Monday, July 29, 2013

Never Practice Anything More Than Once

I saw someone comment that :

“my Sa Bom Nim says, "You can't learn something until you are ready to learn it." That's why repetition is so important in the martial arts, because you never know when that "learning moment" will arrive. Doing that technique thousands of times was what made you ready to learn the new setup. “

I used to do thousands of repetitions of individual techniques and movements.  I thought it was essential to mastering the techniques.  I would set my mind on autopilot and do the same technique over and over, thinking I was building speed and consistency.

I can’t say about speed for sure, but I can speak to the consistency part of that.  I was building consistency.  I was teaching myself to always do the technique a the same level of skill.  I wasn’t improving myself, I was nailing my skills to the ground where I was at.  My father is a music teacher, and he has always said “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.” However you practice something is how you will do it.  A thousand repetitions of a technique done one way, make it a thousand times harder to do it another way.  You will always do it the way you practice it.  Any errors in the technique you are repeating will be reinforced and that much tougher to correct.

One of the few things I know about my technique is that it’s not perfect.  I don’t want to be doing things tomorrow the way I am doing them today.  I want to be doing them better.   So I don’t do lots of repetitions of my techniques any more.  I try to do every technique one time only.

This is a pretty radical sounding statement for someone who trains classical Japanese martial arts, with a teaching methodology built upon the continued practice of a small set of techniques and kata.  It’s true though.

Each each time I do a technique or kata it is a unique event, never to be repeated.  Now one of my goals is for my mind to never go on autopilot.  I try to always be fully present when I practice.  I want to be completely mindful of what I am doing.  By being aware of what I’m doing with each cut and in each kata that I do, I can make every cut and every kata unique.  I can sense that I am using my hips one way or another, how I’m gripping the sword, what sort of rhythm I’m moving with, how I’m breathing.

If my practice of the kata is a unique event where the combination of all these factors and many more come together to create a single, unique, expression of the kata, then with this awareness of the kata, I can change elements of my action to make my next expression of the kata both unique and, hopefully, better.   To do this though, I have to be mindful.  

The best practice is mindful, aware and always looking for ways to improve what you are doing.  SImple repetition means that you are just programing yourself to do the kata at whatever level you’re currently at.  It ingrains your current mistakes into your body and makes them permanent.  Mindful practice never does the same kata twice.  Mindful practice seeks to improve with every action.  If I’m not really aware of what I’m doing, I can’t change it.  To change things, we have to be aware.  When you do a kata, be aware of your hands, your feet, you tanden, your hips, the location of your head, the rhythm of your breath.  All of these are important. If you are aware, you can experiment with how you use all these elements of your body to improve the kata.  And even if a particular mix of elements isn’t an improvement, you’ll be learning.  You’ll know about another combination that you want to avoid.

I try never to do the same kata twice.  If I’m repeating the kata, I’m stagnating.  It’s only when I mindfully do new things that I can really improve.

(How I balance this with mushin is fodder for another essay)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Budo Expectations and Realities: Know what you don't know.

Budo.  We all train different arts.  We all have expectations and ideas about what our arts teach us.  It’s easy for us to imagine that the techniques we study are applicable anywhere, and that if we practice diligently, we can use our skills against anything.  We love to believe that what we study is the greatest art in the world.  We tell ourselves how strong the techniques we study are, how effective they are, and how they will beat everything else.  It doesn’t matter if the art is Judo or Hapkido or Brazilian Jujutsu or Savate or Escrima or whatever.  We like to believe that what we study is the absolute best.

I’ve been doing this martial arts stuff long enough that I’ve learned that “best” is a highly relative concept.   A good friend, when asked if the martial art he teaches is the best martial art, replies “No, thermonuclear warfare is the best martial art.”   He makes a number of good points with that answer.  For a martial art to be “best” what does it have to do?  If you’re going to war, almost everything is better than a hand-to-(probably empty) hand martial art.

Every martial art teaches different things with a different focus.  I train in a sword art that teaches a particular way to use a sword, one that helps to maximize the range of the sword.  The sword is the core of this art.  A friend of mine trains in a different art, one that uses a different set of body mechanics to wield the sword. The way his art does it give a significantly smaller reach with the same length sword.  However, it maximizes the learning and usefulness of the core of his art, which is jujutsu.  The principles that guide the body mechanics are the same for his jujutsu and his sword work.  This makes the learning much more effective.  He doesn’t have to learn one way to move while unarmed, and a different way to move while armed, and he doesn’t risk mixing movement systems under stress.  The sword movement may not be optimal for the sword, but the movement is optimal for teaching  effective movement and action across a range of applications.  Which is “best”  then?

