Archive for May, 2013


May 15, 2013

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Magazine page courtesy of Rainbow Publications

BREATH OF FRESH AIR: What is advanced martial arts technique?

I’m going to relate an anecdote regarding my professional life, to make a point about advanced martial arts technique. I perform and teach a subspecialty in ophthalmology known as fluorescein angiography of the retina, which is a test using photography of the retina. To understand what I do for a living, go to Forty Years in Retinal Photography,” which is a professional memoir of sorts. I’ve given annual lectures on retinal photography since 1981, and have taught literally thousands of ophthalmic technicians and photographers, the art of retinal photography. One truism I always relate to my course participants is:

“After you’ve been working in retinal photography for two years, you’re going to be as good as your going to get. After that, there’s no such thing as ‘advanced techniques’ in retinal photography.”

During my lectures, it hasn’t been unusual for some course participants to approach me and say, “I’ve been taking your course for 25 years now, and I really enjoy them.” Can anybody spot a discrepancy in logic here? Why are these students still coming to my lectures, if they’ve been working in the field for more than two decades? It says more about their weak state of mind and insecure egos, than it does about the quality of their technique. It reflects poorly on their personalities.

In the martial arts, after you’ve attained black belt level, your physical technique is as good as it’s going to get. Sufficient maturity is implicit in black belt status. One should have a strong foundation in understanding and maturity to make black belt to begin with. The martial arts is riddled with higher dan ranks that have been given for system-driven reasons, that mean nothing related to pure technique.

Higher black belt ranks are awarded for political reaons within the system, not because one’s technique has gotten “more advanced.” Gaining black belt level technique is the same thing as having worked in retinal photography for two years: After that point, you’re as good as you’re going to get. If a black belt feels that his technique needs improvement, then he was prematurely promoted, either because his technique isn’t truly good enough, or because he lacks self-confidence. Either reason is bad. The latter is worse, because the black belt that lacks confidence in himself, is not a true black belt.

In order to have legitimate black belt status, your teacher should have taught you the body mechanics that produce the most power, velocity and fluidity. That goes without saying, although many schools do not meet this basic criterion. Your teacher should have augmented this teaching of correct biomechanics, by nurturing your killer instinct, a prerequisite for a competent martial artist, but an often neglected part of the program.

There is one other element of competent martial arts technique that is often neglected, and that is breath control. You may ask me, “But isn’t breathing automatic, an autonomic function? Isn’t it involuntary and happens when you practice, anyway?” My answer to that is, yes, it’s true, but that isn’t the most efficient way to train. There is a better way to maximize your techniques, with a systematic execution of powerful intake and output of breath when training. The perfect vehicle for practicing breath control, is while practicing forms (kata). This is because forms have a prescribed or dictated sequence of techniques, that segue from one to the next. This allows the martial artist to consciously take in, and expel breath, at the best predetermined points during forms.

The martial artist’s body is a an efficient engine whose ability to function depends greatly on the powerful intake and output of breath. It is not just an aerobic issue, where the martial artist’s ability to be more fresh at the end of a form, is enhanced by powerful breath control. With good conscious breath control, each technique becomes more powerful, because one’s mental and physical focus improves, with the coordination of the expulsion of breath and postive movements. The practice of taking breaths, and expelling breaths at predtermined points in a conscious fashion while doing forms, establishes this systematic breathing in your combat muscle memory for each technique, a surely as automatically contracting your musculature at the very end of a reverse punch.

During the practice of a form, I recommend the conscious intake and expulsion of breath in rythym with the movements. An obvious “positive movement” is the very end of a reverse punch, where one pushes out an impressive expulsion of breath at the conclusion of the punch. There is harmony between the last-instant contraction of the musculoskeletal components involved in the technique, and the fast, powerful expulsion of breath. One should breathe in through the nose wirh a closed mouth, and powerfully expel breath with an audible “HOO!” through the mouth. Let me clarify this. One shouldn’t be shouting the word “Hoo.” This just happens to be the natural whooshing sound that sounds like that, with no input from one’s vocal cords, when one forcefully exhales.

