Showing posts with label Jodo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jodo. Show all posts

Monday, January 9, 2017

Practice In Japan


Yoshunkan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

 Practice in Japan has a different feel from training in the U.S.. In Japan, everyone is quietly intent on the training. There is no chatter, and not even much in the way of questions to Sensei about how things should be done. Keiko proceed with a smooth regularity. Everyone except the newest students knows how practice in their dojo operates, and they all work to make sure everything goes smoothly. This is not to say that everyone is already perfect - far from it. Everyone in the dojo is there to learn and train hard. Training time lacks the social element that is often present in dojo outside Japan. There is no extraneous conversation while training is going on. Before and after practice? Of course. During breaks? Sure. While actual practice is going on? Not at all.

It’s not that anyone is yelling or enforcing silence. Everyone is there for a reason and a purpose, and during practice they focus on it. No one has to tell them to focus. It’s not like the pseudo-military atmosphere I’ve seen in some dojo outside Japan, with the instructor acting as a drill sergeant, yelling at anyone who isn’t exactly in line. In most Japanese dojo, the discipline comes from within the students themselves, not from the teachers. I would be mortified if I were to be so out of line that anyone, fellow student or the teacher, felt a need to say something to me about my behavior.

Everyone who comes into the dojo has to learn the dojo routine, but no one is harassed while they are learning. New students are as quiet as senior students, maybe quieter, since they don’t want to risk offending anyone. Beginners are busy trying to learn the dojo routines and etiquette, so they don’t have much time to say anything.  Senior students are comfortable and at home in the dojo, so they they don’t need to say much.

Practice moves along at a rapid clip. Dojo in America often have a lot of chatting and talking among students, or at the other end, a rigidly enforced atmosphere of silence. Traditional dojo in Japan are quiet and focused, but lack the authoritarian feel of many large, modern dojo. You don’t see a lot of external discipline. Students are expected to know how to behave politely while they figure out the dojo customs. Teachers expect to be able to be heard and lead class without yelling.

For example, Iseki Sensei leads the jodo class, and everyone takes turn in the counting of technique repetitions while we’re working through the kihon (fundamentals) at the beginning of class. Sensei speaks loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the dojo, and no louder.

Kazuo Iseki Sensei. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

Once we finish with the kihon, Sensei splits us into senior and junior members so the seniors can act as partners for the junior students. This is something I don’t see enough of in modern dojo. The seniors use their understanding of timing, spacing and control to help the juniors get the most out of their technique and kata practice. The senior adjusts her speed and intensity to a level where the junior can practice and learn. The senior doesn’t spend much time talking to the junior; they are both focused on the training. If significant corrections need to be made the senior will make a brief comment, but that’s all that’s needed.

The teacher lets the students practice without a lot of interruption. Rarely will the whole class be stopped to make a point. The teacher will correct individual issues individually, and the rest of the class will wait for the pair being corrected to get back on track, or continue working on kata if the correction is taking more time than usual. Working with the juniors is not a sacrifice for the senior students. They are also working on the spacing, timing, and control for the tachi side.

Practice gets more interesting when Sensei has the junior members of the dojo sit down to watch while the seniors work together. This practice is intense, with the seniors working at the edge of their skill. The juniors don’t chatter while watching. They’ve learned well how to quietly observe somewhere else. They don’t have to learn that here. The seniors will all be working on different parts of the curriculum, as directed by Sensei. Sometimes Sensei will step in and act as the partner so the student can focus her  practice on a particular point. 

Traditional Japanese Swordsmanship


Through all of this the only time Sensei will yell is when he calls for a break. Most corrections are made at a conversational tone by Sensei. If one senior is helping another, the corrections are usually made at a whisper so as to not disturb anyone else’s training. The whole atmosphere is one of intensity and focus on learning. Even the juniors sitting at the side are quiet and focused on picking up as much as they can from watching the seniors practice. There is plenty to learn that way about footwork, timing, rhythm, and all the other details of the art. There is room for smiles and quiet laughter at mistakes and accidents.  Then it’s back to practice.

