learn how to enter, attack, and change in a way that minimizes the capacity to counter at all. As the person applying the technique, we are also expected to engage in contact assuming that such opportunities need to be accounted for, ideally before they become surprises.

Second, the question is contextual, as counterattacking and dealing with counters is a significantly higher-level skill than is learning to apply applications and defend against them. In that sense, it’s a bit like learning to walk before you can run, but notice also what I just said: after initial learning phases, exactly this kind of mentality, the kind that searches for ways to escape or break the techniques being applied, is a legitimate and significant part of our applications practice.

To take this one step further, and at the risk of getting called a moron by people who don’t understand mental training, if you truly understand the application, you can do it in your imagination while you train on nothing but air, and you can, in a sense, drill your way through realistic fighting applications without the need for a partner at all. This particular goal, which is difficult to achieve, is central to the YSB method of training, and it’s why applications practice (like sparring) is for us ultimately a test of training, or to be a little more generous and realistic, part test and part adjunct activity that makes sure training connects to reality in some way to avoid the lure of fantasy martial arts (which can easily be one’s road even with ample amounts of sparring, as almost any critic of point-sparring will readily attest).

The nerfing problem

As kind of a summary of both this essay about sparring and my previous one, what I’m really getting at with them comes down to two points and a side-car.

One, sparring, applications, or what-have-you are inherently nerfed practices, and it is really important for serious martial artists to have this concern firmly in mind when they train. It is my feeling, having tons of experience with it myself, that sparring offers a significant invitation to forget that fact and to believe instead that it is truly practicing fighting. It isn’t.

Two, sparring, applications, and what-have-you are all various attempts to get around the nerfing problem that resides at the center of most martial arts practice. They are methods of attempting to bridge the necessary gap between training and the reality of fighting. Each has pros and cons, and all are weak to the degree that the cons are glossed over.

The side-car here is that, really, if you have a well-developed method of training your mind as well as your body, and you do enough applications, sparring, and so on, to have a realistic sense of how realistic, resisting opponents will react and fight, then you can understand the point of this entire essay: sparring, like applications, is a test of training. Sure, it’s a training tool, and sure, you can learn from it, but one of its most important functions in that capacity is simply to connect your training back to reality well enough so that you can be sure that you’re training well in the first place. And, if you’re training well in the first place, you’re very likely to improve at realistic fighting skills whether you’re sparring or not.

Yet again, and as always, your thoughts, rebuttals, arguments, inquiries, and experiences are welcomed and encouraged in the comments below!

Sparring, a Double-Edged Training Tool

I couldn't escape if I tried.

I couldn’t escape if I tried.

Fantasy martial arts are emphatically not something that someone wants to be doing without being keenly aware of the fact. Indeed, it’s so obvious that no one wants to be doing fantasy martial arts that there would be no need for me to defend this statement had I not added the without clause at the end, and that I’ve added merely to be fair to the individual spirit. People can train what they want and do what they enjoy, but no one wants to engage in any self-deception about what they are doing. In other words, if what you’re doing as a “martial art” is unlikely to be useful for fighting, you should want to know that fact.

What gives, then? Why is there so much unrealistic martial arts out there? Because there’s a gap between training and reality, and people often don’t realize that their bridges across it aren’t perfect.

The objective test

There is a solitary objective test available to us that lets us figure out if we are doing fantasy martial arts, and that test is reality. As I’ve discussed briefly before, though, getting at reality while training the martial arts can be a tad difficult. In fact, I think it’s more or less impossible as it would require actually fighting, and doing a lot of it.

What’s to be done, then, if we can’t get to reality? Obviously, we simulate it. We don’t send our pilots through hundreds of hours of simulator time before touching a real airplane for no reason, and when we train martial arts, the best we can hope for is some simulation of realistic fighting circumstances if we’re interested in testing our skills to make sure we’re not lost in fantasy camp.

There are a number of ways to bridge the training-reality gap that offer varying degrees of accuracy in simulating reality. One of the most popular and hardest to knock is sparring, which is essentially defined as simulated fighting.

I think sparring is a great training tool, but I don’t use it much, if at all, now that I’ve been training Yin Style Bagua for a while. After years of contemplating the practice, I’ve reached the conclusions that for all it is touted to be, it is inherently unrealistic enough so that it is a double-edged training tool, both immensely helpful and significantly harmful to martial development.

What’s so great about sparring?

The obvious value of sparring is that your opponent is “alive;” that is, he is actively resisting your attempts to attack and actively applying his own attacks and counterattacks. Because this circumstance is identical in the relevant respects to a fight, sparring deserves a lot of credit where it comes to realistically simulating fighting.

Many fantasy martial arts, in fact, make two major errors that sparring readily corrects. The first is that in a fight the opponent certainly will not really stand still and let you do techniques on him. The second is that–unless you’re very, very good–opponents will not reliably react to you in the way that you (or your kata) anticipates.

Practitioners of Yin Style know that YSB doesn’t really apply sparring as a tool, so how does it deal with these needs? The first is harder, requiring a long period of practice in which the realism in applications practice is ramped up, including involving natural reactions for self-preservation and not always knowing which application is coming. The second is partially addressed by those same approaches but also by two features of YSB that are difficult to obtain and difficult to overrate: (1) entering with techniques that leave the opponent with relatively few good options, and (2) being a martial art specifically designed to cultivate the capacity to change effectively when things aren’t going according to play (I might argue that even having anything more specific than a very, very loose plan is a wrong-headed way to think about dealing with a fight.)

In addition to readily convincing people of how hard it can be to pull of techniques on a mobile, resisting, retaliating opponent, sparring also provides people who do it with a sense of timing and distance, the feeling of reacting to live threats, and the feeling of being hit, sometimes unexpectedly and rather hard. These are very hard things to replace and teach resoundingly good lessons about fighting, and they are why I heartily recommend that people interested in the martial aspect of YSB take some time to do something, maybe kickboxing or something, early on to gain a sense of what fighting-like scenarios actually feel like.

What’s wrong with sparring?

There are four major flaws with sparring as a training method, all of which are interrelated and largely inescapable. To list them, sparring generates injuries, requires watered-down and nerfed* techniques to reduce and prevent them, and leads to practicing protracted fighting as a result. Further, it is often learned experientially, largely divorced from more refined technique. This last problem leads to contextualized fighters–karate guys fight like karate guys, kickboxers fight like kickboxers, etc.–and, often, glorified hillbilly brawling posing as martial arts.

*to nerf is a slang term popular with video gamers that refers to the Nerf company and its safe, mostly foam-rubber line of toys, and it means, effectively, to take the danger out of.

Generating injuries

Martial arts practice in general will produce accidents and thus injuries, and with free sparring, that risk is strongly proportional to how hard the technique is being applied. In other words, the more “realistic” a sparring session is, the more likely you are to get injured playing the game, and injuries steal training time (besides the fact that they hurt and sometimes cannot be fully recovered from–I’m reminded of the surprisingly common lament of jiu jitsu players who state that their training time slowly morphs into so much recovery time that they’re not really ever training anymore). The point is that these are inimical to the usual goals of training, however much toughness they confer.