I have trained in judo for a long time and studied the knife defenses and counter attacks in the Kime No Kata and the Kodokan Goshin Jutsu .  I thought these were really great.  Then I started studying how to use weapons, and I became much less impressed with my skills against weapons.  I discovered there were all sorts of things about weapons that are critical if you want to be effective against them.  The first being, understand how something is really used.  When I trained techniques for use against weapons in Judo, I was training with other judoka, not with people who were skilled with the weapons in question.

When I started training in weapons arts with people who were skilled with the weapons, my understanding of the range and speed that particular weapons function at changed dramatically.  What I had been doing before turned out to have been little more than us imagining how a knife or stick or sword was used and then practicing against what we imagined.  When I started working with people who knew how to use those weapons, I discovered that their effective ranges were lots longer than I had imagined, and they were much faster than I had thought.  I had to throw out pretty much everything I had practiced and start over using actual knowledge upon which to build my training.  That’s pretty humbling.  I thought I was reasonably good, and I had to admit that I was worse off than beginner, because I had learned a lot of things that were nothing less than completely wrong.

I’m guessing that this is a not uncommon issue, especially in gendai (modern) martial arts.  Lots of modern arts teach defenses against a host of weapons, without really teaching how those weapons are actually used, so even when people do paired practice, the lessons are not effective.  This is what happened to me in Judo.  In koryu (classical, pre 1868) budo, the systems only train with weapons that they teach the use of, and the person doing the attacking is always the senior.  This takes care of two issues.  They don’t develop illusions about being able to handle weapons outside of those they teach, and their study is always directed by someone who really knows the weapons to be trained.

There used to be an incredible seminar held every year in Guelph, Ontario.  Kim Taylor would gather senior teachers from all sorts of koryu arts.  Each would teach a 2 hour introductory class about their art, and then spend the rest of the weekend learning side-by-side with you in other teachers’ classes.  It was a rare treat and a chance to get a taste of how all sorts of arts and weapons are used, from jujutsu stuff to swords to 10 foot spears.  The teachers all knew their stuff, and quickly knocked any illusions we had about how things worked out of our heads.  I vividly remember a high ranking Aikidoka saying after a sword class “I thought I knew swordwork.”  He was admitting to himself that what he had studied in the Aikido dojo about swords was very incomplete.  He certainly wasn’t the only person to walk out of one of those classes with the shards of previously held conceptions tinkling at the base of his mind.  I had quite a few ideas rendered into old junk in a jujutsu class with Karl Friday of Kashima Shinryu.  I just wish we’d been practicing on mats instead of in a dance studio.

I’ve discovered training with people who really know the weapons is critical.  It is possible to work out effective ways to deal with weapons you aren’t expert with, but I really don’t want to experience all the pain that goes with that sort of learning curve, and I can’t recommend it to anyone else because usually the only way to find out you’re wrong is the really hard way..  Working with someone who knows how to use a weapon properly means you never have a chance to develop inappropriate habits and techniques.  A teacher or partner who knows the weapon will disabuse you of any bad ideas as soon as they see them.  

I’m not saying don’t try anything new.  Just do it smart.  Work with someone who really knows the subject, so you don’t make mistakes that can have unpleasant consequences.  Train with your eyes open and try to realize the real limits of what you know. Kim Taylor’s seminars were an incredible experience because they were a chance to dive into our ignorance and find out just how small our islands of knowledge really are.

What is that other guy doing?

There are lots of different budo styles, and they each have their own way of doing things that is internally consistent.  Rennis Buchner, a fine budoka and excellent budo historian, writes about problem of assuming that you understand what another person or style does just from watching a little bit.  Rennis doesn't write often, but when he does, it's worth reading.  His essay is at

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Budo and Ego

All the classical “Do” 道, or Ways, of Japan strive to achieve a better understanding of the world and the self.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing tea ceremony, flower arranging, sword fighting, incense smelling (kodo 香道), calligraphy or any of the other common activities that have been organized into form Ways.  You study codified ways of doing things that have roots going back generations, and sometimes centuries.  The goal is not just master one esoteric art form, but through the focused study, master the self and gain a greater understanding of the Way of the universe.

