lca2011 talk: Applying martial arts in real life

Below is a talk I gave in the Haecksen miniconf at 2011 (Brisbane). I’ve tried to embed some videos and links that would be useful and interesting to people, and I’ll link the video of the talk once that’s available (although I warn you, it includes physical demonstrations and a live overdubbing of Kung Fu Panda due to not having sound for my presentation) :).

Update: Video of the talk below, and then the more detailed blog post. Warning, I speak *very* fast πŸ™‚

Basic introduction to martial arts and concepts

“Life is what you make it.”

We’re all given that advice from birth, and many of us, particularly in the West expect then to be able to strong arm our way into whatever we want to do. I see life as much less just at the whim of the individual, and more subject to the conditions and context of their environment. This is not to say we are limited, but rather we need to recognise, take into account and respond to or indeed modify our environment if we are to achieve what we set out to do.

Martial arts is essentially the study of oneself, ones environment and how the two interact. At a very basic level, martial arts will help you better navigate face to face combat or read your environment and the people around you to avoid conflict in the first instance, if indeed you want to avoid the conflict.

However, applied properly, martial arts will prepare you to be completely and utterly competent to deal with everything life throws at you. They help you see conflict as a practise ground, see your habits are conquerable, see fear as just another form of energy, and importantly, see everything as a gift.

In this talk I’ll be dealing with some martial theories and how they translate from combat to everyday life, but first I would like to talk a little about fear.

Dealing with fear

I’d like to draw from one of the most important modern classics in the theory and practise of martial arts.

That’s right, Kung Fu Panda.

Throughout the film, Po greatly fears Tai Leng and thinks himself incapable of possibly taking up theΒ  challenge of defeating him.

Fear is usually used to achieve or maintain power by appearing to limit the options available, which means it is only as effective as the recipient permits. If you are terrified, your animal instincts kick in reducing you to a few base reactive options. If you are not fearful, then you have many options open to you.

When it comes to combat, self defence is a real challenge for many women, because we feel overly sensitive to what we learn being able to be applied in real life because there is so much fear around women being attacked. I put to you that fear is not just a symptom, but part of the cause of the disproportionate suffering of women in society. By constantly differentiating women as being “weaker” or in need of protection (“women and children first!”) we have set the condition by which it is assumed women are an easier target and unable to help themselves.

Nowadays, I feel very uncomfortable using the term “self defence” because I reject the premise that I am a victim.

I prefer “combat” πŸ™‚

The fact is many martial arts take into account the fact that humans come in all shapes in sizes and regardless of strength, size, flexibility or personality, an individual can easily learn and apply appropriate methods for their specific disposition which will be utterly effective.

One of the best lessons I ever had in combat was surprisingly from a four year old girl. I was at a friends place and her little girl was running full bawl at me in a game where I was using some combat techniques to gently draw her in, redirect her slightly into a 180 degree turn and then propelling her back into her mini-couch. It was an incredible lesson because I discovered that I was applying the particular function (9 Palace Palm) the most effectively I ever had. It was through the joyful application of the function that it was relaxed, was precise, was perfectly effective not in turning a small child around, but in seamlessly redirecting her intent.

So with regards to fear, it is important to learn the root of your fears, deal with them, and then not be limited by them. It is important to deal with anything life throws at your with fresh eyes and free of baggage, so you can see things for exactly what they are and deal with them effectively, even joyfully rather than buying into a state of mind you don’t actually want to have.

So, bringing it back to Kung Fu Panda, by the end of the movie (the big “fight” scene) we find that Po chooses to not buy into the fear Tai Leng provokes, but sees the situation as a joyful one and his attitude undoes the fear Tai Leng has tried to bring to bear. It means Po does not respond as Tai Leng expects, it gives him the opportunity to change the playing field completely.


Now with some of the head space taken care of.

Martial arts teach you how to be strategic. They teach you to see things for what they are and deal accordingly. They teach you to be so in tune with yourself and your environment that you are capable of choosing the most strategic and harmonious outcome to any situation, or indeed to your life as a whole.

