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!

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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.

Enduring

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!