A guest post by
Thursday, August 19, 2021
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
I was talking with a student and teacher of classical Japanese martial arts, and the all too-common myth - that the teachers and students of these centuries-old ryuha practice exactly as their creators taught them in the first generation - came up. We both laughed. It’s a compelling story, but it’s a myth - one that is dangerous for the students, and for the arts themselves. Whether you do something called a way ( “do” 道). An art (“jutsu” 術), or a style or school (“ryu” 流)、the story is the same.
These are all arts that have survived centuries of use and application. The thought that hundreds of years ago someone discovered a principle and created techniques for applying it that were perfectly formed and are still perfectly suited to the world they are in credits the founders with a level of genius that I cannot imagine. I can imagine them realizing principles that can be applied to an ever-changing environment, but I can’t stretch that to the founders also creating techniques that perfectly apply that principle no matter how the world has changed.
Principles don’t change. That’s the nature of principles. They are fundamental ways of understanding the world and how it operates. In budo, sometimes principles are expressed and learned through physical practice, such as that discovered by following the Shinto Muso Ryu directive “maruki wo motte suigetsu wo shire “丸木を持って水月を知れ””holding a round stick, know the solar plexus”. Others are clearly expressed philosophical concepts, such as Kano Jigoro Shihan’s “seiryoku zen’yo” 精力善用 (often translated as “maximum efficiency, minimum effort”), which is the short form for “seiryoku saizen katsuyo” 精力最善活用 “best use of energy”.Jigoro Kano, Mind Over Muscle, Kodansha, 2005). Usually shortened to “maximum efficiency minimum effort,” Kano’s maxim refers to a broader principle than just the physical technique. It’s about the best use and application of energy, mental and physical. These core principles of different arts haven’t changed since they were first expressed.
Principles, by their nature, are universal. If they can’t be applied universally, they aren’t principles. I can apply the principle implied by the jodo maxim maruki wo motte suigetsu wo shire in a variety of ways and situations. I can even apply this principle without a stick in judo randori, to pick an example outside of Shinto Muso Ryu. Kano Jigoro was an evangelist for the idea of seiryoku saizen katsuyo and its usefulness outside the constrained world of the dojo. He wrote extensively about the principle and why everyone should apply it, whether they practice judo or not. These principles haven’t changed since they were first understood.
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How they are applied and expressed changes all the time however. Not because the principles change at all, but because the environment in which they are being applied changes. Judo is nearly 140 years old. Shinto Muso Ryu has been around for more than 400 years. For all of these arts, the world has changed dramatically since they were founded. The world of combat in Japan slowly changed as weapons and tactics evolved, and then was transformed by the introduction of firearms in the 1500’s, followed by the enforcement of peace by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. Shinto Muso Ryu, essentially military police tactics, was born into the first years of unsteady peace during the Tokugawa Era. The samurai class was still on a war footing, with the Tokugawa victory only a few years earlier. Weapons of war and people skilled with them were everywhere.
A little over 250 years later the wearing of swords in public was banned. Clothing styles in Japan changed from traditional kimono and hakama to European dress. The tools of combat increased in number and power. People still study Kodokan Judo and Shinto Muso Ryu and other koryu arts. The arts are still seen as relevant to this age that would have been unimaginable when they were created.
The people who study Kodokan Judo still practice many things that Kano Jigoro laid down as part of his art. They do a lot of things that he didn’t include in his pedagogy for the art. I find Kodokan Judo principles being applied not just in competitive matches with people wearing traditional dogi, but in no-gi matches and even professional MMA fights. More interesting to me is the way Kodokan Judo’s principles continue to be applied in and out of the dojo. It’s still seen as an effective form of physical education, and the principle of seiryoku zen’yo, along with the principle of yawara 柔 (softness, pliancy, flexibility, suppleness), is taught as having far more than just martial applications. The whole of Kodokan Judo manages to offer a very complete set of principles for interacting with the world physically and intellectually nearly 140 years after its founding. It hasn’t stopped growing and adapting. In addition to the official kata of Kodokan Judo, many practitioners develop their own, unofficial, kata to practice and explore the principles in situations that are not focused on in the official curriculum.
The proportion of waza practice versus randori practice versu kata practice is something judoka never stop arguing about, and every judo dojo has a different answer to what the proportions should be. I see people working out new techniques based on the classical principles, and practicing in new ways. It’s not uncommon now to see judoka train without dogi so they can prepare for no-gi tournaments. Do they stop doing judo because they take off their dogi and fight in competitions that aren’t using IJF rules? If you're applying judo principles it’s still judo, regardless of what you're wearing or what you’re doing. Judo is, after all, yawara. It’s soft and pliant. It can change its shape to fit the situation.
