Saturday, July 16, 2016
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.
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
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.
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.
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
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.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Not the throws. Watch the ukemi!
I step wrong and my partner takes advantage, tips me slightly, steps across in front of me, dropping as she goes, finishes the pivot and draws me further forward, further off balance, and onto her hip, continues turning drawing me further off balance onto her hip, rising turning and I’m airborne, flying past her shoulder. Looking down I see the ceiling framed between my feet the instant before my back slams into the mat and I slap with my hand.
That’s a textbook ukemi. It’s what we think of when we talk about ukemi. There’s a world more to ukemi, receiving techniques, beyond taking safely taking spectacular falls from powerful fall. Big falls are the most visible and obvious form of ukemi, but they aren’t the only ukemi skills to found in budo practice.
In judo and aikido we tend to focus on the big falling techniques as ukemi, but anything where you are receiving an attack is a form of ukemi. “Ukemi” is 受身 which is literally “receiving body.” When we approach ukemi as how we receive whatever happens, there are a lot more skills that are clearly ukemi.
In budo, the obvious thought for ukemi is how to receive attacks. For judoka like me, one of those is how to receive being strangled. I happen to like attacking shime waza (chokes and strangles) in newaza, so often I find myself teaching people how to handle, how to receive these attacks. The ukemi for shime waza starts with dropping your chin to try and get it in the way of the attack. After that there are tricks for dealing with particular types of attacks that can allow you receive the attack and neutralize it. These are all forms of ukemi.
The obvious form of ukemi are the blocks that karateka learn for receiving attacks, punches and kicks. Blocks are the most basic way of receiving a strike, but everything that has strikes and thrusts has ways of dealing with them. Think about how your art deals with striking attacks. Those techniques are ukemi. In the Nage No Kata of judo the first response to an overhand strike is to blend and throw the attacker with seoi nage. Karateka learn sophisticated blends and redirections. With swords there are kiri otoshi and suriage techniques.
In Shinto Muso Ryu there are many techniques for receiving sword attacks by the jo side. There is also the skill of receiving jo thrusts when you are on the tachi side of training. There numerous places in the kata where tachi has to receive a thrust. Taking a stick to the solar plexus is hardly what I would call the highlight of training, but learning to receive these shots properly is important. That’s ukemi.
The ukemi that may be the most interesting is the ukemi for dealing with joint locks. Raw muscular resistance is not recommended. Oddly enough, the trick is to relax into the attack. The joint can move and stretch better if you’re relaxed. The muscles that can provide physical resistance to the attack work better from a relaxed base, and are stronger when their opposites aren’t firing as well. This ukemi may be harder to learn than the classic breakfall ukemi. Like breakfall ukemi you have to learn to stay relaxed when things go wrong and something is happening that would normally be unpleasant. With breakfall ukemi the unpleasantness lasts a moment. Joint lock ukemi doesn’t end quickly. In judo randori, people hate to surrender too easily, so they will resist as long as they safely can (and some stubborn fools resist longer than that). It takes patience and real effort to learn good ukemi for joint locks.
There is a lot to be learned under the heading of ukemi. You have to learn discretion about what can be successfully resisted, and what should be accepted and submitted to before you get hurt. That discretion is a big thing. I tell students that unless they are going for an Olympic medal, resisting an armbar probably isn’t worth the health of their elbow. That goes for other techniques as well. The safest course is almost always to go with a technique and take a fall rather than resisting. It takes a lot of practice, and more than few bumps, bangs and bruises to learn to discern when a technique can be resisted and when it shouldn’t be.
In any art, but particularly in judo, our ego will tell us that our partner shouldn’t be able to throw us. She’s too small. He’s not good enough. She’s not fast enough. He’s not strong enough. My ego can come up with a million reasons why I shouldn’t accept the technique and take the fall, reasons why I should use what I know about receiving the technique to jam it and block it. Learning to ignore our ego is another part ukemi. Learn to do what is healthy and good, rather than what makes our ego feel good and getting injured because of it.