What does harmony matter? Living harmoniously doesn’t mean being kicked around, it doesn’t mean taking the “good” or moral path (or the “bad” path for that matter), it means choosing the least destructive path possible, trying to “leave no footprints”. It means recognising that your every action has repercussions. Only by being able to see and take responsibility for your every action, can you make a well considered decision and take the least damaging path for all concerned. This both empowers you by opening up options, and allows you to think more laterally about what it is you are trying to achieve.

Harmony doesn’t necessarily mean flowers and candy, it might mean turning the other cheek, it might mean waging war, it might mean setting yourself on fire. It is the path of least destruction upon taking *everything* into account, now and into the future.

Basically, martial arts are about learning to really see what is happening around you and choosing a path, rather than stumbling along blindly, swearing at the furniture that you bump into.

Below are a few concepts and how they apply in combat and in life.

Embrace and extend

Often in combat, it is easier to buy into, or at least appear to buy into the direction and intent of your opponent, and through subtle redirection to turn the situation around.

A good combat example is the 9 Palace Palm technique I mentioned before, where your arm extends and touches your opponents punch as it extends and subtly, without them feeling it, you move the arm the 2 degrees or do so it misses you whilst placing them in a vulnerable position close to you. You use their energy to place them exactly where you want them, and you need to be subtle, because if they feel their arm being grabbed, or forced, they will simply pull back and you lose the ability too leverage their momentum.

An example in real life, indeed my own childhood, is my wonderful Grandpa, who upon hearing the annoying pleas from my brother and I as young children to go to McDonalds (I know, I’m embarrassed). He would greet our enthused cries with “Where? Where is it? Awww! We missed it! Next time kids!”. I didn’t tweak to this trick until many years later πŸ™‚ If we’d known he was intentionally going past we would not have been nearly as gracious in our acceptance of missing out.


When you see a situation completely, you can determine if you want to allow it to progress to its natural conclusion. If you accept the premise of a situation you now limit yourself to the associated options. You do however, at all times, have the option to reframe, to change the premise.

The best combat example of all time is the scene in Indiana Jones between him and the sword fighter. The sword fighter displays his skillz utterly confident he is one of the best sword fighters (although he’s kind of rubbish), and rather than buying into that premise, Indy shoots him. Please see the talk video for a combat example.


A wonderful example of reframing in real life is where one of my martial arts teachers was at a beer garden with friends, children and family when a local oaf approached him very aggressively and demanded a fight to determine who was the best fighter. My master rapidly realised that to buy into the premise of combat would put people around him in danger, including the children attending. So he did something that the oaf was simply not prepared for. He fell to the ground saying “‘don’t hurt me”. The oaf said “stupid pussy” and walked off, my teacher got up and completed his meal with his family in peace. The opinion of such a person is rarely worth worrying about πŸ™‚

Limit your opponents options

Sometimes it is within your power to limit the options of opponents around you, at least as the situation pertains to you. This can be a useful way to at least make more predictable an opponents actions.

For instance, if someone is clearly shaping up to engage you in combat, you can get your self into a stance which either limits where they can hit you, or specifically invites them to attack a target in order to lull them into a trap. In either case, you have also limited your options, but you’ve made the conflict easier to manage and the dangers easier to mitigate.

In life, an effective but not very nice example would be telling someone something that will make them angry in a public place to try to minimise their reaction.

Use what you have

Knowing what is available to your at all times is a good way to ensure you always use what you have to hand effectively. One reason there are so many weapons in Chinese martial arts is because martial arts have been banned by various rulers or warlords, so people had to find less obvious weapons such as chopsticks, umbrellas or fans to defend themselves in what have been at times quite violent periods.