Talking would disturb everyone else in the dojo, and the last thing anyone in Japan wants to do is bother someone else. This doesn’t mean the dojo isn’t friendly and social, because all of the traditional dojo I’ve been in have been friendly and social. The students just recognize clear distinctions between training time and social time. The “friendly” is always there. People are genuinely concerned about their partners’ well-being. When training is over, people are very social. There are questions about how people are doing, jokes and laughter.  Often there is time for a drink together after training.

That’s after training. During training everyone trains. No one chatters or talks other than necessary. They just train. The focus is quite different from dojo I’ve been to elsewhere. Everyone shares the focus.  This is something I need to bring to the dojo where I train outside Japan.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Sweat The Small Stuff. And It's All Small Stuff.


What details do you look for when you see a photo like this? Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis



We had a really good keiko on Saturday.  It was a regular Saturday practice.  That is to say it we worked hard, sweat a lot of details, had great fun, and occasionally overloaded someone’s mind..
Sweating the details is the essence of practice. Sometimes it’s the same detail over and over. When you see that, you know you’ve got something fundamental to work on.

I jokingly told Rolf that I was going to give him the same correction on everything he did and then I nearly did it. We started talking about grip while practicing kihon waza (fundamental techniques), and it just snowballed from there.

We always start practice by reviewing the fundamental techniques of jodo. There are only 12 of them, so this serves as a good way to get our muscles warmed up and loose, while putting in some practice on the most essential techniques. Shinto Muso Ryu is a weapons art, so the connection between the practitioner and the weapon is critical.  As in so many things in budo, there are a million ways to do it wrong, and one way to do it right.

In jodo, power is transferred from the practitioner to the weapon through their connection at the hand using the last two fingers of the base hand.  The jo is a deceptively simple looking weapon.  That simplicity makes using it very complex, because you can move your hands anywhere along the weapon and even switch them around. Because the grip is mobile, it’s easy to start well and finish badly.

The grip is integral to every technique, and it’s easy to mess up. Holding and swinging a jo doesn’t look complicated. The grip is a small thing, like the tiny hinges on a huge door. If the hinges are just a little out alignment, good luck moving the door. Just as the hinges connect a door to its frame and allow it to move smoothly and easily, the grip is the connection between your body and the jo. In addition, it is the conduit by which power is transmitted from your body to the jo and from there into your training partner.

The grip is based, not in the thumb and forefinger as you might guess, but in the 5th and 4th fingers. The ones we think of as being the weakest, when used properly are the strongest. Using them properly is the trick. Using your fingers and palm properly is a complex task, and it’s one that you have to do unconsciously. If you have to think about the proper position and use of your fingers, you will be in trouble as soon as your attention is pulled in some other direction.

These small details have to be at the level of unconscious mastery before you can really begin working on the larger elements. Fortunately, most problems with grip are easy to identify when you see them being made. Using the thumb and forefinger instead of the 5th and 4th fingers. Or having your arm perpendicular to the line of the jo. Gripping too tightly. Bending your wrist too much. Thumb out of place.

You may have heard the saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” In budo we sweat the small stuff.  The longer I do this, the more I realize that it’s all small stuff.  All of the big problems have their origins in small details like the grip. That’s why we find ourselves coming back time after time to the small stuff. What angle should my foot be for the entry to harai goshi? How do I squeeze the sword with my little finger for kiri oroshi? What angle should my hips be when doing kaeshi tsuki? How do I grip the jo for honte uchi? These are all part of building a good budo structure, but each is such a small detail we easily look past it when trying to understand what is happening.

Big techniques look impressive and grab our imagination. Harai goshi is a huge throw.


But it’s built on many small details. How you grip is as important for harai goshi as it is for doing anything with a jo. The angle of your feet as you enter and set your body. The position of your hands and arms in relation to your chest can determine the success or failure of the technique. Are you on your heels, or the balls of your feet. Each is a relatively small detail, and yet each one is critical enough to ruin the technique if done wrong.

When I started judo and jodo, I saw the big techniques, the huge throws and powerful strikes. They were thrilling to watch. Through practice, my eyes have learned to see the details that make up the big techniques, and it’s the small things that amaze me now. These days I may not notice which throw someone does because I’m focused on the subtle way the are disrupting their partners structure. When I watch jodo, I know where the strike is going.  What I am trying to steal when I watch senior teachers is how they are generating the power for the strike and how they are controlling it.

