Showing posts with label teacher. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teacher. Show all posts

Monday, August 29, 2016

So You Wanna Cross-Train?

My friend and colleague, Deborah Klens-Bigman is an accomplished martial artist and respected scholar of Japanese classical dance. She often does me the honor of serving as a sounding board for ideas, and generously edits my posts to make them polished. This time Klens-Bigman Sensei responded to my ideas with an essay of her own, which I 'm proud to be able to publish here.

Deborah Klens-Bigman  Photo Copyright Iaikai 2016

So you wanna cross-train?

Previously,  two posts considered cross-training in other budo.  The first set out the benefits as a means to deepen understanding of your primary art.  The subsequent post looked at another side of the issue - that some martial arts teachers might forbid their students to seek training at another dojo.  That post also suggested that students caught up in such an arrangement may have picked the wrong person to train with in the first place, and speculates on such teachers' selfish motivations.

So - here we have two solid arguments in favor of "cross-training."  It seems like a good idea, right?  Find a different (though maybe related) art form, and go for it, right?  Not so fast.  There's a right way, and a wrong way, to train at a different dojo.  If done right, you can obtain benefit for yourself and do credit to your home dojo.  If not, well - read on.

Let's first assume that you are a student in good standing, who is also not a raw beginner.  A very-beginning student who seeks training in another art form gives a teacher the impression that you are not serious in your practice in the first place.  The term for this (at least in English) is "dojo-hopper."  The sense is that the student is in some sort of martial arts shopping mall, with various things on offer.  Come in, poke around, try a couple things on, and go on to the next store.  This is definitely how to shop for a prom dress, but most budo teachers take their practice seriously, and expect students to do likewise.  

Next, let's consider motivations.  I am not talking about jumping ship and looking for a new teacher - that's a different subject altogether (see above).  And I seriously doubt you would look around and think to yourself, "I'll bet I could deepen my understanding of the principles of [fill in name of current practice] by trying out [something else]."  More likely you saw something on YouTube or even (shockingly, but it does happen) at a live demo and you thought it looked cool and would be fun to try.  NYC is a veritable feast of martial traditions, both Asian and Western, old and new (and even theatrical and cinematic!).  It's easy to feel like a kid in a candy store.  There is nothing wrong with this motivation.  But there is a proper way to go about it.  So I am offering a list - from smartest to dumbest - ways to go about cross training in a different budo form.

1.  Talk to your teacher and ask for permission to try something else, and ask for her suggestions as to where to find another dojo.  For example, you could say, "I was thinking about trying a jujutsu class.  I wanted to run the idea past you first.  Do you have any suggestions as to who I could study with?"  Believe it or not, even in a place as huge as the Big City, many budo teachers at least know each other by reputation, if not personally.  Moreover, we know who the crank teachers are; or, at least, we have the means to find them out.    Asking for permission, along with asking for advice, accomplishes several goals - it shows the teacher you respect her, and that you respect her opinion.  It also puts you in line for a good recommendation with one of her colleagues.  Having been recommended and accepted for cross-training in another dojo also shows respect with regard to the other teacher, who then has a clear idea of who you are and may have a sense of what you might be able to accomplish by training with him.

 2.  Ask your teacher for permission only.  This is not as smart as suggestion number 1, but it at least shows enough respect to your teacher that she won't throw you through the nearest wall.  Most teachers will say yes (and if she doesn't agree, there is probably a reason, as in she doesn't think you are ready to branch out.  If you respect the teacher, you will respect her opinion and ask again later).  Some may volunteer advice if they think you might be interested in hearing it; others may just say it's fine, and you are then free to roam.  

 3. (Moving to less-smart ways).  Go somewhere else and don't tell either the primary teacher or the new teacher what you are doing.  I don't recommend this, but it can actually work, as long as you exercise some discretion.  Don't do what one of my students once did: blow off a request to perform at a demo by explaining that you have a tournament with another teacher that weekend.  Just say you're sorry and you can't make it; and you hope to be able to perform with the group at another time.  Being so up front about your conflicted schedule may send a teacher the message that you are so enamored with the new style that you are not as interested in what she has to teach (even if that isn't strictly true).  Moreover, not supporting the dojo when it asks for your help also makes you look less serious about your practice, unless it involves work or family issues.  Your perceived lack of interest may result in the teacher's attention being directed a little bit more to other students instead.  Tangentially, if the second teacher learns about your primary art form by other means than your telling him about it, you may find yourself getting the same treatment.  I'm jus' sayin'.  We like to think that our teachers have better tempers and more wisdom than lowly students (and they might), but they are also human beings (with a lot more experience than you) and they have feelings, too.  And those feelings should be respected if you are serious about your art form.

 4.  Declare that you are going "budo shopping" for other stuff to do - you say you may come back to the home dojo someday, but then again you may not.  Believe it or not, this has actually happened.  At the risk of stating the obvious, the student has given the impression that the teacher (and her art form) are interchangeable; with one practice being not any better or worse than another.  The now-former student in question was fortunate to have done this via email and not in person.  Needless to say, this person is no longer welcome (except, just *possibly* as a guest, and paying the guest mat fee).  Unless you really intend not to come back at all, I don't recommend this method.  

