La Verdadera Destreza

March 28, 2013

Attribution: Wikimedia

This is a slightly different topic for me. I’ve mostly been posting about kenjutsu, the Japanese sword art, but in fact that’s only one of several arts that I practice. Another is the Spanish rapier style La Verdadera Destreza (lit. “true art and skill” – in fact, the image at the top of the blog is my wife and I practicing this style.) A note about my background here: I was taught Destreza by a man who learned it while serving in the Army and stationed in Panama. He was taught by a Spanish expatriate living in Panama, who was taught the art in Spain. Assuming that all of this is true, I learned this as a living art, and (other than the few others who were taught by my teacher and the folks I’ve taught myself) I don’t know of anyone else who can say that.

Many people (notably the amazing Puck and Mary Curtis, with their Destreza Translation and Research Project) are attempting to reconstruct the art from the period writings. I’ve read their work, and as much of the period writings as have been translated to English (my Spanish is, shall we say, weak…or, more accurately, completely nonexistent). The principles of what they do are very much the same as what I was taught, but many of the specific techniques are different, and there’s a body of technique around my art that isn’t documented in any of the writings.

So, I thought I’d write a series of articles about Destreza as it was taught to me, for the benefit of anyone else who might be trying to learn. This first article in the series will be about the basic philosophy of Destreza, and how it differs from other similar systems; subsequent articles will look more closely at specific techniques and principles.

The central tenet of Destreza is don’t get hit. That probably seems unsurprising, but it’s actually quite different from other contemporary styles, such as the far-more-common Italian and French styles. To illustrate this, picture a simple attack-defense sequence in each style. In the Italian style, a typical version would be: attacker steps straight in and attacks; defender parries (possibly attempting to hit in a single tempo). The thing to note here is that if the defender misses his parry, he’s hit. He has no backstop.

An equivalent Spanish exchange would be: attacker (who we’re assuming to be Italian, since that’s what Destreza was primarily designed to work against) steps straight in and attacks; defender steps off line and interposes his sword, keeping his point in line but not necessarily attempting to hit in a single tempo. The body movement is the critical thing: as long as the defender gets off the line of the attack, it mostly doesn’t matter how badly he screws up his defense, he isn’t going to get hit regardless. Conversely, if he succeeds in interposing his sword, he’s safe even if he didn’t successfully get off the line in time. Of course, he’s sacrificed some time by stepping – his riposte isn’t going to be as fast as it would be if he stood still – but he’s a great deal safer.

The theory here is to build an impenetrable defense, and wait for the enemy to make a mistake. Of course, we (the Spaniards) are going to do everything possible to encourage that mistake. In particular, by moving offline, we force the enemy to turn to address us, which Italian and French fencers aren’t necessarily used to doing; if there’s a fractional hesitation before they can reestablish the line, we have our opening.

Even once the opening is found, however, our attacks are carefully chosen to maintain the exit line. Given a choice, we won’t attack straight down the enemy’s sword, because if he counterattacked simultaneously we’d both get hit. Double kills are not an acceptable outcome. We’ll nearly always move away from the sword, and preferably cover the line as well to prevent it from following us. Alternatively, we can control the sword as we move in, so that we can attack without risk of being hit.

If, at any point, we feel like we’re not completely in control of the situation, we’ll abort the attack and regain our chosen distance. If an opportunity is risky, says the practitioner of Destreza (diestro), it’s not really an opportunity. We have a strong defense, time is on our side, we can wait for the next one.

This philosophy shapes everything in Destreza. Next time, we’ll look at a few specific techniques, and relate them back to the central tenets. Also, in order to describe the techniques properly we’ll have to introduce the famous Spanish fencing circle, so there will be pretty pictures (or, well, pictures, anyway) next time, I promise.


A range of ranges

September 28, 2012
European medieval print showing disarming techniques

European disarming techniques

Recently, I’ve been working on grappling techniques with the sword. This might seem like an odd thing to do – after all, you’re holding a three-foot knife, why are you grabbing your opponent? There might be quite a few answers (you’d rather not kill them, for example), but the simplest is that they’re just too close to do anything else.