Watered-down and nerfed technique

The surest way to avoid injuries in sparring, not that it always works, is to do exactly as suggested in the previous paragraph: make it less realistic. The lighter the contact, the less quickly joint locks are applied, the gentler the throws, the more protective gear, and so on, the safer the sparring session becomes. Removing various aspects of martial use completely, say by prohibiting kicks, strikes, throws, or joint locking, also increases safety. The cost is realism. This is a heavy cost, though, in the fighting arts. It’s a huge departure from realism, and thus the necessary reality-check mechanism, whatever sparring proponents want to argue.

Training protracted fighting

I do not consider myself an expert on violence, but I’m not an idiot (and have a decent grasp of probability and statistics). The best way to lower your chance of injury in a fight is to end it quickly. Every additional moment that passes in an ongoing altercation is one in which you could be hit, kicked, bitten, stabbed, thrown, broken, or whatever other gruesome thing, either by accident or the designs of your opponent. Ending a fight quickly is of high importance.

Sparring is nerfed to reduce the likelihood of injury and to protract the training time, and so it ingrains in the mind of its practitioners an attitude that fights are often protracted affairs, just like in the UFC ring (usually). Training your mind to think of a fight as a protracted affair is not really advisable, though, for the reason I just stated.

Experiential learning

There is nothing wrong with learning experientially. In fact, I highly encourage it, but what is relevant here is that learning to fight by sparring potentially (and not uncommonly) leaves a gap between the training of refined and developed techniques and learning to use them effectively. Under pressure, the dictum of practicality rules, and the more subtle and nuanced a technique, the less often it presents itself for live practice. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a wide gap, even if it often is, but so long as you’re dealing with martially effective techniques, claimed by all martial arts, and a nerfed situation, as nearly all training necessarily is, there is some gap.

The width of that gap forms one leg that can support fantasy in your martial arts training, even hardcore fighting-oriented arts like mixed martial arts, MMA (in which the world can be mistaken for a ring and fighters can be mistaken for people who react like grappling-trained kickboxers in closed one-on-one matches). Another leg is adherence to the belief that sparring is a be-all-that-ends-(almost)-all training tool. If you believe that’s the case, you’re probably missing out on a lot of what your chosen martial arts have to offer. A third, truly devastating leg supporting an unrealized fantasy martial art is a nearly complete functional separation between sparring and the rest of what the art offers, be that basic techniques, kata, drills, or what-have-you.

A special case: wrestling and jiu jitsu

In one regard, wrestling-type arts, including judo and jiu-jitsu, can make a fairly good claim that their sparring is an essential expression of their art in the most realistic, yet safe, form possible. When you wrestle or grapple, you really take each other down, you really trap and lock joints, and you really choke people to the point of giving up. You do this against a living, resisting, alive opponent who does not want you to do it, and it’s all pretty damn close to the real thing.

So, are they the exception here? No. The fantasy hiding in those arts is usually in failing to appreciate that it’s not all wrestling. Sure, many such martial artists train to deal with strikes, even weapons, including on the ground, but their sparring still assumes a lot of things, and those will become ingrained through stressed training–often like that the ground is fighter friendly, that they’re fighting one-on-one, and that the person they’re fighting is sticking to a particular set of rules that may not apply. Further, while there’s less divorce between advanced or nuanced technique and sparring application in arts like jiu jitsu, the general rule that opportunities to use such techniques present themselves less frequently, and so the learn-by-doing mentality that sparring encourages hampers some of the potential development that could be available (this could be amended by lots of functional drilling, to be sure, and good jiu jitsu programs use a lot of that–I’m just spelling out the difficulties with sparring here, not putting down any particular martial art).

Being aware of this fact, and even training it in a self-defense part of the course that is separate from sparring (for safety) leaves some of that gap I just talked about. This isn’t to impugn these arts, of course, but its practitioners should want to be much more aware of it than I’ve typically seen from them. For example, when we’ve wrestled around in study group meetings in which BJJ (Brazilian jiu jitsu) guys are present, even ones who have done MMA sparring, it has proved to be immensely surprising how drastically adding in close-quarters strikes can change the wrestling dynamic while standing.

Should we spar?

In general, I think anyone who trains a martial art at all should spar some and draw from it what it has to offer, but for Yin Style Bagua, I don’t think sparring is the best training methodology–not that you shouldn’t (carefully!) play around with it some.

The techniques in Yin Style Baguazhang are tightly knit and dangerous, and not in this silly “my art is too deadly” kind of way. In the past, when I’ve sparred, lightly and casually, it was decidedly dangerous to joints if I went with some opportunities I took (since we often lock them with a strike combined into a throw) and was severely modifying my art when I ignored those opportunities. When I’ve sparred, be that striking, grappling, or a combination of both, I’ve simply felt like for the sake of being responsible that I have to give too much of YSB away for it to really remain YSB. For those reasons and a preference for and belief in Yin Style’s methods–and not particularly liking being injured–I tend to leave sparring out of my own training.

Note that I say so with the most sincere attitude that any effective martial artist must reality-check his or her skills. That test is crucial to avoid as much fantasy as possible in martial arts training.

What do you think? As always, your comments are warmly invited and much appreciated!

Creative Imagery: Functional Meditation in Baguazhang Training

Putting in the proper intent is much of what makes standing strengthening practice work.

Putting in the proper intent is much of what makes standing strengthening practice work.

Meditation is a wonderful thing in its own way, and sooner or later, I’ll probably talk about that some here. It, of course, conjures up thoughts of sitting in yogic positions and contemplating the universe, one’s own body or mind, or nothing at all, and all of that’s fine, good even in many cases. That’s not what I’m after today.

Baguazhang practitioners may assume they know what I’m going for here and are licking their chops to hear about my thoughts on the meditative benefits of the circle turning practice that is central to bagua training. Nope. Not today, and I’d go so far as to say we’re not ready for that talk yet. I’m after something much, much more important (not least because it’s at the functional core of circle turning as a meditative martial arts practice).

So, I’m after something that’s directly fighting-practical, and to get fighting-practical meditation requires using something that would fall under the “creative visualization” umbrella within the far broader set of practices we call meditation. It’s also one of the huge aspects–arguably the most important or even only aspect–of what makes an “internal” martial art like baguazhang internal at all. (And, to be sure, those seeking esoterica at this point are about to be resoundingly disappointed unless they’re smart enough to drop the fantasy and get ready to get real.)

Creative visualization/imagery

To give a quick overview, the idea of creative imagery is very actively imagining, as clearly as possible, doing an action (or experiencing an event, or what-have-you) while sitting still, often with the eyes closed. In YSB, I find this activity helpful for trying to get accuracy in a movement, and I find it absolutely indispensable for getting applications, which is to say for making my solo practice time worth anything more than exercise.

