Monday, December 13, 2010

The Role of Community in Martial Arts and Yoga

Recently I had the priveledge of moving with people I knew from BOTH martial arts and yoga. This gave me thought about the way that mind-body practitioners work to build community. In fact, it is a critical part of both practices.


Do you remember when you got your first car? The thrill of independance? Your sudden ability to go so many places with no help, even take others? Driving is one of the greatest times for independance. For all it's hassles, I love getting behind the wheel of a car. I feel so in control, moving this vehicle around at high speeds.

But on this moving day day I found myself backing a U-Haul truck and totally dependent. You need someone to stand behind your truck and guide you back. At first I found myself trying to look around for myself, but it is hopeless. You cannot drive and see behind the truck. So the best thing to do is to rely almost entirely on the person backing you up; in fact, you have to be totally dependant on their ability to guide you. So suddenly, something you have to depend on others for something you have done a long time without help.

Off the Mat: How Mind-Body Practice Builds community

Now consider the application to martial arts and yoga. Our practice is largely our own, but true parcticitioners of these mind body arts realize that they are practicing within a community. That is one of the reasons teachers are so venerated. The Kula and the Dojang rely on constant development of community and helping each other. This is one reason why I like it so much more than a gym, or other form of exercise.

Training on the Mat for Off the Mat Community

Sure there is a comradarie in many activities, but yoga and martial arts incorporate the building of trust within almost every lesson. From the opening call for brotherhood in a Tukong Moosul class to the closing Om of yoga, one is reminded that your practice is part of a whole.
  • The martial artist must trust that the person who is working with you on self defense will have the judgement not to punch you. I remember my sparring partner messing up and feeling his wiskers as I pulled a punch to his jaw. It is an almost daily occourance that someone comes at you with a crippling blow, then stops short before impact. Without this trust one could never develop a high level of skill; you have to get a feel for the human body.
  • Yoga is kind of different. Although sometimes you get help with a pose, it is very rare that a yogi risks serious injury if their partner fails. However, there is some kind of nurturing love built from the sensitivity of the practice. Yogi's in a group are very much aware of each others practice. Even the notoriously cold Ashtangi's can tell you all about someone else in their class. Yoga also draws out a personality from the practitioner.
On a personal note, I have to say that martial arts was a much more practical training for the task of backing a truck. My martial arts brother and I were very used to cueing each other, and working out the best way to do things. This is born of trying to figure out how to train in combat exercises, or even line people up for sword practice. Yogi's on the other hand just pretty much practice on their own. What you do doesn't really effect your neighbor on the mat beside you. But for both, the trust was 100% there.

Not an Option

I believe it is no coincedence that these two arts emphasize community. At their core they are both about living life in a full and meaningful way. From the earliest days of mankind we have realized that this means depending on each other.
You get a lot of power from the practice of a mind/body art. One might be tempted to think they don't need others. Private practice is indeed encouraged. But in the end, the highest aspiration of most practitioners is to teach others, to build on the art and move it forward. This goal cannot be achieved alone. If you wish to progress, you must depend and be dependant on your community.
So if you are a serious practitioner of Martial Arts and Yoga realize that community is not an option. In fact, is there any human endevour where this is not true? Sure one can drive a Nissan Maxima with no help, but some things, like backing up a truck cannot be done without help.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Odyssey of YogOdysseus


YogOdysseus woke up on the morning of the day of Labors with a feeling of anxiety brought about by deeply disturbing dreams of car wrecks and social shame. These anxiety attacks are not, per se, part of the Odyssey that soon ensued, but an important fact about our hero. For he wakes up many mornings with these feelings which he buries under the mask of wit and strength.

This day however was unusual for YogOdysseus had decided to embark on an Odyssey to far away yoga studios. The previous day he had celebrated the day of free yoga opening ceremony where he practiced in the shady courtyard of the Whole Foods terrace. Surrounded by the Yogis of his homeland he was astounded at the beauty of forms and the wonder of practicing on the cool stone with the high billowing clouds. Focusing on a far away airplane in tree pose, or the beauty of expression that enfolded.


This morning YogOdysseus set out to a place south of Austin near the edge of his homeland. He passed over the Barton Creek basin through mists of the morning rain and into territory where pickups and men with red necks is more common. There in the hill country he was astounded to see a four story spire rising from the base of a Hindu temple. Peaceful people from the area gave him a ride on a golf cart from the temple to a spacious yoga studio nearby. On the golf cart ride over the lady informed me that the temple and the Barsana Dham Ancient Yoga Center had been built in four years, from concept to reality.

YogOdysseus was greeted by two of his classmates, tall amazon warriors who radiated joy from across the room which was filled with strangers with varying levels of expertise. He began his practice and felt his morning anxiety drift away and the mask soon became reality as asana worked it’s magic.