The small details have big effects. So when we train, we sweat the small stuff. Of course, it’s all small stuff.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp




Friday, February 19, 2016

Upcoming seminar February 27 & 28 in NYC


I'm going to be in New York City teaching Jodo.  If anyone is interested, there are still a couple of open spaces.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kuzushi Is More Than Off Balancing


Kuzushi means “off-balancing.” Everyone knows that. It’s been translated that way for decades. Off-balancing must be an accurate translation of the word if everyone keeps using it. The truth is it’s a terrible translation.  Not the complete misdirection that is translating 柔道 as “the Gentle Way” but still pretty awful.

Kuzushi comes from the word “kuzusu 崩す” which according to the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary means “to break, pull down, tear down, knock down, whittle away at, break, change.” Judo is pretty clear about the process of throwing though, separating it into 3 steps that go kuzushi - tsukuri - kake. Tsukuri is roughly “making” and in this case is something like making the technique by getting in the right place. Kake is executing the technique. Kuzushi happens well in front of execution, so it can’t literally mean knocking something down in this case. We’re also not breaking our partner, so what are we doing?

My friend Michael Hacker likes to interpret kuzushi as “undermining the foundation.” For a long time, this was the best interpretation of kuzushi I had found. It’s quite a graphic and effective image. If you undermine the foundation of a building, it falls down under it’s own weight. If you can undermine the foundation of your partner, they will begin to fall down and all you have to do is direct your technique so they can’t recover.

I like this much better than the simple “off-balancing” that is the common translation. Getting someone off-balance is nice, but they can recover. From a tactical point, off-balancing is usually obvious to the person being attacked. If you subtly destroy the foundation of their stance though, they may not even notice that you are doing it. Often people can even be lead into compromising their own structure. If you can get someone to push or pull harder than can be supported by the foundation of their feet and legs, then you’ve undermined their foundation.

Undermining the foundation was my working concept for kuzushi for quite a while, and it helped me find the way to my current understanding. I’ve been working on a somewhat different way of thinking about kuzushi. I’ve found myself applying what I recognized as kuzushi not just when doing judo and aikido, but also when training in kenjutsu and jodo. At first it was just about getting someone off-balance or wrecking their foundation so they couldn’t resist my technique. In jodo, there are techniques where you attack your partner’s weapon, and if your attack doesn’t steal their balance for at least an instant and force them to take steps to recover, your technique has failed and you find a bokken uncomfortably close to your nose.

Then I started to envision the concept of kuzushi slightly differently. It was a combination of experiences from Aikido, Daito Ryu, Shinto Muso Ryu Jo, and several styles of kenjutsu. I found that kuzushi worked well in all of them. And not just the happo no kuzushi that is introduced in judo. Often what is happening is not the big movements described in judo classes where you are drawing, lifting or driving someone’s center of gravity away from the support of their feet and legs. It is much smaller and subtler.

That’s why I like Michael Hacker’s definition of “undermining the foundation” even as I look for something that is simpler and more generally applicable. An experience with Jim Baker, an amazing Aikido teacher, got me thinking about this more. What he does in standing kokyuho practice is lock up your body starting at your wrist when you grab him. Without any significant motion, he then locks your elbows, your shoulders, all the way down your spine, and then he makes your knee give way. I’m not sure how he does the last bit, because I can only lock someone up through the shoulders with any consistency, but he does it to me without effort. I tried to find a video of it, but there aren’t any where you can see what’s going on.

Jim isn’t attacking the foundation. He doesn’t even attack the support structure of the leg until after the upper body is completely locked up. I realized this is similar to something I do in judo to setup some throws. Often I don’t try to break my partner’s balance. For some techniques I try to set my partner up so they are well balanced, so well balanced that they can’t move to defend themselves because they’ll start to fall if they do. Then I attack.

What Jim Baker and I are both doing (though he does it much more elegantly than I) is not off-balancing our partner or undermining their foundation.. We’re destabilizing them. All the way along when I do this in judo, my partner is balanced. If I let go without throwing, she’ll stay upright because I haven’t unbalanced her.  What I have done is make her unstable, so she can’t move without starting to fall. Jim Baker does the same thing. He makes your body’s structure, the bones and joints, lock up and become unable to adjust to changes as they are designed to.

