Category Archives: Tai Chi Chuan

Solon and Croesus

I had a cancellation this morning and was in desperate need of a haircut.  I’m an old school guy and so get my haircut at Vincent Oliver’s Hippodrome in Woodlawn.

Vincent is in his 70’s now.  He graduated from Woodlawn High School , which is only a block away from his barber shop, in 1950-something.  The majority of his clientèle are old classmates, who gather at his shop to gossip about old friends and reminisce about the good ol’ days.

Vincent has old barber chairs that glide up and down and must weight a ton a piece.  He shaves the back of your neck with hot lather and a straight razor, and you leave smelling of Aqua Velva.  I truly love that place and I don’t know what I’ll do when he retires.

This morning there were a few guys ahead of me and I had time to read while I listened to them carry on about military experience, vintage cars and who was still alive and what they were up to.  As I scrolled through my inbox on my phone I ran across today’s post from the Art of Manliness, Count No Man Happy Until the End is Known.

Brett McKay gives us a tale from Herodotus of the rich King Croesus and his visit from the Athenian sage Solon.

After several days of  wining and dining, Croesus asked Solon who, in all of his travels, was the happiest man he had ever met.  The spoiled king expected Solon to reply that he was, but was dismayed to hear Solon give the name of a fellow Athenian, and a man of common birth at that.

When Croesus expressed his outrage Solon went on to explain that the man in question had lived in Athens, where his local government had given him the freedom to prosper, he had had several fine sons whose wives had borne grandchildren.  At the end of his life he died bravely, on the battlefield, alongside his countrymen while driving out an enemy force.  He was honored with a public funeral.

Croesus could not make sense of this but felt surely he must be the second happiest man and so asked Solon again.

The wise man replied with the names of two Argive brothers and went on to explain how the Argives valued family and physical fitness.  The two boys’ mother wanted to make a pilgrimage to Hera’s temple, but didn’t have the oxen to pull her cart the many miles to the holy site.  The two boys strapped themselves to the heavy cart  and conveyed her the entire way.  Once there they were greeted by a crowd that congratulated the boys on their strength and their mother for having raised such fine sons.

In an expression of her own gratitude the mother prayed to Hera that she might convey on her sons “the greatest blessing that can befall mortal men.”  After a day of feasting and celebrating at the festival of Hera, the two boys lay down in the temple for a nap.  Hera granted their mother’s request by letting the boys die in their sleep.  The Argives celebrated these two by erecting statues in their honor.

Croesus was flabbergasted.  How could three dead men be happier than he?

Solon admitted that as rich as he was he did have certain advantages.  Food and shelter and the basic necessities were pretty much a given for him, but his money by no means gave him a monopoly on all that lead to true happiness.

The sage’s happy list included civic service, raising healthy children, self sufficiency, a sound body and honoring the god’s and one’s family.  Besides, being rich brings it’s own slew of issues, in the immortal words of The Notorious B.I.G., “Mo money, mo problems.”

In addition, life is constantly changing.  Today you can be riding high, living the good life, but tomorrow it could all be gone, the market crashes, a Tsunami hits, those pictures go public.

“This is why,” Solon finally concluded to Croesus, “I cannot answer the question you asked me until I know the manner of your death. Count no man happy until the end is known.”

Croesus would have none of this and showed Solon the door.  Years later he would have a first hand example of exactly what he meant.  He lost a son in a hunting accident, then misreading an oracle he launched an ill planned attack on the Persian Empire only to find himself hog tied atop his own funeral pyre about to be barbecue.  In a grand moment of “Oh!” he is recorded as having cried out, “Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Oh Solon! Count no man happy until the end is known!”

To my mind, the big message is, for us it’s too early to tell.  Call yourself happy?  Right now you might be.  Are you miserable?  You might be that, for the moment.  Whatever you are it’s bound to change.  Don’t become too attached to anything.

Which is not to say don’t form attachments.  A life devoid of connections is a life devoid indeed, but recognize, things change.  I have a string of mala beads, a Buddhist rosary, if you will.  I’ve worn it around my wrist for well over ten years.  Yesterday, for the first time I can remember, it came up missing.

