Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Techniques Are Boring

I must be getting old.  I’m certainly getting out of touch.  I find that techniques bore me.   This is surprising because I can readily remember when techniques were the coolest thing going.  I was always ready to learn the newest cool technique or variation that I came across in Judo.  In iaido I couldn’t wait to learn more new kata, and it was clear to me that the systems with the most techniques and kata were the best ones.  After all, the more techniques you know the more situations you are prepared for and can respond to, right?

I’m sure there are a lot of people who think techniques are great too.  I’ve seen Hapkido schools advertising that they teach thousands of techniques.  I understand the attraction.  Each technique does one thing, so the more techniques you know, the more you can do.  Clear, simple math that even I can understand.  Learning techniques feels like solving a jigsaw puzzle.  Each technique you learn slips into a particular place in the martial arts puzzle.  Every time you learn a technique the picture you have of your budo becomes clearer and more precise.  With each technique you have a clear solution for more situations.

Learning new techniques doesn’t make things clearer though.  It actually makes them muddier.  The more techniques you have to choose from when under stress, the worse your reaction time becomes, so you might actually be better off with fewer techniques ( see On Combat by Dave Grossman for actual studies and statistics )   Worse, while you are busy chasing all the technical rabbits, you’re probably missing the real prize, the principles.

Techniques are really just clothing for dressing up and showing off principles.  A technique is limited in the fundamental principles it can express.  Most express one, maybe two principles if you’re lucky, and as a technique, it’s usefulness is limited to the particular situation it is designed for.  Learn a principle though, and from it you can express an endless variety of techniques.  A principle can be applied anywhere if you’re not blinded to the opportunities by a forest of techniques.

In Kodokan Judo, Kano Jigoro Shihan clearly described a fundamental principle that can be applied in any budo.  He named it kuzushi 崩し.  In English I’ve usually heard it described as “off-balancing” or “balance taking”.  The more I study and practice though, the less complete those descriptions become.  In Japanese it has feelings of “destroying the foundation” or “undermining a structure”.  The base verb kuzusu 崩すmeans “break; pull [tear, knock] down; whittle [chip] away at; divide into smaller pieces; break down; knock down” (definitions from Kenkyusha Online Dictionary) so we can see that the principle is more than just “off-balancing”.  I’ve begun to think of it as undermining uke’s foundation and destroying uke’s posture.  Looked at this way, it can be much more, and the applications become more subtle and varied. 

None of this however will come out of learning a hundred techniques, or a thousand.  You get this from studying a limited syllabus of items that let you explore the principle in depth.  Learning techniques gives one a huge range of techniques, but none of those techniques will have much depth.  The way to depth is to master the fundamental principles that drive technique.

These days I find watching people who really embody great principles far more interesting to watch than any number of “cool” techniques.   The principles are what people are talking about when they talk about “mastering the fundamentals”.  The stuff you practice when you practice basics are the stuff of principle, the principles of using the body in the best way, of kuzushi, of timing, of spacing.   

This video of Jigen Ryu’s Okuda Shihan is wonderful.  All he does is raise and lower a training bo practicing correct movement and use of the body.  The bo in this case is a good 6 inches (12 cm) in diameter and probably 5 feet (160 cm) long.  He doesn’t bend his back and use it to lift.  The power flows smoothly from his feet to his legs to hips up to his arms.  The bo rises and falls smoothly and powerfully.  His body expresses the principles of optimal structure and effective movement at an incredible level.


All this is practice for using a sword.  He is developing his body to express fundamental principles of movement and power generation.  When he raises the bo it goes up without any visible effort.  The motion is smooth and clean.  He stance is relaxed yet clearly it is also incredible powerful.  He has obviously mastered principles of posture, stability and power generation.  In a couple of shots he shows how not to swing the bow, and the difference is clear in the visible instability of the posture and the weakness of the swing. 

This is the real stuff, the real secret of budo.  It’s not some obscure technique.  It’s not knowing a thousand techniques.  It’s knowing how to be an expression of the fundamental principles as you do a technique.  In the video, Okuda Shihan is solid and powerful.  From this foundation, whatever he does with the sword will express that solidity and power.


These principles and their expression are what I find interesting now.  I was lucky enough to be invited to train with a very nice Aikido group recently.   The training was good.  What was interesting for me was seeing and feeling how people express the budo principles that I understand.  Many principles seem to be universal, whether they are named and identified or not.  I saw people working on the principles of kuzushi and controlling the center line, whether they called what they were doing by those names or not.  The particular techniques we practiced really didn’t register with me.  In each technique we did, I was still looking for how to apply the principles I have been studying.  

Once I began to see fundamental principles in my own techniques, I began to see their expression all around me in the budo world.  It’s the principles that make the techniques work.   I’m not interested in learning a lot of techniques anymore.  I’ve discovered that if I can’t apply the principles, the techniques don’t work, so I’m more interested these days in learning to apply and express the principles I’m studying in a few techniques very well, rather than learning a lot of techniques with a paper thin understanding that won’t support the technique well enough for it to be useful for anything.


I can hear people saying, “but if you don’t know a good technique for a given situation, what will you do?”  The funny thing is, in Judo randori that happens all the time.  You express the principle and something good happens.  I say “express the principle” here, because “apply the principle” suggests that there is something conscious going on.  Trust me, in randori, even friendly randori, things are happening too fast to be thinking and then doing.  Either you express something, or the moment is gone.  And things are expressed by people all the time.  They feel their partner’s foundation crumble for a moment and apply the principle of kuzushi and a throw happens.  Later they ask the people watching “What did I do?” because they were so busy doing it they didn’t have time to register what they were doing.  Sometimes what they did was identifiable as a discrete technique.  Other times it wasn’t exactly like a classical technique, but the applied principle worked as it was supposed to and uke landed on their back.


If you’ve got the principles, techniques will happen.  If you don’t have the principles, it doesn’t matter how many techniques you “learn.”  They won’t work.  They won’t work until you understand and apply the principles that govern the techniques.  Studying techniques is boring because there isn’t much to any particular technique.  Studying principles is deep and difficult and fascinating.

2 comments:

Ronin scholar said...

My teacher once told me, "Once you know the principle, the technique doesn't matter." We were talking about different sword styles at the time. However, I always thought sensei was not just talking about physical principles. And he definitely had an opinion that some styles of budo (or, "budo") were fairly useless. So the answer is that its ALL important, I guess. good techniques point you to good principles; however, for the philosophical principles - I think you need a good teacher for that.

Steve Grogan said...

Interesting article! And very true to what a more experienced martial artist will feel. Bruce Lee paraphrased a Buddhist philosophy when he said, "Before I studied the art, a punch was just a punch...a kick was just a kick. When I started to learn the art, a punch was NOT a punch...a kick was NOT a kick. Now that I know the art, a punch is just a punch...a kick is just a kick." When you have internalized it to the point where your art has become truly engrained as a reflex, then the ego-driven part of the brain that wants to look "cool" by learning a million techniques dies out. You realize principles are more important. I agree 100%!