Archive for Johnny Kuo

Kuo on “What is Martial Art” : RTD 018

Posted in Day's Lesson, Discussion Question, Martial Arts, Philosophy with tags , , , , , on January 16, 2013 by mindbodykungfu


“Art” is one of those hard-to-define words which means different things to different people. Most people tend to think of the fine arts (painting, sculpture, dance, theater, etc) when “art” is brought up in conversation. In my opinion, art encompasses any endeavor which requires skill and is an expression of the artist. Both the fine arts and the martial arts require refined skills and are a creative expression of the artists.

Human nature has violent and physical aspects, so it only natural that there are art forms set in the context of fighting. What separates the martial “art” from mindless brawling is the systematization of the fighting such that the movements and principles of fighting can be trained without violence necessarily being the end goal. When such a systematization is present, the martial artists can train the craft of fighting and express the principles of a martial arts style in their movements. Watching martial artists who have mastered their craft is similar to watching the skillful movements of a dancer or an athlete competing at peak performance. By blending with an opponent’s attacks and weaving offense and defense, the martial artist is demonstrating a beautiful display of body movement and force interplay.

The practice of martial arts is a physical expression of the practitioner’s self. You can perceive actors performing with feeling, athletes competing with heart, and painters creating with vision. You can also tell the difference between martial practitioners moving with rote, reflexive patterns and the skillful artists moving with intent and dynamically adapting to their opponents. With skilled martial artists, the hours of deliberate practice shine through with efficient movements, powerful attacks, solid defense, clear perception of an opponent’s attacks, and an exquisite sense of timing and distance. The martial artist elevates fighting to a skilled craft.

Coming from a primarily Chinese martial arts background, I also believe another defining characteristic of martial arts is that they are a path to self-improvement. At the most basic level, martial arts training develops focus, discipline, physical conditioning, and camaraderie. However, the self-improvement to which I am referring is the (perhaps cliched) life-altering, fundamental truth-realizing types of change. To pursue a martial art to a high level–or any serious endeavor for that matter–one has to devote a lot of time and effort. That in and of itself cuts off a lot of other life possibilities since time and energy and unfortunately limited resources. While on the path to mastery, martial artists must ask themselves if the art is something they truly wish to pursue and what sacrifices they are willing to make to achieve their goal. They must determine who they are, who they want to be, and what they want out of life before they can commit to pursuing mastery of an art.

To reach high levels of proficiency with a martial art, the practitioner’s mental acuity must be elevated. Even in high level athletics, physical training is rarely the limiting factor; rather it is the mental game that defines the elite. The martial artist’s mind must be trained to maintain focus, develop a keen kinesthetic feel, and perceive the conditions in a fight. Martial artists must develop mental fortitude to deal with the inevitable roadblocks and setbacks on the path to mastery. To reach their full potential, martial artists need to delve into their own psyches to conquer the mental blocks that hold them back and remove the mental clutter that cloud the understanding of fundamental principles. It is in this process of looking inward that the martial artists realize themselves and grow as people.

A martial art is just like any other art form in that a martial art is a skilled pursuit which expresses aspects of life and humanity. The art can form bonds of friendship, help a person grow, and express beauty through skill. It just happens that the “art” is expressed in the context of fighting instead of the more traditional fine arts media.

Johnny Kuo

Mind Body Kungfu


Exercise For Projecting Force | Kuo

Posted in I-Liq Chuan, Internal Arts, Training, Videos with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2012 by mindbodykungfu

One of the things that I find painful to observe when I go to the gym is watching people do squats.  It’s a basic movement that gets butchered since our sedentary lifestyles have made us forget how to move from the hips.  Instead, what happens when people squat is mostly poorly coordinated movements starting from the knees.  Rather than try to explain this in text, I find that Kelly Starrett’s video post about squatting is easier to visualize:

So, what does this have to do with projecting force?