YogOdysseus was particularly impressed with a man who had never done yoga. His postures were all crooked, his leg was unaligned…yet the man had a smile and ease that takes some people a lifetime to acquire.

After practice he met and talked with Chris Dionsi, the teacher. One of the amazons amazed them all by shooting golden light from her chest. Following this beacon they explored the grounds, the pond, the playful Krishna frescos and the open arena which is great for practice of martial arts and yoga.


YogOdysseus departed the temple and headed back into town dining on nuts and lembas. Parking at Whole Foods he walked through the HOT Texas sun to Black Swan Yoga. He was greeted by his one time teacher and all time friend who engaged in an intense “sweaty Yoga” class . The sirens of Black Swan yoga practice a fiery form of Asana. The room quickly heated as sun salutations turned to intense thigh burning lunges and balance postures. Heat from the vents buffeted the pair of practitioners moved through each move, dripping sweat, brushing on sun salutations and loving every moment of life.


After practice YogOdysseus and his companion walked through the REFRESHING Texas weather to have a bittersweet smoothie and bond in Kula Yogic Gossipy Soul Sharing. They then journeyed to Seva Yoga. As he gazed across the parking lot he was already struck by the diversity of studios and styles. From the exotic temple hatha, to the Indie minimilism hot yoga and now a classic Austin strip mall containing a simple giant room with cool tile. The Twila began a restoritive Hatha flow. There could not have been a greater contrast to the Sweaty Hot Black Yoga where the warmup was sun salutations in a hundred degree room. After a few smooth arm rotations from a seated position the teacher announced “OK, the hard part is over”. We layed back on the floor and gently rotated our hips in gentle hip openers and twists.


YogOdysseus then set out to Casa De Luz where there was a Stomp Yoga planned. Upon arrival he discovered there was no stomping, and that the yoga teacher was “running late”. Taking advantage of this interlude he had two bowls of the Casa’s legendary biotic soup which invigorated him greatly.

He joined a group of practitioners who sat bewildered in the kitchen, when a flustered teacher bounced into the room. After a few moments of confusion about rooms, class and other things, she sat down in a state of dishevelment and began to explain how hers was the “traditional” yoga with many benefits to mind and body. She then had the class sign waivers and embarked upon very simple practice suitable for someone undergoing triple bypass surgery. What the waiver was for remains a mystery forYogOdysseus was in more danger from the bittersweet smoothie than this practice. Although it did test his compassion and patience. YogOdysseus put his best face forward, but inside was deeply disappointed at the lack of stomping and yearned to “connect, stretch and laugh” as was advertised.


He was soon to be redeemed however as he made his way to the Co Op of Love and Yoga to practice a late night Kirtan class with a group of hippy looking smiling people. Their chants filled the night air with bliss and harmony. This studio, the only one YogOdysseus had been to previously, was cozy and intimate and beamed with the power of love and harmony.

As he stepped out into the moonlight, he gazed through the darkness at the courtyard. A giant tree whose roots run deep give the area a pranic feel that made YogOdysseus long to practice and teach Tai Chi beneath it.

He headed home, gazing occasionally at the starlit clouds that were thickening. Perhaps the next morning he would awaken refreshed, or yet again find the fear of life which we all experience. Yet today had made him stronger, happier and at that moment, he knew….peace.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What is an "Advanced" Practice

The other day I was with some fellow yoga practitioners and one said she didn't want to go to the advanced class because she couldn't do a handstand yet. Coincidentally I had just had a conversation with the advanced class teacher. She had told me quite clearly that I was welcome even though I wasn't "there yet" with handstands (which I can't do). The whole thing got me thinking about what constitutes and advanced practitioner of yoga or martial arts.

Mastery - The first thing I should do is distinguish advanced vs. mastery. There are people who practice mind-body exercises every day for hours. These people, with the right combination of talent, skill and instruction reach a phenomenal stage of achievement. When I use the term advanced, I am not talking about these professors of martial arts and yoga. My use is more akin to someone moving up in elementary school (more on this later.) For the purposes of this article, I am talking about someone who operates in this modern world and practices mind-body exercises on a regular basis.

So in our culture, what constitutes an advanced student?

Not Ability to...- In yoga advanced is not reflected in your ability to achieve a certain posture. If it were, then 16 year old gymnasts would be the best yogis. Similarly, your ability to break boards or beat people does not distinguish you as an advanced martial artists. There are people who can do both that I would characterize as macho men, street thugs or just tough...but not advanced martial artists.

Sure an advanced martial artists are powerful warriors, and an advanced yogi can do things many can not. However, I believe these abilities are a reflection of their advanced state, not the reason they are advanced. The ability to... is the fruit of practice, but not what defines the tree that is the practitioner.