There are four basic ranges in kenjutsu: thrusting range, cutting range, striking range, and grappling range.

In the first, you’re too far away to hit with anything other than a step and a tsuki, or extended thrust with the sword. While it’s certainly possible to hit with this, it only works if your opponent is disabled or seriously distracted – crossing that much distance gives him a lot of time to parry or evade.

The second range is what most people normally think of as “swordfighting range”. This is surprisingly close with a katana – if I can cut you effectively, I can just about punch you as well. In a “typical swordfight”, if such a thing existed, the combatants are darting in and out of this range. They try to just “ride the edge” so as to be close enough to move in and cut if the opportunity presents itself, while not being close enough to be cut themselves.

The third range is striking range. This happens when both people step forward at once, or when the swords engage and someone moves in. One doesn’t normally punch and kick (at least, not the extended tae kwon do-style kicks that people think of martial artists as doing) with a sword, because it puts the striking limbs in too much danger. Instead, low kicks (like a soccer kick to the shin or ankle), elbows and knees, shoulder strikes, and strikes with the tsuba, tsuka, and ha. Note that striking with the ha is different from cutting – normally, you do it with your off hand on the spine of the blade, and it’s a sharp pushing motion rather than a slash.

In the closest range, there’s nothing you can do but grapple. If, for example, my sword ends up behind your back (while the rest of me is in front of you!), I really can’t cut you effectively, and my striking options are severely limited. This might happen because you moved inside my cut, but then failed to counter effectively, leaving us body-to-body. At this point, if I simply step away, I’m likely to get cut. I need to use my body structure, my root, and my weight to disrupt you, before you do the same to me.

Obviously, one needs to learn to fight in all the ranges in order to be an effective combatant. The critical thing, though, is being able to transition from one to the next without having to “throw a switch” and change tactics. Your parried tsuki can circle directly into a kiriage (rising cut) as you step in (or your target does); when that fails to penetrate his armor, it can reverse course and become a tsuba strike while you draw his intent down with a low kick. One step through and behind him with the inside leg turns into a reaping step, using your tsuka (with your off hand reinforcing it) for leverage on his neck. All of this can be done as a single continuous movement (Musashi’s “one cut“), starting from outside combat range and ending with your opponent on the ground, your foot on his chest, and your blade at his throat.


Why to meditate

March 9, 2012
Statue of a meditating samurai

Statue at the Sengakuji Temple where the 47 Ronin are buried

Meditation brings to mind images of monks sitting on mountaintops, learning serenity and all that good stuff. Not very martial, right? So, why did many of the greatest samurai consider Zen, and specifically the practice of zazen, or Zen meditation, to be at the core of their martial training? The Zen monk Takuan Soho was an adviser to several of the greatest swordsmen of all time, including Miyomoto Musashi and Yagyu Munenori, despite having no sword training whatsoever (as far as we know, anyway). What did these men find to be of value in the practices of Zen, which are apparently so far removed from the practical day-to-day realities of life as a samurai?

It turns out that mental focus is one of the most difficult aspects of combat to master. I’ve written about intent, and the need to maintain your intent or risk losing the initiative to your opponent. The way you maintain your intent is by holding your mental focus, and not allowing yourself to be distracted – in Takuan’s terms, you don’t let your mind be “moved” by your opponent.

So, how do you learn to do that? Just like everything else, practice . Meditation is a form of practice for mental control, and like any practice, the exercise is designed specifically towards the goal you’re trying to reach. If you’re trying to learn how to jump high, you won’t get there by doing bicep curls, nor even by practicing a horse stance. If you’re trying to learn how to hold your mind immovable in the face of an opponent who’s doing his best to distract you, you practice that by holding your mind immovable in the face of more ordinary distractions first.

The style of meditation that I was taught, and that I explained in the previous post, is designed to teach you immovability. By holding your mind “still” and empty, you learn “where” thoughts come from, and how to control the deeper parts of your mind that tend to wander off on their own.

You might notice that the previous paragraph looks like gibberish. This is a hazard of talking about Zen, and about meditation in particular. There is a famous quote, which is sometimes translated as “The Way that can be spoken is not the true way.” The problem is that Zen is, by its nature, dealing with things outside the normal scope of language, which makes it very difficult to talk about coherently. All I can say is, practice, and you’ll understand.

