Thursday, January 28, 2016


Not the throws. Watch the ukemi!

I step wrong and my partner takes advantage, tips me slightly, steps across in front of me, dropping as she goes, finishes the pivot and draws me further forward, further off balance, and onto her hip, continues turning drawing me further off balance onto her hip, rising turning and I’m airborne, flying past her shoulder. Looking down I see the ceiling framed between my feet the instant before my back slams into the mat and I slap with my hand.

That’s a textbook ukemi. It’s what we think of when we talk about ukemi. There’s a world more to ukemi, receiving techniques, beyond taking safely taking spectacular falls from powerful fall. Big falls are the most visible and obvious form of ukemi, but they aren’t the only ukemi skills to found in budo practice.

In judo and aikido we tend to focus on the big falling techniques as ukemi, but anything where you are receiving an attack is a form of ukemi. “Ukemi” is  受身 which is literally “receiving body.”  When we approach ukemi as how we receive whatever happens, there are a lot more skills that are clearly ukemi.

In budo, the obvious thought for ukemi is how to receive attacks. For judoka like me, one of those is how to receive being strangled. I happen to like attacking shime waza (chokes and strangles) in newaza, so often I find myself teaching people how to handle, how to receive these attacks. The ukemi for shime waza starts with dropping your chin to try and get it in the way of the attack. After that there are tricks for dealing with particular types of attacks that can allow you receive the attack and neutralize it. These are all forms of ukemi.

The obvious form of ukemi are the blocks that karateka learn for receiving attacks, punches and kicks. Blocks are the most basic way of receiving a strike, but everything that has strikes and thrusts has ways of dealing with them. Think about how your art deals with striking attacks. Those techniques are ukemi. In the Nage No Kata of judo the first response to an overhand strike is to blend and throw the attacker with seoi nage. Karateka learn sophisticated blends and redirections. With swords there are kiri otoshi and suriage techniques.

In Shinto Muso Ryu there are many techniques for receiving sword attacks by the jo side. There is also the skill of receiving jo thrusts when you are on the tachi side of training. There numerous places in the kata where tachi has to receive a thrust. Taking a stick to the solar plexus is hardly what I would call the highlight of training, but learning to receive these shots properly is important. That’s ukemi.

The ukemi that may be the most interesting is the ukemi for dealing with joint locks. Raw muscular resistance is not recommended. Oddly enough, the trick is to relax into the attack. The joint can move and stretch better if you’re relaxed. The muscles that can provide physical resistance to the attack work better from a relaxed base, and are stronger when their opposites aren’t firing as well. This ukemi may be harder to learn than the classic breakfall ukemi. Like breakfall ukemi you have to learn to stay relaxed when things go wrong and something is happening that would normally be unpleasant. With breakfall ukemi the unpleasantness lasts a moment. Joint lock ukemi doesn’t end quickly. In judo randori, people hate to surrender too easily, so they will resist as long as they safely can (and some stubborn fools resist longer than that). It takes patience and real effort to learn good ukemi for joint locks.

There is a lot to be learned under the heading of ukemi. You have to learn discretion about what can be successfully resisted, and what should be accepted and submitted to before you get hurt. That discretion is a big thing. I tell students that unless they are going for an Olympic medal, resisting an armbar probably isn’t worth the health of their elbow. That goes for other techniques as well. The safest course is almost always to go with a technique and take a fall rather than resisting. It takes a lot of practice, and more than few bumps, bangs and bruises to learn to discern when a technique can be resisted and when it shouldn’t be.

In any art, but particularly in judo, our ego will tell us that our partner shouldn’t be able to throw us.  She’s too small.  He’s not good enough. She’s not fast enough. He’s not strong enough. My ego can come up with a million reasons why I shouldn’t accept the technique and take the fall, reasons why I should use what I know about receiving the technique to jam it and block it. Learning to ignore our ego is another part ukemi. Learn to do what is healthy and good, rather than what makes our ego feel good and getting injured because of it.

Over my years of practice, I’ve found good ukemi skills to be the most useful things I’ve learned in the dojo. Tripping, falling off my bike, slipping on the ice, these are all places that use the big ukemi skills.

