Trailblazer: Harinder Singh
*Due to editorial limitations, parts of this interview may have been abbreviated.
Black Belt+: You inspired so many, who or what inspired you?
Harinder: Bruce Lee’s fighting philosophy has had a profound influence on my development as a martial artist and as an individual. His art of Jeet Kune Do is best described as philosophy in action, a vehicle for self-discovery and honest self-expression. It was through the principles and process driven approach of his art that I started to unravel who I truly was as a person, a teacher, a fighter, and a philosopher. I am inspired daily by my teachers and students. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my teachers and lineages in Jeet Kune Do, Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Boxing, Savate, BJJ, Escrima and Kali. My students inspire me to keep a growth minded approach and fill me with a childlike wonder and excitement for learning.
Black Belt+: Black Belt+ was started to help students outside the dojo, what are your expert tips on training solo or remotely?
Harinder: Training solo is essential to your development. It is how you get to know yourself and develop your body mechanics, build energy, expand awareness, and spark your creative visualization.
We have all heard the statement that “practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect”. There is another level above perfect practice, and this is the concept of deliberate practice. In deliberate practice you are fully engaged in the activity and are operating from a feeling of awareness of what you are doing, and how your body, breath, and mind is engaging in the event. Never just practice for the sake of mindlessly completing repetitions, sets, or timed intervals. Deliberate practice is not about doing more to become more, it is about becoming more to do more.
I highly suggest that you establish a feedback loop. You can do this by videoing your practice sessions on your phone and studying your body mechanics in slow motion. Also, send your videos to people you trust to get their feedback. Feedback and film study are an essential part of solo practice.
Study film of martial artists or watch Black Belt + videos of practitioners who share a similar build as you, then watch and analyze their movement. The way they shift and load their weight, the connection of their legs, hips, waist, and arms. The key is to study them in slow motion so that you can observe the subtle movements and transitions. Your growth will be found in the subtle transitions not the large motions.
Finally, your imagination and intention are the most powerful tools you have in your arsenal when training by yourself. You have to be able to visualize your opponent and their emotional state. Create an avatar of your opponent by giving them a name, a style, a stance, and emotional state. Make sure that you also empower this avatar with size, strength, and length of limbs, so that you can work the appropriate distancing and timing. Recall your past sparring and fighting experiences and bring those emotions, strategies, and timing into your solo training sessions.
Without imagination and intention your forms and shadow boxing will be empty, and you will not get the most out of your training. My favorite ways of solo practice are shadow boxing (empty handed and with weapons), heavy bag, wooden dummy, standing meditation, and the internal arts of Tai Chi Quan and Nei Gong.
Black Belt+: Oftentimes in our training we hit a wall, what’s your advice for students who lack motivation or want to quit?
Harinder: I do not believe in motivation. I believe in discipline and perseverance. Motivation runs out, but discipline will never leave your side. Discipline is powered by self-love. Do you value yourself enough to do the things that are good for you? If you are struggling with discipline, discipline is not your issue, self-worth is. Perseverance is not just the grit and determination necessary to get you through difficult situations. True perseverance is the ability to train when you do not have to when no one is watching and there is nothing on the line. This is the key factor to growth and longevity in martial arts.
Everyone wants to quit, we have all been there, and the main reasons are boredom, not getting better, and a lack of purpose driving the training. If you are not being challenged and are getting bored, you will want to quit. If you are not getting better and learning something new you will want to quit. If you are selfishly training for just your own gain you can run out of inspiration and want to quit. However, if you are powered by a sense of purpose and a desire to serve others you will never want to quit. As martial artists we are guardians, wherever we go anyone in need has a friend, and wherever we are the place is a little bit safer.
Black Belt+: Traditionally many martial artists start with one style, when do you recommend the best time to branch out and learn other styles?
Harinder: There is no one style that has it all. It is up to the individual to research their experiences, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and add that which is specifically their own. This is the method to make the art yours. The question is why are you doing what you are doing? Are you just blindly following your teacher and the style, or are you using the style to find yourself? This is the first contemplation that one must make.
If we remove stylistic filters, and view combat for what it is, we can see the truth in combat, and the truth in combat comes down to universal principles. These principles govern how I move, how we feel, and how we interact with our opponents. Instead of considering styles, consider the following 8 powers: timing, angles, distance, pressure, awareness, energy, emotions and geometric shapes.
