Showing posts with label training. Show all posts
Showing posts with label training. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Dojo

 
Old Butokuden in Kyoto. Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2015

I started training in the university judo dojo in Western Michigan University’s Oakland Gymnasium.  But I was really looking for tai chi. Now don’t laugh too hard, but from what I could find in Kalamazoo Michigan at that time, I thought judo was the most similar to tai chi. Back then there was no internet and no YouTube, so most of the information I was relying on was bad martial arts movies and descriptions from books. I didn’t have the first glimmer of understanding what I was getting into.

Judo was offered as a physical education course at the university. I showed up for the first class not really knowing what to expect. The classes were taught by Earl Bland and Robert Noble. It was a university physical education class, so it was filled with young, healthy students, most of whom didn’t know any more about what they were getting into than I did. I don’t remember much of that first day except that I bought a judogi and after class talked my friend Frank into coming to class because the teacher said everyone was welcome, whether they were paying for the class or not (I’m pretty sure the university administration would have had a stroke if they’d found out the teacher was inviting people to attend without paying for the class!).

I was more comfortable in the dojo than anywhere else on campus. It had been a dance room decades before and had mirrors along one wall. The mats were ethafoam sheets with a green canvas cover stretched over the top, with two competition areas marked out on it. You could always spot our people at tournaments because our dogi had a green tint from doing groundwork on the green mat cover. I took my first steps on the budo path there and I am still friends with many of the people I trained with at that time.

The atmosphere was relaxed and light. We learned how to fall down safely, and learned to call the act ukemi. We learned how to throw each other, how to do the arm locks, strangles and pins of judo. We had a great time, and we kept showing up for the classes for years after that first semester. That dojo was my favorite place on campus and I spent more time there than anywhere else except perhaps the cafeteria. Every semester a new crop of beginners would show up for the first class, and Frank, Sam, and other friends that I made stuck around.  We became the seniors in the university club. I hadn’t taken up judo looking for a competitive sport, but for the first time in my life I found one I enjoyed immensely, even if I was no better than average.

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When I moved Japan a few years later, I discovered a lot more of the variety that dojo can come in. I trained with the local high school judo club in the high school dojo, and I joined a nearby adult dojo that trained in an old gymnasium. The high school dojo is pretty typical for Japan. When I was introduced, the entryway had a bunch of faucets and under each one was pot of barley tea, chilling for after keiko. The dojo was a lot larger than the one in college was, but only half of it was covered in tatami, the traditional style mats for judo. The other half of the room was a smooth, wooden floor filled with people in kendo armor swinging bamboo swords and screaming. There were at least four kendoka on the floor for every judoka on the mats. The judo club was small, about eight kids, but they trained five or six times a week, and most had been doing judo longer than my four years. I learned a lot from them.

The old gymnasium, where the adult group met, was all that remained of an old elementary school. The school was long gone, but the gymnasium was serving as a community gym. People used it for kendo and volleyball and other things.  On Sunday evenings a group used it for judo. This was a few train stops from my apartment and the closest group of adults doing judo. That the gym was an old elementary school gym meant that it wasn’t heated in the winter or air conditioned in the brutally hot, humid Japanese summers. The mats were old-style tatami with canvas over it. Over time, the tatami had become compressed and compacted until it had only slightly more give than the wooden gym floor we put it out on each week. It was remarkable how fast my ukemi improved when I started getting thrown on this. At the end of practice, we didn’t do a cool down.  Instead, we picked up all the mats and stacked them behind the stage at one end of the gym.

It was the antithesis of a modern dojo, and was totally lacking in comforts and conveniences. No showers, no locker rooms, no changing spaces. Even the toilets were in a separate building. It was a great place to train though. Everyone was there for the judo. When I first moved to Japan it was the only place I felt truly, 100% comfortable. I spoke very little Japanese, but my judo was pretty fluent, and I knew most of the cultural cues around the dojo. I was certainly lowest-ranked student in the room, but I was welcome and comfortable and they worked me over hard every week.

Sunday night practice started with a class for the kids, and was followed by an adult practice for all of us who had made it to adulthood and still wanted to get thrown around. After bowing in and warming up, all the adults would line up on one side of the dojo, and the senior high students who stuck around to train with the adults would line up facing us.  We lined up by rank, so I started out on the far end of the mat. Every week we would start with uchikomi practice (throwing practice without actually throwing) and the junior side would rotate around the mat so they trained with many different partners. After a break we lined up again for randori. This time both lines rotated so we ended up training with both junior and senior people. After that, it was open randori time.  Anyone could ask anyone else to do some light fighting. Of course, the younger guys idea of “light” was different enough from what the seniors in the dojo thought of as light to make some of the practice interesting indeed.

