Showing posts with label Judo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Judo. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Are You Practicing Budo in a Vacuum?

Osaka Castle Main Tower. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


I love visiting Japan. It’s a fantastic opportunity to train in dojo where there are several senior students, each with more experience than most teachers in the USA. The teachers who lead these dojo are incredible.  My teacher, Matsuda Shigeharu Shihan is based in Osaka. He doesn’t run his own dojo, but rotates around a group of dojo run by his senior students, people like Kazuo Iseki and Hotani Masayuki. Outside Japan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei would each be highly recognized, but inside Japan they run dojo and look to Matsuda Shihan for leadership. I also get to train sometimes with Matsuda Shihan’s colleague Morimoto Kunifumi Shihan.  To get to train with these people, who have 40, 50 or 60 years of experience truly is an honor and a privilege.  

However, this post isn’t about my teachers, or even training in Japan. It’s about the frame and background that surrounds them. I’ve seen people try to practice budo without putting any effort into understanding the history and cultural background of the art they are studying. To me, they are studying budo in a vacuum. It can be argued that fighting can be learned without studying the cultural milieu within which it takes place, but I don’t think the arguments are very convincing.  Without understanding the culture and history of your opponent, you will not be able to understand her goals, which leads to misjudging what tactics and strategies are most appropriate.

Budo wasn’t created in a vacuum by a bunch of guys with vivid imaginations. Budo comes from a concrete world of sweat and blood. The world of the founders of the many ryuha  was filled with obstacles that could block your weapon if you didn’t pay attention to your surroundings.  Even your own weapons and clothing could interfere with your ability to react.

The many different schools of Japanese budo are impossible to truly understand and appreciate without  understanding the history and culture which nurtured and contributed to the individual schools. There are dozens of surviving schools of Japanese budo; some with histories from the 1400s like Kashima Shinryu and Katori Shinto, as well as other,  more recently developed schools, such as Kodokan Judo and Ueshiba Ryu Aikido. Each of these schools shares a great deal of Japanese culture, but they also each have a unique history that informs the particular values of the school.  The circumstances that surrounded the founding of a school in the tumultuous era of the 15th century were different in almost every way from those that led to Kano Jigoro founding Kodokan Judo in the 1880s or Ueshiba Morihei establishing his Aikido in the 1940s.

When I go to Japan, it’s an opportunity to immerse myself in the unbelieveable depth of experience in the dojo, but also to soak myself in the culture and history that has shaped the arts I study. When I went to Japan in November, I had a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of Japan that has influenced the budo I study and practice.



I arrived in Japan on a Saturday evening and spent much of Sunday getting adjusted to the time change and doing some jodo training. On Monday morning I got up and headed over to Osaka Castle Park. I wanted to see the dojo I’d be testing in the following Sunday, and see Osaka Castle itself.  Somehow, in nearly 30 years of traveling to Japan, seven of them spent living there, I’d never gotten around to seeing Osaka Castle. It’s the site of some of the most horrific and important battles in Japanese history. The castle tower has been built, destroyed and rebuilt several times, but visiting the castle and the surrounding park provides good perspective on the Japan of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Osaka Castle Main Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


Osaka Castle Inner Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


The castle tower is big.  It was easily the tallest object around for hundreds of years. What is more amazing are the walls and fortifications around the tower.  These are massive, and they easily give a feel for the huge armies that were involved in the wars of the 1500s that raged back and forth across Japan.The idea of carrying a sword and being part of those huge armies changes the view of what combat might have been like.

 
Shudokan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016
 
As it happens, the Shudokan Dojo, where I was to test, is part of the Osaka Castle Park complex now.  It’s a lovely building from the Showa Period (1926-1989) built just for budo practice.  I wanted to check out the interior where my test would be, but the dojo didn’t open until later in the afternoon when I would be training with Hotani Sensei.  The outside of the building was lovely, and the sign said anyone was welcome to practice for just 300 yen. What can be rare and hard to find in America is open to anyone in Japan with 300 yen and an interest in budo. 
After several days of training, I was starting to get a little sore.  I needed a break.  So before keiko that Tuesday we went to Kiyomizu Temple to do some sightseeing.  Kiyomizu Temple is at the site of an ancient spring with pure water used for sado, tea ceremony.  The temple complex is about 1200 years old, though the current buildings date from the late 1600s. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most picturesque places in Kyoto, so it’s always filled with tourists from all over Japan and the world.

