Six Movement Sets

December 15, 2016

In the Four Creatures curriculum, the first three movement sets all belong to the Ox, and focus on coherent movement, penetration and percussion, and compacting the opponent, depriving him of space to do…whatever it is he might have in mind. He may be better than us; we’re not going to give him a chance to prove it.

Your first movement set, the triangle exercise, trains you in the basics of strong movement and how to apply it. You will learn useful movements for upper-body and lower-body counterattack, optimal angles for displacement and balance destruction, and fundamentals of both empty-hand and weapon work.

Djuru Satu, your first real form, trains you in the masculine side of Ox, the attitude of the ‘Falling Wall’ — the strong, straightforward tactics that close with your opponent, disrupt his balance, and batter him to the point of incapacitation. Defensively, it introduces the attitude of the ‘Thorny King’ — a way of intercepting attack that allows the attacker to damage himself.

Lanka Dua, your second form, opens up new vistas for the tactical applications of the strong legwork you’ve built in the first two movement sets and introduces the feminine side of Ox, employing evasive handwork and laying a strong foundation for weapons work. The attitude of the bamboo — whiplash and ricochet — is a particular focus, as is sticking to and mirroring the opponent, and a continuous flow of movement.

Getting through those three sets will take two to three years. If you stop there, you have a reasonable technical foundation for a lifetime of martial practice. The truth is, any good form is a fighting system in itself. You could stop with one movement set, spend the rest of your training time cultivating your attitude, and be good for 95% of everything you could ever run into. But there’s a lot in even the first movement set that you won’t discover until you’ve got at least one more form for comparison and contrast — the more you have, the more you can get from each thing you have. So the three Ox forms work together as a very useful base.

If you continue, Four Creatures offers another two to three years of material. The additional three forms — one each for Lion, Eagle, and Man — add additional dimensions to your practice.

Lion focuses on the principle of destruction, ramping up your ability to do incredible amounts of damage very quickly, and cultivating the necessary attitudes. Lion includes a close study of destructive anatomy, and the associated drills cultivate whole-body suppleness and strength, including exceptional finger strength. That suppleness is in turn the foundation for both substantial power generation and the ability to absorb impact without injury.

Eagle focuses on evasion, disengagement and re-engagement, and the single decisive attack. (You aren’t ready to try a single decisive attack until you’re well-prepared to follow up if it fails.) Eagle exercises cultivate tendon and small-muscle strength and coordination, off-timing, sudden speed in any direction, decoying and misdirection, and the “awfully sudden change,” which is as much about your attitude as your physicality.

Every higher mammal avoids seriously injuring its own kind, and we are no exception. But like most species, those instincts cause us to turn fights into contests of raw physical ability. Only after ‘turning off’ our instincts to oppose force with force — a lesson learned in the first three animals — are we prepared to re-engage the goal of subduing an attacker without injury. Man unites the three animals into a seamless whole and refines all their skills to another level, developing the body’s ability to issue and receive force resiliently and at will, and to use those abilities to trap and tangle an opponent while doing minimal damage. Man also cultivates the ability to use our knowledge of anatomy and the body to heal and serve people, not just hurt them. Completing this level includes developing sufficient skill at some form of health and healing practice to benefit your community.

Having absorbed those additional dimensions to your practice, you not only have a solid, diverse foundation for your martial practice, you also have learned how to learn. You have cultivated an ability to absorb radically different forms and focuses into a single unified practice. With that under your belt, you can go wherever you want and learn whatever interests you — for the rest of your life.

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Rank and Advancement

April 27, 2015

Americans think about advancement in martial arts in terms of military rank: rigidly stratified categories marked with visible badges — colored belts, stripes, patches, and the like. In the vast array of martial arts across the globe and over the centuries, that scheme is actually pretty rare. How we came to use it for nearly all martial arts in America is an interesting tale of multiple cultures intersecting, but for now, the point is that there’s nothing inevitable about lining up in rows and wearing colored belts.

