The Tao and training

I told myself that I should start practicing more qi gong, when in fact I have been practicing qi gong since 2000 when I started Wing Chun (via Sil lum Tao). It was there, I just didn’t see it.

I told myself that I’d wait before focusing more deeply on Baguazhang (BGZ), when I find myself applying principles of BGZ quite often and even incorporated these into some of the footwork and takedowns that I taught at a recent survival training encampment.

This has happened in other areas of my life, my telling myself that, despite my being drawn to a thing, that I’d defer fully immersing myself into it until some optimal time, when in fact this is not what happened. I often continued to do this thing, even unconsciously, as it clearly aligned with me on some level or another.

This reminds me of the words of Lao Tzu:
“Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.”
Hence it is in diligent action, not defined as striving, through which we often accomplish great things. In fact, when we strive, we often exhaust ourselves in developing attachments that demand fulfillment. The key is to act, with resolve and purpose, while also not fixating in the anticipated outcomes in such actions. It was in addressing the day-to-day tasks of cultivating skill, that I found my way to the path that I later desired. My desire was not the means to these ends, but rather it was my sustained progression along the path.

Wing Chun and life

Yesterday was International Wing Chun Day. I celebrated by doing Sil Lum Tao (which I do almost everyday anyway), and by reflecting on my early days in WC. WC was my first Chinese boxing art. In fact it has indelibly shaped my perspective on speed and economy of motion.

I remember taking trip to Indianapolis once many years ago to a martial arts school. I think that we (my family and I) were there for a children’s birthday party, but after the party was over the brothers got to testing each others’ skills. I sparred several times that day and learned a lot. I learned that Thai Boxing is quite formidable, but if one is mindful of elbow strikes and disrupts incoming kicks one can gain the upper-hand. I learned that fighting against someone skilled at using a tiger-style can be quite difficult, especially if your WC footwork is limited. I remember telling my sifu about my difficulty against tiger-style. He told me “You have to fight a tiger from the outside.” After reflecting on and internalizing this I wasn’t caught unawares again.

In closing, the linearity or directness of WC is important both in the tactical and philosophical sense. One must deliberately subdue one’s opponent, eschewing any wasted time or energy in the process. In so doing, one must strive for a optimal ratio of speed to power while actively working to diminish your opponent’s ability to counter-strike. Most of my experiences of sparring in those early years were occasions where I was able to effectively apply this idea in real-time against resisting opponents.

But this principle of directness is also philosophical. Life is replete with challenges of varying degrees of magnitude. One must respond with intent, clarity, and intelligence to these while also seeking to disrupt the degree to which these things become disruptive of one’s well-being.

This reminds me that Wing Chun is life and life is Wing Chun. Keep training.

Wing Chun versus Choy Lay Fut

Although my study of the martial arts began in 1994 with Goshin Jitsu, it was my introduction to Wing Chun (WC) in 2000 that revolutionized my conception of fighting. Later on my study of Choy Lay Fut (CLF) would also contribute appreciably to my burgeoning approach to combat. Today these arts have had the biggest impact on how I understand unarmed combat. In fact I tend to view them as reflective of two distinct polarities wherein WC reflects speed and efficiency and CLF demonstrates power and dynamism. This is not to say that WC is not powerful and dynamic, or that CLF is not fast or efficient, simply that these principles are most salient in my interpretation and utilization of each art–meaning that I rely on WC for speed and high degree economy of motion, and CLF for devastating and unpredictable attacks. To be sure, my understanding of one tends to inform my understanding of the other to varying degrees.

Kanuni saba kwa somo langu la Capoeira (Seven principals for my study of Capoeira)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Capoeira of late. Capoeira differs to a degree from the other arts that I do given its connection to the African Diasporan resistance tradition and traditional African martial culture. I decided that in this art it is necessary that I be clear about where I stand since others do not necessarily share these orientations. These are the seven basic principles guiding my practice.