Kiyomizu Temple overlooking Kyoto. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.



Recently, it’s become popular rent traditional clothing to walk Kyoto in. This is a new trend that I like. There were lots and lots of women in kimono, and even a few men in hakama. The city of Kyoto has worked hard to maintain its traditional buildings and architecture, and the tourists in traditional clothing fit right in. It’s not hard to imagine how the temple and city must have looked when everyone dressed that way.

Ladies in kimono at Kiyomizu Temple. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


After walking through Kiyomizu Temple, my friend Bijan and I and walked around the small shopping streets from the temple to Maruyama Park. The road leading up to Kiyomizu Temple from Maruyama Park is, in this era, really a foot path, even though locals and delivery trucks insist on pushing their way through the crowds. It’s lined with small, traditional snack shops, green tea ice cream vendors, and traditional craft shops of all sorts. I bought some lovely tenugui at a little shop along the way.  When I asked the man at the register how long the shop has been there, he told me that he’s the 6th generation owner. This is not at all unusual in Kyoto, and helps bring alive the idea that the living traditions handed down carefully from generation to generation that we train in aren’t all that rare in Japan. Besides shops, there all sorts of crafts where the living masters trace their lineage back generations and hundreds of years. Kabuki, Noh, potters, painters, sword makers and sword teachers can all trace their lineages back through the centuries. In places like Kyoto, this sense of age permeates the atmosphere and brings a sense of the normalcy of such things to those of us from countries that  are younger than the arts we study.

Wandering from Kiyomizu Temple to Maruyama Park also makes some of the kata I’ve studied over the years much more practical and less philosophical. Many of the homes and store complexes have an actual gate or mon 門. If you have a kata in your system with the word mon  in the name, such as Mon Ire in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or Muso Shinden Ryu, you can easily see why there are particular kata for fighting around a gate. The top of the gate is low and the space is not very big. You have to be careful just walking through the gate, much less trying to fight there.

Another feature of old Japanese cities are the narrow streets. I know several bugei systems with a kata called Hoso Michi 細道, or Narrow Street. The street from the temple to the park is only about 10 feet (3 meters) wide, and there are many little streets connecting to it that are only 3-6 feet (1-2 meters) wide. After you see just how many narrow streets there are in a traditional Japanese city like Kyoto, the only surprise with having kata called Hoso Michi is that there aren’t a lot more of them. There are little tiny alleyways everywhere.

The path leads past all sorts of little, traditional shops and many small temples in addition to Kiyomizu Temple.  We had a lovely sushi lunch in one.  Sushi as we know it isn’t all that old, only really dating from the mid-19th century, but some of the senbei and dango shops, like the place where I bought the tenugui, have been there for generations. Being able to walk the streets this way, you can feel the atmosphere of centuries past, and now, thanks to all the tourists wearing kimono and hakama, you can get sense of how the people may have looked as well.

Budo, like any living tradition, and any living person, has been shaped by the culture and history through which it has passed.  You can’t study budo in a vacuum. Without understanding where budo comes from, there is no way to really understand what you are doing or how those lessons might apply to the world as it has become. Those funky kata are just arm waving exercises until you can clearly see the world they came from and how they fit. Without that, there isn’t any way to connect what you are studying and practicing with the world you live in. Even the modern budo of judo and kendo are more than 100 years old in their current forms. Aikido isn’t quite 100 yet, but some of its elements are from far older traditions. Shiko, knee walking, goes back to particular styles of court dress from the Edo period. Judo contains kata against weapons of the Edo and early Meiji eras. Kendo, is, well, a sword art.

If you don’t know how the art you study relates to the world it came from, what possibility is there for you to relate it to the world outside the dojo you live in? This is especially true in the koryu bugei, but as in the examples above, it relates to more modern budo as well. In the Shinto Hatakage Ryu that I teach, there is a strange little movement during the noto that doesn’t make a lot of sense as iai is usually practiced. Iai is usually practiced with just a katana in the obi, but that’s not how the samurai who created the art and lived it for generations dressed.  They wore two swords, a katana and what we call today a wakizashi, a short sword worn beside the katana. That strange little motion looks like silly arm waving, and it is. At least, it is until you put a wakizashi in your obi next to the katana. Then the motion makes perfect sense as you maneuver around the wakizashi to get the katana back into the saya without banging the swords or your wrist. There’s a lesson here about being aware of your surroundings and moving in accordance with them that shows up in many places in budo kata, regardless of which ryuha you are studying.