Combat falls into universal ranges and scenarios. Please consider Kicking, Punching, Trapping, Clinching, Ground Fighting, Edged Weapons, Blunt Weapons, and Mass Attack (multiple opponents). From here we must consider ambush attacks vs duels. An ambush is a surprise attack by one or many opponents, and there is no time to think, you have to be able to adapt in the moment. In a duel, you have more time, you are squared off against another fighter (same or different style), maybe in a street fight, in sparring, or in a combat sport competition.
The true secret to martial arts is your ability to make yourself comfortable in uncomfortable situations, relax under pressure, expand your awareness, read your opponent, and make conscious choices in chaos. Adapt-Ability, your ability to flow like water under pressure, against resisting opponents, is the true skill one must develop. The great sage Lao Tzu wrote that “rigidity is weakness, and flexibility is strength”. What he means is that the ability to transform and change in a fight or in life is true strength. Adaptability is found in your ability to transition in-between the ranges, weapons, strategies, and have the stamina to last under pressure. In a street fight you do not know what can happen, you must be ready to adapt to any situation. As a professional fighter or combat sport athlete, the fighter of the future is not going to be the one who practices, boxing, muay thai, wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu individually. The fighter of the future is the one that can transition between the arts, and there will no longer be a separation between the styles, rather they will merge into one complete molecule.
So, the question is not when you should embark on studying other styles, the question is what are your strengths and weaknesses? Start by filling your holes and stop blindly following theories and get out there and safely test what you can do for yourself. You can only trust what you can test.
You can start by mastering one style and branching out. Or you can start with separately training individual styles and then try to mix them. I prefer the Style of No Style Method, the first lesson I teach my students is how to breathe, relax and lower their heart, and expand their awareness. From there I get them moving with knife sparring, then I teach them the clinch, then I teach them how to get up from the ground, then how to intercept and destroy punches and kicks. They then learn how to move and transition between the skills above. From here we expand outwards with boxing, trapping, kickboxing, wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu skills. The focus always remains on breathing, lowering the heart rate, and on transitioning between the ranges while attacking the eyes and groin.
Black Belt+: What are some changes or developments in your art over the years?
Harinder: In the beginning it was all about the art of hitting my opponents and making sure they didn’t hit me. It was about winning, it was about solving the different martial arts problems I would be faced with. It was about developing my attributes and sharpening my tools. It was about winning at all costs and I relied heavily on my natural gifts, tactics, and strategies.
Over the years my focus shifted towards the internal art of mastering my center through the study of mechanics, energy, awareness and my relationship with others. It was no longer about winning, no longer about competing, and it definitely was no longer about getting hit. My training focused on being in center, moving from my center, and transforming my center in an interactive relationship (keeping my center under pressure, recovering my center when I got knocked off, and hiding my center while exposing my opponents). I wanted to use the study of martial arts to better understand myself in an interaction with others, to study my body, being, and consciousness in a relationship. There is nothing in this world that can be disassociated from your relationship with your center.
In the beginning I was studying the art of winning and I would rely on speed, strength, forward pressure, tactical, and strategic advantages. My successes were not from a deeper understanding of how I related to my opponent and my own personal transformation. In the back of my mind I knew that someone who was stronger, faster, and better (had more knowledge, experience or intelligence) would have beaten me. This is where I discovered the cause of my own ignorance, and the limitations of the way I practiced martial arts.
When I was ready to become serious about my internal martial arts journey, my Sifu, Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson, explained to me that true mastery was the continuous transformation of the being. And that transformation was the only thing really worth studying. To do this I had to pay a price, I had to let go of my style, let go of my history, let go of my preferences, let go of my fear of being hit, my fear of being humiliated, I had to essentially free myself from myself so that I could truly relax, and be wholly and totally in the moment as a guest of the experience. I had to let go of my need for control, my need to go first, and my need to outwit my opponent with technical cunning.
Fear is our biggest obstacle; it knocks us off our center and kills the flow state. I had to let go of fear, not the fear of getting hurt but the fear of losing. I was trapped by my need for perfection and even though getting hit is part of fighting, I did not like it, not because it hurt physically, but because it hurt my ego and how I felt about myself as a fighter. When I finally realized this limitation, I started to do the internal work necessary to resolve my security, control, and approval issues. I traced these patterns back to my childhood, and stories of betrayal, rejection, and abandonment. As I processed these events from my past, through forgiveness and accountability, I started to free up precious life force energy that could now be utilized to fuel my perceptive abilities.
