10 Questions with Michael Joyce
Michael Joyce is the creator and chief writer at CombativeCorner.Com. He is also a teacher, martial artist and movement aficionado with a passion for taijiquan, fencing and self-defense. He is also a massage therapist who has been in practice since 2006. In 2011, he self-published a concise, straight-to-the-point book titled The Golden Thread – Essential Principles of Self-Defense, that was heralded, not only by his peers but also by some of the best in the field. Continuing his pursuit to create, teach and empower, “Coach Joyce” as he prefers to be called, is hard at work on various projects, many of which will be mentioned in this interview. So, without further ado…
“It’s a communication thing. And if we don’t have this communication with ourselves, if we can’t bring joy into practice, we’ll eventually leave it. Some people even get injured by it. My answer is communicate more, add joy and seek to dive deep into what Bruce called ‘the honest expression of the human self.'”
What prompted you to begin your studies of the martial arts?
My first experience was when I was 10 (or so) and my mom put me in a Karate class (trial basis). The teacher had me doing the basic punches and blocks, but it bored me to tears. I must admit that I was caught up in “what I looked like”…and not what I was necessarily “doing.” I wanted to move like Jackie Chan, not Chuck Norris. And it was Jackie (strangely, not Bruce) that led me back to the martial arts – after seeing a film called “The Big Brawl” (which Jackie thought was going to be his big break into Hollywood; but wasn’t). It was an amazing film (in my opinion) that showcased Jackie’s talents brilliantly. I would have to say that it was Jackie’s moves, and later, Bruce’s philosophy that kept me fascinated for a long time to come. Then, as a freshman in middle school, my friend handed me a flyer for a local Kungfu class.
It was here, in this Kungfu class that I began to understand… that it was only through the dent of hard work that I would achieve anything great; anything of value. And luckily for me, my teachers Jim Holoman and Jack Heineman were fantastic, giving and open to helping me further myself as a martial artist. Also, it was through this class that I was able to get a taste of what some of these other art forms were about: like Tai Chi, Xingyi and Bagua. Little did I know that I would later find Taijiquan (Tai Chi) to be the biggest and deepest ocean of them all… and I was more than happy to take a swim.
What is one thing that you have found through the martial arts that you wish others would find?
One thing I wish more martial artists would embrace would be that once you have solid footing in your martial art (and this works for hobbies and jobs too), that is to say, once you’ve found and understood the principles and have a strong foundation in the basics, “follow your bliss.” This statement was made famous by mythologist, lecturer and author Joseph Campbell – and it’s such an important statement and life philosophy that I feel that too few people bring it into their life as a martial artist (at least as much as it should be).
This is not to say that if you’re in a formal class you “do what you want.” I’m not saying that. But when you’re engaged in solo practice, add as much joy into practice as you can muster. This bliss will help motivate you, feed you with long-lasting energy and keep you eager to continue practicing. It’s a communication thing. And if we don’t have this communication with ourselves, if we can’t bring joy into practice, we’ll eventually leave it. Some people even get injured by it. My answer is communicate more, add joy and seek to dive deep into what Bruce called “the honest expression of the human self.”
Being such a “Jack of all trades” (taijiquan, fencing and self-defense)…what gives you the most joy?
When I hear that question, I never immediately have an answer. It really depends on the day. Let’s tackle each of these individually, shall we?
Fencing and sword-fighting became a fun past-time as soon as I saw movies like The Sword In the Stone, The Princess Bride and Willow. So needless-to-say, I was pretty young and impressionable. Like most youngsters, I grew up with the image of the sword as being a noble and gentlemanly art. Therefore, even to this day, I feel a sense of nostalgia and childhood energy every time I pick up a weapon (a sword particularly).
Taijiquan came to me at a very important time in my life. Because of the intensity of my kungfu training (namely, what I put myself through), and my lack of understanding (at that point) in how to exercise properly, I developed low back pain in my late teens and early twenties. I wish someone had come around and told me that I shouldn’t be doing all the exercises and stunts that they showed in kungfu movie training montages. I digress. When I went to college, I came in contact with a superb teacher through a class he did at St. Louis University; Mr./Sifu Herb Parran. He was the first to show me the beauty of Hunyuan Taijiquan, which I later found to a wonderful form of low back pain therapy. Therefore, to answer the question – When I feel that the world is moving a bit too fast, I enjoy taijiquan. When I walk outside, and the weather is beautiful, I really enjoy taijiquan. Taijiquan is just another form of play to me and it connects many of the things that I love: movement, physics, meditation, nature, finding that “inner calm”, and artistry.
