Showing posts with label kendo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kendo. Show all posts

Monday, September 28, 2015

Secret Techniques Versus Special Techniques

Ono-ha Itto Ryu.  Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizing The Body For Budo

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.)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Competition In Budo: A Guest Blog by Kim Taylor

Every few years I seem to go through a crisis and start looking for the benefit of budo. I read all the latest papers dealing with the ethics and psychological benefits of sport and martial art and think about it quite a bit.
My attitudes never change much, I just need the reminding I think. I'll do a bit of thinking here on the idea of competition in budo if you don't mind. 

First, kids like competition. They move from play to competition as they head toward adolescence and I think that competition is a part of their breaking away from home. It's a part of asserting themselves as individuals, a way to separate themselves from "the other" by "making their mark". 

So we do the tournament thing because the kids like it and they start and stay in the art. So the story goes at least.
Gradings are the same, a way to separate from the pack, a way to distinguish oneself. Kids love grading.
So goes the thinking, and there's me organizing gradings to go along with the seminar coming up. The thing is, I don't teach kids and I haven't been one for a couple of years now. I don't like tournaments or gradings and I find that most of the adults I teach are of the same opinion. Why is that? I think one usually grows out of competition. Adolescence doesn't last our whole lives, at least not physical adolescence. The time of serious competition also spans a very short period. Steve Nash just retired from Pro Basketball at 41. I was stunned to hear that he had still been playing. No wonder he can hardly walk. 

Competitive sport, despite the hype, isn't very good at making better people. The research says so, don't take my word for it, hit Google Scholar and read. Sport, be it martial (kendo, judo, MMA) or otherwise is about playing to the rules, beating the other guy and winning. It's really not about getting along with everyone, cooperating (except maybe with your team if it's a team sport) or dealing with real life... well maybe modern business where we must crush the competition and win that corner office. (What ever happened to being a good craftsman and selling stuff we make to people who actually need what we make?)

A martial art is, at it's heart, about life and death, it doesn't exist in a separate "playspace" like sport, it's connected to some primal stuff that goes pretty deep into our brains, fear and anxiety and stress and most of what we pay doctors to fix these days. Cooperation in the martial arts is absolute, except during the competitive parts. Training is cooperative, the attacker is the instructor, the defender is the student and the attacker never competes, only offers challenges the student can answer. Was it ever any other way in combat? We don't want to defeat our fellow soldiers, we want to have the best guy we can have at our side. If his shield collapses we pay the price too. We don't select soldiers for their fighting ability, we select for the ability to survive the training, then we train them. 

But we compete on the battlefield don't we? The politicians may think so, they may be playing the "Great Game" of empire or, nowadays, getting elected, but the soldiers only ever survive or die. They aren't playing to win they are fighting to live. There is a difference despite the confusion of metaphore and reality in the news broadcasts. 

One of the core benefits of the sword arts is the kata, and I am beginning to believe that's in the final move, the witholding of the killing blow. Kata is only ever cooperative, it's about moving together to higher levels of sensitivity and it's about the final sacrifice of the attacker (uchidachi) and the witholding of the blow by the defender (shidachi). What I guess I'm saying is that the closest sport comes to this is the coach, but coaches are focused on technique for winning. A focus on technique is constricting, not creative. You don't look for new ways to win at a sport, find one and the rules committee makes a new rule against it. You look for ways to exploit those rules, which is not very creative. Finding a new way to survive a sword strike? You have to be a pretty strict cultural-artifact type not to appreciate that. 

To make a kata-based art into a competitive sport is not something I can get behind, no matter how many kids we can attract to the classes by doing it. Performing a kata to win a medal is... a waste of good training time even if you're the most enlightened competitor out there. A full day of tournament with ten minutes of waving the sword around is not good time management. 

Kendo is a sport, let's admit it. The ZNKR spends large amounts of energy trying to fight that opinion and they declare the benefits to society and world peace, but when it comes down to it, the most expensive line item of most national kendo organizations is the team they send to the world championships. It's a real problem for the organization because the kids who are competing are driving the sport in one direction (they just wanna have fun) and the old guys are forever pushing back. I'm not alone in my concerns over competition being somewhat opposed to the benefits of budo. 