Eventually that old gym lost its roof in a typhoon and had to be torn down.  We moved to training in an old dojo attached to a Hachiman shrine for a few months before we settled in the very new, very lovely community center. I still practice there when I go to Japan.  It's a beautiful new building, and a pleasure to practice in, but it just doesn't have the atmosphere of the old school gymnasium. The people are the same though, so the feeling on the mat during practice is much the same, with the added bonus that my feet don’t go numb in the winter during keiko.

Dojo can be anywhere, literally. I’ve trained in parking lots and backyards and on the grounds of shrines and temples and churches. Maybe the most interesting location for dojo is Hotani Sensei’s jodo dojo in Osaka. It’s on top of an office building. Not the top floor, but a separate building that sits on the roof of the office building and is strapped down to prevent it blowing away in a typhoon.
There are a few dojo that stand out as iconic. There is a wonderful dojo attached to Kashima Shrine that I have had the honor and pleasure to visit on a number of occasions.



Then there is the grandfather of dojo, the Butokuden in Kyoto. It was built in 1895, and the builders seem to have wanted to create the most impressive dojo possible.  They succeeded. The columns supporting the roof are massive, and the whole building has been polished and worn with use to a lovely patina that feels neither old nor tired, but alive with the energy of the people who have trained there.

That is the essence of a dojo. It’s not the place. It’s the people training and studying there. For me, dojo space is sacred. A dojo is a place for putting aside my ego and everything I think I know so that I can learn and grow and polish what I am. It’s often said that “you should leave your ego with your shoes” when you enter a dojo, and in good dojo, everyone does. A dojo is a place to study the Way. Whether the Way is Buddhist, Neo-Confucian, Taoist, a mixture of all of these, or something else is up to the students who study there. The important thing is that we are all there to learn and grow.

I have fond memories of many dojo. There was the one above a fish monger’s warehouse. Another in an old side building. Hotani Sensei’s on that roof in Osaka, and Iseki Sensei’s on the ground floor of his home. I can’t count the number of school dojos I’ve trained in, nor the number of gymnasiums I’ve been in for tournaments. The Kodokan in Tokyo has a gorgeous and thoroughly modern dojo on the 7th story of its massive building. Then there was the parking lot in back of Hashimoto Sensei’s house where we would practice and try to avoid sliding too much on the loose gravel scattered across the asphalt.

What I remember most about all of these dojo is training with the other students. At every dojo I’ve been to I’ve been welcomed warmly. It is the people who make each dojo special. Each has honored me by letting me join them and train with them. We’re all there to learn and grow, and we’re all there because we want to be. This makes any dojo a wonderful place to be. The physical location is a distant second to the gathering of people who are there to train and grow. That always makes space sacred. Even old gymnasiums and parking lots.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Musings Of A Budo Bum

My book is out! I've put together a collection of my some of my favorite budo essays, arranged them by themes and published them as Musings Of A Budo Bum. It's over 150 pages of pure budo stuff, with everything from how to use budo titles to how to stand up, plus many, many other things.

I want to thank everyone who contributed to the IndieGogo campaign to help get this published. You are awesome!

Signed copies are available at Mugendo Budogu in the USA.

Globally it is available from Amazon sites around the world, Chapters, and other fine booksellers.

 Musings Of A Budo Bum


The subjects covered are

CONTENTS
Introduction
Getting Started
Do you have to study in Japan to understand budo?
Etiquette: Form and sincerity in budo
Sensei, Kyoshi, Hanshi, and Shihan: budo titles and how (not) to use them
Different ranks in martial arts?
Zanshin
Do versus Jutsu
What kata isn’t
Trust in the dojo
Training
Training, motivation, and counting training time in decades instead of years
The most effective martial art
The dojo as the world: learning to deal with violence and power
Budo and responsibility
Investing in failure
The spirit of learning
Training hard and training well are not the same thing
When it comes to training, fast is slow and slow is fast
Getting out of the comfort zone
There are no advanced techniques
Essentials
The most essential principles in budo: Structure
The most essential principles in budo: Spacing
The most essential principles in budo: Timing
Philosophy
The only things I teach are how to walk and how to breathe
Budo expectations and realities: understanding the limits of what we study
Will budo training make me a better person?
Budo as a “professional skill” and professionalism in budo
Budo training and budo philosophy
How to adapt an art form to fit you
Is kata too rigid and mechanical? 