One must practice with a form to determine where to take in and where to put out, but this will become apparent after some experimentation. Don’t be afraid to do it too much in a form, at first. One cannot have too much breathing while executing movement (although one can have too little), just as you cannot have too much diagnostic information in medicine, while doing a test. Eventaully, one’s breathing pattern will match the form, perfectly.

The kiai is used in some arts at certain points of forms, to add power and focus to the technique, at the point in the form where the kiai is shouted. May I suggest that this is nothing but the intermittent example of the type of expuslion of breath that I’m talking about. The difference between what I’m advocating and the kiai is, the kiai is voiced as certain words with the vocal cords involved. The expulsion of breath I’m talking about, is not a product of vocal cord action. It is just air being propelled out of one’s mouth. My contention is that this sort of controlled, violent expulsion of breath, should be used throughout the form, where it will add power, and physical and mental focus to every key technique.

It is not necessary to make distinct sounds as one does with a kiai. The naturally produced “HOO!” as one forcefully forces breath out, is enough to gain the benefits I’ve described. There is nothing mystical in what I’m advocating, as there sometimes is associated with the traditional kiai. Powerful breath control to maximize technique, is purely a phsiological issue. This constant and consistent use of breath control, will improve your form overall, and make every technique maximized for speed and power. This is finishing power I’m talking about.

Every technique in a form will improve in velocity and power, if the proper coordination of the intake and expulsion of breath is refined, in rythm with the movements. Breath discipline is a basic part of martial arts practice, but often neglected. The melding of breath control and physical movement in forms, is basic, yet advanced. Later.



Having taught martial arts for many years has given me the opportunity to observe people in all kinds of situations. Stress, fear, exhilaration, fatigue … and if I really do my job, calm.

Both myself and my martial art brother Scott attained black belt ranking in a very traditional school, one where only a small handful of hundreds of students had attained that rank. I mean maybe 1 or 2 before us.

We both got there the same way: dedication, unending hours of hard training, focus, and the willingness to hit and hurt, and be hit and hurt. I’d agree that once we reached our black belt levels we were for all intents and purposes trained. Our technique was as good as it was going to get. My further experience showed me where the growth areas were.

First, I agree with Brother Scott: breathing is central. Like Tai Chi, Chi Gung, etc. or not, go for the mystical Chi thing or not, there is intense ceaseless focus on breathing, and for good reason. The karate systems have simplified it to a kiai. Chinese martial arts have the “Hup” and “Waa” sounds. We learned to focus breath and if it was a “HOO!” dammit, it was a real “HOO!”!

Side note: Brother Scott and I were trained to be silent during our kung fu forms, only natural breathing sounds emitted, not scripted ‘hups’ and ‘hoos’. I recall the first time we saw kung fu forms done by other schools during our ‘travels’ together. The first several times the practitioner hup’ed and hoo’ed we looked at each other in surprise. As I recall there was some barely surpressed laughter after a few more. A VERY angry look from the local sifu settled us down, I think, but frankly it sounded ridiculous. Not the real sound of focused power, just the fake sound of weak kung fu.

Second: Experience brings calm and focus. What does grow after attaining black belt rank is the experience of “seen that, blocked that, delivered the counter”. Breathing builds calm. You grow calm, face impassive during the fiercest attack by your opponent or enemy. You watch, you parry. And then, when you see the opening you breath in and STRIKE your opponent down with a blow. Calmly, accompanied by a strong focused expulsion of breath to maximize power.

Incidentally, I’m convinced that this calm and experience-based ‘wisdom’ is the core of most ‘mystical’ and ‘advance’ Chinese martial arts technique. Why sticky hands? Not because you have a magical power … you’ve got so much experience that you can actually get that close and tie up your opponent with confidence. Block and punch with one move? If you see it coming a mile away, it ain’t that hard, trust me.

One last story: My journey to my kung fu instructor status began when my teacher, Dr. Richard M. Chin, decided to train me for competition. I was allowed to use exactly two attacking techniques: right hand reverse punch, right leg front kick. NOTHING else. No matter what openings or other options I thought I saw I only got to use those two techniques.

I was dismayed and wanted to use my back fist, lunge punch, side kick. No. 100 pushups awaited me for every attempt to do so, and probably a round or two with some of the more brutal senior students. We took discipline pretty seriously.