Over my years of practice, I’ve found good ukemi skills to be the most useful things I’ve learned in the dojo. Tripping, falling off my bike, slipping on the ice, these are all places that use the big ukemi skills.
As your ukemi skills increase, so do your range of options. Judoka are notorious for reversing attacks. Until your skill at just accepting the attack and absorbing the energy becomes fairly sophisticated reversals are difficult. As you develop and feel for more and more subtle movement and the direction of the energy coming at you, it becomes easier and easier to take an attack, flow around the energy and turn it into a counter. Yoko guruma is wonderful for this. Flow around your attackers energy and the thrower becomes the thrown.
If you resist so hard that your opponent can’t even begin an attack, you’ll never get the counter. Or worse, your partner will find a way around your strength and throw you anyway. Ukemi is one of the best ways of learning to do that most common of all martial arts corrections, relax.
Ukemi skills don’t work when you’re stiff. Taking a fall when you are scared and tense hurts. We all do it as beginners, and I remember that discomfort. Learning to breath and relax whatever happens takes time and experience. It’s as useful a lesson outside the dojo as it is on the mat. Life is full of surprises, pleasant and otherwise, but breathing and relaxing will get you through most of them pretty well. Not just slipping on the ice, but slipping verbally, or dealing with that rude, pushy guy in the office. Just breathing and relaxing, instead of tensing up and diving straight into the oncoming energy, often will let you take control of a difficult situation and turn it around.
That’s a fundamental aspect of ukemi, of the skill of receiving any attack. Don’t tense up. Stay relaxed. Things hurt more when you’re tense. You just can’t move or think as well when you’re tensed up. Learning to relax and flow with the energy coming at you can make all the difference, on the mat or off. We tend to get tense and stiff when we’re feeling defensive, and that drives an entire set of reactions that an opponent can manipulate. In randori, if you’re defensive you become overcommitted in certain directions and you can’t respond well to attacks that don’t come from the direction you’re committed to.
Relax, and you become more stable and more flexible. You can relax and absorb the attacks from the side as well as the one barrelling in from head on. If you’re all stiff, you can only resist in one direction. Just because you are all set to resist in one direct does not put your opponent under any obligation to attack from that direction. Relax so you can flow with whatever comes your way. If you need to negate that attack, you can do that better when you’re relaxed. If you need to counter, you’d better be relaxed for that too. And if the best thing is to accept the attack, go with it, take the big ukemi and protect yourself that way, you want to be relaxed for that too.
Notice I didn’t say what kind of attack. It’s doesn’t matter if the attack is physical or verbal. If all your energy is focused in one direction, you’re going to get taken down by anything coming from another direction. Learning to receive is a critical skill.
As a massage therapist once told my friend Wendy "You can recognize martial artists the moment you lay your hands on them. They always relax to pain."
Relax. Do your ukemi.
Monday, September 28, 2015
|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.
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.
Sunday, September 13, 2015
The fundamental skill of budo is not particular kata or even special techniques. Those are built on something else. The techniques and kata of a budo ryuha, ancient or modern, are the teaching syllabus and the textbook. The practice of those techniques and kata are the way one acquires the fundamental skills of the ryuha.
If the techniques of a ryuha aren’t the fundamental skills being taught, what are they? The fundamental skills of a ryuha are all the things that make the techniques and kata possible. The essence of any ryuha is how the body and mind are organized. These are the fundamental lessons driven and learned through the practice of all those kata.
The kata provide a framework for learning to organize our bodies and minds. Kata only happen when the fundamental techniques are solid. Techniques are solid when the body is properly organized. That organization is what makes everything happen. How do you grip the weapon (or your opponent if it’s unarmed)? That’s a start. If the structure of your grip isn’t good, if the bones and muscles of the hand and arm aren’t well organized, the grip will be weak and the techniques ineffectual.
How the feet, legs, hips, torso and head are organized is the true foundation and the fundamental teaching of any art. In koryu arts, this is a core secret. For Kodokan Judo though, this is open knowledge, though not even everyone who practices judo understands it. The majority of people doing judo do competitive judo and rarely train in the kata, where Kano Jigoro and his senior students encoded the essential lessons of the art.
