Showing posts with label gendai budo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gendai budo. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Cross Training



What is the value of cross training?  Why do I consider it essential to development as a budoka?

There are tremendous benefits to getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that are new and different. Every art is built on assumptions about the armament, training and intentions of your imagined opponents.  Judo is great against the kind of attacks that are assumed. Judo training against weapons is pretty lousy. Shinto Muso Ryu is fabulous against guys with swords. We’re a little less sure of what to do against spears and grapplers.  

Classical Japanese systems originated in an era when people were assumed to be armed, and wearing armor was common.  For both reasons, empty hand striking arts never got started.  It wasn’t until Okinawan empty hand arts were brought to the main islands of Japan that empty hand striking was seriously considered. By the time that happened in the early 20th Century, armor was mostly relegated to history and Japanese society was peaceful enough that few people went about armed.

Martial arts developed to solve specific problems. The great sogo budo 総合武道 of Japanese history - arts such as Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinto Ryu and Kashima Shinryu - all evolved in a particular era with very clear needs. In the centuries before the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan and enforced peace, war was the norm. Warriors were not specialists, but generalists, learning a variety of weapons in systems where the fundamental principles were applied to everything, whether they were armed or empty handed. Combatants were most worried about surviving battles where they would be armored and facing a variety of weapons and foes.

After the Tokugawa forces brought peace to Japan with musket barrels, martial arts continued to be practiced. New arts arose to suit the new conditions with different expectations. The concern was no longer armored foes on the battlefield, but duelists, angry drunks, thieves and rebellious peasants. The arts that developed in this period reflect very different expectations about the sort of violence people would face.

Every art makes assumptions.  Sometimes we don’t even notice them. When I first started judo, a friend who was doing an art that makes different assumptions showed me some of my assumptions about what people would and would not do. I then learned that competitive judo’s assumptions about the opponent’s face don’t travel well. It’s a good thing to have your assumptions challenged.

Competitive judo has a polite rule about not attacking the face.  It’s a nice rule, particularly for all the randori (grappling sparring in judo) that we do. Going to work and going on dates with a face covered in bruises all the time would be less than ideal.  When you train like that all the time though, It’s easy to forget that not attacking the face is nothing more than a polite agreement between practitioners.  My friend Paul didn’t train in an art with any such agreements, so he casually reached up and moved my face.

Forgetting that these sorts of assumptions are made for the safety and comfort of long term practice is simply and quickly corrected by training with folks who have different standards of what is polite and respectful practice. Being a judo guy, training with a friend who does TKD does wonders for exploding unconscious assumptions on both sides. Judoka don’t have an aversion to getting a hit a few times if that will allow them to close and throw. Strikers will be happy to make a mess of your face long before you get close enough to throw them.  Strategies that work well in the narrow confines of your home art can become disastrous as soon as you step out of the dojo.

A little cross training can open up whole vistas of realizations. Judoka make all sorts of assumptions for training purposes that are silly outside the dojo but are perfectly reasonable from the perspective of making regular training safe.  For example, we don’t make an assumption about when the fight is over.  It’s over when both people agree it’s over, especially in dojo randori where you’re not competing for points. That became interesting for me when I started training with aikidoka  from time to time.  Many people in aikido assumed that once uke was off balance and being thrown, the action was over. I didn’t know about that assumption, so I surprised quite a few people when I  counter attacked while being thrown or even as I was being slammed into the mat. That’s not a problem with aikido, it’s a problem with training. Since then I’ve gotten to know some great aikidoka with exposure to judo. They enjoy my attempts to counter attack in the middle of their techniques, and the challenge of finding ways to stop me.

Another eye opening experience was when I took up jodo. I’d played with some methods of taking weapons in judo and aikido. I thought I understood something. Then I started training with jo and sword. I quickly came to a new understanding. I understood nothing about weapons, spacing with weapons, or timing.  Unarmed spacing and timing is a different beast from armed spacing and timing. My teachers could reach me at distances where I was sure I was safe. That staff was in my face before I was even aware they were moving.

You don’t have to go so far as to take up another art to gain significantly from cross training. I’ve learned loads from getting thrown around by my friend Chuck (yes, that’s really his name). Chuck does an interesting style of jujutsu, and he was happy to test all of my assumptions and preconceptions. I would say brilliant things like “You can’t do that.” and Chuck would promptly do it to me. I’ve been rolled, pinned, mashed and chucked all around the dojo, learning the whole time. I haven’t taken up studying Chuck’s style of jujutsu, but I’ve learned loads from playing with him.

Just doing something outside your specialty can open your eyes and clear out myths. Kim Taylor used to host the best cross-training event I’ve ever been to.  He invited all sorts of senior teachers from various koryu to Guelph, and we’d each teach a 2 hour introduction to some aspect of our art. Then we’d go try everyone else’s stuff. In one weekend I got to do jujutsu and naginata, a couple of styles of iai, maybe some jutte or spear, and a little kyudo. Afterwards we’d all go out for dinner and quiz each other about everything we’d seen and try to get answers to some of the million or so questions that leapt into our minds while we were trying all of this new stuff.  I saw experienced aikidoka go from thinking they knew something about swords to deciding that they really needed to take up a sword art. I saw sword people conclude that some of those “dinky” weapons weren’t so silly after all. Lots of people from all sorts of arts developed an interest in jodo.  A particularly thick-skulled judoka who was sure he’d seen pretty much all there was to see in Japan got schooled in just how limited his experience really was. For three days we’d train and ask questions and then train and ask questions some more. No claims of superiority, just loads of honest curiosity and a willingness to have all of our assumptions and preconceptions shattered.