The lessons of budo kata and training aren’t meant to be particular. You’re not learning about how to wield your sword in an alleyway in Japan, or how to fight in and around the gate of a traditional Japanese home. The kata chosen in any ryuha represent specific examples of general problems.  How do you draw your sword in obstructed spaces? How do you move in loose, baggy clothing, or be aware of obstacles in your environment? If you think of each kata and lesson as an isolated instance, there is no way to understand and absorb everything it has to offer. Knowing the history and background of a kata makes it possible to extract general rules from specific lessons. There is no way to make a kata for every possible variation. There isn’t enough time in one life to study every possible scenario. The creators of budo chose lessons that could be extrapolated from individual kata to the whole panoply of life.

Generations ago when the budo ryuha were being created, these general lessons were easier to pick up because the specific practices were drawn from daily life. Now we have to study not just the kata, but the history and settings of the kata before we can extract all the lessons they contain.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Cross Training



What is the value of cross training?  Why do I consider it essential to development as a budoka?

There are tremendous benefits to getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that are new and different. Every art is built on assumptions about the armament, training and intentions of your imagined opponents.  Judo is great against the kind of attacks that are assumed. Judo training against weapons is pretty lousy. Shinto Muso Ryu is fabulous against guys with swords. We’re a little less sure of what to do against spears and grapplers.  

Classical Japanese systems originated in an era when people were assumed to be armed, and wearing armor was common.  For both reasons, empty hand striking arts never got started.  It wasn’t until Okinawan empty hand arts were brought to the main islands of Japan that empty hand striking was seriously considered. By the time that happened in the early 20th Century, armor was mostly relegated to history and Japanese society was peaceful enough that few people went about armed.

Martial arts developed to solve specific problems. The great sogo budo 総合武道 of Japanese history - arts such as Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinto Ryu and Kashima Shinryu - all evolved in a particular era with very clear needs. In the centuries before the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan and enforced peace, war was the norm. Warriors were not specialists, but generalists, learning a variety of weapons in systems where the fundamental principles were applied to everything, whether they were armed or empty handed. Combatants were most worried about surviving battles where they would be armored and facing a variety of weapons and foes.

After the Tokugawa forces brought peace to Japan with musket barrels, martial arts continued to be practiced. New arts arose to suit the new conditions with different expectations. The concern was no longer armored foes on the battlefield, but duelists, angry drunks, thieves and rebellious peasants. The arts that developed in this period reflect very different expectations about the sort of violence people would face.

Every art makes assumptions.  Sometimes we don’t even notice them. When I first started judo, a friend who was doing an art that makes different assumptions showed me some of my assumptions about what people would and would not do. I then learned that competitive judo’s assumptions about the opponent’s face don’t travel well. It’s a good thing to have your assumptions challenged.

Competitive judo has a polite rule about not attacking the face.  It’s a nice rule, particularly for all the randori (grappling sparring in judo) that we do. Going to work and going on dates with a face covered in bruises all the time would be less than ideal.  When you train like that all the time though, It’s easy to forget that not attacking the face is nothing more than a polite agreement between practitioners.  My friend Paul didn’t train in an art with any such agreements, so he casually reached up and moved my face.

Forgetting that these sorts of assumptions are made for the safety and comfort of long term practice is simply and quickly corrected by training with folks who have different standards of what is polite and respectful practice. Being a judo guy, training with a friend who does TKD does wonders for exploding unconscious assumptions on both sides. Judoka don’t have an aversion to getting a hit a few times if that will allow them to close and throw. Strikers will be happy to make a mess of your face long before you get close enough to throw them.  Strategies that work well in the narrow confines of your home art can become disastrous as soon as you step out of the dojo.

