Showing posts with label breathing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label breathing. Show all posts

Monday, October 20, 2014

How Can Iai Be Interesting

How can iai practice be interesting?  There are only about 4 real cuts (kiri oroshi, kesa giri, kiri age, and ichi monji).  It’s mostly done slowly. We repeat those same four cuts from every position and situation imaginable. We always work with an imaginary opponent or opponents. We endlessly return to the first kata in the system and practice it to death.


How could this not be boring?  What could we possibly do to make this interesting? We repeat these same few movements over and over and over. As a student and teacher, I know there is a standard script of comments that can be made, in fact need to be made, every practice with every student. What could be more boring than hearing the same critique every time you go to class? You know “You need to slow down. Relax your shoulders. Tighten your little finger. Use your hips. Move from you koshi. Don’t bend from the waist.” Every iaido teacher says the same things over and over.

Listening to sensei tell you what you are doing wrong, and knowing what he’s going to say before you even start practicing should  be one of the more mind numbing and discouraging you will ever encounter.

It’s not though. Iaido is frustrating and sometimes tedious. It is hard, physical work that takes effort and focus to do even poorly. It can make muscles ache and quiver from the effort demanded. Time and time again I can tell what Sensei is going to say before he says it because I can feel the weakness in my own performance of the kata. It’s difficult to be bored by what Sensei is saying when you can feel the truth of it in your muscles and bones while he is still drawing a breath to power his comments.

Iai is interesting because there is a chasm between knowing what you want to do and being able to do it with any sort of consistency. I remember as a new student watching Takada Sensei demonstrate for me in the old, unheated dojo in Eichigawa. The doors at each of the dojo were pushed open so we would get some ventilation, and since we were no more than a 100 meters from the shinkansen (bullet train) tracks, every time it roared by going over 100 miles per hour (160 km per hour) all other sound disappeared for a few moments.

Sensei never flinched at the sudden roar. His focus on the kata was fantastic. He was in his mid 70s when I started training, and he had perfect koshi, posture to die for, and cuts so precise and sure I would not have been afraid to let him use my stomach for a cutting stand. Sensei’s posture and breathing were so much a part of him that he could no longer stand incorrectly. I think trying to breath from his shoulders would have been physically impossible for him after so many decades of doing it right.

From the day I started, the goal was to get good enough that I could try to approach Sensei’s level of perfection. It was quite a while later that I realized that Takada Sensei was working on improving his technique in one corner of the dojo while I was in one corner of the dojo another working on mine. Initially, I couldn’t even imagine myself doing w
hat he did. It helped when a 2nd dan would attend. I could believe that what he was doing was possible for me. Looking back I understand that Sensei’s relaxed power and precision were beyond what I could understood, so I couldn’t imagine doing what he did. The 2 dan wasn’t far ahead of me along the path, so I could see myself doing what he did, and I tried.

It seems easy enough.  Draw and cut, step and cut. That’s the first kata.  Shouldn’t be tough at all. 20 years later I’m still working at it. At least now I can understand what Takada Sensei was doing, even though I still can’t approach his skills. I can at least draw, cut, raise the sword above my head, step and cut and make it look presentable. Which comes back around to the question at the beginning. How can this iai stuff be interesting?

Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

If it was just going through the motions of drawing and cutting and stepping, it wouldn’t be.  Iai isn’t about going through those motions.It’s about being and moving perfectly. All of the challenge is internal. From the outside, it looks like you’re just repeating the same few motions again and again. Internally, every time through is different. You’re working on fixing the angle of the draw so you don’t miss the target (YES! You can miss the target in iai, but that’s a different essay). Maybe you are working to keep your hamstrings and thighs engaged. A big one for me these days is the relationship of my hips to my upper body, shoulders and head.

The sequence of movements nearly vanishes from thought now. The focus shifts to improving movement and balance. Once I do that, each movement is unique. I’m not swinging and cutting over and over. Just like practicing music, each repetition is it’s own thing. Faster or slower. Harder, softer. Adjust foot positions. Get my hips under my shoulders. Get a little better. Make the next version of the kata a little closer to the ideal.