As your ukemi skills increase, so do your range of options. Judoka are notorious for reversing attacks. Until your skill at just accepting the attack and absorbing the energy becomes fairly sophisticated reversals are difficult. As you develop and feel for more and more subtle movement and the direction of the energy coming at you, it becomes easier and easier to take an attack, flow around the energy and turn it into a counter.  Yoko guruma is wonderful for this. Flow around your attackers energy and the thrower becomes the thrown.

If you resist so hard that your opponent can’t even begin an attack, you’ll never get the counter. Or worse, your partner will find a way around your strength and throw you anyway. Ukemi is one of the best ways of learning to do that most common of all martial arts corrections, relax.

Ukemi skills don’t work when you’re stiff. Taking a fall when you are scared and tense hurts. We all do it as beginners, and I remember that discomfort. Learning to breath and relax whatever happens takes time and experience. It’s as useful a lesson outside the dojo as it is on the mat. Life is full of surprises, pleasant and otherwise, but breathing and relaxing will get you through most of them pretty well. Not just slipping on the ice, but slipping verbally, or dealing with that rude, pushy guy in the office. Just breathing and relaxing, instead of tensing up and diving straight into the oncoming energy, often will let you take control of a difficult situation and turn it around.

That’s a fundamental aspect of ukemi, of the skill of receiving any attack. Don’t tense up.  Stay relaxed. Things hurt more when you’re tense. You just can’t move or think as well when you’re tensed up. Learning to relax and flow with the energy coming at you can make all the difference, on the mat or off. We tend to get tense and stiff when we’re feeling defensive, and that drives an entire set of reactions that an opponent can manipulate. In randori, if you’re defensive you become overcommitted in certain directions and you can’t respond well to attacks that don’t come from the direction you’re committed to.
Relax, and you become more stable and more flexible. You can relax and absorb the attacks from the side as well as the one barrelling in from head on. If you’re all stiff, you can only resist in one direction. Just because you are all set to resist in one direct does not put your opponent under any obligation to attack from that direction. Relax so you can flow with whatever comes your way. If you need to negate that attack, you can do that better when you’re relaxed. If you need to counter, you’d better be relaxed for that too. And if the best thing is to accept the attack, go with it, take the big ukemi and protect yourself that way, you want to be relaxed for that too.

Notice I didn’t say what kind of attack. It’s doesn’t matter if the attack is physical or verbal. If all your energy is focused in one direction, you’re going to get taken down by anything coming from another direction. Learning to receive is a critical skill.

As a massage therapist once told my friend Wendy "You can recognize martial artists the moment you lay your hands on them. They always relax to pain."

Relax. Do your ukemi.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Martial Arts Lessons and Character

Self defense
Self discipline
Self confidence
Self respect

Google “martial arts advertising” and you’ll find a limitless supply of advertisements proclaiming that martial arts practice teaches these. They are good things. I certainly won’t dispute that developing good self defense skills, self discipline, self confidence, and self respect is good for anyone.

Yes, self defense skills are wonderful. No one is going to argue that self discipline isn’t important. Self confidence and self respect are both awesome. All of these traits are drilled and reinforced by martial arts practice. My concern is that I’ve encountered too many martial artists who haven’t developed these things in a healthy, balanced manner. What happens when things get out of balance?

Learning self defense by training in martial arts seems redundant, but it has to be addressed. Everyone who trains for a while will run into people who have learned this lesson badly. These are the guys who develop some skill but never quite learn when and where to apply the skills.  They have self defense skills, and perhaps self respect, but they haven’t learned to respect others, and it shows in how they use their skills. They can be seen subtly, and not so subtly, bullying the people they train with, making strikes and throws harder and more brutal than necessary. They use the implied threat of their skills to intimidate their training partners and the people they deal with in and out of the dojo. Hardly the ideal of what self defense training should develop into.

