Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Problem Of Kaso Teki

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis
There is no opponent in front of him, but you can tell he sees where teki is anyway.


Someone asked me about the difference between solo practice and partnered practice. It’s a good questions.  I do iaido, which by its nature has to be done solo, but I also do judo and dabble with aikido, both of which are pretty much impossible to do solo.  There are lots of arts such as karate that have both solo and paired practice.  They all have the problem of teki.  Teki is opponent or enemy. Budo practice makes the assumption that we all have one. In training, we have to make sure we have the right teki and that we understand teki properly.

This can be more difficult than it seems at both ends. I’ve written about uke for paired practice.  For iaido, how do we know where teki is, what they are doing or when they are doing it? The questions of maai and timing are critical. Beginning students have enough trouble just remembering which foot goes where and which direction the cut should be. Often when I tell beginning students to visualize teki their form disintegrates and chunks of the kata get completely forgotten.

Iaido is often described as a sword drawing art. I’ve don’t really liked that description because sword drawing is really just a tiny fraction of what goes on in iaido.  The draw and simultaneous attack, while important, is only one of a number of lessons emphasized in the iaido systems I’ve encountered. Iai teachers spend a lot of time getting students to understand why each action is critically important for dealing with an aggressor in each situation modeled in the kata.

That aggressor is the teki. The problem that students can stumble over for years is trying to visualize and understand what teki is doing and why various actions in the kata are determined by where we imagine teki to be, and what teki is visualized as doing. Just drawing a sword and waving it around is not iaido. Like all real budo, iaido is very particular about what is happening and why you do everything just so.

Most koryu budo train in paired exercises, so what is happening is clear. You know where teki is and what teki is doing. The reasons for choosing one response over others is generally pretty clear. Since iai is usually done with a sharp blade, which makes mistakes particularly tough on training partners, we’re stuck with practicing iai without a live partner for the most part.  We talk about kaso teki a lot because talking about our imaginary enemy doesn’t sound as cool.

How solidly we can visualize that imaginary enemy has a huge effect on the quality of our practice.  It’s easy to see when someone is just going through the motions without investing any intent in their practice. Beginning students always seem a little shocked when a teacher says “You completely missed teki.”  

As you train, you learn to see things better, including things that aren’t there. New students are generally so occupied with remembering how to hold the sword and when to breath (if they remember breathing at all) and keeping their chins up and a hundred other little details. They can’t see where teki really is or why knowing that is so important.

Iai teaches a lot about how a real sword is handled, but we also have to learn why the sword is used in particular ways. WIthout a teki, it’s just empty arm waving. Where do we attack? When do we attack? How do we attack? All of these questions are driven by teki and if you can’t visualize where teki is and what teki is doing, the kata are meaningless.

The first kata in many systems is some variation of an aggressive teki in front of you.  The iai student draws and cuts horizontally in one motion, then raises the sword and cuts down.  Why do we cut horizontally and not at some other angle? How far to we have to move to reach teki with our blade? Why do we need a second cut?  Kaso teki provides the answers to all of those questions.  

We cut horizontally to both wound teki and drive teki back and off balance so there can be no counter attack if we miss. This doesn’t make a lot of sense without a strong visualization of teki and their movements. This is just the simplest of the iai kata.  What happens when things get more complicated, perhaps with multiple attackers and turns and movement shifts?

Adequately visualizing teki is far more difficult than people initially think. It usually takes students a couple of years of practice before they can start to do it effectively. Once they acquire enough confidence and facility at the basic movements of the kata that they can stop thinking about them all the time, they can start thinking about why the movements are done.

I said iai is a solo practice, and that’s mostly true. Mostly. The truth is though, that without some partner intervention, I was not able to accurately visualize teki. I’ve found this to be true of all of my students as well. This is particularly true for kata that involve turns and angle changes. There is a common technique, often called uke nagashi, for combining the deflection of an attack with a counter attack. In every system I’ve seen this done in, the practitioner has to shift their angle of attack slightly.