The goal is to do everything perfectly.  Draw precisely. Stop at the perfect moment. Raise the sword and bring my body together in perfect form completely balanced and completely relaxed. Swing down and cut while driving my body forward from the hips. Step out and finish the cut without tipping forward with the energy.

Photo Courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

After a while doing the first kata over and over is fascinating because there are so many small variables to play with. Speed, strength, which muscles in the legs and back and arms to to engage. What’s interesting is how perceptions shift.

Early on in the study, the goal is to learn all the kata, to learn as many forms as possible.  The thinking is often that the more kata you know the better you are. I was anxious to be practicing all the kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, the iai system I was doing. The advanced kata include lots of cool scenarios. Multiple attackers, interesting set ups with narrow lanes or in crowds or trapped in a gate. These kata are fascinating because of the scenarios.

As I got better, these kata became more and more similar. No matter what the scenario, no matter what combination of opponents, what I’m trying to do with my body remains the same. I’m still trying to draw with precision so I don’t miss the target. I want to control the movement with as much power and as little muscle as possible. Swing so that I don’t create any openings and and don’t off-balance myself. Raise the sword and bring my feet together with my hips, shoulders and head balanced solidly above them. Snap the sword tip forward with the last fingers of my left hand. Step forward with my right foot and pull the now extended sword down with my left hand. Then catch it at the bottom with a slight twitch of my right and left hands while my whole body comes to rest with my weight settled and solid and my left leg loaded like a spring in case I have to move again.

 http://www.budogu.com

Just as a basketball player practices endless layups and jump shoots in order to make their technique perfect, and just as an American football player spends hours every day drilling throws or blocks or whatever his position requires, and as football players practice ball handling, passing and kicking, and iai practitioner spends endless hours practicing and studying their most basic movements.

There are two main differences. The first is that until you can’t move, there is no reason to ever stop budo training.  I know people in their 90s who make every effort to practice, polish and improve technique.  Iai, and all budo, is not a mere pastime and entertainment. The lessons and training of iai and other budo continue as long as we do.

The other big difference is where this training is applied.  If you practice shooting baskets, passing, and ball handling, you will become better at basketball, American football, or football. If you practice iai, you will become better at being you. You will improve how move and stand in the world outside the dojo. You will have better control of your mind for whatever you want to direct it to. You will be able to control your reactions and breathing even under stress.

How can learning all of that be boring? If you are just looking to swing a sword around, then yes, iai will quickly become boring. If you want to learn to control and use your body efficiently and effectively, then iai offers endless lessons and challenges. The opportunities to refine your balance, movement and control never end. There are kneeling kata and standing kata and those weird tatehiza kata. As you practice, you get better and better at calming and quieting your mind so you can focus on only the task at hand.

The challenges here are endless and can keep you coming back to the dojo for decades. The value of making the these physical and mental improvements doesn’t end when you leave dojo. That’s when their true worth will appear. And the practice never gets boring. No matter how old you are.
Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

When It Comes To Training, Fast Is Slow And Slow Is Fast


In my last blog I was talking mistakes people make in practicing, and it appears I gave the impression that I think that hard training is always wrong. After rereading what I wrote, I can see how that happened. I spent most of the article talking about the problems with hard training, and only the bit that I repeat below about how to train hard properly.
There is an old saying in martial arts circles that “Fast is slow, and slow is fast.” The most vivid example I’ve seen of this was watching my iaido teacher, Suda Sensei, do kendo with high school students. At the time Suda Sensei was 80 years old. He didn’t have the raw speed or strength or stamina that these 16-18 year old kids did. If all it took was physical speed and strength, they would have blown him right out of the dojo.Instead, he totally dominated them while seeming to move in slow motion when compared to his young opponents. These are not just strong kids either.  A lot of these kids had been doing kendo for 10 years or longer, so they were pretty good technically too.  

Still, they would march out on the floor, and these strong, young guys wouldn’t be able to do anything against him. It wasn’t that Sensei was faster and stronger and crushed them. He was simply always where he should be.  You never saw him take advantage of an opening. That would have required speed.  Instead, his shinai was there filling the spot as the opening came into existence. He was slow, and he moved slowly (at least compared to 18 year high school athletes who train every day). He never rushed and he never hurried. He understood how his partner was moving, and he put his sword  just in the right place at the right time to make a beautiful cut. He didn’t have to hurry. He could move slowly because more importantly than being fast or strong, he knew how to move and where to be and always did it correctly.