And grading? Colin Watkin sensei, Shihan of the Kage-ryu has explained the grading system to us few students. There is none. Your "grade" is survival on the battlefield.
OMG, so does 3dan mean that I "mostly" survive a fight? 

Musashi had 60 duels from age 13 to 27 and won them all. His own assessment was that he was lucky or they were kind of poor swordsmen. He spent the next half of his life trying to figure out how he could improve. 

Good enough for me, I'll leave the competition to the kids.

Kim Taylor
Mar 26, 2015

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.

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, July 2, 2014

The Most Essential Principles In Budo: Ma'ai

There is no single essential element of good budo. There are a number of elements that make up the common foundations of all good budo, whether it is empty hand, small weapons, swords, spears and naginata or even kyubado. I wrote about structure in a previous post.  Another essential principle is ma’ai 間合, often translated as spacing. This one seems simple, and turns out to be exceedingly complex and subtle.  

At it’s most basic level, spacing is the distance between you and your opponent.  That’s the most basic level.  After this it quickly gets complicated.  Ma’ai 間合 is the Japanese term, and and while it refers to distance, it also implies the proper or correct distance. The problem and complexity comes from the fact that what is the proper distance is different for every encounter.

Let’s start just with empty hand encounters to keep it simple. I’m 183 cm tall. My reach and range is longer than someone who is 160 cm tall, assuming we’re both using the same sorts of attacks. My range is longer, so I don’t need to be as close to reach out, make a connection and apply a judo technique. An opponent who is 160 cm has to come well inside my range before she can attack.   

Seems simple enough. How about this then? I’m a judoka, so I’m not big with punches and kicks.  So let’s assume my 160 cm opponent is now proficient at Tae Kwon Do. Oops! The ma’ai just changed significantly, and not in my favor. Now my opponents kicks are effective at a greater range than my grappling. On the other hand, if I get inside her effective range, my grappling is more effective than her striking.  

So good distancing,ma’ai, changes with the person’s reach and the techniques being used. It’s the combination of your effective attacking range and your opponent’s. What’s good for one is more than likely not optimal for the other.  Kendo breaks down ma’ai into several discrete ranges, which is easier in kendo because the shinai’s length is controlled to prevent major differences between kendoka.   The Kendo community has analyzed their three main ranges, toma, issoku-no-maai, chika-ma (outside of attack range, attack with one step, close enough to attack without moving).  Their analysis is focused on two very similar opponents with identical weapons.

Once we get outside the competitive arena with it’s requirement that things be “fair,” whatever that might be, ma’ai becomes a very fluid distance. In both gendai and koryu arts, kata are designed to teach the fluidity of ma’ai by setting up the student to practice against a variety of weapons and partners.  This is true in Judo in the Kime No Kata where the student must deal with everything from grabs to strikes to knife attacks to swords.  It’s true in most Aikido training as well, with a variety of tanto and sword disarms.  

Many classical bujutsu systems cover the entire gamut of weapons combinations, from both persons unarmed to one person armed, to both armed with the same weapon to asymmetrically armed training.  Many weapons arts mostly emphasize asymmetrical training scenarios.  In Shinto Muso Ryu, the only time both partners are armed alike is in a few of the okuden forms, and seven of the Shinto Ryu kenjutsu kata.  In JIkishinkage Ryu the combination is usually sword versus naginata.  Most koryu arts include a variety of weapons in their curriculum.

Once we get to this variety of combinations the terms for ma’ai become much more interesting and challenging.  If I’m holding a kodachi facing an opponent with a tachi, her issoku-no-maai is longer than mine.

 If I switch to jo, mine is now longer than hers.  If she’s got one of those giant naginata or a yari, hers is longer than mine.  And then we have the variability of some types of kusarigama, but I’m not going to go there today.  