In iai, I have never seen a student who could accurately visualize how far they had to turn to accurately target kaso teki through visualization alone. Until someone gets out some sticks or shinai, and physically models teki for them, students all want to rotate too far around. If they turn too far, they miss teki. Even when they get a partner, students will over rotate a few times. For all that iai is a solo practice, without a few run throughs with a partner there to act as a physical target, students can’t visualize kaso teki well enough to hit their target.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of repetitions with a partner to get these sorts of details right.  It does take a few though.  Because of this, I can’t really say that iai is just a solitary practice. Rather, it becomes a solitary practice once you understand many of the details and principles. To get to that level of understanding though requires some partner practice.

Another aspect of understanding this is knowing just how far and fast an opponent can move. Every iai system I’ve seen has a full compliment of standing, moving kata. Visualizing these kaso teki is even more complex than envisioning an aggressive teki sitting in front of you. I found that my understanding of iai kata exploded when I started doing a few simple kenjutsu kata. Suddenly it was very easy for me to understand where teki is and how teki will move. I could easily see where teki was, and why teki would react in specific ways based on what I did in each kata.  Until I had some basic experience with paired kata though, none of this was clear to me.

I’ve seen the same epiphany in my own iai students.  They can practice the kata as much as they want, but kaso teki is still a vague, fuzzy image. Once we add a few simple, paired, kenjutsu kata to the practice regime, suddenly all sorts of things about teki become clear.  It’s as though they’d been trying to visualize teki while looking through a crack in the curtains over a foggy window. The kenjutsu kata practice opened the curtains and wiped the window clear.

This all leads me to the simple conclusion that iaido isn’t really a solo practice. Experience with real teki are required before solo practice can be done effectively.  It doesn’t take a huge amount of paired practice, but some is required. A few of the critical elements students have to learn from paired practice to make their solo practice with kaso teki effective are: how teki moves with the weapon, where teki really is when attacking, how teki responds to both the defense and offense of the practitioner, and how fast teki really is.

So to answer the question that started this, “What’s the difference between solo practice and partner practice?” the main difference is that in solo practice you have to have developed the ability to clearly visualize where teki is and what teki is doing.  If you can’t do that while you are doing the kata, you’re just waving your arms in the air. To fully develop this ability takes a little bit of paired practice to to learn what teki can and can’t do, and why. Only after you’ve developed your kaso teki can you really do solo iai.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tradition Is Tending The Flame. It's Not Worshiping The Ashes




I’ve been thinking lately about how pointless the study of koryu budo would be if we were just preserving the way people trained 200 or 300 or 400 or 500 years ago.  We would all be maintaining museum pieces good for nothing more than taking out and displaying for people along with other artifacts.  While dwelling on this, I ran across this quote from Gustav Mahler, a 19th century conductor and composer.

"Tradition is tending the flame, it's not worshipping the ashes"

This quite nicely  encapsulates my feelings about studying koryu budo.  Many classical arts, not just koryu budo, can wither and die under the pressure from those who want to maintain them in an unchanging form.  Mahler, although now remembered as a great composer, was known primarily as a orchestra conductor during his lifetime.  As a both a conductor and a composer, Mahler ran into people who resisted change and innovation in both the creation of new music, and in the interpretation of classical works. Anything outside what had been done before risked  resistance and criticism as a departure from tradition.

For many, there was only the classical way to perform Bach and other revered composers. The traditional way of performing music, and the established rules for writing new music were difficult to escape.  

This sort of adherence to past precedence is all too common in both koryu and gendai budo. It’s
easy to become so focused on what has come before that we forget to use the past as a platform from which to approach the future. Yes, the great ones of the past were great. This is true whether we are talking about music or art or budo. 


Blindly worshipping what the great individuals achieved though is to forget that they were innovators themselves. They took the traditions they received, and didn’t just accept it as the way things must be done.. Those great geniuses took what they had and moved a step forward.

They avoided the trap of focussing so much on the way things have been that they forgot about the present and the future.  In something like budo, this is a particularly easy trap to fall into. Especially with arts that have storied histories, it’s easy get lost in that rich history and forget to turn and face the future. Too much time spent on an art’s past slowly dries it out and robs it of the vitality of a living art.

