Kung Fu Drilling

Your earworm for the day. You’re welcome.

Because the rate of hospital admission due to COVID-19 is just as high in my county as it was in Fall of 2021, this immunocompromised karateka (IgG2 deficiency) is very grateful for online seminars. Now that we know monkey pox can be spread on surfaces and by skin-to-skin contact, I’m facing a double whammy. I don’t relish the possibilities of bacterial pneumonia on top of COVID-19 and/or MRSA on top of monkey pox. Accordingly, I very much appreciate online seminars. They’re not quite as good as in-person seminars, but it’s really nice to have this option, especially when your travel budget is limited and/or you just can’t be crammed in a small metal tube with 300 some-odd people for hours on end.

Twice now I’ve taken online seminars led by an acquaintance of mine, Ando Mierzwa. The first was a seminar on forms, and it was the last of a marathon of karate seminars benefitting Ukraine. A few days ago Ando offered another seminar. I guess I didn’t pay much attention to the advertisement beyond the words “Kung Fu.” For some reason I got it stuck in my head that this would be a beginner’s class. I was anticipating being a “white belt” (new beginner) for a little while, just like some of the other times I’ve cross trained.

After the seminar started it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I wasn’t going to feel like a white belt. Rather, I felt every inch of my black belt. Ando taught a Kung Fu drill that translated beautifully to karate. I learned only one new technique, and I’ll bet if I look hard enough I’ll find some karate kata (form) somewhere that has it – so I can’t really say it’s an exclusively Kung Fu technique. The main point though, was not to learn cool Kung Fu moves. Ando was getting us to think about our body dynamics. He also taught us how to teach the drill – building up from bits and pieces (and a couple of variations) and finishing with the full drill.

From time to time during the seminar I could hear the late Remy Presas, founder of Modern Arnis (a Filipino martial art) whispering, “It’s all de same…” As another acquaintance, Jackie Bradbury explains,

“The meaning of this is that what we do and learn in my style isn’t actually terribly unique in the martial arts world.  Much of what we do can be seen in other seemingly unrelated styles like taekwondo, karate, and kung fu.”

Jackie Bradbury, The Stick Chick Blog

I knew I was learning some new material that I could teach at my own dojo. A few days later, I did exactly that. The only thing I changed was horse stance ( kiba dachi to us karateka). I changed that to shiko dachi because it was easier for our lower-ranked student. The only difference is the position of the feet. I also didn’t add the “new” technique because we didn’t have time to explore the variations.

That day in the dojo there was only me, a fellow Shodan (senior to me by a couple of years), and a low-ranked gentleman. I had to slow down the drill and keep it slow because although the lower-ranked student caught on to the movements quickly, he needed to work on staying the same height throughout. Of course this forced me to think about what exactly my fellow Shodan and I were doing. Then I had to explain and demonstrate to the lower-ranked student. This was a prime example of the teacher learning something too. The next time I teach Ando’s “Kung Fu” drill I’m sure I’ll learn more.

What would have happened if I’d been the same rank as the student I taught? I believe I would have learned the drill with very little difficulty. After all, Ando did choose to teach something that translated well. The seminar was not really about the drill itself. The drill is simply a tool that points the way to a bigger concept. I’m sure I’d have grasped the overall concept when I was lower rank. But I do know I’d have felt a bit awkward, and not nearly as sure of myself. I’d have devoted more mental resources to “doing” and fewer resources to analyzing. I would have memorized the drill well enough to explain it and demonstrate it in class, but I would not have been able to teach someone else how to move properly.

What a difference a few years of training makes! So yeah, I not only learned a drill from another martial art and I taught that drill, but I also learned something about myself. I noticed I am getting more confident about tackling new material. A few days later I gained experience in teaching something that hasn’t been taught in my dojo before. Passing on knowledge is what it’s all about, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure Ando agrees.

P. S. because I spent most of an hour transitioning in and out of Horse Stance, my legs were a little bit sore the next morning. This meme came to mind…

Capoeira Again

Long time readers of this blog know I love cross-training. Some of you might recall that last year I attended the one-off Capoeira workshop offered as part of my employer’s annual Professional Development Day. That workshop was so much fun I signed up again this year. What the heck is Capoeira? Here’s a very nice 5-minute video (start near the 1 minute 45 second mark). Obviously a one hour introduction to any martial art is only going to cover just so much ground. And if this year’s workshop was pretty much the same as last year’s workshop, what the heck did I learn?

I learned plenty.

