Showing posts with label Timing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Timing. Show all posts

Monday, September 21, 2015

Budo Is An Anachronism In The 21st Century

Budo in the 21st century is an anachronism. Whether we are talking about koryu budo from the before 1868, or the gendai budo, the modern arts founded since the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, budo doesn’t have much to do with the worlds most of us live in. Sword, naginata, bo; these don’t have a place in the world we live in.

The samurai who created the koryu budo were professional soldiers and police. The tools of the modern soldier and police long ago surpassed the tools of budo. Even the modern arts of judo, kendo, and aikido don’t really relate to the world around them. They are amusing sports and hobbies, but they do really offer anything beyond other sports and hobbies? What can they offer to the average practitioner, much less to professional combatants like soldiers and police that can’t be found anywhere else?

The weapons may be archaic, but the fundamental skills taught by gendai and koryu budo are as valuable now as they were 400 years ago. People see the particular techniques of a ryuha and make the mistake of thinking they are seeing the fundamental teachings of the ryuha. Just as in Chuang Tzu’s parable, they are mistaking the finger pointing towards the moon for the moon itself. The martial practice has always been somewhat separated from the real conditions of combat. This is an inescapable fact. Training conditions that too closely resemble real combat will result in the same sort of injuries and death as real combat. Training has to prepare students for combat without crippling or killing them in the process.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

This means that kenjutsu kata are practiced using wooden swords. Sojutsu (spear) kata are practiced with padded tipped weapons. Jujutsu throws are done without the final turn that would break uke’s neck. For all this, warriors and soldiers recognized the value of this training 400 and 500 years ago. Wooden swords are very different from steel: different weight, different balance, different grip. For all those differences, the things learned from training with them were still valuable in the age when people still fought regularly with steel.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

As Ellis Amdur points out in his excellent book about koryu budo, OLD SCHOOL, people in Japan in those ages grew up doing lots of sumo. From the rise of the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1336 onward, Japan was rife with conflicts and wars. These culminated in the Sengoku Era starting in the 1467 and running until Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle Of Sekigahara and unified brought the whole nation under his rule by force in 1604. People were less interested in sparring than in practice for realities they knew too well.

People sought out teachers who would train them with wooden weapons instead of steel, and whose jujutsu training didn’t include any free sparring. That training was valuable enough to seek out in the Sengoku Era, and in the decades after the Tokugawa’s came to power before everyone became complacent with the realization that peace and not war was the new status quo. What of value could be learned from all this mere training without sparring? As it turns out, quite a lot. It’s still valuable. Humans haven’t changed noticeably since long before we learned how to write down our adventures, and not at all in the last 500 years.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis
Those classical methods for teaching students the big, obvious things like a solid physical structure, how to read spacing and a good understanding of the timing involved in using various weapons are still effective. Whether we call them kata or forms or training drills, they still work.  No one can train for every possible eventuality, that’s why “what if” games are so pointless.

Instead, the good systems focus on teaching the principles of movement and encounter, of understanding effective spacing versus spacing where you can’t do anything, good timing and the consequences of bad timing. These are the fundamentals of budo. They aren’t the only things that have remained relevant from the 16th century to the 21st.

Many koryu budo train with weapons of varying lengths, weight and make-up. Schools like Takenouchi ryu include everything from unarmed to tanto to tachi to naginata and bo. That covers the reaches and ranges for most handheld weapons in any time.  Even in the age when Takenouchi Ryu was founded, they didn’t teach every possible weapon. There wasn’t time to learn every weapon.  However there was time to learn the principles of spacing and timing at all the various ranges you could encounter weapons.

Late in its history, Shinto Muso Ryu added kusarigama to its curriculum. Shinto Muso Ryu covers the use of most lengths of stick and sword, but a chain weapon like the kusarigama seems like a leap away from the core of the art. If you think about studying this weapon so you can be familiar with the properties of chain weapons though, it makes a lot of sense. Shinto Muso Ryu covers sticks and swords. With the addition of kusarigama, the Shinto Muso Ryu student can grasp the principles underlying chain and rope weapons so those can be effectively faced as well.