The past is the foundation of the future. If all you do is focus on the past, eventually there will be no future.  Spend much time at all moving in budo circles and you will encounter people who want their art to be done exactly the same as the founder of the art did a hundred, two hundred or even five hundred years ago.  This seems as likely and as interesting and worthwhile as trying to do every performance of Swan Lake exactly as it was performed at it’s debut.

These people who imagine that is what studying an art with a long tradition is all about miss the essence of living traditions. These are people who worship those ashes Mahler is referring to. It’s as if no one since the founder of the art has had any insight or new understanding.  All that is left in their minds are the burned up and dried out ashes of what the founder was doing.

Uchi always does the attack in exactly one, and shite always responds in a precisely identical manner. The form and technique become about replicating exactly what someone is supposed to have done decades or centuries ago. In an effort to preserve things just as they saw them, these preservationists drain the life from what they are doing and leave it desiccated and empty of real value. Nothing more than those ashes Mahler refers to.

This can be seen when people start to value something simply because it is old.  There are ancient styles of music and dance in Japan such as Dengaku that have been preserved for 700 years and more. When they were young, this music and dance was a sensation and is said to have caused near riots in major cities. Now the only reason for performing what remains of these once lively and popular arts is that they are old.  There is no life left in them. The people who have preserved these arts have preserved even less than a flower dried and pressed in a book.  There may be be some bits left among the ashes, but there is nothing left that can even inspire the mind to imagine what the dance was like originally.  The only value remaining to it is that it’s old.

This is a danger for all budo, whether koryu art or gendai.  It’s relatively easy to see how the kata of ancient koryu bugei ryuha can be venerated and preserved to death. In an effort to do things exactly as their teacher did something, students can stop treating the kata as living lessons and start treating them as fossils, unchanging and dead. Sadly, if you attend some of the big koryu demonstrations in Japan, it is all too likely that you will see some groups that have succumbed to this temptation. 

http://www.budogu.com/dealoftheday.asp

What might surprise people is that there are aspects of judo, kendo, aikido and karate that can fall into this trap. Even in modern organizations it’s all too common to see people elevating their idea of how a revered teacher did something, rather than seeking the principle and spirit of the practice. The shape of how even the greatest teachers do things will change and evolve over the course of their lives. Choosing one snapshot out of a teacher’s career and deciding that is only valid way of doing things is ridiculous. Which moment do you choose?  How do you know that iteration of the technique or kata was the greatest and is universally  applicable to every person and possible use?

I see this danger in some of the kata in judo.  Judo is somewhat saved because you always have a partner, so at least the surface point of the form is obvious. I’ve heard about karate kata though where people have learned all the motions, but not the bunkai. They don’t really know what the purpose of particular motions are anymore. Already within some lines, less than a lifetime since it was brought from Okinawa, the art has begun to dry out and die.

This sort of thing is more likely to happen with solo exercises such as karate or iai kata, but it’s possible with any system.  Even in paired kata, if both people are simple copying motions without learning and understanding the depth and reasons for the motions, then that too will dry out, burn up and die.

Tending the flame of a budo system, a ryuha, takes effort and thought. Like the Taoist parable of the finger and the moon, the kata and techniques that we practice are the finger. They point us at the principles and fundamental concepts that the founders and those who came after them discovered and developed.

When I study judo, I study all the parts of it, techniques, randori and kata.  Each part informs the other, and keeps them alive.  I know too many people in the judo world for whom the kata have already become museum pieces because they only learn enough to go through the motions without understanding the principles embodied there.  If we truly want to respect the genius of the founders and brilliant teachers who created these arts and passed them on to us, we have to do more.

Those who tend the flame of their art work at pulling the principles out of the forms and then feeding the forms with their understanding of the principles. I’m working on Ju No Kata in judo right now. This is a kata that is very susceptible to being nothing more than a burned out shell. There are no big throws or huge techniques. As I work at it though, I discover things about kuzushi that I feed back into my practice of the kata.  Each time I do it, the kata becomes more alive. Where at first my practice was just about “Uke pushes here and tori turns there, grabs uke’s arm and lifts.” Now my practice looks very much the same as before but it’s about uke pushing and tori creating instability destroying uke’s base with very subtle, almost unnoticeable movements and connections.