The goal of the effort is the ability to hold your mind motionless in the face of distractions – to avoid “attachment”. When your opponent raises his sword, if your attention goes to the sword, your mind has become attached to it. In particular, if he then kicks you in the shin, you won’t see it coming, because your attention has raised with his sword. If there’s a cut on your arm and your attention is taken up with the pain and the blood flowing into your hand, you’re attached to that, and you won’t react as fast when something external happens – like another attack. If you initiate an attack and you’ve committed your mind to it, you’re attached to your own motion, and you won’t be able to flow with changing circumstances – like a parry.

By holding your mind immobile, you gain a “vantage point” from which you can observe the entire situation objectively. Your opponent raises his sword – OK, he’s raised his sword. Is there any implication to that? It changes his possible actions and reactions, but it doesn’t necessarily call for any immediate response on your part. When you start your own motion, you can be aware not only of what you’re doing, but what your opponent is doing in response, and at every moment you can choose the optimal action within the current situation.

This is what I’ve referred to as “effortless awareness”. Being aware of lots of things that are changing rapidly takes effort, because you’re moving your mind back and forth between them. It’s the difference between watching a crowd of people from the middle of the crowd, and watching from a balcony where you can see everything at once. The trick is to not let yourself leap off the balcony as soon as something unexpected happens, and that’s where the practice comes in.

As a “side benefit”, from the martial perspective, meditation has been shown experimentally to have significant benefits on mood, attention, and stress levels. I can say from personal experience that meditation definitely improves my mood, and the improvement lasts for several days even if I don’t continue meditating.

Bottom line, the mind requires training at least as much as the body. People focus on the external, visible aspects of the art, but in so doing they neglect the internal aspects. Ultimately, while physical skill and strength are important, the mind is what determines the outcome of an encounter.



September 2, 2011
Woman meditating on a beach

Photo by Kukhahn Yoga

I occasionally get asked how one goes about meditating, so I thought I’d write it down in case it’s useful for someone. First, understand that there’s no “correct” way to meditate. There are lots of approaches, and more than one possible goal that you might be trying to achieve. The style of meditation that I was taught is oriented towards mokuso, or clearing one’s mind before practice, but it works equally well when used as zazen, seated meditation for the purpose of calming, centering, and expanding the mind.

Before I get into details, I have to make a disclaimer. They say “the zen that can be spoken is not zen”, and it’s true. What that means is that a lot of this stuff is not amenable to verbal description – it’s hard to put a state of mind into words. I’ll do my best, but if it occasionally sounds like gibberish, I apologize.

The technique, as I was taught, is to sit in a centered position (more on that in a bit). Just that, and nothing more. That’s a whole hell of a lot harder than it sounds, however. You’re not sitting and thinking, not sitting and breathing (consciously), not trying to adjust your position so your back doesn’t hurt, and most specifically not worrying about whether you’re doing it correctly.

If you just try this, you won’t get very far. So, instead, there’s a series of steps you can go through in order to work up to “just sitting”. The idea is to give your mind something to focus on so that you don’t have to try to quiet it entirely. You can really use anything, but the classic technique is to concentrate on your breathing. The easy way to focus your mind on your breathing is to count breaths. Since you don’t want to “go anywhere” with this, you’re going to count one to ten and then start over. At first, you count both inhales and exhales, so (in) 1, (out) 2, (in) 3…

Eventually, as your mind quiets, you can try counting just the exhales. This is harder, because the numbers are farther apart, so there’s more time for your mind to wander off and do something else. Note that “eventually” here might mean months – this stuff takes time, and there’s no way to rush it. When the counting starts feeling like a distraction, stop, and just let your mind “hover”. Done correctly, it feels like you’re the still point in the middle of everything.

Inevitably, thoughts will arise in your mind. Don’t fight them, because this just makes you cling all the harder. You can get rid of the thoughts this way, but you can’t get rid of the thought “I shouldn’t be thinking”. Just let the thoughts drift away on their own. Pay attention to where they’re coming from, and where they’re going, but don’t try to hold on to them. See what I meant earlier about gibberish? It will make sense when it makes sense, and until then it won’t. Don’t worry about it.