Hmm. Sticks, knives, swords and chains. That covers most of the range of possible handheld weapons even in the 21st century with the exception of firearms.

Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2014
I’ve been surprised at some of the other lessons found in various koryu that are appreciated even now. Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu contains kata about performing surprise attacks. These are lessons not just about how to make a surprise attack. They are also lessons about when and where we are vulnerable. If we can do something to someone, they can do it to us.  

500 years of technological progress haven’t made a dent in that truth.

There are lots of little lessons in budo that get overlooked while we focus on the big combat techniques. These little details that seem like decorations on the combative techniques are often the bits that I can apply in the parts of my life where I’m not actively engaged in a fight. Someone recently pointed out a whole list of lessons that are embedded within the kata of various koryu.

Mugendo Budogu: Fine Martial Arts Equipment

There are lessons about taking advantage of lighting or position for an ambush that also teach what conditions are dangerous for us, and what we should be aware of. At night if someone can draw our attention to lighted space, it’s easy for them to attack from a shadow we’ve ignored. Lessons about securing clothing and equipment are as applicable today as they were in the Sengoku era.  Learning to be aware of our surroundings is always a good lesson.

Koryu budo in particular are not just collections of discrete fighting techniques. They are whole schools of thought and behaviour. They teach how to handle and care for tools and weapons. There are lessons about places and situations to beware of. It’s surprising how much the lessons of good budo are simple, solid, good sense.

Which makes me wonder, are koryu budo anachronisms after all? Their lessons about structure and posture and spacing and timing are just as relevant to in the 21st century as they were 500 years ago. The length and variety of weapons available hasn’t diminished any in the last 500 years.  The principles governing how those weapons can be used and what sort of spacing and timing is important are still the same. The places situations we have to beware of haven’t really changed either. It seems I was wrong. Koryu budo aren’t anachronisms.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Awareness, Zanshin, or just plain Paying Attention

Awareness makes budo work. Without it, it doesn’t matter how good  your maegeri or your uchimata is.  You’re going to get clocked before you can use is. Being aware tells us what’s going on and what to be prepared for so we can deal with it when it arrives.  It’s so important I considered including it as one of the fundamental principles of Budo.  I didn’t because it is a skill built on and with the principles I discussed in earlier posts (Structure, Spacing and Timing).  Without an understanding of those, awareness can’t happen. WIthout awareness though, you’ll never get to use the skills you’ve spent so much time developing.

Awareness is a combination of the knowledge of structure, spacing and timing combined with being cognizant of the world you are moving in. If you don’t understand structure, spacing and timing, it really won’t matter how much you pay attention to the people and things around you, because you won’t be able to interpret what you see. If you understand these things, but don’t pay any attention to what you are seeing and don’t apply your understanding to the world, it won’t matter what you’ve learned because you aren’t using it.

A lot of people talk about being aware of the world around us, but what are we looking at and why are we looking at it?  Just being aware of what’s going on around you is useless if you don’t have a framework with which to evaluate what you are seeing.  Understanding your own structure lets you see what’s going on in others' structures. Understanding spacing tells you not just what is good spacing for you, but what is good for someone else. Knowing when the timing is right and wrong for you to act enables you to understand those moments when you are vulnerable to someone else.

When I was first learning the kata Seigan from the Kendo Federation Seitei Jodo set, my teacher explained that shitachi (the sword side) and shijo (the jo side) should begin moving towards each other simultaneously.  I thought he was a little bit crazy.  How was I going to be able to see exactly when shitachi would move?  I watched senior people do the kata, sure enough, they did move together. I was sure they were signalling each other somehow.  How else could you know exactly when to move together?

As I practiced with Kohashi Sensei week after week though, I began to recognize subtle changes in her body that would happen just before she stepped off.  They weren’t big changes by any means, but I could see that her balance changed just slightly as she prepared to move and so I could match her starting movement with my own. It seems pretty obvious now what I’m looking at, but it took time to develop an understanding of structure and movement.  At first I just “knew” that shitachi was going to move, but I couldn’t have told how I knew.  Now I can talk about things like a slight change in the relationship between shoulders, hips and feet.  I can see that shitachi has shifted her balance forward just enough that her leg muscles have to work to hold her from moving forward.  Her center of gravity has shifted just a slight bit in front of her feet.  