The insights that come for figuring out kuzushi in Ju No Kata then feed the flames of understanding and application when I practice individual techniques or do randori.  This exploration transforms what looks from the outside to be a boring, bland set of simple movements into a fascinating exploration of fundamental principle.

The more I understand those principles, the more they come alive outside the dojo and in areas other than randori.  There are all sorts of places and ways to apply lessons about kuzushi, timing, power generation, power dissipation and all the other principles and lessons that an art can teach.

Don’t focus on the outward form leached of all meaning and depth. Look for what the form is supposed to contain and bring that to life.  Don’t fall into the trap of worshiping the ashes of your founders teachings. Use your heart and mind to add fuel to fire their genius.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for the information on dengaku.


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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Budo Puts The "POWER" In Empowerment

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


I watched the Avengers: Age Of Ultron last week. I admit to being an old school comic book geek. I’ve got nearly the entire run of Marvel Comics from the 80s in boxes somewhere. Watching the movie reminded me of one of the old motivating fantasies many have for starting martial arts; to be able to be able to do things other people can’t, to have something like a super power.  While watching the movie, some of the heroes, especially Black Widow and Hawkeye, did things that looked fantastic on screen.  While what was these characters were doing on the screen is an exaggeration, it made me think about that fact that budo practice really can endow people with extraordinary power.

Black Widow runs around fighting and beating the daylights out of whole armies of foes.  We all know that’s not realistic. On the other hand, a average size women, with plenty of training, is going to be quite effective against an ordinary man. Yes, the man will have size and strength.  After a few years of budo though, the woman will have an understanding of spacing and timing, as well as technique that will effectively multiply her strength because she will put it to targeted work rather than just lashing out.  I’m pretty sure any of the women who make it to the medal stand in Olympic judo could go through me so fast I wouldn’t know what happened. That’s speaking as someone who’s done judo for decades.  Their extensive and focused training makes them that much better than just about anyone.

Power is relative. From the Merriam-Webster dictionary we get the meanings

(1) :  ability to act or produce an effect

What budo practice endows someone with isn’t super-power, but it is power, and it’s available to anyone who is willing to work at it. There are lots of different sorts of power developed, and strangely, few of them have to do with raw force. The real power of budo comes from learning the precision application of small amounts of force in the correct way, at the correct moment. All the strength in the world, applied incorrectly, will not result in power.

That’s the genius of Kano JIgoro’s maixm 精力善用 seiryoku zenyo, usually translated as “maximum efficiency minimum effort. Kano was able to identify and encapsulate this in a simple phrase for Kodokan Judo, but it’s true of all budo. Regardless of whether we are talking about ancient or modern budo, karate, judo, aikido, weapons or any other art, the best, most effective budo will be that which applies force with the maximum efficiency and the least amount of effort.

It’s skill that brings about that efficiency and effectiveness. That skill multiplies the power of whatever strength someone brings into the dojo. Power “is the ability to act or produce an effect” and in budo there are two sides to that. The one that catches most people’s attention is the ability to do things to the world. Whether this is a karateka’s punch, a judoka’s throw, a the precise strike of a jo, or the clean joint lock of an aikidoka, these are all examples of power, and none of them require a huge amount of strength to be effective.

Karate folks know full well that the location of a blow is at least as important as the force behind it.  Strike a strong man in the chest and you might knock him back. Strike him in the side of the knee or one of a number of other choice targets and it doesn’t take much force at all to leave him broken.

How much strength does it take to throw another human being? Surprisingly little.  A college friend of mine who weighed something north of 300 pounds could be easily thrown by a young lady in our dojo who weighed less than of third what he did. Strength had nothing to do with it. He could bench press 3 of her. When he picked her up from behind in a bear hug though, she could put him in the air. It was not a landing he was fond of, but it was great at demonstrations. She could never match him strength for strength.  The lesson was that she had to apply her force and technique in the right place, at the right moment. Then she was powerful enough to throw someone 3 times her size.