Russian basketball study?

Early in my YSB days, I was told a story about a study involving Russian basketball players in which some groups practiced free throws for an hour a day (or some such), some actively practiced less and supplemented their practice time with creative visualization/imagery of throwing free throws in varying amounts, and some never actually practiced with the ball and only visualized. The alleged findings were that people who did 75% mental training and 25% physical practice improved the most despite doing only a quarter of the physical work of the full-time practice group. (The ones pretending, no surprise, improved the least.)

I don’t know if this study really happened or not, and digging around a bit in the sports psychology literature, I cannot find a clear reference to it anywhere. It may be entirely apocryphal, and the ultimate source of the now-widespread story seems to be a book called Karate of Okinawa: Building the Warrior Spirit. Not to be a jerk, but color me a bit skeptical, then, despite my insistence that creative visualization is incredibly important to success in training YSB, or martial arts in general, really.

Olympians now

In 2014, during the Sochi Olympics, the New York Times reported on athletes in those Games using creative visualization. Further, despite the lack of solid evidence for the existence of the infamous Russian basketball study, there are a number of studies that are available in the sports psychology literature attesting to the success of Olympians (example and example) and physical therapy patients who employ creative imagery in their training protocols. These studies seem to suggest that there is something useful in employing creative imagery for improving outcomes in physical activity, and I hope to make a case here that for the martial arts, it is probably necessary (so, no surprise, it’s a fundamental requirement of proper YSB training).

Neuronal firing patterns

So, I want to talk a bit about why it might work, assuming it does. Practice, in general, is often designed to create what sometimes gets called “muscle memory,” although the term neuronal firing patterns would be more accurate.

The way I had firing patterns explained to me (by an anatomy and physiology expert) is that the human nervous system creates something like “recipes” for executing certain actions, and that over time and repeated use, those “recipes” and the neuronal pathways that they initiate become strengthened. The nerves involved make more direct connections with one another and myelinate more thoroughly (myelin is a fatty sheath around some nerve fibers that insulates them and thus allows them to conduct their signals more quickly). The brain’s motor areas create well-worn pathways that initiate signals in particular patterns, eventually almost or even entirely automatically, and these become neuronal firing patterns, or muscle memory.

The thing about the brain is that it can be fooled by sufficiently realistic imagery into reinforcing those same nervous pathways that we seek to strengthen during training, and it can be taught to associate those pathways with certain external stimuli. It is, for instance, relatively common for someone to hurt their back falling from a ladder, recover, and then ten years later be prone to the same back pain from far less traumatic causes because a slip or fright inadvertently initiates the neuronal firing pattern that caused the body to clench (and hurt itself) during the fall. This example, by the way, was a case study given in the lecture by the anatomist mentioned previously.

The study of the Olympians at Sochi, not even to draw from my own experience and the stated requirements–based upon lots of experiences–of training in YSB, fascinatingly suggest that the brain can be coaxed into reinforcing certain neuronal pathways and associating them with certain external stimuli merely by using the imagination, supposing the imagery is sufficiently detailed and realistic.

What that should mean is that creative visualization of a physical activity–and the more tactile the imagery the better–should reinforce the neuronal firing patterns associated with executing that activity, whether you are doing them physically or not. And, of course, if you are doing the movements physically at the same time, that’s all the better, a topic I’ll return to momentarily.

The fundamental disconnection

In training martial arts, the vast majority of training time presents a huge problem: practicing the techniques is necessarily divorced from really executing them to obtain a result, especially one in a tense situation with a resisting opponent. We cannot train techniques designed to injure, maim, or kill realistically in essentially any circumstances, some degree of nerfing is always required for the purposes of training. This creates a gap between how we train and actually using it that is an unavoidable part of training any martial art.

There are bridges across this chasm. Applications practice is one, but it’s limited both in opportunity (for most of us) and realism (for safety’s sake). Sparring is another that I’ll discuss at greater length later, but it too is limited and, as I’ll eventually argue, nearly as unrealistic as much else that goes in the martial arts. This gap has to be crossed to reach a high level of skill in fighting, however, and the question is how it is to be done.

Of course, this fundamental disconnection probably reaches its zenith in kata (forms) practice, and so kata rightly gets denigrated by nearly all martial artists who focus primarily on sparring, or even controlled fighting, as their primary mechanism for crossing this gap. (This, too–the problem of kata–is a topic I’d like to turn more attention to at some point soon.) Kata, though, along with any other techniques performed “empty” of a target, can be used to bridge the gap as well, and I think that creative imagery, one of the primary secrets of the “internal” martial arts, is the trick to doing it.

Imagining applications

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that the results of the probably apocryphal Russian basketball study are true, not least because of the huge amount of progress the activity of creatively visualizing my way through applications has provided for me. This, I know, isn’t really data, but, man, people love testimonials and anecdotes ;).

If you’ll remember, or if you’ve known me for any amount of time, I struggled (and still do to some degree) with what might be called a “knowledge-use gap,” which means I have a lot of work to do on making my techniques real and thus effective. Creative imagery of applications together with some actual applications practice (together with physical training) have netted huge gains in this department for me, though, and they did so in a relatively short time.

I spend some time every day, especially before I go to bed or between clients when I want to train but can’t get sweaty, just imagining applications. The process is simple: I think of an application I have a rough grasp on, imagine myself doing it to someone (and the bigger and stronger the person, in many regards, the better), try to make it vivid and tactile, and repeat. I add in ways he might resist and feel my way through how the technique is either designed to cope with that, exploit it, or enable changing in response to it, and I do it all in my head. I do this often, and I know it’s meditative because even as engaging as it is, it’s also stunningly soporific, probably the second fastest route to a nap or breaking insomnia that I know of (so, I do it standing up between clients!).

It happens that almost every time I get serious about this activity, I start making applications work that I couldn’t before, usually lots of them. The keys are visualizing the action of the opponent clearly, visualizing my movements clearly, adding as much tactile element as possible, and visualizing the result as clearly as I can. It’s not perfect–and without actually testing the techniques with real applications, it can go awry–but it really adds a lot to my training and development.

A warning–the fire and the ghost

Something I’ve heard about regarding the internal martial arts is a saying that you can get yourself pretty far down some idiotic fantasy paths by imagining you can do things that you simply cannot. The saying in Chinese, if I’ve heard it correctly, translates as something like “stepping into the fire and seeing the ghost.” I can run with that for my purposes here.

If you are imagining fantasy applications that will not actually work, you’re stepping into the fire and seeing the ghost, or at least trying to. I’ll probably misinterpret the saying (and warmly invite correction in the comments!), but it stands to reason at least that the ghost you’re seeing is bullshit you think you can pull off but can’t and the fire is the danger you’re putting yourself in by doing so. That, at least, is how I interpret those words, given my thoroughgoing lack of knowledge about Chinese idioms.

