Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How To Adapt An Art To Yourself



I often hear people talk about making an art their own and adapting the art to suit them. I hear it most often in arts like Aikido, Karate and Judo. The discussion will turn to adapting the art to suit an individual. This is a quite reasonable question. After all, every student’s body is different, with unique strengths and weaknesses. Adapting an art to suit an individual just makes sense, particularly in the modern, eclectic world we live in.

In competitive Judo, with dozens of legal throws, there is no way one person can be equally good at all of them. So people specialize in a couple of throws that they polish to perfection while giving the rest of the throwing techniques little more the cursory practice so they are familiar with what they look like and how they feel.  For a competitor, there is little use in doing a lot of techniques at a mediocre level. What they need are a few techniques they can hit from anywhere during a match. This compilation reel of people doing a number of different versions of tai otoshi gives a good feel for the ways and places one throw can be adapted for use.


I hear explicit discussion about adapting an art to individual practitioners quite often in Aikido as well. People want to make Aikido theirs. Even before the advent of Youtube, Aikido students could see many different senior Aikido teachers up close at seminars. There they could see that each of these teachers seemed to move a bit differently and have somewhat different approaches to practicing and doing Aikido. From there it’s natural for a student to want to make the Aikido they do as personal an expression of Aikido as that done by the shihan they see at seminars.

Adapting the techniques of an art to suit your particular body and personality is a reasonable idea. We all have different bodies with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, so why shouldn’t we try to optimize the techniques we study for our bodies. We can tweak and adjust the way techniques are done so they work better for us and are easier to do.  It seems reasonable that a person who is 2 meters (6’4”) tall will do their tai otoshi or kotegaeshi or iriminage differently than someone who is 152 cm (5’).


Across the spectrum of body types and shapes and sizes, students can see that they should be adapting their art to their particular body characteristics. Often they ask when they can or should start doing this. I’ve seen many comments that give a time after a student is well into dan (black belt) ranks. After someone reaches 4th dan in most gendai arts they should have a really solid foundation in the art and be able to experiment without getting into trouble by teaching themselves mistakes. They can start making the art their own, and by the time they reach 6th or 7th dan, they could have a personal style that is clearly all their own.

This is great, right? You study the art, learn it and then mold it to your body.  I used to think it was great. Lately though, I’ve begun to wonder. I do both gendai budo (Kodokan Judo) and koryu budo (Shinto Hatakage Ryu, Shinto Muso Ryu). At one time I thought that koryu budo could learn many things from the way gendai budo are taught and practiced.  Gendai budo, particularly arts like Judo with a huge global competitive aspect, constantly mine modern science for the latest training methods and techniques for improving competitor’s skills and the efficiency of their training. I don’t think anyone would argue that Ronda Rousey hasn’t done an incredible job of adapting her competitive judo training to the world of mixed martial arts and demonstrated the effectiveness of it.

Competition is an exceptionally narrow set of conditions though. Conditions that can make techniques and stances that are foolish to try in other situations into perfectly reasonable responses. A classic example is the strongly defensive posture you can see in many competitive Judo matches. It’s very bent over and committed forward to block out your grappling partner.  Outside the competitive match though, the position is rife with openings for punches, kicks or small weapons attacks. This competitive defensive posture is quite effective for blocking out sporting attacks.

It would be a huge mistake to try to apply this or any of the defensive tactics from competitive Judo to a broader practice intended for budo. If you tried to use that stance while doing any of the combative Judo kata you would discover all sorts of unpleasant general weaknesses in it.  Competitive Judo has adapted itself to the rules of competition. The International Judo Federation is constantly trying to tweak the rules to push competitors back towards a classical style of Judo that is more broadly effective than just within the limited space of the competition area. The effectiveness of their efforts may be questionable, but their continued effort is praiseworthy.

Competitors only have to be concerned with the narrow range of possibilities present within the competition arena. Those of us doing martial arts as budo have a much broader world of possibilities and consequences to be concerned with. We’ve ruled out taking ideas from the rarified world of competition, but we still want to make our budo our own and adapt it to our unique body and personality. Now we can start looking at what there is that we can change without destroying the art.