The same thing can happen with crossed weapons. A good partner can move you into an unstable structure so that you can’t do anything to respond to her. Many kata in koryu are designed to teach how to do just that, drive you into a position where you don’t have enough stability to be able to respond to your partner’s attack, create a moment where you cannot move into a safe position. This happens a lot in the higher level kata of many classical systems, although they don’t usually call what they are doing kuzushi. It’s a great term for what is happening though. They are destroying their partners stability, making it impossible to respond effectively. In Shinto Muso Ryu there a number of techniques that are only really effective when they disrupt not only your partner’s weapon, but also your partner’s stability. Maki otoshi is a good example.


Each technique by jo in the above video disrupts and momentarily destabilizes the swordsman. The first technique twists his structure to the left and off his center. The second technique, a stop strike, drives the swordsman’s head and upper body back and slightly off balance, giving jo time to attack the sword directly.  The attack on the sword is followed by maki otoshi. Maki otoshi is actually a very soft technique that done correctly, as it is here, completely disrupts the swordsman to the right. The technique destabilizes him so much that he must take a step to regain some stability. This is good kuzushi.

Our bodies are loaded with flexible joints. We maintain stability by flexing the joints and moving. In budo, good balance and stability are not about standing statically upright. Good balance and stability are dynamic. That’s why counters work so well in judo. If you attack but I retain or regain my stability I can go from being thrown to throwing you, even if I’m already in the air. In a situation like that, even without a foot on the ground, I have a stable center that I can use to destabilize you and get you airborne.  When facing a stick or sword, you can maneuver and manipulate your partner so they aren’t stable enough to resist you.

Kuzushi can be off-balancing your partner. That’s not all it is though. Kuzushi doesn’t have to be big and obvious, pulling someone off their center. It can be smaller, rearranging their posture just enough to make them unstable even while they are still balanced, and unable to respond to what is happening.  If you make someone unstable, they can’t respond to what you’re doing, and have lost. That’s kuzushi.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Koshi


I am obsessed with developing proper koshi. My iai teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, has been kicking my butt about my koshi for decades, and I’m getting so monomaniacal about it that I wonder why he hasn’t pushed me harder. Whenever I see him, he always makes point to remind to work on my koshi. He is over 90, and still has powerful koshi.

Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2013



So what is koshi? That’s a little tough, because koshi not a clearly defined medical term. Koshi includes the lower back, hips, waist and pelvis. It may be a little vague, but it’s a really good term for a critical area of the body when doing good budo.  That’s because the koshi is the platform that the upper body rest upon.  If the koshi isn’t solid, everything else will wibble-wobble around without any power or control.

Kiyama Sensei always tells me ”腰を入れて” or “put my koshi in”/”use my koshi.” This is subtly different from what people mean when they say “use your legs” or “put your back into it”. Proper use of the koshi is something more fundamental. Good koshi isn’t just about giving power, though it does that. It also gives stability in a way that is critical for being able to use the power in both your legs and your upper body.

When I swing a sword, thrust with a jo, or throw someone in judo, the quality of the technique is limited by how well I can use my koshi. It is the platform that the technique rests upon. When I swing a sword, does the weight and movement of the sword disrupt my balance and stability? If my koshi isn’t solid, it will. On the other hand, if my koshi is solid, I can increase the power and effect of my swing significantly by small movements of the koshi. The koshi ties my whole body together and allows me to direct all the power of my body into the swing of the sword, the thrust of the jo or a throw in judo.


koshi is related to what exercise instructors and trainers refer to as the “core.” The koshi combines the muscles of the lower back and the lower abdomen and ties them together with the pelvis and hips. The lower back muscles have to work with the abdominal muscles as a single unit. They can’t be fighting each other, and one can’t be overpowering the other. These muscles then attach to the pelvis from above to create a single, solid platform.

The stability of that platform is critical in whatever form of budo you are doing.  Most beginners using a sword will tend to sway back and forth like a metronome when they swing the sword. As a beginner swings the sword down, her body is pulled forward from its balanced position. As she raises the sword back over her head her body comes back to center and sometimes even sways past center to the rear.  Without a stable koshi, the beginner has no balance and no control.