Well, joint sequencing in a squat movement has direct carryover to projecting force.  One thing I often notice with people first learning absorb-project is that the hip-knee coordination is off.  The knees drift forward first, followed by the hips drifting forward, and ultimately resulting in a forward lean with the weight on the toes.  Starting the movement from the knees moves the knee into a suboptimal angle for bearing force, which in turn puts unnecessary shear stress on the knee and shifts most of the movement load to the quadriceps.  There is also a tendency to lose suction on the kua when initiating from the knees.  This manifests as the front of the body opening up and the mingmen closing; consequently, the shoulders move backwards as the body is moving forward, which is an inefficient movement pattern for projecting force forward.  Projecting by initiating with forward knee movement results in movement that is off-balance, not harmonized, skewed towards a yang-only energy, and stresses the knees more than necessary.

 If we stick to I-Liq Chuan principles

…and project and expand from the mingmen to initiate the movement, we get joint sequencing more like a proper squat.  The mingmen and hips move back first, which keeps the knee in a better position. The aligned knee position allows axial force transfer through the joint, which minimize shear stress.  With the force moving more through the center of the knee joint instead of shearing out, the quads don’t have to work so hard counteracting knee flexion (bending) and can thus be more relaxed.  Moving from the hips first also distributes force to the strong posterior chain muscles (i.e. hamstrings and glutes) in addition to engaging the quads, so we get  harmonization of the yin and yang muscles.

Johnny Kuo

[Originally posted 3/13/12, MindBodyKungfu.Com]

The Body Line | Johnny Kuo

Posted in Martial Arts, Teaching Topic, Training with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2012 by mindbodykungfu

After the center of the feet, usually the first “easy” idea I teach to new students is paying attention to the body line. When the hand (or more precisely, the point of contact) is inside the body line, it is easier to absorb. Conversely, when the hand crosses outside of the body line, it is easier to project force. The body line is an important transition point which needs to be recognized to maintain unification with an opponent’s force.

It’s a simple concept that is easy to demonstrate. Just move the hand inside or outside the body line and try absorbing to pull or projecting to push against a partner’s force. The importance of recognizing open vs closed becomes evident just from the touch feedback. Absorbing while open or projecting while closed only generates power from the arms and is harder. Projecting while open or absorbing when closed links up more joints in the body and generates more power with less effort.

Why this should be the case might not be immediately obvious. A quick thought experiment can explain the body line transition. Imagine the shoulder as a center of rotation for the arm in the horizontal plane. The point at which the arm is at its front-most position is directly perpendicular to the body (i.e. at the body line). If we borrow some math from the previous post on spheres of offense and defense, we can treat the body line direction as a diameter line of a circle. As the arm crosses inside or outside the body line, the diameter line is crossed. The forward-back motion vector of the arm (i.e. the tangent the arc) switches sign upon crossing the body line.

Alternatively, we can use a clock as our circular motion model. When the minute hand goes from 9 to 12, there is an upward movement component. Exactly at 12, there is no upward or backward movement component. After 12 is passed, the minute hand has a downward movement component. Once the hand crosses the transition point, there is a change from a forward to backward movement.

Of course, the human body does not move strictly according to rigid body mechanics, and movements usually involve several joints. The simple analysis is imperfect, but it serves as a rough approximation for understanding the mechanics.

Johnny Kuo


(Originally post. 2/17/2011)

Blink and The Power of Words

Posted in I-Liq Chuan, Products, Training with tags , , , , , , on January 29, 2012 by mindbodykungfu

I recently read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and found the book to be quite enjoyable. The premise of how the mind can perceive things in an instant has parallels to the mental aspects of I-Liq Chuan training. We train the mind to remain attentive to the moment such that we can truly perceive and flow with the present conditions.  One section of the book I found particularly interesting was the description of professional tasters.  Developing a highly refined sense of taste has mental training aspects of which I was unaware.  I had an interesting insight after reading Gladwell’s description of how professional tasters develop their skill.