The qualities I believe constitute an advanced student are:
  • knowledge of self
  • low injury rate
  • unstoppable
  • self assured
  • humble
  • open minded

An advanced student may have a rank in a school, or a certificate on the wall, but in the end, each of us must decide, for ourselves and others, what advanced is.

Knowledge of self - an advanced practitioner knows exactly what she can do, and is constantly pushing that ability. They know how to walk right up to the edge. A Yogini will twist her outer leg in Pigeon Pose until her IT band burns. But she will not harm her knee. She knows her edge, and she pushes it. A martial artist will block with the bone 100 times until his forearms are bruised, and little micro-fractures form to toughen the forearm. But if the wrist tendons are in danger he will back off, putting his ego in check so he can advance.

Low Injury Rate - Closely related to knowledge of one's self is a low injury rate. I see new people come into a martial arts or yoga class and "go for it". They push themselves hard, ready to quickly master something. If they feel that tweak in their knee they tough it out. They make no allowance for swollen toes, full stomach, lack of sleep or any other impairment. Consequently they get hurt, sometimes seriously, and never come back. In martial arts these people are especially dangerous because they are reckless and can hurt others. If you see these wreckless practioners in a martial arts class be very careful doing two person exercises.

Unstoppable - One of my teachers told a story of a woman who was in the black belt club. While most black belts, regardless of size were kicking the hell out of targets, her kicks were...moderate. She was slow in form, and a little wobbly in her balance. Not at all what one would see in most black belts. Even her Keeyap was funny. But my teacher learned later that she had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, and that the doctors had said she would be disabled at best. We all agreed she was the best black belt on the floor. I see this all the time. People with cancer, in their 80's, children, and people who decide for the first time in their life to exercise--this unstoppable fire is a thing of beauty.

Self Assured - I am just starting to teach and find that nothing can be more humbling. At first I was flustered when I made a mistake, and terrified of teaching something wrong. What if I made a fool of myself in front of these talented students? But as I watched I saw that even good teachers made mistakes. In fact, they constantly made tiny little errors in their teaching or motions. But they recover and continue. In testing we tell people not to show frustration if you mess up. Either continue or ask to start again, but don't groan, make a face and throw a mini tantrum. In yoga I see those people holding their breath, grunting and groaning and looking around to compare themselves to the rest of class. Advanced students may look, but they are always in a place of calm self assurance.

Humility - when we practice martial arts and yoga we undertake the study of some very complex systems that have been developed over thousands of years. The people I know haven't lived their lives in an Asian temple, practicing morning noon and night since childhood. And even those who do will attest there is still much to learn.

At one point in my practice I realized that I there was so much to know. I had learned the basics of hundreds of techniques, postures, principles, over years of practice. And I yet I still find things to correct in my long stance. As you get more advanced, you are adding to a bigger and bigger list of things you can't do. It is overwhelming, and humbling.

Intermediate students often make the mistake of thinking they know something a teacher is showing them. You will hear them correcting other students, even arguing with the teacher about the "right way" to do something. They have learned enough to know the basic technique, but not enough to see subtle variations.

Beware of overly proud intermediates; they may have certificates, trophies and awards, but if you are not careful they will waste your precious practice time. I advise listening to them, but don't let someone who is "in the teacher training" be the final word in your practice.

Intermediate students are easily recognizable. They are accomplished and able in their practice. Sometimes an advanced student is indistinguishable from a beginner. Think of the classic martial arts movie where the maintenance man is a master of Karate, or Guru who looks like a beggar. An intermediate student will list their accomplishments. They take offense when someone tries to show them something; an advanced student smiles and listens, tries it out and moves forward.

note: I am not pointing fingers...very few people skip this stage of development, and most of us cycle through it repeatedly as we advance. An advanced student will recognize this attitude in themselves and correct it.

The Open Mind - so the open mind is, in my thinking, the most important quality of an advanced student. Despite an advanced students many accomplishments and wealth of knowledge, they realize how little they know, and eagerly approach each new lesson with a beginners mind. This is why an advanced martial artist can adapt to a variety of fighting styles. It is why they are hard to trick, they see things as they are, not as a repetition of something they have seen before. Advanced mind-body students are able to learn under any circumstance. I knew a student who came from a bad teacher. My teacher confided in me his amazement: "When I saw that teacher practicing Tai Chi, I couldn't tell it was Tai Chi, but his student had had taken his instruction and did the moves correctly!"

When a student is advanced they learn from those less skilled, they learn from obnoxious intermediates, they learn from beginners, they learn from nature. Their practice extends beyond the mat, and their practice off the mat comes back to the mat for exploration. When you see this quality in a student, they are probably advanced.