I believe cross training is critical to fully developing your understanding of budo. If you only do one thing, that’s fine. If you only know about one thing though, that’s not. Get out of the safe zone of your dojo and go play with folks who do something different. We all look great at home where everyone moves and reacts the way we assume they should. What happens when people don’t move and react as we expect? Does our art fail us, or do we fail our art? If we don’t get out and challenge our own assumptions by cross training from time to time, we fail our art.

Having preconceptions and making assumptions about what will work and why is unavoidable as long as we’re human. Not doing anything to challenge those preconceptions and assumptions though is is a sad failure of our duty to our arts and ourselves. It’s especially sad when it’s so easy to find a way to check our thinking. Sign up for an open seminar with a different martial art. If you do empty hand stuff, try a weapons art. If you only do weapons, try an empty hand art. Step out of your safe zone and do something completely different. You may be amazed at what it can teach you about your art.







Thursday, March 31, 2016

Better for what?






A friend of mine asked about swords.  He was wondering which was a better investment for iaido practice, a sword made of high quality modern steel or one made in the traditional fashion. I think he may have been surprised at my answer.

"Best for what?" For iai practice, you don't even need a sword made of steel. A well-balanced, well constructed iaito made of zinc-aluminium alloy will do just fine. The problem with many modern “samurai swords” is that they have the balance of crow bar. For classical Japanese sword training like iaido, the most important thing is the construction and balance of the sword. Bad balance or poor construction makes it impossible to learn good technique and can actually injure your arms. Poorly balanced swords put stress on your arms in ways that can damage them..

The best Japanese swords are still the ones made by classically trained smiths. This is because the classically trained smiths understand sword design, geometry and balance in depth. They've studied hundred of great blades and know what shapes are good for different applications and uses. Western made "samurai swords" look vaguely like a Japanese sword, but they generally lack the real character and traits that make a sword of a particular style or era that was designed for real use.

It's less about the particular steel than the geometry and balance. Modern steels are great. They are strong, resilient, inexpensive and rust resistant. Classically made, folded steel is expensive, strong, resilient and rusts if you look at it wrong. The real difference for practice is what the smith does with it. For that, the classically trained smith is hands down the best.  Good iaito are made to mimic the weight, geometry and balance blades made by traditionally trained Japanese smiths, which is why they make the best investment for immediate practice.

This sword discussion reminds me a lot of my thoughts whenever someone asks me what the best martial art is. “Best for what?”  What you want to do with the martial art will determine where the answer goes. Martial arts have as many differences as they do similarities. What’s best is going to depend on what you want out of it. Unfortunately, becoming an unbeatable super warrior isn’t something any art can give. Give some realistic thought to what you want. Is it unarmed or armed skills? Primarily physical or more mental? Do you want to sweat heavily, or only moderately (not sweating is not an option when learning martial arts)?  Lots of contact or not?

While I am an unabashed fan classical Japanese koryu budo, they aren’t best for everyone. One reason is related to why my friend was asking about the difference between swords made with modern steel and those made by classically trained smiths: the cost to acquire one!

Genuine koryu budo are rare, even in Japan. In the USA where I live, they are exceptionally rare.  I can count the number dojo teaching real koryu within a 2 hour drive of my home on my fingers. There are a couple of iai dojo, a jujutsu and kenjutsu ryuha, and my dojo with iai and jo.  That’s it, and in a lot of places there aren’t even this many dojo. What this scarcity means is that learning real koryu budo is expensive.  It means investing a lot of time and money just to get to someplace where you can learn one.  Even then, there’s a good chance that what’s available isn’t exactly what you’re looking for.

Iai is great, but if you’re looking for kenjutsu or bojutsu or jujutsu, it’s not going to do you much good if the only things around are iai dojo. To really study something, you are probably going to have to travel a lot further than 2 hours.  I teach Shinto Muso Ryu and Shinto Hatakage Ryu, but if I want to get instruction for myself, I have to go to where my teachers are. Japan. That’s the only real solution, and it’s not cheap.  I’m lucky enough to be able to do it once or twice a year.

What happens if you can’t afford to travel an hour or more each way to practice, or worse, have to fly somewhere to receive hands on instruction? Koryu budo doesn’t look like a great option. On the other hand, the faux koryu stuff floating around is kind of like the faux “samurai swords.” It may look vaguely like the real thing, but under close examination it will lack many of the characteristics of a genuine koryu budo, and when you try to pick it up and use it, you may discover that it has the balance of a crow bar.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp


I love koryu budo, but good quality gendai (modern) budo is great too. The metaphor above breaks down a little here, because gendai budo isn’t an attempt to mimic koryu budo the way an iaito mimics a shinken. Gendai budo were created to suit the ages of their founding, and have evolved since then.  They aren’t koryu budo. Good gendai budo don’t try to be.  Good gendai budo are honest about their age and qualities and history.  Judo or aikido or kendo will teach a lot of the same things that you learn in a koryu budo. You’ll learn good structure, breathing, movement, spacing and timing. It won’t have the history or breadth of koryu budo, but it still has a huge amount to teach you.

If you want to learn good budo, do something that will teach you good fundamentals.  I’m fond of saying there are no advanced techniques. There aren’t, and anything that is too specialized, too focused on a particular precise application, won’t be broadly applicable in new situations. A good foundation of understanding your body, structure, breathing, spacing and timing can be quickly adapted and applied to any new situation or study.