 5.  Just show up at a new place and disparage your primary teacher to gain favor with the new one.  As I said, we all know each other, by reputation if not personally.  Remember the six degrees of separation?  In the budo world, it's more like one or two.  You won't be accepted once the truth comes out.

 As my colleague the Budo Bum has said, there are many benefits to cross-training, and most of them won't be revealed until you have spent months (or even years) training in another form.  In my budo career, though my primary art is iaido, I have also done some training in naginata, kyudo, kendo, some empty-hand, and I am currently studying jodo as a rank beginner.  I also train in Japanese classical dance; an art form that developed in the Edo period that shares many principles of movement with koryu budo forms.   Many of my colleagues and teachers both in the U.S. and Japan also cross-train.  For the most part, all of their teachers know and respect each other, and are cross-trainers themselves.   My teacher, Otani Sensei, when I spoke to him specifically about working with another teacher, interrupted my carefully-rehearsed permission-asking speech by saying, "That's okay, that's okay.  Once you know the principle, the technique doesn't matter."  I still can't say, all of these years later, that I fully understand his point, but I knew then I had the freedom to figure it out.

Bio Note: Deborah Klens-Bigman is Instructor at Iaikai Dojo, in New York City.   The dojo website is
Deborah Klens-Bigman Photo Copyright Iaikai

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Joy Of Being A Student

I attended a marvelous seminar over the weekend.  I’m not always a fan of seminars, but this was fabulous. There were two high level teachers, and nothing was required of me but that I be a willing student open to learning.  It is a role I don’t get to play as often as I would like.  I’ve been doing budo long enough that more often than not, I’m one of the senior people in the dojo.  I spend more time teaching students than I do as a student.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching. I just happen to love learning even more. The longer I do budo though, the opportunities to be a pure student become more and more rare.  This annual seminar in Guelph is one of the best for me. The seminar was led by to two 8th dans from Japan.

The students were divided into two groups by rank. Those of us who hold higher ranks for North America (nothing exceptionally high in Japan) were training together. Nobody had to do anything but try and understand the level Morimoto Shihan was attempting to pull us up to.

I trained with people of similar skill, and with whom I shared the joy of trying to figure out the subtleties of Morimoto Shihan’s technique.  All of us are fairly experienced at Kendo Federation jodo, but he kept doing things that we could hardly imagine. Little motions with the jo that made the sword go whipping out of our hands with maki otoshi, or slight adjustments of the striking point in hiki otoshi uchi.

I love trying to work out what a teacher is doing. Just focus on the problem and go after it without any other worries. Being able to go into training and just open myself up for whatever the teacher has to offer. There is a term in Japanese that describes the ideal state of mind for a learner, shoshinsha 初心者。It’s a wonderfully descriptive term that is often translated as “beginner’s mind.”  The characters for “mind” and “person,” kokoro and mono 者、 are pretty straightforward. “Sho”  is a little more unusual. It’s the same character as in shodan 初段, which is usually incorrectly translated as “1st degree black belt.” In shodan, the “sho” is more like “beginning” as is “beginning step.”  In shoshinsha, the feeling is even more subtle.  It’s not just beginner, but it strongly harkens to the meaning of as a stand alone word, when it is read as “ubu” and has connotations of “artless; innocent; naive; unsophisticated.”

I wish I could always suspend my preconceptions and my prior learning and my ego so I could stand before any teacher as an artless, innocent, unsophisticated student absorbing the lesson without first filtering it through my preconceptions.. All too many times I drag all my preconceptions about what an art is and how it should be practiced with me.  I assume that my experience means that I know something of value, and my ego insists on putting its spin on everything. My ego wants to make everything complex and sophisticated.

It’s so much better when I can let go of my ego and be a beginner again. Morimoto Shihan is so much better than I that my ego looked around and said “I’ve got nothing to offer here. Call me when you’re dealing with someone who’s down in our league.” With my ego checked out, I could relax and make any mistakes I could find to make and not feel the least bit ashamed.  I completely blew the transition in one kata, and it didn’t bother me at all. I just thought “Wow, he is really smooth. I’m going to need a lot more practice to be able to keep up with him.” None of the usual excuses or rationalizations came flying to the front of my mind. It was perfectly clear to me and my ego that I was completely outclassed and that what training with Morimoto Shihan calls for is a whole lot more practice on my part.

In my college judo days our club motto was “Mada heta desuまだ下手です, or“still inept” as we liked to translate it. At this seminar I could say I am “mada heta desu” without any self-consciousness and without any false humility.  This was a wonderful and freeing feeling. I could see how little I know, and how far I have to go before I can start to believe I know anything about this art I claim to study.

As we progress along the path of budo, we pick up ideas, knowledge and habits. Budo is a journey down a path that extends further than we can travel in a lifetime. There are endless discoveries to be made. The irony is that more we “learn” and the more we “know” the slower our progress becomes. The more “knowledge” and “skill” we accumulate, the heavier the pack of our learning becomes. The more we are burdened by what we already know, the more difficult it becomes to move forward, the easier it becomes to be satisfied with wherever we are along the path.