The right point of application and proper timing have far more to do with the power to do things than raw strength. Otherwise, the young gung-ho guys in the dojo would be the powerful ones. Instead, if you go into a dojo, it’s the people with the most training time who are really powerful. Watch out for the relaxed looking older ones. They don’t have the strength and the stamina anymore, but for some reason they can keep up with 20 somethings when randori starts. People wonder why, but they really shouldn’t.

In common sense thinking, there is no way someone in their 50s or 60s or 70s should be able to keep up with, much less regularly dominate, people in their teens and 20s.  We all know life doesn’t work like that. Hang out in a good budo dojo for a while though, and you’ll see it happen all the time. Knowledge and skill make the folks with the gray hair powerful.  They don’t need youthful strength and stamina (though it would be really nice to have) to be powerful.  They know when an attack will be effective and when it won’t and they don’t waste their energy on things that won’t work.

They have something else too.  

It’s not just what the experienced folks can dish out. It’s what they can roll with and keep coming up for more. In that movie, the Black Widow gets thrown all over the place, and instead of going splat into the ground, she does neat ukemi and comes up ready to go. That’s another sort of power.  The power to absorb and negate.  In the dojo we learn how to do that! I get thrown into the ground all the time at practice, roll through it, get up and dive straight back in for more.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


In budo, power is a coin with two sides.  The side that leaps to the front of everyone’s mind is the power to do things to someone else. Equally important, is the power to absorb and handle other people’s power. When I used to watch Suda Sensei, who was in his late 70s, handle the attacks from all the teenage kendoka in the dojo, it was a lesson in minimum effort and properly applied power. He could absorb and redirect their attacks without getting tired.

Hikoshiso Sensei at 65 would do randori for 15 minutes straight with young judo guys in their teens and 20s and throw us all over the place. He could absorb our attacks without effort. He would also let students learning techniques throw him around.  Imagine a 65 year old man getting thrown repeatedly to the ground, and smiling about it. That’s power too.  

That’s a lot of power. Think about what would happen to a normal, untrained person who was picked up and hurled at the ground.  Bruises? Broken bones? Concussion? Death? Yet I see people in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s taking ukemi and getting thrown around.   Then there are the 70 year olds competing in judo and throwing each other around!


70-74 year division judo competition


It takes power to be able to throw someone, but it takes power to be able to be thrown and stay healthy as well. Imagine the kind of power that allows people in their 70s to throw someone, and to survive being thrown.  That’s real power that comes from budo training.

Budo training won’t turn you into a super-hero.  But if you keep it up, it does give some extraordinary power. Budo will empower you with whatever you train for.  And that power stays around as long as you train.  Just ask these karateka.



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.









Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Good Dojo Isn't A Comfortable Place

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

Practice on Saturday was very good, but not what I had been planning at all. We started out according to plan, working on jodo kihon. About halfway through though, we veered into dangerous territory. We started looking at some of the core principles. One of the newer students in the dojo has background in aikido and kenpo, and asked some good questions related to ma’ai and intent and origin. The answers clearly were nothing like he had expected, and we could nearly see steam coming out his ears as he worked to process the new ideas. He found himself having to revise his understanding of things he thought he understood.  A good dojo is a dangerous place for preconceived notions and dearly held ideas. It can be downright brutal on concepts and conceits that aren’t built upon solid foundations. A good dojo can make you question who and what you are. A good dojo doesn’t just teach techniques for fighting. A good dojo will make you look at yourself and help you strip away self-delusion and simple poor understanding.  

In very solid ways, my student is discovering that what he thought he knew about the effective range of weapons and where he might be safe isn’t very accurate. The solid way he is discovering this is by being on the wrong end of a piece of wood poking him in the gut or stopping just short of walloping him in the head.  

There are lots of ways the dojo can should be uncomfortable that are less physically solid than a stick in the gut, but they are no less real. We all have areas where we are less than perfect, and training in a good dojo will bring these to our attention. Budo is all about dealing with conflict. What nobody told me when I started was that some of the toughest conflicts would be with myself.