Thanks everyone! 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Forging The Spirit

 
Tamahagane, traditional steel, is filled with impurities and requires repeated heating and hammering just to get the impurities out. Only after that can you start shaping a sword.


精神 - mind, soul, heart, spirit, intention
誠心 - sincerity
清心 - “bright, clear” & “mind”
正心 - correct mind, righteous mind

These are just some of the 14 meanings that come up when I type in “seishin” ”せいしん” into the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary. Japanese is a wonderful language. It’s possible to write the word phonetically and thereby imply any or all of the above, or sometimes meanings diametrically opposed to the above meanings. 成心 is also pronounced “seishin” but means prejudice. This can make Japanese a tricky language to say things in; profound but filled with pitfalls.

I’m thinking about seishin because I was visiting with a friend and discussing all things budo over a pint in a Dublin pub. He was wondering how to get from the mindset of destroying one’s opponents to a more wholesome attitude; one that doesn’t require destroying his opponents to achieve goals and mastery.

There are lots of different mindsets that we can take in budo. When we start though, we almost have no choice but to be concerned with winning, with dominating and destroying teki, our opponent. As a beginner in judo, I had to really focus on attacking my training partners and throwing them down. If I didn’t, I was so quickly dominated and thrown down myself that I couldn’t learn anything from the practice.

There are many ideas about states of mind. Fudoshin and mushin are great to talk about, but how on earth does one get from being a beginner who is just trying to not get crushed to becoming, first,  somewhat technically proficient, and then all the way to a point where you are relaxed and acting without prior intent, just moving in harmony with the situation as it develops?

The koryu bugei seem to offer the most time-tested path to these special mental states. The journey is not exciting. Like most practices undertaken to develop the mind/spirit, a lot of effort has to be put into just keeping up the practice.  It’s not generally exciting, especially in the early stages and late stages.

Japanese has long used the phrase seishin tanren to talk about the real nature of training, budo training in particular. “”Tanren” is 鍛錬 and means “forging”. Forging is not exciting work, whether it is making swords or martial artists. In Japan it means repeatedly hammering and folding the steel for the blade until all the impurities have been beaten out of it.  

The Japanese equate budo training with this kind of forging. Seishin tanren or “spiritual forging” is a good way to describe koryu budo training.  It can be harsh, repetitive and boring, but if you don’t drive out the impurities first, the final product will break easily.

Fine Martial Arts Equipment, Books and Videos

Koryu budo training is built around kata practice rather than sparring.  Sparring is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t build the skills or the mind in the ways necessary for spiritual training.  Look at how a boxer or an Olympic judoka or an MMA fighter trains.  They mostly train kata as well. Oh, I know they don’t call what they do “kata,” but that’s what training drills are. Kata are training drills, pattern practice for techniques, skills and mindset.

You can’t effectively spar until you’ve attained a certain level of technical and mental skill, and that is nearly impossible to get from sparring alone. There has to be a reason that paired kata training remained the dominant training methodology in koryu budo from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The reason is that paired training drills, pattern practice, kata, or whatever you want to call them, are the best effective way of mastering physical technique and developing a quality mental state.  

Beginners are overwhelmed by all the details of learning a new art. The best they can do is pick a couple of points and focus on them. As a beginner, one has to focus intently just to approximate what a journeyman practitioner does without thinking. This is the first step on the path to the mental states of mushin and fudoshin. It’s only when a beginner has advanced far enough that they don’t have to focus on each step of a given movement that they can begin working on the rest of the staircase.

Partnered kata practice gives a student a controlled environment in which to to experiment and develop. The teacher can adjust the intensity of the regimen to the student’s technical level so they get the most from training.  Early on this might mean walking through the kata slowly and without any pressure.  As the student becomes proficient at performing the outer shape of the kata, the teacher can increase the pressure, go faster, attack more strongly, and then add new kata that emphasize different lessons about timing, spacing or technical application.

Over thousands of repetitions the student polishes her fundamental techniques and learns to move without focusing on the details of movement. Now the teacher can begin to vary not just the intensity but also the timing of the kata. One potential danger of partnered kata training is that it may become nothing more than a choreographed dance wherein you know how and when your partner will move or attack. This can lead to empty forms and stagnating mental development.  The teacher’s responsibility is to continuously manipulate the timing and spacing so no two repetitions of the kata are identical. It is at this point that  mental development really begins for the student.