There was one movement I learned which wasn’t covered in last year’s workshop. Someone I know who studied one of the Filipino Martial Arts described training with drums. The idea is to catch your opponent on the off-beats. I’d been wondering if Capoeira players do that. Yes, they do. We were taught one movement that is meant to throw the other player a bit off. I’d like to work out how to translate that movement into my jiyu kumite (karate free sparring).

One new movement… First-time reader, I hear you asking, “So why did Joelle say she learned plenty?” Long term readers know I learn way more than what’s on the surface.

As I said, this year’s workshop wasn’t much different in content and format than last year’s. Even my Hapkido buddy was in attendance again. But here’s the thing – I’m a different karateka than I was a year ago. And as a second-time attendee, I came with a different perspective. I paid attention to things I hadn’t noticed last year. I kept tabs on my internal world too. With any martial art, one learns about oneself through being pushed outside one’s comfort zone.

Ahhh yes, the comfort zone. Autopilot. Muscle memory. Folks, muscle memory can be downright annoying sometimes. I’d memorized Kanku Dai kata (one of our forms) last year, but obviously the lessons from that kata have sunk in deeper this year. I kept wanting to drop to the ground exactly like in that kata rather than execute a proper esquiva. Also, I’ve been practicing a drill in which I execute an inside crescent kick then place the foot down in such a way that the leg I’ve been kicking with becomes the back leg – i.e. that leg is behind me. What I needed to do for the Capoeira workshop is set the foot down to the side so as to transition into something else.

“You can put your leg behind,” the instructor admitted, “But…”

He trailed off, so I finished with a grin, “For the purpose of this drill, I need to step to the side.”

Sticking to the drill is even more important when one is working with a partner. My partner was a newbie to boot. Yeah, I know, pot calling the kettle black. Last year I was actually nervous about working with anyone other than a fellow martial artist (my Hapkido buddy) and the instructor. I’m totally fine with people who are new to the art of karate, have been for quite some time. But last year the idea of working with a newbie in Capoeira when I myself was unfamiliar with the material was a bit too much. This year I was a lot more confident about adjusting what I was doing to accommodate someone who hasn’t had any martial arts training whatsoever. I’ve not practiced any of the Capoeira movements I learned last year, so my ability to adjust obviously doesn’t come from long practice in Capoeira. Perhaps all those self defense workshops and other cross-training experiences have helped me become more confident about working on unfamiliar techniques with people who are entirely new to all martial arts in general.

What about confidence in working directly with an instructor who is from a completely different art? Last year I had a little anxiety about that. This year, no problem. I knew I could be myself – strengths, weaknesses, everything.

I even did something I didn’t do last year – I showed the instructor a little karate before class. I took the broom from him and swept the floor. I explained to him that this is the job of the lowest-ranked student. Which I was – I hold no rank in any system of Capoeira. Although one could use a broom as a makeshift weapon, there are no hidden techniques in sweeping the floor. This wasn’t the 1980’s movie “The Karate Kid,” this was me showing respect for the place where I train and for my instructor. That’s karate.

Perhaps some of you dear readers are wondering if I showed some “real” karate – in other words, did I bust out some cool karate stuff while I was in the roda? Why yes, I did. I started by respectfully entering the roda and following the instructor’s lead for the etiquette involved. Yes, that level of respect is “real” karate. Respect is the gateway to learning.

Instead of bowing to the instructor, I squatted down facing him, held my crossed arms out to his, and locked eyes with him for a moment. That moment told each of us what we needed to know about the other. We saw confidence, trust, respect, and curiosity. Last year I was a little too nervous to truly appreciate that formality. Right then it hit me that I’m a different karateka than the one who entered a roda for the first time last year. Last year I was just trying to function with the limited tools I had. This year’s play was different.

Of course I stumbled all over myself frequently. I’m a newbie, after all, and to top it all off I hadn’t been to a Capoeira class in a year. So what was different? This year I was even more keenly aware of the ways in which the instructor and I were keeping one another safe. I saw exactly how he was adjusting for me. I adjusted too, once. I tried something and ended up way too close to the instructor. I backed off because I didn’t know how a Capoeirista would interpret my intent if I did what I’d do on the tatami (karate mats). I wanted to keep the play light and fun.

A couple of times, my muscle memory took over at least twice. Instead of executing a proper Capoeira esquiva, I dropped as per Kanku Dai kata. Actually, that muscle memory did come in handy once. I misread the instructor’s intent and ended up dropping instinctively at the last instant to avoid his kick. It wasn’t pretty like in the kata, but I did it without even thinking. Yep, I’m coming along in Karate, but I’m a total rube when it comes to Capoeira. And that’s OK.