I saw this quality in my friend, who can't do a handstand, but is,

I think,


Sunday, July 11, 2010

My Teacher and our Martial Arts Lineage.

Courtesy of Janell Vela Smith

HistoryThe ori gin of the Dae Yeon Sa Tem ple can be traced to AD 1200 years. The first original Tem ple was Dae Yeon Am, meaning “Great Achievement Place”. It was located in North Korea, and founded by Master Ji Suk along with two other masters.

Dur ing this time the masters practiced Buddhism without the Martial Arts. It was only after Mas­ter Song Jae and Mas ter Bup Kwang came to the temple that the prac tice of Martial Arts began around AD 1269.

Several hundred years later, the temple moved to South Korea (1692) and the name changed from Dae Yeon Am to Dae Yeon Sa (“Great Achieve ment Temple”).

At that time, three masters from China joined and continued to develop the Martial Arts. That is why the origin of the Tukong Moosul system is both a hard and soft style, a blending of Chinese and Korean techniques.

In 1965, Grand mas ter Wonik Yi went to the tem ple and began train­ing in Buddhism and the Martial Arts. I Korea there are two types of Buddhist temples. One is similar to a church of mission ary work and is open to all people. The other is solely for individuals who wish to seek self-enlightment. These tem ples are ones of sanctu­ary and privacy, and are not open for public visitation. A few of the temples in Korea choose the later type.

The Dae Yeon Sa Temple is a very traditional temple that teaches Buddhism and Martial Arts. This is the tra di tion that is taught to the students of Tukong Moosul today.

Eun Kwang Bup Sa was born in 1895 and passed away in 1996 at the age of 101 years. He was head mas ter of Dae Yeon Sa Temple from 1955 until his passing. Eun Kwang Bup Sa was Master Yi’s Grandmas ter and the greatest mentor influencing, molding, and guiding Master Yi for the rest of his life.

Eun Kwang Bup Sa taught “Jeong Shin Il Do, Ha Sa Bul Sung”. Translated, this means that when one summons one’s mind, heart (body), and spirit in one direction together, nothing is impossible and you can accom plish any­thing that you desire.

Grandmaster Wonik Yi’s goal, in honor of headmas ter Eun Kwang Bup Sa, is to offer and pass forward to his students all of the knowledge, wisdom and philosophy that he has acquired through his years of training. The students that are willing to listen and work hard will find direction in their life; they will become humble beings, with a great understand ing of self-accomplishment, self-esteem, and an under stand ing of the impor tance of life.

Grandmaster Wonik Yi entered Dae-Yeon tem ple at the age of five in 1964. He lived at the temple until the age of nineteen and trained in traditional Moosul (Mar tial Arts) until he joined the South Korean Special Forces to do his duty for his country.

While he was in the special forces, his commander, General Chang, and the Korean Government noticed his prominence in Martial Arts and asked him to devise a more modern, powerful, and effective fighting martial arts for the South Korea Special Forces and the military version of Tukong Mar tial Arts was born in February of 1978.

In the beginning, Tukong Moosul was called Tukjun Moosul. In 1980, Korean Military 26th division became Tukong Division and most other divisions started creating the Tukong Battalion.

There are now over a few hundred thousand South Korean military and reserve soldiers training each year in the military version of Tukong Martial Arts.

Grandmaster Wonik Yi came to America in 1982 and has been teach ing Tukong Moosul ever since. The Tukong Moosul taught by Grand­mas ter Yi in the USA is very traditional and taught in the same way he learned from his Master, Eun Kwang Bupsa, at the temple. His Tukong Moosul is the combination of this traditional ancient temple style which was developed through many gen er a tions from 1200 AD and the inno v a tive mod ern style based on sci en tific research and theories.

Tukong Moosul taught by Grand mas ter Yi consists of the following:

  • Basic physical conditioning to optimize the human body’s condition
  • Advanced physical conditioning utiliz ing acupres sure and acupuncture
  • Basic and advanced body movements in forms and steps
  • Tra di tional and modern weaponry
  • Basic and advanced Ip-sun (Tai Chi)
  • Ulti mate Ki Kong (Ki Energy) Training

Grand mas ter Wonik Yi was granted the 9th degree designation, which is the ultimate degree in martial arts, by his master, Eun Kwang Bupsa, before he passed away in 1996. Grand mas ter Yi also holds a doctorate degree in education.

Grandmaster Wonik Yi’s Tukong Moosul is evolving into a total philosophy of the human being. What he teaches is not just physical or mental martial arts. He teaches the students how to live their lives. That is because he strongly believes that the best way to pre dict the future of a human being is to create one.