In which some good stuff happens

bja license

What you are looking at is a tiny bundle of paper that confirms me as a fully licensed adult member of the British Judo Association. Why is this a good thing? Two reasons really.

  • Mainly it allows me to participate in judo competitions. Since all of these have to be sanctioned by the BJA, I can’t compete unless I am registered with them. I want to compete. At this stage in my development I think it is a very necessary learning tool. Maybe sometime I’ll explain what I mean by that. Plus throwing people is fun.
  • Less importantly it allows me to continue to test for grades and go up the officially sanctioned ladder. For the most part I have tended to have little respect for the concept of grades in martial arts, or in most areas for that matter, but I still think it is useful in this case.

On the subject of grading, I officially have my yellow belt, which means I have moved from a state of officially knowing nothing to a state of thinking I know a little while still knowing nothing. Still, a closet full of brightly colored sashes can’t hurt any.

Either way, as usual I am just trying to enjoy the process and learn something. Especially since it is becoming increasingly clear how much I don’t know.

“Ghana only likes football”

This was a comment made by one of the seniors at the judo class I am training with on my second day out. We were discussing sports and martial arts in general and he started to talk about how difficult it is to get any kind of funding for any sport that doesn’t involve grown men kicking around a small plastic ball.

In the time I’ve been here, I’ve become aware of how well individual Ghanaians do in other sports besides football. We have a weightlifting team that won gold at Last year’s commonwealth games but were unable to compete in the Olympic qualifiers because they couldn’t get transit visas through the USA. We apparently also have one of the best cricket teams in West Africa, the fastest female sprinter in Africa, one of the longest jumpers and martial arts teams in Judo, Karate and Tae Kwon Do that are known for being very good at what they do. On the boxing front we have a very good amateur squad and have produced several world champions. I’m now starting to hear about a Rugby team too.

The problem? Publicity and money, both government and private, seems to be aimed purely at football. The club I train with field a large part of the national Judo team. They have won several medals in the past and are currently in training for the All Africa Games happening in Algeirs in July. With almost no sponsorship at all.

They all work full time and train daily out of a classroom/eating area in the Prison Officers training grounds. Sometimes while the trainee officers are eating. At this point they should already be off in a training camp sharpening up their skills under the eye of coaches, nutritionists and physical therapists. They aren’t even sure how much funding they will have to make the trip. And yet they will train religiously for the love of the sport and because they believe in giving their all. Honestly, I will be surprised if this is any different for a host of other sports in this country.

Still, the degree to which we seem to ignore or undervalue immense athletic talent in this country seems to mirror how much we ignore our intellectual talent as well. Its sad and more than a bit infuriating how little we seem to value this stuff.

In which I return to the world of hitting and throwing people

Today was my second Saturday at a makeshift Judo training hall in a classroom at the Prison Officers Training Center in Accra. It would have been my third but I missed last week because of the competition. Ghana has a tiny but pretty active community in certain martial arts. Most notably Judo, Tae Kwon Do and Karate. Since I’d always wanted to learn judo and had recently had my interest stoked by seeing Johnny To’s Throw Down(great movie by a great director btw) I was pretty interested in finding a school.

Luckily for me an old friend(ok, at one point a bit more than that) was in town after Christmas and happened to know someone who trained with this particular club. Hence, I got the phone number of the coach and showed up at the club.

In continuing with my recent run of amazing luck, I ended up at the school run by Ghana’s national coach and containing a  bunch of the guys who make up the national team which recently competed in Mauritius. These guys are far from amateurs. They are very athletic and very skilled. The coach drives everyone hard and classes are physically exhausting even to those who have been with the school for over a decade. By the time they are done with me my general strength and fitness will be levels above what they are now. And I’m having a blast.

For some reason I tend to enjoy situations where I am thrown head first into huge challenges. I guess I like the opportunity to grow and learn more about me. Plus I’ve always been a fan of Martial arts and hard training. Both of which I am definitely getting here. For now I’m starting at the bottom, learning the break falls and school traditions. The akido experience definitely helps here. Plus I’ve been the junior student more than once. The standard protocol never really changes. Work hard, learn, be polite to seniors. Not really excessive for someone born into typical Ghanaian large family politics.

I’ll keep you updated about how thatworks out, but for now its great to be back in that environment again. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

Pushing hands (video)

I thought the martial arts enthusiasts who read this might enjoy this video. Its me competing in push hands at a kung fu tournament in Ohio about three years ago. I’m the smaller of the two people in the video.