The point of me entering the roda was not to show off or to prove Karate superior (it isn’t – apples and oranges, folks). The point was to learn about myself, about the man in the roda with me, and about the art of Capoeira. While playing, I made different mistakes this year than last – and that is to be expected. I’ve barely learned a little bit of “baby talk.”

There is an element of “conversation” in Capoeira games, in karate jiyu kumite, and in point sparring (except a referee keeps interrupting the conversation during point sparring). I wrote about this underlying conversation in last year’s blog post. One year, one belt rank, and one gold medal in kumite later, I still need to improve my karate “conversational skills.” I strongly suspect I always will.

It might seem like going to essentially the same workshop as last year would be pointless. But the very nature of any martial art is you can always go deeper into the material. There’s always some new insight and/or refinement to discover. I’m seeing this more and more as I progress in my Karate. What I love about cross-training is I can compare and contrast, and in the process learn more about my base art. I wish I could do more cross training… Sigh… So many martial arts and so little time.

Lab Rat

Every quarter, students in the Personal Fitness Trainer program at the college where I work need practical experience for their certificates and degrees. In other words, they need people to train. Usually the email to faculty and staff from the Personal Fitness Trainer program manager comes either in the afternoon, when I’m not at work, or right when I’m in the middle of something and can’t respond. The time slots are usually claimed within the hour. Assuming that I get the email at a time when I can respond immediately, I haven’t had the time to take advantage of the opportunity. Finally, in April, the stars aligned just right. I signed up to be a lab rat.

I was expecting my trainer, Marissa, to be young enough to be my daughter. She is. But what I did not anticipate was the camaraderie we developed and the easy way she and I worked with one another. That said, Marissa pushed me hard and didn’t hesitate to ratchet things up a notch or five if she saw I could handle something more or less easily. But she was so nice and sweet about it. Her encouragement and high-fives made my day and pushed me to the top of my game.

Marissa confided to me that the college’s program has students learn how to design a program while they are developing programs for their “clients.” It’s a learn-as-you go deal. There is something to be said for that approach to learning. From my end, I really wouldn’t have guessed that’s the Personal Fitness Trainer program’s methodology. Marissa did an excellent job creating my program and revising it as I progressed. She has all sorts of numbers written down about my body measurements, the pounds pressed, the miles ran, and I’m sure all her numbers point to one thing – I’m better off for having worked with her.

Certainly I’ve been pushed out of my “comfort zone” a little. One of my sensei (instructors) used to nudge me every now and then to try weight training. I ignored that nudge. Now I see why he enjoys working out in the gym. I spent a couple of seasons training hard with karateka (karate peeps) who were going to Nationals. But I didn’t maintain that level of fitness. I loathed jogging and dropped it altogether. Marissa had me jogging or on the elliptical strider a lot. Now I’m seeing a difference in my performance in the dojo (karate school). My sensei has noticed a difference too. He hasn’t actually said that he’s noticed a difference, but I can tell because he’s been pushing me harder and harder in class.

There are loads of things I’ve gained from the time I’ve spent as a lab rat. I’ve learned that I can make significant gains in a short period of time. Of course I’ve learned a lot of very specific exercises, but I’ve also learned how to structure a workout. I’ve resolved to use this knowledge in my personal workouts outside of the dojo. Now I have a few more fun little things to have my fellow students do whenever I lead warm ups for Karate class. And if I want to go to the college’s gym and track after work, I won’t be completely clueless about what to do. I have a feeling that I’d better invite Marissa to my black belt test, whenever that will be. If she’s still in the area!

Marissa has a dream that I hope will come true. Yes, she wants to open a gym. But not just any old gym. She wants a commercial kitchen tacked on. The idea being that after a personalized workout, Marissa can hand her clients custom-tailored meals to take home. Not only is Marissa studying to be a personal fitness trainer, she is also studying to be a nutritionist. Marissa used to be a cook at a restaurant. She jokes, “I used to make people fat, now I want to make them healthy and fit.” Whenever I tell people of Marissa’s dream, they are enthusiastic, and invariably say, “Sign me up!” I’d like to see a studio added to Marissa’s business so that there’s room for yoga, Pilates, Zumba, and gee, maybe even Karate. Marissa’s future looks bright, and I’m glad to have helped her on her journey as she has helped me on mine.