The same problem arises when thrusting with a jo.  A martial artist who doesn’t know how to apply her koshi tends to thrust with just her arms, or worse, tries to power the thrust by tipping her upper body into the thrust. This doesn’t increase the power of the thrust, but it does leave her badly off balance and unable to do anything until she has pulled her upper body back over her koshi.

On the other hand, if you power a weapons thrust by driving forward with the legs and transmit that movement and leg power through the koshi to the upper body to the arms and then the weapon, you get a very powerful technique that can actually pick up and move someone (if you can find an uke who is willing to suffer through this). The koshi has to be rock solid for this to work. If there is some point where the hips, pelvis, abdomen and lower back aren’t properly connected, the moment your thrust encounters solid resistance everything will fall apart. Without a solid koshi, when you thrust into a solid partner (someone with great koshi!), your own energy will force your upper body to bend back, away from the target, even as your legs and hips are driving forward. This is disasterous.  The thrust loses any effect on the target and instead knocks you backward and off balance.

Koshi is fundamental. Nowhere is this more true than in empty hand arts. I was watching some budo demonstrations on youtube, and what consistently stood out to me was that nobody had good koshi.  Everyone demonstrating had weak koshi.  Their bodies were all over the place.  Whenever tori threw uke or took him to the ground in a pin or joint control, tori was leaning into the technique instead of driving with his legs and koshi.

I’m a judoka. If you lean into a throw or a pin, it becomes trivially simple for uke to take control from you and reverse the situation. With a judoka that can mean that three-quarters of the way through the technique, when you are sure uke is going down, you suddenly find yourself in flight going over and past uke before you hit the ground.



So how do you develop koshi? The most obvious first step is to have a solid core. That’s not complicated or mysterious.  There are thousands of sites and videos that detail exercises for building a strong core. I’m not going to spend time going over that ground. I will talk about learning to feel and use your koshi well. The first check is to stand up.

Just stand up, close your eyes and feel where your head and shoulders are in relation to your hips. Because the koshi are so fundamental to everything we do, small changes in the angle and relationship between your koshi and the rest of your body can have outsized effects on your stability and technique.  Where are your hips and pelvis? Odds are if you dropped a plumb line from the base of your neck, your hips would be a little behind it.  

That’s not where you want it. You want your hips and pelvis under your shoulders and your shoulders under your head. Take a look at the video of Kim Taylor above. He does a strike with the tsuka of the sword yet his shoulders and head are never in front of his koshi. All the power of his koshi is punching right through the end of the tsuka. The same thing happens when he turns and does the thrust with the sword. He doesn’t over extend his arm.  He doesn’t lean forward from the waist. He pushes the sword forward from his koshi.

That’s where the real power comes from.  Find where your koshi is, and then adjust it to where it should be. Can you feel the difference? Get familiar with that feeling. Really learn how it feels to stand like that. Now try walking.

It’s more difficult than we expect to move from our koshi when we walk because we have all sorts of habits from everyday life. These make walking difficult to do without paying a lot of attention to it. The upside is that walking is something we do all the time. We don’t have to go to the dojo, and we don’t need a skilled uke to practice moving with good koshi. We can practice this any time we walk, even at work.

The first thing to practice is just walking while maintaining a stable, connected koshi. This is the first step towards having a solid koshi to apply to budo. When you walk, do your head and shoulders stay over your koshi? Or are you a citizen of the 21st century whose head is permanently tilted forward and down, ready to check your iPhone at a moment’s notice? Can you duplicate the feeling of stability you have when standing still with a solid koshi while walking normally?  Once you get that, you’ll be ready to start introducing good koshi into your budo.

Koshi alone isn’t everything, but without good use of koshi, it’s difficult to progress in your practice. 


I want to give a bow of thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman more editing and advice on this one. You can read her excellent martial arts blog at http://resobox.com/author/deborah-klens-bigman/ 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How To Be A Good Uke



In most systems of budo, it takes two people to train. On one side is the person studying the technique or kata.  The other person is not the teacher.  The other person is their uke 受け.  Having a good uke to train with is as important as having a good teacher.  The problem is, a good uke can be as difficult to find as a good teacher.