A little cross training can open up whole vistas of realizations. Judoka make all sorts of assumptions for training purposes that are silly outside the dojo but are perfectly reasonable from the perspective of making regular training safe.  For example, we don’t make an assumption about when the fight is over.  It’s over when both people agree it’s over, especially in dojo randori where you’re not competing for points. That became interesting for me when I started training with aikidoka  from time to time.  Many people in aikido assumed that once uke was off balance and being thrown, the action was over. I didn’t know about that assumption, so I surprised quite a few people when I  counter attacked while being thrown or even as I was being slammed into the mat. That’s not a problem with aikido, it’s a problem with training. Since then I’ve gotten to know some great aikidoka with exposure to judo. They enjoy my attempts to counter attack in the middle of their techniques, and the challenge of finding ways to stop me.

Another eye opening experience was when I took up jodo. I’d played with some methods of taking weapons in judo and aikido. I thought I understood something. Then I started training with jo and sword. I quickly came to a new understanding. I understood nothing about weapons, spacing with weapons, or timing.  Unarmed spacing and timing is a different beast from armed spacing and timing. My teachers could reach me at distances where I was sure I was safe. That staff was in my face before I was even aware they were moving.

You don’t have to go so far as to take up another art to gain significantly from cross training. I’ve learned loads from getting thrown around by my friend Chuck (yes, that’s really his name). Chuck does an interesting style of jujutsu, and he was happy to test all of my assumptions and preconceptions. I would say brilliant things like “You can’t do that.” and Chuck would promptly do it to me. I’ve been rolled, pinned, mashed and chucked all around the dojo, learning the whole time. I haven’t taken up studying Chuck’s style of jujutsu, but I’ve learned loads from playing with him.

Just doing something outside your specialty can open your eyes and clear out myths. Kim Taylor used to host the best cross-training event I’ve ever been to.  He invited all sorts of senior teachers from various koryu to Guelph, and we’d each teach a 2 hour introduction to some aspect of our art. Then we’d go try everyone else’s stuff. In one weekend I got to do jujutsu and naginata, a couple of styles of iai, maybe some jutte or spear, and a little kyudo. Afterwards we’d all go out for dinner and quiz each other about everything we’d seen and try to get answers to some of the million or so questions that leapt into our minds while we were trying all of this new stuff.  I saw experienced aikidoka go from thinking they knew something about swords to deciding that they really needed to take up a sword art. I saw sword people conclude that some of those “dinky” weapons weren’t so silly after all. Lots of people from all sorts of arts developed an interest in jodo.  A particularly thick-skulled judoka who was sure he’d seen pretty much all there was to see in Japan got schooled in just how limited his experience really was. For three days we’d train and ask questions and then train and ask questions some more. No claims of superiority, just loads of honest curiosity and a willingness to have all of our assumptions and preconceptions shattered.

I believe cross training is critical to fully developing your understanding of budo. If you only do one thing, that’s fine. If you only know about one thing though, that’s not. Get out of the safe zone of your dojo and go play with folks who do something different. We all look great at home where everyone moves and reacts the way we assume they should. What happens when people don’t move and react as we expect? Does our art fail us, or do we fail our art? If we don’t get out and challenge our own assumptions by cross training from time to time, we fail our art.

Having preconceptions and making assumptions about what will work and why is unavoidable as long as we’re human. Not doing anything to challenge those preconceptions and assumptions though is is a sad failure of our duty to our arts and ourselves. It’s especially sad when it’s so easy to find a way to check our thinking. Sign up for an open seminar with a different martial art. If you do empty hand stuff, try a weapons art. If you only do weapons, try an empty hand art. Step out of your safe zone and do something completely different. You may be amazed at what it can teach you about your art.







Saturday, July 16, 2016

Marti Malloy on Olympic Judo


Marti Malloy is the Olympic bronze medalist in Judo at under 57 kg.  She will represent the US again in Rio in a few weeks. She writes quite passionately about competing in judo here.
http://www.theplayerstribune.com/marti-malloy-usa-olympics-judo/

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/budo-bum-anthology#/

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Budo Dream


I had a get together this weekend for a bunch of friends. It’s the fulfillment of an early budo fantasy. When I started out on my budo journey, I really didn’t know anything. I’d read some articles and looked through a few books, but this was the 1980s. The internet was still 10 years away, and I’d have to wait  20 years for Youtube to be created.

Like many at the beginning of the journey, I had fantasies about what the journey would be like, where it would lead, and what I might become. You know, a powerful martial artist, strong and respected by senior teachers and masters. I started in judo, and had visions of myself as a senior teacher easily throwing strong, young men about the room. People would treat me with respect and deference, and call me “Sensei” like I called the people I respected and looked to for guidance in mastering judo.

