On first entering a school of martial arts, the test nearly everyone is bound to fail is the test of flow.
"Show me five techniques in succession."
The novice will first ask for clarification.
You simplify, "Assume someone is about to attack you . You have five opportunities to strike at them, show me five strikes in succession."
Our guest takes a moment to gather his or her thoughts, assumes a position of confidence on the floor then executes. Typically, by the third move, there's a pause, by the fourth, a vacant
expression augurs the concession, "I can't think of anything else."
In a self defense situation, processing delay or hesitation in conjuring the next move is where the
tide of battle turns to your opponent's favor. When pause or hesitation occurs , the attacker finds a path through your defense and goes for the kill.
I've been told the Russian Secret Service trained their agents using a two-minute combat drill. This consisted of the agents in training throwing offensive strikes full throttle, nonstop for two minutes.
Agents who mastered the flow were considered combat ready. The training was practical, emphasized power and speed, and ultimately built endurance.
Moreover, it did not require extensive training.
If true, what these agents lacked in complex technique and fighting strategies, they compensated for with flow and continuous volley.
Isn't it tantalizing to imagine for a moment just how effective your art would become if you were able to improvise freely, using all your techniques at will, in random sequences tailored to the moment.
The general characteristics of flow are:
1. There exists a core of instinctive movement. For movement to flow, it must emerge from your core of instinctive movement. Analyzing and thinking get in the way and leave you
pausing or losing time focusing on extraneous detail.
2. It flows like water and goes where unimpeded, sometimes through the smallest cracks or
kinks in your opponent's armour, sometimes like a tsunami overwhelming all impediments.
3. It packages effective force and/or technique and avoids the inefficient.
4. Its affect is devastatingly effective and typically overwhelms the opponent's ability to respond.
5. Flow is self-sustaining. It loops contiously, supported by the defender's underlying physical
In our training, the catalyst for learning flow is our "ABC kata". It's a simple concept. You say the
alphabet, and for each letter of the alphabet, you execute a strike or counter as you say the letter. This will seem easy at first, but clearly isn't, as well you'll know after making your first attempt.
Most of you, will find your sequence peters out after the fourth or fifth move. It’s a place where many will simply stop. Of course, in a street defense situation, hesitation means defeat. The object
is to maintain a constant fixed cadence as you articulate each letter, and execute a move. For all practical purposes, you are reprogramming your biological computer so that moves are there when
you need them, at your beckoning. As you become more skilled, you will find many new techniques and possibilities spontaneously arise as you go through the sequence. You'll even find
some techniques become old friends, ready to serve when and where you need them.
ABC Kata (Improvisation #1)
ABC Kata (Improvisation #2)
When you've reached the stage where you are comfortable with the sequence, and are able to
maintain a constant flow, the next phase of training is to "compress the timeline." In other words, you will take the same alphabet, or 26 beats, and do it with quickened tempo, in effect
compressing the time, executing the entire sequence faster, and with more rigorous flow.
Technically, this isn't a kata, but we treat it with the same appreciation we have for all kata. When
taken to its full potential of understanding and execution, it is an impressive form to behold, and on more than one occasion, students have competed successfully improvising with the ABC kata.
As an aside, in a competition it is generally referred to as the Universal Kata if only to avoid confusing judges with the nomenclature "ABC."
Let's say you are comfortable working the ABC form as described above. That would mean within the context of movement, at any point in time, and any spot on the floor, you are prepared to
execute 26 techniques in a smooth continuous flow without stopping.
You're ready for the next level! Identify and take a basic form from your own school or style, and
use the directional shifts of that form as a framework within which to execute the ABC kata.
This brings the exercise more in line with the actual dynamic of a fight or self defense situation.
The directional shifts imply multiple attackers, directions, and interactions. Incorporating that framework into your instinctive flow adds a whole new dimension, in effect making you a
three-dimensional fighter, fully competent, able to improvise on the fly and to reposition effectively with whatever the situation demands.
In our group, we incorporate the Takiyoku format, adopted from Shotokan karate. In its original state, Takiyoku is a blocking & countering sequence executed in the general floor pattern of the
letter "H." Conceptually, the defender may be in an alley way, back against one wall facing across the to the other. Attackers potentially threaten from all sides between the two walls. The form
requires a disciplined understanding of the basic sequence of movement, in the form of eyes first,
feet second, hands last.
Respecting the structural requirements of the Takiyoku format, we overlay the improvisational
discipline of the ABC form, in effect executing the full improvisational ABC sequence, while maneuvering through the Takiyoku structure. If you complete the ABC sequence and reach letter
"Z" before completing Takiyoku (or whatever form you choose), not to worry. Simply start the sequence anew.
If you've taken it this far, you've come a long way. Most people are satisfied at this level, and find it has brought their self defense to new heights of efficiency.
But, as with everything, there's still room for improvement. For those of you with more adventurous spirits, you might want to try some of the following:
1. Take any other form from your repertoire. Use that form as a new basis for structural
movement, then begin to improvise. Here’s an example applying the concept of flow to the Bo. The same can be done with the middle stick.
2. While doing the improvisational ABC form in a free flow of movement, double up on the
strikes. In other words, for each count of the alphabet, do two strikes (or even a block and a strike) instead of one.
3. Now you're ready for the big-time. Execute the ABC form in a free flow of movement, doing three strikes (or block/strike combinations) for each count of the alphabet. We've had
athletes in our school describe this as the physical equivalent of running a quarter-mile at speed. All the better, since conditioning guarantees execution in the self defense scenario.
ABC Kata with Multiple Beats
4. Use the pronunciation of letters from the alphabet to trigger proper breathing as each
technique is executed. This emphasis on aspiration (a sharp and controlled exhalation) is the basis for developing a firm root, and encouraging the flow of Chi into your technique. As a
completely separate exercise, take time to stand in a fixed position (for example, a horse stance), and use the "ABC" concept as an exercise in breathing from the Dan Tien. Aspirate
with commitment on the pronunciation of each letter, with your exhalation originating in the Dan Tien and culminating through your mouth and nose. You should feel it down there, the
Dan Tien will nudge forward with each aspiration. Don't overdo it! Before long, you'll begin to sense how certain sounds, combined with breathing out, will resonate in different parts of
your torso. This awareness will serve you well as you move on to more advanced concepts in the arts.
After you've played with these four suggestions for several months, you'll find your powers of
visualization have grown along with your skills in rooting, breathing, continuity and flow. You'll have a diversity of technique and application that go beyond anything you felt possible. Your
endurance and confidence will grow to new levels.
That's a lot of positive gain for just focusing on your ABC's.
Anybody up for some rhythmatic?