Saturday, December 10, 2011


I have a couple of students who started recently, and teaching them has me focused on fundamentals even more than I usually am.  I often say "All I'm going to do is teach you to walk and to breath."  Having new students reminds me that this is very true.  We are working on fundamentals of posture, how to move, when to inhale and exhale.

Practice seems to focus on the simplest, most common activities.  Lately we're spending a lot of time working on breathing in a sensible way for what we are doing, standing and moving properly.  Practice is like that, even when I'm working on the "advanced" stuff.  Practicing the advanced stuff mostly seems to consist of making sure I'm breathing properly, standing in a relaxed, stable manner, and moving well from my hips without messing up my breathing or my posture.  Practice is always practice.

Iaido and Jodo are both kata based arts. The number of kata is very limited.  You learn the basic patterns and then you continue  practicing them.  After a few years you've "learned" all the kata in the system.   That is to say, you've learned the pattern of movements that make up the kata.  But learning the kata isn't what practice is all about.  Practice is doing the kata, studying it, learning to apply those basic concepts of proper breathing and posture to make the movements stronger, more solid, more unstoppable.  Every time I do a kata I see things that can be improved.  That's just the stuff I become aware of as I practice the kata.  True horror awaits me every time I see a video tape of myself.  Then I'm left with a grocery list of things to address.

Practice is going about the business of addressing those issues.  It's about never being satisfied with where you are, but always trying to move yourself forward.  There is always something to practice.  Breathing seems like such a simple thing.  Even babies do it, right? But breathing properly and fully is difficult.  I think I've gotten pretty good at breathing properly and fully, at least when I'm not moving.  The trick I'm working on now is breathing properly, fully, and at the right moment for each movement.  It's amazing how easy it is to get engrossed in the action of a kata and forget to breath until it's over.  I'm still practicing breathing.

And as for walking, I don't have nearly enough time to talk about practicing walking.  That's really complicated.  I keep practicing it though.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Art, Martial Art, and Life

I'm a martial artist. I train in several different budo. What does it mean to be a martial artist? For me it means that I'm constantly training to become myself. Not that I'm training strikes or cuts or throws or joint locks, but myself. I'm polishing who I am and how I interact with the world around me, and how I am connected to the world. It is training in the art of life.

I'm working on how to move in everyday life. The iaido kata I train aren't really about how I move with a sword. They are about how I move in the world. It's about how I get out of my car and how I move down the hallway. Most importantly, it's about what sort of face and posture I present to people I deal with. In iai, we spend a lot of time focused perfecting our movement. It's very similar to dance in that there are limited number of fundamentals that we drill and drill and drill. We drill until proper movement has become ingrained in our bodies so that we express it with every movement in or out of the dojo. A dancer is graceful on and off the stage, and a martial artist should be too.

In judo and jodo and other arts that emphasize paired practice, the focus shifts from perfect movement, thought this is still critical, to perfect timing and spacing. This is where the art of living in the world is practiced. In the dojo it's all about moving in time and space to be in the right place to dominate and control an opponent. Outside the dojo life is about moving in time and space to be in the right place at the right time for whatever is happening in our lives. The awareness and understanding of when and how people will move that we cultivate in the dojo is something that should be drawn on all the time. Moving through a crowd, dealing with a customer, a coworker, a boss, or a friend, what we can read from their body, and what we can accomplish by maintaining the relaxed, ready state we train for in the dojo makes budo relevant to every encounter, even ones we don't know we've had.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Washing a hakama

This isn't a discussion of great techniques, or esoteric thoughts on budo wisdom, but in the day-to-day life of martial artist, it can be important.  What's the best way to wash your hakama?  This is the method I use.

The first question is, is the hakama cotton or tetron or polyester?
If it's cotton, only wash it in cold water. I only wash mine in cold water and mine is tetron, but it's really important if it's cotton.

To wash the hakama, fold it neatly like you are putting it away, roll up the himo and put rubber bands on them to hold them, and then put the whole package in a delicates bag. Wash it in the delicates bag in cold water. This will help maintain the pleates so they are easy to find when you take it out of the washer.