The tragedy of this is, if we can just let go of what we already know, we can move forward along the path of budo very quickly. Letting go of what we already know requires uncurling our grasp upon hard earned gems of knowledge, skill and understanding. Having reached one level in jodo, it’s been difficult for me to recognize that the skills, techniques and understanding that have gotten me this far will not get me to the next level. The ranking system in Japan is not based on degrees of black belt, though even the Japanese will ask if you have a kuro obi or “black belt.” It’s based on the idea of steps, and the steps seem to have been borrowed from the ten steps on the Bodhisattva path in Buddhism.  The first step is just the starting step, the shodan 初段。

The final stage, the tenth step, is perfection in the path. To be a tenth dan implies perfection. That no one can be perfect is the reason the major budo organizations in Japan rarely (or never in some cases) award a tenth dan. No one is perfect. If we can’t let go of the learning and skills we’ve acquired, there is no way to move beyond our current level.  Invariably, whatever it has taken to get to my current level, will act as a dead weight holding me back from getting to the next level until I let go of it, let go of what I “know.”
Buddhism makes that point that our attachments are the cause of our suffering. Budo has taught me that our attachments are also the cause of our inability to improve and advance. Any time I become attached to a technique, a way of doing something, or a way of conceptualizing a principle, I stop progressing. It’s only when I look at something and wonder “What’s a better way of doing this?” that I start moving forward again. Just because what I am doing works better than my students technique, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a method superior to the one I’m using.

That can be a tough pill to swallow. My ego really seems to believe my technique is already fabulous. When I start listening to my ego, I find it difficult to hear more reasoned, more experienced voices that could teach me something. If find it difficult to hear my teachers telling me what I need to do to improve, when I’m busying listening to me ego tell me how great I am.

A more useful outlook than dwelling on what we “know” is those t-shirts from my judo club days at Western Michigan University that say まだへたです mada heta desu. “Still inept.” No matter how good you are, there is always something more to learn. I try to remember that and ignore my ego so I can return to that wonderful state of being a clean slate for whatever the teachers have to share with me.

I find that when I can keep in mind that I’m “still inept” and just learn from the teachers without letting my ego talk, training is a joyous experience filled with discovery. Purely being a student, open to everything and making new discoveries with nearly every step is as wonderful an experience as any I can think of. I’m grateful to Morimoto Shihan and Tsubaki Shihan for a wonderful weekend of learning and discovery.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Who Is Your Teacher?

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

Who is your Teacher? Is she a friend? Is he a mentor? A capable guide? A hired hand whose job is to teach you techniques you’re paying for?  An athletic trainer? A mystic? A sports coach? A philosopher? A drill sergeant?

Budo teachers come in a lot of shapes and sizes, styles and roles. It doesn’t matter what title we use for them; teacher, sensei, sifu, coach, or simply Ma’am or Sir.  The exact title isn’t the important thing. The important thing is what they do and who they are.

What a teacher does seems pretty straightforward. They instruct us in the techniques of our art. At first they teach us the basic stances and then the movements and techniques that make up our particular style of budo. They train us and drill us in the exercises that will polish and help us master our martial art. What makes a great teacher though? Not just the person who leads the beginners class, but the teacher who inspires and supports us and becomes a model of the kind of martial artist and person we want to become. What makes a Teacher?

From a purely technical standpoint, especially early on in practice, what we really need are coaches with a touch of drill sergeant in them.  And a bit of saintly patience if you are the poor soul trying to teach me anything subtle for the first time. Beginners’ classes tend to share a lot of similarities across arts. They have a narrow focus on a few fundamental building blocks of the art.  Whether the art is primarily about throwing or striking or locking or weapons, the beginners’ class spends their time on the basic movements that you have to know cold and then know so well you forget that you know them.

Teachers for these beginners classes have to drill the same things over and over and over until you’d swear they would go crazy with boredom.  Somehow the good ones never do. The good teachers are patient coaches and drill sergeants pushing us, sometimes dragging kicking and screaming, towards the goal of absorbing the fundamentals so deeply into our muscles and bones that we can forget that we know them, forget that they are even there so we can learn the techniques that are built upon them.

I’ve had a number of teachers who were great at this.  Kiyama Sensei excels at being a patient drill sergeant. He will take a bokken and stand at the front of the dojo, yelling “Mo ichi do!” and banging the end of the bokken on the floor to indicate when to start. He stands there, 90 years old and with still perfect posture, watching us practice with a focus even sharper than his sword. After an hour or two of driven practice under this intense gaze, you’re wrung out, dripping from exertion, and quietly thrilled to have absorbed another practice with him.

Great teachers aren’t just coaches and drill sergeant. Kiyama Sensei always seems happy and eager to run a practice, whether he is drilling a group of beginners in the fundamentals, or working with a high ranking student that he’s trying to lead to discovering subtle understanding of the myou 妙, the mysteries of the art. The really great teachers are able to adjust what they are doing, and shift their presence from that of an implacable drillmaster to a guide leading you along nearly undetectable forest paths.

The really high art doesn’t start until we’ve soaked our bones in the essence of the budo we study so that we express the fundamentals without thinking about them, and even when we are actively distracted from them. Our teacher then needs a very different approach from the one that marinated us in the fundamentals. Now we need a teacher who can guide us towards the delicate mastery that looks like magic to beginners. This takes a different sort of patience.