All I really understood was that it takes a long time and a lot of practice to get there. That didn’t seem like a particular hardship, because I was having so much fun learning and playing with judo that spending time practicing in the dojo may well have been my favorite thing to do. Fortunately, the dojo is still one of my favorite places to spend time.  Training and working up a sweat with the various budo I do now (which still includes Kodokan Judo) is something I look forward to and can’t get enough of.  I spent this morning doing iaido, and hopefully I’ll do something tomorrow.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/budo-bum-anthology#/

Time passed.  I graduated from college and managed to do what a lot of people say would be wonderful but few ever do. I found a way to move to Japan to live and train. I spent years living in Japan, training judo as much as I could (sometimes 4 or even 5 practices a week).  I earned a black belt, and promotions beyond that. I found new arts to train in alongside judo. Now I can confuse people by saying that I do judo and jodo.

I met genuine masters.  People who had been doing budo for more than twice as long as I’d been alive at that point. I met a swordsmith and got to work as his assistant. I learned to handle swords that were legendary in America. I cut myself more than a few times in the process. I trained in dojo that had no air conditioning in the summer and no heat in the winter. I learned that I could do judo and iaido even when my feet are numb. I also learned that I really don’t want to train when my feet are numb with cold.

At judo I got thrown around by everyone. Guests always wanted to try out the gaijin and see just how strong he was. At first, I wasn’t. They threw me all over the place. I kept coming back.  Honestly, I was still having loads of fun. As the years passed, I must have learned something, because guests kept challenging me, but I started throwing them from time to time, and then more frequently. Then one of my seniors in the dojo started pulling people aside and whispering in their ear if he saw them headed my way.

My sword teachers were more than three times my age, yet they still moved with a strength and elegance I envied. 80-year-old men who could move a razor sharp sword with ease, speed and precision. They would put on their kendo armor and totally dominate strong high school athletes who trained every day. Takada Sensei practiced with a monster blade that was 400 years old.

Eventually I moved back to the USA, but I never stopped training. I’m still training. And last weekend I realized that I had achieved the fantasy of my early judo practice.  I had a little gathering of friends. I invited martial arts friends from all over the country to come train together and share aspects of their arts with each other.  Among the guests were senior teachers from several traditions: judo, a couple of different styles of aikido, an iai teacher, and a classical jujutsu teacher.

They all came with respect for each other and for me. More than anything else I’ve done, this tells me that I’m doing something right. That so many fine martial artists would be willing to join me and share the lessons they’ve learned is amazing to the kid who started judo back in the 80s.

We had a wonderful time. Friends started arriving on Thursday afternoon and we were all like kids in the budo candy shop. We talked and explored ideas and drank beer and talked some more.  We went sailing. Friday was spent making numerous trips to and from the airport to gather up all the friends arriving that day. I became very familiar with the construction zones at the airport. No one complained that I drive like judoka, they just accepted it with a smile.

Conversations ranged all over the map. In the group are doctors, artists, scholars, world champion athletes and brilliant minds of all sorts. We talked budo, medicine, budo, science, budo, books, budo, philosophy, and more budo.

Saturday we laid out mats and started training. I’d rented two nice sized halls so we could have organized training going on in one room, and casual discussions and explorations in the other room at the same time. There were always folks playing with weapons somewhere, and there always seemed to be someone trying to grab or hit somebody else to see what would happen.

We explored some great techniques from aikido and I noticed the relationships to some Daito Ryu I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. The balance-taking and controlling are also similar to some things I do in judo. Then we had a fun round of judo.  We saw some interesting judo kata, and we got to play with something that looks completely different from anything in aikido -  foot sweeps.  Except that they aren’t completely different. The same principles of timing and controlling your partner’s center apply,  and the ukemi to protect yourself when thrown is remarkably similar.  The mindset is a little different, the strategy very different, but the principles and effects are remarkably similar. Uke goes flying. Disrupt the center, remove stability and take uke to a place where there is nothing to support them. Beautiful, simple, efficient and nearly effortless. It was great fun watching the aikido folks working out the timing and movement for something so far from the techniques they practice regularly while still applying many of the same principles. In the spirit of the weekend, they leaped into it with enthusiasm and without comments or claims. They just tried it and enjoyed the ride any time their partner got the sweep right.