Know your Strengths and weaknesses

Everyone is unique and thus have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. This is a large part of the reason why there are so many styles, they each cater to a different physiological and psychological makeup. Those who believe that strength is important to combat are quite deluded. Often strength makes a person a little slower, and seeing it takes so little to hurt a person (much less than everyone assumes) the faster opponent will often have a good advantage in combat.

There are still people who like to debate the “myth of women warriors”, and it is quite ridiculous because we have had women warriors right throughout history, and because battle is even now, less about brute strength and more about strategy. Check out the extended reading below for a good blog post on this by my Shifu (master) and the Wikipedia page is also awesome.

In Shaolin Gung Fu, the many animal styles are a great way to understand how you can both find a skills that suits your unique makeup, and how you can shift physical and mental tools to best tackle the situation in front of you.

In the video of the talk I spoke about and demonstrated very basically a few different animals, so please watch the video for these demonstrations. I discussed Crane, Tiger, Snake, Leopard and Drunkard boxing. Please check out the Shanmen Shaolin school website category of animal styles articles for more information on various animal styles πŸ™‚ It’s much more detailed and useful that I spoke about.


The body is a temple

In ancient times when the founder of Gung Fu, an Indian Buddhist monk called Da Mo came to lead Shaolin temple, he basically found a bunch of pious tubbies. He showed them that you can’t find clarity unless your body is an enabler, rather than an inhibitor. Martial Arts, as with all things, are easier to put into practise if you are healthy. A large part of the reason I am vegetarian is because for me, I am healthier, so figure out what is healthy for you.

Determining the battlefield

Finally it is worth briefly mentioning that by determining the battlefield you have some control over the battle. Some ideas to consider include:

  • try to avoid conflict through good living
  • honesty, discipline, fairness, equality are all important to maintaining a good army, basically don’t be a tool
  • do not involve yourself with the impractical
  • understand each conversation, argument, and all things as parts of a whole
  • strive to understand it all
  • make sure you only engage in battle when it suits you and under conditions favourable to you. If you can’t, then ensure you minimise any benefits the enemy holds over you

Always leave an exit

At the Geek Girl dinner after Haecksen, I met Jess who added to the list of stuff from my talk a wonderful little gem. Always ensure your opponent has an exit available to them. If you don’t provide a way out ofΒ  the situation, combat or verbally, then they are backed into a corner and you limit the opportunities to achieve a harmonious outcome. The situation simply escalates.

Last word

In everything you do, own it, take responsibility for your every action, and try to live with awareness and harmoniously and you’ll find things fall into place.


Catch up, and what’s to come!

This last 3 weeks have been insane. So much cool stuff, and I keep thinking “I need to blog about this or that, and then not making the time! Below is a quite recap of the cool stuff I’ve done and been involved in over the last few weeks. I have a few lengthy blogs posts coming up to cover some of these in detail, but in the meantime, I AM STILL ALIVE EVERYONE! πŸ™‚

New Zealand trip
Jeff and I planned to take a short holiday, unfortunately on the day Jeff remembered he hadn’t got his passport renewed after it was stolen in Malaysia. Argh! I ended up going anyway, spending two days snowboarding at Mt Hutt near Christchurch with a friend (hi Glynn!), then a few days hanging out with Glynn and Jayne in Wellington doing Pilates, training with an awesome Shaolin Gung Fu master, and hacking on OLPC related work in preparation for an upcoming trip for the Aussie OLPC trial I’m helping rollout (more details on that later, so please don’t ask yet! πŸ™‚ I got to catch up with the Wellington “Friends in Testing” OLPC group and got inspired to start a regular OLPC usergroup in Sydney, to be announced at SLUG in the coming week! All in all a tiring but awesome holiday πŸ™‚

Aussie OLPC trial
I’m running Australia’s first serious OLPC trial which has been technically challenging, and has consumed _all_ of my time over the previous few months. It has been awesome and I’ve have just now finished the implementation. The documentation will be made publicly available (and put on the OLPC wiki) in the coming week or two. We’ve basically done a world first of focusing on the remote collaboration and child support element of what the OLPC vision and technologies can deliver, so I’m really excited to be involved in this, and hopefully the lessons we learnt will assist many others πŸ™‚ We connected up 3 schools, such that specialist teachers can provide support to children in remote areas. Very interesting and the children are thriving with the tools they are playing with. I did a trip to the two remote locations, and we had a film crew come with us who are making a short internal doco, which may hopefully be able to be publicly disseminated over the coming months.