Everyone starts budo with a variety of goals; to learn how to fight, to stop being intimidated by aggressive people, to learn about samurai, to gain a sense of personal power, to learn to physically defend oneself. Those are few of the reasons I’ve heard given by people who start martial arts. They are all fine motivations for starting on the journey. It’s just that the journey involves dealing with many parts of ourselves we never intended to deal with, and going places in our minds we never thought we’d go.

Many people start budo who aren’t comfortable with hitting people or doing anything they think might hurt someone or might be aggressive. This is a problem for people who want to learn to defend themselves. This is a problem that is usually apparent to people before they walk in the door of the dojo, so it’s one they are already willing to confront. Training every day brings them face-to-face with this issue. More importantly, it brings them into contact with  a senior or a teacher who is telling them “hit me” or “throw me” or some other version of an attack, but we we all grow up knowing that nice folks don’t hit people.

When a beginner in the dojo says “I don’t want to hurt you,.” they are admitting to several things. First, that they think they can hurt people. Second, that they don’t trust themselves to have enough control to not hurt someone, and third, that at some level they don’t believe the teacher can handle what they are doing.  All three of these are things that make most people uncomfortable.

Society doesn’t approve of hurting people, and we internalize that as we grow. Coming into a dojo is uncomfortable from the first step because studying budo involves learning how to hurt people, and everything in our public culture says that is “bad.” So the first mental discomfort we have to get over is the idea that knowing how to fight isn’t something “good” people know. I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, because I suspect everyone reading this already trains in martial arts.  Think about it though, outside the dojo, people are afraid and intimidated by fighting skills, even if the folks in the office never see you do anything more aggressive than shredding old documents.  This is just first thing people have to get used.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis
In judo and aikido, the next fear people have to get past once they are in the door is the fear of falling. We spend half our time practicing technique on our partners, and the other half being practiced on, which means a lot of falling down.  Falling is something we learn to avoid as kids, because it hurts and it’s embarrassing. It can take a while to get comfortable with falling down. It’s counter to what people are used to, but I love taking falls for people. You can feel their technique, how they move and set up a throw, and how they do or do not take care of their partner. Frankly, I also think it’s really cool that someone can throw me at the floor hard enough that I should have broken bones, and I can bounce up and say “That was great! Do it again!”  Once you get over your fear of hurting yourself, falling down is fun.

A bigger discomfort for many people is they are afraid of actually hurting someone else. They don’t trust themselves to be able to not hurt their partner, and many people don’t feel comfortable with having physical power. We can let pass the fact that real beginners in the dojo don’t have much in the way of skills that would make them a threat to students who have been around for while. New students have to get over the feeling that just having the knowledge of how to hurt people, much less being really skilled at it, is something bad.  

Add to that, the niggling voice at the back of many people’s minds telling them that they can’t trust themselves with this knowledge and skill. “What if I get angry and do something I regret?” “What if I’m not good enough to control my technique and I injure someone unintentionally?”  “What if I really like being powerful and become a bully?” People have all kinds of worries, some of which seem pretty silly. Until you’ve been around the dojo long enough to see a few people go badly wrong. Then the worries don’t seem quite so silly.

Not trusting the teacher to be able to handle what the student does is a lot easier hurdle to clear than not trusting yourself.  After a few rounds of the teacher saying “Hit me”  the student finally decides that well, she really wants it, so it’s on her if she gets hurt. The student tries to hit the teacher and discovers that the teacher isn’t where the strike went. Worse, or better, the teacher has counterattacked in some way that would be really unpleasant if the teacher didn’t have such good control.   It doesn’t take very many repetitions of this kind before the student starts to trust that the teacher can do what she says and will keep herself safe.

Learning to trust yourself though is a lot tougher. We don’t get a lot of experience with physical conflict and violence in Western societies (Japan is even more peaceful). Most new students likely haven’t even been in a pushing match since high school, much less a fight. Before people start training, they are aware that they can hurt others, but they don’t have any technique, so they have little idea what will happen if they do something. Beginners, quite reasonably, don’t trust themselves. They don’t have any technical skill and they don’t have much control of their own bodies, so not trusting themselves to be able to attack someone, or to be able to apply a technique without hurting or injuring their training partners is probably wise.

