Showing posts with label movement. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movement. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Koshi


I am obsessed with developing proper koshi. My iai teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, has been kicking my butt about my koshi for decades, and I’m getting so monomaniacal about it that I wonder why he hasn’t pushed me harder. Whenever I see him, he always makes point to remind to work on my koshi. He is over 90, and still has powerful koshi.

Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2013



So what is koshi? That’s a little tough, because koshi not a clearly defined medical term. Koshi includes the lower back, hips, waist and pelvis. It may be a little vague, but it’s a really good term for a critical area of the body when doing good budo.  That’s because the koshi is the platform that the upper body rest upon.  If the koshi isn’t solid, everything else will wibble-wobble around without any power or control.

Kiyama Sensei always tells me ”腰を入れて” or “put my koshi in”/”use my koshi.” This is subtly different from what people mean when they say “use your legs” or “put your back into it”. Proper use of the koshi is something more fundamental. Good koshi isn’t just about giving power, though it does that. It also gives stability in a way that is critical for being able to use the power in both your legs and your upper body.

When I swing a sword, thrust with a jo, or throw someone in judo, the quality of the technique is limited by how well I can use my koshi. It is the platform that the technique rests upon. When I swing a sword, does the weight and movement of the sword disrupt my balance and stability? If my koshi isn’t solid, it will. On the other hand, if my koshi is solid, I can increase the power and effect of my swing significantly by small movements of the koshi. The koshi ties my whole body together and allows me to direct all the power of my body into the swing of the sword, the thrust of the jo or a throw in judo.


koshi is related to what exercise instructors and trainers refer to as the “core.” The koshi combines the muscles of the lower back and the lower abdomen and ties them together with the pelvis and hips. The lower back muscles have to work with the abdominal muscles as a single unit. They can’t be fighting each other, and one can’t be overpowering the other. These muscles then attach to the pelvis from above to create a single, solid platform.

The stability of that platform is critical in whatever form of budo you are doing.  Most beginners using a sword will tend to sway back and forth like a metronome when they swing the sword. As a beginner swings the sword down, her body is pulled forward from its balanced position. As she raises the sword back over her head her body comes back to center and sometimes even sways past center to the rear.  Without a stable koshi, the beginner has no balance and no control.

The same problem arises when thrusting with a jo.  A martial artist who doesn’t know how to apply her koshi tends to thrust with just her arms, or worse, tries to power the thrust by tipping her upper body into the thrust. This doesn’t increase the power of the thrust, but it does leave her badly off balance and unable to do anything until she has pulled her upper body back over her koshi.

On the other hand, if you power a weapons thrust by driving forward with the legs and transmit that movement and leg power through the koshi to the upper body to the arms and then the weapon, you get a very powerful technique that can actually pick up and move someone (if you can find an uke who is willing to suffer through this). The koshi has to be rock solid for this to work. If there is some point where the hips, pelvis, abdomen and lower back aren’t properly connected, the moment your thrust encounters solid resistance everything will fall apart. Without a solid koshi, when you thrust into a solid partner (someone with great koshi!), your own energy will force your upper body to bend back, away from the target, even as your legs and hips are driving forward. This is disasterous.  The thrust loses any effect on the target and instead knocks you backward and off balance.

Koshi is fundamental. Nowhere is this more true than in empty hand arts. I was watching some budo demonstrations on youtube, and what consistently stood out to me was that nobody had good koshi.  Everyone demonstrating had weak koshi.  Their bodies were all over the place.  Whenever tori threw uke or took him to the ground in a pin or joint control, tori was leaning into the technique instead of driving with his legs and koshi.

I’m a judoka. If you lean into a throw or a pin, it becomes trivially simple for uke to take control from you and reverse the situation. With a judoka that can mean that three-quarters of the way through the technique, when you are sure uke is going down, you suddenly find yourself in flight going over and past uke before you hit the ground.



So how do you develop koshi? The most obvious first step is to have a solid core. That’s not complicated or mysterious.  There are thousands of sites and videos that detail exercises for building a strong core. I’m not going to spend time going over that ground. I will talk about learning to feel and use your koshi well. The first check is to stand up.

