Monday, April 28, 2014

Change in Classical and Modern Martial Arts

The classical arts of Japan (pre-1868) have a very different structure from the modern arts. The classical arts are entirely defined by their kata. If you take something like Suio Ryu or Shinto Muso Ryu, they have a clearly defined set of kata. Changing the kata is frowned upon, not because innovation is bad, but because it's really difficult to find anything in the kata that has not been boiled down to the essence of effectiveness.

Most koryu (again, pre-1868 traditions) kata are paired kata, always practiced with a partner. The reasons for doing the kata a particular way become vividly clear in a bright black and blue manner if you try to change things. The attacking partner is an immediate check to see if what you are doing is effective or not. And when it's not, you may well end up with a beautiful bruise as proof. Recently a friend and I spent a morning working through some kata slowly. Each time we tried to change the kata, we discovered that the kata form was the strongest way of responding for both the shitachi and the uchitachi. Each time we tried something different the openings and weaknesses of the new positions were clear. After hundreds of year of practice and examination, our forebears in the system had worked out the most effective way for things to be done. Our lesson was to understand why they designed the kata as they did.

The practice of the kata define the koryu traditions. Nearly all of the lore and wisdom that generations of teachers have accumulated is in embedded in the kata. It's up to students to tease this knowledge out. One way to do that is with what my friend and I were doing. You deconstruct the kata, try different reactions and attacks at each juncture and see if they work, or as we discovered, why they don't work.

Traditional Japanese systems, koryu budo, generally have very specific and clear pedagogy. Shinto Muso Ryu has a clear set of 40+ jo kata, as well as 12 sword kata, 12 walking stick kata, 24 kusarigama kata, 30 jutte kata, and I've forgotten how many hojo kata. These are very clearly defined. It's extremely difficult for teacher who hasn't been training for decades to make changes, and the kata themselves make it difficult. As I discussed above, we couldn't find any weaknesses in the kata we were exploring. We just learned a lot of options that don't work as well those taught in the system already. With this kind of situation, there just aren't many opportunities for innovation.

The most common way koryu arts change is that someone develops a new kata to address some situation or condition that is not considered by the existing kata. In Shinto Muso Ryu for example, they developed some new kata at the end of the 19th century to make use of the walking sticks that had become popular at the time. This is a logical extension of the principles of the stick that is the main weapon in Shinto Muso Ryu to a shorter stick. They didn't change old kata, or get rid of anything. They developed a few new kata to teach an understanding of the ranges and uses of the shorter stick. Systems do change, but they do so very slowly. With koryu, those changes are usually minor additions to the system rather than revolutions in the way things are done.

People sometimes wonder why koryu systems don't have lots of sparring and tournaments like the modern arts of kendo, karatedo and judo. Surprisingly, this is not a new question. Groups have been arguing about the value of sparring type practice in Japan for over four hundred years. When Japan was at war with itself, which was most of the time from about 1300 through 1600, there were more than enough opportunities for people to test their ideas, techniques and skills, so the question didn’t come up. Once Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country and removed the last possible source of revolution in 1615, those opportunities disappeared. Soon after that sparring and challenge matches started to appear. Arguments over the value of sparring compared with kata training began almost immediately, and have continued unabated to this day. Over the centuries though, the styles that emphasize sparring as a part of their training never demonstrated significantly better records in the many challenge matches. If the sparring faction had shown consistent success the other systems would have changed rather than lose.  The systems that emphasized kata weren’t losing, so there was no need to change. Kata remained the core of training because when done properly, it works.

Tournaments are a relatively recent phenomenon. Tournaments first showed up late in the 19th century once the Japan had reformed its government and sword teachers had no way to make a living. Some people started doing matches to entertain the public and try to support themselves as professional martial artists after traditional positions working for daimyo disappeared.. These didn't last long, but they contributed to the development of modern kendo. Modern kendo equipment dates back to that used for sparring and some challenges as early as the 17th century.

Sword demonstrations and prize matches during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) popularized and contributed to the creation of a sport form of kenjutsu done with shinai (bamboo swords). Similar matches for jujutsu schools contributed to the rise of Kodokan Judo. Kano's students won a number of noted victories and the Kodokan was invited to participate in inter-style matches by the Tokyo Police. The Kodokan did exceptionally well in most of these matches and earned an impressive reputation. These matches though also drove some significant changes in the Kodokan's curriculum.