After the judo, we put the mats away and got out bokuto - wooden swords. A friend of mine taught some kenjutsu kata she inherited from her teacher. During the class there was pure respect.  No cries of “Well, we do it this way.” from the class. Everyone was focused and interested in learning as much as they could from from a respected teacher in a tradition other than their own. Everyone shared the desire to learn as much as possible from everyone there.

Egos were left at the door. No one had to prove anything to anyone. We were all looking to learn and share. Each teacher was respected for what they brought to the room. This can be pretty rare in budo circles. For a practice that is supposed to help us transcend our limitations, a lot of us get trapped by our egos, worried about how good we are compared to the person next to us and busy trying to prove our way is the best. It’s a trap I know from the inside, because it’s caught me a time or two.

I’ve been blessed with some incredible teachers who’ve helped me recognize the damage ego has done to others, and to escape the trap myself. Over time, my teachers have honored me with their respect and trust. They have entrusted me with treasures of learning and knowledge handed down from their teachers and teachers before them. As I become responsible for these treasures, I discover that the gifts my teachers have given me are both an honor and a burden. These treasures are not for me to hoard and keep to myself. They are meant to be shared with people who will take the lessons to heart and use them to grow and to pass them on to others beyond themselves.



With this gathering of friends there is both the honor of being accepted as someone with gifts and skills to share, and to be surrounded by people who I know will soak up what I have to share. They will make the best possible use of the techniques, even as I’m busy trying to absorb as much from them as I possibly can in an all too short weekend.

After my friend finished sharing her teacher’s kenjutsu with us,  we cleaned up a little, went out to the courtyard, and did a little tameshigiri.  None of us are part of the Battodo Federation or any similar group that spends a lot of time on tameshigiri, so it’s a lovely treat and challenge for all of us, from those who specialize in the sword to those who may have never picked up a live blade before.  One of the big secrets of cutting with a good sword is to let the sword do the work.  It’s a great tool and will cut beautifully, if you let it.  

After we turned a stack of rolled mats into a large pile of mat confetti, spent the evening back at the house talking about everything imaginable, and playing with even more budo.  I looked in living room and there was a Yoshinkan Aikido teacher and a jujutsu teacher arm-to-arm playing with different approaches to techniques.  Out on the deck the discussion of budo philosophy had gotten frighteningly complex. In between in the family room someone had set up massage table and a couple of people were working on a third and trying to free up some range of movement.  It was definitely not a relaxing massage.  When things wound down everyone, regardless of rank, grabbed stuff and helped clean up. No egos, no expectations, everyone just pitched in and started doing whatever looked like it needed doing. Everyone was here as a student of budo and everyone contributed.


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


Sunday was more of the same. We studied some jodo while the weather was cool enough to be outside. Lots of fun and the occasional big smile as a light bulb went on and people connected the jo practice with things they knew from other practices.

In the afternoon we had a session with an aikido teacher from Yoshinkan. Everyone was out on the mats, the Aikikai folks, the judo guys, the jujutsu teacher all got out there and tried this stuff. The stuff that is similar is surprisingly similar.  We all emphasize correct posture, breathing and movement, even when we approach them from different directions.  I’m trying to figure out how to get some of these lessons across to my judo students now. I can see where they would benefit from some of the ideas being emphasized by the different traditions, I just have to find a way to present it that communicates in a judo framework.

The last session of the weekend was the least martial, but perhaps the most universally applicable.  One of the teachers has developed a curriculum for teaching safe falling to non-martial artists. There are lots of people who are at risk of taking a dangerous fall, and she’s worked out a way to teach them falling without having to learn the high impact ukemi of aikido or judo. It’s a brilliant application of budo techniques and principles to the wider world.

After dinner that evening, we were somber for a while. All of us have been training long enough that we have lost teachers and friends along the way. We remembered a friend we trained with last year who passed away, and we remembered teachers and friends, some gone many years, but still alive in our hearts and in our practice. A somber time, and an important one. Our budo journeys didn’t start in untraveled wilderness. We each took our first steps on pathways that had first been cleared and later paved by teachers and students long before we were born.