After a good thirty minutes of looking for it I had to admit, it couldn’t be found.  I texted Trey and asked him to check with the cleaning service, they had been at the gym that afternoon, cleaning the cat walk that ran over my desk.

As I left the gym I had to acknowledge, despite my disappointment, that perhaps this was just another lesson in impermanence.   On the way home, resolved to live without what had become a part of my personality, Trey called to tell me it had been mistaken for trash but recovered.

The lesson?  Fortune turns on a dime.  The key to riding it is to focus on what you can control and let the rest go.

How you behave in the world is under your control.  How you act in relationships, both on a community and a personal level, is under your control.  Contrary to public opinion, your health is under your control.  You decide what you eat.  You decide how much rest you get.  You decide how much exercise you get.

Choose wisely.

Stay strong,

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Lao-Tzu

Happy Monday, everyone.

We spent Saturday driving back from the beach and yesterday was spent catching up on all the chores we didn’t get to during the week–mowing the grass, grocery shopping, that sort of thing.

Don’t worry, we didn’t let our vacation completely get away from us as we still managed to find a few hours to spend soaking in the river during the afternoon.

After a supper of pan seared salmon and broccoli salad, I sat down to whittle the twenty plus minutes of video Samantha shot of my last beach workout on Friday into something watchable.  I’m desperate for new music for these videos and as YouTube is extremely vigilant about copyright protection I need to find something original as well as appropriate.

If you know of any young (or not), hungry musicians looking for an easy way to promote their sound, let me know.  I’d be happy to include their credits in exchange for the right to use their music in these videos.

My original plan was to do four Bodytribe workouts, Monday through Thursday, and then create my own on Friday.  I had asked Chip if he and the Tribe had already created a workout for  Friedrich Nietzsche.  He said they’d made one at one time but never documented it.  He gave me his blessing to make one of my own.

As the week went on and I thought more and more about it, the more wrong the whole idea seemed.  Nietzsche is best known for the quote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” which may well be the anthem of modern fitness, and, if you’ve been paying attention, that concept is a frequent focal point of my criticism and ire about modern fitness.

So, would I really be staying true to myself by writing up a workout named for Nietzsche and whose sole aim was to kick my own butt?  Someone more learned than me might could argue the subtleties of Nietzsche and find a way to make us compatible, but I’m not that man and I wasn’t about to spend precious vacation hours doing research trying to make an odd shoe fit.

Especially when there’s a philosopher neared and dearer to my own heart and whose philosophy harmonizes with my own ideas–Lao-Tzu.

Lao-Tzu is credited with writing the Tao Te Ching, a fundamental work in Chinese Taoism.  Lao-Tzu translates into something akin to “the old man” and there’s much speculation that perhaps Lao-tzu was not just one man but a collection of writers, possibly over many years, whose thoughts and ideas were compiled to create the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching was written for the ruling class and as such gives much advice that at first blush seems written for leaders and rulers and applies only to those in charge of many, but what works on the macro level also works on the micro level.  The same lessons one learns to apply to a nation of millions is pertinent to ruling yourself, as well.

Lao-Tzu teaches that in order to live the best life we must learn to live in harmony with the natural laws of the universe or as he (they) call(s) it–the Tao.

The Bodytribe concept of listening to your body and letting it lead your training is very much in keeping with this idea.

So, I ditched Nietzsche.

Instead of creating a brutal workout aimed at reducing me to a quivering mass of sweaty jelly (eww!) I set out to have some fun.  I took the four training implements I brought with me and placed them 40 yards apart.  My plan was to do a stationary exercise with one of the implements and then follow with a mobility drill down to the next implement.  I hit each “station” six times for a total of twelve different exercises.

I managed to get the video down to just under four minutes.  You can view it HERE.

The goal was to create an unscripted movement session and when it was over I finished with a set of yang style tai chi and a splash in the ocean.

This weekend Chip will be at Agoge Fitness Systems.  I, for one, am super stoked.  My videos are just a taste of what we’ll be covering.  The workshop will cover mobility, kettlebells, leverage clubs,  powerlifting, and the Olympic lifts.  Whether you’re a regular AFS client, a Crossfitter, a personal trainer or a fitness enthusiast this weekend has much to offer you.  Remember, the workshop is Saturday and Sunday, the 28th and 29th.  To register, go HERE.

