It’s been some time since I saw the video ‘What is fighting monkey’ and I’ve come across people who have recommended it in different places. Jozef and Linda do not make a living from teaching seminars, or rather that is not their prime activity. I would guess their prime activity is living, which includes lots of dance, research, setting an example for their children and digging into things. Basically there are not that many seminars available to go to. So I was very happy to be able catch one just two hours away by train.
This time Jozef did not teach with Linda, though he had some long term students who he could demonstrate things with and also there was the quiet presence of his childhood friend Lubomir. More about Lubo later
Now I understand that the fighting monkey seminars are always changing. They are based on a body of knowledge too deep, diverse and rich to cover in a weekend. Practically that means I won’t try and describe the workshop, exercise by exercise, rather talk a little about the broad themes, and the ones that touched me most.
If you watch the video you will get a good sense of the kinds of things we did. swung tennis balls, rolled on each other, played games that challenged coordination, timing, courage which took a lot of inspiration from a variety of martial arts.
Underneath all this was a spirit of questioning. Not just the question of ‘how do I do this’ or ‘how much should I do this’ but also ‘Why do this’.
Jozef’s teaching is a mix of clear, quotable and the not so clear, but always with concrete examples and overflowing with metaphors. It includes the idea that we are built to learn in complex situations, and anything else cheats us of opportunities to develop. So Josef’s teaching is a little bit like this – you need to sift for when he’s joking, when he’s being deliberately confusing, how statements contradict and and how the contradictions harmonize in the bigger context.
An example of one such contradiction are his statements that he seeks the best people he can find to research what interest him in terms of movement, injury, resilience and recovery. Yet he also says that not even the best scientists or doctors have an idea of how the human body really functions, or rather the human body knows itself better than any researcher.
Other ideas (which put me out of the game in big ways) are where to research movement. Josef suggests children under two years old, and people over 70. The ones in between can get away with too much. Over 70 a lifetime of mitsakes will either have been crippling, avoided or dealt with.
The other theme, the first quote of the seminar chalked onto the wall was
Diversity brings Immunity
A statement that first leaps out to me as a biologist, second in role in Permaculture design but hit strongest in context of movement training.
There are many fitness strength and movement approaches that are sold on todays market. I use the term market deliberately (it’s partly because I cannot stomach the term fitness industry). Each approach tends to claim that certain exercises are more worthwhile than others, certain goals more worthwhile than others. The approaches are often championed by charismatic, charming and sometimes sly gurus. These people claim to have the answers, the solutions and defend little corners of the market vigorously. They also have followers, who adopt their methods and strive towards their goals. Some even copy haircuts.
One of the interesting things about being a human animal is that we tend to believe what we do. I’ve talked about this before, essentially as soon as a human takes on a behaviour they begin to find reasons that justify that behaviour. It doesn’t matter how bizarre or corrupt the behaviour is, we have this amazing bias towards creating reasons for it.
So whenever you try a new exercise form you will start to justify it. It’s normal. But what it means is that there are a load of people labouring towards goals are not really their own. They come from social pressures or guru figures.
I had the impression that Josef really did not care in whether we took on his ideas or not, which frees him to focus on maintaining his own integrity of action, similar to stoics who consider public opinion, popularity and wealth (even health) to be outside of individual control and therefore not worthy goals.
Jozef does not say whether a goal is good or bad, worthwile or not. Rather he questions how it aligns with a life. He gave Lubo as an example. Lubo has worked in special forces for the last 25 years, and in his profession the ability to do 10 pullups with 20Kg is plenty of pulling strength. Any extra effort given to develop pulling strength would be a waste which could be better spent devoted to tactics and communication. In Lubo’s job if he does not prepare optimally, someone dies.
Another concrete example is Jozef’s father, who hunts. If he will cover 60km on or more in search of game and be able to carry it back then he cannot afford to carry huge muscles as well as excess fat. These are examples of people who’s training aligns with their life.