Either way, you don’t want fires or ghosts in your training. You don’t want to do fantasy martial arts. You want to be real, and the only way to get real is to reality check yourself and correct problems. That will mean actually checking out the applications in various situations (with real people) and with varying amounts of cooperation to determine if they actually work or need adjustment. Always assume that you’re doing it in a way that can be improved upon, and it doesn’t hurt to frequently assume (especially at first) that you’re doing it wrong.

Putting that visualization into live practice

I’m not sure whether putting the visualizations you’re using into live solo practice will, on its own, correct any fire-and-ghost errors you have going on, but I’m almost sure that putting visualizations into your solo training will help you improve. I’m also completely sure that it’s a requirement–not a suggestion–of Yin Style Baguazhang training. Therefore, I’d strongly urge practicing creative visualization of your techniques and then practicing the harder skill of combining them with actual physical movements.

Ideally, when you’re training Yin Style (or any other martial art), you should be continuously visualizing the usage of the techniques you’re doing in real time on imaginary opponents. You have to know what you’re doing to get better at it! That requires being good at both training physically and creatively visualizing mentally, and it requires coordinating those. (::Mumbles something about internal harmonies…. Mumbles something else about coordinating the eyes–representative of intent–with hands, body, waist, and footwork….::) This is the stage that follows having a basic grasp on how to execute the techniques (coordination) and how to put out power with them, and it’s absolutely critical to getting your training right.

When you can do this, you’ll get better, fast. It makes training both physically and mentally exhausting, though, so be warned up to the task. In return, every time you strike the air or throw an imaginary person, you can get very close to that real aliveness that legitimately simulates really doing it. If I’m in top form and have strong focus, I can practice throwing my friend more than five hundred times in an afternoon without having to test an ounce of his patience or pain threshold–or without even having him anywhere around. It’s really quite amazing.

When you train YSB, you have to add creative imagery of your intent to every aspect of solo training: standing strengthening, turning, striking, combinations, forms, and weapons. Without it, the training is good for coordination, good for generating knowledge and technique, but it’s functionally empty, dead, and not terribly effective at making you a better fighter. Again, you have to know what you’re doing, especially if you’re not relying on the corrective capacity of a fist to the head when you make an error in judgment about how a technique might work out.

Why does it work? If you ask me, it comes right back to neuronal firing patterns. Think about it. If you can strengthen the firing patterns for the physical movement both by doing the movement and by thinking your way through the movement in a tactile sense, doing both simultaneously should multiply that effect. If you can practice the movement while conditioning your mind to the stimulus of the appropriate situation, then you’re adding in the right triggers for initiating that firing pattern while you train.

In other words, by adding the intent and situational relevance to your physical training, doing so in your mind, you bridge the gap between knowledge and use and can cross the chasm between them. Just one word of caution, though: don’t play with fire and watch out for ghosts because you can ingrain that fantastical idiocy too if you’re not careful. It’s important to remember that applications are a test of your training, and they’ll help keep you legitimate.

As always, and yet again, if you have anything you’d like to share, add, suggest, or correct, please do so in the comments below!

Withdrawing and Distancing in Fighting

Withdrawing from the opponent's applied force can let you seize an advantage of position.

Withdrawing when the opponent applies force can let you seize an advantageous position.

All of my posts here so far have been pretty general, stretching well beyond the confines of the Yin Style Bagua niche. Here, I want to address something more specific: some of my thoughts on the withdrawing attack method in the YSB Bear System.

I have been working on the Bear System this year almost exclusively, dragging the Knoxville Yin Style study group with me, and that system’s withdrawing attack method probably attracted the most active thought and discussion in the group of anything we’ve studied so far (though the rather high-tech soft and following methods aren’t lagging behind on that front…).

Withdrawing, a beginner’s overview

To preface this “beginner’s overview,” let me start by saying that I am the beginner in question, though I have at least walked a little along this path.

Withdrawing is a curious attacking method for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is concerned almost entirely with footwork, the hands being largely supplementary to what the feet are doing. Outside of the YSB Monkey System, this is a unique trait to withdrawing attacks.

Secondly, withdrawing isn’t quite how it sounds, at least not to most ears, as withdrawing and retreating are certainly not the same thing. Retreating is getting away as a last act of preservation. Withdrawing is pulling away in order to effect a change so that one can enter with advantage or remove the opponent’s advantages. The difference is crucial. Retreating is a method of getting out of a fight; withdrawing is a method of manipulating position to one’s advantage while staying engaged in the fight.

The Bear System’s canon indicates three foundational techniques to practice to develop skill with withdrawing. Those not familiar with these techniques should take a few moments to watch the video in the link, or the ensuing discussion might be pretty confusing. Now, though I don’t disagree with these three as withdrawing foundations, I consider withdrawing to be one of those attacking methods with “three plus one” foundational attacks, so I add a fourth for my own training. A quick overview:

  • The removing step withdrawing attack uses both a hand and a foot that pulls back with force and then returns back where it came from, and it is particularly useful for removing the opponent’s force when he is resisting or stealing his capacity to defend if paired with a feint.
  • The entering step withdrawing attack uses a quick 180-degree withdrawal and return, as though the body rotates about an axis through the back shoulder and heel, and is used to deflect an incoming attack to create space to enter viciously.
  • The back step withdrawing attack uses a 90-degree back step to quickly change position and angle relative to the opponent and to take away his force. It’s often used to set up throws.
  • The “plus one” for the withdrawing attacks is the advancing withdrawing attack, which utilizes a quick reversal of the feet, allowing a change in the direction of an attack from front to back, or vice versa, or side to side, very quickly. It is not one of the foundational three, but I don’t think that fact diminishes its importance to the method. I train it as a foundational attack when I train withdrawing, in fact. (A common mistake with this technique, for what it’s worth, is forgetting that the name of the technique follows a categorizing format and isn’t a set of exact instructions. That is, to do this footwork correctly, one should withdraw first and then advance. The phrasing means that one is using a withdrawing method in order to advance on the opponent.)

Withdrawing, then, uses footwork, waist, and body movement to remove the opponent’s ability to apply force and to create a kind of vacuum into which he can be misdirected, drawn, or overextended–or perhaps via which you can just protect yourself–and the result is then exploited to win.

Repositioning goals with withdrawing

The general goals of the withdrawing attack method are as were just stated together with the very important idea of repositioning yourself against the opponent.

Back stepping withdrawing and advancing withdrawing, particularly, are useful for repositioning or changing the angle on the opponent, often while taking away his ability to apply force. They’re best used in situations in which the opponent is strong in the direction you’d like to attack and is weaker (or can be made weaker) in directions that you can change to easily (with good footwork).