Uke is your training partner.  Just as in most things budo, there really is no consistency of terminology.  So aikido and judo use uke 受け.  Kenjutsu systems often use uchitachi 打太刀.  Another terms you may hear are aite 相手 or partner.  You might sometimes hear teki 敵 or enemy, but that’s not accurate or appropriate when talking about the people you train with.

For the person doing the techniques, I’m partial to the judo term tori 取り, because it implies taking form from chaos (randori anyone?).  For now, I’ll use tori to indicate the person doing the practicing.

I’ve see lots of descriptions of good ukes, such as : “provides committed attack,” “Gives sincere attacks.”  I don’t find these descriptions very helpful.  What’s a “sincere” attack? On the other side, why does an attack have to be committed to be effective.  Believe me, even a half hearted attack with a sword or knife or crowbar will do plenty of damage.  I’ve heard people say that uke has to understand why he has to lose in practice.  The problem with that is that this is practice. There is no winning or losing. If people are caught up in worrying about winning and losing during practice, they’ve missed the point of practice.

I’ve written before about what a good uke is, and I’ve seen other good writings on the subject. Steve Delaney has an excellent article.  What is missing seems to be direction on how to be a good uke or uchitachi.  Hopefully we can get a conversation going.

The first thing a good uke does is understand that this is not a fight and it’s not a competition.  This is often overlooked or underemphasized by teachers. We have to emphasize to students that this is practice,keiko 稽古, renshu 練習.  This should help to get rid of some of the ego I see floating around so thickly in many dojo.  As soon as people learn enough to be able to hinder or stop tori’s technique, they do. That’s not practice anymore.

Uke’s job is to facilitate their partner’s training. That means giving them access to their body so they can complete the technique or kata being practiced. If uke makes it so difficult that tori can’t do anything, it’s not practice. On the other hand, if uke is so limp that tori can do anything without effort or challenge, that’s not practice either.  Uke’s job is not to give committed, or sincere attacks. Uke’s job is to give appropriate attacks.  

Once people understands that this is about learning and not competing or showing how strong they are, they can start learning how to be an uke.  Good ukes don’t just attack. If the attack is a strike, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all attack.  What is an overpowering and uselessly powerful attack on a beginner, may be ridiculously over-committed and telegraphed for a senior student. In both cases, the attack is wrong.

Being uke is a significant job and it takes far more thought and effort to do properly than most people give to it. It seems simple.  Whatever the designated attack is, uke does. Boom. Simple. Wrong. Uke starts with the designated attack, and then decides how much warning she will give. Will she telegraph the start of the attack so tori has lots of time to react and adjust, or will she hold back all indication of the attack for a while.  A big, telegraphed attack is great for beginners and public demonstrations, and just about nothing else.  As tori becomes more and more capable, uke has to consider tori’s ability and make the attack more and more difficult to detect.

Once the attack has begun, how fast should it be?  If tori is a beginner, or if the technique is unfamiliar, slow it down a few notches. As tori demonstrates the ability to handle a slow attack, then you can pick up the speed a little to the point where tori has to work at doing it right. Not too much though.  If uke attacks so fast that tori can’t do the technique properly, it’s not practice anymore.  Practice means doing it right.  Forcing tori to work beyond their ability is stealing their practice time from them.  If tori can’t do the technique under the conditions uke provides, uke is wasting tori’s time.

This applies whether the attack is a strike with the hand,  grab on the wrist, a cut with a sword, or blow with a stick. If the attack is a grab, grab with what you think is an appropriate amount of force.  If tori can’t do the technique, let up a little until she can. If she can do the technique, add a little more to the grab, or ask if she would like a stronger grab or more resistance. I’ve got enough experience that I can manage my own training.  I’ll tell my uke, “Please be stiffer at that point.” or “Please resist a little more.” or whatever is necessary to raise the difficulty of the technique for me to a point where I am being challenged and can practice the element that needs polishing.

This sort of communication is, to me, essential for good training and learning for both tori and uke. Particularly when it is a senior tori working with a junior uke, this kind of communication gives the person learning the uke role the feedback she needs to become a better uke. Many dojo, whether aikido or judo or other art, don’t take the time to train people how to be uke. This feedback is important, and ukes need it. I appreciate all the times I have been uke and my teachers or partners have told me what I needed to do to be a better uke at that moment. It has helped me learn a lot about being a good uke.