Shinto Muso Ryu reaches further back for its origin, another 270 odd years past Judo. The relevance of a stick that was intended to be used to subdue people with swords in a world of guns and IEDs is difficult to imagine, especially when you see the people studying it wearing clothes that have been out of date for centuries and practicing against people armed with swords. Relevant in the 21st century? It looks more like Live Action Role-Playing to most people. However, the principles haven’t changed, even if the practical applications have had to evolve.
Throughout its history Shinto Muso Ryu’s students haven’t been afraid to add new lessons to the art. Kata were added steadily over the centuries, and tools were added to the practitioner’s kit. An art that started out with just a stick and a sword now teaches students to apply the principles to sticks of nearly any length, as well as chains (and in some lines even bayonet length blades!). The real principles about movement, timing, spacing and rhythm are still useful not just in combat situations, but everywhere in life. I’ve only been doing Shinto Muso Ryu for 28 years, but in that time I’ve watched teachers tweak kata and change what they emphasize. Looking back before my time, to the films that survive from the last 90 years or so, it’s clear that people have been tweaking and playing with the kata since long before I showed up. Considering all the recorded changes that have been made to Shinto Muso Ryu over the centuries, no one can seriously claim that they do Shinto Muso Ryu just like Muso Gonosuke Katsuyoshi did it. It’s been changing and adapting from the day he started figuring it out for himself.
Budo practices are paths to follow, not fossils. You have to adapt to the terrain. If you never change anything, and never learn anything beyond where the founder began, you would be preserving an artifact that has no relationship to the age you live in. I fully expect the arts I practice and teach to grow and change. The principles will still be there, but I sincerely hope my students learn new ways to train, new ways to teach the principles, and new ways to express the principles. Anything less than that is a discredit to everyone who has gone before us.
Tuesday, March 16, 2021
“Your shoulders aren’t over your hips.”
“Don’t forget to breathe.”
As martial artists we chase strong, powerful techniques, and we strive to use our muscles effectively. Many of us spend time in the gym lifting weights and doing physical conditioning. I do squats and curls and sit-ups and push-ups. For all that, I can’t think of any time I’ve heard someone say “Use more muscle.” Instead we hear people talk about things like relaxation and kokyuroku 呼吸力 (breath power).
Muscle is great, but no muscle works in isolation. Weight training often is about isolating specific muscles to develop them. Budo is about integrating muscles and bone and sinew, and that all comes back to how you stand and how you breathe. What we’re doing in the dojo, whether it’s kata training or randori, is movement. All that movement, though, starts in stillness.
Standing there, doing nothing, what are you doing? You’re standing and breathing. So obvious it feels foolish to say, but most of us don’t do a very good job of doing nothing. Standing still is difficult to do right. I was surprised as a beginning judo student to learn that one of the skills on the first rank test I ever took was standing still. Oh, it got a neat Japanese name, shizen hontai, but that just breaks down to “natural, basic body.”
It didn’t take too much practice to be balanced and relaxed enough to pass the shinzen hontai item on that 6th kyu test. What experience keeps teaching me is how important everything on the 6th kyu test is. If it’s on the first test you take, it’s because that will be essential to everything you do after that test. I’m still working to get shizen hontai right. What passed on the 6th kyu test, however, failed to be good enough for me not long after the test.
That natural, basic body is the body with no unnecessary tension; no muscles tensing when they aren’t needed. Everything as natural and loose as a small child. Small children fall down and bounce back up in part because they are so loose and natural. They don’t tense up or freeze when they start to fall. They just go with it. Getting back to something like that natural state without unnecessary tension is part of shizen hontai.
Unnecessary tension impacts how you breathe. If you carry stress and tension in your shoulders or chest it constricts how well you can expand your chest and take in air. Babies have incredible lung power, as anyone who was holding an infant when they started screaming can attest. A large part of that is the fact that there is no tension inhibiting their breathing, so they use all of their lung capacity.
To breathe well you have to use all of your natural capacity. At this moment, I’m doing two things in particular that inhibit that natural capacity. The first is my lousy posture while sitting at the computer. My shoulders are slumped forward, my chin is sticking out, my back is slouching. To use all of my natural capacity I have to free my body to work at its best. That means I have to sit up straight and let my shoulders fall back instead of rounding them forward. This opens my chest and stomach so my lungs can expand to their full capacity.