At first a student reaching this level may try to anticipate her partner’s movement.  She knows what her partner is supposed to do next in the kata, and she responds to what her partner is supposed to do. The thing about training in koryu budo is that your partner is teaching you, and koryu budo teachers can be harsh. If my student anticipates my action and moves first, I’m going to attack the opening she gives me rather than do what the kata says I should. One of the lessons of budo is to act in accord with that is suitable for the situation, not just do what the script calls for. If she anticipates my movement, she’s already left the kata and I’m free to attack however I wish.

This is when students really start developing their minds, forging their seishin. It’s also when I, as a student,  was most likely to come home from practice with whacked knuckles and bruised wrists. At this stage, I was  still thinking about when to move and how fast to move. This meant I was often moving too late to get out of the way of the attack. When you’re late, sometimes sensei will let the strike land so you learn how vulnerable you are.

The kata hasn’t changed, but the timing and intensity have. As the student gets more comfortable with the mechanics of the kata, she learns to watch and not move until the right moment, neither too early nor too late. Students who want to dominate and control everything in order to crush their opponent are eager to move and easily drawn into moving before it is safe to do so. Students who are thinking too much will wait to long and get whacked. Through forging,  hammering and folding, through countless repetitions of the kata, the teacher drives out excess thought that gets in the way of quick, clean movement. The tendency to anticipate your partner, thereby creating gaping openings, is slowly forced to the surface of the mind until it is sloughed off like slag being hammered out of piece of tamahagane steel.


In my case, I was so prepared to defend against an attack that I knew was coming that I was often incapable of waiting until it actually happened.Alternatively, whenever I became too anxious to move, like a spring that was overloaded with tension, my teachers would hesitate a moment and draw me into moving. It’s the teacher’s job to provide learning experiences, to change the timing just a little, or maybe a lot.  As I learned to quiet my mind and stopped trying to outguess my partner, I learned to see what teki was really doing.

The student keeps up the repetitions, working the impurities out of her mind. One day it will happen. She’s doing a kata at a high intensity level without thinking about it, without reacting. She’ll be calm and relaxed and act in accord with her partner’s speed and timing. It will be beautiful. The next repetition will be disastrous. She will consciously try to duplicate the previous kata and utterly fail. My experience was much the same..

Fudoshin and mushin are states of mind that involve getting out of your own way. The irony in this is that if you are trying to get your mind out of the situation, your mind is already actively in it. Mushin is all about just being there and not forcing your conceptions on the situation. But - If actively trying to quiet your mind is guaranteed to not get you where you want to be, how do you get there?

You could try breathing through your eyelids.


In Bull Durham, Annie tells LaLoosh to “breath through your eyelids.”  It’s a great tactic. He’s been overthinking everything he does, and as a result can’t pitch well. His mind is wound up and in the way. He can’t do anything right. By distracting his mind with the impossible, Annie frees the skills he’s acquired to act smoothly and naturally. With koryu budo, we don’t tell students to breathe through their eyelids. We forge their minds in the furnace of paired kata practice (and if you don’t think paired kata practice is a furnace, let me introduce you to a couple of people).

Good teachers and training partners gradually turn up the heat. When a student starts, she is busy worrying about the mechanics of the kata. Over time, the teacher pushes a little more and a little more until she’s not worrying about the mechanics. Now perhaps she’s worrying about not getting hit. With enough hammering in the right places at the right moments, fear of getting hit is also driven out of her mind.

Over time, the repetition and gradually increasing intensity levels hammer out other mental impurities. Too much intention is a common stumbling block.Having an attitude that you are going to dominate and destroy your partner is problematic, whether you are doing kata or sparring. It creates unnecessary intent, which is a stumbling block on the path to mushin. With enough practice, enough forging, the student will no longer need to convince herself that she will dominate and control.  She becomes confident that she can handle what’s out there, and doesn’t need intent. Now she’s ready to just relax and take whatever her partner has to throw at her, without any particular intent.

Now she’ll begin to touch mushin and fudoshin. It will be a rare thing at first, a happy accident that can’t be repeated intentionally. With more practice, this student will learn to let go of intentions and expectations. She’ll be able to take a breath in and let her worries, fears and mental noise go out with the exhalation. Mushin will happen more often now and the worries, fears and mental noise will grow weaker and quieter, until they are almost gone.