As people practice and study and refine their art, they naturally move up within the art’s hierarchy.   This is the natural progression of beginner to senior student to junior teacher to senior teacher.  There is always the risk that a person can misunderstand the respect that they receive as their skills and status increase.  There are plenty of people who become recognized for the mastery of a particular skill, who someone conclude that because they are skilled and respected in one special field, they should be respected and lauded in every aspect of their lives.  Their egos seem to take over and they get upset when people don’t acknowledge their superiority and innate greatness.

This can happen with anything.  It’s a not uncommon human failing and it is found even in the Ways of Japan where one of the key things we are supposed to be mastering is our self.  To really advance in any of the Ways, whether martial art or one of the more peaceful Ways, we have to achieve a certain mastery over our self and the voices in our head.  All those stories of the serene tea master, or the calligraphy teacher who calmly looks at the paper for a few minutes and then with a sudden flourish creates a marvelous work of art, these all require that you master the voices in your head so you can concentrate well enough to be serene and peaceful and creative.  It’s true of martial arts as well.  If you can’t learn to quiet your mind, you’re never going to figure out how to get out of the way of that incoming sword cut or jo strike.  And trust me, when your mind wanders and you don’t get out of the way in time, it hurts.  Which brings on a different kind of mental focus.

We have to master parts of ourselves to master any of the arts or Ways.  In mastering a Way though, we don’t have to master one important part of ourselves.  We don’t have to master our ego.  It’s easy for the ego to grow even more quickly than our skills do.  It’s amazing how powerful a fertilizer for the ego a little praise and respect can be.

If a Way is to be more than simply mastering the base, physical skills of the art, then we have to do more than just learn to quiet our mind for the time it takes to perform the skill.  We have to apply the lessons broadly to our whole selves, and not let the mastery of one skill enhance our ego to the point that it prevents further growth.   This is a risk for anyone studying any skill.  In a Way, it is a sad thing, because it prevents a student from achieving everything that the Way can give.

For all this, few arts and Ways have the inherent hurdle of budo .  Budo practice actually makes the practitioner more powerful, which can feed the ego with the thrill of the power and the desire for more.  If acted upon and followed, the path of the ego is completely odds with the path of budo, but it is an easy path to start upon, and difficult one to abandon once you have started treading it.

The power taught in budo is real power in the most basic, literal sense.  A student learns raw, physical power over others.  This is a huge trap for some people.  The ability to physically dominate and intimidate the people around you is an alluring drug. In most modern societies, this power is even more seductive because it’s one we avoid socially and culturally we play down the realities of physical power.  We suppress discussion physical power within social dynamics because people aren’t supposed to use it.  We’re wired to react physical power even if it’s not supposed to be a dynamic of polite society.

Power dynamics are a part of most social interactions, and physical posturing is a part of it, even if people aren’t aware of it..  There are people who use aggressive posturing to influence and dominate the world around them.  This works on lots of people, but not on those who are unusually strong, or who have great confidence in their physical skills.  People who do budo don’t react the way untrained people do, and they can in fact become quite dominant because of their skills.  This is another ego trap.  It feels good when people defer to you and let you do things your way.  That’s fine if it’s for a good reasons, but if it’s just because of your martial skills, then it’s probably a bad thing.  Letting this sort of thing feed your ego, and using it to get your way, is another dangerous detour from the budo Way.

Intimidating people, power posturing, and even physically abusing people is an especially dangerous trap in the dojo, because we are supposed to be using and practicing our skills there, and senior students and teachers are expected to demonstrate superior skills.  The lure of power over others because you are physically capable of it can be subtle.  It is easy for senior practitioners to edge from demonstrating superior technique over the line to abusing juniors.  The throws can become unnecessarily hard and brutal.  Joint locks can be go from controlling to inflicting uncalled for pain to physically damaging.  Just because the senior can do it, and they like the feeling of being able to make the juniors react.  This is a subtle trap, because it can start out with simple things, like a throw that’s just a little harder than it needs to be, or a joint lock that is painful when it’s not necessary.  The senior likes how the junior reacts, and more throws become extra hard, and the joint locks get more painful.  From this point, things just get worse, as the seniors ego needs more and more signs of his power and dominance from those below him.