Koryu budo are still rare. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near where one is taught, then it’s probably not the best budo for you. I love koryu budo, but if nothing is available, then the best budo for you is probably something that is. I’ve found old Japanese swords in antique shops in the middle of nowhere, but they usually aren’t very good and often have fatal flaws such as deep rust or, worst of all, cracks that make the blade useless. Good judo or karate or aikido or kendo, whatever you can find, go in with eyes open. Just because someone has high rank or a teaching license, there is no guarantee that they are good teachers.

It’s better to learn good quality basics from a relatively low ranked and effective teacher than it is to learn poor quality advanced technique from a highly ranked person who has no teaching skills. It’s better to learn good fundamentals from a good, local, budo teacher than it is to bemoan the fact that you can’t afford to travel to where the art you dream of is taught. Start with an iaito and learn the fundamentals while you save to buy a shinken. Learn good budo fundamentals in a local dojo while you can. When you finally save enough for that beautiful shinken, all the training with the iaito will mean that you can handle it with confidence and safety. All that training in the fundamentals of structure and spacing and timing in the local budo dojo will mean that when it becomes possible to start studying the art you’ve been dreaming of, you’ll already have a solid foundation to build on, instead of having to start completely from scratch.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Budo Is An Anachronism In The 21st Century


Budo in the 21st century is an anachronism. Whether we are talking about koryu budo from the before 1868, or the gendai budo, the modern arts founded since the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, budo doesn’t have much to do with the worlds most of us live in. Sword, naginata, bo; these don’t have a place in the world we live in.

The samurai who created the koryu budo were professional soldiers and police. The tools of the modern soldier and police long ago surpassed the tools of budo. Even the modern arts of judo, kendo, and aikido don’t really relate to the world around them. They are amusing sports and hobbies, but they do really offer anything beyond other sports and hobbies? What can they offer to the average practitioner, much less to professional combatants like soldiers and police that can’t be found anywhere else?

The weapons may be archaic, but the fundamental skills taught by gendai and koryu budo are as valuable now as they were 400 years ago. People see the particular techniques of a ryuha and make the mistake of thinking they are seeing the fundamental teachings of the ryuha. Just as in Chuang Tzu’s parable, they are mistaking the finger pointing towards the moon for the moon itself. The martial practice has always been somewhat separated from the real conditions of combat. This is an inescapable fact. Training conditions that too closely resemble real combat will result in the same sort of injuries and death as real combat. Training has to prepare students for combat without crippling or killing them in the process.

 
Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

This means that kenjutsu kata are practiced using wooden swords. Sojutsu (spear) kata are practiced with padded tipped weapons. Jujutsu throws are done without the final turn that would break uke’s neck. For all this, warriors and soldiers recognized the value of this training 400 and 500 years ago. Wooden swords are very different from steel: different weight, different balance, different grip. For all those differences, the things learned from training with them were still valuable in the age when people still fought regularly with steel.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


As Ellis Amdur points out in his excellent book about koryu budo, OLD SCHOOL, people in Japan in those ages grew up doing lots of sumo. From the rise of the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1336 onward, Japan was rife with conflicts and wars. These culminated in the Sengoku Era starting in the 1467 and running until Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle Of Sekigahara and unified brought the whole nation under his rule by force in 1604. People were less interested in sparring than in practice for realities they knew too well.

People sought out teachers who would train them with wooden weapons instead of steel, and whose jujutsu training didn’t include any free sparring. That training was valuable enough to seek out in the Sengoku Era, and in the decades after the Tokugawa’s came to power before everyone became complacent with the realization that peace and not war was the new status quo. What of value could be learned from all this mere training without sparring? As it turns out, quite a lot. It’s still valuable. Humans haven’t changed noticeably since long before we learned how to write down our adventures, and not at all in the last 500 years.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis
Those classical methods for teaching students the big, obvious things like a solid physical structure, how to read spacing and a good understanding of the timing involved in using various weapons are still effective. Whether we call them kata or forms or training drills, they still work.  No one can train for every possible eventuality, that’s why “what if” games are so pointless.

Instead, the good systems focus on teaching the principles of movement and encounter, of understanding effective spacing versus spacing where you can’t do anything, good timing and the consequences of bad timing. These are the fundamentals of budo. They aren’t the only things that have remained relevant from the 16th century to the 21st.

Many koryu budo train with weapons of varying lengths, weight and make-up. Schools like Takenouchi ryu include everything from unarmed to tanto to tachi to naginata and bo. That covers the reaches and ranges for most handheld weapons in any time.  Even in the age when Takenouchi Ryu was founded, they didn’t teach every possible weapon. There wasn’t time to learn every weapon.  However there was time to learn the principles of spacing and timing at all the various ranges you could encounter weapons.

Late in its history, Shinto Muso Ryu added kusarigama to its curriculum. Shinto Muso Ryu covers the use of most lengths of stick and sword, but a chain weapon like the kusarigama seems like a leap away from the core of the art. If you think about studying this weapon so you can be familiar with the properties of chain weapons though, it makes a lot of sense. Shinto Muso Ryu covers sticks and swords. With the addition of kusarigama, the Shinto Muso Ryu student can grasp the principles underlying chain and rope weapons so those can be effectively faced as well.

Hmm. Sticks, knives, swords and chains. That covers most of the range of possible handheld weapons even in the 21st century with the exception of firearms.

Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2014
I’ve been surprised at some of the other lessons found in various koryu that are appreciated even now. Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu contains kata about performing surprise attacks. These are lessons not just about how to make a surprise attack. They are also lessons about when and where we are vulnerable. If we can do something to someone, they can do it to us.  

500 years of technological progress haven’t made a dent in that truth.

There are lots of little lessons in budo that get overlooked while we focus on the big combat techniques. These little details that seem like decorations on the combative techniques are often the bits that I can apply in the parts of my life where I’m not actively engaged in a fight. Someone recently pointed out a whole list of lessons that are embedded within the kata of various koryu.

Mugendo Budogu: Fine Martial Arts Equipment


There are lessons about taking advantage of lighting or position for an ambush that also teach what conditions are dangerous for us, and what we should be aware of. At night if someone can draw our attention to lighted space, it’s easy for them to attack from a shadow we’ve ignored. Lessons about securing clothing and equipment are as applicable today as they were in the Sengoku era.  Learning to be aware of our surroundings is always a good lesson.

Koryu budo in particular are not just collections of discrete fighting techniques. They are whole schools of thought and behaviour. They teach how to handle and care for tools and weapons. There are lessons about places and situations to beware of. It’s surprising how much the lessons of good budo are simple, solid, good sense.

Which makes me wonder, are koryu budo anachronisms after all? Their lessons about structure and posture and spacing and timing are just as relevant to in the 21st century as they were 500 years ago. The length and variety of weapons available hasn’t diminished any in the last 500 years.  The principles governing how those weapons can be used and what sort of spacing and timing is important are still the same. The places situations we have to beware of haven’t really changed either. It seems I was wrong. Koryu budo aren’t anachronisms.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Organizing The Body For Budo


The fundamental skill of budo is not particular kata or even special techniques. Those are built on something else. The techniques and kata of a budo ryuha, ancient or modern, are the teaching syllabus and the textbook. The practice of those techniques and kata are the way one acquires the fundamental skills of the ryuha. 

If the techniques of a ryuha aren’t the fundamental skills being taught, what are they? The fundamental skills of a ryuha are all the things that make the techniques and kata possible. The essence of any ryuha is how the body and mind are organized. These are the fundamental lessons driven and learned through the practice of all those kata.

The kata provide a framework for learning to organize our bodies and minds. Kata only happen when the fundamental techniques are solid. Techniques are solid when the body is properly organized. That organization is what makes everything happen. How do you grip the weapon (or your opponent if it’s unarmed)? That’s a start. If the structure of your grip isn’t good, if the bones and muscles of the hand and arm aren’t well organized, the grip will be weak and the techniques ineffectual.  

How the feet, legs, hips, torso and head are organized is the true foundation and the fundamental teaching of any art. In koryu arts, this is a core secret. For Kodokan Judo though, this is open knowledge, though not even everyone who practices judo understands it. The majority of people doing judo do competitive judo and rarely train in the kata, where Kano Jigoro and his senior students encoded the essential lessons of the art.

In contrast to the low, solid, heavy stances common to in judo competition, the body is organized higher and lighter in the kata. This reflects the fact the Kodokan Judo kata are intended to teach how to handle a variety of combative situations including grabs, strikes, and weapons, as opposed to the narrow range of attacks permitted in the competitive arena. How do you organize the body to handle all of these different possibilities?

The way the body is organized for competition is optimal for conditions in a tournament where attacks come from the front. No one ever tries to strike you, No one carries any weapons. The problem I had initially with training in the kata was that the body is organized quite differently than for competition. The low, stable, immovable stance that is so ubiquitous in randori is exchanged for an upright, light, mobile posture that can quickly adjust and react to the wide variety of attacks presented by the kata.


With so many more possible ways to be attacked, and from so many more distances and angles, the body has to be organized differently. Instead of organizing my legs and hips to be able block out a throwing attack and then counter it, I have to be prepared to move to a new location quickly to avoid a punch, kick or weapon, or to enter inside the attack to deal with it. The knees will be slightly bent and the core engaged to take on the weight.  Instead of energy and strength being focused forward to meet an incoming throwing attack, the focus is more diffuse to allow quick movement in all directions.

Contrast this with way the body is organized for ZNKR Kendo and Seitei Iai. Instead of the low, solid posture common to competitive judo, or the light, upright posture of classical Kodokan Judo, for iai the posture is very upright, but with the body pressing forward, ready to surge into action the moment a foot is released. There is tension between the legs, so that movement happens the instant a foot is lifted. No time is wasted shifting weight, everything is ready. The koshi is kept engaged to provide a solid platform while the arms are light and relaxed to swing the sword quickly and effectively.
Beyond competitive martial arts, every koryu has its own way of organizing the body, and this is a core secret of the art. Historically, keeping information about this secret was one reason members of a ryuha would avoid training with anyone outside their ryu. If you understand how someone organizes their body, you know a lot about what they can and cannot do. Modern systems like judo and ZNKR Seitei Iai lay everything out in the open.

The way an art conceives combat, the situations envisioned, and the strategies employed all come together to determine how the body is organized. For something as specific as competitive judo or kendo, very specialized postures and organization develop. Budo that assume many more options have to organize that body differently. Rather than very specialized techniques only applicable to one situation, they require physical organizations flexible enough to adapt to the myriad of situations that can develop.  A good competitive bodily organization will maximize the potential within the narrow confines of the arena. Sogo budo 総合武道 (general budo) have far broader potential applications and need a body that isn’t organized for one specific match.

