The Martial Art of Kendo
We’ve spent a lot of the last few months talking about different martial arts – karate, tae kwon do, kickboxing, and so on – but for the most part, those have all focused on disciplines that prioritize body movement over weapons. While some, like ninjustsu, allow for the use of weapons like staffs, the majority of the training is on how to strike, block, and counter with your own body. Today let’s talk about a martial art that goes the other way: the Japanese school of kendo.
Kendo came together over the last few centuries, descended from kenjutsu – the expert swordsmanship and techniques of samurai and other fighters in feudal Japan. It emphasizes the quick motion and strikes of swordfighting, while also teaching how to effectively block your opponent from hitting you in return. It takes many years of practice to master, and requires intense training to reach the physical fitness necessary to wield and move the weapons properly, while maintaining the correct footwork for the style.
Historically, kendoka (practitioners of the sport) used real swords, but beginning as far back as the 1700s, that has changed in favour of using bamboo or wooden swords, called shinai or bokuto, respectively. And similar to modern fencing, its participants have special protective gear to protect their heads, body, and arms, a tradition that has been in place since the 17th century. This includes a head, shoulder and throat covering, made of leather and fabric, with a metal grille over the face; a hard leather breastplate to protect the torso; three thick fabric flaps for the groin and waist; and finally, a pair of long, thick cotton gloves for the hands and forearms. Based off the traditional outfits of samurai fighters, this equipment became a key part of the kendo style.
In competitions, the only way to score points is to hit your opponent in one of those areas – the head or throat, the wrists, or the body. Any hit on an unarmoured area does not count. Thus, learning how to properly manoeuvre with the sword for strikes and counterstrikes is the foundation for every kendo student – techniques known as kata.
Getting used to the sword movements and reactions, and being adept enough to predict what to do next, takes years of practice – and the grading system reflects that, with more than ten skill levels noted. At age 13, a kendoka can be admitted to the first true grade, 1-dan (before that they are considered as kyu, which itself has 6 levels). To reach the next dan after that, increasing years of practice are needed, and no student can get to the highest level if they are younger than 46 years old. At minimum, 31 years of practice are needed to ascend to the level of 8-dan!
If you have always admired the effortless swordwork of Japanese masters, and you want to become exceptional at hand-eye coordination, anticipation of strikes, and counter-attacks with a weapon, kendo could be a lifelong journey of constant growth for you. As with any martial art, it has its benefits and advantages, and it keeps its learners active, disciplined, and focused in their lives. Whether you’re doing kung fu, kendo, or karate, that is the first step towards a meaningful and well-lived life!
The Martial Art of Ninjutsu
Of all the different fields of martial arts that we have already looked at, or will look at more closely in the future, perhaps the most misunderstood one is that of ninjutsu – the art and techniques of the nearly-mythical hidden attackers known as ninjas. From its ancient roots to its explosion in popularity during the last few decades, mostly thanks to pop culture phenomena like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the idea of what ninjutsu is and what its practitioners do has always walked the line between legend and reality.
The methods of the ninjas began centuries ago, in feudal Japan, but due to their secretive nature it is impossible to tell exactly when the discipline was truly established. However, the first ninjas – or as they were originally known, the shinobi – were not the black-clad masters that we would imagine today. Rather, they were simply poor people from the countryside and farms who became very good at infiltration and spying, and taught the same methods to their children over generations. They become renowned for their ability to blend in, do their task (whether that was assassination, information collection, sabotage, or something else), and then disappear without raising the alarm. Their guiding principles became the ideas of stealth and adaptation to any situation.
So what does that mean? The biggest thing that differentiates ninjutsu from other martial arts is that ninjas are not just focused on how to fight well. They may incorporate techniques from other arts, like karate or kung fu, but it is only a small part of true ninja training, which begins from a young age and runs through a student’s entire life. This training involves stealth practices, increasing your resourcefulness, long-distance walking or long periods of standing still, planning proper diets, knowledge of poisons and cures, using commonly-found objects as weapons, and a variety of ingenuous techniques for how to incapacitate, blind, harm, or silently kill targets.