As I detached from the outcome and cultivated a “don’t care” attitude around winning and losing, time started to slow down, my field of awareness opened up, and I could truly perceive what was really happening, I could be an observer of the event because I no longer had any expectations of the result. This was true freedom of expression under pressure, this was the real flow state. When you don’t care about the result, when there is no worry, when you are in center, the flow state is effortless. The moment you get worried, fear creeps in, you become afraid of losing, you care about the outcome and try to control it, now you have introduced tension and created a block in the natural flow of things.
There is a magnificent secret in martial arts, this secret is that martial arts provide a self-correcting experiential feedback loop, an awareness of when you get in your own way, because when you do, you get hit. The awareness of realizing when you are out of flow and off center is the true gift of martial arts. Internal martial arts are a path to know yourself and know your enemy in an interaction. When I stopped studying how to win, and instead started to study my relationship with my opponent and focus on my own transformation through the experience, I began to play with great relaxation and intense concentration. I finally felt the freedom of movement and energy in the interaction, I was finally free from trying to control things, and I knew this was it. This is what I was missing.
Mastering your center, requires you to master the center of your body, breath, and mind. The center of the body is balance and harmony through relaxation and structural alignment with gravity. The center of the breath is quiescent stillness through awareness of the transition of the inhale and exhale. The center of the mind is orienting from the still point of time and space. When all three centers are aligned, the flow state is a natural result. We can cultivate the center through a standing stillness practice (Zhan Zhuang), a stillness in movement practice (a Taiji or Wing Chun Form or Shadow Boxing), and a stillness in interaction practice. The stillness in interaction can be progressively studied through feeding hand exercises (one side feeds), through counter for counter exercises, through Chi Sao/Push Hands, and in free sparring. With the goal always being to cooperatively study the relationship instead of studying winning.
The ultimate aim of trying to master your center is to get you to a point where you no longer have a center to protect. There is a fearlessness, when you are fearless, you will become limitless, and you will be able to tap into your true internal power. Your true internal power is the ability to transform and change with the changes and this power transcends martial arts and is the master key to success in all aspects of personal and professional performance.
Black Belt+: Today, what is the emphasis of your teaching?
Harinder: Today my emphasis is to empower leaders to empower others by teaching them a method of self-discovery through martial arts. I teach a principles and process oriented practical approach to relaxing under pressure, slowing down perception of time, expanding awareness, and making conscious decisions under pressure. Society today has lost its relationship with its center. My mission is to help my students, professional athletes, industry professionals, and business leaders find their center, move from their center, maintain their center under pressure, and recover their center when they get knocked off. There is nothing in this world that can be disassociated from your relationship with your center. There is no victory, no defeat, no good times, no bad times, that can be disassociated from your center. The master key to success, is to Master Your Center, and then transform and change your center under pressure.
On BB+ you can find many drills that will develop your skills regardless of your style or system. I also am pleased to announce that BB+ has my complete “Jeet Kune Do For Black Belts: Advanced Attack Strategies” curriculum. I designed this program for advanced martial artists of all styles and systems, so that they could integrate Bruce Lee’s combat tactics and fighting philosophy into their existing curriculums. It’s a great program for Black Belt and Adult Retention. You can also find “The Black Belt Podcast” on BB+.
Black Belt+: What motivates you to stay passionate about your art?
Harinder: Martial Arts are the greatest vehicle for developing human potential through self-discovery. To me it is all about the art of honestly expressing myself. Every day I wake up with a childlike wonder and excitement of what I am going to discover today. The more I train, the more I realize how much I do not know. It is fascinating. When we move past fighting and look to create art, we unlock the creative process. I try to be an explorer, by remaining open to discovering something new. When I discover something new, I learn, this learning leads to growth, and this growth leads to creating a newer version of myself. The arts have given me so much, so I do not rely on motivation. I am passionate about potential, and I know if I focus on transforming myself, I can be a better father, husband, friend, student, and teacher. In the beginning martial arts was only about fighting. Now I see it is about empowering myself and others, it is about healing, it is about educating, and above all it is about serving. Service is the highest form of martial arts.
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