Fundamental stances are essential in any art. This might be the first place that someone could modify the art to suit them. I like to look at leading practitioners of arts like Judo and Aikido and Kendo, arts where there is more opportunity to adapt an art to oneself without major criticism.  Aikido and Judo provide perhaps the best examples, because there are plenty of high level practitioners around to look at. Kendo leaves a bit less room for personalization, but it’s still there. 

Looking at Aikido, I see people who prefer to work from hanmi stance and others who prefer a shizen (squared up, front facing, natural) stance. When they have the opportunity to reset their stance, they go back to their preferred stance. I don’t see high level teachers modifying their stances or coming up with new ones. They just have a stance they prefer to work from. 
The same is true in Judo (after we ignore all the bad defensive postures seen in judo competitions at all levels). People don’t modify the basic stances and grips. Some people prefer a right side grip, some a left side grip, some higher and others lower. What you don’t see are people inventing new grips. With millions of people doing Judo, and thousands of those practicing at elite national and international levels, if there were a new posture or grip that could be effective, I’m certain we’d have seen it. What we see are people fighting from the right or the left, or even squared up.  Some big guys like higher grips, and occasionally you’ll see someone who likes to fight with a sleeve and sleeve grip instead of a sleeve and collar grip.  That’s about the extent of stance and grip personalization you see in Judo.

The problem with modifying fundamental stances is that they are just that, fundamental. If you start modifying them, then everything in the art that follows from those stances has to be modified to fit the new version of the stance. More problematic is that the stances have been chosen and refined within the art for their strength and flexibility. In any of the fully established arts I know, whether koryu or gendai, the stances have been refined to their essentials and changing them just creates a weakness. 

What could you change in any fundamental stance that wouldn’t weaken it? Body angle, hip alignment or foot position? If you change your body angle then you’re not aligned to deal with your attacker  If you shift your hip alignment you lose the connection between your upper body, your hips, and your feet.  Change your foot position and you can’t react properly when an attack comes in.

So when you’re personalizing your budo and putting your particular stamp on the budo you do, it looks like changes to stances aren’t the way for people to go about it. Watching high level practitioners shows that me while they have stances they prefer, they don’t make significant changes to them.  I should also note that if you watch any of them long enough, they are generally quite competent in all the stances of their art, they just prefer some stances over others.

If people aren’t putting their stamp on the art by modifying the stances of the art, how about the techniques? This is a tough one too.  I can’t imagine being able to monkey around with the essence of a technique like harai goshi or shihonage and being able to make some modification that would let it work as well as the fundamental technique, at least not any modification that someone else hasn’t already thought of.


I don’t even know who the guys in the above video are. The Judo world is quite large and I know a tiny, tiny fraction of it. But clearly they have worked out a lot of different ways to attack harai goshi. I remember my first Judo teacher telling us about how proud he was of a variation on a throw he had come up with. He used it quite successfully in a tournament. After the tournament one of the old guys came over to his teacher and complimented them on the beautiful technique.  This old guy said he hadn’t seen that version of the technique in ages, not since some Japanese guy had used it back in the 1930s. So much for doing something new.

The same holds true for something like shihonage. I tried to find a nice compilation video, but no one seems to have made one yet. A search for shihonage on youtube though brought up dozens of individual variations on the technique. If someone can think of a highly effective variation of shihonage that is not already represented by a video on youtube, I would be amazed and impressed.

All the various entries for harai goshi in the video, and all the versions of shihonage on youtube, work because throughout the variations the fundamental essence of the technique has not been changed.  People can change how they enter, what movement they use for the setup, what attack they are responding to, what position they start in, and a dozen other things, but the core of what they are doing, the basic technique being applied, doesn’t change.