Ninjutsu is known for its use of simple farm tools as weapons, like scythes, flails, or sickles, which not only could be used to great effect, but allowed anyone wielding such a tool to claim they were only a farmer, not a fighter. They also used hidden objects like hollowed-out eggs filled with broken glass and pepper, sharp metal throwing stars, and blades on chains to attack from a distance and catch their targets by surprise.
Though the idea of dressing in all black is a great Hollywood trope, it is more likely that they dressed in disguises that would allow them passage to their targets – monks, priests, farmers, and so on. They became so good at blending in that legends told of them being invisible, and the reputation progressed to the point that sites fearful of being infiltrated had all kinds of traps, alarms, and failsafes to prevent anyone from getting past the guards.
So where does that leave the idea of ninjas today? Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a school that teaches ninjutsu, you are likely to be out of luck – not only because it was a hereditary concept to begin with, but also because there is no such thing as a single, overarching discipline of ninjutsu. It is a mix of trainings and practices from all parts of life, and deals with a lot of ideas and methods that are obsolete in the modern world.
But it’s still interesting to look back and see how a group of poor Japanese peasants turned into some of the most feared and respected martial artists in history, by constantly practicing and using only what was available to them!
The Martial Art of Wing Chun
A lot of people will ask about martial arts as if it’s a competition – which one is the best, which one is better for winning fights, and so on. But one of the best things about all martial arts in general is that they are all different expressions of the same underlying philosophy: that through training, discipline, meditation, and practice, anyone can become more in tune with themselves and their environment, and live a better life. And when we’re talking about styles as different as kung fu and wing chun, that distinction makes a big difference.
Wing chun (which you may know as the style practiced by stars like Bruce Lee, Anderson Silva, and even Robert Downey, Jr.) is a martial arts discipline that is characterized by lightning-fast arm strikes and blocks, strong leg support, and a prioritization of hits and defense along the vertical centre of the body. The main stance is high and narrow, allowing the arms to easily block hits and counter-attack in return.
One of the most important concepts highlighted by Wing Chun is the idea of “softness” – not at all in the sense of weakness, but in the flexibility and adaptation of a fighter’s movements. This core idea means that when defending, there is the ability to manoeuvre around incoming hits, but all the strength of training is ready to be used at all times when the opportunity arises. Teachers of the art liken it to a shoot of bamboo: steady and firmly rooted, but able to easily sway in the wind.
Wing Chun is also more simple with its forms than many other martial arts, especially ones like karate or tae kwon do. Organized by accessories – “empty hand”, “weapon”, and “wooden dummy” – almost all lessons in the discipline take place within just six forms. These all have derivatives as well, but the majority of concepts can be expressed using this methodology.
There are three empty hand forms, emphasizing different techniques and skills. The basic form, Siu Nim Tau, is the basis of all the others across the whole martial art, and teaches fundamentals of balance and body structure. The next, Chum Kiu, highlights movement, initial strike and recovery techniques, and ways to “bridge the gap” between one fighter and another. The third, Biu Ji, is more advanced, teaching short- and long-range techniques like kicks, sweeps, counter-attacks, and emergency techniques when the main ones are no longer possible.
Traditional weapons in Wing Chun include dual short butterfly swords of 11-15 inches as well as wooden poles ranging from 8-13 feet long. Requiring advanced footwork, power, strength, and training in strike ability, they are a developed skill that many students no longer train on, focusing instead on the breathing, flow, and movement of the empty hand forms.
Lastly, the wooden dummy (seen in the image at the top of this blog) form is an intermediate style that helps train students on strikes against another person. There are many different versions of this, and it is only a guide meant to instill confidence and expectations as a Wing Chun fighter moves up in their ability to execute strikes.
Another interesting idea of Wing Chun is the practice of “sticking hands”, Chi Sau. These drills are meant to develop automatic reflexes and to feel – and eventually, anticipate – how opponents move before striking. In training, students maintain forearm contact with each other while practicing, learning to sense pressure, momentum, muscular mechanics, and so on, with the idea of getting to the point where they can precisely predict and respond to attacks based on sight alone.
So with all that said, what is the same about Wing Chun? At its root, it does the same thing that kung fu does: it teaches patience, mindfulness, oneness, and confidence. It makes students more balanced, both physically and emotionally. It creates wellness and peace where there were often scattered thoughts. Overall, they are both martial arts here to make students healthier, happier, and more aware of all that they are capable of!