For example, perhaps you attack the opponent from the outside but cannot enter. Back stepping to change the angle (often for a throw) can be used to evade this resistance and still win. Or perhaps you enter in upon the opponent but get resisted. Advancing withdrawing can allow you to follow the opponent’s resistance (following being another characteristic Bear method) and suddenly reverse the angle of your attack, using his force against him. These are important functional uses of these two kinds of footwork. Those familiar with the YSB Bear System may have the penetrating attacks leaping to mind in both of these cases, in fact.

Removing withdrawing and entering withdrawing are different as both seem to have an element of directly removing the opponent’s force, though their goals aren’t quite the same and their methods are very different from one another. These are particularly appropriate when put under direct resistance that’s easier to remove than to transform or when attempting to set the opponent up to lose.

These two, and especially the entering withdrawing attack, have another thing in common: they’re more concerned with distancing oneself against the opponent than with repositioning oneself. This topic, using withdrawing to distance oneself well for fighting goals, was one of the primary discussion topics we had while working on it in our study group meetings.

Managing distance in fighting

When I used to be a sport fighter, managing distance with the opponent was considered almost everything. Both fighters were likely to be fast, both were tricky, and both were likely to be accurate with their best techniques, so it often came down to who managed the distance better because whichever did had the better opportunity to launch his attacks. The name of the game was simple: create the space in which your best attacks will fly or his will fail, and then, when the right moment arrives, get him. This fact is true in all fighting (at least while standing up), from close in wrestling to flinging kicks at range and even, really, shooting arrows or bullets across a field (ask the US Navy about this, if you doubt it). Getting your distancing right may not be everything, but it’s really important.

Withdrawing as a distancing tool

Withdrawing offers one clean, no-nonsense way to manage distance that can be added to a fighter’s repertoire. Much of what came by experience for me as a sport fighter (often the experience of a fist or foot to the head for getting it wrong) is covered explicitly and in a well thought-out manner in withdrawing. In fact, much of what I did well as a sport fighter could be classified as a coarse use of the removing withdrawing method, though it’s much more powerful and effective with the finesse that comes with real removing. We found a similar theme when it came to using withdrawing footwork to set up throws in our study group meetings recently–many really great stand-up wrestling techniques make use of what might broadly be considered withdrawing footwork (and a good bit of following).

We found that the removing withdrawing attack probably gets the most bang for its buck when used in situations where the opponent is applying a pressure onto you that you can then draw him into emptiness with. It’s also very effective for creating the kind of space needed to pull off sudden feint-low, strike-high combinations–the kinds of things I really wish I knew back when I was sport fighting. In this mode of usage, you can attack, almost like probing the situation, suddenly withdraw yourself from the situation when the opponent reacts, letting him get overextended, and then hit him before he can recover. This technique is very much like a wave at the beach: the water slips out from underneath you and then the wave comes back and crashes on top of you.

The entering withdrawing attack is a different kind of wave, sloshing more side-to-side than up and down, even though the strike tends to feature downward uses of the hands and the body raises and lowers with it.

It also proved a strange one for us to apply. Typically, we used it to deal with an incoming punch, especially a jab. No matter how we used it, though, we weren’t able to beat the jab unless we used it as a trap. Let the opponent test us and withdraw back. Let the opponent test again and withdraw back. Then you have a sense of his timing, and so when the next punch goes, the entering withdrawing attack can be perfectly timed. The opponent feels like he’s got you on the run and so commits to a forward attack, and suddenly, you’re entering back on him, hitting him in the face and trapping his feet as you go. This seemed to work very well and consistently in a mock sparring situation.

The entering withdrawing technique can be used as a masterful game of manipulating distance by withdrawing specifically for the purpose of coming back in to enter. The technique is perfect for this too because it creates the illusion of a big retreat while actually coiling the leg and body like a spring (a firmly rooted spring, at that) that launches a powerful and unexpected attack just when the opponent thinks he has you where he wants you.

The best part about the entering withdrawing attack is that it seems to open the door wide to continuing to enter upon the opponent. It’s one thing to enter on a fighter and score a hit, it seems. It’s another thing entirely, though, to bust in on him when he least expects it, putting him into a frantic scrabbling defensive position. It opens the door perfectly for catching him in what Jinbao referred to as “the coffee grinder,” where one (circularly shaped) strike after another after another flies aggressively until eventually at least one connects.

Have you tried withdrawing techniques, especially as a method of manipulating distance or position with the opponent? As always, your experience, thoughts, and commentary are warmly welcomed in the space below!

Quitting at Nineteen

Keeping on, even as the sun sets.

Keeping on, even as the sun sets.

On two occasions now, I’ve heard He Jinbao mention what I assume is an old saying about training: If it takes twenty years to get good, most people quit at nineteen. The lessons are obvious. Don’t give up too soon; some things take a long time; and you’ll want to quit most when you’re closest. The saying, then, seems to have some immediate validity, but it raises the interesting question of why people would quit when they’re closest to achieving something.

There’s more to this saying, too. There’s the curious matter of how it is possible that “at twenty years” someone is good but “at nineteen,” she isn’t yet. Does training really happen in discrete jumps like this, or is does improvement come as a smooth transition over time? Also, what significance, if any, is there to twenty years in the saying? Does it imply that if you train for twenty years, then you will get good?

First, a bit of psychology

Humans are curious creatures, and our psychology is an interesting thing. One particularly interesting fact about human psychology is that if you’re doing something hard and don’t know how much ordure you still face, it makes it that much harder to face.Experience probably confirms this for most people reading this blog, but I recall reading at some point a few years ago that it has been demonstrated under careful conditions as well.

A practical example, and the one I seem to recall from the study I think I read, would be that if we have fifty pushups to do for a trainer, and the trainer is counting them out for us, they’ll be as hard as fifty pushups will be. If, on the other hand, we don’t know that we’re going to fifty, they will feel harder after we do what seems like a lot of them. If no one is even counting, they’ll feel even harder. There’s something to knowing where the finish line is and how far along we are that helps us rally when the going gets thick. There’s a reason, it turns out, that kids are notorious for driving us nuts by asking, “how much longer?” on every road trip ever. Suffering in ignorance is harder than suffering with knowledge, or, at least, knowing when your suffering ends makes it much easier to bear in the meantime.

Getting “good” in a martial art like Yin Style is something we all realize takes a long time once the initial “I’m going to be the one special person for whom that isn’t true” enchantment fades. The thing is, we don’t know how long it will take. We have common sense and might hear things that are suggestive. Some examples include that it takes maybe five or six years to earn a black belts in many martial arts styles, Liu Shichang (the oldest living YSB practitioner) suggests to give YSB ten years or not to bother, some guys who have been training for about fifteen years are frighteningly good, the saying under examination here seems to suggest twenty years, and generally mastering something difficult seems like a two-decade task. Still, we don’t know how long it will take.

Twenty is a placeholder

Common sense may dictate that mastery of something should take someone around twenty years, and let’s run with that. Let’s assume twenty years is the requirement for mastery of a complicated effort.

