Showing posts with label posture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label posture. Show all posts

Monday, October 20, 2014

How Can Iai Be Interesting

How can iai practice be interesting?  There are only about 4 real cuts (kiri oroshi, kesa giri, kiri age, and ichi monji).  It’s mostly done slowly. We repeat those same four cuts from every position and situation imaginable. We always work with an imaginary opponent or opponents. We endlessly return to the first kata in the system and practice it to death.


How could this not be boring?  What could we possibly do to make this interesting? We repeat these same few movements over and over and over. As a student and teacher, I know there is a standard script of comments that can be made, in fact need to be made, every practice with every student. What could be more boring than hearing the same critique every time you go to class? You know “You need to slow down. Relax your shoulders. Tighten your little finger. Use your hips. Move from you koshi. Don’t bend from the waist.” Every iaido teacher says the same things over and over.

Listening to sensei tell you what you are doing wrong, and knowing what he’s going to say before you even start practicing should  be one of the more mind numbing and discouraging you will ever encounter.

It’s not though. Iaido is frustrating and sometimes tedious. It is hard, physical work that takes effort and focus to do even poorly. It can make muscles ache and quiver from the effort demanded. Time and time again I can tell what Sensei is going to say before he says it because I can feel the weakness in my own performance of the kata. It’s difficult to be bored by what Sensei is saying when you can feel the truth of it in your muscles and bones while he is still drawing a breath to power his comments.

Iai is interesting because there is a chasm between knowing what you want to do and being able to do it with any sort of consistency. I remember as a new student watching Takada Sensei demonstrate for me in the old, unheated dojo in Eichigawa. The doors at each of the dojo were pushed open so we would get some ventilation, and since we were no more than a 100 meters from the shinkansen (bullet train) tracks, every time it roared by going over 100 miles per hour (160 km per hour) all other sound disappeared for a few moments.

Sensei never flinched at the sudden roar. His focus on the kata was fantastic. He was in his mid 70s when I started training, and he had perfect koshi, posture to die for, and cuts so precise and sure I would not have been afraid to let him use my stomach for a cutting stand. Sensei’s posture and breathing were so much a part of him that he could no longer stand incorrectly. I think trying to breath from his shoulders would have been physically impossible for him after so many decades of doing it right.

From the day I started, the goal was to get good enough that I could try to approach Sensei’s level of perfection. It was quite a while later that I realized that Takada Sensei was working on improving his technique in one corner of the dojo while I was in one corner of the dojo another working on mine. Initially, I couldn’t even imagine myself doing w
hat he did. It helped when a 2nd dan would attend. I could believe that what he was doing was possible for me. Looking back I understand that Sensei’s relaxed power and precision were beyond what I could understood, so I couldn’t imagine doing what he did. The 2 dan wasn’t far ahead of me along the path, so I could see myself doing what he did, and I tried.

It seems easy enough.  Draw and cut, step and cut. That’s the first kata.  Shouldn’t be tough at all. 20 years later I’m still working at it. At least now I can understand what Takada Sensei was doing, even though I still can’t approach his skills. I can at least draw, cut, raise the sword above my head, step and cut and make it look presentable. Which comes back around to the question at the beginning. How can this iai stuff be interesting?

Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

If it was just going through the motions of drawing and cutting and stepping, it wouldn’t be.  Iai isn’t about going through those motions.It’s about being and moving perfectly. All of the challenge is internal. From the outside, it looks like you’re just repeating the same few motions again and again. Internally, every time through is different. You’re working on fixing the angle of the draw so you don’t miss the target (YES! You can miss the target in iai, but that’s a different essay). Maybe you are working to keep your hamstrings and thighs engaged. A big one for me these days is the relationship of my hips to my upper body, shoulders and head.

The sequence of movements nearly vanishes from thought now. The focus shifts to improving movement and balance. Once I do that, each movement is unique. I’m not swinging and cutting over and over. Just like practicing music, each repetition is it’s own thing. Faster or slower. Harder, softer. Adjust foot positions. Get my hips under my shoulders. Get a little better. Make the next version of the kata a little closer to the ideal.

The goal is to do everything perfectly.  Draw precisely. Stop at the perfect moment. Raise the sword and bring my body together in perfect form completely balanced and completely relaxed. Swing down and cut while driving my body forward from the hips. Step out and finish the cut without tipping forward with the energy.

