• Maintenance and Challenge

    healing in the martial arts

    I pulled my left butt muscle a couple months ago getting out of bed. It was a sudden rising movement that caused the muscle to seize up, but the problem had been there for some time, dormant and festering, and all it took was a bit of stimulation to bring the issue to the fore. The day before, I had hauled stone around for eight hours, digging up turf and shoveling other things around. Later in the evening I did two classes, Bjj and Muay Thai. Went to a friends house and chilled, was sore, went to bed.

    Bam. Next morning I felt pain like I have never felt before. Shooting waves of pain from my left hip down to my toe, through my butt and hamstrings. I knew I had done something to the sciatica nerve, but I was in too much pain to think straight. I took a handful of ibuprofen and in a flash of brilliance called and set up an immediate appointment with an acupuncturist across town. Went in, let Dr. Chen know I speak and understand Chinese and have had acupuncture treatment before, and then stripped and lay down on his bed. He dropped about two dozen needles into me and I felt immediate relief. And I mean immediate. One minute I was struggling to breathe through the pain, the next I was jabbering excitedly about the absence thereof. It was amazing.

    Dr. Chen told me the muscles and nerves in my left leg are atrophied and basically refuse to fire correctly. When I strained them, through work and training, I put myself into a position to really hurt myself. The muscles and tendons around the nerve tightened and spasmed, the nerve was pinched, and now the transmission of qi through the nerve to my muscles is not weak like before, but disrupted badly.

    I felt numbness in my leg, down to my toes, and I saw my left calf muscle disappear before my very eyes. Now, two months later, I can barely stand on my tip toes with my left foot, and pivoting for a roundhouse kick is physically, and mentally, taxing.

    As I went about researching and talking with others about how to rehab, and how difficult it is mentally to deal with an injury that doesn’t really hurt anymore, but nevertheless greatly inhibits my progress, I learned how critical healing is to the martial arts. This is a topic I have written about before: Breaking and Healing in the Martial Arts, but never with as much personal experience.


    My recent dedication to training as exposed some of my bad habits. Habits I had hoped would melt way with each kick and pound shed, but that hasn’t been the case. As I demand more from my body, so my body demands more from me. I have sat on my ass for many, many, many hours. In front of the computer playing video games, surfing the web, occasionally writing something. I have spent as many hours shying away from stretching and instead praying my “dynamic stretches” would eventually pull and push my stiff muscles into the fluid sacks of potential to kinetic they should be.

    So now, at the cusp of 40, I realize how much I have to do to really get in shape. The first thing is of course to understand what is wrong and how to treat it. For me, a sitting lifestyle has led to weak and stiff hips and ass, which in turn lead to stiff and grinding hamstrings and a stiff and sore back. The way to redemption lies in stretching, water, yoga, daily dedication to movement and activation. It doesn’t sound hard, but …. I hate stretching right now. I hate running too, but that’s a post for a different time.

    For now, I think it’s a good thing that I realize the balance in martial arts and how important it is to maintain both yin and yang.


    And as a sidenote, feeling the imbalance in my journey through the martial arts, between healing and training, maintenance and challenge, has opened my eyes to more abstract balances. Between the scholar and the warrior, the poet and the mercenary, the man of culture and the man of action. I was reminded of this not only through my physical struggles, but also through the writings of Xenophon, a Greek soldier and historian who fought in Persia many centuries ago. His writings, in turn, led me to many other poets of that era, who sat by the campfire and composed lines after a long march, before another day on the march or, better yet, a meeting in the field.


    August 25, 2016 • Kung Fu People, Modern Kung Fu • Views: 269

  • The Knight-errant We Need


    Chinese folklore has really only one type of hero, the wuxia martial artist, who is usually unaffiliated with any of the established antagonists and is therefore free to represent the ideal, rather than the fleeting interest. The Chinese knight-errant shows up homeless and wandering, from undistinguished birth, skilled enough to ward off most of the normal challenges to their person and with the wit and righteousness to ward off the rest.

    In many Chinese tales, the hero ends up being used by the corrupt authorities, or dies a hero’s death when a tactical retreat might have been wiser. The goal is never to actually fix the realm, however, but to remind the realm of what is good and worthy in life, what there is to be strived for, what it takes to get there, and how the journey  “there” is the only true thing in life. No one ever wonders what becomes of the knight-errant’s soul when it slips away from a body sacrificed for an ideal, it is known that those souls ascend and fly free into the hearts of all who hear the tale told.

    The true knight is art made human.

    In Hong Kong the book fair is wuxia themed, and this article here gives a little insight into why, and how rebellion works in an oppressive, fearful nation like the ones we face today.

    Funny how, in the end, they raise up Wei Xiaobao as the conciliatory hero for today’s world.



    July 28, 2016 • Kung Fu People • Views: 195

  • Thai Boxing vs. Kung fu

    Here is an essay from January of this year which I never finished, but addresses some of my thoughts on my own martial arts journey:

    I took up Thai Boxing about a month ago and I am starting to finally understand how people become addicted to the martial arts. For me, this has always been a question I couldn’t really answer without cutting myself down.