It’s critical to realize that the saying here might use that intuition but does not imply that people will get good in twenty years. In fact, the saying negates that idea directly because if a person knew he needed twenty years to get good and was just one year away, he’d have to be a moron to quit. He only quits because he doesn’t know that he’s a year away from achieving his goal. In his mind, he may still be twenty more years from good, or a hundred. He has no idea. He just knows he’s not good yet. People don’t quit when they know they’re almost somewhere they want to be. People quit when they think it’s hopeless, that they’ll never get there.

This is a part of what makes open-ended, long-term training goals like “getting good” or “achieving mastery” so difficult. We don’t know how long they’ll take, only that they’ll take a lot of time in between and they’re not guaranteed. For example, if someone trains badly, he will not get good, not even in fifty years. The amount of time that any individual will need to get good will be specific to that individual–his talents, the time he can invest, his methodology, his access to instruction and correction, and so on. “Twenty years” here just means “a long time,” and “nineteen” just means “almost there.”

Frustration builds and peaks

So, what happens after many years of training and remaining aware of not yet being good is that frustration builds up. It feels aggravating; it’s disenchanting; we become disengaged; we get frustrated and eventually hopeless. Then, if we succumb to those negative feelings, we quit, often thinking we’ve made an honest assessment of ourselves of the form, “I’ll never get this, better move on to something else with my time.”

Now think about it. If this sort of frustration with your progress is really building up, when will it happen? At first? Probably not: we’re still way too full of optimism and understanding that the road ahead of us is long for it to get us right away. After a few years? Maybe–it certainly will feel worse if we’ve made only a little progress, but if we’ve made any, it can be encouraging. Remember, we know the road is long, and so we know a few years isn’t long enough. When we’re already good? No. Of course not, that’s when we’ve made it.

No, this hopeless frustration with training will hit its maximum right before we cross over to realizing that we’ve gotten good. That’s when it will have built up the longest without feeling like it has borne fruit. That’s why the saying indicates that we’ll quit 95% of the way into our work. This is why people quit at nineteen, if it takes twenty–but remember that twenty is just a placeholder for “long time” and nineteen just means “when we’re closest.” In fact, I’m changing the numbers for most of the rest of the post.

Two flavors of progress

Wouldn’t a person who has been training for almost two dozen years realize that he’s almost there? Why wouldn’t he? Surely to goodness he has made some progress, even substantial progress, in all of those years of hard, serious training. Surely he can recognize that progress and use it to keep his engagement up. So, how can it be that he could be in a position where he is still not good after twenty-six years and then good after twenty-seven?

In my experience, the problem here is that progress comes in two kinds. To pull from my math background, I will call them continuous and discrete. Continuous progress happens all the time (if we’re training). Day after day, we get a little better. We definitely want that as part of our training. Discrete progress will refer to short periods of time in which we feel like we suddenly get a lot better, maybe in a few months. (Note that all of this is a bit optimistic because if we get on a bad tangent in our training, we might actually get worse for a while and have a lot to fix before we’re improving again.)

What matters is that continuous progress is slow and incremental. Over fairly long periods of time, there’s only a little apparent development, even if deeper things are going on under the surface. During these phases, we’re getting better, but it is surprisingly easy to lose sight of that fact (so, keep this in mind next time you’re frustrated!). In fact, we’re unlikely to realize the progress we’re making until well after we’ve made it, probably during or after our next discrete jump in development.

Discrete progress is explosive. For some short period of time, we get better really fast, and it’s usually pretty obvious. In my experience, these periods follow a big piece of the puzzle falling into place, often resulting in a whole new way to think about training, new levels of clarity, and a renewed approach to training that comes as a result of the change. I am almost certain that the transition from not good to good follow a period of explosive improvement after some critical piece of the puzzle falls into place.

If I’m right about this, what it means is that at fifteen years, we may still be not good and then by the time we reach sixteen, something could have changed enough to where we’ve crossed clearly over into good. In other words, the person stuck at almost good is unlikely to know he’s almost good and just feels not good, with a lot of frustration built up.

For you Yijing nerds, like I am, given that baguazhang is based upon the Yijing, this is the exact theme of the sixty-fourth hexagram, sometimes translated as before completion or almost across, fire over water. The theme there is that things are almost realized, everything is in the proper relationship but hasn’t fallen into the proper place, and that it is also the time of the most important and laborious work so that you can achieve a huge success. It’s also said to be a time of great danger because the temptation to quit can be so high, just like our saying suggests.

Take home

Train because you enjoy it. You don’t have to worry about getting bogged down with whether or not you’re getting good enough to justify your effort if your real reward is that you enjoy the training. Who cares how good you get if you enjoy what you’re doing and trying to get better?

It might take you ten years, twenty years, thirty years, or fifty years to get good, or maybe you’ll never really get good, but you will get better the longer you train, so long as you train seriously and train well. Training with an aim to improve is important, so don’t lose that, but it’s not going to work out for you if you don’t enjoy it for its own sake.

On the other hand, if you don’t really enjoy it, and you’re only doing it to “get good,” fix your priorities or quit. You’re going to at nineteen anyway–and what a damned shame–and you could save yourself a lot of time in between.

As always, your thoughts are warmly welcomed and strongly encouraged in the comments below!

The Importance of Training Well

He Jinbao demonstrating to me the fruits of training well.

He Jinbao demonstrating to me the fruits of training well.

My kids are home from college for the summer (still! still!), and so we get a lot of chances to talk with them. One of them had a hard time with some of her subjects in her first year, and while discussing the matter with her mom, I overheard her say something along the lines of, “It doesn’t really matter if I study more or not. I can only get so much out of it, and doing more doesn’t help.” Hmm.

As someone who did college all the way (and for almost thirteen years), and someone who taught college-level courses at three different schools for a number of years, and someone who has chased skills in Yin Style Bagua, and someone who has tried to help other people chase skills in the art as well, I think I can diagnose my daughter’s study problem (not that telling her about it will have much by way of immediate returns). My suspicion is that my daughter doesn’t know how to study, which is really no surprise as nearly none of the college students I’ve ever worked with have much of a clue of how proper study is conducted.

Training, or studying–these ultimately really being the same thing–must be done well to get good results, and good results shouldn’t look like my daughter’s collegiate difficulties. In fact, putting more time in without noticeable returns is an almost sure sign that your study, or training, is too hollow, that you are not, in fact, training well. And so we reach a big first point.

If you’re not training well, you’re wasting a lot of time

Suppose you decide that putting an extra few hours a week into your training might be just what it needs to spur improvement, and so you do that. You up your training regimen, stick to it diligently, and do a whole lot more of exactly the same thing that you’re already doing. If you’re lucky, something might click into place with all this extra time you’re investing, or you may overcome some plateau in your training, but chances are that more of the same will produce exactly that, more of the same. Like my daughter’s predicament, doing more of whatever she’s doing probably won’t help. The same is true of shoddy training.