Hang it up to drip dry. Press in the pleats with your fingers while it is still wet, and clip the bottom of each pleat with a clothes pin to help keep the pleats neat.

After it dries, fold it neatly.

If you have a tetron hakama, you probably won't need to iron it more than once or twice a year to keep the pleats looking nice.  If you have a cotton hakama, this makes the post-washing ironing process MUCH easier, because the pleats don't vanish in the washing machine.

Happy laundry day!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Getting to Black

I ran across the old chestnut about various belt colors from white to black resulting from a white belt that gradually gets dirtier and dirtier over time on a discussion board recently.  There are a couple of problems with this story, the biggest one being that it has no basis in fact.

Let's start with the fact that the traditional, white dogi tied with a belt isn't really traditional clothing for budo training in Japan.  Traditionally hakama were worn for budo practice.  There is no belt visible on the outside of hakama.  The hakama is tied over the top of the obi.  The modern training dogi was invented by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, over a period of years at the end of the 19th century. It's based on classical Japanese underwear! In other words, it's not really traditional.

Kano Sensei also invented the modern rank system using "dan" ranks instead of the tradition teaching licenses that are issued by schools that predate the creation of Kodokan Judo.  As Kodokan Judo grew into a nationally practiced martial art, he wanted a visible means of telling the difference between beginners and students who had the basics, and so they used white belts for beginners and black belts for experienced students.  Originally there were also only 3 dan ranks, not the 10 that are now used.

As for the belt getting dirty over time, that ignores one great feature of Japanese culture.  The Japanese are fanatically clean as whole, and the idea of letting a piece of your training uniform get so dirty and nasty that it turned black is ridiculous.  No teacher would have let a student train with a belt like that, and no other student would have wanted to train with someone wearing anything close to that dirty.  Students take pride in their uniforms and are expected to make sure they are clean for every practice.  That includes the belt.

So, given the above, can we please put that dirty, smelly, obnoxious old story about dirty belts to rest?  Please.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What makes a good martial art?

So, what do you think makes a good martial art? And how do you judge?

A lot of people try to compare which martial art is better by comparing the very best practitioners each art has produced. This ends up being an argument over whether Bruce Lee could beat Ueshiba Morihei or something equally silly and pointless.  When your comparison involves people of great talent, what you end up comparing is the relative talents, not the martial arts.  I think it may be impossible to compare martial arts in a general sense.

Each martial art is created and practised with a different set of assumptions about timing, spacing, what weapons are being carried and what kind of attacks will be launched.  You can compare the effectiveness of a martial art in a particular scenario, but there are so many potential scenarios that all you are left with is that a particular art is better suited to any one scenario than another.  It still doesn't give you a clear base for comparison, unless you're convinced that potential scenarios come in a very limited set.  Is your scenario based on a confrontation in a bar, a bouncer at a nightclub, a police encounter on the street, a prison guard dealing with inmates, a soldier on the battlefield?  Different skills will be demanded for each of these.  And unless you work in a field where confrontation is part of the job description, the odds are good you won't need combat skills in your day-to-day living.

For me, it comes down to what the art offers me. Does it enhance some set of combat skills? Does the art address more than just the technique aspect of combat? Do the skills taught have some chance of being relevant for something in your life (not a fantasy of conflict, but what you're really liable to encounter)?
Are the skills learned applicable to anything besides actual combat?

So tell me, what makes a good martial art for you?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Effective Sword Arts

Someone asked me about finding effective Japanese sword arts, because they had heard some have been watered down.  I haven't answered them because I'm still trying to figure out what it means for a sword art to be "effective" in the 21st century.  We don't fight with swords anymore, and even if we wanted to, there are far more effective weapons these days.  So what does it mean for a Japanese sword art to be effective?
I'm afraid someone may be expecting too much from their idea of practice.  For me, an effective art is one that teaches the fundamentals of how to handle and use the weapon, and spends a lot of time teaching the concepts of maai and seme and sen.  Fancy techniques or "real" fighting scenarios aren't part of my practice. 