My first judo teacher is gone.  So are my first iaido teachers. I continue to practice their lessons and pass them on to my students. I’m sorry they can’t be here to see how I’ve developed thanks to the lessons and directions they gave me as I was starting out. I still find it hard to believe that I’m teaching their lessons to students of my own, and that teachers of other styles whom I respect seem to have as much respect for me. In an important way, these teachers I respect stand in for and represent the teachers I have lost. They help me test and grow my understanding, and they are perfectly happy to call me out when my ego gets too big or my ideas are simply foolish.

The Monday after all the training was a little quieter.  We hung around in back and talked and swapped jokes until someone had the idea to go to the zoo. If someone was thinking that this would be a safe place for us, they were very wrong. The use of humor as atemi became so strong and effective that one poor member of the group had to run away because her face was hurting from laughing and smiling so much!

One thing that came out of this wonderful weekend was the reminder of just how little I know and how much there is still out there for me to learn. Even after decades of training with empty hands and a variety of weapons, I spent much of the weekend learning new things and getting a new perspective on things I thought I understood. Aside from all the marvelous learning I was doing, it is inspiring and joyous to know that the journey is far from over.  It’s been so much fun getting to where I am that realizing the journey is still in its beginning stages makes me happy.

All these teachers and budoka came to visit and share and laugh and train together out of respect and admiration for each other. That they have as much respect for me as I do for them is the fulfilment of that young judoka fantasy. The journey has been long and the lessons learned along the way humbling and amazing. That I have earned this much respect from people I respect is a frightening thing. I often wonder what they can possibly see in me to be worthy of their respect. My teachers saw something in me worth teaching though, and these teachers see someone with something to share with them that is worthy of respect. That’s something wonderful, and great gift to someone who frequently feels like a beginner who knows nothing.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Yamashita Yoshiaki Photos

Yamashit Yoshiaki visited the USA from 1903 to 1905.  During that time he taught judo to a number of people, including Teddy Roosevelt.  This article and photo album at the Amherst Library is an amazing record.
http://scua.library.umass.edu/ead/muph006.html

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ukemi



Not the throws. Watch the ukemi!

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

That’s a fundamental aspect of ukemi, of the skill of receiving any attack. Don’t tense up.  Stay relaxed. Things hurt more when you’re tense. You just can’t move or think as well when you’re tensed up. Learning to relax and flow with the energy coming at you can make all the difference, on the mat or off. We tend to get tense and stiff when we’re feeling defensive, and that drives an entire set of reactions that an opponent can manipulate. In randori, if you’re defensive you become overcommitted in certain directions and you can’t respond well to attacks that don’t come from the direction you’re committed to. 

http://www.budogu.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=MBsZA1
Relax, and you become more stable and more flexible. You can relax and absorb the attacks from the side as well as the one barrelling in from head on. If you’re all stiff, you can only resist in one direction. Just because you are all set to resist in one direct does not put your opponent under any obligation to attack from that direction. Relax so you can flow with whatever comes your way. If you need to negate that attack, you can do that better when you’re relaxed. If you need to counter, you’d better be relaxed for that too. And if the best thing is to accept the attack, go with it, take the big ukemi and protect yourself that way, you want to be relaxed for that too.

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

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

Relax. Do your ukemi.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Secret Techniques Versus Special Techniques

Ono-ha Itto Ryu.  Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis


The movie hero studies and studies to learn the secret technique that will make him unbeatable (why is it always “he?”). The secret strike or trick that the foe can’t stop. We love secret techniques and hidden wisdom. Legions of movies and books are built on the premise that somewhere, somehow, there is a secret that will make the possessor unbeatable. Many budo systems are said to have been created when the founder had a sudden inspiration or even a divine revelation into the special use of their weapon.

Many of us started martial arts looking for that secret. The heros in kung fu and karate movies had to have some secret that made them so incredible. From the power of Iron Fist in Marvel Comics to the secret balancing training in The Karate Kid, the secret teaching brings power, and that is really attractive. The secrets of Katori Shinto Ryu are said to have been handed down to it’s founder by the kami Futsunushi No Kami, enshrined at Katori Shrine.  The secrets of Shinto Muso Ryu are said to have been revealed to it’s founder in a dream by a divine child.

Many classical Japanese ryuha protect their secrets and won’t let outsiders see them practiced. Shinto Muso Ryu has 5 secret kata that are only taught to the highest level of student and are never shown to anyone else.