Some technical details: first, the sitting position. The important thing is that your breathing is unimpeded. The classical position is the lotus, but most people (most definitely including me) aren’t flexible enough to reach that position. I personally sit in seiza to do my meditation, but since I find that I get distracted when my feet fall asleep, I put a buckwheat cushion under my butt to keep my weight off my ankles. They still fall asleep, but it takes longer. The “tailor-style” cross-legged position can work if you’re flexible enough that you don’t have to work to keep your back straight. Another option is the Burmese position – see http://www.mro.org/zmm/teachings/meditation.php for nice images (and also another set of instructions that might complement these). Finally, it’s possible to meditate in a chair, but it’s difficult to find a chair that won’t compress your diaphragm and hinder your breathing.

Most people will tell you to close your eyes while meditating. I was taught to meditate with my eyes open, and I find that it helps a great deal, especially for martial artists. The idea is that if you close your eyes, you tend to focus inward, and that’s not what we’re trying to achieve. As a martial artist, my goal is to be able to get to a state where I’m effortlessly aware of everything around me, and can spontaneously react (from my training) appropriately. That requires that I focus outwards, which in turn means my eyes must be open. Also, and more practically, there’s much less chance of falling asleep if you keep your eyes open.

Hopefully this will be of use to someone. If you want to practice meditation seriously, I strongly recommend that you find a teacher. There are many “false paths” that one can follow, and it’s possible to waste a lot of time working on something that won’t actually get you any farther down the Way. Good luck!

Coming soon…why to meditate.


The Elements

August 31, 2011
Depiction of the four elements

Photo by Dskley

Musashi names the sections of his book after the Greek elements of earth, air, fire, and water, plus a fifth which he names “void”. He clearly has meanings in mind based on the techniques he describes in each section, but he never directly explains what he means by these elements. I’ve given this some thought, and I find that it’s a useful framework for describing combat strategies, so I thought I’d lay out my understanding of the elements here.

First, “earth”. Earth is solid, stable, unchanging. An “earth” strategy establishes a position and holds it. It advances slowly but steadily, and does not allow itself to be diverted or balked. In terms of combat, an “earth” fighter relies on powerful structure, good root, and linear attacks. He uses interception and deflection to defend himself, but does not allow his movement to be dictated by events – instead, from his strong center, he forces his opponent to adapt to his own motion. An “earth” fighter will tend to counter-striking, strong blocks, and powerful body strikes. This style is normally taught first, because it is conceptually simple and requires the least subtlety of the elements, though there is certainly plenty of room for subtlety in its execution.

Second is “water”. Water flows, adapts, is never still. It resists, but yields. A “water” fighter moves a great deal, usually off-line, but always with forward intent. He rarely uses blocks – instead, he will redirect the opponent’s power and move into the space. Any suki (gaps) are immediately occupied, and the opponent finds himself unable to relieve the pressure being applied. “Water” fighters tend towards deflections, infighting, and grappling. This style, done properly, is one of the most difficult for an opponent to deal with, since it prevents the opponent from exerting his own power while still applying continuous offensive pressure.

The third element is “fire”. Fire burns – it cannot be touched without harm. It grows and spreads, and is difficult to contain or control. A “fire” fighter focuses on offense, and forms his defense from it. He will use stop-hits and interruptions in timing, and will frequently move off-line, but always attacks. The opponent finds that any movement is instantly countered with an attack, and escape is impossible.

The last of the Greek elements is “air”. Air is ethereal, intangible, invisible. An “air” fighter evades, retreats, and circles. Footwork is central – the primary goal is to establish a position from which he can strike safely and surely. Infighting is very rare; most combat is done at extreme range, and most strikes are aimed at the hands or even the weapon. Only when the opponent is helpless, out of position, off-balance, does the “air” fighter move in for the kill. Perception and control of the opponent’s intent and attention is key.

To the standard four elements, Musashi adds a fifth, “void”. His description of “void” is opaque, even for him (from the Victor Harris translation):

What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing. It is not included in man’s knowledge. Of course the void is nothingness. By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.