You don’t achieve that kind of understanding, control and soft, effortless movement by spending all your time training hard. You get there by training right. Training right means not training any harder than you can while still supporting correct posture, breathing and movement. This is the tricky part. You do need to train as hard as you can while doing everything correctly.  If you are training so hard, and going so fast that you can’t maintain correct posture, correct movement, correct breathing, and correct technique, then you are training too hard.  The biggest problem with this is that you then teach yourself bad posture, poor movement, lousy, shallow breathing, and weak technique.

The trick is to push yourself right up to that edge where everything starts to fall apart, but not fall over it.  It’s easy to go to far, and I still find myself doing it from time to time.  Try as I might to eliminate it, I still have some ego about this stuff, and sometimes it gets the best of me.  I rely on my friends and seniors to help me avoid this, and to stop me when I start crossing the line into bad training.

One of the first keys to training as hard as you can properly, is to start slow. That whole “slow is fast, and fast is slow” thing starts here. If you try to rush your training, you will improve slowly, if at all, because you will be training in bad technique, poor posture, incorrect movement and shallow, inefficient breathing. Start slow, well below your best speed and your highest effective intensity level.  Whatever it is you are practicing, focus and do it perfectly. Then increase the intensity.  Not the strength or the speed. Just the intensity. Increase your focus, blast everything else out of your mind except what you are doing and doing 100%. Gradually increase the speed, but never so much that you lose control.

If you’ve got a partner, controlling this sort of thing is much easier.  It’s one of the reasons that koryu budo ryuha require lower level students to always work with a senior student who will act as the uke for the technique or the kata.  The senior student initiates the interaction and sets the speed and intensity level.  The goal is to always set it just above where the student is comfortable, but below the point where their technique and control fall apart.  That is a pretty narrow range for most us.  I know that my technique starts to break down fairly soon after we move out of my comfort zone.

The goal is to expand that comfort zone. Make you able to handle more and more stress without getting tense, breathing shallow, pulling your shoulders up by your ears and rocking back on your heels. Good teachers and seniors will feel where a training partner is at and adjust the training appropriately.  You want to spend plenty of time training out in that shadowy region where you aren’t comfortable, but you still have enough to control to move properly, maintain good posture, breathe well, and execute good technique.  This is where you will make the most progress.

Each time you train there, you will stretch your comfort zone a little further out, and the point where technique, posture, breathing and movement all fall apart will move a little further out as well.  This isn’t necessarily hard training as we are used to thinking about it.  It is hard though, and it will leave you dripping in sweat from the focus, concentration and control required for training out there in the shadow land between comfort and losing control.  It takes a long time to learn how push yourself far enough but not too far.


https://www.budogu.com/


I think this is why koryu students seem, in my experience, to make more rapid progress than students of modern arts. It’s not that koryu curriculums are inherently better. The koryu training system is much better though. Beginners and lower level students always train with senior who’s job is to keep them training out past their comfort zone without going too far.  The student doesn’t have to worry about how hard or intensely to train. The senior sets the pace and makes sure the training is fast and hard, but not too fast or too hard. This way the students get the maximum benefit from their time in the dojo.

A problem I see with many modern budo is that people spend a lot of time do repetitions on their own, without enough supervision to make sure what they are doing are high quality repetitions that are training good technique into their muscles. Then the students are encouraged to spar and do randori with people of all levels, without any control as to how hard they are fighting.  Students push themselves too hard, worry about winning (or not losing), and teach themselves bad habits that they will be trying to undo for decades (trust me, I have this little bend at the waist in harai goshi I have been fighting for close to 25 years. And I won’t even mention how quickly I can fall into a bad defensive posture  Arghhh!!).

Don’t rush into training harder than you are ready for.  Also don’t rush into trying to learn techniques and kata before you are ready for them. Doing that does two things. It waters down the amount of time you have to develop each technique because you are chasing too many skills at the same time. On top of that, it makes it more difficult for you body to absorb any of the skills effectively because you are trying to absorb more than you are capable of absorbing. The result is you are studying more stuff, but learning it more slowly.  Fast is slow and slow is fast.  