Why Kung Fu Loses Against MMA
If you go to any bar on a Saturday night, you might encounter a room full of people glued to the TV, watching Pay-Per-View coverage of the latest big-name title fight. From humble origins, mixed-martial arts (MMA) fights have come up to be hugely popular, often getting tons of attention from people around the world – and more often than not, drawing parallels with the more traditional martial arts from which MMA is descended.
What’s more, on the rare occasions when a modern MMA fighter goes up against a student of kung fu, it can appear extremely lopsided! While being totally different styles, they are both rooted in attacks and defense, and thus it is tempting to think that they are roughly equally matched. So, when faced with the fact that kung fu fighters often lose when pitted against MMA – how can we explain that? Is one discipline better than the other? Is kung fu useless in a real, ruthless fight situation?
Well, not exactly. It’s not nearly as simple as that, and here’s why.
Simply put, MMA fighters win more often in the ring because that is exactly – and only – what they train to do, whereas kung fu is much more broad in its focus and its moves. Kung fu was not developed to “win in a ring”, after all. It was developed out of principles of meditation, balance, mental discipline, and the necessity of self-defence in situations where the fight likely would not be fair.
What does that mean? Well, it means that we teach kicks, punches, and other hits that are effective in an emergency situation, when they need to be – but would never be allowed in an MMA fight. Downward elbow hits, reverse roundhouse kicks, open-hand strikes, and glove-free blocks are good examples of this – they are all very common in kung fu, but not used anywhere near an MMA ring. In a street situation where you need to end a conflict fast, fighting “according to the rules” is not going to help, so we train our students to do what is most effective, with the least amount of harm inflicted. MMA, on the other hand, is about beating up another person until they are completely subdued and usually unconscious – as long as they stay within the rules. It may be more entertaining to watch, and more brutal in its execution, but it lacks the real versatility and adaptability of a true self-defence discipline; it can’t accommodate unexpected weapons, or illegal kicks and punches, or the ability to stay calm and focused for hours at a time instead of short three-minute bursts. It is a sport – one that requires a lot of time and talent and passion, yes, but a sport nonetheless – whereas kung fu is a philosophy, an art, and a way of life.
Another way to say it? MMA fighters train to get into fights and give 110% toward conquering their opponent. Kung fu fighters train to stay out of fights, unless there is literally no other way out – but if it’s all on the line, they are equipped to approach any escalation with a clear head and a quick response. So don’t be so quick to judge if a kung fu martial artist has lost in the ring – real fights don’t have referees or rules, and it would look much different in a street situation!
The Martial Art Of Taekwondo
In prior months we have covered some other common forms of martial arts like karate and kickboxing. Today we’d like to talk about another one, which you’ve no doubt heard about in many movies, TV shows, and probably even within your personal friend group: taekwondo.
What Is Taekwondo?
Like many similar martial arts, taekwondo was developed in Asia, though its history does not go back as far as the more traditional styles like karate. Starting in Korea after the Second World War, the name roughly translates to “The Way of the Trampling Fist”, and was brought into being as many separates styles in different schools across Korea. In 1952 the South Korean president saw a demonstration of the style, and saw in it a way for Koreans to remember their own ancient discipline, taekkyeon; within a few years, the schools had begun to unify their teachings and combine old and new techniques very effectively, eventually settling on the name taekwondo.
While slow to gain popularity, soon enough the military was using the discipline as their standard for hand-to-hand combat, and by the 1960s, new associations and federations were established and spreading around the world – including the International Taekwondo Federation (Also known as ITF and is pictured performing above along with World Taekwondo) in Toronto. In 2000, it was added to the Olympic Summer Games as one of only two martial arts, alongside judo, and today it is popular in many countries with many offshoot styles.
Martial Arts With A Kick
While some martial arts are all about redirection of momentum, stance ability, blocks, and so on, taekwondo is well known for its emphasis on kicks of all kinds. Fighters can jump and spin, landing kicks with plenty of force to all parts of the body, including the head – in fact, World Taekwondo competitions award extra points for strikes of those type. Because of this reliance on fast, manoeuvrable movements, taekwondo is seen as more of an agile, swift martial art.