The more specialized the art, the more apparent it is in your body.  I was visiting a friend’s judo dojo for the first time a few weeks ago, and as I walked up to a young man I said “You’re a wrestler, aren’t you?” The way a body is organized for wrestling is a bit different from that of judo, enough that I could see that he was a wrestler even before we started working together. Karateka and competitive judoka are easy to spot too. The way we learn to organize our body is something we carry with us everywhere. It’s not something that turns off when we leave the dojo. It’s so apparent that we can learn to see it in the way other martial artists stand and walk.

How we organize the body for action is at the heart of every budo. It is basic, fundamental, and very difficult to get right. Mastering the body mechanics of an art is literally half the battle. Until the body is properly organized and moving in accord with the basic principles of the art you’re studying, none or the rest will be correct. No technique, no punch, no cut, no strike, no throw can be done correctly until the body is organized to create the platform upon which the technique occurs. Until the techniques are right, the kata don’t stand a chance of coming together with the right spacing and timing.  It all starts with how the body is organized. ( I might deal with organizing the mind another time, but that’s more difficult to describe.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

When It Comes To Training, Fast Is Slow And Slow Is Fast


In my last blog I was talking mistakes people make in practicing, and it appears I gave the impression that I think that hard training is always wrong. After rereading what I wrote, I can see how that happened. I spent most of the article talking about the problems with hard training, and only the bit that I repeat below about how to train hard properly.
There is an old saying in martial arts circles that “Fast is slow, and slow is fast.” The most vivid example I’ve seen of this was watching my iaido teacher, Suda Sensei, do kendo with high school students. At the time Suda Sensei was 80 years old. He didn’t have the raw speed or strength or stamina that these 16-18 year old kids did. If all it took was physical speed and strength, they would have blown him right out of the dojo.Instead, he totally dominated them while seeming to move in slow motion when compared to his young opponents. These are not just strong kids either.  A lot of these kids had been doing kendo for 10 years or longer, so they were pretty good technically too.  

Still, they would march out on the floor, and these strong, young guys wouldn’t be able to do anything against him. It wasn’t that Sensei was faster and stronger and crushed them. He was simply always where he should be.  You never saw him take advantage of an opening. That would have required speed.  Instead, his shinai was there filling the spot as the opening came into existence. He was slow, and he moved slowly (at least compared to 18 year high school athletes who train every day). He never rushed and he never hurried. He understood how his partner was moving, and he put his sword  just in the right place at the right time to make a beautiful cut. He didn’t have to hurry. He could move slowly because more importantly than being fast or strong, he knew how to move and where to be and always did it correctly.

You don’t achieve that kind of understanding, control and soft, effortless movement by spending all your time training hard. You get there by training right. Training right means not training any harder than you can while still supporting correct posture, breathing and movement. This is the tricky part. You do need to train as hard as you can while doing everything correctly.  If you are training so hard, and going so fast that you can’t maintain correct posture, correct movement, correct breathing, and correct technique, then you are training too hard.  The biggest problem with this is that you then teach yourself bad posture, poor movement, lousy, shallow breathing, and weak technique.

The trick is to push yourself right up to that edge where everything starts to fall apart, but not fall over it.  It’s easy to go to far, and I still find myself doing it from time to time.  Try as I might to eliminate it, I still have some ego about this stuff, and sometimes it gets the best of me.  I rely on my friends and seniors to help me avoid this, and to stop me when I start crossing the line into bad training.

One of the first keys to training as hard as you can properly, is to start slow. That whole “slow is fast, and fast is slow” thing starts here. If you try to rush your training, you will improve slowly, if at all, because you will be training in bad technique, poor posture, incorrect movement and shallow, inefficient breathing. Start slow, well below your best speed and your highest effective intensity level.  Whatever it is you are practicing, focus and do it perfectly. Then increase the intensity.  Not the strength or the speed. Just the intensity. Increase your focus, blast everything else out of your mind except what you are doing and doing 100%. Gradually increase the speed, but never so much that you lose control.

If you’ve got a partner, controlling this sort of thing is much easier.  It’s one of the reasons that koryu budo ryuha require lower level students to always work with a senior student who will act as the uke for the technique or the kata.  The senior student initiates the interaction and sets the speed and intensity level.  The goal is to always set it just above where the student is comfortable, but below the point where their technique and control fall apart.  That is a pretty narrow range for most us.  I know that my technique starts to break down fairly soon after we move out of my comfort zone.

The goal is to expand that comfort zone. Make you able to handle more and more stress without getting tense, breathing shallow, pulling your shoulders up by your ears and rocking back on your heels. Good teachers and seniors will feel where a training partner is at and adjust the training appropriately.  You want to spend plenty of time training out in that shadowy region where you aren’t comfortable, but you still have enough to control to move properly, maintain good posture, breathe well, and execute good technique.  This is where you will make the most progress.

Each time you train there, you will stretch your comfort zone a little further out, and the point where technique, posture, breathing and movement all fall apart will move a little further out as well.  This isn’t necessarily hard training as we are used to thinking about it.  It is hard though, and it will leave you dripping in sweat from the focus, concentration and control required for training out there in the shadow land between comfort and losing control.  It takes a long time to learn how push yourself far enough but not too far.


https://www.budogu.com/


I think this is why koryu students seem, in my experience, to make more rapid progress than students of modern arts. It’s not that koryu curriculums are inherently better. The koryu training system is much better though. Beginners and lower level students always train with senior who’s job is to keep them training out past their comfort zone without going too far.  The student doesn’t have to worry about how hard or intensely to train. The senior sets the pace and makes sure the training is fast and hard, but not too fast or too hard. This way the students get the maximum benefit from their time in the dojo.

