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

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Test Day

Shudokan Dojo, Osaka, Japan.  Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.
Last November I took a rank test in All Japan Kendo Federation Jodo. Getting ready for my test in November I spent a week in Osaka training several hours every day with my teachers. I didn’t know if I was ready for the test or not, but a week before the big day we started daily practice. By the end of the week I felt like I might have an outside chance of passing. Matsuda Shihan, Morimoto Shihan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei had all worked hard to drag me up to the level needed to pass the exam.

The test was held at the Shudokan Dojo on the grounds of Osaka Castle.  The dojo was reserved for the testing for the whole day. My friend Bijan and I got there early, but we still didn’t beat Iseki Sensei. He was waiting for us when we arrived. We registered, found a spot to put our gear and then got changed. There were a lot of people testing, including 12 for 4th dan and 5 for 5th dan. We started warming up and practicing on the floor where the test would be just to get used to the space and hopefully calm down a little.

As time passed before the test more and more people, both test takers and spectators, arrived. Bijan and I had lots of support. Iseki Sensei and our training partner Fujita San was there.  My friend Tadokoro Sensei came to cheer me on. I was surprised and honored that Fukuma Sensei came as well.  At 90 years of age, he is still strong and active and training jodo regularly. Everyone seemed to have at least a few supporters.

The test committee consisted of five 7th dan teachers.  To pass the test, you had to get a  passing mark from at least 3 of the 5. There would be 2 pairs demonstrating at a time in front of the judges. Each person had to demonstrate both the tachi and jo sides of 5 kata with randomly selected partners. The five kata required were different for each rank being tested for, but they had been announced months before the test, so there was plenty of time to prepare.

The test takers were called to line up by rank, and we were issued numbers to wear so the judges could identify us. The numbering also let us figure out who our partners would be for demonstrating the tachi and jo sides of the test. My partner for the demonstrating the tachi side was a tall gentleman about my size and age. Fo demonstrating the jo side, I was partnered with a small women who appeared a few years older than me. Once we figured out who we would be partnered with for each demonstration we grabbed our partners and started practicing together to get comfortable with each other.

The tall gentleman and I adjusted to each other without too much trouble. We had similar reach and power. We ran through the kata so he could get used to me as his tachi and I could adjust to his jo. The lady and I didn’t mesh as well. I was having trouble shrinking my technique to fit her, and she was having difficulty adapting to my stride.  We kept at it though and started making progress towards working well together.

Order Musings Of A Budo Bum

While we were doing that, apparently the judges and organizers were watching us, because at some point one of the organizers pulled us aside and told us they were changing the partnering  a little. The lady got paired with someone closer to her size, and I was partnered with someone closer to mine. The rule is that you take whoever they give you as a partner, but it seems they didn’t want to make adjusting to your partner too large a hurdle.

My new partner was a bit smaller than I, but quite a bit larger than the lady I had been working with. My now former partner seemed relieved not to have to work with me, and I’ll admit I was glad to work with someone who was easy to adapt myself to.  We started practicing right away because there wasn’t much time before the testing began.

Not long after this we were called to order again, and the testing began. It started with the lowest rank being tested that day, ikkyu, and would finish with the 5th dan testing. This meant I got to see everyone else test before my turn arrived.The ikkyu candidates demonstrated kihon techniques and the their designated kata. Then the shodan candidates did their designated 5 kata, both jo side and tachi side. Then all the nidan candidates.

I kept looking at the clock and wondering how we would get everything done by lunchtime. I’m sure my friends could all tell my mental state by how frequently I looked up at the clock. Bijan and I were both eager to take our tests and be done. I’m sure my blood pressure went up steadily while other people took their tests and the hands on the clock sped around.

The sandan candidates filed onto the floor, two pairs at a time at a time, and demonstrated their designated 5 kata. Then the head tachiai, the person calling out the directions for the testing called a break for lunch. I really wanted to get this over with, and now we had a hour for lunch. Because Shudokan Dojo is on the grounds of Osaka Castle, there are yakisoba and takoyaki stands next to it serving all the tourists. Those of us who had not packed hearty lunches, like me and Bijan, bought some yakisoba noodles or takoyaki squid balls and headed over to one of the castle walls where our friends and teachers and fellow dan challengers were gathered eating and sharing treats with each other.

We sat down with everyone and somehow started to relax. It was refreshing to be out of the dojo and not counting down the people ahead of us who had yet to test. For those who think that traditional Japanese budo teachers have to be tough and stoic and never smile, this would have been a shock. All our teachers and friends had brought extra treats to pass around, and everyone was laughing and joking. When the cameras came out, the smiles got wider and and laughter got louder. I’d needed this more than I knew. I’m sure I had wound myself tight watching everyone test all through the morning. The smiles and laughter gently eased a lot of the tension out of me.

