Thursday, March 5, 2015

Outside Seminars; or What We Don't Realize About Our Own Training

Over the weekend, I had the great pleasure to attend an excellent seminar in a martial art well outside my own practice. I do Kodokan Judo, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho and Shinto Muso Ryu Jo.  The seminar was focused on basic movements and exercises of Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu. This is an art I know next to nothing about. The movements and techniques are quite different from anything in Judo or Iai or Jo. Why would I bother spending a weekend on something so unrelated to what I train?

   I spend a lot of time focused on improving my skills at the arts I do, so it may not make a lot of sense to take that time away from my primary arts and do something I'm not planning to on doing regularly. For me though, it makes a lot of sense.

There is no such thing as a complete martial art. Is boxing or jujutsu complete? Boxing doesn't include grappling and jujutsu doesn't do much with strikes. MMA prohibits a lot of techniques that could cause permanent injury or cripple. Judo includes some strikes, but ignores joint locks except for the wrist, elbow and shoulder (and one knee lock!). Which one is most complete? There's a problem even there though. There question asks which is “most complete” and not “which is complete?” Many classical arts also teach a variety of weapons in addition to empty hand techniques. Takenouchi Ryu, Soushishi Ryu, Kashima Shinryu, and others teach a variety of weapons, including swords, spears, staves and nasty things with chains.

Even these though aren't complete. None of them teaches extensive unarmed strikes and none includes firearms. Maybe the solution is to study military or police combatives and weapons. Even then you won't get a complete system. Military combatives tend to focus on killing the enemy. Police combatives tend to focus on not doing unnecessary damage. Neither makes an pretense of being complete. Their training is highly focused for specific types of situations. Not complete, but just the opposite, they are very focused one subset of scenarios.

With all the possibilities that exist, there isn't enough room in one lifetime to become competent in everything. We have to choose what we are going to specialize in. That's OK, and it's certainly better than trying to learn everything. That would spread your training time so thin that you'd never be any good at anything. So you limit what you study intensively. Even when you put limits on what you're going to try to master, you don't have to put limits on being aware of other options.

Me, learning about a whole new way to lock up shoulders. Photo Copyright 2015 Masami Mitsusada
Going to seminars outside your art is great for learning what else Is available, and how other arts use their skills to address questions similar to what your own art addresses. A question as simple as “how do you deal with a strike?” gets complicated very quickly. Even just within Judo we have multiple options with a range of effects from simple arm bars, to counter strikes with arm bars, chokes, and multiple types of throws. That's just within in one art. The Karate guys have a number of options that Judo never even considers. Blocks and counter strikes of all sorts. We haven't even started to consider some of the koryu arts that include numerous weapons that might be appropriate.

Different arts frame the question of dealing with particular attacks and situations differently. In Judo, the first response to most attacks is a throw, and after we've explored that, then we'll think about chokes and arm bars. Karateka tend to prefer a hard block and multiple strike response to the same situation. Classical jujutsu styles often use a combination of counter strike followed by dashing their foe into the ground. Aikido might use a smooth blend with the attack followed by a wicked deconstruction of one or more joints.

Me getting an education from Howard Popkin Sens

ei. Photo Copyright Masami Mitsusada 2015.
If you only practice your own art, and never try anything else, you won't really know how broad the options are for dealing with any given scenario. Worse, you can fall into the trap of thinking whatever you do is superior. Martial arts are very Darwinian. Only the ones that have some effectiveness in real situations tend to survive. If someone else does things differently, and they continue to draw students, especially students with backgrounds in law enforcement or similar professions, they probably offer something real.

Being exposed to techniques and exercises that I don't encounter in my regular practice can aid my development.  If you don’t have any idea of what the range of possibilities are, and how they work, your own training is very incomplete. If you don’t know how things really happen, you’re training is going to reflect your best guesses.  Those guesses are likely to be wrong.  In Judo, we have a number of techniques for use versus weapons. Most judoka don’t have any idea how to use those weapons (knives, swords and sticks) effectively, so it’s impossible to train well against them. As it happens, I also do iai and jo, so I bring that experience with me to my judo training.  Swords and sticks are remarkably fast weapons, faster than most people imagine. The average judoka training against weapons in the Kime No Kata doesn’t understand just how far they have to be from the sword or stick to have a chance of reacting before it reaches them.That’s clear from watching they way they train. After years of ia i and jo, that is a mistake I don’t make.

If you’ve never experienced something, and no one you’re training with has ever experienced it, the odds of you doing that training properly approach nil. Years ago, before I really understood this lesson, I had many conversations with friend who has considerably more experience that I do in many areas. He would make a declaration and I, naively, would reject his claims. Then he’d proceed to demonstrate the narrow limits of my experience and understanding by throwing me across the room or tying me into knots. Chuck had learned his arts deeply, but also made sure he was aware of what other arts do, even if he didn’t study them.

Getting out to a seminar or two in another art can broaden your perspective on situations the arts you study are intended to deal with. Every art has a frame through which it interprets the world. It’s very easy, and quite common, to get so accustomed to seeing things through the framework of one art, that we forget there are ways of looking at things that are completely outside the frame we normally train in.  That’s something that going to seminars helps me break out of. At a seminar, looking at the world through someone else’s frame is part of the lesson for me.

