There are no advanced techniques. Really. Early in my budo career, I was looking for the secret techniques and mysterious skills that would make me able to do the things my teachers did that seemed like magic. But what looks like magic is really just the basics done phenomenally well. It was hard to convince myself that Kano Jigoro's famous answer to the question of “What is the secret of Judo?” was entirely truthful. When asked about the secret of Judo, Kano replied simply “Practice, practice, practice.” This is not an inspiring answer for a kid who wants to be able to effortlessly throw people across the room.
Sadly for all of us who are seeking the magic, it seems to be true. Whether I'm working on Judo or kenjutsu or iai or jo or my current nemesis kusarigama, careful, considered, focused and aware practice seems to be the real secret. More and more often, my own students look at something I've done with them like it's impossible, which is something I fondly remember thinking about my own teachers. It's a reaction I never have anymore though. Even when I can't begin to do what my teachers are doing, I can see how they are doing it and I can see the path to being able to do it myself.
Last week I was working on some taijutsu with an Aikido teacher and friend. Jim can do incredible things to your balance and make you fall down with the subtlest of movements. It's a very different technique than what I do in Judo, but I can feel what he's doing. The principle of what he does is clear. He is taking my balance (in Judo we call this kuzushi) and then drawing me in a direction where I can't support myself. I have to fall down. What makes it magic is that Jim does this with the least amount of movement possible. My Judo techniques have long been built on very large movements, but the principle is the same. Now I'm working on bringing a little bit of Jim's magic into my Judo.
It won't happen with mindless repetitions of techniques though. You can repeat a technique as often as you like, and you won't learn anything from the repetitions or get any better. You have to be fully engaged in your practice, and mentally looking for slight differences in your technique that will make you better. That's practice. Just doing something a hundred or a thousand times won't make you better. It will make whatever you are doing more solidly anchored in your body. If you are repeating poor technique, it will make it that much more difficult to change and improve your technique.
To get better at Jim's throws from a wrist grab, I didn't repeat what I already knew. I didn't repeat the big movement Judo techniques that I have been doing. I slowed down and focused on exactly what was happening to my partner when I moved just a little bit. I focused on feeling exactly when my partner's balance shifted from being supported by his frame to relying on me to keep from falling over. It was just a tiny bit of weight that was transferred to me, so little that I doubt my partner even realized he was using me to stay up. Once that happened though, all I had to do was turn my wrist over and he fell down, because I was withdrawing my support of his body. Jim can do this at full speed. It takes me several slow seconds to do it. By being aware of what is going on and practicing it slowly, I can develop the sensitivity to do this faster and faster over time.
One of the keys to making this work is to know what I'm looking for, and then focusing on developing that skill and sensitivity. If we just go to the dojo and quickly repeat the techniques we already know, we won't improve much. We have to be willing to slow down enough that we can focus on making changes to our technique. That's when practice really begins.
Up until last February, I had what is a fairly strong Hiki Otoshi Uchi strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Then I had the chance to train with one of the senior teachers in our group. I was lucky enough to watch him correcting a junior and demonstrate his technique over and over for my fellow student. What a fantastic opportunity for me! As I watched, I could see small differences between how he was swinging the jo and meeting the sword and they way I was doing the technique.
The technique is the same one I’ve been working on for years. There is no magic here, just a more subtle, smoother use of the jo that results in a powerful, inexorable technique requiring far less effort than what I’ve been doing. It’s up to me to increase my understanding of this fundamental technique that I started learning on my first day of practice. It’s not magic. It’s not a special, advanced technique taught only to senior students. It’s simply a fundamental technique done really, really well.
This is true of everything I have done in budo. When I wrote about Hikkoshiso Sensei tossing me around the Judo mat by waving his hands, I wasn’t referring to any special, advanced technique. What he does is an extremely effective application of the basic principle of kuzushi. What Hikkoshiso Sensei did to me is very similar to what I’m beginning to understand in my friend Jim’s technique, and both are extensions of the first principle of technique in Judo, which has been referenced in every Judo practice I’ve ever attended in any of many different countries. It’s not a secret. Hikkoshiso Sensei and Jim are just applying a basic principle extremely well. The same goes for that Shinto Muso Ryu teacher. He wasn’t doing anything secret or arcane. He was doing the third technique taught in Shinto Muso Ryu amazingly well.
None of these people have any secrets. In truth, they are doing exactly the opposite of keeping secrets. They put what they have learned through practice out there for students and fellow budoka to see and learn from. One of the first steps is to stop thinking of it as secret magics, and start thinking of it as an attainable skill. Then it’s really all about the quality and quantity of your practice. It’s easy to wish that Kano Sensei’s secret had been something beside “Practice, practice, practice.”
There aren’t any special techniques only taught to advanced students. We keep practicing and step by step the advanced techniques appear. Except that they aren’t advanced techniques. They are the basics done so well they seem advanced.