Now I don’t just “know” when shitachi will move, I know why I know and know what is happening with shitachi, and I can apply that knowledge to other kata and situations. As I develop my understanding of what is useful and effective structure, I understand more about what my partners are doing, what they can do, and what they can’t do from moment to moment. All those lessons about how to stand upright and balanced, and how to carry your weight so you can move immediately inform everything I see now.  I can see when a partner isn’t loading her weight correctly.  I understand that if my partner is slouching, she can’t breath properly, so she’ll get tired quickly.  I can see when she is ready to attack or if her balance has shifted back.  

Spacing, ma’ai 間合, is another aspect of awareness. We’re all aware of it when someone stands too close to us in public. We feel uncomfortable. We might even be aware that we feel uncomfortable because someone is too close. As we develop an understanding of ma’ai and get comfortable with our budo though, this changes. I’m an old judoka. It didn’t take too much Judo practice to change my sense of what was too close for comfort. After doing Judo for a while, you could be leaning on me and it still wouldn’t bother me.  

In Judo, we spend a lot of time training standing techniques while holding on to our partner. This is awfully close. Then when we hit the mat, we’re glued to each other, rolling around with our bodies stuck together as we fight to pin, choke or armlock our friends and partners. As we get more and more at home with this much body-to-body contact we stop feeling like people stand too close in other situations as well. After all, I can’t throw or choke you until you get close.  

This is not necessarily a good thing (though it does tend to unnerve jerks who like to intimidate people by standing too close because judoka just relax at that range, since you’ve moved into our attacking comfort zone). Being aware of spacing means adjusting what are safe, dangerous and active distances based on a host of different factors. In kata and sparring, good ma’ai is one you can attack effectively from while your partner cannot.  A lot depends then on the partner. How tall are they? How long is their reach? What kind of weapon are they using? Long sword? Short sword? Staff? Jutte? Something else?

Being a judoka who is comfortable even when people are touching you doesn’t make you aware. Being aware means understanding how quickly someone can cover the distance between you and her. This is more complex than being aware of structure, because how someone is standing influences it. Are they facing you square on? Have they turned to the side (hanmi)? Where is their balance placed on their feet?  Is their balance divided between their feet, or over just one foot? These all change how quickly a person can cover the distance to you. If her weight is divided between her feet, you partner has to first shift her weight to one driving leg before she can go smoothly. If her weight is settled on just one foot though, and that leg is not straight, she can start moving by simply pushing with that leg.  

Being aware of the spacing and the quality of the space takes time to develop and it’s an awareness that is difficult to deploy. As I was learning what is a safe spacing, I got caught more than a couple of times by teachers when I thought I had plenty of space, and they kindly laid a bokuto or jo on my head before I could react. They understood the spacing beautifully, and they were kind enough not to raise a bruise as reminder of how much I had to learn. With practice this understanding can become highly refined. I’ve seen weapons pass within a centimeter or less of experienced swordsmen who didn’t even blink. They understood the spacing so finely that they could see that the weapon wouldn’t touch them.

Once you can read spacing well, then you can really be aware of it. Until you understand it and can read it though, you can’t really be aware of it.  Once you become aware of it, then you can start manipulating the spacing, but that will have to be another post.

Each of these elements in awareness is progressively more difficult to describe.  Structure is relatively easy to describe. Spacing can be awkward because good spacing, safe spacing, vulnerable spacing and every other kind of spacing are not fixed quantities.  You can’t say “if someone is 5 feet or 10 feet or 15 feet away, you’re safe.  It depends on how fast they are, how prepared you are to move and what kind of weapon they might have.  When you start working with weapons, you spend a period of time getting hit when you think you are safe because you don’t yet understand the ma’ai of weapons and how fast someone can enter.  Just having someone describe it for you is not sufficient to understand or learn ma’ai.