The seminar this weekend was taught by Howard Popkin in the art of Daito Ryu, an art I have no background in. Being a judoka, I tend to assume that Judo has cornered the market on kuzushi (often poorly translated as “balance breaking”). This particular seminar shot a number of significant holes in that assumption. It was fascinating to see how small a motion was enough to disrupt someone’s balance, especially when the someone was me. Over the course of the weekend I may have learned even more about assumptions I am making than I did about Daito Ryu.  

I’ve had this happen repeatedly at various seminars I’ve attended over the years. I can remember a koryu sogo bujutsu teacher using me like a mop to wipe the floors with. He knew I was a judoka and could take the falls. I learned a lot about assumptions judoka make about what constitutes the end of an encounter. Judoka live in a very civilized world where an arm lock or hold down will result in a quieted adversary. Koryu arts don’t work at the level of civilization. They tend to assume a far more violent world in which more lasting and damaging measure are required. I came away from that experience with a lot of questions for myself about how to handle different types of threats beyond the assumptions made in most competitive judo dojo.

When I first took up sword and jo I had to reevaluate what I thought I knew about weapons defenses that I’d learned from the kata in the Kodokan Judo System. There are a number of nifty kata against knives and swords and sticks in Judo. The only problem was, the more I learned about how to use these weapons, the less confidence I had in my ability to handle any of them. The ma’ai that I considered safe got longer and longer. The time it takes to deploy the weapons got shorter and shorter. With greater understanding of the weapons the kata are supposed to teach one to deal with, the less appealing dealing with those weapons became.  

I’ve had the opportunity to learn about variety of arts and how they frame the world. It’s interesting, and as I get to view the world through each art’s frame, my own frame gets expanded. If we never venture outside of our own dojo, or own art, we will have a very warped view of what we can do with that art. We have to see things from other perspectives and see how people with other skill sets approach the same problems.  Until we start doing this, we can’t really understand our own art. We have to look at it from the outside occasionally to remind ourselves of all the things that aren’t within the view of our frame.

Howard Popkin Sensei demonstrating how little I know aobut nikyo. Photo Copyright Peter Kotsinadelis 2015.

One of the easiest ways to expand our frame is to attend a few seminars from other arts. I’m not recommending a steady diet of cross training. More like an occasional dessert treat. We want to understand our own arts as deeply as possible. We can’t do that if we never look at our arts from the outside. The occasional seminar helps develop a more complete understanding of what options there are beyond our regular practice and how many different ways a question can be asked and how different the answers can be.  


Kamal said...

I do agree with what you have written here, however to me it is not about complete or incomplete but different approaches. Martial arts develop with what was needed over time and each is complete in its own right.

There is a decline in martial arts between what was and what is because of a number of reasons. Martial arts are used for war, not for self defense. As the need to kill someone disappears when live in a more civilized time so does the need to learn it. The master leave these parts out purposely and only teach them to a select few to continue the tradition, among with other "secret" teachings.

The master keep these a secret not just for the sake of it. Let's just say that it's on a need to know basis, and most of the times we probably don't need to know. If we finally do know the "secret" what are we going to use it for?

For the more open public classes, we will see more things get cut out as time progresses. This could be both on purpose or accidental. In order to know we may need to "trace the old" (keiko - 稽古).

Joseph Tomei said...

Nice post. I'm not sure if it is because I'm not in a big place or if this is a Japan thing, but I don't have so many chances to do this kind of stuff. Is this just me or is this a Japan/Western divide?

If it is, I suspect it is because Western practitioners are driven by the points you make, about trying to round themselves and being complete martial artists. On the other hand, martial arts is part of the cultural fabric here, so many people take them up not specifically because they want to understand combat and self defense, but look at it more like a group that plays basketball at the Y every Sat. They may love basketball, watch it on the TV, even check out some vids to pick up a how to do a teardrop, etc. But they aren't (at least the folks I'm thinking about) particularly fussed if they aren't the best basketball player they can be, they just want to keep up with everyone else.

This is the example I use when I talk to exchange students about martial arts in Japan. I use the basketball example, because it gets across the social dimension of budo in Japan, and obviously, this is a lot easier when you are engaging in something competitive, but it's sort of a combination of that attitude and the attitude that some folks have to golf.

The Budo Bum said...

I don't think in most styles people keep secrets, particularly in gendai budo. Koryu moves a little differently, but even there, the core is usually taught.

Honestly, I don't think there has been much deterioration in the quality of martial arts in the last few hundred years. I think it's always been a case of a few people really working hard and really mastering their systems, and a the majority of people just going along and getting bits and pieces.

The Budo Bum said...

Thank you.

Part of it is more openness to these this sort of practice outside Japan. The whole seminar phenomenon really hasn't developed in Japan. I think that's because there are so many really top quality teachers that there is no reason for a seminar circuit to have developed.

When I was living there it was no problem to experience other systems because there were so many around and they were very accessible. I could just talk with acquaintances from big embu and other places where we ran into each other. Then we might end up asking basic questions and playing. Also, it is easier to study a couple of different styles at once in Japan because there are so many koryu around.

Having said that, I agree with your baseketball example. For a lot of people in Japan budo is another hobby. That's true in the US too. I'm something of an outlier with a passion to understand and improve.