Juniors can unintentionally encourage this behavior by showing greater respect and deference to the person being abusive, because they see this as evidence of the person’s superior skill, rather than as evidence of abuse.  This just makes the ego trap even bigger.

Power is drug for the ego, and in the dojo there is the danger that people will reward you for abusing the physical power that you have.  Just because what you are studying has “Do” 道 in the name, doesn’t guarantee that you will become a better person.  There are pitfalls along the way, and the one labeled “Ego” is perhaps the largest and most dangerous.  This is because it can be so subtle that you don’t even realize you are falling in.  Worse, it feels good.  Having your ego stoked by the people around you feels wonderful, and can be quite addictive.  It feels good to receive compliments and praise, but if you start trying to improve because you want the praise or the power, rather than improving to discover more about the art, yourself and the Way, then you have left the Way and are plunging into the pitfall of ego.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Travel and Training

I’ve been traveling for work to areas where I don’t have access to dojo or gyms.  It can make training challenging.  I am training though.  The trickiest part is taking a sword with me when I fly.  I’ve got a nice, hard-side gun case for flying.  

I get stared at going through the airport by every security person in the place, but I’ve never had any problems.  I check the gun case and carefully explain that it contains no firearms, only fencing equipment.  Sometime I have to open the case and show the airline folks, but they take one look at the sword and get bored.  After the airline staff tag the case, I drop it off at the TSA inspection point.  I’ve got TSA approved locks on the case so the TSA can unlock and lock the case whenever they please.  In 15 years of traveling like this, I haven’t had any problems.

The trick is finding a good place to train when I get to my destination.   Weapons training is best done discreetly.  I really don’t want to make the local folks nervous and have them call the police about the crazy guy with the sword.  It would be great if there was a nice iai or jodo dojo near every place I have to travel to, but the world isn’t arranged that way.  At least in Japan I can usually find a public dojo to rent on an hourly basis even if there is nothing else around.  I’ve resorted to doing sword practice in my hotel room.

It’s an interesting exercise working out exactly what I can and cannot do in any given room.  I can’t practice everything anyway.  This results in the location determining what I’m going to practice instead of me having to think about it.  Fortunately, most hotel rooms are big enough that furniture can be rearranged to make room for sword swinging.  Sometimes the ceiling is even high enough to stand up and do tachiwaza.  That doesn’t happen too often though, so I usually end up doing waza and kata from seiza and tatehiza.  

Since I’m rehabilitating my knee, I need lots of work in seiza anyway.  I’m rebuilding the muscles, and they have a long way to go, so enforced seiza practice is a good thing.  A few weeks back I mentioned that I couldn’t get all the way down into seiza.  The results of all the work in the hotel since then has made the effort to drag my buki with me on a business trip more than worth the effort.  The need to make my knee bend far enough to get into seiza has driven a lot of my practice.  I also have to make my leg strong enough to get me out of seiza once I’m there.  At this point, my right leg is still only half the strength of my left leg, so working from seiza is challenging me.  I can’t rely on the strength of my legs to automatically hold me steady.  

Doing the first kata from the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Iai fulfills all of my requirements for rehabilitating my leg.   I have to get into and out of seiza once, and then I do a further body raise, lower and final raise.  It turns into a real workout for my legs very quickly, and that’s what I need.  Right now I’m working to recover strength and ability that I had prior to April 22.  It’s going to take a few more months, but I will get there.  I get to do kata from seiza until my leg just can’t get me up and down.

While I’m doing all of that I have plenty of time to consider all those other aspects of the kata.  It’s never empty repetition.  I’m not just sitting in a hotel room doing mindless reps.  Like any time I do kata, it is supposed to be the mindful execution of a kata that is unique every time I do it.  This makes it endlessly interesting because there is always something to learn or work on every time I do it.

Doing my training in a hotel adds to the number of things I have to consider. Training in a confined space means I really have to be aware of spacing and distancing in a way I don’t have to worry about in a nice, roomy dojo. It is improving my spacial sense.  Exactly how close will my sword tip be to that curtain at the end of my cut?  I won’t spear that bedspread when I do the next tsuki, will I?  

The best part of training in a hotel room is just that I get to train regularly even when I’m far from home.  In rural Georgia, koryu dojo just don’t exist, and I haven’t found any place that I can borrow.  So I move the furniture in my hotel room and do the best I can.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s how it’s done.

So even if you don’t have a perfect dojo to train in all the time, you can still get your training in.  Travel is no excuse.