Learn the most basic things really solidly before you add more stuff to it. I know well the desire to learn the advanced techniques. The secret is that there are no advanced techniques. There are only the basics applied so well that they seem advanced. Sensei Hiroshi Ikeda once said that “We teach all the secrets of Aikido in the first class.” It’s true. On the first day you learn about relaxing, moving properly and breathing. Learn the basics well and all your techniques will look like magic. I was at a seminar where Howard Popkin kept doing impossible things to me. He did no advanced techniques, nothing complicated. He did very basic techniques and applications so smoothly and effectively they felt like magic. And you know what? Even those of us doing them for the very first time could do the techniques effectively when we slowed down so we could do the movements properly. The moment we tried to speed things up though, everything fell apart. There is no way to learn the good stuff by rushing. You have to slow down and do it right. Fast is slow and slow is fast.

Learn good, powerful budo.  Learn techniques that are so smooth and effective people accuse of you doing magic and tell you they can’t imagine being able to do what you do.  Master your body and your technique so fully that you fill every opening you partner gives you before it has opened. Be so relaxed and move so slowly while completely dominating your opponents that people watching can’t understand how you do it.  The fastest way to get there is to slow down and go no faster than you can do the technique correctly.  Fast is slow and slow is fast.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Only Things I Really Teach Are How to Breathe And How To Walk

I spend a lot of time writing about the more philosophical aspects of budo, but there is a concrete area that I believe is close to universal in the martial arts.


So you’ve decided to learn a martial art, and by some cosmic mischance you end up in my dojo.  You’ll probably be disappointed when I tell tell you that the only things I really teach are how to walk and how to breath.  This is ridiculous, since everyone over the age of 18 months can do both, and by the time you wander into my dojo you’ve probably got 20+ years of experience doing them, right?


You probably think you’re pretty good at both. I beg to differ.  You’re probably lousy at them.  Breathing and walking are the foundations of all movement in the martial arts, but almost nobody spends enough time practicing them.   The only people I know who spend time practicing breathing correctly are wind musicians and vocalists.  I don’t know anybody who practices walking properly.  Everyone just assumes that they walk and breathe properly because they do both all day long.


The truth is that most of us have no clue how to breathe properly, and we walk like gorillas with leg cramps.  Good breathing is fundamental to everything we do, and yet most of us have no idea how to do it.   Ask a tuba player or flautist how to breath and you will get a simple but valuable education.  Breath comes from moving the diaphragm but I can’t tell you how many martial artists I see breathing by moving their shoulders up and down or flexing their chests.  That’s bad technique, and if you can’t breathe properly you wind up out of breath and unable to do much of anything.  You certainly won’t be able to coordinate and integrate your body into a single unit.  It will stay a disparate bunch of parts until you learn to breath.


You can’t really be balanced if you’re not breathing properly.  And if you’re not balanced, you’re not walking and moving properly.  And if you you’re not walking and moving properly, you won’t be able to do anything that is taught in the dojo.


Musicians spend a lot of time working on proper breathing.  I teach students to understand what proper breathing feels like by having them lie on the floor on their backs.   In this position you cannot breathe with your shoulders or your chest.  You have to breathe with your diaphragm.  Lying on their backs, students can put their hands on the stomachs and really know what it feels like to breath properly from the diaphragm.  Then they can get up and practice replicating the experience while standing.  At first they have to feel with their hands if they are using their diaphragm and stomach properly, and after awhile they will know the feeling well enough to recognize it without sticking their hands on their bellies.  To check for shoulder breathing they can look in a mirror. If they see their shoulders move when they breathe, they know they are doing it wrong.  


It takes quite a while for this method of breathing to become habitual.  After decades of bad breathing habits, proper breathing does not come naturally.  The body will default to whatever habits it has developed over the years, so it will take conscious intervention to correct and ultimately change the habits.   Initially someone learning to breathe won’t notice they are breathing wrong except in class when it is consciously called to their attention.  Over time, as they become more familiar with the exercise and comfortable with the feeling, they will start to notice outside of practice when they aren’t breathing properly and self-correct.  Eventually proper breathing will become their default breathing method.