Fusen Ryu is reported to have defeated a number of Judo representatives with strong ground techniques. At the time, Kano was not in favor of focusing on ground fighting because he felt it was a dangerous place to be in a street fight. However, these losses on the ground in public matches pushed him to develop a groundwork curriculum for Judo. One of the big surprises about this is the way he went about it. Contrary to the idea of martial schools jealously guarding their secrets, at this time at the end of the 19th century, people were much more open. Kano invited the head of Fusen Ryu to teach groundwork at the Kodokan Dojo, and he did. With the help of the head of a rival system, Kano significantly strengthened the Kodokan curriculum. Kano never became a huge fan of groundwork, always believing that staying on your feet was optimal in a fight, but the pressure of doing well in competitive matches drove him to adapt his art.

In addition, Kano changed from the classic menkyo, or licensing, system, and created the modern dan rank system based on competitive ability.  The koryu systems award licenses based on a persons level of understanding and mastery of the system, up to and including full mastery of the system.  Kano abandoned this system for one in which students were ranked according to competitive ability in matches.  If a student could defeat four other students of 1st dan level (commonly known as black belt) , then he was promoted to 2nd dan (black belt).  This resulted in tremendous changes in what is taught and how students train.  Anything that is not allowed in competitive matches is marginalized in training, even if it is effective in combative situations outside of training.  The focus narrowed to those techniques which are most effective in competition.  The up side of this focus is that it drives innovation and experimentation.  Judoka are constantly looking for innovative ways to win in competition and refining their techniques to make them more effective.  The down side is, as I describe above, that anything not useful in competition is largely ignored, even if it is highly effective in situations outside of competition.

Various pressures on competitive martial systems are still visible today. For the larger systems such as Judo and various Karate styles, two of the big pressures are popularity and money. In the last 15 years the International Judo Federation has been busy making numerous changes to the rules for competitive Judo matches in order to make Judo more television friendly to maintain popularity and keep it's place in the Olympics. The matches are seen as being too slow and difficult to follow, so changes were made to speed things up. In addition, there seems to be some reservations about how well people from other systems, such as wrestling and BJJ, do when they enter Judo tournaments. I have heard complaints that wrestlers and BJJ players use a lot of leg grabs and take downs that aren't classical Judo. The techniques work though. My feeling is that in Judo, we are reacting in the worst way possible to these challenges from wrestlers and BJJ players. Instead of inviting them into our dojo to learn from them, as Kano did, the IJF has chosen to ban the leg grabs and take downs from Judo competition. To me this only makes Judo weaker and less worthy of study.

In the Karate world, I see a lot of things in tournaments where combative functionality is not even considered. People invent kata that are flashy and athletic, but have nothing to do with the rich history and combative effectiveness of the Okinawan traditions. I have seen rules for weapons kata that require a certain number of weapons releases. This means that people are required to throw their weapon into the air! From a standpoint of combative functionality, this is ridiculous. However, to people who don't know better, this looks impressive. These Karate tournaments seem to be responding to a desire to be as popular as possible, rather than as effective as possible. It is a similar to what the IJF is doing make Judo more television friendly so the International Olympic Committee won't drop Judo from the Olympics like it tried to do with Wrestling a few years back. I won't even get into the silliness that is Olympic Tae Kwon Do.

Many of the modern arts are relatively easy to change because they are competition focused and committee governed, so changes in the rules will drive major changes in training. The koryu arts are deeply seated in kata that have been refined over centuries, and I can't really imagine any pressure big enough for them to make significant changes to their curriculums. Since the classical systems are not looking for rapid growth or tv money, they are under no pressure to change except that which they have always had; to adjust their systems to they remain relevant to the world around them. Judo and Karate both have strong depths of kata, well thought out and highly refined, but these traditional, effective and functional kata are often ignored in the race to perform well in competitions. The desire to do well in competition and to be visible on the world stage will continue to drive changes in these arts. I would love to see the pressure and focus of modern arts return to combative functionality, but I doubt that will happen when it is so easy to get caught up in the ego trap of popularity.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Investing In Failure

Up until last February, I had what I found to be a fairly strong Hiki Otoshi Uchi strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Then I had the chance to train with one of the senior teachers in our group. I was lucky enough to watch him correcting a junior and demonstrate his technique over and over for my fellow student. What a fantastic opportunity for me! As I watched, I could see small differences between how he was swinging the jo and meeting the sword and the way I was doing the technique.

