Monthly Archives: May 2012

Capoeira: Sing, Play, Live

Capoeira

Capoeira

A few quick beats get things started. Those standing and chatting shuffle toward each other, forming a circle and begin to nod their heads in time. Hands come together and a percussive energy settles into the group, building as time passes.

Two eager capoeiristas settle down in front of the bermibau, crouch, shake hands with huge smiles on their faces, then cartwheel into the center of the circle, moving their feet in time with the music, syncing their movements to the energy of the group. They begin to play…

One of my earliest memories takes place in a park in the UK. It involves hanging from a climbing frame with a set of bars, set up as a horizontal ladder. I’d swing from bar to bar, like a monkey, from one side of the frame to the other. My family won’t shy away from telling you that I was always keen to jump around and climb on things. (And occasionally fall off them too.) I’ve always had an interest in this kind of athleticism and much of my appreciation for martial arts started with an appreciation of break-falling and agility.

This past weekend, I got to scratch an itch I’ve wanted to for a while now; to practice Capoeira. I looked into classes in Kingston some time ago, but none existed, so the interest was placed on the back-burner. Thankfully, Mark Ross (a Capoeira instructor from Peterborough, Ontario) attended a training event I was also attending and took the time to expose the group to a bit of this Brazilian martial art. As I fully expected to, I enjoyed it greatly. What I took away from the exposure, however, was a lesson in energy and teamwork.

Capoeira is primarily practiced in the form of a bout, called a “roda.” Two capoeiristas cartwheel in to a circle to start things off, and then begin to rhythmically move inside the circle in a movement called a “ginga.” The circle is made up of other people, who are clapping and singing along with music to build the energy of the game. The capoeristas who are playing respond to each other’s movements, throwing kicks and performing acrobatics. The history of Capoeira explains why this is the case. For me, the important thing wasn’t so much the movement itself, but the role that the training energy had in the practice.

Because everyone has their part to play. Those clapping, singing and playing instruments are contributing to the beat and the energy they give determines the intensity that the capoeiristas play with. I could not help but think of other martial arts, in which the energy of the room is unspoken but immensely important. I truly believe that constructive training is only available when there is life within the dojo. In Capoeira, that energy is just far, far more apparent. The art literally cannot happen without it.

The nice thing about giving energy to training is that it does so much for you. It makes you sweat, makes you smile, takes you out of your own head, reduces insecurity, it pushes you to train harder, concentrate more, appreciate more. As it is in martial art, so it is in life. When you step into the roda, you must listen to the music, give your all, and you will be a better creature for it.

 “The flame of this beautiful art is now in your hands. You can dampen it, you can burn yourself or your brothers and sisters, or, afraid of its heat, you can let go of it.”

~ Mestre Accordeon

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My Martial Manifesto

Keep Training

Keep Training

She was clumsy, unprepared and careless. He was just doing his job. The attack wasn’t particularly brutal, but it was on target, designed to test her slightly, to provide her with an opportunity to shine. Her defense reflected her attitude, and the technique was sloppy. She fell, dragged him with her, slamming his shoulder into the mat, separating it, injuring him. It would take 9 weeks to fully recover.

He stood up. A nearby instructor noticed the lightning-white of his face and knew something was wrong. One shoulder slumped, useless. He instantly knew it was over, that the work, the effort and the sacrifice would, that day anyway, result in no change. His first aider gave him a choice. Either continue or not, but to be sure, either way, he was in shock, definitely hurt, and nowhere near capable.

Of course he would try. Pain shot through nerves with every movement. Body grabs, weapons defense, throwing techniques. Only one challenge remained. Outnumbered and disabled, he was unable to surmount that which beset him. Struck once too many times, he was called to the judgement panel. There, he was told that the test was over, that the injury was too severe, that to continue would be to his detriment. He broke down.

Stories are important to me. Everything we do becomes a story. They hold our triumphs, our flaws, our revelations, mistakes, challenges, our great loves and our worst enemies. Through them, we share our lives with those we care about. We teach. We learn. There are big ones and small ones. Some make you laugh, some make you cry. Some lift you up. Some make you think. Some leave you empty. Some change your world.

And everyone has at least one big one to tell. Everyone has a great challenge to overcome, one great battle in their lives. We all have our dragons to slay, our crosses to bear and they can take many forms. We all have our stories. One question is whether or not we choose to share them with others. Another is whether we’re conscious of the fact that we can affect their outcomes.

That’s why I’m a martial artist.