That’s a lot of work just to learn a different way of breathing than the one that has served just fine since you were born.  So why bother?  First, diaphragmatic breathing is more efficient than chest breathing or shoulder breathing.  Your lungs expand more so you can take in more oxygen with each breath.  Second, diaphragmatic breathing keeps the body together in a single unit.  To breathe from your shoulders or chest you have to loosen the connections between your shoulders and chest to the muscles in your back and abdomen so they can float up and out to let your lungs expand and take in oxygen.  In doing so you are shifting your balance up and out.  Breathing from your diaphragm doesn’t involve shifting chunks of your body around.  Your stomach is built to expand and contract without changing your balance or rearranging big pieces of you around.  


Once you can breathe properly, you’ll be able to relax into your body more effectively.  When you stop throwing your chest and shoulders around with each breath you can learn to connect with the ground through your legs and feet.  As I said above, you can’t really be balanced if you’re not breathing properly.  And if you’re not balanced, you’re not walking and moving properly.  And if you you’re not walking and moving properly, you won’t be able to do anything else that is taught in the dojo.


So now you’ve learned to breathe properly, and hopefully we’ve got you standing still in a nice, relaxed, stable posture.  Now it’s time for the tough part: learning to walk.  Just because you can get from place to place without falling over every third step does not mean you are good at walking.  Breathing can be done while lying down and standing still.  Walking requires coordinating everything you’ve learned about breathing while actually moving your whole body.  This is tougher than it sounds, and since even the Mayo Clinic has a page about it, I’ve discovered I’m not the only one concerned about this.


The basic walking method for naked house apes like us is to extend a foot and then fall forward onto it.  Watch a toddler who has just learned how to walk and this becomes very clear.  They really are falling forward and catching themselves with every step.  This is fine if you are 18 months old and just figuring out how to get around on 2 legs, but if you want to do anything more than that you’ll need to refine the technique a bit.


The two basic walking movements in the arts I do are ayumiashi and suriashi (roughly walking feet and sliding feet).  Both of them require moving as a connected whole without throwing your balance into the air with each step.  Start with the balanced, relaxed posture you have when breathing properly.  Your head is up (the Tai Chi guys describe it as feeling like it is hanging from a thread, which is such a good description that I’m stealing it).Your back is straight and relaxed, your shoulders are not slumped forward and your back isn’t pulled into an excessive arch.  Everything sits naturally above your hips and your hips sit comfortably atop your legs without any tension required to stay there.


Now move your leg forward driving it from the hips and without swinging your hips forward.  You’re hips should stay under your shoulders.  Shoulders and hips should stay square and not rock from side to side or swing forward from right to left with each step.  Your foot should not be so far forward that your weight comes crashing down on it.  The transfer of weight should be smooth as the foot rolls from heel to toe.  This is ayumiashi, regular walking, and just like breathing, it can take a bit of practice to make consistent even when you’re not thinking about it.


Suriashi is a sliding foot movement where the ball of the foot never comes more than a hair’s breadth off the floor (I was going to talk about the thickness of a sheet of rice paper, but that’s been done).  This is not normal walking.  This method of walking has an important place in training and learning to move for budo though.  To manage it, bend your knees slightly, sink your hips a little and extend your right foot forward a bit.  This time, instead of reaching out with the front foot as in ayumiashi, drive your whole body forward as one unit by pushing with the left leg and the ball and toes of the left foot while keeping your body stable and balance over the right leg.  Do this all the way across the room.  No do it with the left foot forward.


Now, since I know you were holding your breath while you focused on doing the movements properly, try doing them while breathing.  Once you can breath properly and walk correctly you’ll be ready to start learning budo.  When you move and breath well your body becomes a single whole, with every part of you supporting every other part in accomplishing whatever you set out to do.    If you aren’t breathing and walking well, you aren’t balanced and you don’t have a solid platform upon which to build techniques.  Instead you have a base like a pile of sand.  You can’t learn to do anything budo related until you have a solid foundation that doesn’t rock like a sailboat in high seas.


Now that you now longer move like a pregnant musk ox we can start doing fun stuff like swinging swords and sticks and throwing people.  None of these work when you are off balance and huffing to get a breath.  All of them require a body and breath that are fully integrated and working to support each other. If any part of the body or breath are out of whack it will be readily apparent to your teacher, and eventually to you to.