A problem I see with many modern budo is that people spend a lot of time do repetitions on their own, without enough supervision to make sure what they are doing are high quality repetitions that are training good technique into their muscles. Then the students are encouraged to spar and do randori with people of all levels, without any control as to how hard they are fighting.  Students push themselves too hard, worry about winning (or not losing), and teach themselves bad habits that they will be trying to undo for decades (trust me, I have this little bend at the waist in harai goshi I have been fighting for close to 25 years. And I won’t even mention how quickly I can fall into a bad defensive posture  Arghhh!!).

Don’t rush into training harder than you are ready for.  Also don’t rush into trying to learn techniques and kata before you are ready for them. Doing that does two things. It waters down the amount of time you have to develop each technique because you are chasing too many skills at the same time. On top of that, it makes it more difficult for you body to absorb any of the skills effectively because you are trying to absorb more than you are capable of absorbing. The result is you are studying more stuff, but learning it more slowly.  Fast is slow and slow is fast.  

Learn the most basic things really solidly before you add more stuff to it. I know well the desire to learn the advanced techniques. The secret is that there are no advanced techniques. There are only the basics applied so well that they seem advanced. Sensei Hiroshi Ikeda once said that “We teach all the secrets of Aikido in the first class.” It’s true. On the first day you learn about relaxing, moving properly and breathing. Learn the basics well and all your techniques will look like magic. I was at a seminar where Howard Popkin kept doing impossible things to me. He did no advanced techniques, nothing complicated. He did very basic techniques and applications so smoothly and effectively they felt like magic. And you know what? Even those of us doing them for the very first time could do the techniques effectively when we slowed down so we could do the movements properly. The moment we tried to speed things up though, everything fell apart. There is no way to learn the good stuff by rushing. You have to slow down and do it right. Fast is slow and slow is fast.

Learn good, powerful budo.  Learn techniques that are so smooth and effective people accuse of you doing magic and tell you they can’t imagine being able to do what you do.  Master your body and your technique so fully that you fill every opening you partner gives you before it has opened. Be so relaxed and move so slowly while completely dominating your opponents that people watching can’t understand how you do it.  The fastest way to get there is to slow down and go no faster than you can do the technique correctly.  Fast is slow and slow is fast.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Change in Classical and Modern Martial Arts

The classical arts of Japan (pre-1868) have a very different structure from the modern arts. The classical arts are entirely defined by their kata. If you take something like Suio Ryu or Shinto Muso Ryu, they have a clearly defined set of kata. Changing the kata is frowned upon, not because innovation is bad, but because it's really difficult to find anything in the kata that has not been boiled down to the essence of effectiveness.

Most koryu (again, pre-1868 traditions) kata are paired kata, always practiced with a partner. The reasons for doing the kata a particular way become vividly clear in a bright black and blue manner if you try to change things. The attacking partner is an immediate check to see if what you are doing is effective or not. And when it's not, you may well end up with a beautiful bruise as proof. Recently a friend and I spent a morning working through some kata slowly. Each time we tried to change the kata, we discovered that the kata form was the strongest way of responding for both the shitachi and the uchitachi. Each time we tried something different the openings and weaknesses of the new positions were clear. After hundreds of year of practice and examination, our forebears in the system had worked out the most effective way for things to be done. Our lesson was to understand why they designed the kata as they did.

The practice of the kata define the koryu traditions. Nearly all of the lore and wisdom that generations of teachers have accumulated is in embedded in the kata. It's up to students to tease this knowledge out. One way to do that is with what my friend and I were doing. You deconstruct the kata, try different reactions and attacks at each juncture and see if they work, or as we discovered, why they don't work.

Traditional Japanese systems, koryu budo, generally have very specific and clear pedagogy. Shinto Muso Ryu has a clear set of 40+ jo kata, as well as 12 sword kata, 12 walking stick kata, 24 kusarigama kata, 30 jutte kata, and I've forgotten how many hojo kata. These are very clearly defined. It's extremely difficult for teacher who hasn't been training for decades to make changes, and the kata themselves make it difficult. As I discussed above, we couldn't find any weaknesses in the kata we were exploring. We just learned a lot of options that don't work as well those taught in the system already. With this kind of situation, there just aren't many opportunities for innovation.

The most common way koryu arts change is that someone develops a new kata to address some situation or condition that is not considered by the existing kata. In Shinto Muso Ryu for example, they developed some new kata at the end of the 19th century to make use of the walking sticks that had become popular at the time. This is a logical extension of the principles of the stick that is the main weapon in Shinto Muso Ryu to a shorter stick. They didn't change old kata, or get rid of anything. They developed a few new kata to teach an understanding of the ranges and uses of the shorter stick. Systems do change, but they do so very slowly. With koryu, those changes are usually minor additions to the system rather than revolutions in the way things are done.

People sometimes wonder why koryu systems don't have lots of sparring and tournaments like the modern arts of kendo, karatedo and judo. Surprisingly, this is not a new question. Groups have been arguing about the value of sparring type practice in Japan for over four hundred years. When Japan was at war with itself, which was most of the time from about 1300 through 1600, there were more than enough opportunities for people to test their ideas, techniques and skills, so the question didn’t come up. Once Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country and removed the last possible source of revolution in 1615, those opportunities disappeared. Soon after that sparring and challenge matches started to appear. Arguments over the value of sparring compared with kata training began almost immediately, and have continued unabated to this day. Over the centuries though, the styles that emphasize sparring as a part of their training never demonstrated significantly better records in the many challenge matches. If the sparring faction had shown consistent success the other systems would have changed rather than lose.  The systems that emphasized kata weren’t losing, so there was no need to change. Kata remained the core of training because when done properly, it works.