For that particular tournament the push hands division had no experience limits and I was 2 pounds above the cutoff for the heavyweight class. Which meant that I was the lightest and least experienced competitor in my division. I think I did ok, it could have been better though.

Anyway, one of my training buddies sent me the link and I thought it might make for interesting viewing.

For those of you wondering what push hands is, in its noncompetitive form it is a training tool used in the Chinese internal martial arts, most famously tai chi, to teach sensitivity to force being applied by your opponent and weaknesses in their structure. In its competitive form you use this sensitivity to manipulate your opponent outside of a marked area, usually a circle, for points.

That’s how I was taught to think about it anyway. People might disagree.

Comments are welcome by all.

Edit: looks like whoever put up the video took it down.
I’ll see if I can get a copy

On: politics, sectarianism and ego in the martial arts

I was relatively lucky in the beginning of my martial arts experience. For the most part everyone’s focus was simply on training, getting better and having fun while doing it. We only had a little friction we had with the local karate club, mostly because their teaching style was supremely horrible (their yellow belt test still gives me nightmares)

Post college though, I entered the world of the Chinese martial arts and things changed. While I generally managed to end up with people on the periphery of all the drama, I also saw enough, and spent enough time hearing stories from people who had been training for far longer than me to realize how much ego gets tangled up in the martial arts.

Among the things I’ve personally seen of heard about:

People creating their own style/organization to give themselves a higher rank

Teachers spreading rumors about each other

Teachers within a style poaching good students from each other

Talented martial artists purposely teaching students the wrong thing for money

Teachers who get offended at the thought of a student learning something from an outside source

Lineage wars (who trained with who and where and for how long)

I could tell you a couple of stories to cover each of those, and I’m still an amateur. I shudder to think of the kind of stories the more experienced martial artists who read this blog could come up with. Its sad really.

Initially I thought this was an issue that was particular to the Chinese arts but as time went on I realized that they seem to be tied into the arts in general, unfortunately. For reasons that probably lie somewhere between ego and greed a lot of people seem to stray in focus from the core idea of training to make themselves better, or teaching to make their students better, and focus on other, more destructive, things instead.

Here’s to hoping I never become one of them

Day Two: Kwasi’s martial arts past (part 2)

When we left off, I had just given up on the Aikido club since it became the refuge of people who either wanted to play at being Japanese (asiaphiles, really sad people) or just wanted to sound cool by telling people they were learning Aikido. Both groups were experts at whining over the least bit of discomfort and so they gradually sucked out any semblance of hard training from the group so a bunch of us left.

It just so happened that around this time, a little group calling itself OMAI (Oberlin Martial Arts Initiative, horrible name I know) was looking for new members. It was more of a free sharing space where people from dozens of different backgrounds hung out, trained together and taught each other stuff. I’ll call the two guys who ran the group poser and sifu. Poser was just that, the worst example of a martial arts poser I have ever met. Imagine someone who’d read hundreds of books and gone to a few seminars but had no real steady experience outside of a couple of barfights acting as though he was an expert and you’ll have a good idea. Basically Mushtaq minus all his life experiences and everything else that makes him interesting. Sifu, on the other hand, is the real deal. When I met him, he was a black belt in American kempo, a senior student at a close by kajukenbo school and had years of misc. training in longfist and excrima(his mother’s family is Filipino). As of now, He’s a second dan in kenpo, first in kajukenbo, a BJJ blue belt and just opened up a school in a suburb outside New Your City. I apparently have free sparring priviledges any time I want to pass by.

Among the people who trained there were the aikido refugees, refugees from the karate club and people with backgrounds in japanese and brazillian jujitsu, hung gar, tai chi, wing chin, jkd concepts, hapkido and muay thai. We worked lots of basics, learned some forms and spent a air amount of time sparring under several different rulesets. Everything from grappling to sticks to rubber knives to clinch work. It was hard and sometimes brutal but great fun. Eventually we got rid of poser and the club lost a couple of less motivated people, which was fine with the rest of us. I stuck with them for the rest of my college years. Some people came and went but it remained a pretty solid group where i learned a lot. In that time, we had a fairly well known capoiera teacher come through and then a brazillian foreign exchange student who had been training since childhood so I took the opportunity to pick up a decent amount of both capoera regional and angola. I plan to get back to it some day.

After college I was inactive for a while then I moved to NJ to live with my brother, look for a job and decide what I wanted to do with my life. There, by a weird turn of events I ended up studying dachengquan, northern mantis and hsing-yi with the teacher I am currently returning to. His main focus was on breath and alignment so we spent hours in standing and moving meditation. In his opinion, what separated styles were differences in ‘flavor’ and combat philosophy. The ability to remain calm, maintain proper alignment and generate power through intergrating breath and movement was the true skill to aim for regardless of the style you practiced. His methods seemed to work for me, so I see no reason not to stick to them for now.