Trying Tai Chi

Every once in awhile it’s good to be a “white belt” again (no rank, new beginner). I’ve visited self-defense classes taught by instructors whose base arts are different from mine (read more here and here) and a couple of self-defense seminars taught by a sensei from a dojo in our karate organization. It’s been interesting to see the common points and the differences in those one-off self-defense seminars. Often these have little to do with the instructor’s base art. One thing I intend to do more of is to go to one-off workshops introducing martial arts that are not the style of Karate that I study. A few months ago I participated in a Capoeira workshop. Last week I had the pleasure of being introduced to Tai Chi.

As expected, most attendees were elderly. I spotted a seasoned warrior in a 2017 Judo tournament T-shirt and made a mental note to talk to him after the workshop. My daughter, who trains in Karate with me, was by far the youngest in the room, and I was maybe the fourth youngest. I saw a variety of physical challenges that can be accommodated easily by a “soft” art such as Tai Chi. I’ve been known to grumble about adult women not taking interest in martial arts, so I was pleased to see that women were the majority in this workshop. It’s pretty obvious that Tai Chi is the martial art that women are inclined to try!

Our instructor, an amiable young woman ( Dr. Hansie Wong), right from the start made it clear that Tai Chi is a martial art. I know I wasn’t the only one making comparisons to another art during class. After class, the Judo warrior and I talked about our observations with Dr. Wong. She explained to us that the soft arts, like Tai Chi, focus on the internals – breath, center of gravity, flow, whole-body movement, etc. and the “hard” arts like Karate and Judo focus more on the externals. I was quick to point out that in Karate we don’t put much emphasis on the internal aspects of our art when we’re teaching new beginners, but as an advanced student I am now learning more about those internal aspects. The differences in emphasis and curriculum are due to each art’s purpose and philosophy of teaching.

Dr. Wong explained at the beginning of the workshop that Tai Chi is a means of healing one’s own body. The art’s gentle movements are a great way to build and maintain strength, balance, and mobility. Accordingly, the emphasis for new beginners is on breath, flow, awareness of one’s center of gravity, and whole-body movement. The things Dr. Wong emphasized are exactly the things I’m now refining in my Karate, as befits a 1st kyu student. At times the feedback Dr. Wong gave me and other workshop participants sounded quite familiar!

I’ve briefly watched other Tai Chi classes and practitioners before, and can’t help but see some movements in the context of self defense. Certainly I will be exploring possible applications of the movements we learned in the workshop. I also drew parallels – “Oh, that’s hanzenkutsu dachi,” or, “That’s almost like a movement from Kanku Dai kata.” I sometimes had a hard time keeping my body from lapsing into more familiar movements from kata (forms)! And just as with Capoeira, the Tai Chi transitional movements were a little challenging for me because, well, we don’t have those transitions in Karate. Just like almost everyone else in the room, I was learning something new.

One thing that surprised me was qi, or, as we call it in karate, ki. I am a huge skeptic when it comes to ki energy. Now there’s a little chink in my armor. Before Dr. Wong mentioned it to the class at large, I’d felt a bit of what I’d describe as heat in the palms of my hands during a particular movement. As Dr. Wong mentioned to the class moments later, that’s supposed to happen along with that movement. Maybe there’s a purely physiological explanation for it, or maybe it could be ki. I don’t know, but I’m going try to be aware whenever I’m at home practicing Karate. Don’t worry, I’m still going to maintain a healthy skepticism. But maybe, just maybe, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

I definitely had takeaways and things to think about after the workshop. I think the biggest takeaway for me from this workshop is encouragement to keep working on the internal aspects of my art. Dr. Wong gave the workshop participants a few interesting little tools for that, and I can incorporate those Tai Chi movements into my warm-up exercises at home. Something that Dr. Wong touched upon was yin and yang in the context of movement. I’ll most definitely look for that in my own art. Such a mental exercise will yield some interesting insights. I was definitely seeing my own art in a new light, but at the same time, I was on familiar territory.

Breathing, balance, smooth transitions, integrating the whole body into each movement, flow… All this is foundational stuff that both karateka and Tai Chi students learn – whether it be right from the start or later on. As the late Grandmaster Remy A. Presas (founder of Modern Arnis, a Filipino martial art) would say, “It’s all de same.” I’ve seen this every single time I’ve gone to a self defense seminar or a one-off martial arts workshop. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to compare and contrast!