  1. We must at all times assert the African-ness of the art and utilize it as a tool for Re-Africanization.
  2. We must at all times assert the centrality of Capoeira and the African combat arts as tools of resistance in the on-going struggle for self-determination.
  3. We must at all times emphasize the practicality of the art, that it is not just a game or a dance, but it is an art of fighting; and in teaching this we must adhere strictly to what is tactically sound. In this we must cling to probability rather than possibility.
  4. We must never rest upon the plateau of achievement, instead seeking always to better ourselves in the art.
  5. We seek to engage in an integrated practice, one that links Capoeira to other African combat traditions (such as stick and blade fighting), in addition to other traditions expressing similar kinesthetic principles that can inform the applied science of the art.
  6. Capoeira should be a vehicle for the expression for the highest principles of martial arts ethics. These include integrity, discipline, beneficence, and a commitment to furthering human freedom.
  7. We seek to view Capoeira within a composite framework of global African cultural philosophy. Therein the art can be viewed as a living expression of Bakongo cosmology, Yoruba martial ethics, Malicia (or what African Americans call “tricknology”), and so forth.

The martial arts as problem solving tools

I am an advocate of the traditional fighting arts. I think that these arts are vital elements of traditional cultures–capturing rich social, historical, philosophical, cosmological, and kinesthetic traditions. While I do not decry the modern combat sports, or even contemporary hybrid arts, I think that the traditional arts are an indispensable repository of human ingenuity, and a testament to the transformation of human culture across time and space.

My personal study has centered on three traditional arts: Wing Chun, Choy Lay Fut, and Capoeira. I began studying these arts in 2000, 2003, and 2005 respectively. My development in these arts has not been a linear progression. Instead it has been a meandering path, characterized by peaks of enlightenment and valleys of uncertainty.

One of the benefits of training in multiple arts is that you can see your deficits in one art in relation to another. I have had moments of immense clarity regarding some facet of one, whilst being beset with frustration over my seeming lack of understanding of another. Ameliorating these apparent deficits often takes the forms of goals to be accomplished. These journeys to an imagined enlightenment are often driven by queries: What is the combat theory of Capoeria? How would I apply Wing Chun in a grappling situation? How would the kinesthetic principles of Choy Lay Fut be applied to knife-fighting?

Thus one of the challenges of this type of training is the prospect of uneven development. This is an on-going and perhaps inescapable quandary, one that I do not believe to be limited to the martial arts. Uneven development then is the reality of differentiated outcomes in terms of one’s knowledge and understanding across multiple and comparative fields of endeavor. Uneven development can be a source of great frustration, but I do not believe that it has to be a source of despair.

Despair is a deeply penetrating feeling of hopelessness. Despair is often the response of the mind to a problem that cannot be solved, a knot that cannot be untangled. Thus despair is often located first in the mind and secondly in one’s circumstances. Whereas one’s existential difficulties can trigger despair, the inability of the mind to devise a means of overcoming these difficulties makes despair a likely, but fruitless refuge. Despair only enhances, rather than lessens our perceptions of difficulty and feelings of limitation.

Years ago I tried to execute a Capoeria kick called queixada on a floor-standing punching bag. The results were poor. Rather than the force of my kick displacing the bag, I was displaced and knocked back. I studied the problem and later realized that I had not fully committed to the kick. In this case the commitment was in the hip rotation, the opening of the hip so as to add force to the outward arc of the leg. My subsequent attempts, informed by my newly acquired understanding produced far superior results. I countered frustration with analysis, and allayed the prospect of despair with a systematic effort at problem solving.

I have attempted to respond to my own struggles with uneven development by continuing to be systematic. This can be thought of as a sequence of events that proceed from the initial action that produces an awareness of the problem, followed by an attempt to analyze the nature of the situation to better understand the problem, next is the identification of possible solutions, then the application of said solutions, and finally some evaluation of each solutions’ efficacy and the creation of a new pattern of action based on this assessment.

This process enabled me to improve my queixada. It has also enabled me to improve my performance in a number of areas of training. So I accept the possibility and actuality of uneven development, but not its inevitability or its intractability. Just as the traditional arts that I train in have and continue their own processes of evolution and adaptation, so too has my quest for mastery necessitated continual self-improvement. Thus in this way these arts are expressed through me, not just in the form of movement, but in their underlying philosophies as I seek to embody these ideals—the directness of Wing Chun, the dynamism of Choy Lay Fut, and the cunning of Capoeira.

Yip Man 16 or Martial arts cinema beyond the iconic master

I like the Yip Man movies as much as the next man. Yip Man 2 and The Grandmaster have been my favorites so far. However I wonder where these films will go if we extend this line into the future. Will we graduate from the Yip Man movies to a whole sub-genre of films exploring the lineage of Yip Man? How about “Sons of Yip Man” 1 and 2? Or better yet how about a series of films that explores the often fractious relationships between Yip Man’s disciples called “Yip Man’s Legacy: Wing Chun Wars” 1, 2, and 3? A forth film might even be necessary to tell the many tales.

