Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Corallary To The Budo Law Of Conservation Of Movement


A while back I wrote a post about The Budo Law Of Conservation Of Movement. Effective budo systems don’t waste time and mental space teaching a hundred ways to do the same thing. Instead they teach one way to do a hundred things. There is a corollary to law which is

 The smallest movement that is effective is the best movement

 Budo is about conflict, fighting, combat. Do you want to waste any resource in a fight, including your energy?. Strength and stamina are finite resources; no matter who you are, they will run out. How long will the fight last? Is there likely to be another one soon? These are unknowables, so any wasted effort reduces what you’ve got to work with down the line. Don’t waste energy.

 Look at any classical budo. Koryu budo are almost dull in the way they do things; there’s nothing flashy or decorative in their movement.  All the fancy movement and dancing that you see in movies is notable for its absence in classical budo. Or even watch competitive judo - there’s no unnecessary movement. Really good judoka often make for rather boring matches to watch. The competitors are there to win and move on to the next match. 99% of the action is in movements so small you can’t really see them. High level judo matches have so little excitement in their 5 minute spans that the rules are juiced to make them more interesting. These matches require a serious attack to happen every few seconds or a penalty can be awarded by the referee for stalling. In a tournament, a judoka might end up fighting 6, 7, or more matches in one day. Skilled judoka know they can’t afford to waste any effort because they will need it later.

 Conserve your motion. Conserve your energy. Don’t make a big movement when a small one will do the job.

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 The other thing about using the smallest movement to do the job is that it protects you. It’s not good to throw your energy around unnecessarily. Any movement you make affects you as well as your opponent. Bigger movements mean committing more energy. Any energy you put out there can be used by your opponent against you. I love countering techniques in judo because they turn an opponent’s attack into their defeat. The more energy an opponent sends out the more I have to work with. The bigger the movement you commit to, the harder it is to change trajectory once it’s started.

 Overcommitment to a technique backfiring can happen whether it’s in an unarmed situation like a judo match, or weapon versus weapon. Learning to control your movement and take advantage of moments when your adversary is over-extended is fundamental. Watch a kendo match. The kendoka jockey for control of the center with just the tips of their shinai. Movements are just big enough to evade being controlled by the opponent and use just enough energy to do the job and no more. Openings are created when someone moves further than is needed or puts too much power into their shinai and can’t recover their position in time to prevent the attack.

 All good budo is efficient. Wasting energy is foolish. So is giving your adversary anything to work with. Any excess movement, any unnecessary movement, creates an opening for your opponent. Overextend an arm on an attack and it can be locked or used as a lever to throw you. Too big a movement leaves a window for a strike or an entry. Therefore

 The smallest movement that is effective is the best movement.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for her wonderful editing work.


Monday, November 30, 2020

"There is no East or West" Really?


Before you pick a fight, make sure you know what you're getting into.  (Video copyright Peter Boylan 2020)


"How many westerners studied in Japan for a significant amount of time? Few. In fighting, culture means very little. Step into the ring and put your fists up. There is no east or west."

Someone posted this comment in a discussion I am involved in. It seems like a pretty straightforward idea. In combat arts all that matters is what happens when you step into the ring. Everything in a combat art can be decided by getting out there and facing off with someone.

However, stepping into a ring is not the same as a street fight or close quarters combat. The rules are completely different. The rules in the ring are about both people coming out with all of their teeth and no permanent damage. Outside a sporting ring there are still rules. The other people in the fight might not bother to tell you what the rules are, but they have them. What rules do you expect? 

Fighting in a ring is dueling. It’s only 2 people, everyone gets the same equipment, and even when there is no referee, everyone including the spectators know if someone breaks the rules. Dueling is great for the ego.  I love doing randori in Judo. One on one with someone trying to throw me, choke me, pin me or make me submit to an arm lock is just about as much fun as I can imagine. When the world is not threatened by a plague, I try to do it a couple of times a week for as long as my stamina holds out.