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Fighting the Air 2


Recently I started re-exploring some of the old kung fu forms I used to do with a near religious fervence.  By the way, that’s me in the far left of this photo.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, as an adolescent and young adult, I became obsessed with martial arts.  Both Hollywood and Hong Kong ass kickers had captured my imagination and I was able to mitigate a general sense of powerlessness with fantasies of fists of fury.

At thirteen I met another kid at Y summer camp who took karate.  His school came and did a demo for the camp.  At the time they seemed like total badasses and I wanted to be a badass, so badly.

I told my mom I wanted to take karate.  As this was the eighties and Henry Winkler was making videos warning us all of the dangers of strangers, the idea carried some merit.  She signed me up for a kid’s self defense class at the University, it was a far cry from what I really wanted, but it was better than nothing.

For years that was the extent of my martial arts training.  As a result my fantasies continued unabated and my ideas grew, but it was never anything more than an intellectual pursuit.  I’d sit with friends, with no actual experience, and debate the validity of various styles, throwing out sage comments, quipped from movies or reading, doing our best to look like we knew more than we did.

In late college I finally enrolled in an actual class.  I took tai chi.  I chose this class for two different reasons: one, I had read that tai chi was the ultimate martial art, hard to learn but once learned–unbeatable, and two, no contact, thus my fantasies of martial prowess could continue without any risk of the interference of reality.

I enjoyed the class, learned Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s short form and added much fuel to my delusions.  And that was that.  Once I learned the form I didn’t really do anything with it again for a few years.

After my oldest daughter was born I was in pretty lousy shape.  I had stopped mountain biking and had a belly full of nine months of sympathy eating.  I was overweight and de-conditioned.  My core was weak and after injuring my back it was prone to occasional flare ups.  I knew I had to do something.

Thinking in terms of my weak back,  I started re-learning my tai chi form.  I got a video from Abraham Liu and over the next few weeks re-invested in tai chi.  This started a daily practice that lasted over ten years.

This practice led to many new opportunities and new teachers.  I learned the Yang 24 short form, a Chen style competition form, a basic ba gua form, tai chi sword and even a xing yi form from Xia Ming, I earned a green belt in Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito from Sensei Steve Allen and Soke Dave Shelton and earned a green sash from Sifu Peter Ray in 8 Step Praying Mantis.  I drove an hour to Cullman on Saturday morning to meet a guy from Huntsville where we’d find an empty parking lot and train tiger style and staff forms.

All the while my fantasies grew and grew.  One day a fellow student of Ming’s, while debating the merits of tai chi versus MMA, arranged for our classes to meet for a friendly sparring session.  Just writing that last sentence still makes me laugh.

As is natural for anyone who’d spent as much time “training” as I had the question of, “Just what am I capable of?” had reached it’s apex.  I’m sure a blow by blow replay of the experience would be insightful, but I really don’t remember that much detail.  Suffice to say, I left with no further sense of delusion.

I learned that I could take a punch, quite a few of them actually, and that the knowledge of all my various forms and techniques was actually quite hard to apply whilst getting hit.  I learned that all my years of “fighting the air” with form work had not equipped me for actually fighting.

This happened still quite early in my career and I went on to study progressively harder and more vigorous styles than tai chi.  I went from karate to kung fu and to learning some boxing and Muay Thai to eventually training in jiu-jitsu and MMA.  It was a progressive journey and, while I never learned to like getting hit, I did like the greater sense of security I began to feel from “really learning how to fight.”  Even though I’d never actually had the occasion to fight since grade school it still seemed like something I needed to know how to do and well.

Then I got hurt.  A knee injury in jiu-jitsu practice sidelined me for several weeks and suddenly fighting just didn’t seem so important any more.

I hate being injured.  I can’t stand not being able to move or do the things I want.  I hate being sidelined and not being able to train or work.  It’s simple ego psychology really.  If the thing you do to make you feel better about yourself can actually enhance that sense of inadequacy and make you feel worse, it suddenly loses it’s charm.