You might have also heard of their Theory of Power, which is the idea that speed is more important than actual size when it comes to how powerful a strike can be. Taekwondo’s form is recognizable by the amount of rotation and turning its fighters do when striking, in order to counterbalance the striking force and create an even bigger hit. The discipline also believes strongly in considering equilibrium, breath control, concentrated strike areas, reaction force, and mass with every strike. They emphasize the practice of breaking boards or bricks as a test of how accurate, quick, and powerful a fighter’s blows can be.
One particularity of taekwondo is that formally, it is not a weapon-based martial art, and is not part of the curriculum of most programs (though some schools do incorporate staff, knife, or stick training).
The Five Tenets Of Taekwondo
Though there are many different styles and practices of modern taekwondo, the core beliefs of all of them refer back to the Five Tenets of Taekwondo:
These five concepts guide how all students are to act and train as they become more educated, and reflect the idea of an ultimately peaceful society as an overarching goal for taekwondo in the world. In this way, the sport is very much like all martial arts in how it manifests – including our very own kung fu!
If you are looking for martial arts in Calgary you should call us today and we can help guide you in the right direction.
Do Not Feed The Devil
Everyone has heard the saying “mind over matter”, but few people actually take the time to think about what it really means. Far from being an annoying mantra that means you should never feel down about anything, it’s intended as a guiding principle that will help you overcome negativity in a healthy and useful way.
To illustrate this point, let’s change gears for a moment and talk about an old folk tale. In it, a bedridden prince is stuck in bed with a mysterious illness, and nothing seems to help. One day, he and his attendants see, lurking in the corner of the room, a demon that seems to be at the root of all the trouble. Frightened and angry, they scream and they curse, but it does no good – the demon grows, every day, until it takes up most of the room. Soon it will be too late for the prince, unless they can think of a solution.
So out of curiosity – and because they could think of nothing else – the prince and the attendants try being kind to the demon. They reach out to it, they offer food and drink, and they refuse to let its increasing anger faze them. As the demon shrinks down again, it becomes more violent and unpredictable, but the people continue…and before long, the demon is gone, and they have all learned a valuable lesson.
So what does this mean for our students?
When we encounter difficult situations – especially ones over which we feel we have little or no control – our main gut reaction is to get upset. We might lash out, turn negative, or push away the people who care about us. This begins a cycle of anger that reinforces itself and continues the behaviour, which seems increasingly unfair, so we get even more angry….and before long, we have turned a setback (which are always going to happen) into something insurmountable. What this story tells us is that instead, we should step back and consider all the other sides of the problem: who else is affected by our actions? Realistically, will being angry change anything? Is it worth losing patience over this? Often we will find that we can calm ourselves and remain steady if we choose not to give in to those base reactions.
It is nicely summed up in the legendary story of the “Two Wolves”, which are in constant battle inside every person: one made of darkness and despair, and the other light and hope. The winner depends on which one you choose to feed!
Meditative martial arts like kung fu can help you reach a point of tranquility, where your emotions are better balanced and you carefully consider the impacts of your actions. The mind and the body are tied together, and when they improve in tandem, you will find that you are capable of great changes in your life that you may have never thought possible. It’s just one more benefit to studying martial arts!
When You Can Legally Defend Yourself
Unfortunately, it happens all too often: you’re out with some friends, minding your own business, when someone sets out to cause trouble with you. And despite your best efforts of de-escalation, you may not be able to get out of the situation easily. Or maybe you stumble around a corner and interrupt an assault already taking place, and the assailant – or assailants – focus on you instead. Or in an extreme case, you could be in a worst-case scenario: you’ve come home unexpectedly, or woken up in the middle of the night, and someone you don’t know is inside your home, and you’re in their way.
In situations like these, preparation is the key. You have to be able to act decisively and effectively, while ensuring the safety of you and your loved ones. You may be willing to do what it takes to protect them – but just how many options do you have? Do you really know when you can legally defend yourself?
(Before going any further, we do have to point out – we are not lawyers, and as with any laws, this information is subject to change! These are guidelines only, and we make no guarantees that what is true today will hold up in the future. If you are in need of detailed help, consult someone who is trained to interpret the most up-to-date laws properly).