It also takes a teacher who doesn’t feel threatened when a student begins to understand their art at a deep level and begins to shift from being a student of the teacher to a colleague. I’ve seen a lot of people who couldn’t handle that transition. Teachers with insecure egos or hang-ups about control seem to feel threatened when their students begin to approach same level that they are on. Sadly, seeing a technically excellent teacher whose ego can’t handle having anyone close to his level around is not uncommon.  There are plenty of dojo where there always seems to be significant gap between the senior student’s level and the teacher.

Fine Budo Equipment from Mugento Budogu LLC

Great teachers relish having someone grow from being simply a student of the basics into colleague they explore ever deeper and more subtle aspects of the art with. Just as in any academic field, great budo teachers are thrilled when students surpass them. Only poor fools are jealous and upset when a student surpasses them. One of a teacher’s responsibilities is to pass on their art to a new generation. It is a lucky teacher who inspires a student to discover more in the art than the teacher knows.

As we spend more time in budo, our teachers become our friends. In something like budo, that we will can study and grow in for 50, 60, 70 years and more, I sincerely hope that we become friends with our teachers. We’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. Great teachers are comfortable with shifting relationships and shifting roles. They can be the teacher in the dojo, and a friend at dinner. I’ve written about the trust we develop with the people we train with, and that is even more true for our teachers.  Great teachers don’t take that trust and build themselves a pedestal to stand on. They return it, sharing their discoveries and their missteps along the journey we share in budo.

Early in my budo journey I had a teacher admonish me not to put him, or any teacher on a pedestal. He seems to have known himself well, as he was an excellent teacher for me in that moment, but he knew how tragically flawed he was. As we mature along the way, we sometimes have to learn that not all of our teachers are great. Some of them we surpass as human beings very quickly.  The great teachers may become our friends and colleagues along the Way, but they remain teachers and inspirations.

Budo is not just about the techniques of the art we study. Budo is about how we approach and deal with the world we encounter while walking life’s path. Great teachers are great not just in the dojo. Takada Sensei had incredible iai. He also had a wonderful joy in life, and respectful manner for everyone that I someday hope to emulate. Kiyama Sensei’s budo is awe inspiring in its power and ferocity, but his mastery means that most people think he is a sweet, gentle grandfather. He doesn’t have to show off his budo to anyone. You can always see it if you know what to look for. His posture is so perfect I’m embarrassed by my own even while typing this. Sensei’s focus and control never leave. Nor does the respect he gives everyone, from the 5 year old beginning kendo student to the most senior instructors and ranking swordsmen.

I don’t think there is room in most people’s lives for a lot of Teachers. I’m lucky that I have known several, and have a  couple that I can call “my Teacher.” They don’t come along often. If you find one, cherish them. The greatest honor and award I’ve received in my budo career is when they tell someone that I am their student. No rank will ever mean as much to me.

Who is your Teacher? Is she your coach? Your drill sergeant? Your guide? Your fellow explorer along the Way? Your friend? All of these and more? If not, you haven’t found your teacher yet.  Keep looking. She’s out there.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Martial Arts Instructors Should Learn To Teach

Let’s face an unpleasant truth.  Most martial arts instructors are lousy teachers. They may be great martial artists, but few of them know anything about the art and science of teaching. Teaching is not about how much you know or how much you can do.  It is what you can transmit to your student and help them to learn, do, and keep improving.  

When I’m looking for a teacher, I’m not looking for someone who is an incredibly skilled and gifted martial artist.  Those are great things, but they don’t have much relation to the person’s skill as a teacher.  If the best thing I can say about a teacher is that “They really know their stuff,”  stay away from that class. A great teacher might only be a few steps ahead of me, but they can get me to learn, grasp and internalize what I need to know to improve. A lousy teacher may be the most knowledgeable, skilled person in the world, but that doesn’t do me any good because they can’t transmit what they know.

The old saw “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” is a lot of hogwash. Teaching is a skill all it’s own.  Just being skilled at the subject you want to teach isn’t nearly enough.  Because teaching is a job like any other, you get the same range of skills and professionalism as you find in any other career. There are a few great ones, a lot of competent people doing a good job, and few lousy ones.  Unfortunately, we’ve all had an experience with lousy teachers when we were in school. That should motivate those of us who teach budo to avoid making similar mistakes.

Good teaching takes work. The classic approach of the martial arts teacher showing up, demonstrating something, and then counting off the number of reps as the students repeat the techniques over and over is not the best way to teach. We should know that from having done mindlessly repetitive drills when we were in school. Although it’s said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something, that practice must be deep, mindful and correct. Good teachers are engaged with students during practice, correcting them where they need it. As my Dad says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” Students learn what they practice. If they practice technique wrong, it will stay wrong.

I’m not the world’s best teacher, but I know some great teachers, and I try to learn from them. One thing that has rubbed off on me is that our brains have certain limits, strengths and weaknesses, and it’s part of the teacher’s job to keep those in mind when we are teaching.  The art of teaching may not be something we can master, but we can certainly use the science of teaching and learning to give our students the best teaching possible.

There are some basic things that we can keep in mind, regardless of the particular pedagogy that goes with our martial arts system.

Class size matters. We know this. Research on learning and education is pretty clear. If we try to make our classes too big, we take away from the students in a myriad ways.  It’s tough to see what’s going on in a big group unless you’re right in front of the teacher. There is no way the teacher can give each student the attention necessary to be sure that the students are correctly grasping the points being taught. Just because there is space in the room doesn’t mean you have to fill it with students. Don’t put more students in a room than you can effectively teach and instruct.