In contrast to the low, solid, heavy stances common to in judo competition, the body is organized higher and lighter in the kata. This reflects the fact the Kodokan Judo kata are intended to teach how to handle a variety of combative situations including grabs, strikes, and weapons, as opposed to the narrow range of attacks permitted in the competitive arena. How do you organize the body to handle all of these different possibilities?
The way the body is organized for competition is optimal for conditions in a tournament where attacks come from the front. No one ever tries to strike you, No one carries any weapons. The problem I had initially with training in the kata was that the body is organized quite differently than for competition. The low, stable, immovable stance that is so ubiquitous in randori is exchanged for an upright, light, mobile posture that can quickly adjust and react to the wide variety of attacks presented by the kata.
With so many more possible ways to be attacked, and from so many more distances and angles, the body has to be organized differently. Instead of organizing my legs and hips to be able block out a throwing attack and then counter it, I have to be prepared to move to a new location quickly to avoid a punch, kick or weapon, or to enter inside the attack to deal with it. The knees will be slightly bent and the core engaged to take on the weight. Instead of energy and strength being focused forward to meet an incoming throwing attack, the focus is more diffuse to allow quick movement in all directions.
Contrast this with way the body is organized for ZNKR Kendo and Seitei Iai. Instead of the low, solid posture common to competitive judo, or the light, upright posture of classical Kodokan Judo, for iai the posture is very upright, but with the body pressing forward, ready to surge into action the moment a foot is released. There is tension between the legs, so that movement happens the instant a foot is lifted. No time is wasted shifting weight, everything is ready. The koshi is kept engaged to provide a solid platform while the arms are light and relaxed to swing the sword quickly and effectively.
Beyond competitive martial arts, every koryu has its own way of organizing the body, and this is a core secret of the art. Historically, keeping information about this secret was one reason members of a ryuha would avoid training with anyone outside their ryu. If you understand how someone organizes their body, you know a lot about what they can and cannot do. Modern systems like judo and ZNKR Seitei Iai lay everything out in the open.
The way an art conceives combat, the situations envisioned, and the strategies employed all come together to determine how the body is organized. For something as specific as competitive judo or kendo, very specialized postures and organization develop. Budo that assume many more options have to organize that body differently. Rather than very specialized techniques only applicable to one situation, they require physical organizations flexible enough to adapt to the myriad of situations that can develop. A good competitive bodily organization will maximize the potential within the narrow confines of the arena. Sogo budo 総合武道 (general budo) have far broader potential applications and need a body that isn’t organized for one specific match.
The more specialized the art, the more apparent it is in your body. I was visiting a friend’s judo dojo for the first time a few weeks ago, and as I walked up to a young man I said “You’re a wrestler, aren’t you?” The way a body is organized for wrestling is a bit different from that of judo, enough that I could see that he was a wrestler even before we started working together. Karateka and competitive judoka are easy to spot too. The way we learn to organize our body is something we carry with us everywhere. It’s not something that turns off when we leave the dojo. It’s so apparent that we can learn to see it in the way other martial artists stand and walk.
How we organize the body for action is at the heart of every budo. It is basic, fundamental, and very difficult to get right. Mastering the body mechanics of an art is literally half the battle. Until the body is properly organized and moving in accord with the basic principles of the art you’re studying, none or the rest will be correct. No technique, no punch, no cut, no strike, no throw can be done correctly until the body is organized to create the platform upon which the technique occurs. Until the techniques are right, the kata don’t stand a chance of coming together with the right spacing and timing. It all starts with how the body is organized. ( I might deal with organizing the mind another time, but that’s more difficult to describe.)
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
I had a conversation with one of my Shinto Muso Ryu students that was interesting. He was having a common issue with a core technique. He was trying to make the technique unnecessarily complicated. The technique (in this case Maki Otoshi) is difficult enough without making it complicated.