In it’s place I became focused on improving myself, both physically and psycho-emotionally.  I focused on correcting physical and mental imbalances, through Olympic lifting, gymnastics, Indian clubs, and meditation.  I’ve thrown myself whole heartedly into Elliott Hulse’s Strengthology.  It is a result of this foray into total self improvement that I found Chip Conrad and the idea for his workshop in July was born.

And now, I’m back to fighting the air.  As I became more and more yang in my approach to the martial arts, I moved away from tai chi and my other forms, ultimately abandoning them entirely.  They weren’t “real” and weren’t helping me learn how to fight, which I mistook for the ultimate goal in martial arts training.

Now that I no longer care about defeating others or, more accurately, not being defeated myself, I’ve truly learned, what I had always paid lip service to, that it’s about self mastery–balance, poise, precision, control over yourself in space and the ability to react fluidly to whatever comes your way, both in your body and in your mind.

“The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.”
― Confucius

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Father’s Day


So, I was a little more stiff getting out of bed this morning than usual.  My legs are a tad more sore than I expected, which was not sore at all, because, after all, I can be arrogant at times and forget that I’m forty, or human.

I had a pretty good weekend these past two days.  I hope you did, too.  If you’re a father, like me, then I hope you enjoyed your Father’s Day and were feted appropriately.  I certainly feel like I was, made me feel like I was doing something right.

Saturday was a very short day at the gym.  Usually I work from 7 am to around 12 or so, training clients, running my boot camp and tai chi classes and then getting in a massage client or two.  This Saturday I had nothing scheduled beyond boot camp.

Fortuitously, I had gotten a call the previous afternoon from Wendy Jarvis.  Wendy runs the Dia De Los Muertos celebration we have here in Birmingham each year.  It’s a highly successful event and if you’re ever in Birmingham on November 2nd I highly recommend you check it out.  I donate firewood each year for the mini bonfires, which earns me a backstage pass, free beer and makes me feel super cool.

Wendy was calling because she knew of a stash of firewood that someone was looking to get rid of and that I could probably use it.  She was right.  The combination of last year’s super mild winter and being super busy this spring and early summer has led me to be a tad behind on stockpiling firewood for this coming winter.

I have a little more than half a cord left over from last year but that’s no where near enough.  The call for two truckloads of firewood was a welcome one and I was glad to retrieve it.  The wood was an old pecan that, now fully cured, had not been fully cut and split for firewood.  What I hauled home was a mish-mash of pieces; limbs eight feet long, thicker sections cut around thirty six inches and some pieces, a few, that were firebox ready.

That just meant I got to spend a part of the afternoon running my chainsaw and swinging my splitting ax–and yes, I do mean “got to.”  See, there’s a nine year old boy still inside me.  That boy watched Lou Ferrigno as The Incredible Hulk, he had a chance opportunity to watch Pumping Iron with his father and see giants like Arnold push the boundaries of what the human body could become.  He loved kung fu movies and Star Wars, his favorite character, Chewbacca.

The truth of the matter is, that boy was frequently scared and felt powerless in the world.  In bodybuilders, professional wrestlers, kung fu masters and Chewbacca he saw strength and power–not power to lord over others, but power to keep others from lording over him.

As I was loading and unloading the truck I thought, “Damn, too bad I don’t have my camera.  This would make good material for the blog…Call it ‘This is why I train.'”

But it’s not.

Saying I like to be strong for my family is a nice line and in an indirect sense it’s also true, but the real truth is that I’m motivated by something a little smaller, much older and quite fragile.

A nine year old boy that no one can take care of but me.  So I train for him.  I make myself strong to show him that he is strong, that he is capable and no longer needs to feel afraid.  I’m a better man for it and my family does benefit, so all in all I think it’s a good thing.

Yesterday was a good day.  We got up early, Samantha, Bronwyn and I, and headed out to Oak Mountain State Park.  The Alabama Waldorf School was hosting a 5k and Agoge Fitness Systems was running the warm-up.

The warm-up went well and I introduced a few of Elliott’s bio-energetic exercises into the mix.  Feeling good and pumped from the warm-up I decided, at the last minute, to run.

I am not what you would call a “regular” runner.  In fact it’s been a good four months since I did anything more than sprint across the parking lot or a 400 meter jog around the block.  Also, I am slow.

