Modern Kung Fu

  • 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: 3849

  • 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: 3375

  • Community Power and Cage Power

    Kung fu

    Photo via Flickr user Matt Paish

    I wrote a story on the fly that in and of itself is a bit short and shallow, but might point at a very interesting aspect of martial arts in China. The story, “Making the List: Traditional Martial Arts and Community Power,” came about as many of my posts do, during a conversation with Ben Judkins of Kungfu Tea. The idea is basically that Chinese martial artists are more interested in the power of community through recognition (often from the authorities) than in the power of heroic glory through hand to hand combat.

    And really this should make a lot of sense to anyone who takes a step back to look at it. If a community is codified, and has its stories and legends enshrined as “history” as opposed to “myth,” then longevity and survival into the future are pretty much assured. To destroy a culture, you must first burn their books. To create a culture, you must first write your story and have it read. Once a martial art is recognized as a community, it becomes something so much more than the masters or students who developed the style and for the masters today in China who see their arts withering before their eyes, nothing is more precious than “making the list.”

    In my mind I picture an ark leaving port. Martial arts right now seem to be an ark on the move, with mixed martial arts driving a need for all styles to prove themselves in some way or be left behind. In the West, this discussion revolves around efficacy in one-on-one combat, but in the East that is not necessarily the case.

    This is one aspect of the disconnect between modern mixed martial arts’ rise in popularity and the slow demise of traditional martial arts—which I honestly am less inclined to subscribe to when the world is taken into account, and not just Mainland China. But that is a different discussion … the point I am trying to understand is this:

    If we measure the strength of traditional martial arts by the number of combatants we can name active in the many MMA etc promotion, then things seem dismal. But if we change the metric to the strength of a community, to the power of the myths, to the enduring nature of “kung fu” the brand and symbol of a certain culture, are things still as dismal?

    September 2, 2015 • MMA, Modern Kung Fu • Views: 5030

  • Reading: The Shaolin Monastery and Thrown

    Shaolin Thrown

    Where the Twain Shall Meet

    I sent for “The Shaolin Monastery” and “Thrown” a couple of weeks ago and have already made it to the end of the former. I wrote a small essay for Fightland that basically elaborates slightly on the first few chapters of Meir Shahar’s work on the Shaolin Monastery, and I might squeeze out another article on the transition from staff to fist. I found that to be pretty interesting, the fact that the staff came from the lore of proto-Buddhism, became the weapon of choice for the fighting monk, but then sometime around the Ming dynasty gave way to fists and hand to hand combat techniques.

    It shouldn’t be surprising really. From the Yuan to the Qing there is a “civilizing” wave that swept through China (and the world?) that transformed the hard, short, and brutal lives of medieval people into the stratified, maybe even fulfilling lives of the pre-modern eras. The literary record changes, the types of writings we see change, and the topics people wrote of changed. Did the Mongols have anything to do with it? Or was it just a continuance of the Song dynasty’s regal splendor, broken up for a century by interlopers? I don’t know … just musing.

    Also Meir Shahar needs to be commended for pulling so much out of the Chinese sources he has. I read through some of them and it requires a incredible amount of cross referencing and lateral studies to understand what exactly is being discussed. The Chinese seem to enjoy vagaries when being scholarly. It’s as if the old historians can’t suppress those original dreams of being a wandering poet-warrior-minstrel. Instead, they record the wanderings and exploits of others and add as much poetry as they can. I guess any classical/medieval/pre-modern writing will seem so old to young eyes. I for one find classical Greek descriptions of minor king and Song era musings on temples and peaks and the clouds to be absolutely entrancing.

    I have looked into the classical curriculum here at the University of Minnesota.


    As for Thrown, it hits much closer to home. Kerry Howley shadowed two fighters while she was at the University of Iowa’s famed Creative Writing program, and pretty much dropped the mic on the MMA story for now. It was never my intention  to write a book like Kerry’s, in the sense of following around MMA fighters and recording their actions while placing them into a heady phenomenological framework, but then again it kinds was, except I trade Iowa for Sichuan and MMA for kung fu.

    It will be hard at first, to read something written as I feel I might be able to write, but then again it reminds me of stretching. It hurts at first, but as soon as you get into the right breathing sequence, it’s positively divine. I expect to learn so much from her book, be inspired by her findings, and be able to find new and interesting nooks in my own experience and readings as I flip through hers.

    I do not, however, expect people to muse out loud about whether or not I slept with my subjects.




    April 23, 2015 • MMA, Modern Kung Fu • Views: 4366

  • The New Masters Documentary on the BBC

    Director Chris Cherry was on the BBC recently discussing MMA in China, the documentary we are working on, and the routes out of poverty for poor fighters. Check out the video and full audio interview below.

    April 7, 2015 • MMA, Modern Kung Fu, Video • Views: 5712