Linuxchix Microconf
Today I’m participating in a Linuxchix Microconf, a bunch of awesome women from Sydney and Melbourne participating in a video conference where people in both locations are presenting to the combined group real time, and it has been great. My talk is in an hour (just finished my slides πŸ˜‰ and the day has covered a huge range of topics. All have been recorded and I believe will be made available for everyone. Awesome job by Alice, Mary, Sun-Hee and a huge thanks to Google for the resources. They provided the venue, videoconferencing, and a tasty spread of catering!

Coming up!

  • Documentation and publishing of all OLPC stuff plus kick off of bigger regional community project
  • Malaysian Government event on FOSS, and FOSS MY, I’ll be speaking about building FOSS community building and stuff happening in Governments. I’m really excited about going to Malaysia both to see the country, and to learn more about their approach to FOSS, which seems to be pretty cool. I’ll try to live blog during the event.
  • Open Education Workshop – ASK-OSS in collaboration with the NSW Department of Education is launching a workshop on Open Education to both share knowledge, and to start trying to understand the needs of the sector, and making a strategic plan for Open Education in Australia. This is meant to be broad to include FOSS, Open Standards, Open Knowledge, and open collaboration methodologies amongst much more. If you are in education and interested in openness, come along and participate!

Anyway, much more blogging to do, and I’ll try to be less slack even though there is so much going on πŸ™‚

TechFest, TechGirls, GeekGirls and Software Freedom

The last couple of weeks have been CRAZY! After getting back from my incredible Gung Fu week away, It was straight into everything. I flew back Saturday night, Sunday morning Jeff and I ran an OLPC TechFest in Sydney which had some amazing people come along, get talks about the OLPC server and XO projects, and then have some useful hacking time. In the middle of that I ran away to a wedding which was a big and wonderful Italian wedding, so Jeff was left holding the fort at the TechFest. There will be a more full report about the TechFest soon but there is a great write up by Sarah Maddox, so thanks Sarah! Awesome work by Martin Langhoff and Joel Stanley, who both totally rock!

A couple of days ago I spoke at a TechGirls event up at the Central Coast. I was the keynote speaker to about 200 girls aged 11-16 from the area, and it was fantastic! I got some excellent feedback (from girls and teachers alike) and I received this email which made it so incredibly worth it!

I thought you spoke extremely well and you have inspired me and my friends a lot. I aim to be a Graphic Designer sometime in the near future and you have encouraged me to follow my dreams. Up until today i was undecided if that was the career i wanted to pursue but after your speech today it has made my mind up. Thankyou very much for attending and sharing your views today. You have helped me choose my career.

Yes! I got a few other awesome emails and it was so exciting to have so many girls keen to get into IT.

Tonight was the third GeekGirl dinner in Sydney, which was awesome. Over 110 people (about 85% women) all getting together for an awesome evening of food, wine and talks. We had Claudia and another girl from Yahoo, and then Sara Falamaki, and all the talks were awesome. Then we played Guitar Hero for a while and it was a late night home. An awesome night and a major thanks to Damana, all the other organisers and to Yahoo for putting on such a great night πŸ™‚