Self-defense is a very grey legal area for many reasons, but one of the biggest ones is this – at some point when you are fighting back (if you are successful), you will no longer be defending, but attacking. Finding that point is very difficult to do after the fact, and it is up to the people involved to judge when they can safely stop fighting back and exit the situation. The crux of many cases is whether a person acted reasonably, and did no more harm than absolutely necessary; many factors are taken into account for this, like relative size, weight, gender, weapons, prior behaviour, martial arts training, and so on. But in general, if you are attacked, you are legally permitted to reasonably defend yourself until you are no longer in danger.
When it comes to weapons, you also must be careful of what you use. It is actually illegal to buy or possess pepper spray in Canada, even for self-defense – and the same goes for a bat you pull from your truck, the switchblade in your pocket, or the brass knuckles you carry around. If you have anything on your person that you intend to use as a weapon, and then use it as such, it becomes harder to believe that your actions were entirely innocent, even if they were. The lines get blurry very quickly.
In Canada, you are innocent until the Crown proves you are guilty – which means that in a trial, the prosecution would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were not acting in self-defense. While it’s good that the default position is in your favour, these cases are often decided on sparse testimony, personal interpretations of behaviour, and second-hand evidence, so it is rarely as black and white as that.
In general, when it comes to self-defense, less is more. As a trained martial artist, you most likely have an advantage in a physical fight, and that will be accounted for after the fact. Never cause more harm than you must, and always look for a safer option to defuse the situation before choosing to defend yourself physically. The goal of martial arts like kung fu is not to fight like in the movies – it’s to gain a valuable skill and improve the balance and harmony of your body. Use your brain as much as your brawn, and you’ll always have the upper hand.
(And remember: if in doubt, talk to the real experts. We’re not afraid to admit we might be wrong, so don’t take any of this as complete legal advice!)
Kickboxing: A Descendant of Martial Arts
Fighting in some form or another – and with the elements of rules and sportsmanship – has been around for millennia, as shown by the huge number of ancient arenas and fighting pits that have been discovered dating back to some of the oldest human cultures. But these days, it’s much more than just tossing a couple of gladiators in a circle and placing bets. From those old traditions come some of the most common and recognizable disciplines we see today, including kickboxing.
Last month we talked about the origins and forms of karate, and that ties into kickboxing because that’s where the sport began! Though it may seem like a natural offshoot of a fighting style – after all, kicks are more powerful than punches – it actually was not until the 1950s that the sport we now know as kickboxing began to take shape in Japan.
Drawing not only from traditional karate, but also from muay thai, a man named Tatsuo Yamada began outlining the forms of the new sport and throughout the early 1960s, it took hold in students of both disciplines. As more people learned the rules of the sport, and the first competitions and events were taking place, soon kickboxing was expanding around the world and by the 1980s, it had grown into North America and Europe. Moving back and forth in popularity since then, and with very broad scope of rules and styles, it is one of the most enduring schools of modern martial arts for people of all skill levels.
Though each country seems to have its own rules, the bouts that most people are familiar with in kickboxing are generally based on full-contact karate, where the opponents fight through rounds until one of the fighters is knocked out or submits. There is no specialized equipment or weapons; generally only a mouth-guard, hand wrappings, and other protective gear is needed. Rules vary on low and high kicks, hits to knees or with elbows, use of spins, and other details. That means that each fighter has to be pinpoint accurate, quick to strike and to retreat, and ready to react to their foe in an instant. As opposed to the more meditative nature of karate and kung fu, kickboxing is much more fast-paced and focused on the immediate impact of kicks and punches.
There are dozens of sub-styles of kickboxing, including shoot boxing (where fighters can use standing chokeholds and armlocks), sanshou (which incorporates elements of wrestling and takedowns), and Japanese K-1 (which allows lower-body strikes and grappling).
Whatever your personal style may be, if you like to fight, chances are good that there’s a kickboxing genre for you. However, if you prefer something more holistic and meditative, you can’t go wrong with studying kung fu – and we just happen to know the perfect place to learn: right here at Kung Fu
The Martial Art Of Karate
When it comes to martial arts, many people think that they’re all the same – that kung fu is the same as judo, or karate, or tae kwon do. But if you look a little further into it, you’ll discover that there are plenty of ways that these skills manifest in practice, and that all of these different styles have totally different focuses and areas of expertise. We’d like to explore a little bit of what makes each discipline unique, and how they are similar to the kung fu we teach here at our studio.