    See, when I studied kung fu, I did it for weeks at a time, with months and years in between. There were times, like those three weeks out in Hanyuan working on a story, when I felt the passion of what I thought at the time could be an addiction, something that could become the dedication I had seen, heard about, longed for within myself. But it passed, and I returned to my old life. Dreaming of being a martial artist in the late morning and doing a lot more reading and writing than kicking and stretching.

    There were a few incidents that threw my weakness and my lack of dedication to the martial arts back into my face:

    There was the time I was out with Tenzin and Tian Hua in Tian Hua’s hometown of Pengzhou. For me, the story of Tian Hua and his town was paramount: the slow decay of Tian Hua’s former school, the dusty bored streets of his town, his obvious undimmed passion for kung fu and fighting and the art that made him a man. The tragedy of Tan Hua was more important to me than whatever it was he wanted me to display, in order to prove myself a member of the club. Something about my demeanor, about the way I carried myself, the questions I asked, the things that seemed important to me … something abut how I stacked up to Tenzin, a mountainous physical presence, made Tian Hua lash out late that night. Drunk off baijiu, he kicked me a bunch of times, screaming out at me, “You’re no kung fu man!” which in Chinese, 你不是功夫人!feels so much stronger. There is a categorization that takes place and I was on the wrong side. I never spoke to Tian Hua again after that night. Tenz would remind me of that night every so often , perhaps to rub it in. Shifu laughed when I told him what had happened, “Tian Hua is a hothead, always has been. Forget about it.”

    Another time, I sat at the table with Shifu, Shiye and Lao Wu and we talked about Lao Wu’s garlic business and how I might be able to help. Talk drifted to martial arts. Lao Wu was a boxer and clearly remembered how to fight and carry himself like a fighter. When Shifu mentioned I studied kung fu, Lao Wu looked at me skeptically. “But he can’t possibly learn kungfu,” he said. Again, the Chinese version seems so much more powerful: 他没有悟性 ie he is unable to learn. Shifu said, “I will determine whether he can or cannot learn.” I never saw or spoke to Lao Wu again either, but it stayed with me.

    Shifu always said I was tripping when I brought up the fact that I didn’t belong. He got a little gruff and said, “You’re my student. You belong.” Other times he would say, “Your pen is your kung fu.”

    A few moments that stuck with me shouldn’t define ten years of interaction with Chinese martial arts, but they did. I remembered those moments most of all, and forgot any others that may have presented a different relationship. I didn’t train enough, wasn’t really into it, and basically wanted to cut out the hard body stuff and horse stance suffering and get right to the “enlightenment” part of kungfu. I wrote a little bit about this idea very recently for Fightland in an essay called, “Why Kungfu Masters Refuse to Teach.” In the essay I try to pick apart the traditionalist stand-point a bit, and show how their way of thinking helps lead to a perceived decline in the traditional Chinese martial arts. For me I was always so much more interested in the lore of it all, despite my fantasies of being the baddest man in the world.

    I think my fantasies may have leaked out into the space around me, been picked up by real kungfu men, and been scoffed at as the mewling of the softcore scholar. I’m not too sure anymore, but the feeling of not belonging remained.


    Then I joined the Cellar gym and began training Muay Thai, a bit of kickboxing, some boxing. The difference in how I approach training at the cellar versus training kungfu with my master in China is dramatic. I go almost every day to train at least one, usually two hours. I always come home feeling like I’ve made progress. I can see my progress actually, each time I throw a jab-cross, switch kick into Thai pads, or go a little bit longer with the jump rope before faltering.

    I rarely had this feeling when I was training kungfu in China. We never hit pads, rarely did partner work, and I don’t remember ever putting on gloves for any reason. In the kungfu world, it was me versus my shadow, versus the wood, versus the world-blotting sand bag hanging by a thread over the very center of the earth. I remember pain, a lot of awkward movements, and failure.

    At Shifu’s, there were maybe a handful of students, all of very different strengths, doing the same exercise each and every time. We did the forms, stood in the stances, hit the iron circle and perhaps the wooden dummy. It was hot and sweaty and painful. I rarely saw any progress … the bruises would fade and get covered by other bruises. My kicks might improve slightly, maybe I was able to touch my toes. I do remember coming back from a few weeks at Shifu’s place and a friend told me, “Dude, you look fantastic.” And I took the compliment and forgot about training.

    When I was in my 20s in China, with the opportunity to train with Shifu, I chose weed, wine, and women instead. So when I did train, it was never with devotion. I didn’t take the training home with me and repeat or try and get better. So whenever I went to Shifu’s, it felt like I was starting all over again, year after year.

    There are other factors here at play besides the training methods, I am sure of that as well. I am older now, and hopefully bit wiser. Age has shown me not only the encroaching limits of my physical form, but also the critical need for me to get healthy and in shape before it’s too late. These days, I dream constantly about hitting pads and kicks. I am anxious about my training and a day or two without a trip to the gym and I feel compelled to set aside everything in order to get my ass back in there.