I ran a little more than an eleven-minute mile and had enough gas to sprint the final tenth or so.  That was enough to make me happy.  It was a beautiful, day, I ran the whole race and I kept good company with my dear friend, Paula Boggan.

And this, dear friends is why I’m sore, mainly in my calves, my ankles a tad stiff.  Nothing too bad and certainly nothing a mid-morning workout won’t cure.

The rest of the day was just as, if not more, wonderful: I got a nap, spent a few hours splashing in the river with my wife and all three daughters, had a fat dinner of ribs and salad and retired home for homemade coconut ice cream and to finish the movie I’d drifted off on while watching the night before.

Before bed I read a little further into Alexander Lowen’s The Language of the Body.  Lowen was a psychologist, a student of Wilhelm Reich, who was a student of Freud.  His main premise is that issues of the mind show up in the body, as chronic weaknesses, imbalances or postural deviations.

I was reading about the “oral character” (We all start with ourselves, right?) which develops from infants who undergo significant deprivation early in their lives.  Given a generation where mothers were encouraged to let their children cry themselves to sleep, ours is a generation rampant with oral tendencies.

It was these ideas that got me thinking about the nine year old, and younger parts of me, that were damaged and neglected growing up.  I was saddened to think not only of the unconscious damage I experienced but the damage I inflicted and inflict on my own children, things we all do, with the best of intentions, that create lifelong challenges.

And that’s where I saw the beauty of it.  We all have choices, both as the agent of dysfunction and the recipient.  Do we have to follow crackpot advice, that goes against the grain of all our instincts, of some professional just because this guy has credentials?  Do we have to accept slights and injustices of youth as truth even as an an adult?  Must we continue to tell ourselves the same story of our lives or do we take pen in hand, as arbiters of our own fate, and rewrite our story to one that suits us best?

Here comes the plug…You know by now, that I view physical fitness, particularly strength training, as a profound vehicle for personal growth and development.  Strength brings with it a sense of confidence and personal power that gives you room to explore the rest of your life.

On July 28th and 29th I’m bringing a unique expert in this realm of personal development through strength and ability, Chip Conrad, to Agoge Fitness Systems.  Chip runs his own gym, Bodytribe, in Sacramento, California.  Chip is a powerlifter, an Olympic lifter, and a bodyflow, yoga and movement enthusiast, who has made it his mission to re-instil the original concept of Physical Culture, function is form, ability is aesthetic, into our gyms and our lives.  Register HERE and join us!

And as always, if you like what you read, you can get it sent directly to in your inbox by clicking HERE.  We will never sell or distribute your email address, we hate spam as much (or more) as you do.

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Jason C. Brown

Greetings friends and neighbors,

Today I want, with great enthusiasm, to announce that Agoge Fitness Systems will be hosting Chip Conrad, of the Bodytribe in Sacramento, California, for a two day workshop, July 28 and 29th, at the gym here in Birmingham, Alabama.  You may remember me referencing Chip from an earlier blog post on play.  As a result of that post Chip and I got connected and the idea of having him come to Birmingham came to be.

I’m very excited about this opportunity as Bodytribe embodies everything I want AFS to be when it “grows up.”  You can learn more about this event here.

I mentioned Jason C. Brown yesterday in my post about Zach.  Jason is another member of this enlightened (my word) tribe of trainers and movement enthusiasts who sees the fundamental role of play in being a healthy, functioning, mobile adult.  Jason runs Kettlebell Athletics, where I gleaned a tremendous amount of information on kettlebells and their application, especially for jiujitsu training, and now he has started a new project PathFinder Method, which applies the ideas and philosophies of traditional martial arts to training and life.

I was very excited about his presentation.  Jason was one of the reasons I was in New Jersey and he did not let me down.  He and Zach have been friends for a very long time and in my opinion offers the perfect yin to Zach’s yang energy.

He spoke about his new project and what he calls the 6 Pillars of the PathFinder Method:

Pillar #1:  Pleasure makes everything easier.

Pillar #2:  It’s not what your selling, it’s what you stand for.

Pillar #3:  Practice

Pillar #4:  Enjoy the Process

Pillar #5:  Place (The Dojo is always open.)