The continually changing combination of an individual’s range and her weapon’s range makes ma’ai exceptionally difficult to master (and even more complicated to write about). By practicing with a variety of partners and in a variety of weapon combinations you can develop a good sense of maai.  I’m starting to understand some aspects of it, but I have a long way to go.  

One thing that is critical for learning learning ma’ai is that attacks have to be effective. I hear a lot about “sincere” and “committed” attacks in some arts.  I’ll be honest, I really don’t care if the attack is sincere or not, and I really don’t care if it’s committed.  I care about whether it will be effective.  A sincere, committed attack that will never reach you is worthless for training because you will never learn at what range you are vulnerable, and at what range you are effective.  The same is true for an attack that purposely misses to either side.  I can’t learn how to deal with an attack that isn’t effective.

The attack doesn’t have to be fast and hard.  It doesn’t have to be heavily overcommitted.  It does have to be on target.  That’s the key.  On any number of occasions I’ve told students to “Hit me.”  They swung their weapon and I didn’t move because I didn’t need to.  I could see they weren’t doing anything that would impact me.  I stood there and watched their weapons swing past in the breeze.  Then people asked why I didn’t move.  I didn’t move because my sense of ma’ai is strong enough that I can see when someone is attacking effectively and when he is just waving at empty air.  Waving at empty air is not effective or threatening.

Every attack, no matter how slow, has to be such that it would impact my position.  If it’s not going to do that, how am I going to learn what distance and attack is dangerous and what isn’t?  If you don’t know the difference, you will fall for every feint and false attack.  An effective attack is not one where you overcommit and throw yourself at your opponent either.  For an effective attack you move in maintaining your balance and integrity while striking or cutting so that you will impact your partner if she doesn’t move.  

As you practice kata and randori with a variety of partners and weapons combinations, you will develop a more and more sensitive understanding of ma’ai.  With an understanding of ma’ai comes awareness of the difference between an empty threat, and a position that is vulnerable to attack.  You will also be able to see  when your opponent is open to attack on the other side.  Without an understanding of ma’ai you are vulnerable to every threat and intimidating move because you won’t know the difference between an attack that will affect you and movement that cannot hurt you.

NOTE:  “Ma’ai” has 3 syllables in Japanese:  mah-ah-ee.  In English it comes out as 2 syllables “mah-eye.”

Monday, April 28, 2014

Change in Classical and Modern Martial Arts

The classical arts of Japan (pre-1868) have a very different structure from the modern arts. The classical arts are entirely defined by their kata. If you take something like Suio Ryu or Shinto Muso Ryu, they have a clearly defined set of kata. Changing the kata is frowned upon, not because innovation is bad, but because it's really difficult to find anything in the kata that has not been boiled down to the essence of effectiveness.

Most koryu (again, pre-1868 traditions) kata are paired kata, always practiced with a partner. The reasons for doing the kata a particular way become vividly clear in a bright black and blue manner if you try to change things. The attacking partner is an immediate check to see if what you are doing is effective or not. And when it's not, you may well end up with a beautiful bruise as proof. Recently a friend and I spent a morning working through some kata slowly. Each time we tried to change the kata, we discovered that the kata form was the strongest way of responding for both the shitachi and the uchitachi. Each time we tried something different the openings and weaknesses of the new positions were clear. After hundreds of year of practice and examination, our forebears in the system had worked out the most effective way for things to be done. Our lesson was to understand why they designed the kata as they did.

The practice of the kata define the koryu traditions. Nearly all of the lore and wisdom that generations of teachers have accumulated is in embedded in the kata. It's up to students to tease this knowledge out. One way to do that is with what my friend and I were doing. You deconstruct the kata, try different reactions and attacks at each juncture and see if they work, or as we discovered, why they don't work.

Traditional Japanese systems, koryu budo, generally have very specific and clear pedagogy. Shinto Muso Ryu has a clear set of 40+ jo kata, as well as 12 sword kata, 12 walking stick kata, 24 kusarigama kata, 30 jutte kata, and I've forgotten how many hojo kata. These are very clearly defined. It's extremely difficult for teacher who hasn't been training for decades to make changes, and the kata themselves make it difficult. As I discussed above, we couldn't find any weaknesses in the kata we were exploring. We just learned a lot of options that don't work as well those taught in the system already. With this kind of situation, there just aren't many opportunities for innovation.