Japanese classical budo of the Tokugawa Period (1604-1868) could be brutal stuff. Ambush and surprise attacks were considered quite acceptable. It wasn’t about arranging a nice formal duel if someone besmirched your honor. It was a vendetta and very little was off limits. Many of the classical systems that have survived include teachings about setting up an ambush or a sneak attack. These aren’t friendly dueling arts. These are arts of killing without getting killed. Forcing someone from a very different cultural tradition to fight so you can “see who’s better” is a risky affair. You may think you’re having a friendly duel, and the other guy may break your fingers right off the mark because that’s accepted in the culture he comes from. He may not know about the rules you follow in a friendly duel. This is not something you want to find out the hard way.


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What I do in a judo dojo fighting with my friends is vastly different from what I’ve done the few times I’ve had to do anything in “the real world.” Sport dueling is fun, but it really only proves who’s better at dueling under those particular rules. Classical Japanese budo arts have long traditions of fighting that aren’t about dueling in a *fair* environment. They assume that nothing is going to be fair and that everyone will use whatever is available to ensure that they are the one(s) who walk away. People who train for this sort of encounter really aren’t prepared to fight by your rules. Their trained reactions and instincts are not to go for the submission by arm bar, or to win by throwing you cleanly on your back. Their reaction is to snap the elbow or wrist the instant they have it, or to throw you on your head so that you get a concussion and maybe a broken neck.

Every culture has different expectations. In war in Europe and North America there is the Geneva Convention,  whereby if your unit is getting slaughtered, you can surrender and your enemy will take you prisoner, treat you decently and eventually trade you back to your side in exchange for prisoners your side has captured. Disregarding the Convention leaves a warring nation open to charges of international war crimes, when the conflict inevitably ends. European and North American rules of engagement are assumed to be followed everywhere.

Except that, historically, they have not been. Japan has a long tradition across a thousand years, not of taking prisoners, but of taking heads. Soldiers were rewarded based on how many heads they took and rank of the people who lost those heads. Surrendering and being taken prisoner was not an honorable thing to do. If you tried, you’d be so looked down upon for lacking the courage to fight to the last or take your own life that you would be tortured before they took your head from your shoulders.

These different ideas of what was honorable in battle didn’t clash significantly until 1941 when Japan began invading south east Asia and wresting control of European colonies from the British, Dutch, French and Americans. The Japanese had no tradition of capturing prisoners. They didn’t know what to do with all European and American P.O.W.s they suddenly had to deal with. They treated them with all the respect their centuries of tradition taught them a prisoner of war was entitled to: none at all.

On the other side, the Japanese were exhorted to uphold tradition and die an honorable death rather than be taken prisoner and abused by the enemy. Japanese soldiers who were captured were often shocked to be treated according to the western customs of the Allies.

In sports, there are still a lot of classical judoka in Japan who feel that having weight classes in judo competition is a sign of weakness, not a matter of fairness.  For them, the best judoka is the one who wins against everyone.  I’m really not prepared to fight in an open division with the heavyweights and super-heavyweights. For decades in Japan this was the only way competition was done.  In sumo, for example, though there are many rules and traditions of competition, there are no weight classes, only rankings according to where competitors stand in regard to their opponents.

If you’re going to fight, make sure you know the local rules. When I first moved to Japan I had a hard time understanding the local judo rules. I’d done judo for 4 years by that time and had fought in many competitions under International Judo Federation rules. I’m thick and slow. It took me a while to get it through my head that people in Japan don’t automatically use the IJF rules to run local shiai. “Local rules” is a real thing. If you’re getting ready to fight, make sure you know the local rules. Fighting, like most things we humans do, is a cultural activity, and if you don’t know the culture, watch out. What you don’t know can hurt you.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-BIgman for editorial support.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Nin 忍

Nin 忍 Calligraphy by Kiyama Hiroshi, Copyright 2019


Nin () is a Japanese term that is not often heard standing alone. Outside Japan it is most commonly encountered in the term ninja (忍者).  Nin has nothing that directly ties it to spies and assassins though. Nin is a character trait that may be the most important generic lesson in classical budo. Every ryuha has its own essential character that makes it truly unique: they all teach nin.  

In dictionaries nin is usually translated as “patience”. Patience nails a piece of the character nin (). As with so many things though, to simply say “nin () equals patience” is to miss a great deal. Nin is not regular patience, but the patience that quietly endures suffering and trials.

