“When I have people do an exercise I’m always watching what people are doing with their body, to make sure they’re moving right.”
-Grandmaster Tim Carron
The above statement was based on a question I once asked Grandmaster Carron when he corrected me on an exercise that I wasn’t doing correctly. From my experiences working with Grandmaster Carron one of the things about his teaching style was he was very meticulous about how my body moved, especially when performing or teaching an exercise.
Believe it or not, he was less concerned with the “form” or how something looked, than he was with how my body functioned while doing an exercise because he always understood that things didn’t have look or be exact to be effective. This is important because all too often, even in Guided Chaos, people get caught up in the form of something rather than the substance of what they are trying to achieve.
My point is, while perfection is a nice goal to strive for–and I’m all about it–in truth it’s nearly impossible to achieve because it is unknowable. As you improve what seemed impossible yesterday becomes just “a thing” the next day after you develop it. None of us knows how good we can get and none of us knows what we are truly capable of because until you’ve been pushed to that point you don’t truly know what you may have in you until you have to do something outside your wheel house. It’s sort of like building strength, until you reach a certain physical limitation you really don’t know how strong you can get. You get the idea.
Don’t get me wrong: he didn’t accept any old half-assed thing–it’s that Tim’s attitude was often “function over form” when it came to doing an exercise so whether it was the Ninja Walk, the Vacuum Walk or Contact Flow his main concern was focusing on the end result. Rather than performing what amounted to just some type of “go through the motions” dance or ritual that was all shadow and no substance.
It was a strange dichotomy that would take me years to reconcile until I understood what he meant. He just knew what was right and what wasn’t so when it came to the functionality of something he was very exacting and demanding that you moved correctly but at the same time he was less concerned as to how it looked. That’s all.
Anyway, based on the positive response I received from the last installment (thanks for all the support btw), in this installment of “Lessons from My Masters” I’m going to delve a little deeper and relate some of my earlier experiences and a few specific exercises on how he went about training just to provide some insight into both his, and a little bit of Grandmaster Perkins’ methodology of “getting your body right” as he would call it at times.
Okay, here we go. Some of this is too funny! Even now looking back I have to laugh about it but what I’m sharing here is some profound stuff right from my “Sith Lord’s” bag of tricks, and trust me the bag is deep.
So, I’m working out with my Master (Tim) one evening and he is, let’s just say, “displeased” with how I’m using my arms. Not a good place to be with Tim. He says I’m trying to push with too much muscle and I’m not using my body enough. He also says,
“I notice when you’re working with people you’re trying to rest your arms way too much on top of people’s arms. When you do that your giving up your arms.”
He then says, “Here let me show you something: put your arms on top of mine and rest them there a little I want you to see something.” So I place my arms on top and he says, “Now watch this”, he then takes his arms out from under mine, not fast and my arms drop about an inch or two before I recover them and he says, “You see that? You see how you had to catch your arms?” I was like, “Yeah” he said, “That’s because you gave up control of your arms.” He went on to say, “When you rest your arms on top of the other person’s arms you’re giving up control of your arms. You want to always be neutral with your body.”
At this point I’m scratching my head with that “what-chu-talkin-bout” look on my face because I had never heard of such a thing. So I asked, “What do you mean by being neutral?” At this point Tim kind of sighs and drops his head and says,
“You know neutral, not committed, when you place your hands on top like that you’re committed and it’s easy for people to counter your movement because you first have to recover your arms before you do anything.”
So then I said, “Oh okay” (like I really knew what he was talking about…I didn’t know). So he says, “Place your hands on top again,” after a few moments he then takes his hands away and says, “Okay now first things first, stop moving! You’re moving for no reason and I haven’t even started.” Next he says, “Here now, let me do something with you. Place your hands on top of mine and stay with my hands and stay as light as possible and just move with me.”
So after a few minutes of this where I just can’t for the life of me stop resting my arms on top of his he says, “Okay wait here.” Now as an aside if Tim tells you to “wait here” only pain can follow so for those who train with me regularly you’re going to recognize the next statement Tim made to me when he came back. He said, “This… is going to suck…”
He then hands me a folding chair and he says, “Grab it by the top, now bend your arms and hold it out in front of you about the height of your eyes, okay? Good.”
And then he walks away…
He then walks outside just outside of the door because “The Peoples Republic of New York” already started cracking down on indoor smoking and then he stands there and watches me while he enjoys a smoke.
Well after about five minutes of that nonsense the chair is practically on the floor, I’m basically only holding it up in my mind. He then walks over to me and grabs the chair while still in my hands, raises the chair back up to the height of my eyes and walks away again!
At this point my shoulders and traps and the middle of my back are on fire. Sweat pouring off my brow as I retreat to that happy place in my mind. Screw deep breathing and meditation I’m beyond that now–I’m in pain! But I’m watching him watch me the whole time and I’m like, “WTF? Is this some kind of hazing ritual? A cruel hoax? What the…? Now he’s drinking coffee!?! Wait a minute? Did he just light another cigarette?”