Pillar #6:  Patience, persistence.

Yes, technically #6 is two pillars (hey, I didn’t make ’em up) but actually it’s the combination that makes it so powerful.  Patience is one thing and persistence is another, but in tandem they are an unstoppable force.  They’re the little drops of water that overtime wear away granite.

Summed up Jason’s mission is to help ease the manic tension that has gripped the exercise industry, the obsessive desire that only by “killing” ourselves each and every time we train can we consider our workouts well done.  It’s as if we’ve taken the idea that exercise is uncomfortable and unpleasant (a vicious fallacy, to be sure) and therefore in order for it to be effective it must be as uncomfortable and unpleasant as possible.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love a hard workout and there are times, when my body craves it, that I throw myself into my training with a vicious intensity that squeezes every ounce of effort and leaves me an exhausted puddle on the ground.  I do this because I find it enjoyable.  There’s pleasure to be found here (I know, hard to believe for some) and when I’ve recovered I feel better for it, but I don’t do this every session.  My body wouldn’t stand for it and then I couldn’t train and that is not pleasurable.

The “action item” I took from Jason is, that before his talk was even finished I decided I wanted to have him come to Birmingham and do a workshop, similar to what I’m doing with Chip, and from that decision a new model developed–quarterly workshops.  I want to take advantage of all the wonderful connections I’ve made with some of the most dynamic and innovative trainers in the industry and bring them here, to my gym, where I can share them with you.

Before the conference was over I emailed Jason, thanked him for his presentation and made the initial contact that will eventually lead to having him come to Birmingham for a future workshop.  This prompted conversations with several other like minded trainers at the conference and I’m building a “database” of contacts all of whom I’m excited to bring into our area to spread their respective messages and to energize our area, raising both awareness and “the bar,”  continuing our ongoing mission of helping all of us find the “strongest version” of ourselves.

Don’t forget, Chip Conrad will be in Birmingham at Agoge Fitness Systems for his two day workshop, Brutal Recess, July 28th and 29th.  There are only fifteen spots available.  This will be a small, intimate group with lots of personal attention and instruction.  It’s is going to be a working weekend.  Come prepared to train, sweat and have fun.

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Fighting the Air

I met a fighter this past weekend in St. Pete.  A real fighter.  Michael De La Pava, Miami Mike we called him.  That was so we could separate him from Tight Mike, who was from Queens, a boxer himself, who but for age and experience might just as well be the subject of this essay.

I’ve never seen Mike fight, but I know he can bang.  How?

His whole bearing speaks of it.  Early Saturday morning, as we made our introductions he said he was a Muay Thai instructor and mentioned he had a few fights under his belt.  He stated this simply with no need for embellishment.  I’ve learned over several years of interaction in the martial arts world, the more a dog barks, the less fight he actually has in him.  Mike was not barking.

Muay Thai is a kickboxing style that comes from Thailand.  It’s been popularized in film by actors like Jean Claude Van Damme and Tony Jaa.  It’s a very physically demanding art and practitioners learn to give and take massive amounts of punishment in the form of punches, elbows, knees and kicks.  It’s also a very traditional style whose history reaches into antiquity.

In Thailand a whole culture surrounds the art with fighters joining their respective camps at very young ages, sometimes as early as three or four.  They eat, train and sleep with their camp, integrating themselves into a larger fight family.  Even as young children their lives center around Muay Thai.  They contribute to the functioning and sustenance of the camp, beginning their own training by five or six and entering their first fight somewhere between ten and twelve.  By twenty-one most fighters are ready to retire with several hundred fights under their belts.  Once retired successful fighters parlay their experience into coaching careers.

Traditional Muay Thai, even as practised by non-Thai, involves an elaborate pre-fight ceremonial dance where the fighter shows honor to the ring, the audience, his coach and most importantly his opponent.

Mike’s humility speaks more to his experience and prowess in the ring than any bragging ever could.  Not once did we hear a story about how he had some poor slob up against the ropes or of the power and might of his feet and fists.  Instead we heard of the sacrifice it takes to be a fighter, the discipline and the dedication.  Long hours of training, strict diets, the mental focus that excludes everything but the fight.  One fight might take three to five months worth of discipline and sacrifice–sacrifice that comes from not just himself, but his friends and loved ones as well.