Today we’re going to talk about karate, which is one of the most popular martial arts in Calgary and, indeed, in the world. You may have seen it (or heard it misidentified) in hundreds of movies and TV shows, where it is often synonymous with any form of self-defense. There’s even an episode of The Simpsons where Bart claims to be learning a “Touch of Death” at his karate class.
Luckily, karate is not all about causing harm to your opponent, but much more about self-discipline, training, and constant learning to always improve. Stemming from a blend of Chinese kung fu and Okinawan fighting styles, karate developed over many hundreds of years into different forms, types, and functions. Generally, they emphasize proper stances, strike and block techniques, and exercise, while psychological elements like leadership, perseverance, and virtue are built as well. A student can learn karate as an art (known as budo), as purely self-defense, or as a full combat sport – usually reserved only for competitions within the sport, but this is where the media’s portrayal of fighters usually draws from. There is even an offshoot called kyokushin that highlights full contact, toughness, and takedowns over the more mental aspects of the sport.
Many practitioners of karate appreciate its simplicity, both in the training and in the materials needed. Traditionally, learners needed nothing more than a wooden post, some blocks of stone, and various other common materials in order to increase their strength, stamina, coordination, and speed. That means it’s easy to do wherever you are, and cost is not as much of a factor when trying to learn. The name itself, kara-te, even means “empty hand”, referring to the training of one’s own body to be efficient and effective. Of course, some schools and some students choose to train with weapons as well, such as the bo (staff), sais, or nunchaku, but these can be harder to work with as one must consider the laws regarding the use and transport such weapons (you can see our blog right here).
You may be brand new to martial arts in Calgary (or in general), or you could be a seasoned pro, but with the sheer amount of new styles and techniques that are always being created, there’s always something new to learn in karate, kung fu, and all the others. Come see for yourself why these physical arts have lasted for centuries and still bring millions of people enjoyment, stress relief, and satisfaction all around the world. We can help show you the way at Kung Fu For Life, located just down the road from 39 Ave C Train station in Calgary!
Thank You All For Your Support
It’s not always easy to run a business. They’re difficult to get off the ground, a lot of work to manage, and susceptible to the ups and downs of the market – even more so in a city like Calgary, where so much of our economy is dependent on outside forces. If that business fills a small niche in a market, there’s always a question of whether all the effort will be worth the trouble.
But here we are at Kung Fu for Life, many years into our story, and we are still going strong, even when many other places are not. Today we would like to just say thank you to all the people who make that story possible, and keep it going each and every day.
We have seen many other businesses come and go – not only those similar to ours, like MMA-style gyms and physical wellness havens, but even others that seem invincible, like restaurants, coffee shops, or many of the downtown commercial spaces in the buildings of our skyline. Property taxes are skyrocketing and the cost of doing business is higher than ever. It sounds scary – if they can’t make it, how can we?
And yet, we are still going strong, because we have stuck to our roots and our principles. We’re not in business to make profits for shareholders; we are here to help our students live up to their full potential.
Our students are truly the foundation of our success, and we have to say a heartfelt thank you to every one of them. You bring us into your lives every week, you tell your friends and family about our classes and programs, and you allow us to practice the martial arts that we love and spread the knowledge that we’ve spent our lives acquiring. We would not be here without your support, and we hope that all of you know how important you are to the Kung Fu for Life team!
We also must thank our excellent landlord, who have allowed us to pursue our passions and use the studio space for our classes and practice. Many people are not fortunate enough to have such a good relationship with their landlord, so we count ourselves incredibly lucky to know people who understand the value of dedicated martial arts, meditation, and physical activity to a healthy lifestyle.
We can’t predict where Calgary or Alberta will be, decades from now, but we can say this for sure: we are blessed to be surrounded by such amazing people on every side, and we look forward to bringing many more years of service to the community that has welcomed us in. Being part of that community has brought us success in ways that money could never measure, and we can’t wait to teach more students, pass on more knowledge, and improve the lives of Calgarians in 2020 and beyond.
One more time: thank you to all of our past and current students, our landlord, all the people who handed the art down, instructors (past and present), our neighbours, our city, and everyone who has been part of the Kung Fu for Life journey since it began!
Kung Fu For Life
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