As much as I am a nature-loving taijiquan/yoga/movement junkie, I am also a safety-minded, social and combative scientist. We are all shaped by our past. Luckily, my past is pretty great, but that doesn’t stop one from thinking, “how might all of this go away?” The people in my life, just like the people in everyone’s life (close people), really help make Life worth living. Violence is scary and ugly and requires a survival mindset that includes: detection, avoidance, communication skills and fighting skills (sometimes running skills also). Self-defense training was a necessity to change myself from an uneasy, unsure, skeptical martial artist, to a confident one. With women being the highest victimized of any population, I reached out (very early on) to women. I put together a system of self-defense called Outfoxxed and it quickly became and still remains what I feel as “Priority 1” of my Life’s goals – teaching and empowering women. Speaking of this… my wife and I just re-vamped our website and recently uploaded our first YouTube video. Please check it out! [website] [YouTube video]
Perhaps the easiest and most enriching endeavor one can do for themselves is to learn and play jiujitsu. Like taijiquan (and even fencing), some small details seem to swing doors of understanding wide open, and I love that. With jiujitsu, the movement-lover, the social and physical scientist is let out to play – all you need are mats (or sometimes a carpeted floor). As a student of Rener and Ryron Gracie (GracieUniversity.Com), I know I can watch their videos, feed off their high-energy and also know that I am being taught correctly. The only downside to this (especially since I do so many things), is being able to properly invest the time. Currently I am able to squeeze in only 3 hours a week – which is only a quarter of what I wish I could invest. The one thing I know about myself though and because jiujitsu and I mesh so well together is that I’m never, ever going to give it up. To add… I’ve got one heck of a training partner; Brad Vaughn (his CombativeCorner interview is next!).
What teachers in your past have really made an impact on you?
There have been so many teachers that it’s hard to count; plus, I already spoke of three. (lol). With that said, and in order to keep this answer a bit shorter, I am going to go with the teacher that was the most impactful. That person is my taijiquan teacher, Master Chen Zhonghua. I first met him at a Kennesaw State University workshop in the 2002 or 2003. What struck me most was that he was a teacher that not only wanted you to learn the form well, but to actually feel what the body needed to do in order to produce the desired result. I still had what he called “that wushu hardness.”
We started to do some push hands, and not the choreographed press, stick and flow exercises – real pushing! He was able to find a point of leverage from anywhere and that greatly impressed me. After each off-balancing he would say a word in Mandarin that I instantly understood to mean a combination of “Look at this!” and/or “Do you see/understand?” I know this because he would point and show either what he did to create the result, what I did wrong or both. “This is the Practical Method,” he would say. He was the first taijiquan teacher that did it all – showed me, allowed me to see the inner-workings, and blow my mind (all at the same time). It wasn’t too late after that workshop that I decided to sell my car and journey to the Edmonton, Alberta to become his full-time student and gain my certification to teach Hunyuan & Practical Method Taijiquan.
What is it about Tai Chi (taijiquan) that you enjoy? And is there anything that you don’t like about it?
To do taijiquan is to physically feel freedom. To get good at taijiquan to reach heaven. Is that too dramatic? Well, I ask anyone who has maintained a consistent practice of taijiquan for at least a few years to speak differently. How you feel this, is difficult (if not impossible) to put into words. You must feel it for yourself.
As for anything “I don’t like” about taijiquan… I would have to say the near-sighted, our-system-is-superior, zealots. I especially despise the fact that these people exist in every martial art system. People can really take the fun out of things sometimes. I remember another teacher of mine Dr. Yang Yang telling me a story about the late Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang and how he never had anything bad to say about another person or martial art. He would never say that they were doing something wrong, he’d just smile and simply say, “I don’t understand it.” Because, in my view, a technique either works or it doesn’t work. The same technique may work in theory, but not work when under stress. It’s your job as a student to find what works and doesn’t work for yourself. It’s the teacher’s job to help steer you to the best of his or her ability.
What brought you into fencing?
As you might have been able to tell from a previous answer – fencing seemed to find me. He-Man had a sword, Voltron had a sword, Lion-O from Thundercats had a sword. There was Conan the Barbarian, Dar The Beastmaster and even those Jedi Knights from a galaxy far, far away. Everyone who would seek to vanquish evil had a sword. Seeing as there wasn’t a fencing club, or fencing salle in my area I never had a chance to study formally until I got to college. I started with an extraordinary teacher at St.Louis University named David Achilleus (Trovare di Spada). At that time he was associated with a group called The Baited Blade and taught a very passionate and fun foil fencing class. Today, he is one of my favorite “fencing purists;” a fencer who stays true to the history and principles of the weapon he chooses to wield.
Would you tell us a little about your passion for movement?
The art of movement is something that is slowly becoming more of a mainstream sort-of-thing, thanks primarily to people like Erwin Le Corre (movnat) and Ido Portal. We are essentially intelligent apes – animals that spend far too much time sitting, laying, watching and typing – and not enough climbing, hanging, crawling and dancing. When we are young, we explore movement, but at a certain point we get to a point where we feel like we know it all. Slowly, as time passes, we get more accustomed to not moving, no longer exploring, and no longer growing. Understanding not just movement but the way YOU move is very very important.