Thousands and thousands of punches later Dr. Chin’s prediction came true, “By the time you’re done, you’ll be able to hit anyone with a reverse punch anytime, anywhere, standing on your head, laying on your back. No matter”. He was right. Even though I was not yet black belt, that technique became fully developed, as Brother Scott cites. And, when I used it I had the calm patient feeling that it was just a matter of time before I would find the exact moment to pump a devastating right hand blow into my opponent.

Fully developed physical technique, proper breathing, experience-based calm. That is what I would call martial arts mastery.




May 11, 2013


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Magazine page courtesy of Rainbow Publications

Jow Ga Kung Fu:

Mike Willner and I trained for years together.

You’ve met Mike Willner in “Memoir Part 6” at my Going The Distance Website. Mike and I were fellow disciples of Richard Chin’s at Dr. Chin’s Asian Martial Arts Studio in New York City, where Mike and I trained in and mastered the combat art of Jow Ga kung fu over thirty years ago. At that time, Mike and Sifu Chin worked as bouncers at a nightclub in NYC, and in this guest article, Mike educates us regarding the most useful weaponry and tactics in keeping the nightlife elite in line.


At some point in my martial arts training my teacher said, “Listen, I got you a job as a bouncer at the night club … it will be a good chance for you to learn about real technique.” Visions of fist fights and night club brawls flashed into my mind, with me executing flawless side kicks and tiger palm strikes, laying low attackers left and right. Little did I suspect what I was actually about to learn.

My job at this particular club was to greet patrons, frisk them for weapons, explain the rules of the club, and keep the peace. Since alcohol was served, there was bound to be trouble. Since girls were involved there was definitely going to be trouble. I have plenty of great war stories (a future article for these), but not about devastating Phoenix Eye Fist blows and Dim Mak (“death touch”). I learned restraint, diplomacy and calm. It was much better to stare down a drunk rowdy than to start a fist fight on a crowded dance floor. But I also learned that the reality of combat is swift and brutal, and if you have to strike then strike hard and first. No long, multi-strike exchanges as in the movies … one strike, done.

A frequent question I got was, “What’s your favorite weapon?” My response, “A flight of stairs.” Puzzled look and, “What about nunchucks?” Incidentally, I’ve seen a drunken rowdy take a full nunchuck blow to the head, cracking the stick, and still lurch forward to attack. My response, “I’ve never had anyone get up to attack me after throwing them down a flight of stairs.” I sensed disappointment in the questioner, so I add, “But, slamming them with a heavy door, or shoving them in front of a moving car comes close second.”

What? No shuriken, kama, bo staff, or butterfly knife? No, I don’t usually have those on hand in a crowded night club. No sai or even three section staff? These questions show me that they have no idea about real combat. My Jow Ga training taught me, use what works, what has power, what will do the job of taking down your opponent. In the semi and full contact competitions I fought in, that was a reverse punch. In the Mudd Club when a fight was breaking out, that was a bar stool, or even another opponent grabbed, arm-locked, and forcibly shoved so as to knock down his buddy. So, my favorite weapon for combat is what is readily available, and what will work.

Now, that’s not to say we didn’t study traditional kung fu weapons in our training. If you asked me what my favorite training weapon was, then you’ll get an answer that will be more satisfying for the kung fu tourist. Quan Do, General Quan’s Knife. Think of a six foot staff with a wide three foot curved blade on one end. It’s a cavalry weapon, intended for horseback and riding down enemies. It is also used fighting on foot. There was a hook on the back of the blade for catching opponents ankles, or pulling opponents off their horses. Why do I like it some much of all the weapons I learned?

First, its HEAVY! and moving that thing around is an incredible work out. As with all weapon training, the constant motion, stopping, changing directions, and focused blows demands a lot from your body. You get really strong really fast, or you drop the thing a lot. Next, you learn nimbleness and awareness. As with many Jow Ga weapon forms, the practitioner is in as much danger as the virtual opponent sometimes. (I’m thinking of three section staff ricochet, or chain whip fling back). There are a number of moves in the Quan Do form I learned where the spinning stick and blade are passed behind the back or over the shoulder at full speed. One wrong move and you’ll be out cold on the floor. This potential for real injury adds a sharp edge to the form. You learn to move lightly, quickly, and keep your wits about you. No auto-pilot, no heavy hand.