Tournaments are a relatively recent phenomenon. Tournaments first showed up late in the 19th century once the Japan had reformed its government and sword teachers had no way to make a living. Some people started doing matches to entertain the public and try to support themselves as professional martial artists after traditional positions working for daimyo disappeared.. These didn't last long, but they contributed to the development of modern kendo. Modern kendo equipment dates back to that used for sparring and some challenges as early as the 17th century.

Sword demonstrations and prize matches during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) popularized and contributed to the creation of a sport form of kenjutsu done with shinai (bamboo swords). Similar matches for jujutsu schools contributed to the rise of Kodokan Judo. Kano's students won a number of noted victories and the Kodokan was invited to participate in inter-style matches by the Tokyo Police. The Kodokan did exceptionally well in most of these matches and earned an impressive reputation. These matches though also drove some significant changes in the Kodokan's curriculum.

Fusen Ryu is reported to have defeated a number of Judo representatives with strong ground techniques. At the time, Kano was not in favor of focusing on ground fighting because he felt it was a dangerous place to be in a street fight. However, these losses on the ground in public matches pushed him to develop a groundwork curriculum for Judo. One of the big surprises about this is the way he went about it. Contrary to the idea of martial schools jealously guarding their secrets, at this time at the end of the 19th century, people were much more open. Kano invited the head of Fusen Ryu to teach groundwork at the Kodokan Dojo, and he did. With the help of the head of a rival system, Kano significantly strengthened the Kodokan curriculum. Kano never became a huge fan of groundwork, always believing that staying on your feet was optimal in a fight, but the pressure of doing well in competitive matches drove him to adapt his art.

In addition, Kano changed from the classic menkyo, or licensing, system, and created the modern dan rank system based on competitive ability.  The koryu systems award licenses based on a persons level of understanding and mastery of the system, up to and including full mastery of the system.  Kano abandoned this system for one in which students were ranked according to competitive ability in matches.  If a student could defeat four other students of 1st dan level (commonly known as black belt) , then he was promoted to 2nd dan (black belt).  This resulted in tremendous changes in what is taught and how students train.  Anything that is not allowed in competitive matches is marginalized in training, even if it is effective in combative situations outside of training.  The focus narrowed to those techniques which are most effective in competition.  The up side of this focus is that it drives innovation and experimentation.  Judoka are constantly looking for innovative ways to win in competition and refining their techniques to make them more effective.  The down side is, as I describe above, that anything not useful in competition is largely ignored, even if it is highly effective in situations outside of competition.

Various pressures on competitive martial systems are still visible today. For the larger systems such as Judo and various Karate styles, two of the big pressures are popularity and money. In the last 15 years the International Judo Federation has been busy making numerous changes to the rules for competitive Judo matches in order to make Judo more television friendly to maintain popularity and keep it's place in the Olympics. The matches are seen as being too slow and difficult to follow, so changes were made to speed things up. In addition, there seems to be some reservations about how well people from other systems, such as wrestling and BJJ, do when they enter Judo tournaments. I have heard complaints that wrestlers and BJJ players use a lot of leg grabs and take downs that aren't classical Judo. The techniques work though. My feeling is that in Judo, we are reacting in the worst way possible to these challenges from wrestlers and BJJ players. Instead of inviting them into our dojo to learn from them, as Kano did, the IJF has chosen to ban the leg grabs and take downs from Judo competition. To me this only makes Judo weaker and less worthy of study.

In the Karate world, I see a lot of things in tournaments where combative functionality is not even considered. People invent kata that are flashy and athletic, but have nothing to do with the rich history and combative effectiveness of the Okinawan traditions. I have seen rules for weapons kata that require a certain number of weapons releases. This means that people are required to throw their weapon into the air! From a standpoint of combative functionality, this is ridiculous. However, to people who don't know better, this looks impressive. These Karate tournaments seem to be responding to a desire to be as popular as possible, rather than as effective as possible. It is a similar to what the IJF is doing make Judo more television friendly so the International Olympic Committee won't drop Judo from the Olympics like it tried to do with Wrestling a few years back. I won't even get into the silliness that is Olympic Tae Kwon Do.

Many of the modern arts are relatively easy to change because they are competition focused and committee governed, so changes in the rules will drive major changes in training. The koryu arts are deeply seated in kata that have been refined over centuries, and I can't really imagine any pressure big enough for them to make significant changes to their curriculums. Since the classical systems are not looking for rapid growth or tv money, they are under no pressure to change except that which they have always had; to adjust their systems to they remain relevant to the world around them. Judo and Karate both have strong depths of kata, well thought out and highly refined, but these traditional, effective and functional kata are often ignored in the race to perform well in competitions. The desire to do well in competition and to be visible on the world stage will continue to drive changes in these arts. I would love to see the pressure and focus of modern arts return to combative functionality, but I doubt that will happen when it is so easy to get caught up in the ego trap of popularity.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Budo Teacher - Student Relationship



I write a lot about my teachers, how important they are to me, what they teach me and our relationship.  With a few exceptions though, you don’t see me using their names.  I wrote about a big Shinto Muso Ryu gasshuku recently, and never said who was teaching it.  I don’t usually publish my teachers’ full names either.   That makes it difficult to check and see if I really do some of these things or if I’m just blowing smoke.