This next point is one I am constantly working on. Just as we can put more students in a room than we can effectively teach, we can put more lessons in a class than students can absorb. Our minds have a working memory capacity of 3 to 5 items. That’s it. If we try to teach more than that in one session, the students will not be able to hold on to the lessons. Once we get past our personal limit of about 4 main points, we start dropping things because our minds just can’t hold onto all of them. For me, this means that when I work with students, I can’t overload them with all the many important points in a technique or kata on the same day. It also means that I shouldn’t try to teach too many things in one lesson. To be most effective, I have make sure I pick just a couple of main points that I want to everyone to focus on for the day.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work on koshi. If I want my students to retain the important points about koshi, I can’t go off and start working on how they use their arms when swinging the weapon or spend a bunch of time on metsuke. I have to stay focused the lesson. If I start throwing other points at my students, they won’t be able to remember any of the lessons later. I try to keep my lesson and corrections centered around 3 principle points for any class. For example, when we’re doing koshi, I work on proper alignment, driving the koshi with the leg, and driving the upper body from the koshi. That’s all. I work at biting my tongue and not correcting any other issues I might see. Those are for another day.

The same is true when I critique kata. Working memory is limited to 3 to 5 items. So I only make 4 comments. That way the student can hold on to the corrections long enough to get to their notebook and write something down. There is no point in giving a huge list of corrections when we know someone can only hold about 4 points in their head. If we overload someone, there is a good chance they won’t remember anything.

Once I’ve introduced a point, I make sure to give students enough time to explore it and try applying it in their technique or kata. That way they can practice and I can see if they really understood the point. If I didn’t get the idea across as well as I want (which is usually the case), then I can give the students some more help with the same point. I don’t go on to the next point until the first one seems pretty solidly understood.

One way to help students get what I’m teaching, and keep it, is to make them retrieve it. When I teach a structured class, I stick to that limit of 3-5 items. I also don’t fill the entire class time. At the end of the class I have the students review what I’ve taught so they are actively thinking about and remembering what we did. I want my students to remember and apply the lessons I’m teaching. If I just run through the lesson, I don’t know what they’ve gotten. By having the students remember what I taught and show it to me at the end of practice, I help them remember and retain the lessons, so they can continue practicing the lesson at home. It’s also a check for me. If the students don’t remember what I taught, or they don’t really understand it, that means I didn’t do a very good job of teaching it.

Every time I teach a class, I’m not only teaching the students. I’m also practicing being a more effective teacher. Not every martial artist is a teacher. That’s fine. But if you are teaching, your students deserve the best you can give them. By learning and applying some fundamental knowledge about how people learn, you can give your students much more. And if you really want to learn how to teach budo skills well, find a music or art teacher and learn how they teach skills to their students.  They know the science of teaching complex skills like nobody else.

Special thanks to fine art teacher and martial artist Rick Frye for suggestions and editing assistance.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How To Be A Good Uke

In most systems of budo, it takes two people to train. On one side is the person studying the technique or kata.  The other person is not the teacher.  The other person is their uke 受け.  Having a good uke to train with is as important as having a good teacher.  The problem is, a good uke can be as difficult to find as a good teacher.

Uke is your training partner.  Just as in most things budo, there really is no consistency of terminology.  So aikido and judo use uke 受け.  Kenjutsu systems often use uchitachi 打太刀.  Another terms you may hear are aite 相手 or partner.  You might sometimes hear teki 敵 or enemy, but that’s not accurate or appropriate when talking about the people you train with.

For the person doing the techniques, I’m partial to the judo term tori 取り, because it implies taking form from chaos (randori anyone?).  For now, I’ll use tori to indicate the person doing the practicing.

I’ve see lots of descriptions of good ukes, such as : “provides committed attack,” “Gives sincere attacks.”  I don’t find these descriptions very helpful.  What’s a “sincere” attack? On the other side, why does an attack have to be committed to be effective.  Believe me, even a half hearted attack with a sword or knife or crowbar will do plenty of damage.  I’ve heard people say that uke has to understand why he has to lose in practice.  The problem with that is that this is practice. There is no winning or losing. If people are caught up in worrying about winning and losing during practice, they’ve missed the point of practice.

I’ve written before about what a good uke is, and I’ve seen other good writings on the subject. Steve Delaney has an excellent article.  What is missing seems to be direction on how to be a good uke or uchitachi.  Hopefully we can get a conversation going.

The first thing a good uke does is understand that this is not a fight and it’s not a competition.  This is often overlooked or underemphasized by teachers. We have to emphasize to students that this is practice,keiko 稽古, renshu 練習.  This should help to get rid of some of the ego I see floating around so thickly in many dojo.  As soon as people learn enough to be able to hinder or stop tori’s technique, they do. That’s not practice anymore.

Uke’s job is to facilitate their partner’s training. That means giving them access to their body so they can complete the technique or kata being practiced. If uke makes it so difficult that tori can’t do anything, it’s not practice. On the other hand, if uke is so limp that tori can do anything without effort or challenge, that’s not practice either.  Uke’s job is not to give committed, or sincere attacks. Uke’s job is to give appropriate attacks.  