Self confidence is often what gives us the courage to attempt something new or to go into something that isn’t a sure bet. Having it means not hesitating to do little things.  Being self-confident means being willing to take risks, even if the main risk is to our ego. It’s amazing how often the biggest thing being risked is our ego or a little personal embarrassment, and that risk is too great. Healthy self-confidence includes being able to take those risks and be ok with the results whether you succeed or fail.  Where self-confidence fails us is when we have too much of it. Think of all the arrogant jerks who really believe they can do no wrong in the dojo. Where do they get it? Where is this arrogance learned?

Self discipline is a wonderful trait, and I often wish I had more of it. I’ve seen what can happen when when you have a good stock of this. I’ve also seen people get too disciplined. That guy in the dojo who wants to make it into a lower weight division who diets to an unhealthy level while bragging about how his self-discipline helps him do it. Or the woman who trains day in and day out without taking a break, never giving her body time to rest and recover, even when she’s injured. There’s self-discipline, but it isn’t leavened by any wisdom.
Self-respect is wonderful. It’s the healthy recognition of our own value as human beings. That knowledge gives us the mental strength to not be destroyed by every bit of criticism. Even more, it braces us against the pressure that comes from all sides of society to change or do things just so other people will like us. Without self-respect, we can be talked into all sorts of things because those around us want us to do something. Peers can push us to dress in a certain way, behave badly, they can even convince us to be disrespectful to one person in order to impress another. Self-respect though has to be balanced with respect for those around us, or you’re just a jerk.

Most of the advertisements I run across seem to be aimed at parents, but there are plenty of adults who would like to have self-defense skills and improved self-confidence and self-respect. Martial arts training, without question, should make us better at some sort of combat, but the other stuff? How does learning to fight really improve general self-confidence, or self-respect, or self-discipline? Frankly, does the combat training really improve self-defense skills, or does it teach something else?

Beautiful handmade weapons bags

Martial arts are often taught in a style that I don’t think will do too much for developing any of the character traits advertised. How does standing in rows repeating techniques develop personality traits? Even practicing techniques and skills with partners won’t necessarily teach anything but the techniques. It’s even quite possible to learn bad lessons that develop poor character from working with partners.

Training with partners, you’re likely to learn what sort of character your partners have. Someone who has learned to boost his own self-confidence by abusing less skilled partners will abuse you. He’ll make the pin too hard or crank the joint lock a couple degrees further than is really necessary or throw you hard while doing nothing to take the sting out of the fall. This is certainly not the way to learn how to respect your partner, much less yourself.

If the teacher is arrogant and disrespectful of his students, then the students will learn to be arrogant and disrespectful to those around them. Even if the teacher is not arrogant or disrespectful, if he permits seniors to be arrogant and disrespectful towards more junior students, the students learn that arrogance and disrespect are acceptable.

In classes where students are not treated with respect by teachers, there is no reason to expect the students to learn self-confidence or respect. A self-confident teacher isn’t afraid to make a mistake or be wrong. That’s what her self-confidence is all about. A teacher who has confidence in herself, and respects herself, will give students individual respect and the room to develop self-confidence.

There are far too many ways a teacher can give students lessons in poor character, and sadly there are far too many people with less than wonderful character teaching martial arts. Martial arts practiced in such a way teach students the physical aspects of the art without learning anything about character or maturity. Teachers can be arrogant and teach that anyone who isn’t good enough should be ridiculed. Students who ask difficult questions can be treated with condescension.  Everyone can be abused, and only those who suffer the abuse without complaint or cry can be called worthy. When I think about it, it’s as if there are more ways to teach martial arts badly than to do it well.

There is a delicate balance. How do we teach self-defense without teaching how to bully and abuse?  How do we teach confidence without teaching arrogance? How do we teach students to value others while we are teaching them to value themselves? How do we teach confidence without shading over into cockiness?

Martial arts studios, dojo, and dojang, have to make time to emphasize something other than the raw violence of what we train. In the judo dojo that I love to be in, the reminders for safety and mutual concern and respect between partners are as frequent a part of the discourse as are the suggestions for improving throws and joint locks. No one is going to learn a lesson that isn’t being taught. If a martial arts school advertises that they teach self-defense, self-respect, self-confidence and self-discipline, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask “How do you teach that?”  

Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung are always making the point that self-defense is a legal concept, and that if you don’t know what constitutes self-defense legally, you can put yourself in all kinds of trouble. If the school claims to teach self-defense, do they teach anything about appropriate response and the complexity of the situation, or do they default to cheap slogans like “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six”?  Does the school spend time emphasizing how rare the use of force should be and what might appropriately call for it, or do they throw out techniques and let students figure it out for themselves?

When a school says it teaches self-discipline, do they teach self-discipline or just discipline? Self-discipline is about being able to focus and do something on your own. Does the school give students time to work on things on their own, or is every moment scheduled and directed and driven by a teacher? Unless students have time on their own, they’ll never learn how to direct and discipline themselves. No one can learn self-discipline while external discipline is locked down tight. Students need room to develop their internal self as well as the cool physical skills.

How does the school teach self-respect? Or more importantly to me, do they teach respect for self and others? Do the teachers and senior students model respect and treat everyone with respect? Or do they belittle and abuse anyone below them in the hierarchy? Are students treated with appropriate praise and legitimate criticism or are they yelled at and demeaned when they make a mistake?

Self-respect and self-confidence are closely aligned. Do students have the opportunity to work on goals without the constant pushing and driving of instructors and fellow students? Do students have the opportunity to fail? Real self-confidence comes from knowing you can do things yourself, not that you can be moved along a track with others as long as you pay the monthly dues and the test fee. It’s not until we’ve experienced some failure and kept on going that our self-confidence and self-respect become genuine and deep. If the bar is set so everyone always passes, or if students don’t have the chance to fail, they won’t develop genuine self-confidence or self-respect. At best they’ll have the illusion of it, which will be fine until something happens to put stress on that confidence and respect, and then it will shatter.  Genuine self-confidence can handle the setbacks. Genuine self-respect won’t be damaged by what comes from outside because it has the depth to absorb the damage that life inflicts.

If the school isn’t actively working at teaching these lessons, it probably isn’t teaching them passively either. Despite the myths and legends, good character is not an automatic byproduct of martial arts training.  Advertising is nice, but what do students really learn in martial arts class?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Understanding the Way: the Tao Te Ching

For anyone interested in the ideas and thinking that underpin the concepts of budo and other Ways, the Tao Te Ching is essential reading. There are numerous translations of this canonical text, each doing it’s best to bring understanding and thought to the translation. Fortunately, it’s not a long book.  You can read it in about 30 minutes.  It’s filled with meaning and ideas to explore.
Because of the difficulty of translating ancient Chinese into modern English, there can be wide differences between translations. The internet is an amazing thing. There is now a site where you can see translation of the Tao Te Ching, and explore the original Chinese character by character to improve your understanding and get a better feel for what the translators are trying to express.  The site is at


Monday, January 11, 2016

Ōn: What Do We Owe?

Ōn 恩 is a ubiquitous concept in Japanese culture. It means a debt or obligation of gratitude. This is no simple “I owe you a favor” gratitude. That’s covered in the concept of giri 義理. Ōn includes the kind of combined obligation and gratitude that we owe to our parents and grandparents for all the care and kindness they have given us. Ōn covers those areas where our obligations are so great we can never truly repay them. Within Japanese culture, this sort of obligation extends to our teachers and the creators of the arts we practice.

Kano Jigoro, found of Kodokan Judo
When I started on this journey, of course I appreciated what I was learning from my teachers. Earl and Bob were sharing their wealth of knowledge with everyone in the university judo club. It was a fabulous place to be and there was a wonderful group of people I was learning with. We were training and growing and learning all aspects of judo. It was fun, the tournaments were exciting, and I learned a huge amount. I appreciated everyone around me, especially my teachers. I didn’t feel a debt of obligation though. I’m an American.  We don’t do obligations the same way Japanese do.

The longer I’ve been on this journey and the more time I spend in Japan though, the more my sense of obligation grows. As I realize all I gain from practice, my understanding of what I owe to my teachers and their teachers and all who have travelled the path before me grows. Some days it feels completely normal to think about the fact that I’m practicing techniques, principles and ways of movement and engaging with the world that go back hundreds and hundreds of years. Other days it just seems impossible that some guy from suburban Detroit could end up training with world class teachers in these incredible traditions.