This makes sense. An opponent cannot defend against what she doesn’t know about. Surprise attacks work. Attacking with something your opponent can’t imagine is coming is a wonderful tactic. I can see why a secret technique would be useful. The premise is very appealing. One set of techniques that you show to the world, another set held in reserve to maintain the power of secrecy.

Secret techniques sound fascinating and mysterious, but they aren’t usually what win.  Throughout the Tokugawa period (1604-1868), the most popular systems of kenjutsu were the various branches of Itto Ryu. There were Itto Ryu dojos all over Japan, and especially in Tokyo. The Tokyo dojo were significant for the spread of knowledge about Itto Ryu, because all of the daimyo and many of their servitors spent 6 months of the year in Tokyo. Their children were raised there. People could and did meet and train in dojo throughout the city.

The techniques and strategies of the Itto Ryu branches, particularly Ono-ha Itto Ryu, were well known and widely practiced. Yet this does not seem to reduced the effectiveness of the style. Ono-ha Itto Ryu may well have been the most practiced school of kenjutsu by the last half of the Tokugawa period. Not having a secret doesn’t seem to have cut into it’s popularity.


If secret techniques have so much power, why would a school like Itto Ryu, where the basic strategy and technique is well and widely known and recognized be so popular? The answer to that is simply that it was effective in the gekiken competitions that were increasingly popular.  In that environment, Itto Ryu technique worked well.

In the 21st century, Ronda Rousey competes in an unarmed combat venue similar in nature to the gekiken sword competitions of 18th and 19th century Japan.  She may be the epitome of not having a secret technique. Even before she entered MMA fighting, she fought in judo competitions. Throughout that time, she never had a secret technique. There are no secret techniques in judo or MMA. The nature of the rules mean that all the possible techniques are known.

Secret techniques have a significant flaw. They only maintain their special power so long as they are secret. As soon as you use a secret technique where it is seen, everyone will study it, know that you do it, and figure out how to defeat it. The power of a secret technique, like any secret, vanishes when it becomes known.

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

Ronda Rousey doesn’t have a secret technique.  Everyone knows what she’s going to do. She’s going to attack an arm lock. Most likely, she will be attacking what is known to judoka as jujigatame.  Even though everyone knows what she will do, for some reason they still can’t prevent it. It’s not a secret technique. It’s the opposite of a secret technique. It’s a specialized technique, and it works wonderfully.

The same was true of the signature technique of Ono-ha Itto Ryu. Everyone knew what the Itto ryu practitioner would do. Their signature cut is still famous and the basis of modern kendo technique. Everyone knows what Ronda Rousey is going to do. It’s a classic judo technique.

These techniques are powerful, and they are polished. That makes them stronger over the long run than any secret technique. Secret techniques lose their power quickly from the moment they cease to be secret. Special techniques don’t lose anything by being known. They may even benefit from being widely known. Everyone knows what Rousey is going to do. She’s going to do jujigateme.  So everyone spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to stop her jujigatame. Everyone who faces an Ono-ha Itto Ryu swordsman knows what she will do. She’s going to cut straight down the center, right through your defense. If you want to face someone with a special technique, you have to spend your time figuring out how to stop it.


The corollary is that when you spend all your time learning to stop someone’s special technique, that leaves you vulnerable to all of the other things they can do not quite as well as their special technique. Their special technique makes all their other techniques more effective. Itto Ryu opponents are worried about losing to kiri otoshi. When they focus on defending against that, they open themselves up to the other techniques in the Itto Ryu curriculum. Rousey’s foes focus on stopping her arm locks, which makes her perfectly sound striking and throwing techniques all the more effective.

Secret techniques won’t carry us very far. Their very nature makes their power and effectiveness short lived. Once a secret technique is known, it loses it’s power. Highly polished special techniques on the other hand, maintain their power even after they become well-known. For someone like Ronda Rousey or a student of a system like Itto Ryu, the very notoriety of their special technique can be asset, because it makes people focus on the special technique and neglect the rest of their repertoire.

The lesson in all of this is an old one. Kano Jigoro Shihan was famous for saying that the secret to success in judo is “Practice. Practice. Practice.” That hasn’t changed. Practice your entire art, but polish your special technique. Practice it and practice it. Make it shine so bright it obscures the effectiveness of the rest of your techniques.


9/30/2015 Special thanks to Meik Skoss for a correction on the Itto Ryu terminology.