If you are dedicating a lot of time to an ineffective method, you will not improve very much, if at all. If you dedicate more time to that same method, you’re really just wasting your time unless your ultimate goals are things like “train x hours per week,” “get more exercise,” or “prove to myself that I can be more dedicated.” Those are fine as goals, to be sure, but not when they’re being done unintentionally in the name of a different goal: getting better at what you’re training. My daughter doesn’t need to set a rule to study at least twenty hours a week if better grades are her goals and only two or three of those hours are productive. She’d be wasting a lot of time (even if it builds character, inter alia).

It could be worse…

Even worse than dedicating time to ineffective methods would be dedicating it to bad training methods. There’s an old adage that says that “practice makes perfect,” which is complete rubbish. “Practice makes permanent” is closer, if you like the alliteration, but “practice makes consistent” and “practice makes regular” fall nearer the mark. Training badly will have bad results. Really, try to avoid it. You’re better taking the day off than going out and screwing around.

The easiest way to avoid terrible training, even as a complete beginner, is to keep a few things in mind. First, what you’re trying to accomplish. If you know this clearly, it’s much easier to choose activities that serve it. Second, know what kinds of things help you accomplish those goals. If you need better grades in your biology classes, understanding biology should eventually seem like an obvious answer. Third, don’t lose sight of what you already know. In training a martial art, go out and work to meet as many of the requirements as you can, be that because of physical limitations, only knowing a few of them, lacking the requisite coordination, or only being able to remember some of them.

But it could be better too!

The quality of your training most definitely can improve, and being able to train well makes everything related to training better (even life–more on this another time).

In my experience, every breakthrough period in my training in Yin Style Bagua has followed some deliberate refinement and improvement of my approach to training, usually getting something mentally right. There have been periods (sometimes long ones) of relative stagnation in which I didn’t improve. There have been periods in which I improved steadily. There have also been these breakthrough periods in which I improved dramatically in a relatively short time–these leading to more productive steady improvement later and less time caught in stagnation. Each one of those big bursts has followed a definite change in how I trained. Training better had the most dramatic effect upon improving my skill. (And for those who are dying to know, 90% of the change, at least, came from getting my head right about training.)

By extension, one of the goals you should have if you study or train anything, particularly something complicated and difficult like YSB, is to improve the method by which you train. Training better will make a much better use of your time, and, if many of your practice methods are generally ineffective, will help you get better at what you’re training while dedicating less time to it, not more. Imagine the potential, then, of developing mostly good training habits and training for as long as you already do, or for increasing your training by several hours a week. Big improvement is almost guaranteed. The question is just a matter of how you can improve the quality of your training.

How do we do it?

Training, to be done well, has to be organized, intelligent, and incremental. It must be goal-oriented, and it must be done with the right mentality. As I said, every major jump in my training has followed getting my mind more appropriately engaged in what I’m doing, making the exercise less abstract and more realistic, at least in what I’m thinking about when I’m doing it. I can’t overstate the importance of this. (Indeed, it is the correct definition of what an internal martial art does, so it’s really a no-brainer that it worked.)

Starting at the beginning

There is one point, though, I’ve seen again and again in life, and it’s important. There is a place where you are with any given set of material, and if you try to go forward from some other place than that, you will not succeed. My training in YSB took some major leaps when I started with something I already felt good at.

By beginning with something with which I felt some measure of skill, I was able to extend that skill to other domains, to really look at the nuts and bolts of the material I was studying and to draw analogies that let me move forward. That changed my solo training time into periods in which I could really focus on the reasons for the various parts of the practice and thus add that all-important mental component to my training. The improvements were pretty dramatic.

Once I had a foundation built in that way, I could start branching out to other material, again moving incrementally and in an organized fashion. The operative question I kept (and keep) asking myself is what is this skill/technique/movement/change aiming to accomplish?

Progressing required assessing myself: in times where I felt like I was making no progress, or no more progress after a while, I realized I needed to change gears and try to make progress elsewhere. I’ve been digging into pushing attacks for weeks, and I feel stuck, what about moving attacks? I can always come back to pushing attacks later, when I understand more things.

The trick, ultimately, though, is getting at least one or two skills that you have a reliable feel for and then working outward from there, using them as the foundation that instructs you in the next thing you poke at.

An analogy to the classroom

When I was studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams (which, by the way, are hard), I used a very similar method to what I described above. I knew I knew some mathematics, and I started with the easiest material I was pretty sure I had a firm grip on. Then I studied it thoroughly and systematically, and something remarkable happened: I made steady progress, had tons of engagement with the material, and came to a place where each new subject I took on seemed easy to master.

In the beginning, it came down to humility, admitting that I didn’t know nearly as much as I should know by the time I had finished some of the courses I had taken. I had to go back further than that and build the foundation, sometimes deeply into undergraduate textbooks. And it worked. Chapter by chapter, I moved through more basic material and into the more difficult things I was supposed to be learning and then beyond. It never became difficult.

Training worked similarly. Once I wheeled my attention back to a couple of the first concepts that had clicked with me and worked to make them regular, I could start building from there. Sometimes I went too far and would just hit a wall. Other times I’d land right upon something I didn’t understand before and would make progress. Sticking with this method and then putting it mentally into what I was doing–training for results even when training solo–made all the difference. When I really get stuck, I still roll all the way back to the absolute fundamentals and spend more time turning the circle, paying ever more attention to the fine details. It seems to work like a charm every time.

What if you’re not good at anything yet?

If you’re so new that you aren’t really good at anything yet, follow the curriculum, and do it so that, in short, you’re throwing things at the wall until something sticks. Seriously.

At first, of course you won’t be good at specific technical skills, but you’re not completely inept. In YSB, turn the circle and do it seriously. Train your strikes as well as you can. Practice applications seriously during classes or group meetings. Keep trying, and look for any toehold you can find. (The ability to coordinate hands and feet or some semblance of power emission are often early skills people stumble upon and can latch onto.) Then you’ve got something you’re good at. You can build from there.

At first, of course, systematic improvement is very difficult and is, in a lot of ways, something of the responsibility of those instructing you to provide. So listen and try out what you’re told.


In difficult arenas of study, YSB very much included, being able to endure is of utmost importance. When I studied for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, I averaged ten hours a day, seven days a week, for four months leading into each of the exams. That takes endurance.

In YSB, you need to be able to throw a lot of strikes, perform large numbers of repetitions of our attack strategy forms, and, most of all, to turn the circle for a long time while being mentally focused enough to look for all the requirements (instead of just trying to keep your breath or ignore the burning pain in your body). This requires an incremental approach to increasing your endurance as well, and even that can serve as a toehold for you if none of the specific skills are resonating with you. To put in the required time, you have to be able to endure, and the way you get to being able to endure is to practice it–intelligently and systematically.

Above all, though, you must train well if you want to get better. Just training, even a lot, isn’t nearly enough.