My teachers are not employees. They aren’t teaching me because I pay them money. They are teaching me out of a love of their art and their sense of obligation to their teachers and all those who went before them, back through the centuries to the founder of the school. They have their own sense of obligation to the their teachers and the art. The longer I train with them, the more I feel it as well.

My teachers have accepted me into their dojo and their art. That alone is an incredible thing. When I first moved to Japan, there really weren’t a huge number of non-Japanese training in classical traditions. In the country outside Kyoto where I lived, there weren’t any non-Japanese training in even modern traditions like Kodokan Judo. I was the first in that area. For a teacher in Japan to really accept a you as a student is a huge risk. The teacher becomes responsible for anything the student does. I didn’t understand that when I first moved to Japan. In the same way, I didn’t understand my obligations to my judo teacher.

If I messed up, my teacher would have been responsible for helping to clean up the mess and make things right. From the moment a teacher acknowledges you as their student, you assume the rather large obligation not to do anything that would embarrass your teacher, or force her to have to clean up after you. That means not getting drunk in public and causing a scene. It means controlling your temper at the office and at home (homes are close together and have thin walls. Believe it that your neighbors can hear what’s going on).
As a beginning student, the obligations aren’t too huge. Train, study, help keep the dojo clean and don’t do anything to embarrass my teacher. Eventually I stopped being a beginning student. I started taking on responsibility for my teacher. At some point everyone expected me to be able to demonstrate the basics correctly, consistently.

The obligations grow slowly but inexorably.

The dojo becomes more and more a real home where you are secure (but not comfortable). The people in the dojo become trusted friends with whom you share the treasure and joy that is training. As I grow in the art, many of the things I gain are difficult to express, and impossible to assign value to. The comfort in my own skin that grows from years and years of training is immeasurable. How do you place a value on being comfortable enough with yourself that storms of emotion and stress can blow around you without disturbing you?

The self-knowledge and understanding that good budo training develops is difficult to describe. People often misinterpret the calm, imperturbable demeanor of a mature martial artist as being self-confidence derived from their physical ability to fight. If that was the truth, that calm would be a weak and easily broken thing only prepared to deal with someone attacking with hands or weapons. It would be worthless against other sorts of stress and disturbances.

One of my jodo teachers thought to give me a lesson I really appreciate. One day shortly before I was due to move back to the US, he drew me aside at the end of practice and said “You need this experience.”  Then he pulled a steel sword out of his bag. Jodo is usually practiced against a bokuto, a wooden sword. Wooden swords hurt more than enough when you screw up and get hit with one in my opinion. I didn’t think there was any need to risk more intense pain with a steel blade. Sensei disagreed.

He named off 3 kata he wanted to do with me facing the steel sword. I noted that all three of them involve strong attacks against the jo side by the sword. I was a more than a little apprehensive about all of this as we faced off, bowed to each other and Sensei began advancing toward me with steel sword. I managed somehow to reach down inside and calm myself enough that I could deal with the attack. Sensei came in and attacked just as the kata called for, and I responded to the attack with something close to the proper timing and technique. Though my heart may have been beating a bit faster than when we usually do these kata, I managed to keep my breathing fairly steady, stay focused and remain relatively calm while Sensei tried to cut me in two.

At the time, I thought Sensei was giving me experience dealing with a steel sword. I was wrong. Sensei was giving me a lesson in how to deal with myself.  This is a much more universally useful lesson than just how to react when someone attacks with a steel sword. That lesson was identical to the lessons on what to do when someone attacks with a wooden sword. Get out of the way of the attack and then counterattack.

This lesson could be described as “How to deal with myself when something big and unexpected happens.” I’ve used this lesson in how to reach down inside myself and maintain steady breathing, a clear focus and calm mind even when people are going to pieces around me. My heart rate may go up depending on the situation, but I’m the only person who has any need to be aware of that. The rest of the world gets to deal with someone who is clear, calm and in control of himself. That’s a heck of a lesson to get from a guy with a sword.