Just stand up, close your eyes and feel where your head and shoulders are in relation to your hips. Because the koshi are so fundamental to everything we do, small changes in the angle and relationship between your koshi and the rest of your body can have outsized effects on your stability and technique.  Where are your hips and pelvis? Odds are if you dropped a plumb line from the base of your neck, your hips would be a little behind it.  

That’s not where you want it. You want your hips and pelvis under your shoulders and your shoulders under your head. Take a look at the video of Kim Taylor above. He does a strike with the tsuka of the sword yet his shoulders and head are never in front of his koshi. All the power of his koshi is punching right through the end of the tsuka. The same thing happens when he turns and does the thrust with the sword. He doesn’t over extend his arm.  He doesn’t lean forward from the waist. He pushes the sword forward from his koshi.

That’s where the real power comes from.  Find where your koshi is, and then adjust it to where it should be. Can you feel the difference? Get familiar with that feeling. Really learn how it feels to stand like that. Now try walking.

It’s more difficult than we expect to move from our koshi when we walk because we have all sorts of habits from everyday life. These make walking difficult to do without paying a lot of attention to it. The upside is that walking is something we do all the time. We don’t have to go to the dojo, and we don’t need a skilled uke to practice moving with good koshi. We can practice this any time we walk, even at work.

The first thing to practice is just walking while maintaining a stable, connected koshi. This is the first step towards having a solid koshi to apply to budo. When you walk, do your head and shoulders stay over your koshi? Or are you a citizen of the 21st century whose head is permanently tilted forward and down, ready to check your iPhone at a moment’s notice? Can you duplicate the feeling of stability you have when standing still with a solid koshi while walking normally?  Once you get that, you’ll be ready to start introducing good koshi into your budo.

Koshi alone isn’t everything, but without good use of koshi, it’s difficult to progress in your practice. 


I want to give a bow of thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman more editing and advice on this one. You can read her excellent martial arts blog at http://resobox.com/author/deborah-klens-bigman/ 

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.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Most Essential Principles In Budo: Structure

A question came up in a budo group I’m part of asking what the 3 most important concepts in budo are. It’s an interesting question. What ideas are most fundamental in the art you practice? These concepts undergird and direct your training. They direct the focus of your training and what sort of things you are practicing. People offered quite a few ideas, including:

Keep your body relaxed.
Always keep your center (or be centered).
Keep your elbows down, and close to your body
Always try to control the first move

Many of the ideas offered were specific to Aikido, which is the point of that group. My thoughts are more general and apply to any form of budo.  My list  is structure/stance, spacing and timing, in that order.  Each builds on where the previous concept is, and without effective use of the previous concept the next cannot be employed effectively.  All apply regardless of whether you are doing kung fu, judo, boxing, aikido, swords, staves or scary stuff like kusarigama. This my list, and I make no claim that it is definitive.  I offer it in the hope of sparking good conversation and consideration of the most important elements of practice and application.   I’d thought to do these all in one post, but it looks like it’s I’m going to have to give each one it’s own post.  

My first principle is structure/stance.  Without a solid, connected, supported structure you can’t accomplish anything.  This why I’m only partly joking when I say that the only thing I really teach is how to walk and how to breath.  Good structure is what allows the fastest, most effective, stable and strong movement.  If you are slouching and rolling your shoulders, tipping your head at the ground and not supporting yourself, you can’t breathe deeply or efficiently.  Slouching and poor posture compress the torso so it cannot hold as much air.  You will get tired more quickly just because you can’t get enough oxygen into your body fast enough.  

Slouching also robs the body of it’s natural structural integrity.  If you slouch, you’re off balance already.  Judo folks stand or fall based on their balance, but this is true for anyone in any art.  If you’re not balanced, you’re not stable in at least one direction.  

slouch alexander technique.gif

In the picture above (from this site) the two diagrams on the right show what our structure looks like when we slouch.   Can you imagine trying to do any physical activity with that sort of compromised structure?

With good structure, loads and forces can easily be absorbed and handled, movement is quick, light and easy, and changes can be adapted to readily.  Without it we can’t carry or absorb loads or force, movement is difficult, slow and tiring, and it is difficult to adapt to changes in the situation.