The most common way koryu arts change is that someone develops a new kata to address some situation or condition that is not considered by the existing kata. In Shinto Muso Ryu for example, they developed some new kata at the end of the 19th century to make use of the walking sticks that had become popular at the time. This is a logical extension of the principles of the stick that is the main weapon in Shinto Muso Ryu to a shorter stick. They didn't change old kata, or get rid of anything. They developed a few new kata to teach an understanding of the ranges and uses of the shorter stick. Systems do change, but they do so very slowly. With koryu, those changes are usually minor additions to the system rather than revolutions in the way things are done.

People sometimes wonder why koryu systems don't have lots of sparring and tournaments like the modern arts of kendo, karatedo and judo. Surprisingly, this is not a new question. Groups have been arguing about the value of sparring type practice in Japan for over four hundred years. When Japan was at war with itself, which was most of the time from about 1300 through 1600, there were more than enough opportunities for people to test their ideas, techniques and skills, so the question didn’t come up. Once Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country and removed the last possible source of revolution in 1615, those opportunities disappeared. Soon after that sparring and challenge matches started to appear. Arguments over the value of sparring compared with kata training began almost immediately, and have continued unabated to this day. Over the centuries though, the styles that emphasize sparring as a part of their training never demonstrated significantly better records in the many challenge matches. If the sparring faction had shown consistent success the other systems would have changed rather than lose.  The systems that emphasized kata weren’t losing, so there was no need to change. Kata remained the core of training because when done properly, it works.

Tournaments are a relatively recent phenomenon. Tournaments first showed up late in the 19th century once the Japan had reformed its government and sword teachers had no way to make a living. Some people started doing matches to entertain the public and try to support themselves as professional martial artists after traditional positions working for daimyo disappeared.. These didn't last long, but they contributed to the development of modern kendo. Modern kendo equipment dates back to that used for sparring and some challenges as early as the 17th century.

Sword demonstrations and prize matches during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) popularized and contributed to the creation of a sport form of kenjutsu done with shinai (bamboo swords). Similar matches for jujutsu schools contributed to the rise of Kodokan Judo. Kano's students won a number of noted victories and the Kodokan was invited to participate in inter-style matches by the Tokyo Police. The Kodokan did exceptionally well in most of these matches and earned an impressive reputation. These matches though also drove some significant changes in the Kodokan's curriculum.

Fusen Ryu is reported to have defeated a number of Judo representatives with strong ground techniques. At the time, Kano was not in favor of focusing on ground fighting because he felt it was a dangerous place to be in a street fight. However, these losses on the ground in public matches pushed him to develop a groundwork curriculum for Judo. One of the big surprises about this is the way he went about it. Contrary to the idea of martial schools jealously guarding their secrets, at this time at the end of the 19th century, people were much more open. Kano invited the head of Fusen Ryu to teach groundwork at the Kodokan Dojo, and he did. With the help of the head of a rival system, Kano significantly strengthened the Kodokan curriculum. Kano never became a huge fan of groundwork, always believing that staying on your feet was optimal in a fight, but the pressure of doing well in competitive matches drove him to adapt his art.

In addition, Kano changed from the classic menkyo, or licensing, system, and created the modern dan rank system based on competitive ability.  The koryu systems award licenses based on a persons level of understanding and mastery of the system, up to and including full mastery of the system.  Kano abandoned this system for one in which students were ranked according to competitive ability in matches.  If a student could defeat four other students of 1st dan level (commonly known as black belt) , then he was promoted to 2nd dan (black belt).  This resulted in tremendous changes in what is taught and how students train.  Anything that is not allowed in competitive matches is marginalized in training, even if it is effective in combative situations outside of training.  The focus narrowed to those techniques which are most effective in competition.  The up side of this focus is that it drives innovation and experimentation.  Judoka are constantly looking for innovative ways to win in competition and refining their techniques to make them more effective.  The down side is, as I describe above, that anything not useful in competition is largely ignored, even if it is highly effective in situations outside of competition.