After lunch it was just the 4th dan and 5th dan tests. There were twelve 4th dan candidates in 3 groups and five 5th dan candidates separated into 2 groups. When the testing started back up, they called all the 4th and 5th dan candidates together. While the 4th dan candidates lined up and walked to the test area, the 5th dan candidates lined up and sat in chairs directly in front of the test floor facing the judges on the other side of it. From here we had a great view of the 4th dan tests, though I admit I don’t remember much of what I saw at this point. I was cycling through the 5 kata that were designated for my test. The 5th dan test consisted of the ZNKR Jo Kata 8-12.

As the 4th dan challengers finished up, they moved us to ready chairs next to right of the test floor. I was the youngest in my group, so I was up first.  This meant I would demonstrate tachi and then cycle around to do the jo. My partner for this portion of the test and I walked out onto the floor as we had been instructed, arranged our extra weapons at the side and waited for the direction to begin. The first kata, Tachi Otoshi, went well I seem to recall. The opening for the next kata I very nearly blew.  To be sure I did the right kata in the right order I was focusing on the initial attack, which is a cut to the upper arm. I was launching straight into the attack when I realized I hadn’t done the awase with the jo yet. Somehow I managed to turn the premature attack into a simple matching with the jo, though I don’t believe anyone missed it what had actually happened. I’m very sure the judges all caught it.

After that big hiccup the kata went smoothly. At least, I don’t remember any other major stumbles, though there were a few minor errors of timing and spacing. Being that my partner and I had done the kata together for the first time that morning, I’m not surprised. We even got through all of Ran Ai without any mishaps. If there is a kata where things will go wrong, Ran Ai is it.  It’s several times longer than any other kata in the ZNKR syllabus, providing plenty of chances for me to screw up. Somehow, I didn’t.

My partner and I finished and waited for the tachiai’s direction to leave the floor. I carefully left as we had been taught, and picked up my jo while my partner exchanged his jo for a tachi so he could do the tachi role with the next candidate. Doing those 5 kata at that level of intensity had left me flushed, sweating and breathing hard. I worked at getting my breathing and my mind calm and relaxed. Since I wouldn’t need it again, I put my tachi down at the corner of the mat and circled back around the test floor to chairs on the right where candidates waited until it was their turn to demonstrate.  I set down and watched the next couple of demonstrations, but I don’t remember anything except that the head judge looked terribly severe.

Then it was finally my turn to demonstrate the jo side. I tried to walk out with presence and dignity. At the very least I managed to not trip over my hakama. The tachiai called out the commands to begin. My tachi partner raised his sword, and I held my position in tsune no kamae. I waited for tachi to approach and when he came in range I began my movements.  I’d go into more detail, but I think I was too busy testing to remember much. I do recall being shocked to realize while doing the zanshin on our second kata that everyone in the room was watching us.  It hadn’t occurred to me before, but this was the very last test segment of the day, and the other group of challenging for 5th dan had already finished. There was nothing else to do but watch us. Somehow I made it through the last 3 kata without any significant hiccups, even with the realization that so many people whom I look up to were watching.

We finally finished the last cut and strike of Ran AI, managed our bows and exited the floor, again, without tripping over my hakama or my feet.  It wasn’t a perfect test, but nobody looked like I had embarrassed them, and no one tried to offer me condolences, so I figured it was ok.  Pass or fail, I had already accomplished my real goal, which was to not embarrass my teachers with a weak test.

All the test challengers changed out of their hakama and got drinks. We sat around chatting and discussing the test conditions while the judges went off to discuss the tests behind closed doors. After a week of intensive preparation it was a relief to be done and not have to think about it for a while.  Even if I didn’t pass, it would be 6 months before I could try again.

Eventually the judges finished their meeting and posted the results. Somehow I had managed to present an acceptable demonstration, and the judges passed me. I was so relieved and excited it took me moment to remember to check to see if Bijan had passed as well.  He had!  All our sweat and sore muscles for the past week paid off in wonderful exhaustion. After receiving congratulations from everyone who had helped us prepare, and all our friends who had come to cheer us on, we hurried over to the officials’ desk to take care of the registration paperwork.  All that was left was to wait for the official rank certificates to be issued and mailed to us.

Now it was time for the best part of the day. Everyone we had come with gathered at a nearby restaurant and we celebrated.


A couple of weeks ago, I repeated the experience. I was in Pennsylvania for the AUSKF Jodo Shinsa. I arrived a few days before the shinsa so I could prepare myself. The day before the shinsa the group of us who were taking part all gathered together so we could review things and make sure we were all on the same page. We spent the day reviewing the kata together and preparing ourselves.

The next morning we got up and spend more time running through the kata and getting ready.  Before the test we reviewed the test procedures; the proper way to bow, the proper way to enter, and how to present ourselves with dignity. Then it was time for the actual test.

We bowed in, walked onto the floor and took our places. The test went smoothly.  I didn’t hyperventilate, or trip over myself or otherwise make myself look like a fool. There was one significant difference between this test and the one I had passed in November. This time I was judging the tests. It felt almost the same though.

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.

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


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 

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.