Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bobbe Edmonds - The Importance of Flow


I will fail at explaining this. Ultimately, I have to – there has never really been a successful literary definition of "flow" for the martial arts, and definitions change with perspective and ability. I stand with a long line of distinguished attempts, though: Dan Inosanto, Herman Suwanda, Bob Orlando, Cacoy Canete…in this respect, I'm in good company.

I'm going to attempt to make dozens of points about flow, but nothing is going to nail it down completely because flow can really only be described through feel, not through description. Anyone who knows how to flow knows this. Anyone who doesn't will likely scoff at it.

I used to think "Fluidity" meant "Speed". When I first began training, the typical approach to fluidity was that the faster you could do something, the more fluid you actually were. That the rate of speed you could reach dictated the level of flow you had. And if I couldn't make it faster, I made the technique higher - so a kick to the chest would become a kick to the head. A foot sweep would become a thigh kick. I have no idea why I did this, maybe I was going for flash if I couldn't reach flow.

As laughably misguided as this was, there was no way for me to discover how far off course I actually was (largely through youth and natural dexterity). I was getting good results across the board, because it was rehearsed to the nth degree. I could do my forms extremely fast and precise, because I trained them into my bones. However, I had no plan for adaptation, and no ability to recover if I slipped, made an error or just plain forgot where I was (which happens to everyone, at some time).

Speed comes with fluidity, but not vice versa. You can't force the fit. Flow can fit into any martial art, but it can't be contained or corralled by any. If you have flow, you don't actually need a martial art. You can "become" any of them. Martial arts don't normally "shrink down" to fit practitioners, or expand to accommodate growth.

Flow does both of these, without force or stagnating, restrictive conventions.

There are several definitions of flow, with regards to the martial arts. I'm going to address a few, but my chief point is completely random flow; constant and unrehearsed.

The first problem is acceptance: "Flow" seems to be the goal of almost every martial art in the world, but obstacles and pitfalls are set in the path of the practitioner that frequently lead them to believe otherwise. Ideas such as lineage, dozens of forms, drills without end and a crispy white uniform are attractive distractions from real knowledge. Further, the logical thought process that fits with learning choreography as an answer to every combative situation.

You'll see this in many traditional martial arts, the need to define and propagate balance and rooted stability over flow. The thought process is linear, first you stand, then you walk, etc.

In my opinion, this is a kind of ham-fisted attempt at re-inventing the stand-walk-run process. Fluidity will save you where rooting cannot, in a combative scenario fluidity can open lines of attack and evasion, where rooting and stillness tend to encourage the practitioner into a "stand there and take it" mentality.

If you are training martial arts, chances are pretty good you have already mastered balance in motion. The simple walking or running that you did in school taught you everything you needed to know about propulsion, balance, maintaining and the loss of balance, as well as intermittent timing. This simplicity doesn't change with combat; the only difference is in the variations that occur in application. In other words, now you have to stay on your feet when the punches and kicks come flying in!

That sounds odd, but when you look at the kinds of people who manipulate both flow and balance in rhythm – dancers, for instance – you see that it's naturally self-validating and completely adaptive to sudden changes in tempo and terrain.

That's not to overlook the one critical difference between dancing and combat: In dance, no one is trying to kill you, there's usually no opposing force. Just as the 2% difference in DNA between primates and humans makes all the difference between having bananas or an omelet for breakfast, that simple fact of violence certainly is the deciding factor between the kind of balance in stillness you find in forms, and the fluidity of balance in motion you find in actual combat.

Flow will save you where strength, technique or speed cannot. Flow cannot be cheated, it can't be faked. If you understand flow and the use of it, you will more easily understand underlying principles that most classical martial arts are built on, without having to train every step in the process of that art. The ability to flow is a martial art unto itself, although it can - and should - be applied in all martial arts.

Flow overrides curriculum – you can teach curriculum out of flow, but not vice versa. Everything considered in the martial realm as a "flow drill", whilst absolutely useful as a primer to those who are just learning to relax and move at high rates of speed, will eventually come to a place where it loses its conduciveness to flow. I would go so far as to say that a flow drill MIMICS flow, under a set of predetermined circumstances. In the end, it's still a hell of a leap between "Flow drill", and flow itself.