Photo Courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

After a while doing the first kata over and over is fascinating because there are so many small variables to play with. Speed, strength, which muscles in the legs and back and arms to to engage. What’s interesting is how perceptions shift.

Early on in the study, the goal is to learn all the kata, to learn as many forms as possible.  The thinking is often that the more kata you know the better you are. I was anxious to be practicing all the kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, the iai system I was doing. The advanced kata include lots of cool scenarios. Multiple attackers, interesting set ups with narrow lanes or in crowds or trapped in a gate. These kata are fascinating because of the scenarios.

As I got better, these kata became more and more similar. No matter what the scenario, no matter what combination of opponents, what I’m trying to do with my body remains the same. I’m still trying to draw with precision so I don’t miss the target. I want to control the movement with as much power and as little muscle as possible. Swing so that I don’t create any openings and and don’t off-balance myself. Raise the sword and bring my feet together with my hips, shoulders and head balanced solidly above them. Snap the sword tip forward with the last fingers of my left hand. Step forward with my right foot and pull the now extended sword down with my left hand. Then catch it at the bottom with a slight twitch of my right and left hands while my whole body comes to rest with my weight settled and solid and my left leg loaded like a spring in case I have to move again.

 http://www.budogu.com

Just as a basketball player practices endless layups and jump shoots in order to make their technique perfect, and just as an American football player spends hours every day drilling throws or blocks or whatever his position requires, and as football players practice ball handling, passing and kicking, and iai practitioner spends endless hours practicing and studying their most basic movements.

There are two main differences. The first is that until you can’t move, there is no reason to ever stop budo training.  I know people in their 90s who make every effort to practice, polish and improve technique.  Iai, and all budo, is not a mere pastime and entertainment. The lessons and training of iai and other budo continue as long as we do.

The other big difference is where this training is applied.  If you practice shooting baskets, passing, and ball handling, you will become better at basketball, American football, or football. If you practice iai, you will become better at being you. You will improve how move and stand in the world outside the dojo. You will have better control of your mind for whatever you want to direct it to. You will be able to control your reactions and breathing even under stress.

How can learning all of that be boring? If you are just looking to swing a sword around, then yes, iai will quickly become boring. If you want to learn to control and use your body efficiently and effectively, then iai offers endless lessons and challenges. The opportunities to refine your balance, movement and control never end. There are kneeling kata and standing kata and those weird tatehiza kata. As you practice, you get better and better at calming and quieting your mind so you can focus on only the task at hand.

The challenges here are endless and can keep you coming back to the dojo for decades. The value of making the these physical and mental improvements doesn’t end when you leave dojo. That’s when their true worth will appear. And the practice never gets boring. No matter how old you are.
Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

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.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Forging As A Training Image In Japanese

Forging is a common metaphor when talking about training, whether it is in the martial arts, the military, or anywhere else that people learn to handle stressful encounters. This is true in Japan and the West.  We speak of forging character. In English, when we speak of forging it refers to shaping something. When we forge a knife, we are hammering it into the proper shape. “Forging character” implies developing personal character in a situation of stress and pressure.

When the Japanese talk about forging,tanren 鍛錬,  they have a somewhat more complicated image non-Japanese do. It’s not just the idea of beating hot metal into shape, and hardening the steel. There is a critical step before this in the process of forging a sword. You have to hammer and fold the steel many times before the steel is ready to be shaped. This process usually takes as long or longer than the process of shaping the blade.  

The idea is that the Japanese go through this repeated folding and hammering of the steel to create a multitude of layers in the steel. These layers of hard and soft steel make a blade that is both able to endure severe impacts and hold a sharp edge. Steel that is homogenous will either be soft or hard.  Soft steel will absorb impact without cracking or breaking, but it bends easily and a sharpened edge will dull quickly.  Hard steel will hold an edge well and resist bending, but it is brittle and liable to crack if struck hard. The ancient Japanese technique of layers of hard and soft steel makes for a blade that has hard layers that will hold an edge and soft layers that will absorb impact.