Uke is a tough job. We have to think about it. We have to give the right attack, at the right speed, and in the right place.  This is another important aspect of being uke that I don’t think gets enough attention. Whether the attack is a strike with the fist, a thrust with a knife,  a sword cut, or a blow with a stick, it has to be accurate. Tori is trying to learn how to deal with an genuine attack. If their uke only offers attacks that would never be on target because they don’t want to hurt tori, they’re already hurting her. This sort of attack robs tori of the opportunity to learn real maai, or spacing.  Pulling your attack short, or swinging to one side, doesn’t help tori learn anything.  If you are worried about hurting tori, attack more slowly, but keep it accurate. Once you’re confident tori can handle the attack slowly, pick up the pace slightly.  Keep doing this, always maintaining the accuracy of your attack, and you’ll find out what tori can handle without hurting her.

I often read in aikido circles that people want “committed” attacks. What seems to be meant by this are what I would describe as off-balance, over-committed attacks. Uke seems to be throwing themselves at tori instead of attacking. Just because you are attacking doesn’t mean you have to give up the balance, posture and structure that you train so hard to develop. The first problem with this is that you rob tori of the chance to learn to break your balance. That’s a really important lesson, absolutely fundamental in judo. When you’re working with a beginner, you don’t go all out resisting their efforts to take your balance, but you don’t attack without any balance either.  They have to have the opportunity to practice taking your balance.

Once students get past the initial phase of learning, then uke can attack with a more and more stable structure, giving tori a consistently more challenging kuzushi puzzle to figure out.  Again, don’t be impossible, just be challenging enough that tori has to work for it.  This requires uke to consider what they are doing.  What lesson is tori working on? Will it help tori if uke maintains the same level of stability and increases the speed, or will it be better if uke slows down a little and increases their structural stability?  Being uke isn’t easy, and sometimes it helps to ask tori “How do you want this attack?”

Once you get comfortable with varying the speed and intensity of your actions as uke, and you’re working with an experienced tori, you can start messing around with the rhythm as well. I think my seniors enjoy pulling this one on me. They will subtly change the rhythm of their attack, drawing me into attacking a half step too early, or waiting a heartbeat too long. Either way, they’ve got me. If I attack too soon, uke evades and there is nothing for me but empty air. Wait too long, and I find a sword tip a millimeter from my nose before I can do anything.

This is great practice for more advanced tori, and it does require an advanced uke as well. This is what any uke should be striving towards though.  Tori can’t learn effectively without a good uke. To be a good uke, you have to constantly be considering how you should attack to give tori the best learning opportunity you can. Uke controls the speed, the intensity, the strength and the rhythm of the training.  This means that on every repetition uke has to think about how fast, how intense, how strong and what rhythm the attack should be. Uke should never attack on auto-pilot. Every attack has to be a considered for tori’s benefit (and uke’s safety. Attacking on autopilot is a good way for things to go very wrong for uke).

Uke’s role may be even more important than the teachers when it comes to how well tori learns things.  The teacher can demonstrate and correct, but it is with uke that tori does the homework where the real learning takes place.  Uke has a huge amount of responsibility.  It’s not enough for uke to just throw out whatever attack is called for without thinking about it. Uke has to chose the right mixture of technical elements so tori can get the best, most focused practice on the elements that particular person is working on.  This means considering how fast or slow the technique should be. How much should uke telegraph the attack so tori learns to read uke’s body better? How strong should uke be in this case? Is tori working on smoothing out their technique, in which case fast but not overly strong attack might be called for.  Or is tori working on refining balance breaking or initiative stealing, which might mean they want a slower but more solid, stable attack from uke. Every tori is working on different things and needs uke to adjust their attack to the individual tori. Individual tori work on a lot of different areas too, so uke has to adjust not only from tori to tori, but from moment to moment as the same tori works on different aspects of their technique.

Being a good uke is at least as important an role as that of the teacher, and requires as much focus and attention to what you are doing as being tori does.  Please make the effort to be a good uke. Your training partners will appreciate it, and you might even find that the effort put in makes the rest of your technique better as well.

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.