There are the obvious trials in budo, like how much your knees and feet ache from doing the first iai kata for an hour, continuing even after you’ve worn the skin off your knees.  Or the never-ending torture that is the posture known as tatehiza. Learning to endure physical discomfort with quiet stoicism is the beginning of nin (). Anyone who sticks with budo for any length of time learns to do this. It’s just part of the physical territory. Everyone in the dojo hurts and no one is interested in hearing you whine about it. Everyone went through the pain of learning to take good ukemi, even if taking ukemi for Sensei can knock the wind out of you.  That’s the physical side.

The other side begins when Sensei says “Shut up and train.”  In that moment it becomes time to patiently endure not just the discomfort and stress of training, but also your own curiosity and desire for answers. This is the time when your questions will only be answered by your endurance of training with doubt and misunderstanding and ignorance that gnaws at your heart. I come from a background where I was taught to always ask a question if I didn’t understand something. Ask a question and get an answer. In budo though, most often the best answer to a question is not an explanation, but more training.

It took me years to understand that my teachers were trying to tell me that the answers to most of my budo questions were to be found in training, study and contemplation. I asked Hikoso Sensei about foot sweeps in judo one evening, and I can’t imagine a more rudimentary answer. I was looking for a deep explanation of the timing and how to understand it. He showed me the proper way to move my foot when sweeping.  That’s it. The answer was that I needed to train more to understand the timing.  No amount of explanation would ever give me that. I had to put up with not understanding the timing until I did understand it, and I had to to do it knowing there was no guarantee that I would ever get it. 

Nin is about patience where you hold your tongue even though the most satisfying thing in the world would be to respond to someone’s unkind, callous or outright mean comment with a righteous comeback. Wisdom, discretion or simple maturity demand that you let it go. Without escalation, there will be no conflict.  Without nin no one would have been able to abide by the rules laid out in so many keppan (training oaths) not to engage in fights and duels until you mastered the art. If you wanted to keep training with Sensei, you had to master your emotions and learn to forebear not just the little slights, but the big insults as well. Once you joined a ryuha, everything you did reflected on the ryuha. If you got into trouble because you couldn’t hold your tongue or control your anger, it could bring the wrath of the government down on everyone in the dojo.

Nin continues to be an important component of what makes a good person in Japan. From the salarimen trudging through their endless days or the school kids spending their days in regular school and their evenings in cram schools dedicated to getting them into even more rigorous high schools and colleges. Nin can be seen in today’s dojo in Japan in the near complete absence of talking during keiko. Everyone is focused on the training. Talking is something for elsewhere. In kendo dojo it may seem like there is too much yelling going on for conversation, and in an iai dojo the quiet can be complete except for the swish of
a sword through the air.

Nin is sitting in seiza with a smile while sensei forgets that everyone is in seiza and launches into a long story. Nin is sitting in tatehiza with the appearance of relaxed comfort. Nin is mastering present desires for long term ends without letting anyone know about the desires or the ends. Nin is the quiet patience and endurance of the mature martial artist.

Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. for editorial support.

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Monday, August 31, 2020

Practice Makes Permanent



Wayne Boylan,  1938-2019

Dedicated to my Father, Wayne Boylan 1938-2019

I was talking about doing some suburi (repetitive sword cut practice) with a friend and he mentioned that one of his teachers says you shouldn’t do 100 suburi.  You should do one good cut.I have to agree. Mindless repetition doesn’t make for good practice. If you’re just cranking out repetitions to hit a number, you’re not paying attention to the quality of what you are doing. You’ll be sloppy and rushed.

Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.” My Dad was a teacher - music - not budo, but he knew more about how to teach and learn skills than I ever will.  And it’s true. You’re only as good as your practice.  Doing thousands of suburi will only ingrain your mistakes if you’re not consciously trying to make each one better than the last. Real practice is as mentally hard as it is physically tough. When you’re practicing effectively you engage your mind as much as your muscles. You’re aware of what you're doing and always looking for flaws.