Now I’m investing in failure.  I could keep doing hiki otoshi uchi the way I have been, which works pretty well.  Instead, I’ve abandoned my old technique as I work to develop the one this teacher uses.  The downside of this is that for now, my technique is lousy.  In order to improve my technique and try to reach the teacher’s level of smooth, effective control, I have to give up the technique I’ve developed and start working on something new.  For a while until I begin to grasp the mechanics of this new version of the technique, there are a lot of juniors whose technique will be a lot stronger than mine.  I will have to put up with personal frustration as I flub things with the new version I’m working on, things that I could have nailed with my old technique.  It’s worth the frustration and the flubs and the failures though to develop an even more subtle, effective and powerful level of skill.

If I can’t set aside what I think I know and all the ego and effort that has gone into it, I won’t progress beyond this point.  I’ll be stuck here, unable to advance.  On the other hand, if I set aside what I have already learned, take myself back to the practice yard and treat what I have done in the past as the groundwork that enabled me to see and understand what this teacher is doing, then I can make a leap forward.  First though I have to be willing to do what seems like backsliding.  At this point, progressing doesn’t just mean refining my existing technique.  It is it tearing my technique apart and rebuilding it.

To tear a fundamental technique like hiki otoshi uchi apart and rebuild it is not easy, particularly for the ego.   For a while, I know my technique is going to be weaker than my students.  I am going to be flubbing the technique and messing up kata practice with horrible and embarrassing frequency.  All of the habits developed and laid down so solidly in my neuro-muscular system are at war with what I am trying to do now.  My old technique was like an good friend.  I’d been doing it one way for so long that I didn’t need to give it any thought.  It just happened.  Now if I don’t pay particular attention to what I’m doing, it still just happens.  I don’t want it to do it that way though, so I have to pay extra attention to every movement I’m making with my head, shoulders, hands and hips, all at the same time. 

 Currently I can usually get 2 or 3 out of the 4 to do what I want.  The other one or two go back to the way I did it in my old technique, creating interesting hybrid techniques.
The one thing that is consistent about all of these new/old hybrid techniques is that they don’t work.  Trying to blend them just makes the whole thing fall apart. It will be a few months before I can integrate the new technique into my body and do it consistently.  Until I do that, I’m going to be really bad.  I expect my students to look at me and wonder if I have lost it.  I will feel foolish.  A part of me will desperately want to go back to the old way.  It’s simple. 

My old technique worked. My new technique doesn’t. Yet. For now I am investing in failure. Instead of doing what worked well enough, I’m going back to being incompetent. I’m wiping the old technique from my system and starting back at the beginning, at the slow, careful, clumsy beginning. This is the only way for me to move forward.  I can’t build a new, more subtle and effective technique on top of the powerful one I had. I have to let go of what I’ve achieved so far and become as unskilled as a beginner.  Beginners fail a lot.  That’s why they are beginners.  It’s also why beginners make such rapid progress compared to those of us who’ve been around a few years.  They haven’t accumulated a lot of technique that works well enough that they’ve become attached to them.  They don’t have ego invested in being the powerful senior student.  They aren’t worried about looking like a real teacher.  They are beginners and beginners are allowed, even expected, to fail. For me to make real progress, I have to go back to being a beginner and allow myself do a lot of failing.

It’s a check on my progress.  If I’m never failing, never making mistakes, I’m not learning anything.  Learning is done out there on the edge of our knowledge and understanding, out where we aren’t sure of anything except that we don’t know. It’s not a comfortable place to be. We can’t look cool or strong or masterly out there. We can only look like what we really are, students exploring something new that we’re not good at.  If we have problems with looking like a student, like someone who is learning and figuring out how to do things, we’re not going to want to go out and explore new areas of knowledge and understanding. If I’m not failing though, I’m not advancing.  It’s a little ironic that the best thing to do to get better is to be make mistakes. It’s only by making mistakes that I can figure out what works better and start on that next step.

So invest in failure. It pays high dividends.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

There Are No Advanced Techniques

There are no advanced techniques.  Really.  Early in my budo career, I was looking for the secret techniques and mysterious skills that would make me able to do the things my teachers did that seemed like magic. But what looks like magic is really just the basics done phenomenally well. It was hard to convince myself that Kano Jigoro's famous answer to the question of “What is the secret of Judo?” was entirely truthful. When asked about the secret of Judo, Kano replied simply “Practice, practice, practice.” This is not an inspiring answer for a kid who wants to be able to effortlessly throw people across the room.  

Sadly for all of us who are seeking the magic, it seems to be true. Whether I'm working on Judo or kenjutsu or iai or jo or my current nemesis kusarigama, careful, considered, focused and aware practice seems to be the real secret. More and more often, my own students look at something I've done with them like it's impossible, which is something I fondly remember thinking about my own teachers. It's a reaction I never have anymore though. Even when I can't begin to do what my teachers are doing, I can see how they are doing it and I can see the path to being able to do it myself.

