Showing posts with label karate. Show all posts
Showing posts with label karate. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Budo Puts The "POWER" In Empowerment

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


I watched the Avengers: Age Of Ultron last week. I admit to being an old school comic book geek. I’ve got nearly the entire run of Marvel Comics from the 80s in boxes somewhere. Watching the movie reminded me of one of the old motivating fantasies many have for starting martial arts; to be able to be able to do things other people can’t, to have something like a super power.  While watching the movie, some of the heroes, especially Black Widow and Hawkeye, did things that looked fantastic on screen.  While what was these characters were doing on the screen is an exaggeration, it made me think about that fact that budo practice really can endow people with extraordinary power.

Black Widow runs around fighting and beating the daylights out of whole armies of foes.  We all know that’s not realistic. On the other hand, a average size women, with plenty of training, is going to be quite effective against an ordinary man. Yes, the man will have size and strength.  After a few years of budo though, the woman will have an understanding of spacing and timing, as well as technique that will effectively multiply her strength because she will put it to targeted work rather than just lashing out.  I’m pretty sure any of the women who make it to the medal stand in Olympic judo could go through me so fast I wouldn’t know what happened. That’s speaking as someone who’s done judo for decades.  Their extensive and focused training makes them that much better than just about anyone.

Power is relative. From the Merriam-Webster dictionary we get the meanings

(1) :  ability to act or produce an effect

What budo practice endows someone with isn’t super-power, but it is power, and it’s available to anyone who is willing to work at it. There are lots of different sorts of power developed, and strangely, few of them have to do with raw force. The real power of budo comes from learning the precision application of small amounts of force in the correct way, at the correct moment. All the strength in the world, applied incorrectly, will not result in power.

That’s the genius of Kano JIgoro’s maixm 精力善用 seiryoku zenyo, usually translated as “maximum efficiency minimum effort. Kano was able to identify and encapsulate this in a simple phrase for Kodokan Judo, but it’s true of all budo. Regardless of whether we are talking about ancient or modern budo, karate, judo, aikido, weapons or any other art, the best, most effective budo will be that which applies force with the maximum efficiency and the least amount of effort.

It’s skill that brings about that efficiency and effectiveness. That skill multiplies the power of whatever strength someone brings into the dojo. Power “is the ability to act or produce an effect” and in budo there are two sides to that. The one that catches most people’s attention is the ability to do things to the world. Whether this is a karateka’s punch, a judoka’s throw, a the precise strike of a jo, or the clean joint lock of an aikidoka, these are all examples of power, and none of them require a huge amount of strength to be effective.

Karate folks know full well that the location of a blow is at least as important as the force behind it.  Strike a strong man in the chest and you might knock him back. Strike him in the side of the knee or one of a number of other choice targets and it doesn’t take much force at all to leave him broken.

How much strength does it take to throw another human being? Surprisingly little.  A college friend of mine who weighed something north of 300 pounds could be easily thrown by a young lady in our dojo who weighed less than of third what he did. Strength had nothing to do with it. He could bench press 3 of her. When he picked her up from behind in a bear hug though, she could put him in the air. It was not a landing he was fond of, but it was great at demonstrations. She could never match him strength for strength.  The lesson was that she had to apply her force and technique in the right place, at the right moment. Then she was powerful enough to throw someone 3 times her size.

The right point of application and proper timing have far more to do with the power to do things than raw strength. Otherwise, the young gung-ho guys in the dojo would be the powerful ones. Instead, if you go into a dojo, it’s the people with the most training time who are really powerful. Watch out for the relaxed looking older ones. They don’t have the strength and the stamina anymore, but for some reason they can keep up with 20 somethings when randori starts. People wonder why, but they really shouldn’t.

In common sense thinking, there is no way someone in their 50s or 60s or 70s should be able to keep up with, much less regularly dominate, people in their teens and 20s.  We all know life doesn’t work like that. Hang out in a good budo dojo for a while though, and you’ll see it happen all the time. Knowledge and skill make the folks with the gray hair powerful.  They don’t need youthful strength and stamina (though it would be really nice to have) to be powerful.  They know when an attack will be effective and when it won’t and they don’t waste their energy on things that won’t work.

They have something else too.  

It’s not just what the experienced folks can dish out. It’s what they can roll with and keep coming up for more. In that movie, the Black Widow gets thrown all over the place, and instead of going splat into the ground, she does neat ukemi and comes up ready to go. That’s another sort of power.  The power to absorb and negate.  In the dojo we learn how to do that! I get thrown into the ground all the time at practice, roll through it, get up and dive straight back in for more.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


In budo, power is a coin with two sides.  The side that leaps to the front of everyone’s mind is the power to do things to someone else. Equally important, is the power to absorb and handle other people’s power. When I used to watch Suda Sensei, who was in his late 70s, handle the attacks from all the teenage kendoka in the dojo, it was a lesson in minimum effort and properly applied power. He could absorb and redirect their attacks without getting tired.

Hikoshiso Sensei at 65 would do randori for 15 minutes straight with young judo guys in their teens and 20s and throw us all over the place. He could absorb our attacks without effort. He would also let students learning techniques throw him around.  Imagine a 65 year old man getting thrown repeatedly to the ground, and smiling about it. That’s power too.  

That’s a lot of power. Think about what would happen to a normal, untrained person who was picked up and hurled at the ground.  Bruises? Broken bones? Concussion? Death? Yet I see people in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s taking ukemi and getting thrown around.   Then there are the 70 year olds competing in judo and throwing each other around!


70-74 year division judo competition


It takes power to be able to throw someone, but it takes power to be able to be thrown and stay healthy as well. Imagine the kind of power that allows people in their 70s to throw someone, and to survive being thrown.  That’s real power that comes from budo training.

Budo training won’t turn you into a super-hero.  But if you keep it up, it does give some extraordinary power. Budo will empower you with whatever you train for.  And that power stays around as long as you train.  Just ask these karateka.



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.