This is sort of like when you have to use a public rest room really bad and the person in there ahead of you is like blow drying their hands and taking their sweet time, and all you want to do is kick the door in and slam their head into the toilet. Yeah it’s like that.
So while this seemed like an hour of this nonsense it was probably just a few more minutes. He then walks over to me takes the chair from my hands and says, “Place your hands on top of mine and stay with me.”
“Pure genius” that’s all I can say…
My hands and arms felt so light they almost felt as if they weren’t attached to my body. Later on he would tell me,
“You need to practice that. You don’t have to use a chair…you can use anything that has a little weight to it but you need to practice it. I like to use chairs because they’re not only available in class but they’re awkward to hold.”
Later on we would modify this drill and use weighted balls but the principle is the same. I generally recommend that people use no more than 3 lb balls otherwise if they’re too heavy people really don’t get the benefit of the prolonged resistance. You need to do it just long enough to feel the burn in the muscles and you’re done. This is a great exercise to develop lightness and that neutral feeling in the arms.
When I work with Grandmaster Perkins, afterward people ask me “What was he doing?” and I’m like, “I don’t know I can’t really feel what he was doing with his arms they’re there but they’re not there, there’s nothing.” That is of course unless he’s guiding me then there is a sensation or some sort of direction but that’s a different thing and a whole different level of skill John’s developed for the purposes of teaching. Other than that he’s always neutral in his arms and movement in general which allows him to change direction seemingly in the blink of an eye without any excessive or preparatory movement.
So one evening I’m working with Tim and I ask him, “I notice you really don’t step and when you do, you barely step at all.”. e says, “Yeah I really don’t like to move more than I need to if I have to step to go after someone I’m going to just cut them in half.” So I start with the “what if?” questions and I ask him well say I’m this far away how would you deal with someone who’s trying to keep their distance. He then kind of smiles and says “Watch, now when I move I want you to try to get out of the way just step wherever you want.”
Mind you we’re probably a good 10 ft to 12 ft away, as soon as he moved I tried to step off line and I would say with no more than two steps tops, he had closed the distance, broken my balance and caught me before I fell over backwards in what seemed like one fluid movement. To say I was impressed was an understatement so naturally of course I want to know how he did it. He says,
“You know the Long Stepping exercise? You have to do that but if you want to really learn how to do what I did with power you need to do it with weight.”
Tim would go on to tell me that at his job they had some old weights that are used for garage doors laying around (I think he said they were about 20 lb each) so during his lunch breaks on the backside of the building he would basically do power walks with one in each hand Long Stepping from one end of the parking lot to the other.
He says, “Here I’ll show you.” Now at the time the school we used to train at was the old Church of North Yonkers and near the parking lot they were doing some sort of maintenance and they had some bricks out there so he hands me two bricks and has me proceed to Long Step back and forth in the parking lot with those bricks in hand.
“Hold these with just enough strength to hold onto them, now as you walk you’re going to feel the weight of the bricks throw your balance off a little, you need to control that and not lean in any direction when you do this. Try to keep your body upright and walk back and forth from one end to the other. Do not bounce or let your shoulders rise up unnecessarily.”
So for the next ten minutes he has me walking back and forth in the parking lot with these bricks in my hands critiquing my movement the whole time, “Stop bouncing, you’re leaning, slow down, smoother, relax your upper body you’re too tight,” and on it went. Every now and then he would stroke his beard in approval like The Evil Pai Mei (okay I made that last part up besides “Kill Bill” wasn’t even out then but it makes for a better story).
Afterwards and quite frequently Tim would tell me little seemly “off the record” things about John and his abilities. He would say things like,
“You see when John moves on people and really wants to get around them, notice he always looks like he’s gliding. It looks like his feet barely leave the ground yet there is no sound, I don’t care what surface he’s on he never drags or slides his feet. Ever! That’s why you’ve got to do these exercises. Next time John is doing a demo and he’s really moving on people pay attention to that.”
Tim also went on to say something like,
“He (John) also does something else where he’ll take a step and be balanced on one leg yet the toe of the other foot is on the ground but the heel is raised up.”
So I’m like, “Yeah…” then Tim says,
“You’ll notice when he does that he’s never leaning in any direction, that’s because the space he created with his heel is the distance that he’s going to drop into when he hits you. The reason you don’t feel the movement when he drops is because he’s already positioned himself where he needs to be when he does it to make it work. You just get hit. It’s just amazing.”
Now it would take me years to understand what he was describing because you just have to see it over and over until you start to get it. Along those lines understand that many of these things that my Masters taught me way back when in some cases took me years to fully understand and appreciate the depth of what they were teaching me.
As one of my students Joe Riggio (a 2nd Degree in Guided Chaos) likes to say, “You don’t know what you know until you know it.”.
