Showing posts with label naginata. Show all posts
Showing posts with label naginata. Show all posts

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.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What Is A Good Uke, and Why Is One Important?

I’ve run across some discussions within gendai budo arts with people talking about the varying qualities of the uke they encounter as they train in different dojo.   The quality of ukes and the training people do with them is thoroughly inconsistent.  All of this brought two questions to the fore for me.  First, what is a good uke?  Second, just how important for training iis it to have a good uke to work with?

When we train in most martial arts, we have to have a partner to train with.  It is difficult to practice solo, whether you are training in an unarmed or armed art.   In arts like judo and aikido, many people seem to view uke’s role as simply being able to take the fall when we throw them.  While I agree that uke must be able to handle being thrown, I believe this is the smallest portion of an uke’s skills.  I was witness to a recent discussion of people from one art complaining about the quality of attacks their uke were performing.  The poor attacks were making good practice difficult.

When we go to the dojo to train, we need partners to train with.  Our training partner, our uke, actually determines just about everything that happens in each training encounter.  Our uke sets the spacing and speed of the encounter, as well as the determining how much energy will go into it.  This is true for judo, aikido practice, kenjutsu kata, jo kata, kendo training or any other practice with a partner.

To be a good uke is not just to be able take the fall for however hard your partner thows, or to be able to absorb the attack with the sword, jo, or naginata.  To me, being able to survive the technique is the basic prerequisite for learning how to be a good uke.

A good uke
  • understands the appropriate distances for various attacks
  • knows how to make the different attacks effectively
  • can adjust the speed and power of their attacks so tori can practice whatever element of the technique or kata they need to focus on
  • understands spacing and timing intimately so they can teach us when we are too early or too close, too late or too far.
  • can handle what tori is doing without trouble.  
  • can present new problems for tori to learn from

Being a good uke takes a lot of skill.  In places where only people who are skilled at the role act as uke the training  environment is far more intense, exciting, and most importantly, effective .   The skill of the uke means that there is never any question of them not understanding their role in the technique or kata being practiced.  They provide the optimal learning and training experience for their partner.  

Getting to the point where you can be a good uke takes time, something a lot of modern dojo don’t seem to want to give students.  The first step in becoming a good uke is learning the fundamentals on the tori side.  You really have to know the techniques and the kata from that side before you can do an adequate job as uke for someone.    Learning the tori side is where you lay a foundation of good technique, timing, maai and reading your partner.

A good uke understands the technique you are doing and can offer the right feedback to help you improve.  This feedback won’t always be verbal.  A lot of it is just not letting you get away with sloppiness in posture and positioning and energy application (some people say “force” but that is a crude an inaccurate description of what we are doing).   This level of understanding is critical.

Once someone has a solid understanding of the technical side they can start learning the uke role.  I have vivid memories of the first few times Matsuda Sensei called on me to act as uke for someone he was teaching.  I was really honored, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was there to be taught every bit as much as I was to help the other guy.  Sensei offered as many corrections and advice to me about how to make the learning experience better for my partner as he did to my partner.  

That was my first lesson in being an uke. It was not my last.  I’m still getting lessons.  And everything I learn about being uke also informs my understanding of being tori.  It all cycles around.  On the foundation of techniques you learned as tori, you then build an understanding of the various attacks and how they need to be done for each of the techniques or kata your partner is learning.  Not every attack is so hard and deep it blows through tori if they miss, nor are they all so light that there are no consequences for tori if the fail the technique.  A good uke controls that intensity and can pull the attack if they see tori isn’t going to be able to handle it.  Uke can dial the intensity up and down as needed.  

One of the things that a good uke can do is push you outside of your comfort zone.  Whether you are doing kata training or randori, a good uke can push you by making you practice what you are weakest at, and by moving things a little faster than you are accustomed to, by changing up the timing and spacing.  All of these are critical lessons.

It is very easy to get comfortable and not venture out of safe, known territory.  If you are always in a neighborhood you know well, you aren’t likely to learn anything or to improve.  You have to go out where you aren’t comfortable and where you aren’t sure your technique will work. In fact, you need to go out where your technique will fail so you can learn what is necessary there, and grow enough so that your technique will work.  Taking you to where your technique can fail safely and you can make your next steps forward is the responsibility of a good uke.

Uke controls what we learn.  Uke has to be able to take us outside our comfort zone to work on aspects of technique that need practice, whether it is timing, spacing, speed, power or a combination of all of them.

So just how important is a good uke to learning budo?  As important as having a good teacher.  The teacher leads and points the way, and your uke provides the grinding stone you shape your early technique upon, and the fine grit polishing powder that you polish it with when you understand the general shape of the art.

You can see then why I cringe when I see beginners working together so much of the time in many judo and aikido dojo.  A beginner training with other beginners will have a difficult time trying to learn anything useful.  The attacks they receive won’t help them learn distancing or timing.  They may even learn the wrong lessons.  If they learn to react to attacks that would never reach them they are learning bad distancing and timing.  The same if they think someone has to stand very close to initiate an attack.  Attacks that are too weak don’t give tori experience with appropriate energy levels, while attacks the are too energetic too early can easily injury tori, or cause them to react with energy they can’t control yet, which can injury uke.

When a beginner acts as uke for a beginner, tori can’t practice good technique.  Tori needs attacks geared to their level, and feedback from how she deals with those attacks.  That feedback is critical to making good growth and progress in the art.  If the beginner uke’s attacks aren’t teaching a good understanding of timing and spacing, the feedback they give to tori’s techniques is worse than useless.  They don’t know what a good technique is yet, so they can’t guide tori’s technique in the right direction. They are more likely to guide their fellow beginner in the wrong direction without realizing it.  These are, lessons that may take years to undo.

Good uke provide the framework within which a good teacher can work.  The teacher can’t practice with everyone all the time.  Senior students who are good uke do that.  The good uke gives their partner the chance to assimilate what the teacher shows and explains.  They provide the correct feedback immediately, and there are never 2 students staring at each other because neither one knows what they are doing. The good uke provides a great training experience, even if the teacher isn’t around.  They can train well and help tori raise her level every time they work together.

I would also say that good uke speed the learning curve immensely.  I believe a student who has ample time training with good uke will develop several times faster than one who does a lot of training with other beginners.  I’m not saying never train with other beginners.  In many dojo, especially outside Japan, there just aren’t enough seniors to go around.  But I will say that you should try to train with skilled uke as much as possible.   One of my favorite dojo in Japan doesn’t allow juniors to act as uke until they are at least 4th dan.  I was shocked by this the first few times I trained there.  Practice starts with everyone doing solo kihon, and then the seniors line up and all the juniors do paired kihon with the seniors.  Then the juniors are paired with seniors and they practice for 45 minutes together.  The final 45 minutes the juniors watch the seniors practice.  This works even more effectively than it sounds, because the juniors get the opportunity to carefully watch the kata being done at a high level of skill, so they can see how the corrections and lessons they have just received are applied.  From this watching and thinking they can get a deeper understanding of the kata for their next practice.

As dojo develop sufficient depth, I think they should switch to the older practice of junior students training with senior students.  That is the way it works in the mature dojo I have seen in Japan, both koryu and gendai. This is not just because it’s traditional.  It’s traditional because it works best.