Timing is even more difficult to put into words, though I keep trying.  Knowing when structure and spacing come together to make someone, including yourself, vulnerable is when you begin to understand timing. You can see when someone’s shifting their balance, or better still, when they are preparing to shift their balance, and act in that moment when they are committed to action in one direction. At that moment your partner cannot respond to you. They have to finish their first action before they can respond.

Good timing is about sensing those moments. You can’t really develop it until you understand structure and spacing. Once you have those mastered, you can develop an understanding of timing because you can see how they come together.  Timing is about being there when spacing and structure intersect in a way that is good for you and bad for your partner. Sometimes you have to set it up, as when judoka will give their partner a little push to solicit a reaction.  Better is when you can sense your partner’s movement and work with it.

Sense her attack and cut through her sword. Draw her out and cut into the opening left after her sword has passed through. Fill the space as your partner retreats so there is no opening for her to return to. Each of these things is about seeing when and how your partner can attack and then using that knowledge.

When you get to this level, then you have a framework with which you can evaluate and make use of the information your senses provide. In the dojo, understanding structure and spacing and how they go together to create optimal moments for attack is what we train for. Outside the dojo, knowing how to read someone’s structure to know how they intend to move, if they are tense or angry or relaxed or concealing something is an application of the same knowledge. Knowing when you are vulnerable or when someone has changed their spacing to make it possible for them to attack is something that can be used inside and outside the dojo.

It’s not enough to say, “Awareness is important.” or “Maintain zanshin.”  You have to know what you’re being aware of.  You need to know what to look for when you maintain zanshin and keep your mind on the job at hand and don’t relax. That only comes from mastering the essential lessons of structure, spacing and timing.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Most Essential Principles In Budo: Timing

Previously I wrote about structure and spacing. Closely related and entwined with spacing is timing. Timing is the subtle ingredient that makes spacing and structure appear to work like magic. If you have great structure and good control of the spacing, you’re doing well and you can be quite effective. To be great though, you need to master timing..

Timing is what makes that incredible technique from Shinkage Ryu and other styles where the tachi cuts through the cutting sword of her opponent and into the opponent’s head while driving the opponent’s sword off the target into ineffective space.  Too early and the opponent simply evades and counterattacks.  Too late and the opponent’s sword will slice right through you.  There is a fraction of a second window in which to make this work.  The same is true of the stop strike in Shinto Muso Ryu.  Too early and the opponent easily evades.  Too late and the cut will take off your arm before your attack can have any effect.  

The stop strike is at 0:16

An entire class of techniques that requires perfect timing is Judo foot sweeps like de ashi harai.  When done correctly, uke doesn’t even notice the technique. They just notice the floor disappears from under their feet and then reappears between their shoulder blades.

This technique, like the sword techniques, is deceptively simple.  You merely sweep uke’s foot to the side while they are walking. The trick lies in the fact that the foot has to be swept after uke has transferred weight onto the foot but before the foot touches the ground.  Timing here is everything.  Too soon and there is no weight on the foot so sweeping has little effect. Too late and the foot is on the ground and solid, making the sweep impossible.

Timing is so important we don’t often talk about it.  We just practice things that require it without really focusing on how to see it.  Good timing is something I’m still developing in my practice, so this is definitely a work in progress.  For me, the first step in learning to understand and apply timing is recognizing that there are common elements that make certain moments optimal for action, and these common elements hold true whether it is an armed or unarmed art, whether you are at grappling distance, empty hand striking distance, lond weapons distance or even tangled with your opponent rolling on the floor.

A moment is optimal when an opponent is committed but not fully supported.  In swordwork, this would be the moment when your partner has begun to execute a cut and is so far into it that they can’t pull it back.  They have committed the sword and their body to the attack.  If you merely evade, they will finish and their body will return to a stable condition as both feet settle back on the ground and the sword stops moving.  In grappling an example happens every time someone takes a step.  Every step involves transferring your weight forward onto a foot that then touches the ground.  You have to transfer the weight before the foot is on the ground though. This creates an instant when your weight is committed but not supported.  If something happens in that instant, you can’t pull it back or move it further forward easily or smoothly.