I don’t know where else I could get a lesson like that. This isn’t a sport. This is a classical budo.
“Win or lose, it’s how you play the game” sounds nice, but in classical budo it’s often more of “Do it right or get hurt.”  The lessons are structured to get you to a place where you can deal with that. I don’t think Sensei came up with the real sword jo practice himself. I have a feeling that he had that experience and found it valuable, so he passed it on to me. How many generations of teachers and students this goes back I don’t know, but I am eternally grateful to all of them. This is a lesson that has served me well over and over.
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My budo teachers have given me the dojo as my haven, school room, and proving ground. It’s an awesome place to spend my time. They have shared their wonderful treasure, these budo traditions. It’s not something they just hand out. The senior teachers are maintainers, preservers, guardians and sometime innovators. They have absorbed all the lessons that their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers have discovered and developed, going back generations. Judo goes back about 6 generations. Shinto Muso Ryu goes back nearly 20 generations. Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu goes back even further than that.

I owe an immense debt to all of the teachers and students of the arts I study. It’s a debt I cannot possibly repay. How can I possibly thank the founders of my Kodokan Judo or Shinto Muso Ryu? I know I can’t, but I am aware of how much I owe them for the physical skills of the arts, the haven and place of wonder that is the dojo, and all the other things and lessons that have come to me through the practice of their arts. That feeling of a debt that can never be repaid is a considerable part of Ōn 恩.

Just because I can never make full payment on the debt I owe to my teachers and those who went before us doesn’t mean I can’t do anything. I express that gratitude to my teachers and all those who have passed the art on to me. If you spend time in a dojo in Japan, you’ll notice that senior students and the teachers are often the first ones to grab brooms at the end of practice and start sweeping the floor. If you a lucky enough to be able to get to the dojo early before practice, you’re likely to discover the teacher quietly sweeping the floor and cleaning up the dojo for practice. Juniors have to be very early to be lucky enough to get to clean up for keiko. Getting to do it is another way of expressing gratitude for all the things you feel ōn for.

I really do worry about not doing anything to embarrass or cause problems for my teachers. It’s one of the biggest concerns I have with writing posts for this blog. Am I going to say something that causes problems for my teachers? That little editor is always chattering away at the back of my mind. I try to ensure that my behavior will never cause them any concern and certainly make sure I don’t create any messes they will have to clean up.

When I started, being on time to practice, working hard, helping clean up after keiko and not being a jerk were enough. The longer I train, the greater the size of the debt I owe that I will never be able to repay. The more of a sense of ōn I have. Now sweeping the dojo, working hard and not being a jerk don’t seem like nearly enough, but what is?

I accept responsibility. I can show Sensei how much I appreciate what he has shared with me by teaching it to others and making sure that the river of our tradition does not dry up and end with me. I share and I teach and work at growing the art. Some of my teachers are no longer here for me to thank. I teach new students and make sure they know these men and women lived and contributed so much to their being able to learn budo now.

Kodokan Judo is everywhere. I have heard it is the second most popular participant sport in the world, behind football (soccer). Koryu budo are not so widely practiced, nor are they intended to be.  They are intended to continue from generation to generation. I do what I can to make sure the ryuha grow into a new generation, and that the new generation is worthy of the treasure the great teachers have showered upon me.

This much harder than I expected because I want to be a worthy teacher of the lessons I have received. The result is that I put a good deal more consideration into what I’m doing and it takes more effort than I ever expected. Which lessons are right for each student? I know students can’t leap from lesson to lesson. They have to work on and practice and polish each lesson until it enters their muscles and bones. That doesn’t happen with one or two classes. I’ve had to develop a new sort patience while I try to make payments on this debt to my own teachers.

To my surprise, I find a special joy in seeing students grow and develop in budo, and seeing the arts flow into a new generation. There is something deeply satisfying about seeing the growth and development of a student. That’s another debt to my teachers that I will not be able to repay.

Ōn seems like a heavy burden, but it is one that is wonderful carry. How can I not be thankful for this sense of gratitude when it comes from all the wonder filled and amazing things I have received through budo practice? I even appreciate this sense of Ōn.