I’ve been showing this to my sword and jo students for years with a simple exercise.  I let them hold a jo against my solar plexus whatever way they like holding the jo, and I can push the jo back into them and them across the room without any effort at all.  They can’t do a thing to slow me down and I can reach them with a weapon or my hands before they can do anything about it.  If the structure of the wrist is off it’s optimal angle even a little, it will collapse under pressure and be useless.  

Wrist structure Bad.JPG
With the structure of the wrist compromised like this (particularly clear in the left wrist) a push on the end of the jo will make the wrists collapse into the body and allow an attacker to easily drive in.

On the other hand, if the wrist is at the proper angle, I can stick a 140 kg goon on the other end of the stick and he can’t push into me, or even into someone half my size.  How can it be that just changing the angle of the wrist where you hold the stick can impact so much?  I’ll let the mechanical engineers and the physics boys explain the details, because I don’t have a deep enough background there to do it anything like accurate justice.

Wrist Structure good.JPG
With properly aligned wrists, you can support far more than your own weight pressing into the end of the jo, and push from the hips with more energy than the arms can generate.

This split between weak structural configurations and strong ones carries over to every joint in the body, and to the way the body as whole is arranged.  If the wrist structure is good, but another joint such as the hip, knee or ankle is not aligned properly, the whole body structure is still weak and will collapse even if pressured only slightly.  

Structure gives the body the ability to move, and when that structure is taken away, there isn’t much anyone can do.  Over the weekend Howard Popkin impressed that upon me anew.  He can, by simply moving around the force and structure of the body, completely undermine the power of people bigger and stronger than I am, and throw them casually, without so much as taking a deep breath.  He simply maintained his structure and went around the lines of strength in mine.  

You can push all you want on someone who keeps their structure aligned so your force is directed into the floor.  It takes very little strength to maintain your structure under this kind of attack.  The attacker’s force actually pushes your body to maintain good structure without the addition of much energy on your part.  If you decide to push back, it’s actually easy to do because your structure is already supporting and negating their power.  When you push back, they fly.

It’s interesting that according to Kano Jigoro, founder of Kodokan Judo, one of the two great secrets of great Judo is kuzushi 崩し.  Kuzushi comes from a verb in Japanese that means tearing down, knocking down, breaking things into smaller parts.  Sometimes it implies undermining and destroying a foundation.  This is one of the great realizations of Kano’s that he put into his Judo.  If you destroy the foundation of someone’s structure, take them off their foundation and remove the support from their structure, they become incredibly weak and a small woman can throw a large man.  

This is true for whatever art you are practicing, whether it is armed or unarmed, jujutsu, karate, sword or chain, staff or rope.  You maintain your posture and then you destroy your opponents.

The first step in mastering budo is learning to properly maintain your own structure.   If you can’t do that, nothing else is possible.  Once you’ve got that you have a powerful base to work from.  Then you learn to manipulate and undermine your opponents structure.  Once you destroy the integrity of their structure, throws and joint locks are easy.  The key is that destroying the integrity of someone’s structure doesn’t involve harming them.  It just means making them slump or slouch or come away from a balanced stance.  Once you’ve done that, the actual technique isn’t terribly important because without a solid, balanced structure, it’s nearly impossible to defend oneself, even from a very poor attack.

Judoka spend an immense amount of time practicing off-balancing techniques to accomplish this.  Aikido folks work on movements to draw someone out of good physical alignment.  Daito Ryu folks work on doing it with the smallest movements possible.  It all comes down to the same thing.  Destroy the ability of the body’s structure to support it, and the person can’t resist anything.

There are the two sides of structure in budo.  Create and maintain a solid, efficient, mobile structure in yourself while undermining your opponents structure and making it unable to support him and his movements.  Mastery of structure is absolutely to everything we do in budo.  We can’t begin to move and breath properly until we learn to do so with good structure.   We can’t defend against anything without good structure.  Effective attacks are impossible with an unstable structure.  

Good structure is at the root of all good budo, whether it is a striking art, a grappling art, or a weapons art.  Without good structure, you have nothing.  That’s why it’s the first of my essential principles of budo.