Once people understands that this is about learning and not competing or showing how strong they are, they can start learning how to be an uke.  Good ukes don’t just attack. If the attack is a strike, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all attack.  What is an overpowering and uselessly powerful attack on a beginner, may be ridiculously over-committed and telegraphed for a senior student. In both cases, the attack is wrong.

Being uke is a significant job and it takes far more thought and effort to do properly than most people give to it. It seems simple.  Whatever the designated attack is, uke does. Boom. Simple. Wrong. Uke starts with the designated attack, and then decides how much warning she will give. Will she telegraph the start of the attack so tori has lots of time to react and adjust, or will she hold back all indication of the attack for a while.  A big, telegraphed attack is great for beginners and public demonstrations, and just about nothing else.  As tori becomes more and more capable, uke has to consider tori’s ability and make the attack more and more difficult to detect.

Once the attack has begun, how fast should it be?  If tori is a beginner, or if the technique is unfamiliar, slow it down a few notches. As tori demonstrates the ability to handle a slow attack, then you can pick up the speed a little to the point where tori has to work at doing it right. Not too much though.  If uke attacks so fast that tori can’t do the technique properly, it’s not practice anymore.  Practice means doing it right.  Forcing tori to work beyond their ability is stealing their practice time from them.  If tori can’t do the technique under the conditions uke provides, uke is wasting tori’s time.

This applies whether the attack is a strike with the hand,  grab on the wrist, a cut with a sword, or blow with a stick. If the attack is a grab, grab with what you think is an appropriate amount of force.  If tori can’t do the technique, let up a little until she can. If she can do the technique, add a little more to the grab, or ask if she would like a stronger grab or more resistance. I’ve got enough experience that I can manage my own training.  I’ll tell my uke, “Please be stiffer at that point.” or “Please resist a little more.” or whatever is necessary to raise the difficulty of the technique for me to a point where I am being challenged and can practice the element that needs polishing.

This sort of communication is, to me, essential for good training and learning for both tori and uke. Particularly when it is a senior tori working with a junior uke, this kind of communication gives the person learning the uke role the feedback she needs to become a better uke. Many dojo, whether aikido or judo or other art, don’t take the time to train people how to be uke. This feedback is important, and ukes need it. I appreciate all the times I have been uke and my teachers or partners have told me what I needed to do to be a better uke at that moment. It has helped me learn a lot about being a good uke.

Uke is a tough job. We have to think about it. We have to give the right attack, at the right speed, and in the right place.  This is another important aspect of being uke that I don’t think gets enough attention. Whether the attack is a strike with the fist, a thrust with a knife,  a sword cut, or a blow with a stick, it has to be accurate. Tori is trying to learn how to deal with an genuine attack. If their uke only offers attacks that would never be on target because they don’t want to hurt tori, they’re already hurting her. This sort of attack robs tori of the opportunity to learn real maai, or spacing.  Pulling your attack short, or swinging to one side, doesn’t help tori learn anything.  If you are worried about hurting tori, attack more slowly, but keep it accurate. Once you’re confident tori can handle the attack slowly, pick up the pace slightly.  Keep doing this, always maintaining the accuracy of your attack, and you’ll find out what tori can handle without hurting her.

I often read in aikido circles that people want “committed” attacks. What seems to be meant by this are what I would describe as off-balance, over-committed attacks. Uke seems to be throwing themselves at tori instead of attacking. Just because you are attacking doesn’t mean you have to give up the balance, posture and structure that you train so hard to develop. The first problem with this is that you rob tori of the chance to learn to break your balance. That’s a really important lesson, absolutely fundamental in judo. When you’re working with a beginner, you don’t go all out resisting their efforts to take your balance, but you don’t attack without any balance either.  They have to have the opportunity to practice taking your balance.

Once students get past the initial phase of learning, then uke can attack with a more and more stable structure, giving tori a consistently more challenging kuzushi puzzle to figure out.  Again, don’t be impossible, just be challenging enough that tori has to work for it.  This requires uke to consider what they are doing.  What lesson is tori working on? Will it help tori if uke maintains the same level of stability and increases the speed, or will it be better if uke slows down a little and increases their structural stability?  Being uke isn’t easy, and sometimes it helps to ask tori “How do you want this attack?”

Once you get comfortable with varying the speed and intensity of your actions as uke, and you’re working with an experienced tori, you can start messing around with the rhythm as well. I think my seniors enjoy pulling this one on me. They will subtly change the rhythm of their attack, drawing me into attacking a half step too early, or waiting a heartbeat too long. Either way, they’ve got me. If I attack too soon, uke evades and there is nothing for me but empty air. Wait too long, and I find a sword tip a millimeter from my nose before I can do anything.

This is great practice for more advanced tori, and it does require an advanced uke as well. This is what any uke should be striving towards though.  Tori can’t learn effectively without a good uke. To be a good uke, you have to constantly be considering how you should attack to give tori the best learning opportunity you can. Uke controls the speed, the intensity, the strength and the rhythm of the training.  This means that on every repetition uke has to think about how fast, how intense, how strong and what rhythm the attack should be. Uke should never attack on auto-pilot. Every attack has to be a considered for tori’s benefit (and uke’s safety. Attacking on autopilot is a good way for things to go very wrong for uke).