At this point she’s not a student anymore. She’s a senior helping other students travel the path. I doubt anyone ever reaches a perfect state where they maintain fudoshin and mushin 100% of the time, but the great teachers get so close that the rest of us never notice the lapses.  Seishin tanren is all about forging the mind. It’s not a quick or easy process. Just as forging a sword requires hundreds of repetitions through the process of heating and hammering to get rid of the impurities found in tamahagane steel, and then further heating and hammering to shape the blade, the raw ore of a student is heated and hammered in the furnace of kata practice until mental impurities have been forged out of her and she is a calm, relaxed budoka. Seishin tanren is simple. It’s definitely not easy.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Sweat The Small Stuff. And It's All Small Stuff.


What details do you look for when you see a photo like this? Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis



We had a really good keiko on Saturday.  It was a regular Saturday practice.  That is to say it we worked hard, sweat a lot of details, had great fun, and occasionally overloaded someone’s mind..
Sweating the details is the essence of practice. Sometimes it’s the same detail over and over. When you see that, you know you’ve got something fundamental to work on.

I jokingly told Rolf that I was going to give him the same correction on everything he did and then I nearly did it. We started talking about grip while practicing kihon waza (fundamental techniques), and it just snowballed from there.

We always start practice by reviewing the fundamental techniques of jodo. There are only 12 of them, so this serves as a good way to get our muscles warmed up and loose, while putting in some practice on the most essential techniques. Shinto Muso Ryu is a weapons art, so the connection between the practitioner and the weapon is critical.  As in so many things in budo, there are a million ways to do it wrong, and one way to do it right.

In jodo, power is transferred from the practitioner to the weapon through their connection at the hand using the last two fingers of the base hand.  The jo is a deceptively simple looking weapon.  That simplicity makes using it very complex, because you can move your hands anywhere along the weapon and even switch them around. Because the grip is mobile, it’s easy to start well and finish badly.

The grip is integral to every technique, and it’s easy to mess up. Holding and swinging a jo doesn’t look complicated. The grip is a small thing, like the tiny hinges on a huge door. If the hinges are just a little out alignment, good luck moving the door. Just as the hinges connect a door to its frame and allow it to move smoothly and easily, the grip is the connection between your body and the jo. In addition, it is the conduit by which power is transmitted from your body to the jo and from there into your training partner.

The grip is based, not in the thumb and forefinger as you might guess, but in the 5th and 4th fingers. The ones we think of as being the weakest, when used properly are the strongest. Using them properly is the trick. Using your fingers and palm properly is a complex task, and it’s one that you have to do unconsciously. If you have to think about the proper position and use of your fingers, you will be in trouble as soon as your attention is pulled in some other direction.

These small details have to be at the level of unconscious mastery before you can really begin working on the larger elements. Fortunately, most problems with grip are easy to identify when you see them being made. Using the thumb and forefinger instead of the 5th and 4th fingers. Or having your arm perpendicular to the line of the jo. Gripping too tightly. Bending your wrist too much. Thumb out of place.

You may have heard the saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” In budo we sweat the small stuff.  The longer I do this, the more I realize that it’s all small stuff.  All of the big problems have their origins in small details like the grip. That’s why we find ourselves coming back time after time to the small stuff. What angle should my foot be for the entry to harai goshi? How do I squeeze the sword with my little finger for kiri oroshi? What angle should my hips be when doing kaeshi tsuki? How do I grip the jo for honte uchi? These are all part of building a good budo structure, but each is such a small detail we easily look past it when trying to understand what is happening.

Big techniques look impressive and grab our imagination. Harai goshi is a huge throw.


But it’s built on many small details. How you grip is as important for harai goshi as it is for doing anything with a jo. The angle of your feet as you enter and set your body. The position of your hands and arms in relation to your chest can determine the success or failure of the technique. Are you on your heels, or the balls of your feet. Each is a relatively small detail, and yet each one is critical enough to ruin the technique if done wrong.

When I started judo and jodo, I saw the big techniques, the huge throws and powerful strikes. They were thrilling to watch. Through practice, my eyes have learned to see the details that make up the big techniques, and it’s the small things that amaze me now. These days I may not notice which throw someone does because I’m focused on the subtle way the are disrupting their partners structure. When I watch jodo, I know where the strike is going.  What I am trying to steal when I watch senior teachers is how they are generating the power for the strike and how they are controlling it.

The small details have big effects. So when we train, we sweat the small stuff. Of course, it’s all small stuff.

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