Anyway, I ended up going back to Cleveland for a year during which time all sorts of weird stuff happened in the family and I hit a brick wall with regards to training and school. Now I’m slowly getting back into the game. As far as objectives go, I want to learn as much as I can and get better control of my body and mind. Plus I really want to get in more competition practice while I’m still young enough so getting banged up is not an issue. Now that Mushtaq is relatively close, I might drive or take the train up that way sometime so he can toss me around a little. I’m also paying close attention so Scott Sonnon’s work since people I hold in high regard hold him in high regard.

I’ll probably talk about specific training in my fitness post coming sometime this week.

Day one: Kwasi’s history with the Martial arts (Part 1)

The post that plunged me into full scale writer’s block. This is going to involve parts of my childhood which weren’t necessarily pleasant, hence the reason I have been finding any and all reasons not to post on it. Its a good thing I told people it was coming, otherwise I’d duck it today too. The story starts from waay before I ever began seriously training. I could skip ahead, but then you’d be missing a large chunk of the story and the stuff in my head I’m trying to flush out, which is one of the purposes of this blog.

This story starts with me entering junior secondary school (junior high for the Americans). I skipped two classes in primary school so I was probably one of the smallest kids in an incoming class of about 300 people, and I was one of the smarter kids too, which really didn’t help things. Suffice it to say that bu the time my three years were up, I had learned how to run, take a punch and keep my mouth shut. By the time I left I had made enough bigger friends so people left me alone. I had also learned a very important lesson. It doesn’t matter if you are the more rational or the one with better ideas if the other guy can still just beat you up. Pacifism is nice but it only works if everyone does it. In the real world, some people choose to be predators and unless you have the means to fight them off, you always run the risk of being prey. Therefore, for me, one of the purposes of all my MA training has always been effectiveness.

From junior high I tested into a fairly exclusive private secondary school. Switching educational systems dropped me back a year so I was closer in age to my peers, though still the youngest. Since puberty kicked in late for me, I was still one of the smaller people and still one of the smarter ones, so the cycle repeated itself. At that point I was also really physically and socially awkward. I barely had enough confidence to look anyone in the face, which didn’t help matters any. Things got better, I found friends. learned how to avoid most of those who didn’t like me and just blend in. Puberty hit, I shot up a couple of inches and got tired of being a target. I started reading every thing I could on martial arts and exercising like crazy. In my last year there, one of my tormentors caught me on a bad day, I lost it and slammed him into a concrete post. Not particularly something I’m proud of, but it got me some peace once people realized I was strong enough to fight back. I got tested a couple of more times but generally people started to let me be.

The insecurity and anger from those days is something I still carry around these days. The reason I wanted to learn martial arts was partly some kind of Charles Atlas type fantasy of being able to confront my tormentors and beat the crap out of them. In my head I knew that was the wrong attitude to have but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a part of me wanted an excuse to be violent, preferably in defence of myself or someone else, so I wouldn’t feel as weak or as frail. Somewhere inside me there’s still a little kid scared of the bigger people around him and looking for a reason to lash out. In someways I’ve gotten past that need, in other ways I haven’t.

So, what did I actually study? Well, in college it started with Aikido. I suspect one of the reasons I started there was my better nature looking for a less outwardly violent way to deal with my fears. Either that or Steven Segal movies. In the winter term of my freshman year I was signed up for two 2 hour classes a day, six days a week. Oberlin has a pretty old club that is affiliated with the Cleveland Aikikai, which was ironically founded by Oberlin alumni. That winter they were hosting a travelling sensei whose name I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember. He was my first real teacher. His focus was heavily on basics. Hundreds of rolls and falls daily and long hours of randori where he stressed moving from your center, remaining mobile at all times and ‘blending’ with your opponents force. He was also pretty open to the use of atemi as set ups for throws and locks. It was long hours of fairly intense work and I loved it. After winter term he moved on and was replaced by a series of instructors from Cleveland or the school club. The quality of training fell quickly as the club became more and more accomodating of people who wanted to say they were doing aikido without actually doing any hard work. I pretty much left the club at this point. I continued to train with them on and off because I was friends with those in charge, but it got too ‘nice’ for me.

Part 2 of the story tomorrow kids, plus a special post on one of my favourite topics, Beer