In all seriousness however I would like two things. One is a film about Wong Shun Leung. Although I am not in his lineage, my first WC encounter came via a direct student of his. Later having learned about his history and impact on the art I’ve been desirous to learn more.

The second thing that I would like are films about other notable contributors to the traditional martial arts, Chinese and otherwise, in addition to other styles. I think that Choy Lay Fut deserves a good film. There was a CLF film made a few years ago, but it was not good at all. Perhaps the film could tell the story of the CLF practitioners who took part in the anti-Japanese resistance during the 1930s and 1940s, or about the full-contact fighters like Tat Mau Wong who demonstrated CLF’s effectiveness in the combat sports. A film about the Hong Kong rooftop fights of the 1950s and 1960s that centered on CLF could also be interesting. I for one would like a film about the so-called rivalry between CLF and WC, especially if it centered on the Buk Sing branch of CLF. Imagine something set in mid-century Hong Kong that depicts the war between rival schools, as they do battle in the streets of HK. Another idea, something in the spirit of the film The Grandmaster would be a film about the martial arts scene in Taiwan after the Communist victory in mainland China.

Beyond China however, a well-done film about both Mestres Bimba and Pastinha would be excellent. A film about the malandro (rogues) of early 20th Century Brazil would be quite intriguing as well. How about a movie about a young fighter trying to distinguish himself in Madagascar (Morengy) or Nigeria (Dambe)? What I would perhaps love most of all would be something about the combat arts of Africans in the U.S. A film about maroonage during the era of enslavement wherein Knocking and Kicking is depicted. Perhaps one that tells the tale of one man that Desch-Obi mentioned in his masters thesis, a brother who routinely physically overpowered the overseers and slave drivers, who was generally regarded as a Black man not to be trifled with. The possibilities are limitless.

Capoeira and mdw nTr (Medew Netcher)

My first Capoeira teacher, Tebogo Schultz,​ once said to me that when practicing and seeking to understand Capoeira, that “You have do Capoeira for its own sake.” I think about this from time to time as learning Capoeira is a lot like learning a language, particularly one that has its own indigenous script. You must learn the script, you must learn vocabulary, you must learn grammar, you must find contexts to apply this knowledge, and you must understand the ontological dynamics of this linguistic system.

This is a lot like Capoiera which consists of a technical repertoire of physical movements, a kinesthetic philosophy which underlie all of this, various contexts of application, songs and instrumentation, a historical narrative, in addition to a rich body of epistemic and ontological knowledge which seek to explicate the “magic” of the art. The art conveys all of this knowledge, in many instances multiple things concurrently. These layers become fuller once decoupled, unpacked, reflected upon, or revisited much in the same way that learning mdw nTr (Medew Netcher), the language of ancient kmt (Kemet) or Egypt illuminates deeper insights upon further reflection and with deeper study.

I first began learning mdw nTr thirteen years ago and continue to study this language. My continued study has been rewarded in kind with richer insights and a deeper appreciation for this language and the cultural and historical contexts out of which it emerges. Much like my study of Capoeira, it has made everything richer via its contribution to my intellectual growth. Admittedly my focus has vacillated between the general and the specific. Some times I have focused on personal pronouns (mdw nTr has three classes of pronouns). At other times I have sought to memorize the many bi-literals (these are symbols that represent two consonant sounds). On other occasions I have worked on transliterating and translating texts, rich exercise whose frustration inevitably enables growth. One of the most exciting realms of study has been my efforts to integrate the language into my life. The point is that mdw nTr is, in its totality, too vast to approach for the sake of achieving narrow ends. One must simply plunge into its depths, buoyed by the intellectual rewards that it promises.

My Capoeira journey began a decade ago with the goal of learning Capoeria as a combat art. This was and remans necessary, but Capoeria is many things at once. Like Xing Yi Capoeira can serve as a gateway to a more fully integrated self. Like Muay Thai, Capoeira is a tool for physical conditioning. Like Choy Lay Fut Capoeira can be a highly effective fighting art. Like Yoga, Capoeira can build the suppleness of the body. Capoeira is not one thing. It is many things. And like studying mdw nTr, one must plunge fully into its depths, swimming through the waters of renewal, becoming water oneself.