Because martial arts have always helped me to first find the details of my story, my dragons to fight and then best them. Whether its through kata, or competition, or analysis, or instruction, martial arts have this tendency of making you very aware of what’s going on for you, of what you’re dealing with. Sometimes it can be physical, sometimes it can be mental, sometimes it can be emotional. They are the primary conflicts of our stories and the martial arts are a great way to engage with them.

Now, when you train hard and I mean really hard, you’ll be laid bare before those tests. Your martial art will stick them in your face, beg you to pay attention to them, and punish you for ignoring them. You can either listen to the tale they tell, or not.

And I sincerely try to. I try to listen for the next challenge, for the next turn in the story. Each step along the way, I become, I hope, a better person, a more sincere person. I find a little bit more of myself to know, a more true reflection of who I am. Whether or not the arts I practice shape that self, or reveal it, I don’t know. I don’t care. All I know is the story moves forward, shifts and I try to shift with it, get to grips with the challenge, try to beat it, then move on.

Martial arts can be many things at the same time and I expect that because of that, they will always have a place in my life. There are a lot of things that, I’m sure, could serve the same purpose. But I train because martial arts serves that purpose for me. My martial manifesto:

I train because I am left tired and broken. I train because I am left stronger than I thought was possible. I train because there is more to learn. I train because I can teach. I train because someday I may need it. I train so that I won’t. I train to inspire my friends. I train so my friends inspire me. I train because I think I know it all. I train because I don’t. I train to find peace. I train to find anger. I train to stay blind. I train to find truth. I train to find the next step. I train because my story isn’t over just yet.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a martial artist, then perhaps what I’ve written will make some sense, perhaps not. Either way, my martial manifesto is my own but by sharing it, it makes my reasons for training a little more real, a little more certain. Many times in my career I have had doubts about my commitment to the arts, but each time I reinvest, I find more reasons to train. My advice to you is to keep training; to see where it takes your story, to see what conflicts you can overcome because of it. And don’t forget to share what you find along the way. You’d be surprised how many people will connect with the adventure you’re living.

 “Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

~ Plato

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Find Space Between The Strings

Find the Space Between the Strings

Find the Space Between the Strings

Coarse and calloused skin is wrapped around the tips of his fingers. He runs his left thumb across them, as he has thousands of times before, mentally reviewing his next song before beginning. The classical guitar sits on his lap, leaning against his chest, more comfortable than any piece of clothing he owns. The sun has long since set, and his audience are slightly tipsy from the sangria on their tables. Smiles and laughs are never too far off, and only a few eyes are drawn to the musician just finding the right moment to begin.

With eyes closed, his right hand gently settles upon the strings and he starts playing. Note after note is perfectly struck, his rough fingers dancing about the fret board. The piece begins to pick up speed and the musician concentrates. A slight smile creeps across his lips as he rolls through a particularly favourite sequence. The crowd is won over and are now listening intently to the crisp tones that are filling the bar. It’s a short song, purely instrumental, but builds from beginning to end, concluding with an intricate and satisfying crescendo.

As the last note is plucked, the musician finally opens his eyes and is happily surprised by the room watching him. The applause begins.

I first picked up a guitar when I was probably fourteen or fifteen years old. At the time, I only wanted to be like my friends, who were all choosing instruments and beginning to learn about music. Since then, I’ve played off and on, not enough to move past beginner songs, but enough to embarrass myself occasionally after a few too many drinks and in front of a non-judgmental audience. That was until a few months ago, at which point the collected hours I’d put in started to reap a slight reward, and I found myself able to play in a way that I, at least, didn’t find too objectionable. Progress had been made and with it, some inspiration to play a bit more and hopefully improve to the next level.

I found a bit more space between the strings.

Of course, the space hasn’t actually changed, but to me, it feels like it has. While I’m playing, my fingers are faster, more precise, so now I’m far more aware of how much space there actually is between the strings of my guitar. What once seemed like millimeters has expanded, making it easier for me to hit the right strings while playing chords and pluck the right notes when needed. The game hasn’t changed, but the way I see the pieces has.

The important point here is that perspective is reality, and often, it’s not that the environment changes at all, but that we change within in, become more capable of understanding it and then manipulating it for our purposes. In this case, it’s simply having more finger dexterity and a deeper understanding of the dimensions of the instrument. In other cases, it could be that the weight of a skateboard under your feet seems lighter, it could be that your fingers get a little closer to the floor while doing yoga, or that your opponent seems like they’re moving just a little bit slower than they were before. In each case, something within the body has adjusted, improved and become more efficient, meaning the mind has an easier time of dealing with the challenges before it.