You’d think that professional tasters are gifted with super sensitive taste buds, and to a degree that may be true. However, the extent to which a professional taster’s tongue differs from everyone else’s is probably not that big. The average person can generally tell whether they like something or not, and tell whether they think one thing tastes better than another. In this respect, the professional taster’s tongue is no different than your average Joe or Jane. However, if you put a twist on the taste test, the pros quickly separate themselves from the field of amateurs. Ask the average person why they like one thing better than another, and their answers will be all over the map and inconsistent with their actual taste preferences. The pro tasters on the other hand can tell you in excruciating detail exactly why they liked one taste more than another. In another example, if you gave the average person two of the same item and one different item and wanted the items ranked, he would have trouble differentianting which product was which. A professional taster could easily distinguish each product.

What gives the pro the advantage? First, it would be the extensive taste training (education and practice).  However, it’s not just the training that sets them apart.  We all eat and drink everyday and thus receive a fair amount of daily experience tasting things.  The other important factor would be that professional tasters learn specific vocabulary to categorize and grade different tastes. I found this fact to be utterly fascinating. By learning taste jargon, the professional tasters have a conceptual framework on which to develop their skill.  Just learning to describe tastes gives you a system for understanding flavors and really developing your attention to your tongue.

Sifu made it a point to us to pay attention to the words he used to describe the I-Liq Chuan system. Absorb-project, open-close, condense-expand, etc. all have specific meanings. Substitutions of terms are discouraged. This is a mild annoyance at first if you are used to using other terms, but there are compelling reasons to being so exact with terminology. The first I understood was that everyone learns the same terms so that discussion between practitioners is meaningful and has minimal confusion. If everyone uses a standard jargon, it is much easier for everyone to converse and improve each other’s understanding.

The other important reason didn’t dawn on me until reading Blink. Language affects your conceptualization of ideas. The vocabulary defines a conceptual framework for the system. Sifu spent a lot of time being specific with his choice of terms; that makes a lot of sense since language both defines the conceptual framework for learning the system and provides a vehicle for information exchange. The system starts you with specific vocabulary to lay the conceptual foundation for honing your skill in the art.

Johnny Kuo

[Originally Posted at MindBodyKungfu 2/11/11]


The Food Connection

Posted in Health, Nutrition with tags , , , , , , , on March 14, 2011 by mindbodykungfu

Growing up in a restaurant family, I’ve always been surrounded by good food and good cooks.  Even after I left the restaurant life to pursue my education, food has been an important theme in my life.  I’ve always felt it important to eat well and that food plays a pivotal role in our lives.  We must eat regularly to nourish our bodies and thrive. What food we eat determines what nutrition we receive and how well we can maintain our health.

You are what you eat

We obtain the nutrients we need to live from the food we eat; food is an integral part of our being.  Our health and well being is intimately tied to the food we eat.  Unfortunately, what we choose to eat sometimes (perhaps too often) only loosely qualifies as food.

The hectic pace of modern life has made fast, convenience, and junk foods a fixture in our lives.  Unfortunately, these industrialized foods are not designed for providing the highest quality and most nutritious foods.  Rather, they are geared towards minimizing costs and maximizing profits.  Achieving those goals means sacrificing flavor and nutrition in favor of transportability, shelf life, and lower cost (i.e. lower quality) ingredients.

The industrialization of our food has been a mixed blessing.  Our food is now cheaper and more readily available.  On the other hand, our food choices are now often less nutrient dense, higher in calories, more homogeneous tasting, contain artificial additives, and less like actual food.  We do less food preparation ourselves than our parents and grandparents, and have become disconnected from our food.  We have instead come to rely on the black box of large scale commercial, agri-industrial production for our dietary needs.  This has given us a host of undesirable consequences:

  • the prevalence of highly processed products full of high fructose corn syrupand all manner of industrial ingredients (preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, partially hydogenated oils, etc.).  These “food” products are calorific and shelf stable, but otherwise nutritionally void.
  • grain fed, antibiotic pumped meat unnaturally high in saturated fat and low in several nutrients (omega-3, vitamins, and various antioxidants).
  • hormone injected dairy cows producing high estrogen content milk.  Commercial dairy products are implicated in disrupting normal endocrine function and promoting cancer.
  • industrially farmed and imported produce which is unripe, insipid, less nutritious, and more monocultured than locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Combine suboptimal dietary choices with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and it’s unsurprising that health problems are rising.  We’re seeing high rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and food sensitivities among other disorders.