Uke’s role may be even more important than the teachers when it comes to how well tori learns things.  The teacher can demonstrate and correct, but it is with uke that tori does the homework where the real learning takes place.  Uke has a huge amount of responsibility.  It’s not enough for uke to just throw out whatever attack is called for without thinking about it. Uke has to chose the right mixture of technical elements so tori can get the best, most focused practice on the elements that particular person is working on.  This means considering how fast or slow the technique should be. How much should uke telegraph the attack so tori learns to read uke’s body better? How strong should uke be in this case? Is tori working on smoothing out their technique, in which case fast but not overly strong attack might be called for.  Or is tori working on refining balance breaking or initiative stealing, which might mean they want a slower but more solid, stable attack from uke. Every tori is working on different things and needs uke to adjust their attack to the individual tori. Individual tori work on a lot of different areas too, so uke has to adjust not only from tori to tori, but from moment to moment as the same tori works on different aspects of their technique.

Being a good uke is at least as important an role as that of the teacher, and requires as much focus and attention to what you are doing as being tori does.  Please make the effort to be a good uke. Your training partners will appreciate it, and you might even find that the effort put in makes the rest of your technique better as well.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Makes A Great Dojo

I noticed that I’ve been writing about what things aren’t quite often lately. This is an attempt to write about what something is.  What makes a great dojo? The dojo is the center of budo practice, and finding a great dojo is tougher than you’d think, even in Japan. When we look for a great dojo, what are we searching for?

“Dojo” is an old term for a place where one studies the teachings of Buddhism.  When Sanskrit was translated into Chinese, this was used to describe the spot where the Buddha completed the path to enlightenment.  It was the dojo 道場.  the way place.  The word dojo therefore, was ancient when the Japanese martial arts instructors in the Edo Period (1604-1868) began using it to describe their training halls.  

The usage has drifted a long way from the original meaning of the place where enlightenment was achieved. The ancient Japanese applied it to mean places where the teachings of Buddhism are studied, and within Buddhist organizations in Japan, this meaning is still used. The meaning though wandered further when some Edo Period martial artists started calling their training halls “dojo.”  Now the word is commonly used throughout the world.

I’ve seen many gorgeous dojo in Japan, from the stately Butokuden in Kyoto, to the lovely and peaceful dojo at Kashima Shrine, to many small, private dojos that are delightful pockets of beauty. The longer I train though, the more I come to understand that a dojo, no matter how lovely, is empty space that we have to fill with life and breath.  I’ve noticed that both non-Japanese and Japanese alike will use “dojo” to refer to the members of the training group, not just the facility.  This recognizes that it is really the people who make the empty space into a dojo, not the designated purpose of the space.

Interior of the Butokuden. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

It’s the qualities of the people and their relationships that make a dojo great. I had a discussion with a some friends about what they feel makes a great dojo.  A lot of the ideas were about the physical space and things that are nice.  While I agree that a beer fridge is a wonderful thing to have in the dojo office, I’m not sure it’s a necessary component of an excellent dojo.  I’ve had great experiences in the parking lot back of Sensei’s house, and lousy ones in gorgeous, dedicated spaces (with beer fridges!).

The things I look for in a great dojo are the people.  I find that if you’ve got good people, the physical space will get taken care of.  On the other hand, if the people and relationships aren’t good, the physical space won’t keep things together.

The number one item on most people’s list of requirements for great dojo, and what everyone thinks about first, is the teacher. Having a good teacher is important, because the teacher sets the example for everyone else of how things are supposed to be in the dojo. In a merely good dojo, the teacher can be anywhere from a competent technician to world class, but they will likely maintain a somewhat distant teacher-student relationship. The teacher never stoops down to the students level.

In a great dojo though, the teacher is more like a head student than a teacher standing above everyone at the head of the classroom dispensing the lesson.  These teachers are every bit as much students of the art they are teaching as the newest beginner.  They find a joy in polishing their own skills, and discovering new things about their art that is as strong and fierce as that of any student.  This joy in practicing, improving, and discovering new things about their budo, and the teachers ability to share this with the rest of the dojo is what stands out for me in the teachers at great dojo.  The teacher’s personal skill level is almost incidental.  It may only be a few steps ahead of the students, but that’s fine.  The teacher is leading the dojo on a great, joyous journey of improvement and discovery, not dispensing wisdom and correction from on high.

This sort of teacher demonstrates and establishes the critical respect and trust that, for me, has to permeate a dojo for it to be truly great.  Because these wonderful teachers are sharing a journey with the students, they naturally treat everyone as respected and important members of the dojo. In a great dojo, everyone is contributing to the activity of learning and discovery, from the most senior members to the the lady whose dogi  is so new you can still see the creases from the package. As hard as it is for beginning students to believe, they are critically important too.  They don’t know what’s supposed to work on them, so they only react when techniques really do work. In great dojos, that respect is there for everyone, regardless of rank or experience.  The teacher sets the example, and everyone in the dojo respects the teacher and each other deeply and sincerely.

I’ve written about the unusual trust that can develop between martial artists before. In great dojo, this feeling of trust is everywhere. Students trust the teacher and each other. In great dojo, people who can’t be trusted are not welcome to train. If someone cannot be trusted to treat their partners with respect and to protect their partners body and health as if it were their own, that person will be gently but inexorably rejected by the dojo. Members of great dojo are great people, though they never think of themselves that way. They trust each other and take care of each other.