When you bring more (conscious) movement into your life, you will likely find a great treasure – a way to improve function (which carries over to your daily activities), increased energy (which relates to productivity and is linked to happiness), and very importantly staves off injury, pain and illness. What started as a child, one that loved to climb trees, explore the woods, build forts- became ME; a man that didn’t want to give that up. Instead of building forts, I do yard work and remodel my home. (lol)
What got you into teaching Women’s Self-Defense?
When I transferred to UNC-Greensboro, a more close-knit community, I would hear horrible stories of rape, shootings, and other forms of violence on the regular. If one was to set aside gang violence, and the Monkey Dance (nod to ‘Rory Miller’) that most men end up doing to prove who’s in charge… it (for the most part) leaves women and children. Children obviously need to be taught something at an early age, but that is more of a parental responsibility. Women, on the other hand, are the most victimized member of any society and typically find themselves without any training whatsoever. With my love for women and to see them taken care for, came a brutal realization… that many men will not take care of them, and worse, choose to harm them.
In 2007, I decided to write a concise, to-the-point book on self-defense. I had never written anything longer than a college essay before, and before long, I was in a bit of a writer’s rut. I wanted to produce something that could supplement my workshops and give my students some important and potentially life-saving reading material, but the motivation wasn’t quite there. Then in 2008, there were two senseless murders of two lovely young women, Eve Carson of Chapel Hill and Lauren Burk of Auburn. I had never met either of them before, but reading about them and speaking with the Burk family, I knew that they were smart, fun and caring young ladies that, doing nothing wrong, met with a violent end. With this event in my mind, I knew exactly who I wanted to dedicate the book to, and that I needed to get this information out – I needed to do what I could – as soon as I could. With renewed vigor, I finished the book within weeks and self-published it on Lulu.com (The Golden Thread).
Today, my wife and I conduct classes, lectures and workshops on women’s self-defense known as the Outfoxxed Program. We are currently working hard at producing a series of YouTube videos, blogs and other materials to help prepare women for what they may (but hopefully may not) come across. It will certainly take more than my wife and me (Outfoxxed.Com)…but we are determined to make a big impact. If you want to help us help others, please visit our YT Channel and subscribe (and share!). We are also here, always, if you have any questions, suggestions, or concerns.
Beyond just the subject matter, what do you hope your student’s understand?
Beyond the message to “Follow your Bliss”? Not very much (in the realm of martial arts).
However, if speaking to my self-defense students, I’d like to make sure they understand to go beyond the palm-heel strikes and knees to the groin. The bulk of the “attacks” in your life will likely start off insidiously, and unfortunately by someone you know (and trust). If you don’t communicate and/or take action when someone crosses a personal barrier then it will be harder and harder to get out of that situation. Your intuition is what will kick things off. Learn to trust it. Communication may be an avenue to persuade your aggressor to “take a hike.” Learn to use the voice (insert nerdy ‘Dune’ reference here*). I say “the” because there most certainly is a voice, an inflection that produces results. Most husbands know what I’m talking about! lol. This is seldom talked about in self-defense, but might be enough to deter a possible attack before it gets physical. There is also a way of using your body effectively that produces results. Some of these movements are very simple, but without the practice will never become reflexive. Learn to use your body.
What are some of your future goals?
My wife Jenny and I are hard at work creating material for our Outfoxxed YouTube Channel. We are looking forward to engaging with more women and help to bring a change. Viva la revolution! I am currently working on two books: my first fiction novel (which I won’t reveal quite yet), and another book on self-defense. But this won’t just be any ol’ book on self-defense, this is going to be very comprehensive and quite special. With the success of these venture, Jenny and I will hopefully be traveling more, teaching more and enjoying all that we can out of this great Life.
BONUS QUESTION (via T.J. Kennedy)
If you had only one hour to teach a complete beginner self-defense class, knowing they’d have to use it to fight off imminent multiple attackers, what would you teach them?
I can always count on T.J. to ask the hard-hitting questions!
I would break the lesson-plan into quarters. The first 15 minutes will be spent on effective movement, and positioning/obstacle-creating. The second 15 minutes will be on the Trinity Block (love it!), striking and breaking contact/not getting trapped. The third 15 will be (because I will assume that none have been in a single fight before) stress inoculation drills whereby there will be a lot of pushing, cursing and posturing (one-on-one). In this drill, they will have to utilize what they learned from first and second quarter to move, check your surrounding for a possible weapon and finding the right time to preemptively strike (if available at all). The last 15 will be 3 students against 1 (depending on the number of students) and will consist of 3 minutes of mayhem. Momentary evasion, wrestling, and “bad-guys” pinning the “good guy” will likely occur. At the instructor’s command the “bad guys” will jump off and the “good guy” will have to perform push-ups (or at least maintain a plank). Then back into the fray! [Lee Morrison style] The good guy will go through about 3 rounds of this punishment. Without fail… they will understand physically and mentally how difficult it will be to survive the real thing and at the same time feel more prepared.
Thank you all for reading!