When my daughters go to bed and wake up in the morning we speak mdw nTr to each other. These acts, though short in duration are complex in their layers. When my children and I train Capoeria together, or when I teach a class, these occasions are also multilayered. These knowledges become a part of an integrative toolset, a collection of resources firmly embedded in one’s being. They augment you. I say the mdw nTr and see the words in my mind. I stumble, but never fall because Capoeria teaches you to find balance in the midst of adversity. I find myself translating my thoughts into Kiswahili and mdw nTr as an exercise in multilingualism. I juxtapose defensive tactics for specific attacks between Wing Chun, Choy Lay Fut, and Capoeira. I find innovative ways to use the glyphs, such as taking notes in Kiswahili but using mdw nTr script. Capoeira has become central to the curriculum of a rites-of-passage program that I help coordinate, and thus a tool that we are using to build men.

Again these tools, once fully integrated, augment one’s humanity, enabling us to become, day-by-day, a greater expression of our highest selves. This is what it means to “…do Capoeira for its own sake.”

From the jogo to the luta: A short reflection on combat Capoeira

I devote Sunday morning to reviewing forms in the two Chinese arts that I practice–Wing Chun and Choy Lay Fut. My practice on other days is (for now) more varied, for instance I’ve found myself focusing a lot on Capoeira this week.

After working on Choy Lay Fut, I decided to work on multi-directional attack. One feature of CLF is that it enables the practitioner to attack in any direction. I decided to focus on attacking in four basic directions (12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock). Afterwards I decided to do the same thing using Wing Chun, which is always interesting given the linear orientation of the art. Lastly, I decided to do the same with Capoeira.

I have found that if one does not train Capoeira as a combat art, it is difficult to conceptualize and apply it as such. The training format of Capoera contributes to this, as classes often focus on developing skill for the roda, the game of Capoeira. I argue that the game of Capoeira is similar to Chi Sao (sticky hands) in Wing Chun in terms of its role as a training tool. By this I mean that Chi Sao is designed to make the WC practitioner sensitive to the movement, energy, and force of an attacker. Fighting differs from Chi Sao in terms of the nature and constancy of contact, however Chi Sao trains vital reflexes that can be used combatively.

Similarly, the jogo de Capoeira (the game) trains the practitioner to have maximal body awareness, to react on an almost intuitive level to the movement and intention of your partner. In combat these are vital skills, however it does require a more attenuated focus on immediacy of counters, meaning attacks immediately following defense; cascading attacks, meaning attacking in secession, or launching multiple offensive strikes with the aim of subduing your attacker; the ability to fully utilize the horizontal range, moving from kicks to hand strikes to grappling and back in any order based on the dynamic interplay of combat; and the ability to attack at any point on the vertical plane (the head to the legs of one’s opponent). Again, these are things that can be honed in the roda to a degree, while recognizing that the roda is not a combative medium, thus one has to participate in it with a different set of intentions that are altogether distinct from the drive to subdue a violent attacker.

Again, Capoeira is a combat art, but not if you do not employ it as such.

African spirituality and the warrior tradition

After both participating in and observing a dialogue about spirituality and the martial arts, I was compelled to reflect upon the ethical and conceptual modalities informed by African cultural systems, and the ways in which these inform processes of social and personal transformation. These discourses have been situated in a range spaces wherein the combative implications might be explicit or implicit.

Explicit implications pertain to those discourses that explicate the context of war and struggle as reflected in the Odù Ifá, which states, “The constant soldier is never unready, even once.” (Òwónrín Otúrà, 159:1) Elsewhere it emphasizes the necessity of struggle, as a process which refines both one’s character and challenges the world.
“Fighting in front; fighting behind
If it does not lead to one’s death,
It will cause one to become a courageous person…” (Òkrànran Ká, 189:2)
As a sacred text, the Odu Ifa is a replete with references to vigilance, courage, and the importance of battle waged for the greater good.

Similarly we find these ideas expressed in other contexts within the sacred texts that are implicit references to a warrior tradition. One notable, but easily overlooked example is a text from Kemet (ancient Egypt), which the Egyptologists call The Prophesies of Neferti. Wherein it states, “iw mAat r iyt r st.s isft dr.ti r rwty”, which can I have translated as “Maat, in relation to injustice, is in her place. Cast out isfet.” The point here is that the expulsion of isfet, disorder, is not assumed to be beyond the realm of human agency. Quite the contrary, humans as expressions of nTr (phonetically netcher, which can be thought of as totality, which the Egyptologists translate as god or divinity), are charged with the task of restoring order in the wake of its imposition. Thus the maintenance of order (mAat) requires, among other things, vigilance–an implicit appeal to things martial. This becomes more explicit elsewhere in the text where it states “tw r Ssp xaw nw aHA anx tA m shA”, which translated states that people will “take up weapons of war” and that the “the land lives in turmoil”. Again, the martial tradition is invoked, but here in explicit terms, as the people themselves rise up to “Cast out isfet.”