This great blending of the properties of hard and soft steel was not the reason Japanese smiths started repeatedly hammering and folding their steel though. They were driven by something else that colors the Japanese concept of forging. The steel used to make Japanese swords is probably the lowest quality, most impure and contaminated stuff to pass for steel in the world. It’s called tamahagane. It’s made by collecting iron bearing sand which is then melted in a crude earthen smelter by adding charcoal directly to the material being smelted. As in any smelting process, most of the impurities and stuff that isn’t iron melts and runs off. The classical Japanese smelter isn’t very efficient or effective though, so a lot of impurities remain in the resulting steel, as well as an abundance of unburned charcoal bits. No self-respecting smith would touch this stuff.

In Japan it was all they had, so they figured out how to make it work. Their solution is slow and takes an incredible amount of effort, but the outcome not only transforms the steel into high quality material, but creates all those layers that make for a stronger, sharper blade with the incredible patterns in the steel that contribute to making Japanese swords the most beautiful in the world. The patterns on the surface are subtle and complex, giving a picture of the complexity and beauty of the internal structure of the swords.

How does heating and folding the steel get rid of all the impurities and chunks of charcoal to leave the beautiful, layered steel with a grain like wood? The smith heats the billet and hammers it out so it is long enough to be folded in half. Every time the smith strikes the metal, glowing bits are smashed off of the billet and go flying into the air. Those glowing bits aren’t steel.  They are impurities, slage that would removed in more effective modern smelter. As the smith repeatedly hammers, folds and hammers the steel, more and more of the impurities are driven out of the steel.  Occasionally splinters of unburnt charcoal rise to the surface as well.  These pieces have to be raised up with the tip of a file and pulled out with tongs.  After 10 to 20 repetitions of hammering the billet out to the proper thinness and then folding it in half, the steel is pure and the layers have been welded together by the force of the hammer.  Sometimes you will only have half as much material as what was there before you started heating and hammering.

All of this has to happen before you can begin to shape the blade.  This image of forging, where you have to heat and hammer the metal to purify before you begin shaping it into a blade is an important one when you think about training in Japanese martial arts.  The image of tanren is one whereby the student has to be purified and have all the slag and residual garbage driven out of her before she can begin to be shaped into a martial artist is an important difference.  The western image is that we take students and they are ready for forging.  The Japanese image is one where the student has to be prepared before they can even begin to take the shape of a martial artist.

This explains a lot about some of the traditional stories of teachers having students do seemingly ridiculous things for weeks or months before they begin teaching them martial arts. These stories are about how teachers prepared their students to learn the art, in the same way that a smith prepares a block of steel to be able to take the shape of a sword.  Students rarely come into the dojo perfectly ready to learn.  I know I wasn’t ready to learn in anything approaching an optimal manner when I started, and I have seen very few students who were.  This image of tanren gives us another, and more accurate, view of the role of the teacher.  

We don’t just teach students our arts.  New students come in eager to learn budo, but most of them really aren’t ready to start learning.  I know I wasn’t.  Most people who come into the dojo don’t know how to stand or even how to breathe (unless they were lucky enough to play a wind instrument or sing in choir).  Before a student can begin learning budo, they have to learn to do things that are fundamental to all of life, but which don’t seem to be considered worthy of teaching anymore.  We have to teach them how to breath and how to stand and how to walk.  

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I played trombone for 10 years before I started judo, so I had the breathing part down solid.  I only had to learn how to stand and walk.  I worked on good posture and basic walking for months before I really got it.  Learning to counteract 20 years of bad habits acquired while slumped on the couch in front of the TV, or slouching over the desk while pretending to do your homework takes time.  These kind of habits are buried deep, so learning to break them takes work.  

This is where the idea of 鍛錬 tanren starts to make sense.  We all have habits and traits, both physical and mental, that get in the way of learning good budo.  We really can’t start learning budo until we get rid of these counterproductive habits and traits. You don’t put the foundation for a building on on sand.  You don’t form a sword from ore that is still loaded with slag.  You can’t really learn budo until you get rid of the counterproductive habits and traits you’re carrying.  You can’t learn budo if you’ve got a bad slouch or you can’t breathe fully and efficiently.  The teacher’s job is to hammer and forge you to help you get rid of these traits so you can start learning.  Once you learn how stand up and breathe, then you can start learning budo.  This preparation, that’s part of the forging process.  That's tanren.