As always, if you have anything to add about the importance of training well, including things that have worked for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Getting Better the Yin Style Baguazhang Way

Bear System turning practice for development.

Going through a particularly painful checklist.

Among a large number of other things, Yin Style Baguazhang gets training methodology right. My experience in training Yin Style over most of the past decade has led me to believe that part of what makes the YSB training methodology so special is that it gets to the core of the process of getting better. When it comes to developing well in any skill, having a successful method for improving is of utmost importance, and here I’d like to discuss how I think Yin Style’s approach to training gets this right.

Be serious

One of the first things a new student of Yin Style Bagua will be admonished when training is to be serious. It isn’t enough to go through the movements with your head in the clouds–or on what you intend to do later on. That won’t work because it isn’t serious. Training like that, you will not improve, at least not much, and you are shortchanging your training by changing it into exercise. Exercise, of course, might get you in shape, but it isn’t going to get you better at a skill, particularly not one like YSB, which is pretty freaking complicated, so far as skills go.

Being serious means paying attention to what you’re doing. It means keeping the focus where it belongs, and that’s on the technical skill required to make it work and to practice well. The mind has to lock onto the intention behind the technique being trained, remembering and meeting the requirements of the training activity, and on looking for ways to improve what you are doing. This last point, intentionally seeking improvement, requires applying corrective mechanisms in practicing any skill (here, in training), and it will be the primary topic of another post in the near future.

Core to being serious when training a martial art is being mindful of your goals in your training and applying a particular methodology to improve. YSB has a great approach to achieving this goal, and its students will have heard its casual expression before: “run through your checklist.”

A bit about cognitive behavioral therapy

One of the most effective methods of changing unwanted behaviors known to psychiatric clinicians and psychologists is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The goal of CBT is to assess behaviors (or patterns of thought) for unwanted elements and then to methodologically modify those via deliberate thought, or cognition, aimed at changing the behavior. It is amazingly effective on depression and anxiety disorders, and I have found a simple and practical derivation of it immensely useful in my professional work as a bodyworker where it comes to changing pathological posture and injurious habits. I’ve also found it useful in my training and think it is central to the conceptual roots of YSB’s “run through your checklist.”

It’s certainly fair to say that bad habits in training and generally training poorly fall well under the umbrella of behavior with unwanted elements, and so it should fall within the purview of CBT to help amend those behaviors. The result should be better training and, eventually, good training. With good training, obviously, you have every right to expect the best results that your talent can produce.

The essence of CBT, at least for our purposes, is simple: choose a mindset of awareness concerning the behavior and how you’d like to change unwanted elements of it, develop a strategy to make corrections, correct yourself each time you catch yourself doing something unwanted, and do so without passing judgment on yourself, especially aiming to avoid negative self-assessment in the process. It’s probably worth adding to this list too: be prepared to do it over and over and over again for a fair amount of time. For a variety of reasons that seem to include the ways in which our brains simplify motor commands and other neuronal patterns, changing them takes consistent effort over time. Just changing the orientation of my pelvis while I stand and walk–like in everyday life, forget training for now!–was a goal that took me six solid months to achieve.

What’s needed, then, to improve your training is just a few key elements. You need a sense of what good training looks and feels like, which probably follows from seeking out competent instruction, a serious mindset to improve, enough focus to attend to the reality of your own training, and enough patience to let it happen. For most people, the more systematic and clear this method is, the better it works.

The checklist

When we train Yin Style, or really anything that we want to get good at, we can apply a “checklist” model like the one YSB employs (especially while training the circle-turning exercise). The “checklist” refers to a list of requirements for doing the practice correctly, and it is pure insight into what proper training looks like, feels like, and demands.

Yin Style loves lists like this, and the expectation while training is to keep your mind the requirements necessary for good training, going through them one-by-one as though they are on a checklist. While turning, for example, if we’re running through the checklist, we’re sequentially thinking about as many requirements either as we can remember or as we wish to focus on in that session, and we address them each in turn, over and over again.

It might start at the upper-body posture: Am I holding it correctly? Are the proper forces present? Is my elbow dropped? Is there opposition of forces? Am I using the right amount of strength? At each stage, a question of that kind gets asked, the practice is evaluated, and mistakes are corrected; and then it’s off to the next requirement. Maybe it’s the feet: Am I stepping well? Am I reaching with my feet on each step? Am I grabbing the ground with my toes? And then it continues, or it repeats. One reason (among many), that YSB practitioners are expected to turn for an hour at a time (every day if they have it) is that the full checklist of requirements for turning properly is extremely long, and in an hour, you’ll be lucky to get through it a handful of times.

Of course, the checklist doesn’t apply only to turning. With strike drilling, there is the question of accuracy of technique–which includes several requirements–of body movement, waist involvement, proper use of footwork (if stepping), clarity of intention, power generation and emission, sitting down well, and so on.

There are requirements everywhere in training, and to train well, you have to meet as many of them as you can every time you train. Yin Style is not ambiguous about the requirements, nor is it equivocal in the importance of meeting them. “We train by the book,” we’ve all heard over and over again. The book in this case is a (mental) list of requirements. Our job is to remember them, consider what you’re doing, adjust, don’t get frustrated, and keep moving, then later, mull them over and do it again. This is, essentially, cognitive behavioral therapy applied to training, and that’s good news because we know it works.

Broad and narrow

There are advantages to reminding ourselves of as many requirements as possible in any given training session and attempting to attend to them. By doing so, we work on getting as much right as we can, and thus improve at a lot more details in a more comprehensive way than we would otherwise. There are competing advantages, however, to focusing only on a narrow set of requirements–say, footwork–for an entire training session, letting the other requirements remain important but on the back burner, not frequently directly observed. In this way, we can dedicate to improving a particular aspect of our training, perhaps something that we are aware needs a little extra attention because it lags behind the quality that we can put into our other requirements.

Choosing between these ways to train doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be done either by design, say by choosing to focus on certain aspects of the requirements on certain training days and the whole list on others, or a bit more organically by simply paying attention to either what seems most interesting at the time or what needs improvement most. Maybe you’d prefer to run with a good thing and keep focusing on something that you’re good at. Do that sometimes; it’s very encouraging. Or maybe you just know that your waist is the clumsiest bit of your movement, and so you want to iron that out. Do that sometimes too; it’s very helpful for fixing specific problems.

What matters most is that you’re choosing to focus on some requirements, be they a few or many, and running through them as a checklist, effectively using CBT to improve your accuracy and skill. Over time, you can expect good results from such a method.

Again, be serious

Without seriousness, accomplishing the aforementioned goals simply isn’t possible. Seriousness in training is the foundation upon which improvement is built. A seriousness of intent to improve, in fact, is what distinguishes training from exercise (another topic of a future post). Your goal when you train should be to improve, so, get out there, get to it, and run through your checklist–and be serious!

As always, let me know what you think, especially if you have ways that help you stay engaged, be serious, or get better!