It is this instant when you’re vulnerable. Understanding and recognizing this moment in your partner makes good timing possible. If you don’t understand this, good timing is just good luck.  Learning to recognize and exploit moments when you partner or opponent is vulnerable takes practice. There are least two ways to recognize when that moment exists.

The first way is to learn to see it.  Watch people move.  Start by watching their feet, and then see if you can understand what their feet are doing from watching their hips, and then try to understand where their feet are while only watching their chests, then their shoulders, then their heads.   Eventually you’ll be able to see the subtle shift in the body that occurs as the feet are moving and the weight is transferred to the unstable, moving foot.  That’s the moment to do something.

The other way to learn to recognize that movement is through touch.  To quote the great Judo coach Obi Wan Kenobi, “your eyes can deceive you.” Just as bad, your eyes are also slow.  If you are at touching distance, you need to sense what is happening faster than your eyes can tell you. You need to be able to feel it. I have spent, and continue to spend, a great deal of time walking around the dojo with my eyes closed and lightly touching my partner’s arm or shoulder or lapel. We walk around and I practice maintaining the connection and moving with my partner while tracking exactly where their feet are. Occasionally I reach out with my foot and lightly push my partner’s foot while it’s in the air. That’s if I sense things correctly.  If I don’t I’m pushing on foot that’s on the ground and stable, or I’m pushing on a foot that isn’t committed yet and floats away from me (often into a smooth counterattack). We walk around with me refining my ability to sense my partners movement and occasionally pushing on her feet while she makes sure I don’t walk into anything. Then we trade roles and I walk around with my eyes open while she practices catching my feet at just the right moment.
It amazes new students that I can walk around with my eyes close and slide their feet out from under them. No peeking and no secret powers. From my hand on their sleeve or collar I can feel where their feet are. It’s not a secret power though. It’s nothing more than learning to use your sense of touch more fully. Students learn the basics of this skill remarkably quickly.  Within 10 minutes most students start to sense the foot movements, and to their surprise they can feel their partner’s moving foot even with their eyes closed. Feeling the right moment to catch the moving foot though, that takes a lot more practice.  I’ll let you know how much when I can do it every time.

Lately, I’ve started trying to understand my partner’s movement when my ability to touch is extended through a weapon. I’m sure it is possible, and I can feel some of it, but I’m right back at the beginning of the learning curve with this. Our weapons are crossed and I can feel the strength and energy my partner puts into the sword or the staff. Just like when I was a beginning Judo student though, I still can’t interpret what I’m feeling. I want to fall back on my eyes. So here I am, once again a beginner slowly trying to figure things out, and probably overthinking things to a remarkable degree.

Timing is simple. Attack when your opponent isn’t stable or can’t move to defend themselves.  At striking and weapons ranges, this might include stealing a few inches of ma’ai so that you can attack faster than they can respond. When grappling it can be feeling that moment when their movement is committed but not yet supported. Rolling on the ground requires at least as acute a sense of balance and commitment as standing.  

Simple doesn’t mean easy though. Simple means “not complicated.” Easy is something I’ve never encountered in the dojo. I keep working at the timing. I’m collecting bruises right now as I work on training myself to not move too soon when someone attacks with a weapon. I stand there watching the sword come up and down and at me and wait and wait and move at the last possible moment when they can’t change the direction of the attack and can’t even stop it.  That’s the goal anyway. Often what happens is my lizard brain shrieks and I move too soon.  Or the lizard brain forgets to say anything and I get clocked in the head while watching the sword come in.

If I manage the timing properly, my movements can look almost lazy because my partner can’t do anything about it. I can move slow and smooth like I should.  Good timing means never having to rush because there is nothing your partner can do about it at that moment.  Timing lets you make the very most of your structural strength and flexibility and to use that spacing you control to the greatest advantage.

It’s simple, but not easy. The right time is when your partner is committed to one direction and unable to stop. Add some energy at that moment. Move their foot a few inches. Add a little energy in the direction they are already going. Done at the right time, this is devastating even as it looks like you haven’t done anything.  Great timing is not the art of doing something at the right moment. Great timing is the art of already being there.