When we see someone doing their version of an art like Judo or Aikido, we’re not seeing a fundamentally different art. We’re not even seeing an art that has been adapted to suit a particular person. What we’re seeing is a person who has mastered the art and found particular pieces of it that they like and are most comfortable with which they use more often than other parts of the art. Their personal “style” of aikido isn’t a personal style at all. You’re seeing the parts they like and are most comfortable doing.

An Aikido teacher who usually starts from hanmi stance and does a lot of shihonage in her demonstrations has not made any modifications to Aikido to make it suit her.She’s mastered it and chooses the stances and techniques that she likes best. A judoka who specializes in tai otoshi and can do it from 15 different positions and entries is still a judoka. She’s just become particularly proficient at one technique and is most comfortable with it. She’s still a judoka and can still do the rest of the syllabus.

I started out with the question “How do you adapt your budo to yourself?” The answer is, you don’t. You study your art. You master your art. Within it, you may find particular stances and techniques that you are exceptionally comfortable with and feel best when you do them. As you use these more and more, they will be viewed by others as your particular “style” of Aikido (or Judo or whatever). You’ll still be doing the standard version or your art. You may have specialized in particular versions, but it’s still Aikido or Judo. Other people see your particular emphasis in stances and techniques mistake technical preferences as personal style and modifications to the art.

You haven’t modified the art. You do the full art, but you are especially comfortable in particular stances and you find some techniques more accessible and easier to express than others.  There’s nothing new there. That sort of thing is older than humanity. Even before Sun Tsu people studied their opponents to learn techniques, tactics and strategy they preferred. 

In fact, if you are too wedded to particular stances and versions of techniques, it makes you weaker, not stronger. People will know exactly what you’re going to do and how you will do it.  It’s very easy to catch a tiger that walks down the same stretch of trail every day.  ou just keep laying traps for him. Eventually one will work, especially if capitalizes on the tiger using those same movements and habits.

So don’t try to adapt your art to yourself. Recognize a truth that is evident in koryu bugei.  You don’t adapt an art to yourself. You adapt yourself to the art. Master the fundamental postures and techniques of the art you are studying. Make them a part of who you are so you can’t possibly do them wrong. These fundamentals are the core of the art, and they are what make everything else in the art possible. They are designed to eliminate as many openings and weaknesses as possible. If you mess with them, you will be far more likely to do something that weakens you than something that strengthens you.

So how do you adapt an art to yourself?  You don’t.  You mold yourself to the art.








4 comments:

Rick Matz said...

"I started out with the question “How do you adapt your budo to yourself?” The answer is, you don’t. You study your art. You master your art."

Spot on. As you practice, your art shapes you and you shape how your art is expressed.

surlespasdemars said...

Reminds me some discussions about Shu-Ha-Ri where people thinks about Ri like having your own style whereas I understand it more like a stage you have internalized so deeply the art, that there is no specific "waza" but a simple expression of the core principles of the art.

Jonathan Jeffer said...

In Judo, what I have found is that the favorite technique chooses you, rather than you choosing it.
Beyond body type, I find that people have tendencies in movement that they naturally favor. As I'very taught more, my pedagogy is more towards teaching basic throwing principles using only a few major throws as vehicles to do that. Then showing variations with different grips and at different angles, make up a lot of what I was taught as different throws. Then an emphasis on experiential learn I no through Randori. I have observed that students at some point absorb the movements of their instructor, but have adapted it to themselves.

The Budo Bum said...

surlespasdemars,

you've got it. Shu-Ha-Ri expresses levels of understanding. Shu守 is easy to understand, but ha 破 and ri 離 are really difficult. Everyone seems to go for the simple meaning of ha破 as "to break," but it has other meanings, uses and nuances. One of which is "to break through" and when standing alone like it is in 守破離 (not tied to another kanji) it can also indicate the middle of something. Ri離is tougher, but in this case, instead of separating, my reading of Japanese writers on the subject is that perhaps it's more like transcending the ryuha than breaking with it. You study the limited way of one ryuha so you can reach the level where you can transcend the limits of the ryuha. (Yeah, this will eventually be a blog).