    At the Cellar we have pads and gloves, shin guards and systematic training. Work the punches then the kicks, then go to clinching. Hit the bag, hit each other—lightly—back to the pads. I feel like this regimen will create a new me every 3-6 months. I am starting to get addicted. I am starting to feel that pull that all of the martial artists seem to talk about.

    I can’t help wondering if Shifu had had pads to hit and had run his training sessions a  bit more like the cellar does, perhaps I would have been more willing to train. Maybe I wouldn’t have to take this final lunge into the martial world this late in life and hope that I am not too late. The clear answer is, No. Back then I was too stupid to know what I had with Shifu, and today I am less stupid.

    Regardless, I have found a place to train and a discipline I am falling in love with. So looking into my past and trying to rationalize not training when I could have is just a mental exercise. It doesn’t really matter. Not anymore.


    July 18, 2016 • Kung Fu People • Views: 167

  • Update on the New Masters, Fightland, and Muay Thai

    I am no longer writing for Fightland, which is a bummer in many ways, but also a relief. The work I did for them drained my brain of any martial arts thoughts for a long time, which meant this blog lay fallow. The good news is that I will have more time to lay down my thoughts here, and there is a lot to talk about.

    The first thing I should mention is the New Masters Documentary film, which is still an ongoing project. We published a personal note from on the ground in Beijing today on the Kickstarter site, so all backers will have received that note. The three videographers on the ground—Chris Cherry, David Dempsey, and Graeme Nicol—believe they are very close to finishing this film. As a producer on the film, all I can do at this point is wait and prepare for an eventual marketing push to follow a completed or near completed film. That push will also involve submitting the film to festivals and competitions around the world and hoping for the best. One of the awards we had on the Kickstarter campaign was a chance to view the screening of the film in a series of cities. I know that once the film is finished, that will be, for me, the most exciting and rewarding part of the process.


    Here is a story I wrote about the Thai Boxing Association Tournament in Des Moines. Really opened my eyes up to the sport, to fighting, and to the community as a whole. I have been training in Thai Boxing since October of 2015 and it has been one of the most rewarding decision I have ever made. I am in much better shape than I was and I feel good about what I’m learning. I’m also discovering long-ignored physical issues and injuries that need my attention. Most prominent is sciatica built up over time spent on the computer and not much else. But at least I’m addressing it.

    Unlike my training in kungfu, training Thai Boxing has become an obsession for me: I am addicted to pad work and learning new techniques, I love sparring and dancing with my training partners, and I also study film to see if there are new things I can learn. When I trained kungfu, it seemed much more about the culture of the art for me, as opposed to the actual martial art. I never felt like the training was something I could dedicate myself to.

    I wrote this story here, “Why Kungfu Masters Refuse To Teach,” as a study of why I felt the way I did about training kungfu the traditional way. Methods, I think, make up a lot of the difference. Hitting pads just feels a lot better than hitting wood or stone. I understand the hard core idea behind traditional methods, but honestly, it felt stupid to me. Even the wooden man, which I admire and have written about as well, just seemed to be a very counter-productive tool.

    I am still sorting through my attachments to kungfu and my newfound love for Thai Boxing (and Brazilian jujitsu!). The culture and history and lore of kungfu are some of the most richly satisfying and fascinating research topics I have come across, but for the actual martial artist I am creating out of my soft pudge, I find other arts to be more rewarding.

    I’d be interested to hear thoughts from anyone who might have a similar experience.



    July 18, 2016 • Modern Kung Fu • Views: 154

  • Heroes like Foam on the Waves

    Guan Yu

    Guan Yu

    “The waters of the Yangtze roll to the east, heroes come and go like foam on the waves.”

    This line is from an old chant that starts off one of China’s great classic novels, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The novel describes the complicated struggle of three small kingdoms and their heroes in the aftermath of the fall of the Han Dynasty. The most famous of the heroes are the three brothers of Shu who swore an oath of loyalty under the peach tree: Zhang Fei, Guan Yu, and Liu Bei; their advisor the Merlin-esque Zhuge Liang; and their primary adversary, Cao Cao king of Wei.

    Many different hero archetypes take the stage during the struggles for primacy over ancient China. There is Zhang Fei, the fiery warrior who rages fearlessly across the battlefield, taking on great odds and “facing the north wind with a wine cup in his hand.” In most depictions of Zhang Fei, he has a huge beard and a red face, bulbous features and wild eyes. He only knows how to fight; he was betrayed and murdered by his subordinates, who saw defeat written on the wall.

    His Western counterpart would be Ares the God of War, Achilles, or maybe Thor the Thunder God, none of whom can stand to walk away from a fight or think their way out of one. These are the heroes who represent the wild passions of combat, the reckless love of the challenge and the corresponding disdain of anything not related to battle, blood, and glory. Zhang Fei reminds me of Conan the Barbarian, and his famous quote about lamenting women.

    Continue Reading


    December 12, 2015 • Kung Fu History, Kung Fu Lore • Views: 1050