Finally, you learn to be fierce! The form emulates General Quan on his charger riding down his enemies. At one point you stand poised in cat stance, weapon at the ready, and scan the battle field, looking for any others who dare oppose you. Done correctly, you feel the fierce energy of the weapon flowing through you. You build killer instinct and fighting spirit. So, now you know. You also know something very important: when you ask a real martial artist about his technique or methods, be very specific … are you talking about combat applications or training applications. There is a real difference. Now, I wonder how my brother Scott would answer the question, “What’s your favorite weapon?”



I don’t know if Mike was aware of it, but when I had my monthly “Combat Kung Fu” column in Karate-Kung Illustrated magazine, the title of one of my columns was, “Use What Works!” Even without reading the content of this long-gone column, you can extrapolate what it was about. In short, it echoed what Mike and I learned in our particular branch of Jow Ga kung fu. Keep in mind that the overall construct of a given style, Jow Ga included, there is no guarantee that all schools teaching that style, will teach their respective students the same as any other school of that style. Every school within a style, is it’s own separate entity, reflecting the personality and philosophy of the teacher.

I count Mike and myself extremely lucky, because we happened to choose Sifu Richard Chin as our mentor. Sifu Chin’s passing on this philosophy of “use what works” to Mike and me as his disciples, did not necessarily make this pragmatic philosophy, a Jow Ga philosophy. What it amounts to, is a Richard Chin philosophy, which then became a Mike Willner philosophy and a Scott Wong philosophy. Sifu Chin’s way became my way and Mike’s way.

From day one in Richard Chin’s dojo, brutal and realistic sparring was considered the “norm.” This cannot be said of all kung fu schools or even all Jow Ga schools, for the reasons I mentioned. Let me describe to you, the conditions for our sparring. First, full-power hits were not just encouraged, but mandatory. Any student who did not have the killer instinct to deliver full-power hits without conscience, did not last in our school. Targets allowed in Richard Chin’s school were above the waist, but below the neck for obvious practical safety reasons. Broken ribs were acceptable on the occasions they occurred, but neck and head injuries being potentially paralyzing or fatal, so targets above the clavicles was banned. Fists and feet were allowed, elbows and knees were not. When I opened my own dojo in 1984, I modified this protocol slightly. I allowed targets below the knee (but not the knee), and I allowed elbows, knees and shins as striking weapons.

Secondly, we didn’t wear any sort of gloves or hand padding, or body padding in Richard Chin’s school. Mandatory were a mouthpiece and a groin cup for the men, and that was it. The idea wasn’t merely to ignore the possibility of injury, but to toughen students so that they didn’t become hit-shy. A necessity in training was to learn how to take hits, and endure them physically and mentally so that the pain didn’t inhibit your technique. Quitting on any level was unacceptable. Being hit and ignoring pain, were considered normal parts of training. If you didn’t like it man, there was the door. Take up philately, instead.

Sifu Chin also instituted a belt system for his Jow Ga students. He also taught Okinawan karate, and knew the incentive benefits of having a belt ranking system, In many kung fu schools, there is no rank, and therefore a rankless system for people to hide behind. With the ranking system in our Jow Ga kung fu (using “kep” increments similar to the “kyu” Japanese ranks), everyone knew exactly where everyone else stood.

Our rank promotion tests, were brutal. They were physically and mentally punishing, testing the mettle and toughness of the tested. For brown belt rank, one would have to spar with three opponents at once. One was not expected to prevail against three atttackers, but merely to survive, without giving up. This was the keystone of the philosophy in Richard Chin’s school: Realism. It isn’t realistic to expect anyone, regardless of rank, to overcome sheer numbers. This was reality, not the movies. What was expected, was for the brown belt candidate not to stop fighting. This was test of the mind and spirit, as much as the body.

So, getting back to my reply to Mike’s question, my favorite weapon is one’s mind. For it is one’s brain that decides to “use what works,” and to utilize whatever’s available at the time. Two of my favorite weapons, are my Colt Government Model .45 ACP and my Colt Commander .45 ACP, but these aren’t practical for either nightclubs. Later.