That trust and care means that people watch each other and go out of their way for fellow students. Trust isn’t just about what we do with the techniques. It means trusting each other enough that we can pull each other aside if we see a problem developing and bring it to each other’s attention without engendering anger or resentment.  This really differentiates the great dojo from the merely good ones. There is always a sense of zanshin regarding the health and safety of all members in a great dojo.

I mentioned above a little about the value of beginning students in a dojo. In great dojo, all the students are seen as valuable, and are valued for the variety of knowledge and experience they bring to the group. Great dojo have members with a huge variety of budo and conflict experience. These dojo usually have a good share of students who train more than one martial art, and usually a sprinkling of law enforcement officers corrections officers and military veterans. All of these different sets of experience and viewpoint are valued and drawn upon in a great dojo. Great teachers and members of great dojo aren’t intimidated by people who practice other arts and have different experiences. They treasure such members for the variety of perspectives they bring to the dojo. Instead of ignoring everything that doesn’t fit within a narrow orthodoxy, these members will be called on to share their perspective, regardless of their rank in the dojo.  No art has a complete knowledge of every aspect of conflict, and law enforcement officers can bring one set of perspectives about violence, while students of weapons arts can bring valuable understanding of the real capabilities of weapons to dojo that practice arts that primarily focus on empty hand technique. In great dojo, everyone with expertise and perspective are will find themselves called on in class to share what they know, especially if it is different from what most in the dojo expect to be true.

This is the next thing I look for in great dojo, a ruthless desire to reexamine everything students and teachers think they know about their art. In these dojo there is no sacred orthodoxy.  Instead there is a constant search for greater, deeper, more complete understanding. Recently I’ve been in a number of Aikido dojo that are notable because they are inviting people from other traditions and styles to teach and share their arts, even when it calls into question they way things have been done in that dojo. These are great dojo. Their search for understanding and mastery doesn’t end at their door.  Instead of closing the door on anything that contradicts their understanding, they invite those teachers with different perspectives in.

Only training in one art, and never experiencing other arts and perspectives leaves you with a very skewed understanding.  No art is big enough to contain everything there is. I’m not saying you have to study everything. There isn’t time in one life to do that. Great dojo and great teachers realize they don’t have all the answers though, so they make a point to expose their students to a variety of styles and perspectives. Kodokan Judo includes some efficient techniques versus knife and sword. However, if you only practice them with people who aren’t experts in the use of those weapons, you won’t understand all the ways things can go wrong. A few hours with a qualified swordsman can clear up a lot of misconceptions about the real maai and speed of the weapon.

A poor dojo declares theirs is the only way, and discourages students from seeking other perspectives.  A good dojo acknowledges that other ways and perspectives have value. A great dojo makes sure students encounter multiple perspectives and ways of doing things by having them demonstrated and shown in the dojo so students can get a taste of them.

Great dojo don’t rely on just one teacher either. A great dojo may well have one exceptional teacher, but they aren’t limited to that teacher. I always love going to study in Japan. The dojo I am a member of there are filled with high level teachers. Imagine dojo where the median rank is 5th dan. This sort of dojo is quite common in Japan. At the dojo in Kusatsu, I can remember nights when there were four or five 7th dans and an 8th dan on the floor. I started iai in a little country dojo with two 7th dan iai teachers. The kendo dojo had 7 teachers with 7th dans in kendo.  This was in the countryside.

Great dojo develop depth and encourage breadth among their teachers. My iai teacher, Kiyama HIroshi, is 7th dan in iai, jodo, and kendo. He has lesser ranks in judo, karate, and jukendo as well. The other teachers in the dojo are 6th or 7th dan in iai, and most have dan ranks in at least one other art. If Kiyama Sensei can’t teach, the people teaching the class in his stead will all be highly experienced teachers as well. Great dojo have room for many people to be great. It is assumed that everyone can become great, and it’s expected that everyone will to the best of their ability.

This leads to the next element of a great dojo. No one is ever satisfied with where they are. There are no destinations in a great dojo. Everyone, including the top teachers, are still striving to improve their skills and understanding. Everyone is encouraged to keep pushing forward along the Way.  Any Way 道, including budo 武道, is a path, a journey. Great dojo always quietly remind all the members, beginning students and senior teachers, that the way doesn’t have an end point. Everyone is always trying to improve. When I train in Japan, the senior teachers will teach, but if you watch, you’ll see them quietly training as well. Omori Sensei, even though he was 8th dan hanshi and 90 years old, still trained every time he came to the dojo. He would often play with the kata at such a level that I had trouble understanding what he was doing. Seeing a 7th dan teacher ask her fellow 7th dans to critique her technique and accept their comments and work to integrate them into her kata is a marvelous experience. People may hit plateaus, but they always keep working, moving forward until they get off the plateau.

There are many elements that make up a great dojo, but for me, they are about the members of the dojo.  A big, spacious building with a beautiful shomen and lovely decorations, stacks of equipment, and a refrigerator stocked with beer is pointless if the people are arrogant and callous, unwilling to learn anything new or different, and indifferent to their partners’ health and welfare. A great dojo is filled with concern for everyone who trains there, from oldest to newest, and they are always striving to transcend their current level of understanding, even if it means giving up ideas they had thought incontrovertible.