Flow accepts any scenario - unlike forms. A much more complimentary and productive tool to have in your chest than 200 Jurus (or Kata, or Kuen) is the ability to flow within technique. A person who knows his art by form and stance cannot compare with an adept who bases his art on motion and adaptation. The former will always be looking to predetermined motions for answers, the latter will allow them to come to him in whatever form they take, unbiased. Flow is also imperative to understanding the application of forms, for those times when you aren't being "fed an attack", you get a feel for true interaction with violent intent at high rates of speed that's unpredictable because it's unrehearsed. You learn how to compensate for size and strength, how to recover from mistakes and exploit those your opponent makes without having to stop and examine your feet, your hand placement, etc.

Choreography Vs. Flow

"It's All In Your Forms"

That saying cannot possibly be true. I hear it preached to the unwashed masses at every opportunity, and see it proven wrong even more often.

Forms differ from one end of the spectrum to the other; some seem to be an attempt at creating a "technique catalog", others are nothing more than basic motions that act as placemarkers for

Still others are combinations of principles and techniques, played out from attack to conclusion in a solo exercise.

The best forms, in my opinion, work the underlying principles of technique, usually as reflected by the style the come from. I've never seen anyone who was completely fluid and adept at their art who got their answers from forms. Don't get me wrong, most of them say that's where they get it from, but I see them working technique and applying principles that can't be found anywhere in their systems, let alone the Kata of said system.

I feel this is another ingrained response in the style of "It's all in your forms".

The practitioner who is constantly running to a form for answers in a fluid environment will be looking for new recipes in an old book their entire lives. Flow allows you to invent your own answers, without the need for rote memorization of choreography that probably doesn't conform to your body type, speed or strength. There is a confidence in the practitioner who can flow, knowing that they don't need to have a secret book of form interpretation because they can adapt to whatever comes their way.

No, I'm Not Trying To Say Everyone Else Sucks

I used to hold fast to the belief that the linear progression of study – such as they way many of us learn a martial art - was the only game in town. In fact, after learning to completely relax and move in combative flow, I knew it was what I had been missing out on all these years, but I still considered it something to be dispensed like an award, given judiciously after years of hard work in class. This is hereditary in many martial art schools – that's how the teacher learned it, and if it was good enough for him, etc.

About six years ago I began to meet people who not only had flow, but taught it from the beginning, skipping over years of in-the-trenches grunt work. This immediately dismayed me, because I felt thought that only through meticulous understanding of the intrinsic calculations of each stance, motion and technique could the art be truly understood…and I dismissed it as a fad.

I learned how wrong I was later, seeing the results the students of these people, and their abilities. What they lacked in finesse, they more than made up for in abundance of technique…and these were people who had only been training a few years, five at most. It was difficult to accept, even with the evidence staring me in the face, but I eventually came around to the concept of flow as the centerpiece to an art that conforms to the practitioner, and never loses relevance no matter the speed or scenario.

The conventions that work against discovering and evolving flow in martial arts are overwhelming, and the chances of just happening to stumble on it are largely against the average practitioner.

This method isn't for everyone. That's not to say everyone couldn't benefit from it, but – not everyone will embrace it. Many practitioners find a kind of comfort in the safe choreography of forms, knowing they are part of a tradition that has been handed down the same way for generations.

For the most part, I firmly believe you need a guide who is experienced in flow to begin with – someone who can control the tempo when it threatens to get out of hand, to make corrections and give constant reminders when the practitioner is reverting to some of the ingrained habits that the sink-and-root process instills. Fluid action looks fast, even when done slowly, and the inexperienced practitioner will fall into a tendency to run to the safety of what they know: Bringing density to their bodies to root in a stance, holding their breath and grabbing their partners in an attempt to "slow down" the action.

A common knee-jerk response to fear is body density. We clench up when startled, or threatened. We restrict and throttle our natural abilities, and sabotage our defense system by letting the lizard run free in our minds.

The natural antidote for this is flow, but it's not a cure you can consume overnight.


My deepest gratitude to Bobbe Edmonds for his kind permission in allowing me to repost his article.

Photo Credit:  Bobbe Edmonds

You can contact Bobbe Edmonds via Facebook or his blog Thick as Thieves and last but not least, please check out his YouTube Channel.



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