The second thing I’m doing wrong is carrying all the tension from a lousy day at work in my shoulders and chest. I drain the tension out of my shoulders and they settle down where they belong, instead of being up near my ears. My chest and back are tight and constricted from sitting in front of a computer all day. Not getting enough activity to loosen the muscles won’t allow my breathing to flow naturally. Those tense muscles fight to keep my chest tight and restricted, preventing me from taking a full breath. When I get rid of the unnecessary tension and breathe using my diaphragm to expand my lungs and pull air into my lungs to their fullest, I get the best breath I can take, allowing my lungs to function at their optimum exchanging carbon dioxide and oxygen.
Good breathing circles around and impacts how you stand. You can’t stand properly if you’re breathing wrong. If you’re breathing with your shoulders instead of your diaphragm you are throwing your balance back and forth with every breath. It’s a small thing, but I’ve seen people take advantage of poor breathing in judo regularly. Breathe from your diaphragm and your balance remains stable. You can drop your weight through your hips to the floor and let your body’s natural structure carry your weight for you. Instead of having to work at staying balanced, you just are.
Pick a technique that you are working to polish. Try doing it with your shoulders up by your ears, your back slouched and your chin stuck out, then correct your posture and try it again. Much easier to do right, isn’t it? After that, try doing the technique while exhaling. Quite possibly the most common mistake I see is people forgetting to breathe. Now that you’re breathing, take a moment and make sure you're doing it right, and then do the technique again while exhaling properly. It sounds easy. Stand and breathe, then do a technique. It becomes difficult when you add “properly” in front of “stand” and “breathe.” Standing and breathing are very complex activities to do correctly. Moreover, when we are learning anything new, the first thing we tend to do is hold our breath while we concentrate on the new stuff. I’ve done it, and every student I’ve ever had has done it. The more you practice good breathing and good standing, the less likely you will be to forget about those things when you have to focus on other things - like good technique.
It really doesn’t matter which budo you are doing. Koryu. Gendai. Western. Eastern. Good budo always comes back to how you breathe and how you stand. If these two elements aren’t right, nothing is. Take a moment and let yourself be aware of your body, of how you’re breathing and how you are sitting and standing. You don’t need a teacher to tell you when you are slouching or breathing with your shoulders. These are things you should figure out and start fixing on your own.
Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for editorial support.
Wednesday, January 6, 2021
A while back I wrote a post about The Budo Law Of Conservation Of Movement. Effective budo systems don’t waste time and mental space teaching a hundred ways to do the same thing. Instead they teach one way to do a hundred things. There is a corollary to law which is
The smallest movement that is effective is the best movement
Budo is about conflict, fighting, combat. Do you want to waste any resource in a fight, including your energy?. Strength and stamina are finite resources; no matter who you are, they will run out. How long will the fight last? Is there likely to be another one soon? These are unknowables, so any wasted effort reduces what you’ve got to work with down the line. Don’t waste energy.
Look at any classical budo. Koryu budo are almost dull in the way they do things; there’s nothing flashy or decorative in their movement. All the fancy movement and dancing that you see in movies is notable for its absence in classical budo. Or even watch competitive judo - there’s no unnecessary movement. Really good judoka often make for rather boring matches to watch. The competitors are there to win and move on to the next match. 99% of the action is in movements so small you can’t really see them. High level judo matches have so little excitement in their 5 minute spans that the rules are juiced to make them more interesting. These matches require a serious attack to happen every few seconds or a penalty can be awarded by the referee for stalling. In a tournament, a judoka might end up fighting 6, 7, or more matches in one day. Skilled judoka know they can’t afford to waste any effort because they will need it later.
Conserve your motion. Conserve your energy. Don’t make a big movement when a small one will do the job.
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The other thing about using the smallest movement to do the job is that it protects you. It’s not good to throw your energy around unnecessarily. Any movement you make affects you as well as your opponent. Bigger movements mean committing more energy. Any energy you put out there can be used by your opponent against you. I love countering techniques in judo because they turn an opponent’s attack into their defeat. The more energy an opponent sends out the more I have to work with. The bigger the movement you commit to, the harder it is to change trajectory once it’s started.
Overcommitment to a technique backfiring can happen whether it’s in an unarmed situation like a judo match, or weapon versus weapon. Learning to control your movement and take advantage of moments when your adversary is over-extended is fundamental. Watch a kendo match. The kendoka jockey for control of the center with just the tips of their shinai. Movements are just big enough to evade being controlled by the opponent and use just enough energy to do the job and no more. Openings are created when someone moves further than is needed or puts too much power into their shinai and can’t recover their position in time to prevent the attack.