It takes time to learn to trust yourself and understand what you are really capable of.  The journey to really trusting yourself is a complicated one.  The first steps are just learning to trust your basic technique, that you can safely take a fall, or throw your partner or attack with precision and control. Once students start to have a degree of confidence in their physical skills, they run into some of the other uncomfortable questions. Do I have enough self-control for this?  Could I lose my temper and hurt someone? I’ve rarely encountered students who had the self-control and discipline to stick with training but lacked the self-control to not use what they are learning without good reason. That students worry about this is good sign to me, but it does require the sort of self-reflection and consideration that is never easy and almost always is uncomfortable.

It’s tough to consider that we might not be perfectly wonderful human beings. That makes the self-reflection one of the most uncomfortable things in training. As a student acquires skill, it’s not uncommon for them to wonder what sort of person knows these things. I find this especially true for women. “Good girls don’t behave like that.” “Hitting people isn’t ladylike.” “Ladies are above that sort of thing.”   Add to that social stereotypes that girls can’t fight (He hits like a girl), and the mental and emotional hurdles can get high fast. I have to thank Ronda Rousey for demonstrating to the world that, yes, women can fight.  Each woman that comes through the dojo though has to make that mental journey for herself.

Everyone has to decide what kind of person it is who knows how to fight. This usually isn’t an issue for men, but a lot of what is taught in a martial arts dojo isn’t fighting. It’s the careful, nearly scientific art of how to deconstruct another person. What kind of person knows this stuff? A monster? Until students become comfortable with knowing how to dislocate joints and break limbs, with how to choke someone unconscious or throw them across the room so hard they bounce, they are going to be uncomfortable.

Students have to look within themselves and figure out who they are, what kind of person they are and decide that it’s ok for them to know how to do these violent things. They have to decide it is ok for them to have this power. It’s easy to say “That’s no challenge” when you’re standing on the outside. We all have facets of ourselves we don’t particularly like though, personal traits and characteristics that we aren’t proud of, and maybe even that we’re ashamed of.  Those parts of ourselves gets all this knowledge and power too.

These are just the issues that everyone has get over in the martial arts. Different hurdles will be higher or lower for different people. Then there are the particular issues that people can bring with them. If someone has suffered abuse or trauma, just grabbing a partner’s hand to practice a joint lock might be difficult. Allowing a partner to throw them might require a leap of trust, faith and courage greater than I’ve ever had to take.

Being in the dojo isn’t comfortable, but it is good. A good dojo gives students a place to work on all of these issues. Good teachers give students support to work through them. I’ve known people who thought they had to “push people’s buttons” to help them grow.  I find that just being in the dojo and actively training is usually more than enough. What we do in the dojo is play with violence, aggression and force. Stuff that’s not allowed in polite society. Just working with these things, learning to control and and how to apply them will make people face parts of themselves they can avoid facing in their day-to-day world.



Sometimes the stress of training exposes bits of ourselves we’d rather not face. Perhaps we are too ready to be angry at other people when we are unintentionally bruised or hurt during practice. Maybe we discover that we aren’t as good under the pressure of a steady, continuous attack and that we start to panic. It might be the discovery that we can’t stand to lose, even though losing in randori isn’t really losing. These are just some of the issues that can come up in the dojo.

Working with these things can make the dojo an uncomfortable place, but a great one for learning not only how to fight and inflict harm, but also about what sort of person you are. Looking at ourselves clearly is almost never comfortable, but being in the dojo demands it that we look at ourselves again and again as we progress. Maybe it’s simply discovering that we don’t know things we thought we understood. All of these involve making a discovery that we aren’t quite as good as we thought we were.

In the dojo though, that’s fine. That’s what the dojo is for. You can’t be a good fighter if you don’t know your own weaknesses, so a good dojo helps you deal with the issues and weaknesses you find in yourself.  A good dojo is a little bit uncomfortable because it provides a mirror to look at yourself in. A good dojo is also wonderful because it gives you the support and structure for dealing with what you see in that mirror.