In the village arts of Indonesia, advancement works very differently. For one thing, no one thinks of it as “advancement.” They think of it as “learning.” While village society is rigidly stratified, there’s little concern about badges of rank; everybody knows everybody. You are who you are, and whatever skills you have show on the practice floor for all to see. 

In the American iteration of these arts, insofar as we have rank at all, we have teachers, students, practitioners, and practice leaders. Teachers are people who are qualified to accept students. Students are what you think: people who are learning. Practitioners are finished students — the curriculum is finite — who aren’t necessarily teachers. It is both possible and common to learn the art for the purpose of using it yourself without having any aspiration to teach it. The practice leader is whoever is leading today’s practice. Might be a teacher, an upper-level student, or Cousin Eddie from the next village, who has this cool trick he’s willing to share with us.

Even in the same system, different teachers teach differently, and any given teacher will have particular emphases and specialties. The system remains more or less the same, albeit embodied in different people, but the particular curriculum varies widely depending on the situation and the students. Curricula in these systems are not infinite: there is such a thing as a “finished student.” In Four Creatures, it takes four to six years.

Regardless of the curriculum you might be using, the bottom line is that you learn how to learn, and then you learn how to embody the essential principles of the system for yourself. As a practitioner, you’re expected to adapt what you learn to suit your needs. The art contains an ‘old man’s style’ for less able bodies, a ‘women’s style’ for slighter frames, and so on. It must work for you, and only you can choose the styling that suits your situation.


Better Than You Found It

January 2, 2015

I grew up camping and hiking with my family along the Appalachian Trail. Along the trail in various places, you’ll find log lean-to shelters for hikers to sleep in. It saves the hikers having to find tent spots every night, and it saves the environment from the impact of thousands of people every year clearing places to pitch a tent alongside the trail.

Trail shelters require upkeep. Some upkeep tasks are pretty intensive, and require a work crew to carry in tools and materials. Others are pretty easy; you just have to take the time to do them. Mom and Dad didn’t just raise us to clean up after ourselves; they raised us to leave the shelter better than we found it. Muddy footprints would be removed; sleeping areas would be swept clean, and such, of course, but we went further than that. Perhaps an extra roll of TP left in the outhouse. Maybe there was no firewood when we got there, and we had to go cut our own, but when we left, we’d leave a pile of wood, neatly stacked and ready for the next guest. Perhaps one of the ropes for hanging packs was fraying, and we’d replace it.

Approach your training partner in the same way. Your job is not simply to do no harm. Your job is to leave your partner better than you found him or her. Take the time after practice to massage out that cramped muscle. Treat that bruise. Share a little knowledge about this or that. Speak a blessing over your partner.

What we do is inherently risky; there will be days when we all limp home nursing a collection of bruises. That’s fine. But don’t let your partners limp home unhappy and unblessed. Treat what can be treated; heal what can be healed. Bind up wounds, mend broken hearts, do the best that you can do to send your partners home relaxed, full, and at peace.


Terrible Craft

December 26, 2014

I don’t remember the exact quote, but I was reading one of Rory Miller’s books and came upon the observation that martial arts is about taking healthy bodies as your raw material and turning them into cripples or corpses. That is true.

Most martial artists train for reasons beyond cultivating the ability to hurt people. Some do it for sport, others for emotional control, others for fitness, others for connection with the family and friends they train with. There are a lot of reasons why people train martial arts beyond hurting people. Nearly all of us who came for self-defense have stayed for a number of those other reasons.

Nonetheless, the irreducible basis for our terrible craft is doing damage to the human body. If you just like to play rough, you could be doing hockey, rugby, or football, where the object of the game is something other than hurting the other players. (Unless you play for the New Orleans Saints.) If you just like movement and tricks, you could be doing acrobatics or freerunning. If you’re in it for the magic of contact and camraderie, you could be doing ballroom dance, partner yoga or Contact Improv.

But you’re not. You’re doing punches rather than planches or plies, and there’s a reason for that. It will be worth your while to inquire into what that reason might be. The answer I get most often is, “I have to stay active, and this is way more fun than running on a treadmill.” Don’t stop there. Not everybody thinks dodging punches is more fun than a treadmill–why do you?