All good budo is efficient. Wasting energy is foolish. So is giving your adversary anything to work with. Any excess movement, any unnecessary movement, creates an opening for your opponent. Overextend an arm on an attack and it can be locked or used as a lever to throw you. Too big a movement leaves a window for a strike or an entry. Therefore
The smallest movement that is effective is the best movement.
Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for her wonderful editing work.
Monday, November 30, 2020
Before you pick a fight, make sure you know what you're getting into. (Video copyright Peter Boylan 2020)
"How many westerners studied in Japan for a significant amount of time? Few. In fighting, culture means very little. Step into the ring and put your fists up. There is no east or west."
Someone posted this comment in a discussion I am involved in. It seems like a pretty straightforward idea. In combat arts all that matters is what happens when you step into the ring. Everything in a combat art can be decided by getting out there and facing off with someone.
However, stepping into a ring is not the same as a street fight or close quarters combat. The rules are completely different. The rules in the ring are about both people coming out with all of their teeth and no permanent damage. Outside a sporting ring there are still rules. The other people in the fight might not bother to tell you what the rules are, but they have them. What rules do you expect?
Fighting in a ring is dueling. It’s only 2 people, everyone gets the same equipment, and even when there is no referee, everyone including the spectators know if someone breaks the rules. Dueling is great for the ego. I love doing randori in Judo. One on one with someone trying to throw me, choke me, pin me or make me submit to an arm lock is just about as much fun as I can imagine. When the world is not threatened by a plague, I try to do it a couple of times a week for as long as my stamina holds out.
Japanese classical budo of the Tokugawa Period (1604-1868) could be brutal stuff. Ambush and surprise attacks were considered quite acceptable. It wasn’t about arranging a nice formal duel if someone besmirched your honor. It was a vendetta and very little was off limits. Many of the classical systems that have survived include teachings about setting up an ambush or a sneak attack. These aren’t friendly dueling arts. These are arts of killing without getting killed. Forcing someone from a very different cultural tradition to fight so you can “see who’s better” is a risky affair. You may think you’re having a friendly duel, and the other guy may break your fingers right off the mark because that’s accepted in the culture he comes from. He may not know about the rules you follow in a friendly duel. This is not something you want to find out the hard way.
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What I do in a judo dojo fighting with my friends is vastly different from what I’ve done the few times I’ve had to do anything in “the real world.” Sport dueling is fun, but it really only proves who’s better at dueling under those particular rules. Classical Japanese budo arts have long traditions of fighting that aren’t about dueling in a *fair* environment. They assume that nothing is going to be fair and that everyone will use whatever is available to ensure that they are the one(s) who walk away. People who train for this sort of encounter really aren’t prepared to fight by your rules. Their trained reactions and instincts are not to go for the submission by arm bar, or to win by throwing you cleanly on your back. Their reaction is to snap the elbow or wrist the instant they have it, or to throw you on your head so that you get a concussion and maybe a broken neck.
Every culture has different expectations. In war in Europe and North America there is the Geneva Convention, whereby if your unit is getting slaughtered, you can surrender and your enemy will take you prisoner, treat you decently and eventually trade you back to your side in exchange for prisoners your side has captured. Disregarding the Convention leaves a warring nation open to charges of international war crimes, when the conflict inevitably ends. European and North American rules of engagement are assumed to be followed everywhere.
Except that, historically, they have not been. Japan has a long tradition across a thousand years, not of taking prisoners, but of taking heads. Soldiers were rewarded based on how many heads they took and rank of the people who lost those heads. Surrendering and being taken prisoner was not an honorable thing to do. If you tried, you’d be so looked down upon for lacking the courage to fight to the last or take your own life that you would be tortured before they took your head from your shoulders.
These different ideas of what was honorable in battle didn’t clash significantly until 1941 when Japan began invading south east Asia and wresting control of European colonies from the British, Dutch, French and Americans. The Japanese had no tradition of capturing prisoners. They didn’t know what to do with all European and American P.O.W.s they suddenly had to deal with. They treated them with all the respect their centuries of tradition taught them a prisoner of war was entitled to: none at all.
On the other side, the Japanese were exhorted to uphold tradition and die an honorable death rather than be taken prisoner and abused by the enemy. Japanese soldiers who were captured were often shocked to be treated according to the western customs of the Allies.