Last week I was working on some taijutsu with an Aikido teacher and friend. Jim can do incredible things to your balance and make you fall down with the subtlest of movements. It's a very different technique than what I do in Judo, but I can feel what he's doing. The principle of what he does is clear. He is taking my balance (in Judo we call this kuzushi) and then drawing me in a direction where I can't support myself. I have to fall down. What makes it magic is that Jim does this with the least amount of movement possible. My Judo techniques have long been built on very large movements, but the principle is the same. Now I'm working on bringing a little bit of Jim's magic into my Judo.

It won't happen with mindless repetitions of techniques though. You can repeat a technique as often as you like, and you won't learn anything from the repetitions or get any better. You have to be fully engaged in your practice, and mentally looking for slight differences in your technique that will make you better. That's practice. Just doing something a hundred or a thousand times won't make you better. It will make whatever you are doing more solidly anchored in your body. If you are repeating poor technique, it will make it that much more difficult to change and improve your technique.

To get better at Jim's throws from a wrist grab, I didn't repeat what I already knew. I didn't repeat the big movement Judo techniques that I have been doing. I slowed down and focused on exactly what was happening to my partner when I moved just a little bit. I focused on feeling exactly when my partner's balance shifted from being supported by his frame to relying on me to keep from falling over. It was just a tiny bit of weight that was transferred to me, so little that I doubt my partner even realized he was using me to stay up. Once that happened though, all I had to do was turn my wrist over and he fell down, because I was withdrawing my support of his body. Jim can do this at full speed. It takes me several slow seconds to do it. By being aware of what is going on and practicing it slowly, I can develop the sensitivity to do this faster and faster over time.

One of the keys to making this work is to know what I'm looking for, and then focusing on developing that skill and sensitivity. If we just go to the dojo and quickly repeat the techniques we already know, we won't improve much. We have to be willing to slow down enough that we can focus on making changes to our technique. That's when practice really begins.

Up until last February, I had what is a fairly strong Hiki Otoshi Uchi strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Then I had the chance to train with one of the senior teachers in our group. I was lucky enough to watch him correcting a junior and demonstrate his technique over and over for my fellow student. What a fantastic opportunity for me! As I watched, I could see small differences between how he was swinging the jo and meeting the sword and they way I was doing the technique.

The technique is the same one I’ve been working on for years.  There is no magic here, just a more subtle, smoother use of the jo that results in a powerful, inexorable technique requiring far less effort than what I’ve been doing.  It’s up to me to increase my understanding of this fundamental technique that I started learning on my first day of practice.  It’s not magic.  It’s not a special, advanced technique taught only to senior students.  It’s simply a fundamental technique done really, really well.

This is true of everything I have done in budo.  When I wrote about Hikkoshiso Sensei tossing me around the Judo mat by waving his hands, I wasn’t referring to any special, advanced technique.  What he does is an extremely effective application of the basic principle of kuzushi.   What Hikkoshiso Sensei did to me is very similar to what I’m beginning to understand in my friend Jim’s technique, and both are extensions of the first principle of technique in Judo, which has been referenced in every Judo practice I’ve ever attended in any of many different countries.  It’s not a secret.  Hikkoshiso Sensei and Jim are just applying a basic principle extremely well.  The same goes for that Shinto Muso Ryu teacher.  He wasn’t doing anything secret or arcane.  He was doing the third technique taught in Shinto Muso Ryu amazingly well.  

None of these people have any secrets.  In truth, they are doing exactly the opposite of keeping secrets.  They put what they have learned through practice out there for students and fellow budoka to see and learn from.  One of the first steps is to stop thinking of it as secret magics, and start thinking of it as an attainable skill.  Then it’s really all about the quality and quantity of your practice.  It’s easy to wish that Kano Sensei’s secret had been something beside “Practice, practice, practice.”  

There aren’t any special techniques only taught to advanced students.  We keep practicing and step by step the advanced techniques appear.  Except that they aren’t advanced techniques.  They are the basics done so well they seem advanced.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Budo Mother's Rant

Dr. Ann Maria Rousey, former World Judo Champion and champion budo mother of Ronda Rousey (yes, that Ronda Rousey) has her own blog.  The latest post is delightful.  The whole post is worth reading here , but this bit about being a budo parent is a gem.