I’ve had the same satisfaction with my budo for the last 30+ years. I’m consistently satisfied with less than 10% of everything I do. Whether I do 100 kirioroshi (sword cuts) or 100 hikiotoshi uchi (jo strikes) or 100 harai goshi (a judo throw), if I’m happy with 10 of them it’s an unusually good day.  I use too much right hand or not enough left. I tense my shoulders (that one really ticks me off about myself). I don’t engage my koshi enough. My stance is too narrow. Weak te no uchi. I muscle the cut, My angle is off, my tip bounces. I’m off target. I do a chicken neck. My movement is small. There are days I could write an entire essay just chronicling the different mistakes I make.

One of my goals is to never make the same mistake twice in a row. If I do that I’m not being aware and correcting myself. In practice I have to be aware of what I’m doing so I can consistently correct mistakes. Practice is about fixing, correcting and improving. It’s not about repeating what you’ve already learned. Suck, yes, but as my friend Janet says, “Suck at a higher level.”  Be aware of what you’re doing and make it a little better every time. I know flaws won’t go away with one correction, but at least make sure that you’re not repeating them.  

The hardest thing to fix is a flaw that you’ve practiced. My iai has a flaw where my stance is too shallow. At some point I decided that what I was doing was good enough, and then I did thousands of repetitions with that shallow stance. Now that is my body’s default stance. Any time I’m not consciously extending my stance, it shortens up.  Practice makes permanent. Whatever you practice is what you’ll do. I practiced with a shallow stance and now it will take even longer to correct because the mistake has been drilled into my body.

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I have to build a whole new set of neural pathways and polish this deeper stance until I’ve overwritten the old training. That’s going to take time. I’m going to have to be sharp and watch my stance whenever I’m training. I will have to do more repetitions with a correct, deep stance than I’ve done with the flawed, shallow stance. That’s no fun, but it’s what I get for practicing a flaw. 

The good news is that good practice isn’t difficult to do, and it’s more interesting than bad practice. With good practice you’re constantly aware and tuned in to what you're doing so you can fix any flaws you spot. This is much more interesting than doing a hundred or two hundred mindless reps just to get in some reps. As in so much else, it’s the quality, not the quantity. 

Just as in music, it doesn’t do any good to rush through things just to say you’ve done it. Maybe do the whole kata once. Pay attention to what’s weak, then go back and just work on the parts that are weak.

Good practice makes for good budo. Poor quality practice makes for poor quality budo. Pay attention to what you're doing, and to what you’re not doing. Practice the stuff you’re good at, and practice the things you're bad at even more. If you don’t practice, things won’t improve; but if you practice badly then things will stay bad.


 Thanks Dad.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D for her editorial support.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Budo Law Of Conservation Of Movement

Tendo Ryu. Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2019

Most people don’t know it, but there is a  Budo Law of Conservation of Movement. Budo is conservative at its heart. We want to conserve movement, conserve energy, conserve time. The Budo Law of Conservation of Movement is:

One movement to do a hundred things, not a hundred movements that accomplish the same thing.

Why learn a hundred ways to do something when one will do the job? There are a number of different ways to cut with a sword, but I don’t know any classical art that teaches more than one of them. The same with sticks. There are lots of ways to swing a stick, but I don’t know of any martial art that teaches more than one (to the Shinto Muso Ryu people who are raising your hands to object, all those different strikes utilize the same body mechanics. There’s really only one strike and one thrust in Shinto Muso Ryu).  

Each koryu has its own way of doing things, and a real student of the ryuha imprints that way into their mind, their muscles and their bones. This is true whether you’re doing Shinto Muso Ryu, Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinryu, Sekiguchi Ryu, or any other koryu. You won’t find classical systems with an overabundance of techniques or principles to master. Each ryuha takes a few basic concepts and teaches you to apply them to a variety of situations. Again, look at Shinto Muso Ryu. It’s commonly taught that there are four strikes in SMR, but all of  them are variations on the same strike. That’s it. One strike. Add one way to thrust and one trap and you have it.