I’m currently (and have been for a couple of years) President of Software Freedom International, the body behind Software Freedom Day which is coming up in September. This is an awesome day and we had over 330 teams from over 90 countries last year all taking the concepts of freedom, democratic software, and of course FOSS to the mainstream. All the teams generally do events that are locally relevant and you’ll see some teams have an entire village do a march, or a music festival, or, as Nepal did last year, a candle lighting ceremony πŸ™‚ It is a fascinating and exciting event and I’m so proud to be able to help make it happen. Anyway, we opened registrations for teams almost 2 weeks ago and we already have over 160 teams registered for this year! We are expecting around 500 teams. Check out the easy to browse map for teams near you, and register your event today! Only the first 300 teams get a team pack with shirts, stickers, badges, some CDs and more πŸ™‚


Lastly, one of my best friends Sue recently posted a whole schwag of photos on Facebook from our trip to China in 1999. It was one of the best trips of my life. I learnt a lot there and it reminded me how much I want to return! Below is a (kind of crappy) scan of one of my favourite photos!

Horseriding along the Yellow River (Huang He) in China

Yes, that is me with short, red hair and riding a young and very fast horse. The locals thought I was lost control but I galloped to the group in the distance and back again. It is one of my best memories πŸ™‚ There are also some photos of us at Shaolin Temple and more, but you’ll have to find me on Facebook πŸ™‚

Eyes wide open

Last week was an amazing week. I had an incredibly instructive, inspiring and mind-awakening week studying with a Shaolin Gung Fu Master who has had quite an influence in my life.

I started studying Gung Fu when I was almost 15 in a small Shaolin school in my hometown run by Shi Fu Jason Parks (Xing Mu). It was amazing because I found people and ideas that challenged me, new ways to look at life, and perspectives that looked beyond the mundane (and ironically back again). I’ve always had a strong connection with Chinese culture, language and martial arts and have over a period of almost 14 years spent about 8 years studying Shaolin, Mezong and White Crane Gung Fu as well as a combination of weapons, Qi Na, Qi Gong and Chan Buddhism. The more I study the more I want to study, and the more sense it all seems to make – which leads me to a core goal in my life, clarity.

Shi Fu with some sickles - awesome!

Anyway, I hadn’t seen Shi Fu Parks for 10 years and jumped at the opportunity to visit his Shan Men Shaolin Gung Fu school for an intensive week of training and study. I spent 4 1/2 days training ~8 hours a day, studying hard and spending quality time with Evie, Shi Fu and his partner Karen‘s beautiful little girl. Karen has also studied Shaolin Gung Fu and is as awesome Pilates instructor. I had a fantastic class with her which was a first for me in understanding the value of Pilates, even though I’d been to classes in Sydney.

An unexpected surprise was when I realised weapons are not nearly as regulated in Tasmania as in other states, so I got to play with a bunch of weapons that I’d need a special permit for in New South Wales (my home state). I played with Nunchucks for the first time which was awesome, scythes and my main weapon, the pole.

One nunchuckTwo nunchucks!

One of the core lessons that arose from this week was how my entire life is actually in fact one big classroom, and how the constant habitual segmentation of life into this and that is both completely unnecessary and ultimately divisive. This sense of wholeness about it all was quite a relief. I learnt a whole schwag of new Shaolin fist and weapons forms, and polished up some existing stuff I already had. It was awesome and although I got a little sore, I was actually quite surprised that I didn’t get much more sore! I guess time goes quickly when you’re having fun πŸ™‚

I spoke to Shi Fu and Karen about getting their ideas online. They were interested and excited about the concepts of FOSS, software freedom and Creative Commons, and it felt pretty cool to explain it all. Jeff and I set up some blogs for them and will be helping explore how something like Gung Fu or Pilates might balance both the ability to engage broadly online, and the personal interaction so necessary in a teacher/student arrangement like you’d have in Pilates or Gung Fu. It’ll be an interesting challenge!

It was also fun to help two non-geeks get excited about WordPress and feel empowered to play and tinker. Karen made the comment that she didn’t expect it to be so much fun, and I’m really pleased to be sharing something back πŸ™‚


So a big thank you Shi Fu and Karen for their lessons and time, and a huge hug to Evie who personifies gentle tenacity, and from whom I’ve a lot to learn πŸ™‚