My understanding of this is that “void” is the absence of attachment, in the Zen sense. By releasing attachment to any of the four elements, one can flow from one to another freely, as conditions demand. Starting with “earth”, one might become “air” momentarily to evade an attack and establish a superior position, move to “water” to counter the opponent’s reaction, then attack with “fire”. The elements become aspects of a larger strategy, rather than strategies in and of themselves.

In this way, the fighter can be unpredictable and adaptive, instantly adopting the ideal solution for any situation. This is obviously an unattainable ideal, but it serves as a polestar to guide us along the Way. Using the elements as milestones, one can gauge one’s progress towards the void.


One cut

January 19, 2011

by .Mitch

There’s a famous quote from Musashi Miyamoto’s Book of Five Rings:

You can win with certainity with the spirit of “one cut”. It is difficult to attain this if you do not learn strategy well. If you train well in this Way, strategy will come from your heart and you will be able to win at will. You must train diligently.

So, the question is, what does that mean? What is “one cut”? I asked my Sensei, and he gave me his interpretation, which I now give to you, filtered through my understanding (which is to say, any errors are mine and not his!)

“One cut” means continuity of intent, continuity of action. You don’t stop your intent in the middle of a cut. You don’t change your mind, decide to do something else. You cut; if the circumstances change, you do something else, but the cut occurred. The spirit of “one cut” means treating all your actions as if they were a single cut, with no breaks in intent. Your intent flows smoothly from one action into the next, with no suki (gaps or disconnections). There’s never a point where you can be interrupted, rerouted, distracted.

According to Sensei, “one cut” doesn’t refer to a particular sequence of motions. It doesn’t refer to a single opponent, or a single fight. Your “one cut” starts when you wake up in the morning, and doesn’t end until you go to sleep. In this way, your entire life flows smoothly; if a fight should occur, it’s just part of the flow, to be dealt with in the same intent as any other obstacle.

I’m not accomplished enough to say that I truly understand this. However, it seems to be related to the Zen concept of spontaneity; if you can truly avoid attachment, then all your actions will flow directly from your immediate context, and therefore will always be correct for their circumstances. Errors arise from incorrect perceptions, “illusions” – if you always see what you’re looking at, you’ll never delude yourself into seeing something else, so your actions will always suit the situation. This is what Musashi refers to when he says “strategy will come from your heart.” (Disclaimer: my grasp of Zen is rudimentary – if that sounds like gibberish, more so than Zen normally does, it probably is.)

“One cut” is, indeed, a formidable strategy, and one that is “difficult to attain”. The only mechanism I know of to achieve it is consistent training with focus, and meditation. Proper focus is almost impossible to maintain in a class setting, since you’re always having to stop what you’re doing to follow the sensei’s instructions, which makes solitary practice even more necessary. One more New Year’s resolution for you…and for me.


The “Oh God, I suck” moment

October 4, 2010

by .Mitch

Everybody’s experienced this. The moment where you say, “oh God, I really suck at this”. Maybe you’ve just screwed up some technique that you’ve done perfectly a thousand times, or some newbie has just kicked your ass in a “light spar”. Maybe you’re working on something new, and you just can’t get your head around it. The thing you have to realize, though, is that more often than not, this moment is a good thing!

OK, yes, sometimes maybe you really do suck at whatever it is. But even assuming that’s true, do you think that you didn’t suck at it yesterday, or last week? Have your skills suddenly  taken a severe decline? Probably not. What’s happened is that your standards have gone up. Yesterday, you were just as lousy, but you didn’t know it. You felt good about yourself. Today, you don’t, and that’s what’s going to help you improve. You can’t get better if you can’t tell what you’re doing wrong, and if you think you’re doing well, obviously you can’t see what you’re doing wrong (and trust me, you’re definitely doing something wrong!) As soon as you realize just how bad you truly are, suddenly you have the opportunity to get better.

If you just get discouraged and go work on something else, you’ve thrown away a golden chance. By doing that, you’ve just moved from the thing that you can improve in, to something where you still can’t see where the problems are, which is to say something that isn’t going to get better with work. Seek out those “I suck” moments, and treasure them! They’re the best thing that can happen to you.