In sports, there are still a lot of classical judoka in Japan who feel that having weight classes in judo competition is a sign of weakness, not a matter of fairness. For them, the best judoka is the one who wins against everyone. I’m really not prepared to fight in an open division with the heavyweights and super-heavyweights. For decades in Japan this was the only way competition was done. In sumo, for example, though there are many rules and traditions of competition, there are no weight classes, only rankings according to where competitors stand in regard to their opponents.
If you’re going to fight, make sure you know the local rules. When I first moved to Japan I had a hard time understanding the local judo rules. I’d done judo for 4 years by that time and had fought in many competitions under International Judo Federation rules. I’m thick and slow. It took me a while to get it through my head that people in Japan don’t automatically use the IJF rules to run local shiai. “Local rules” is a real thing. If you’re getting ready to fight, make sure you know the local rules. Fighting, like most things we humans do, is a cultural activity, and if you don’t know the culture, watch out. What you don’t know can hurt you.
Special thanks to Deborah Klens-BIgman for editorial support.
Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Nin (忍) is a Japanese term that is not often heard standing alone. Outside Japan it is most commonly encountered in the term ninja (忍者). Nin has nothing that directly ties it to spies and assassins though. Nin is a character trait that may be the most important generic lesson in classical budo. Every ryuha has its own essential character that makes it truly unique: they all teach nin.
In dictionaries nin is usually translated as “patience”. Patience nails a piece of the character nin (忍). As with so many things though, to simply say “nin (忍) equals patience” is to miss a great deal. Nin is not regular patience, but the patience that quietly endures suffering and trials.
There are the obvious trials in budo, like how much your knees and feet ache from doing the first iai kata for an hour, continuing even after you’ve worn the skin off your knees. Or the never-ending torture that is the posture known as tatehiza. Learning to endure physical discomfort with quiet stoicism is the beginning of nin (忍). Anyone who sticks with budo for any length of time learns to do this. It’s just part of the physical territory. Everyone in the dojo hurts and no one is interested in hearing you whine about it. Everyone went through the pain of learning to take good ukemi, even if taking ukemi for Sensei can knock the wind out of you. That’s the physical side.
The other side begins when Sensei says “Shut up and train.” In that moment it becomes time to patiently endure not just the discomfort and stress of training, but also your own curiosity and desire for answers. This is the time when your questions will only be answered by your endurance of training with doubt and misunderstanding and ignorance that gnaws at your heart. I come from a background where I was taught to always ask a question if I didn’t understand something. Ask a question and get an answer. In budo though, most often the best answer to a question is not an explanation, but more training.
It took me years to understand that my teachers were trying to tell me that the answers to most of my budo questions were to be found in training, study and contemplation. I asked Hikoso Sensei about foot sweeps in judo one evening, and I can’t imagine a more rudimentary answer. I was looking for a deep explanation of the timing and how to understand it. He showed me the proper way to move my foot when sweeping. That’s it. The answer was that I needed to train more to understand the timing. No amount of explanation would ever give me that. I had to put up with not understanding the timing until I did understand it, and I had to to do it knowing there was no guarantee that I would ever get it.
Nin is about patience where you hold your tongue even though the most satisfying thing in the world would be to respond to someone’s unkind, callous or outright mean comment with a righteous comeback. Wisdom, discretion or simple maturity demand that you let it go. Without escalation, there will be no conflict. Without nin no one would have been able to abide by the rules laid out in so many keppan (training oaths) not to engage in fights and duels until you mastered the art. If you wanted to keep training with Sensei, you had to master your emotions and learn to forebear not just the little slights, but the big insults as well. Once you joined a ryuha, everything you did reflected on the ryuha. If you got into trouble because you couldn’t hold your tongue or control your anger, it could bring the wrath of the government down on everyone in the dojo.
continues to be an important component of what makes a good person in
Japan. From the salarimen trudging through their endless days or the
school kids spending their days in regular school and their evenings
in cram schools dedicated to getting them into even more rigorous
high schools and colleges. Nin can be seen in today’s dojo in Japan
in the near complete absence of talking during keiko.
Everyone is focused on the training. Talking is something for
elsewhere. In kendo dojo it may seem like there is too much yelling
going on for conversation, and in an iai dojo the quiet can be
complete except for the swish of
a sword through the air.
Nin is sitting in seiza with a smile while sensei forgets that everyone is in seiza and launches into a long story. Nin is sitting in tatehiza with the appearance of relaxed comfort. Nin is mastering present desires for long term ends without letting anyone know about the desires or the ends. Nin is the quiet patience and endurance of the mature martial artist.
Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. for editorial support.
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