In the budo I practice, the teacher-student relationship is very strong, very important and central to the nature of the budo..  The classical ideal for relationships in Japan is that of the parent and child, and many aspects of the budo teacher and student relationship resemble that.  The teacher is ultimately responsible for what the student does and says in public, just as a parent is responsible for what a child does and says, and the student is expected to look to the teacher for direction and to support the teacher publically, even when there are differences of opinion.  This is quite different from the way teacher-student relationships work in the USA, where I grew up and did my initial budo training.
 
Everything I say and do will be seen in classical budo circles as a reflection on my teachers. If I’m behaving badly or making ignorant or foolish comments, people in the budo world will complain to them and ask about the kinds of things they are teaching me.  It’s my responsibility to be a good representative of my teachers, and to do nothing that might embarrass them or cause them problems.  If I say something, it will be seen as being authorized and approved by my teacher.  My teachers will be held responsible for cleaning up any messes that I make.  The classical budo world in Japan is small, and you’re almost never more than a couple of degrees away from someone. 

My teachers each took a risk in accepting me as their student, but they didn’t do it lightly or quickly.   No one makes you sit for weeks by the temple gate in a typhoon before they accept you as a student, but you don’t become someone’s student just by signing the roster and paying your monthly dues.  Wayne Muromoto has a nice story about people who go to a teacher but don’t get taught the real thing.  These people aren’t real students, the teacher doesn’t trust them, doesn’t teach them genuine art, and takes no responsibility for what they do when the leave.

When I came to Japan, I joined a great local Judo dojo, paid my monthly dues and went to every practice I could.  I wasn’t a student though. I was guest.  I wasn’t a student until I had been there at least a year.  After that first year I started getting invited to dojo social events and trips, and most notable for me, my name appeared on the dojo member board.  The teachers were taking public responsibility for me.  At that moment my status went from being another guy who trains there, to Yoshikawa Sensei’s student.  Up until then, if I did something stupid in practice or at a tournament, well, I was just a guy who was passing though.  After that, I was Sensei’s student and if I did something wrong, I wouldn’t be told directly.  Sensei would get chewed out for not having taught me properly and he would be responsible for the consequences of my actions.  I would only hear about whatever pain and embarrassment I had caused after Sensei had started cleaning up the mess. 

If things work this way in a gendai budo like Judo, they are even more intensely personal in a koryu bugei.  Koryu bugei are not openly taught public entities like Judo or Aikido or Kendo.  They are more like family treasures shared with just family and close friends whom you deeply trust.  It takes a long time to really earn that, and it’s not always an easy relationship.  The responsibilities and expectations can be quite high.  I have on occasion made mistakes which my teachers have taken me to task for, whether it is something simple like doing a poor job during a demonstration (I now hate and fear youtube.  Any mistake I make in public will be preserved and broadcast for eternity!) or something more serious such as how or what I am teaching.  I learned early on to be really careful about public behavior so I don’t embarrass them.  They worked really hard to teach me the ins and outs of navigating the budo world so I won’t embarrass them or anyone, myself included.

I first entered the koryu budo world by invitation of a sword smith, an artist of the first rank.  Knowing Nakagawa Sensei lead me to my first iaido teacher, who introduced me to others, where I encountered a Shinto Muso Ryu student who introduced me to her teacher who introduced me to his teacher, who accepted me as his student and who introduced me to his teacher who graciously welcomes me into his dojo as a student of his student.    There were a lot of introductions along that path, and many people who stood to suffer if I didn’t behave well and respectably.  Now that I have been accepted as a student, everything I do reflects directly back on my teachers.

The responsibility isn’t just a one-way street though.  As I said, if I make a mistake or cause a problem, I may not hear about it until after Sensei has started cleaning up the mess.  If I’m responsible for being a good representative of my teacher, he is responsible for teaching me well and taking responsibility for any problems I may cause.  The closer the student-teacher relationship, the bigger the responsibility this becomes.  Initially this responsibility is only within the budo world, but it can grow to include all sorts of aspects of life outside the budo world.  Teachers have been known to help people find jobs and arrange marriages and secure loans.  Teachers accept a lot of responsibility when they accept a student.

Just as the teacher accepts responsibility for the student, the student accepts responsibility for the teacher.  Teachers are not ultimate paragons of humanity.  They have been known to drink too much, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and engage in feuds, just like everyone else.  Once you have passed beyond that probationary period and are really someone’s student, that’s all your responsibility too.  If Sensei drinks too much somewhere and makes a mess, it’s his students who make sure he gets home OK and clean up after him.  If Sensei has a fight or a feud with someone, you are automatically included on Sensei’s side.

The web of relationships and responsibilities extend far beyond just the teacher and student involved in the core relationship and can have wide ranging impacts.  It’s no wonder teachers take a long time before they consider a student to really be “theirs.”  Students should really be spending that probationary period looking very closely at the person they are considering studying with as well, because the responsibility is a two way street, and just as the student’s public behavior reflects on the teacher, the student is judged by who their teacher is.

All of this is to say that, for the most part, I don’t freely publish my teacher’s names and contacts.  I have friends whose names have been used without their permission to gain access to their teachers, and I want to protect my teachers from people like that.  A fraud will eventually be discovered and treated appropriately, but it’s my responsibility to make sure my teachers don’t have to deal with one to begin with.  So if I don’t go putting my teachers’ names out there, please forgive me.