A beginner will look at the strings and see nothing special at all. The advanced player has spent hours searching for that space, looking through different lenses, of frustration, jubilation, entrancement, and discipline. By searching high and low, the advanced player has found the space; it’s a space that can only be seen in the mind. It’s a space that requires time to find, effort to find, introspection to find. Sometimes you find hints, sometimes sign posts, but everything you do find gives you an microscopic improvement. And they add up.

And so it is; the martial artists finds an extra moment to react; the skateboarder finds a few less ounces of weight to flip; the Yogi’s arms are just a bit longer.

Keep looking for the space between the strings. I promise you’ll find it.

“Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded.”

~ Jimi Hendrix

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In Defense of Kata

Kata Builds the Body and the Mind

Kata Builds the Body and the Mind

Face serene, eyes focused, arms relaxed, his foot steps onto the mat. Thousands of spectators sit and watch. Light streams into the arena through massive plain glass windows. Outside, raindrops fall, the wind blows and the Japanese fall will soon be winter.

He walks with an even pace, stopping in the middle of the mat to bow toward a panel of judges, who simultaneously lower their heads in return. His next movements will be scrutinized closely, every moment analyzed in a number of ways; for style, balance, intent, concentration, precision and presence. The Karateka hopes only to perform at his best. The judges hope he performs with perfection. The spectators collectively inhale, wishing for the best.

The martial artist performing pauses for just a moment following his bow. He attempts to clear his mind, drawing his attention fully to the moment, then begins.

This past weekend, I attended a nage-no-kata course and learned a great deal about an approach to training that I’ve never really given too much credence to; formalized sets of movements, practiced repeatedly, as a method of gaining understanding and perfecting form. In Japanese martial arts, this is known as kata training. There are many different types of forms available to martial artists, and many traditional styles of martial arts place emphasis on this approach to training. In our MMA-influenced modern world, however, this “rigid” approach comes under criticism quite often because it is not reflective of true combat, which is unpredictable and more realistic. Forms or kata are thought of as flawed. The question is “how much can one learn of fighting by never fighting?”

And the answer is a lot. There’s a great deal to be gained from training in this way. I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who’d focus primarily on kata, but certainly, there are numerous benefits that  help to produce fantastic martial artists.

Focus

One of the main tenants of form based training is the concentration of the practitioner. It’s quite easy to tell the difference between someone “dialed in” to whatever they’re doing and someone who’s half out to lunch. Kata requires focus, mostly because one is required to be incredibly focused on what they’re doing in order to perform their movements in the correct fashion.

And focus is an incredibly useful tool for any martial artist. Whether one is sparring, or attending a long training seminar, or fighting for their life, the ability to bring one’s full mental faculties to bear on a single task or goal is immensely powerful. Kata trains this “secondary” skill with amazing efficiency.

 Understanding

By practicing movements slowly, there is the potential for one to be performing them with absolute perfection. Kata takes away all of the “barriers” to perfect technique, including the need to hit (or throw) a moving target and the danger of someone hitting you. What this leads to (as long as you have a good instructor) is the opportunity to see exactly how something is supposed to look, how it’s supposed to function, how it would work in an ideal situation.

With an in-depth understanding of the techniques at your disposal, you’re more likely to be able to use them appropriately. Of course, kata training does not guarantee understanding – one has to be engaged enough and have an instructor that is teaching good principle. However, when those things are present, understanding of technique through kata training is likely. Then, of course, it’s up to the martial artist to start applying that understanding in more realistic ways.

Patience

Mastering kata takes a really, really long time. That means that to get anywhere with kata, you have to be patient with yourself and your practice. Most effective martial artists need to be patient in order to achieve proficiency, and kata provides ample opportunity to work on your patience. You will screw it up. You will forget which part comes next. You will perform poorly one day, better the next, even worse the next day. Getting through all of that requires patience.

And the same is true of sparring, or competing or training for fighting. The first time you do it, you’re going to get rocked. You’ll be tapped out, smacked in the face, completely overwhelmed and it’s likely to happen a great deal. Getting through that phase of your journey requires patience, and patience is something that kata can provide.

Tradition

There are likely many who care little for tradition and could likely cite many other training methods that would provide the same benefits listed above. But, for this martial artist, loyalty and reverence are important traits. Paying respect to the roots of martial culture is important to me and as much as I love more realistic and competitive training, I also have a great appreciation for the tradition of kata and the history behind it. For that reason, I’m more than willing to use kata in my classes and try to relay its importance to my students.

Even though in recent years it has perhaps fallen out of favor in many circles, I for one hope that martial artists all over the world continue to use kata as a training tool and area of interest.

 “Students of any art, including Karate-do must never forget the cultivation of the mind and the body.”

~ Gichin Funakoshi

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