Beyond the combative dimension, one should note that this text seeks to affirm the necessity of the people acting as the stewards of order. This is an extension of what Theophile Obenga states when he writes, “The pharaoh, in his capacity as guarantor of Maât…He was responsible for the maintenance of universal harmony.” Jacob H. Carruthers says something similar where he states, “The Niswt’s overall function, like that of Wosir, is the establishment of Maat in Tawi, i.e., to establish conditions where enlightenment will prevail over ignorance”. Niswt is the the ruler of upper and lower Kemet. Wosir is the nTr that the Greeks referred to as Osiris. Tawi is the united two lands (upper and lower Kemet). In this sense we see a shared social practice in the defense of order (mAat) extending from the highest levels of government to the denizens of the land.

In conclusion, I concur, African spirituality is replete with appeals to a warrior tradition. In fact, one might argue that spirituality is sufficiently diffuse in form as to represent a totalizing element of the culture, and that this is synergistically linked with an insistence upon vigilance, lest the structures which sustain order and the good condition be lost.

Here I offer some thoughts on what one such idea, mAat, means as a form of liberatory praxis:

Capoeira and community building

One of the trends that I’m noticing, one that I’m also a part of, is the increased visibility of independent Capoeiristas as teachers. While this can be a potentially good thing, it also occasions risks, especially with regards to issues of quality and qualification. There seems to be a tension inherent in the need to reclaim and disseminate Capoeira as an African art and as a combat art, with the traditional process of apprenticeship in Capoeira. This tension is not inevitable and may be an issue borne of a range of factors including geography, economics, philosophical differences, and the accessibility of qualified masters.

For my part each of the three has been a factor. Most of the Capoeira in Chicago is not in Black communities. Additionally, it is often cost prohibitive as many schools pursue young, white, and affluent students.

Very few Capoeira schools focus on self-defense, something that requires students to accept the notion of simply doing “Capoeira for Capoeira’s sake” (as I’ve been told) which means to do the art without any regard for its limited application for real-world combat. I’ve always felt that we should not call Capoeira a martial art if it does not have any explicit combative application. This is not to say that the art is not potentially combat-effective. It can be and clearly was in the past based on the historical record. However I do not believe that today’s Capoeira, by and large, reflects this.

I have also been disinterested in placing myself in an environment where I have to deal with the dynamic of white supremacy within Capoeira as reflected in the white appropriation of the art in Brazil, the U.S., and around the world. Again, I cannot rationalize training in an “African art”, a “resistance art”, wherein the gatekeepers are the descendants and continued beneficiaries of white supremacy.

I’ve suspected that the solution to this problem of dissemination is for us to institutionalize the art in the community on several levels. One could be in the form of an African or African Diasporan Capoeira federation, which could be an umbrella formation for the development of a lineage of practitioners and instructors who view this art and its practice as a matter of self-determination, rather than a vehicle for monetary gain or self-exaltation. I know of one such initiative that is taking place on the African continent. I think that the formation of such an entity in North America would be a good example of self-determination in action, reflecting the view among African Americans that they too have a stake, a claim to Capoeira–if for no other reason than their connection to the seemingly lost art of Knocking and Kicking, the sister art of Capoeira in the U.S., and the potential utilization of Capoeira as a vehicle to its reclamation.

Another solution could be for us to focus on building stronger and more enduring localized collectives of practitioners. This coupled with providing quality instruction, and a practice linked to our larger project of liberation could be compelling. Some of us are doing this work now but there are a number of challenges often related to the economics of the endeavor. Training space is often costly and difficult to acquire. Marketing can be hit or miss, as our people are often ambivalent about African things, and we are well past the point where martial arts are a fad–something that the masses clamor to do.

Lastly, creating stronger linkages with existing African/Black masters is highly necessary. Our work should reflect many layers of community-building proportional to the degree to which this art itself reflects the values of community and its transformation. I think that even those who would be independent practitioners or instructors should not be marooned in an isolated practice. I argue that community offers a means of support and sustenance vitally necessary in our present condition, doing this kind of work.