It was quite the opposite. I would drive her to judo 7 or 8 times a week - on Tuesdays we went to two practices, at Venice from 7-8 then hopped in the car and she worked out at Hayastan from 8:30 - 10. Every day she was somewhere, Gardena, West LA, Baldwin Park, Hollywood. Traffic in Los Angeles blows, and after working all day and driving back home in traffic, some days, the last thing I wanted to do was get back in the car and drive another two hours across town. I would say to her,
Ronda, do you really want to go to practice tonight?
And she'd answer,

Of course, Mom. Why wouldn't I want to go to practice?
On top of all of that, if there wasn't anyone her size to practice with, I'd take falls for her. See that picture up there? She is a 14-year-old brown belt and I'm a 42-year-old statistician taking dozens of falls for her because I'm the right size and I know enough to give just the right amount of resistance.

Did anyone seriously think what I wanted to do after a 14-hour day was drive in rush hour to somewhere I'd get thrown 150 times? I don't expect any medals for that - it's what millions of parents in America do every day, cart their child to gymnastics, piano lessons, wrestling practice, academic decathlon or a million other things.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Wonderful Sensei

My favorite Judo teacher, Hikkoshiso Sensei, was an impervious 55 year old 6dan when I met him. He loved randori, but most people in the large dojo wouldn't play with him because "He's too strong." I played every chance I got. He threw me all over, with power and control and finesse.  His throws were clean and perfectly controlled.  He always landed you beautifully, without pain or bruising or discomfort. To this day I can't understand why people weren't lining up to play with him.

His technique was fantastic.  Big movement hip throws are famous in Judo, as you can see here.  

Hikkoshiso Sensei could do them, beautifully.  Often though, he would use the most subtle of hand techniques, no big hip or body movements at all.  He just sort of waved his hands around while holding my collar and sleeve and my feet left the ground and I went flying through the air.  After more than 20 years of practice, I’m starting to get to the place where I can understand how he did it.  I still can’t do it on anyone who isn’t letting me practice it.  When Sensei first started doing it to me, I was solid 23 year old shodan who practice several times a week. I was young, strong, getting lots of practice, and he still tossed me around like a stuffed doll.

For some reason though, very few people wanted to train with him.  There were a few of us. All of the top guys in the dojo played with him, and me (I was so far from the top I needed binoculars to see it).  Everyone else just avoided him.  There weren’t enough of us to provide a partner through every round of randori.  I tried encouraging some of the other guys at my level, but they always said something like “He’s too strong. I can’t.”  

Yes, Sensei is strong, but that’s the reason to train with him.  He’s strong, his control is excellent, his throws are clean, and he will help you raise your art.  He will make you learn good defense without being abusive or harsh.  I learned every time we grabbed each other’s gi.  After training with him for years, one day I got good enough to stop his waving hand throw.  I couldn’t counter it or throw him or anything like that.  I could just maintain my center well enough that he couldn’t just wave his hands and make me fly.

So instead he threw me with some of those big throws like in the video above.  He threw me all over, and I loved it.  I learned more about throwing and movement and balance and defence. I knew my throws were making progress when I could break his balance enough that he had to take an extra step.  I studied Sensei when he played with other people.  After a few years of this I picked a technique and polished and polished it.  After maybe six months of work, I was playing with Sensei and things felt right.  I tried the throw and Sensei went up and over.  I had thrown him!   Sensei got up and bowed his congratulations to me.  He was happy that I had learned enough to be able to throw him.

Of course, that technique never worked again on him.  He knew it was out there, figured out the weakness I had exploited, and eliminated it.  I think he did that while he was bowing to me, because I never saw another chance to use that technique on him.  It was back to the drawing board if I wanted to throw him.  

That was great though.  I wasn’t training with him because I could throw him.  I was training with him because I couldn’t throw him.  I didn’t learn much doing randori training with people I could throw easily.  With Sensei, every step, every breath counted.  I had to constantly improve or Sensei would just keep throwing me with the same technique.  If I left an opening, he would make use of it.  It was great.  We could laugh and smile at techniques tried, failed and successful even as we were trying to throw each other around the room.

As tough as the training might be, and as much as I got thrown around, it was always with a spirit of joy.  Sensei loved training and randori, and he shared that joy with everyone who would bow to him and say “Onegai shimasu” to invite him to do randori.  He still does.  I train with him when I can bet back to his dojo in Japan.

He’s still going strong, quite strong.  He’s in his 80s now, and last year took home a bronze medal at an international tournament in Tokyo.  He’s still strong and powerful, and his technique is gets more subtle, effective and cleaner each year.  Sensei keeps training and polishing himself.  People still don’t want to train with him because he’s too strong.  They still can’t throw him unless he lets them, and that is too much of an ego breaker for them.  So now if now one asks him to train, I go over and get an extra session with him.