Healing power of food

Fortunately, positive changes in diet can be readily implemented and effect significant health improvements.  Just as eating poorly throws a wrench into your system’s gears, eating well returns your body to the well oiled machine it was meant to be.  Properly fueled, the human body has an amazing ability to heal itself.

Many of the diseases we suffer in the modern developed world are preventable with simple lifestyle choices–most notably diet and exercise.  Just eating well has positive effects on digestive tract health, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, bone health, body weight, immune system function, mental alertness, and energy levels.

How do we go about eating well?  There is already a cornucopia of available material on the subject, but I think a quote from Michael Pollan summarizes the general strategy nicely: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Eat food

Minimally processed whole foods are superior to the cardboard and plastic packaged convenience food.  Finding these foods means shopping on the perimeter of a grocery store where the fresh foods are instead of towards the center where the processed, prepackaged, and artificial stuff usually is.  If possible, it is even better to shop at a local farmers’ markets or grow some of your own food.  With real food in hand, do as much meal preparation yourself as you can.  By reconnecting yourself to the creation of your food, you will enjoy healthier, more nutritious, and more flavorful meals.

Not too much

Fast and prepackaged foods are designed for parting consumers with their money.  They are nutrient sparse and designed to encourage overeating.  They do not fully sate you or adequately nourish you, but they addict you to eating them; consequently, you become programmed to crave and eat more.  That’s wonderful for corporate bottom lines, but not so great for your bottom (or midsection as the case may be).

In contrast, eating high quality, nutrient dense foods satisfies your body’s needs, requiring less consumption for satiety.  After a few weeks of eating a nutritious dietof fresh, whole foods, portion control becomes more natural as you deprogram the commercial food cravings and truly satisfy your body’s nutritional needs.

Mostly plants

Humans are omnivores with an amazing digestive tract that can derive our nutrition from a multitude of flora and fauna.  However, we still need to remember to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; just because we can survive on a carnivorous diet doesn’t mean that we should.  The human digestive tract works optimally with plant food sources (e.g. fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, etc) and can be supplemented by animal sources (e.g. meat and dairy).  A diet rich in plant foods provides essentials like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which help us stay healthy and thrive.

We cannot remain unaware of the source of our food, how it is grown and processed, and how it is prepared.  To disconnect ourselves from the creation of our food means paying a hefty long term nutrtitional and health price.  We must instead strive to be mindful of our food choices.  Paying attention to our food reconnects us to the vital process of nourishing ourselves building strong, healthy bodies.

Johnny Kuo


NOTE: As anyone will tell you, always consult a physician when concerned about your health, diet and direction of your wellness plan.  As for ANY nutritional and dietary information on this site (or ANYWHERE), please use your own good judgement.  The authors of this website, are not registered dietitians, but have a strong background in health, wellness & exercise.  Proper nutrition just goes with the territory.

Point Of Contact

Posted in I-Liq Chuan, Internal Arts, Teaching Topic, Techniques, Training with tags , , , , , , on February 4, 2011 by mindbodykungfu

In my experience with learning and teaching I-Liq Chuan, I have noticed that a lot of time is spent training the point of contact.  Once the basic understanding of body unification is achieved, training can quickly progress to framing movements in terms of the point of contact.  The point of contact provides a context for movements and serves as a training aid which guides the training progression.