Each ryuha has one way of doing things. Shinto Muso Ryu and its fuzoku ryu incorporate jo, tachi, kodachi, jutte, tanjo, and kusarigama.  That’s a wide variety of weapons, yet the principles and movement are the same. The student isn’t learning six discrete weapons. She is learning to apply one set of principles to a variety of weapons. Once the principles of movement, spacing and timing are internalized, it doesn’t matter what she picks up. She’ll apply the principles she learned on the jo the first time she picks up a tachi. Working with the tachi deepens the understanding developed while training with the jo. By the time she picks up a tanjo or a jutte, the teacher doesn’t have to teach her how to hold the weapons or how to swing them. She already knows the principles. She just needs a little practice to get used to the specific spacing and timing required by the new weapon, along with the specific patterns of movement that make up the kata. By the time she’s practiced with all of the weapons, she can pick up just about anything and intuitively understand how to use it applying the principles of Shinto Muso Ryu.

At that point the techniques just happen. The student has soaked herself in the principles of the arts. There isn’t any thought.  To move in a manner other than that of Shinto Muso Ryu would require concentration because by that point the Shinto Muso Ryu principles have been absorbed so deeply that they have become part of  her natural movements and responses.

The same thing can be found in any effective koryu. There will only be a few active principles that have to be mastered to apply to every scenario imagined by the founders and their successors. A friend of mine does a sogo budo with a strong jujutsu element. They use a different technique for cutting with a sword; a tighter motion done closer to the body than I’m accustomed to. My first thought when I saw it was that they were giving up some of the potential range of the blade-- a reasonable comment on their sword work.  They don’t take advantage of every centimeter of reach that the blade has to offer, but this isn’t necessarily a weakness.

Cutting while using a tighter motion may not be  considered a weakness because the sogo budo group doesn’t just do sword work, or even just weapons work.  They also do a lot of jujutsu. In their jujutsu they use the same principle for throwing and joint locking that they use for cutting with a sword. They are conserving the number of motions and principles they have to learn. They have just one movement that is applied in their weapons work and their empty hand techniques. No time wasted learning different principles for weapons and another for jujutsu. One and done.

Training time is precious, even for people who are training full time. Their training time is valuable, and they need to get the most out of it. The highest return in training is to have a few principles you apply to everything, instead of many different discrete techniques that can be applied to the same thing. It takes thousands of hours of training to master any budo. Where is the good sense and efficiency in increasing the time it takes to master your training by having different principles for different activities and multiplying required training time as you add discrete principles and skills?

It makes no sense for a ryuha to have different principles for different activities or weapons. It would be a tremendous waste of time, and few people have the time to develop more than one body. If you have not absorbed the set of principles so deeply that they’ve stained your bones you’ll never express those principles under pressure. You’ll always do what has stained your bones.

Koryu training, real koryu, is about absorbing the principles of the art into your body and mind so that they color the core of your being. A key to how koryu do this is by reducing the essence of the art to a few powerful principles that can be applied to any situation. No unnecessary movements or ideas. 

One movement to do a hundred things.

Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman Ph.D. for her editorial support and contributions.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Power Mistake

Structure versus power    Photo Copyright Deborah Klens-Bigman 2020

We want powerful budo. Powerful budo is effective budo. Powerful budo is good budo. So how do we make our budo powerful? We make it stronger. The stronger someone’s budo is the more powerful it is. How do we make our budo stronger?

Usually we add muscle. We do push-ups and sit-ups. We train with weights to increase our bench press and our squat. Then we throw this additional muscle into our budo so we can hit harder, throw bigger, cut deeper. It makes our budo more effective and more powerful so we can beat the big guys. This is the way to powerful budo. Or is it?

None of the people whose budo I strive to emulate do muscular budo, yet all of their budo is powerful and dynamic. When they cut or strike or throw, the movement is solid and crisp. Nothing is done that isn’t essential to the movement. The cuts look like they could slice through stone. The strikes look, and feel, like getting hit with a truck. Throws hit you with the force of the planet. All of this without being muscular.

My teachers don’t need to be muscular to generate power. They have a combination of structure and technique that creates power and lets them direct it to where it will be most effective. Correct structure allows you to harness all the power of your body, not just a few big muscles. Precise technique puts all that power exactly where you want it for maximum effect.

If your structure isn’t right, even loads of muscle won’t make your budo strong.