The development of flexibility, strength and agility in search of facebook and instagram likes was a recurring theme. It’s not that these are necessarily ‘bad’ he just encouraged the participants to question how this fits with what’s important to them. Is it really worth the effort?
Related to this is the idea that people develop the mobility and strength that they need through actually doing what they need to do, and also what brings them joy.
I’ve spent the summer examining my training, away from students and teachers. After more than three years immersed in Crossfit and the ‘movement movement’ with all the consequent adoption of beliefs that go with it. It’s been fun, I’ve learned a lot and I’m not abandoning those communities who have some great people. But little growing aches and a nagging shoulder injury have been nudging at me to look again, more carefully. That and the fact I started to look at my gymnastic rings with as much enthusiasm as a cat for a carrot.
My Crossfit movement project has good roots though. Just as I recognise my dreams do not fit into the ‘bigger, faster or stronger’ mould I also recognised that they did not fit in the standard ‘Taiji, Bagua Xingyi’ mould. Of course it goes wider than movement or training systems and personal development. It goes to family, fatherhood, community and biology. My research has taught me quite a lot, but the goals sets and reps do not align with other currents in my life.
So this question of alignment and goals and combination was simmering happily (and unhappily) occasionally splashing the surface, sometimes held under motionless surface. Then in a lovely movement facility I see the question ripple through fifty or so people and I realise ‘Well I don’t have all the answer, but this is the right fucking question.’
Ok that’s most of the personal exposure dealt with, now for the déja vu.
I knew that fighting monkey borrowed a lot from martial arts. What I did not know was that Josef is a long term practitioner of some obscure Chinese traditions, and exactly how familiar some of what we would do would be. We did a lot of exercises that worked on body rhythm and unity, which reminded me a lot of what Luo shows (but people seem to overlook). This touched dance as much as it did power generation.
Others exercises were about how to maintain the body axis though in a more dynamic way than most forms or basic exercises that I’ve been exposed to. Some of the exercises were about maintaining balance in the body with minimal tension while gently testing the integrity of the joints. It matches some of my recent research and practise – though I was quickly exposed to the limits of my ability – which is exactly what I want in a seminar. It was also fun to see others struggling, mostly because everyone was struggling and smiling.
As I said I really enjoyed meeting the people there – a lot of ‘movement’ people, some of whom I’ve met online, some dancers – but it seemed everyone was happy to share their research, skill, ignorance and help each other out. Nobody came in with a ‘I know everything, prove it to me attitude’. Everyone was researching for their own reasons, and we communicated in all kinds of ways. Special thanks to Olivier Goetgeluck for his warm welcome at Elite athletes, and Stephanie Lee for preparing me and being such a good roommate.
For those of you who did not catch the spelling Jozef’s recommended reading Laozi: Daodejing , Zhuangzi and the Yijing (but not as an oracle) oh yes and Heraclitus and Hegel.
Now I cannot finish this piece without reference to some of my greatest and oldest teachers. Monty Python have had affected me deeply even if not everyone appreciates them. At times Jozef would head off with pieces of information linked to Chinese medicine and what I shall call ‘hidden sources’ the significance of which well, I’m unclear about. The knees being light blue for example, which lead to a reasoning that seemed somewhat arbritrary*. It made me think of this:
I have not done justice to this weekend. I’m going to be thinking about it, experimenting with the ideas and approaches for a long time, alone with friends and students. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back another time. I was disappointed with how I’ve written this article. I wanted to distill the weekend to a set of crystal insights and incisive principle. I have failed. Still, if you get the impression that my fighting monkey experience was a great stew of concepts, experiences and meetings that’s already pretty good. Perhaps the writing reflects the seminar, which reflects life a complex, mysterious mess with some underlying themes, and perhaps that’s more honest or even valuable.
*I appreciate many systems do not need to be true in a scientific sense, just to have an internal consistency, mnemonic or metaphoric value. Josef I hope you like Monty python too. And there are some things in the seemingly arbitrary reasoning that I will look into.