Various pressures on competitive martial systems are still visible today. For the larger systems such as Judo and various Karate styles, two of the big pressures are popularity and money. In the last 15 years the International Judo Federation has been busy making numerous changes to the rules for competitive Judo matches in order to make Judo more television friendly to maintain popularity and keep it's place in the Olympics. The matches are seen as being too slow and difficult to follow, so changes were made to speed things up. In addition, there seems to be some reservations about how well people from other systems, such as wrestling and BJJ, do when they enter Judo tournaments. I have heard complaints that wrestlers and BJJ players use a lot of leg grabs and take downs that aren't classical Judo. The techniques work though. My feeling is that in Judo, we are reacting in the worst way possible to these challenges from wrestlers and BJJ players. Instead of inviting them into our dojo to learn from them, as Kano did, the IJF has chosen to ban the leg grabs and take downs from Judo competition. To me this only makes Judo weaker and less worthy of study.

In the Karate world, I see a lot of things in tournaments where combative functionality is not even considered. People invent kata that are flashy and athletic, but have nothing to do with the rich history and combative effectiveness of the Okinawan traditions. I have seen rules for weapons kata that require a certain number of weapons releases. This means that people are required to throw their weapon into the air! From a standpoint of combative functionality, this is ridiculous. However, to people who don't know better, this looks impressive. These Karate tournaments seem to be responding to a desire to be as popular as possible, rather than as effective as possible. It is a similar to what the IJF is doing make Judo more television friendly so the International Olympic Committee won't drop Judo from the Olympics like it tried to do with Wrestling a few years back. I won't even get into the silliness that is Olympic Tae Kwon Do.

Many of the modern arts are relatively easy to change because they are competition focused and committee governed, so changes in the rules will drive major changes in training. The koryu arts are deeply seated in kata that have been refined over centuries, and I can't really imagine any pressure big enough for them to make significant changes to their curriculums. Since the classical systems are not looking for rapid growth or tv money, they are under no pressure to change except that which they have always had; to adjust their systems to they remain relevant to the world around them. Judo and Karate both have strong depths of kata, well thought out and highly refined, but these traditional, effective and functional kata are often ignored in the race to perform well in competitions. The desire to do well in competition and to be visible on the world stage will continue to drive changes in these arts. I would love to see the pressure and focus of modern arts return to combative functionality, but I doubt that will happen when it is so easy to get caught up in the ego trap of popularity.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Way Of The Sword

Here's a beautiful short video about Japanese sword arts, practice and the mind you want.  It's about Shozo Kato Sensei, 8th Dan Kendo, 7th Dan Iaido.  The cinematography is lovely, the budo is excellent and the ideas fundamental to practice.

Shozo Kato - Way of the Sword from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Budo Training Is Exhilarating!

Budo practice is exhilarating.  I’ve been searching for the right word to describe how I feel about practice and how it makes me feel for years.  Obviously I’m kind of slow if I’m just now figuring this out, but hey, after more than 25 years of exhilarating budo practice being thrown around, choked unconscious and beaten with sticks, maybe there’s a reason it’s taken me so long to figure it out.

People always ask if budo is fun, as if it is a game or a sport.  Some bits of it are fun, but they are an awfully small portion of my budo practice.  It’s difficult to call long practice sessions trying to master the proper swing of a sword, or the best way to unbalance someone, or the proper technique for sweeping someone’s weapon out of the way “fun.”  They are challenging and intriguing and full of learning, but fun is not the word to describe them.  That feeling when the sword flashes through the air and feels like it is doing the cutting itself and you’re just along for the ride?  Exhilarating.  The moment when you touch someone so their balance vanishes and they don’t even know you’ve done it and the throw happens as if they had jumped for you?  Exhilarating.  When you get the sweep just right and your partner’s weapon effortlessly whips around and behind them and maybe right out of their fingers?  Definitely exhilarating.