The way I usually introduce the the point of contact is as a physical link for coupling force into your opponent.  To affect your opponent’s structure (or control balance via the structure), you need a link to couple your force into your opponent.  The most straightforward way to do that would be to grab at the point of contact.  The coupling of force can also be done without grabbing.  The touch contact needs to align to solid structure (i.e. bone), and the body must unify to the point of contact.  When those two conditions are met at the point, usable force can be coupled into the opponent’s structure.

The nature of the point of contact is dynamic.  Outside of static demonstrations for teaching, the point of contact will be constantly changing.  This necessitates attention to the point of contact to perceive the present conditions at the point.  The act of focusing the attention to feeling and adapting to the changing point is itself training.  Like breathing in sitting meditation, paying attention to the point of contact is a mental focus tool during partner training.  Spinning to flow at the point is largely a mental exercise.

Probably most importantly (at least from my point of view as an instructor), the point of contact provides a feedback tool.  Whether a student understands body unification or movement applications can be felt from touch.  The same touch at the point of contact can be used to provide kinesthetic feedback.  Once the correct touch has been demonstrated and felt, the student has a diagnostic to gauge whether the body alignments and movement modifications are correct.  The point of contact serves as a training diagnostic for both the instructors and students to assess and correct alignments and movements.

I-Liq Chuan Reflections

Posted in I-Liq Chuan, Internal Arts, Martial Arts, Styles with tags , , , , , , , on January 10, 2011 by mindbodykungfu

What originally got me interested in I-Liq Chuan (literally translated mental-physical fist) was an interaction I had with Sifu Sam F.S. Chin. When I was still in North Carolina, we invited Sifu to give a workshop introducing his family art. I touched hands with Sifu during the seminar and experienced something quite unexpected. Sifu’s touch had me jammed up. My structure was locked up, and I could not lift my feet from the ground without Sifu controlling my balance. At the same time I had this sinking feeling that releasing his touch from my arms was not a safe method of escape. It was disconcerting to be completely dominated on touch.

The skill level demonstrated got my attention, but what hooked me was the teaching approach. The first thing taught was not techniques, drills, or forms. The first thing Sifu discussed was mindfulness. The emphasis from the beginning was that martial skill was based on the mind being free to perceive what our senses are telling us. At the time, the philosophical discussion left my head throbbing and wondering how it was relevant to training a martial art. Yet, it is this very grounding in Zen thought that has been the most important lesson imparted from the training. Training one’s mental attentions develops the mind-body connection and unification of the self; it also enhances perception of the conditions of the moment, which is essential for harmonizing with an opponent.

Sifu Sam Chin*

What committed me to I-Liq Chuan was seeing skill being transmitted to the students. It is one thing to have the master who can demonstrate the skills; it’s more impressive to see students also manifesting the same skills. Sifu Chin spent a long time contemplating the best methods for teaching the art. The result of that effort is a well-defined curriculum which first lays out the philosophy, principles and concepts, and then outlines progressions of solo and partner training. By starting with the conceptual framework, the ILC system establishes a philosophical foundation to guide the training. This top-down approach (i.e. concepts before specific training) emphasizes active attention to the core principles. In this manner, the training is guided by purpose and a clear path of progression.

Though I initially started training for martial purposes, fighting ability has not been the most valued skill I’ve learned from training ILC. Rather, I value more that ILC has equipped me to develop on my own. I haven’t always had consistent access to ILC training partners. A lot of my training has involved cross-training with practitioners of other arts. Despite this, having an understanding of key principles has allowed me to continue advancing my skill in ILC. Instead of distracting me from my core art, the cross-training has served as a test of my understanding and training of principles across different contexts. ILC has provided me with a conceptual framework and mental tools to take charge of my own progress. The ability to self-reflect and self-guide my training has given me the most valuable skill: self-improvement.

Johnny Kuo

Combative Corner Profile



[ HERE ]

* Sifu Sam Chin is the founder of I-Liq Chuan.  For more info on him and this family system, visit his page [here]

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