May 4, 2013

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Photo by Genghis

THE MISSING LINK: I got my bike back from Rosa’s cycles.

“Scott, you can’t find pipes like you have on Mabel anymore. If you paid someone to custom make these pipes, it would cost you a thousand bucks.”



Which is precisely why I was determined to keep ’em, instead of buying new exhaust pipes for my Harley 74, Mabel. Not only did Andrew tell me the same thing several years ago, he also asked me at that time, if I was interested in sellin’ these great old pipes. I said, “No.” The urge to replace broken parts with shiny new parts is always a temptation, but in the case of these straight pipes, I’ll never part with ’em. That’s why I had Andrew repair the busted exhaust flange on the rear pipe. I just got my bike back from Andrew, and the welding on the pipe looks primo, man, just perfect. Sometime in the future, I’ll get ’em rechromed.

Ancillary components hold a traditional and sentimental value for me, that’s just the way I am. I become attached to peripheral parts because of their history of being on my bike, and having served me well for so long, just as I feel attached to Mabel’s motor and frame. The more time that passes as these parts are functioning on my Harley, the more I seem to feel attached to ’em. They become a part of Mabel as surely as she was born with ’em. That’s the way I feel, if that makes sense to you.

Other examples are the drag bars, which I’ve had longer than Mabel (I bought these for my old Sportster, “Sally The Bitch,” 44 years ago. Think about that, man. That’s longer than a lot of bikers have been alive. I had these drag bars on Sally for 17 years, before having them on Mabel for 28 years. I’ve been grabbin’ these bars with my grubby hands, fer 45 years. The grip width has been imprinted onto my muscle memory for so long, that I could guide my bike in my sleep. The glide risers that the drag bars sit on, have been on Mabel for 28 years. One concession I’m making to buying new, is the seat. I just ordered the same La Pera seat I’ve had on Mabel for the past 24 years, because the seams are busting. The seat is just plain wearing out. I ordered the new seat directly from La Pera. It seems to me, that the cost of a new seat is probably cheaper than paying someone to re-cover the old one.

While Mabel was at Rosa’s Cycles, Andrew found the cause of the fracture of the exhaust flange. The oil tank had broken mounts, which caused the tank to put pressure on the battery tray which then leaned on the pipe, breaking it. Andrew fixed the oil tank mounts, thereby rectifying the source of the problem.

Andrew is very thorough when it comes to examining a bike for problems. For example, he found a rear brake shoe that was hangin’ up, a problem I could not detect when applying the rear brake. To be honest, these old drum brakes just feel subjectively mushy to me anyway, compared to the positive action of the front disc brake. Mushiness with a drum brake is purely subjective, man. How much mushiness is too much, and not normal? While he was at the rear brake, he felt that the master cylinder needed to be rebuilt, so done!

As long as Mabel was going to be in the shop, I asked Andrew to throw some new stuff on her. The old parts to be changed out, had no attachment value to me. These were new rear shocks, and a new voltage regulator. I installed the old rectifier 27 years ago when I changed out Mabel’s OEM 16 amp alternator stator, for a 22 amp stator. Just as a matter of interest, I bought an Ingersoll Rand electric impact wrench expressly for this job. This was only for removing the compensating nut. This was the only time I’ve ever used this electric impact wrench. It worked so well, that it removed (and tightened) the nut, without the tranny having to be put into gear. Just, “BRACK..BRACK..BRACK,” and the nut was off with the transmission in neutral. The wire leading from the old rectifier was gettin’ frayed, so I asked Andrew to install a new rectifier.

Mabel’s ride was gettin’ choppy, what with all the humongous potholes she’s had to deal with here in NYC. NYC is the Pothole Capitol of the world! I’ll tell ya what, the new shocks make her feel like a plush Caddy now! The difference in ride feel is amazing. Another new part Andrew threw on Mabel was a new drive chain. I’ve only adjusted this one a gazillion times, man. Time fer a new one. I just took a ride on my ever-lovin’ Shovel, and all systems are GO! Good to hear that magnificent bellow from her repaired exhaust, again. I hope all of you are as happy as I am, at this moment! Later.