Even when I don’t make those great leaps in understanding or technical ability though, budo is exhilarating.  The focus it requires and teaches is wonderful.  Getting every part of my body and mind to act as one, coordinated whole just feels fantastically exhilarating.  Iai is certainly one of the least exciting forms of budo to watch.  When done properly it is every bit as intense as any of the paired practice forms such as kenjutsu or jujutsu.  Everything comes together and drives forward with an intensity and force that blocks out the rest of the world and leaves me panting with exhaustion in minutes.   The ability to focus like that on something, even for a short while, is an amazing feeling.    It’s certainly not fun, and it’s definitely not relaxing, although it does seem to drive the tension and stress out of my body and mind.  It’s exhilarating.

Then there is paired practice like kenjutsu or jodo or any of the other delightful weapons we train with.  You and a partner are actively trying to bash each other with big sticks, and getting hit is a real possibility if either of you makes a mistake.  There’s just no way to call this “fun.”  What it is, is fabulously focusing and energizing.  The rest of the world vanishes as you focus on your partner’s intent and your own.  There is no room for your mind to hold onto anything else.  If you try to, you’re going home with big, beautiful bruises.  All you have room for is the awareness or your partner, her weapon, the range at which that weapon is dangerous and where yours is, and how she is moving.  She attacks filled with the intent of smashing you into the ground and yet your movement is just enough to avoid being struck while your counterattack steals her space and leaves her dangerously off-balance and unable to move, all in a single heartbeat of action.  Absolutely exhilarating.

The free practices, known as randori in judo and aikido (though they are quite different) and ji-geiko in kendo, are deeply intense, energetic, powerful practices with you and your partner both giving everything to the training, whether you are focusing on developing and refining specific techniques in an unstructured situation, or going at it full-on to dominate and master your partner.  It’s not “fun” in any sense of the word that I’m familiar with, but it is wonderful.  Often it’s quite uncomfortable, especially when then bruises are tender.  Still, the feeling, from the moment someone says “Hajime!” until well after the randori has ended, is one of exhilaration.  I’m out there working with my whole body, and trust me, when those small muscles all over your body ache they next day you know you were using the whole thing.  You’re also using your whole mind trying to figure out the puzzle your partner is offering you.  Some days you figure out the puzzle in front of you, and some days you are the puzzle that is being figured out.  Either way though, it’s exhilarating.  When I take a really big fall, thrown by that 275 lb (125 kg) guy who sends me flying half way across the dojo and then lands on me, and I get up without any pain or problem because the ukemi was good, it is exhilarating knowing I can survive something like that.  It’s even more exhilarating than when I throw him, although that is a different kind of exhilaration, the exhilaration of achieving something I really wasn’t sure I could do.  When it’s all over and someone yells “Yame!” and we all bow and thank each other, the feeling of exhilaration continues.  It lasts out the door, all the way home and often well into the next day.  That feeling of doing things that are truly difficult, both throwing and being thrown, succeeding and failing, is exhilarating.  

               Budo is not fun.  Fun is too small a word for what I feel when I train.  Fun is a game of euchre at lunch, watching a baseball game with friends.  Fun is pick-up basketball or a tea party with your kids.  These are worth doing.  They are fun.  But they aren’t exhilarating.  They don’t leave your body and mind flushed with the intensity of focusing completely on one thing and directing all your energy to one target.  They don’t leave you exhausted, wrung out and relaxed from the work of gathering all your energy into one focused mass and throwing it at your target through the budo.

That’s the feeling I get from budo practice, exhilaration.  At the end of practice I’m wrung out and exhausted, with my brain dribbling out my ears from the effort to do everything well, to analyze what I’m doing to and try to improve it a smidge every time I do it.  How else can you describe the feeling of someone genuinely trying to beat you with a stick while you block and dodge and control his attacks without getting hit?  The feeling of getting that 275 lbs guy up in the air and flying, or the joy when someone makes you fly and go slamming into the ground and it doesn’t hurt is just amazing.  It’s exhilarating.  Now I know what to say to all those people who ask if budo is fun.  I tell them “No, it’s exhilarating.”