Good budo is simple. Every koryu I’ve had a chance to work with at all has been extremely simple. Shinto Muso Ryu has 12 fundamental techniques. The more I practice and study them though, the more I believe there are only 2: a strike and a thrust.
The Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai I do comes down to drawing and cutting. Even the defensive movements such as suri age and uke nagashi are applications of the fundamental mechanics and principles of good cutting. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Cut down. Reverse the motion and suri age. Maintain the relationship between arm, hand and sword and move it to the side for uke nagashi. They are all one.
Kodokan Judo has an impressive list of techniques: 65 throws, perhaps a dozen strangles, and a number of arm locks. They all manage to express the principle of 精力善用, or “maximum efficiency minimum effort” as it is most commonly translated. The throws, all of them, from big throws like seioinage and kata guruma to subtle foots sweeps like de ashi harai to the seemingly impossible uki otoshi all rely on the principle of kuzushi. The more I study, more I see kuzushi as a simple thing, rather than many different movements I was taught for achieving kuzushi when doing various throws.
Good budo is always simple. I can do all of the jo kata from Shinto Muso Ryu in about 20 minutes. The iai kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu can be done in a similar amount of time. The kenjutsu kata of Muso Shinden Ryu can be done in about 10 minutes. There is nothing complicated in any of them. Iai kata are all “draw and cut” or sometimes “draw and cut several times.” Jo kata, no matter how advanced all come back to those 12 fundamental techniques.
A good question to ask is “Why is good budo always simple?” Simple has several advantages. First, it’s easier to teach and learn. For iai, if you only have one grip on the sword, and you always use the sword the same way, you can learn it much faster than if you have multiple grips and a variety of ways to handle the swords in different situations.
Simple is smoother and more stable. Short, simple, uncomplicated actions are smoother to carry out and leave less room for mistakes. Complexity creates weak points. If I’m doing sword and I have to repeatedly change my grip I create an opening every time I have to change my grip. There is a moment during each grip change when my control of the sword is weak because I have to let go to make the change. If my opponent attacks at the moment there is nothing I can do since I don’t have a solid grip on my weapon, and she will defeat me easily. The same goes for footwork. Judo footwork is stunningly simple and uncomplicated. We avoid doing anything complicated that involves crossing our feet. The whole time our feet are crossed, we are standing on one point instead of two, making us unstable and vulnerable. Complex is weak because it has many connections or joints where it can be attacked. Simple is stronger because it has fewer suki, openings, to attack.
Good budo is based around a few basic principles and movements that can be deployed in an exceptionally broad variety of situations. Good budo almost never focuses on principles or movements that can only be used in a very few situations. The focus is on making the broadest possible use of the fewest learned movements. That makes each system much more efficient and effective.
Simple systems are easier to apply and use. If I have to choose from dozens of very different techniques, the possibility of me mixing elements of two techniques and ending up with neither increases quickly. With simple, consistent systems, the techniques are built on a single, common foundation. This common foundation makes the elements of the different techniques common, which means that there is little to mix up or confuse between techniques, and flowing from one technique to the next is easier because the fundamental elements of all the techniques are the same.
Complex techniques open up another set of problems. Every additional step required for a technique multiplies the opportunity for making a mistake by an order of magnitude. The best techniques are as simple as possible, creating no extra space for mistakes and getting the job done quickly and efficiently.
Simple techniques are also just faster. A two step technique takes twice as long to perform as a one step technique. A three step technique takes three times as long. The longer it takes to finish a technique, the more opportunity there is for Murphy’s Law to come into play. I don’t about know about anyone else, but I don’t want to give Murphy the least chance to interfere.
As my student was discovering though, simple does not mean easy. It takes a lot of work to develop the most fundamental skills. For me, the most difficult technique in Kodokan Judo is the first technique from the first kata people learn, uki otoshi. After 29 years, I finally feel like I’m beginning to understand it. It’s as pared down and simple as a technique can be. It’s also as difficult to do right as anything I’ve ever tried. My version of Occam’s Razor is “The simplest budo is the best budo.”
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
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.