"Real" martial arts are pretty well stripped down to the basics.  Not watered down, but stripped down, as in anything extra or not absolutely necessary has removed.  Weapons combat doesn't leave a lot of room for fancy, even archaic weapons like swords.   But beyond that, when I think of effective martial arts, I think about how effective the practice is for refining myself and my understanding, not how effective it will make me in a Saturday night fight.  Training goes on every day.  If you're smart and just a little bit lucky, you'll never be in a fight.  So which is more important, those effective sword techniques, or effective training?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Training while injured

My knee is healing slowly, and I'm getting an education in the value of different kinds of training.  I still can't quite get into seiza, but I am pleasantly surprised to find that I can get into tatehiza.  I've been too a couple of iai seminars in the last few weeks, and I'm learning things about standing etiquette that hadn't really sunk in when I didn't have to use it.  Regular practice is good, and it is very interesting having to work out new kinks in seiza kata by doing them standing.  So much remains the same, breathing and posture are fundamental and some of the simple benefits I carry with every minute I'm not in the dojo.  But the foot work is just a little bit different standing, and that has been a lovely puzzle.

All that said, I really look forward to having a healthy knee again.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Budo and injuries

So, the Tuesday before Christmas, I went to Judo and had a great practice for the first 88 minutes of the 90 minute practice. Then I proceeded to bend my right knee 45 degrees to the right while failing to throw my partner. I discovered that my knee does not like being bent in that direction. In the aftermath, I am having to put into practice some lessons I've picked up over the years of budo training.

The first is RICE. We've all heard it. When injured Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate the injury. It's easy to do all of these right away, when the injury is still agonizing and the knee in question looks more like a grapefruit than a joint. It gets tougher to follow through with the prescribed treatment as the injury improves though. This is where other budo lessons come into play.

The second is LISTEN TO SENSEI. You might not realize it, but in Japan, doctors are addressed as "Sensei" just like teachers. Just as we learn to trust sensei's greater experience and knowledge in the dojo, we have to trust the doctor's greater experience and knowledge about the injury. Actually do what the sensei is telling you to do about your injury, don't just listen and ignore the parts that you find inconvenient. Sensei would not approve.

PATIENCE is the next lesson, and this one is tough. It takes years of training to advance in the martial arts, so you'd think we'd be pretty patient about rehabilitating an injury. Amazingly, I've known a lot of martial artists who's sole focus is getting back to training as soon as possible. What this really means is not "As soon as possible without risking re-injuring or permanently injuring yourself" but rather, "get back to training as soon as I can stand the pain, because I'm too tough for the consequences." I'm a little too familiar with this approach, having been a strong advocate of such stupidity when I was in college. Fortunately, I had teachers who would sit on me to keep me from going out on the mat for judo until after my ribs had finished healing. All that patience we learn as we work to polish our techniques over the years comes in handy while waiting a few weeks for an injury to heal.

Healing injuries need to be rehabbed in the right ways. The basic stretching and strengthening exercises are boring. Really boring. They can make kihon practice look fascinating (which it should be, but that's another post). Be persistent in doing the stretches to keep the muscles loose and healthy. Do them just like the therapist says. Do any exercises too.

But have some DISCRETION. Just because a little stretching and exercise are good for rehabbing an injury, it doesn't follow that a lot of stretching and exercise are better. Listen to your body and do the the exercises that are recommended, but don't overdo them. I know this is tough for a martial artist. Martial artists love to overdo training because it is the macho thing to do. That's part of why we learn so much about being injured. Have the good sense to balance any recommended rehab exercises with lots of rest.

TAKE IT SLOW when you start back. This is more patience, but it's worth repeating. You aren't going to master your art next week, so don't push your body to do things next week that it isn't ready for. Patience, discretion and listening to what your body tells you will carry you a long way without injuring you.

These are all lessons we're supposed to absorb from budo practice. Are you ready to prove that you've grown and developed these parts of yourself in addition to polishing your uchi mata?