Master Martarano really nails it when he says, it’s not that there are higher levels per se but a, “deepening of your understanding of the principles.” My point is some of this stuff just takes time to absorb and that’s all there is too it, you can’t force it, but absorb it as I did.
After that session, I would say maybe a few weeks later, I was at our other school over in Nyack and we were training outside that day and John had us moving around each other a bit and I have to tell you when I wanted to move in on people and take them off their feet it was effortless. I would later that day speak with John about my training with Tim and he said what Tim did was basically “unitize” my body and movement. John would go on to say, “You still tend to use your arms too much because you have a lot of strength. You have to learn to fight with your whole body.”
I’m like whaaaat?
So John says, “Here move with me.” As soon as I touched his arms he breaks my balance, which made no sense because I touched his arms on top and more importantly, I touched first. He then says,
“You still have too much structure and you’re trying to muscle it with your arms. You’ve got to get your body behind your hands because if I really go off on you I’ll break your arms on the way in.”
He then says, “Wait here.”
Oh…you know where this is going…
So he goes to his car and he comes back with “an ax”. He says, “This was my father’s ax. Tim just sharpened this for me so be careful.”
At this point I have no idea where this is going but the fact he had to tell me to be careful didn’t put me at ease.
He then says,
“I have to get you to use your body more, you’re moving well but you’re still relying too much on your strength. Here’s what I want you to do, I want you to hold the ax with both hands with the bottom of the handle up around your face. I then want you to hold the ax straight up and down and touch the leaves on this tree without disturbing the other leaves and branches on the tree. Here’s the catch, you have to sink with every step lifting the ax as you step to touch the leaves without it dropping below your face. Watch the roots and try not to fall.”
Let’s just say after that and about 20 hours sleep the difference in my Body Unity was night and day. Still not quite where he wanted it to be but it was a marked improvement. More importantly and this is the point it was “a difference that I could immediately feel” after that session.
Like I said “pure genius.”
A couple of points on all this. While these methods may seem unorthodox and to some even silly (oh yeah we are well aware of some of the criticism and comments people make about the exercises we teach, no matter), it has been my experience that this type of paradoxical learning and teaching methods are far more effective than much of the nonsense that passes for martial training that I’ve seen over the years.
Too many folks focus on demonstrating “feats of strength” than developing any real skill to take people off the planet and send them to the afterlife. Don’t get me wrong I’m all about staying fit and as I get older I appreciate it’s importance even more especially when it comes to maintaining strength. As Tim once said to me when we discussed this very subject, “strength is good.”
But punching you in your face with full body unity and utter ruthlessness with every intention of severing your brain stem and you from this plane of existence is far different than just thinking because you’re strong you can really punch.
As an aside because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea here, every now and then I’ll have a student who is into lifting ask me about is it good to still do strength training when doing Guided Chaos. Usually it’s after someone told them not to lift because it makes you tight and stiff or some other nonsense. Because that like never worked for guys who run track or are in the NBA or NFL… right?
Here’s the deal: while there are exercises we do to get you loose, most of this in my experience is just as much a mental thing as a physical thing. I’ve found that while some folks have a lot of natural looseness the main thing that holds people back from getting loose in their body is their mind won’t let go of the idea of resisting. My advice always has been as you get stronger learn how to apply the principles of the art so that you are using your strength as efficiently as possible.
No question strength helps and as I always tell folks, as Tim stated, “strength is good,” but it’s even better if you really know how to use it and that’s what I’m talking about. But your body has to be coordinated for you to apply it with maximum effect.
The other aspect is your mental outlook when you train. I was recently discussing this with a student and one of the things I said to him based on a comment he made which was many years ago, before he started doing Guided Chaos, even though he had a lot of skill in other arts he at times felt like a “paper tiger.” I explained to him that his feeling is more common than he thinks.
One of the things I told him is that from time-to-time a question I ask folks when I’m trying to get their minds right is, “Do you think you can take me in a fight?” Now the vast majority like 99% say no, besides why would they train with me if they knew they could kick my ass? Some will say things like, “If I can get the drop on you or if I had a weapon etc.”
Then I correct them and tell them, “Listen–there’s only one right answer to that question and that is: I better kill you! Got it?”
As I’ve said in other Blog Posts, when you train, even when having fun, in the back of your mind you need to train as if your life depends on it because some day it may.
As Tim used to say, “I don’t know if I can kick anybody’s ass…all I know is if you mess with me you’re going to have to kill me. That’s all, because it’s going to be like that. If I think you’re going to hurt me, fuck that, I’m going to hurt you first.”
Whether you’re in the gym getting stronger, doing an exercise on your own or in class, or working out with a partner, in the back of your mind you need to stay focused and keep the main thing “the main thing” and that’s training to ensure your sword prevails in battle.
By developing your mind and body to “go there” if you have to, as long as you focus on doing just that it’s really the only question you have to answer…
Well that’s it for this installment. Hope you got something out of this.
LtCol Al Ridenhour USMC (ret)
Senior Master Instructor
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