He’s the first to admit that humility is one of the first and most lasting of the lessons of a true fighter..  My own martial arts experience began with Tai Chi and progressed into traditional karate and kung fu styles.  Each of these are respectable arts steeped in history and tradition, but they are also taught as no-contact arts.  The foundation of each of them is in kata or forms, choreographed patterns of movement designed to teach the fundamental movements of each respective style.  Back in the day this was how a student was introduced to the ‘toolbox’ of movements contained in each style.  After having mastered each of these ‘tools’ a student then learned how to free form these movements and eventually to fight.  As such a modern student learns how to fight the air, all the while building his fantasy world with support and illustration from the latest Hollywood blockbuster or a classic chop-socky from Hong Kong’s heyday.

In antiquity the ultimate aim of all fighting styles was fighting.  The style itself was a form of martial technology, the information contained therein guarded as precious military secrets.  Today the practice of most traditional styles is an exercise in historical preservation, an admirable pursuit, the downside of which is that many a youngster grows up in his style or school thinking he can fight when he has actually has no real experience fighting.  The end result is often the dirty little secret of martial arts schools–the all too common story of a young, foolish black belt picking a fight with an untrained, but experienced kid on the street and getting his ass handed to him.

An early lesson of anyone who does fight is that no matter how big and bad you think you are, there’s always someone out there who is bigger and badder.  A true fighter is humble, he’s had his share of wins and losses and has a realistic view of himself.  He knows a fight can turn on the slightest of insignificances and that often the winner is nothing more than the one who wanted it more.

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Muscle Memory

**This is a guest post from my dear friend and writing coach, Glenny Brock.**

Pain is a signal. If ever knew that, I’d forgotten. What I remembered was Brush-Knee-Push-Step, Repulse the Monkey and Wave Hands Like Clouds — three of the 24 moves in the Yang Short-Form Tai Chi. Last Saturday morning, for the first time in about 10 years, I found myself standing behind Dave Hall, doing my damnedest to mimic and mirror him as we went through the form. I marveled that I remembered the slow dance of it all — when to “empty” my legs and feet, where to hold my arms and hands, how to open my palms toward the sky then curl my fingers into fists. I did most of the moves without thinking, as if my muscles had spent a decade studying a map inside my mind that I didn’t even know about. I surprised myself at every step.

But back to the signal of pain. The Tai Chi didn’t hurt at all. What hurt was the 40-minute, seven-exercise circuit that preceded it: Before I Opened the Window to See the Moon or Grasped Needle at Sea Bottom, I had gone through a sequence of lifting sandbags, swinging ropes, jumping on one tire and waving another around my waist (not simultaneously but in that order), hurling a medicine ball at the concrete floor and squatting and grasping an 18-lb. kettlebell to heave it between my knees repeatedly. The final exercise and the source of my greatest humiliation was a maneuver that Dave called “Dog Crawlers.” Properly executed, this activity is supposed to look like some kind of fast-motion, yogic, aerobic tribute to man’s best friend. What I did more closely resembled the action of one of those collapsing farm-animal toys.

Close your eyes and imagine an erstwhile “Husky” department veteran aged to a plump, mid-30s proto-hipster. Now imagine that girl-woman struggling to simultaneously hold herself up on twig arms and avoid a wardrobe malfunction. I imagined coming out of my sports bra as the worst possible thing that could happen; I considered lying down on the floor and just weeping while I watched everyone else work out. Boot camp, I thought to myself with a snort. The mythological ordeal that has struck fear into the hearts of draftees since time immemorial, and I get up to do it for fun?

The timer sounded, indicating that another 45-second eternity had ended and it was time to move on to the next thing. I glowered at my old friend, but Dave just grinned back at me. I noticed for the first time that there was a searing heat in the front of my thighs, a hurt so vivid I could almost hear it. I looked at the white-board where the sequence of exercises was written and noticed for the first time it also said, “Be comfortable being uncomfortable.” I walked back to the tire that lay flat on the floor, stepped onto it and started jumping again, paying close attention to how the rubbery ring — reliably, relentlessly — kept bouncing back into shape.

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