Three Words of Capoeira

One of the biggest Karate lessons I’ve learned is how to function while I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone.  More often than not that push comes from a sensei (instructor), but sometimes I deliberately seek out martial arts experiences that will get me way beyond my comfort zone.  Such was the case when I signed up for the Capoeira workshop offered as part of my employer’s Professional Development Day.

Capoeira is a martial art that was developed in Brazil by African slaves.  Singing, clapping, drumming, and playing the berimbau is integral to the art.  To an unenlightened European slave master, Capoeira looks and sounds like dancing.  But Capoeiristas know that this is a fighting art.  Participants in the workshop I attended were taught the chorus of a song about a man who went away to war.  A man who told his family not to worry, he had the art of Capoeira to protect him.  Not just physical protection – just as with most martial arts there are mental and spiritual sides to the art as well.

Our workshop instructor describes playing Capoeira as a conversation.  This was familiar territory for me.  If I do this, how do you respond?  What if I seek to deceive you?  Can I maneuver you into doing this so that I can do that?  I recognized that this is an area of my base art (Karate) which I need to develop more.

My fellow workshop participants and I were taught three very basic “words,” as our instructor described them.  The ginga, as near as I can tell, can be used as a baseline or default mode.  In dance class it would be a basic step – analogous to the box step in Foxtrot.  Next we learned an evasion from a kick, and just like the word “tomato” has two different pronunciations, there are two similar ways of doing this evasion.  The third “word” we learned was a kick.  Throughout the lesson I drew analogies to Karate. I wasn’t the only one drawing comparisons to their base art.

For partner drills I paired up with a Hapkido practitioner who is roughly the equivalent rank I now hold.  In our first exercise we were to synchronize our movements, each mirroring the other in the ginga.  I quickly realized that this was all about “flow.”  My new friend and I recognized that our skills of reading our sparring partners were coming into play.  After we had learned to evade and kick, we paired up again in order to apply what we’d learned.  Now we had to read intent and respond in a “language” neither of us were familiar with!  We had a blast.

Near the end of class, all the workshop participants and our instructor formed a circle. This space, called a roda, is considered sacred and is symbolic of the world.  There is etiquette for players entering the roda.  These concepts were familiar to me even if the format and emphasis were different.  Our instructor called for volunteers to play with him in the roda.

To describe my feelings in that moment, let’s drag out a couple of characters I’ve used in past blogs:  “Id” and “Superego:”

Id:  Hide.  Don’t risk looking like a fool in front of everyone. I’m not up to the task.  Let someone else be the sacrificial lamb.


Superego: LIKE HELL!!! GET IN THERE!!!  It’ll be fun!  You’ll learn stuff!





I was the first to volunteer.  The clapping and the music began.  The instructor walked me through the preliminaries and we began play.  I went back to my white belt (no rank) days and remembered what I learned while sparring with sensei(s): all that matters is that I try.  I knew I was out of my element, I knew my tools were limited, but by then I had the measure of the man who was in the roda with me.  Like any good sensei, he was there to teach, to let me experiment, to show me what is possible, and yes, to push me a little bit in order to show me that my capabilities are more than what I think they are.  All that happened in our play.  The instructor ended my time in the roda with a lunge that I evaded neatly even though he hadn’t shown us how – I simply modified something I’d just learned less than an hour before.  I was very, very sorry that time didn’t allow for more.  I returned to the outside of the roda grinning from ear to ear and urged my new Hapkido friend to give it a try.

Capoeira is about as different from Karate as you can get – or is it?  I admit I drew analogies – “Zenkutsu dachi but with the back heel up, shiko dachi is the transition, then step back into zenkutsu dachi with the opposite leg forward…”  “Modify the crescent kick thusly then step back zenkutsu dachi…”  The concept of flow and the art of reading and manipulating people were there too.  But let’s look beyond mere physicality.  Respect, personal development, camaraderie, community…  All these things happen in both Karate and Capoeira.    Are these not the most important aspects of any martial art?  I certainly experienced these things during that workshop.

I came home with a lot of takeaways.  Every once in awhile it’s good to be a white belt again, to be reminded of what learning a new skill is like.  That reminder will make me a better teacher.  I’m aware that I need to flow more (when applicable) in my art.  I really ought to build my “conversational” skills for kumite (sparring) – my sensei(s) have been telling me that for quite some time now.  I have a greater appreciation both for the things martial arts have in common and for the diversity in the world of martial arts.   I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to expand my understanding of Capoeira in particular and martial arts in general.