There is always someone more muscular. I used to train with a guy who was a good 15 cm (6 inches) taller, 80 pounds heavier, and able to lift me off my feet without using any sort of judo technique. He was powerful and he could throw people around, but he wasn’t doing judo. His raw muscular strength got in the way of him learning good technique. He could jerk people so hard they were off balance from the force of the pull and then he would throw them by manually lifting them into position, but that wasn’t budo.

What frustrated this guy was that even though I was 80 pounds lighter and significantly weaker, he couldn’t throw me but I could throw him, hard. He was strong enough to pick me up off my feet, something I could only do to him with the help of winch, and yet I was the one doing the throwing. I used good structure to hold my partner off without getting tired. If I tried to go muscle to muscle with any of the big guys, I’d be exhausted and beaten in moments. Power doesn’t come from strength, it comes from structure and technique. If I let my structure absorb their power and redirect it into the ground, I can still go many rounds with the big 20-somethings in the dojo.

Just as a building with a flawed structure will quickly collapse under pressure, a person with bad structure is quickly demolished by an adversary. Good structure is not only the key to withstanding pressure, it is fundamental to projecting your power outward. You can only project as much force as your structure can support. Exceed that limit and you will crumble rather than your target. Boxers wrap their hands and wear gloves to improve the structure of their hands so they can deal with the forces they generate when punching. Take off those gloves and all the wrapping and boxers would be breaking the bones in their hands with the power generated by their technique.

If your structure can’t handle the forces you are generating, then your technique will never be able to generate power. Building a good structure is the first step to generating great power. Build a good structure and you build and project power effectively. Good structure also neutralizes other people’s power. That’s how you deal with bigger, stronger and faster. You have a structure that is stable under attack.

Good structure is necessary, but it’s not enough by itself. Technique multiplies your strength using the platform created by your structure. Arm locks, throws, punches, attacks with sticks and other weapons all start with a good foundation. The techniques multiply whatever muscle you have. That’s why a small judoka or aikidoka can manipulate and throw much larger, stronger people.

A 157 cm (5’2” in) person, even if unusually strong, is not going to have the strength to go toe-to-toe with someone twice their size. Yet anyone who spends time around a judo, jujutsu or aikido dojo will see goons like me being tossed to the ground by people half our size. It’s not their raw strength they are using to launch us airborne. It’s technique supported by good structure.

When we are first learning techniques the temptation is to try and force the technique. The more raw strength you have, the more powerful that temptation is. Every time we give in to that temptation we make it harder to learn good technique. Every time we force a technique we reinforce the habit to use strength instead of technique, and we make it harder to learn good technique.

All that technique we practice works to make strength unnecessary. Good technique is as clean and precise as a scalpel. Whether it is uchi mata or ikkyo, good technique will apply your power where your partner is weak. It’s budo, not arm wrestling. We’re going to use every advantage we can find. That means weaving around our opponent’s strength to apply a technique where it can’t be countered, not crashing into their strength. Technique done well feels effortless. When I’m thrown well I don’t feel the thrower’s strength. I don’t feel much of anything as the floor disappears from under my feet and reappears to smack me in the back.

Strength doesn’t do that. Technique does. The technique undermines my ability to stand up and then redirects me at the ground. I know I’ve done a throw well because I’m looking at the person on the ground and wondering why they jumped for me; it feels that easy when the structure and the technique are there. It’s that way for everyone. My jodo students know that they’ve done hikotoshi uchi correctly because their partner’s sword just vanishes without any feeling of having been there.

Strength erodes over time, but time seems to empower technique. As my teachers age they feel more powerful, not less. When he was 80 I watched Sugi Sensei completely dominate a powerful and experienced kendoka 60 years his junior. He didn’t do it with strength and fire, he did it with a structure that was solid, impenetrable, and smooth technique that was everywhere the junior’s strength wasn’t. Sensei’s technique was clean and simple with no wasted energy or motion.

That’s the combination of structure and technique that make budo work. It’s never about raw muscle. Structure gives you access to all the strength you have, and technique multiplies the power of that strength by using it in the most effective way possible.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that muscle equals power. Strength is nice, but powerful budo is supported by structure and propelled by technique.

Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman Ph.D for editing this.