Showing posts with label power. Show all posts
Showing posts with label power. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I am obsessed with developing proper koshi. My iai teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, has been kicking my butt about my koshi for decades, and I’m getting so monomaniacal about it that I wonder why he hasn’t pushed me harder. Whenever I see him, he always makes point to remind to work on my koshi. He is over 90, and still has powerful koshi.

Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2013

So what is koshi? That’s a little tough, because koshi not a clearly defined medical term. Koshi includes the lower back, hips, waist and pelvis. It may be a little vague, but it’s a really good term for a critical area of the body when doing good budo.  That’s because the koshi is the platform that the upper body rest upon.  If the koshi isn’t solid, everything else will wibble-wobble around without any power or control.

Kiyama Sensei always tells me ”腰を入れて” or “put my koshi in”/”use my koshi.” This is subtly different from what people mean when they say “use your legs” or “put your back into it”. Proper use of the koshi is something more fundamental. Good koshi isn’t just about giving power, though it does that. It also gives stability in a way that is critical for being able to use the power in both your legs and your upper body.

When I swing a sword, thrust with a jo, or throw someone in judo, the quality of the technique is limited by how well I can use my koshi. It is the platform that the technique rests upon. When I swing a sword, does the weight and movement of the sword disrupt my balance and stability? If my koshi isn’t solid, it will. On the other hand, if my koshi is solid, I can increase the power and effect of my swing significantly by small movements of the koshi. The koshi ties my whole body together and allows me to direct all the power of my body into the swing of the sword, the thrust of the jo or a throw in judo.

koshi is related to what exercise instructors and trainers refer to as the “core.” The koshi combines the muscles of the lower back and the lower abdomen and ties them together with the pelvis and hips. The lower back muscles have to work with the abdominal muscles as a single unit. They can’t be fighting each other, and one can’t be overpowering the other. These muscles then attach to the pelvis from above to create a single, solid platform.

The stability of that platform is critical in whatever form of budo you are doing.  Most beginners using a sword will tend to sway back and forth like a metronome when they swing the sword. As a beginner swings the sword down, her body is pulled forward from its balanced position. As she raises the sword back over her head her body comes back to center and sometimes even sways past center to the rear.  Without a stable koshi, the beginner has no balance and no control.

The same problem arises when thrusting with a jo.  A martial artist who doesn’t know how to apply her koshi tends to thrust with just her arms, or worse, tries to power the thrust by tipping her upper body into the thrust. This doesn’t increase the power of the thrust, but it does leave her badly off balance and unable to do anything until she has pulled her upper body back over her koshi.

On the other hand, if you power a weapons thrust by driving forward with the legs and transmit that movement and leg power through the koshi to the upper body to the arms and then the weapon, you get a very powerful technique that can actually pick up and move someone (if you can find an uke who is willing to suffer through this). The koshi has to be rock solid for this to work. If there is some point where the hips, pelvis, abdomen and lower back aren’t properly connected, the moment your thrust encounters solid resistance everything will fall apart. Without a solid koshi, when you thrust into a solid partner (someone with great koshi!), your own energy will force your upper body to bend back, away from the target, even as your legs and hips are driving forward. This is disasterous.  The thrust loses any effect on the target and instead knocks you backward and off balance.

Koshi is fundamental. Nowhere is this more true than in empty hand arts. I was watching some budo demonstrations on youtube, and what consistently stood out to me was that nobody had good koshi.  Everyone demonstrating had weak koshi.  Their bodies were all over the place.  Whenever tori threw uke or took him to the ground in a pin or joint control, tori was leaning into the technique instead of driving with his legs and koshi.

I’m a judoka. If you lean into a throw or a pin, it becomes trivially simple for uke to take control from you and reverse the situation. With a judoka that can mean that three-quarters of the way through the technique, when you are sure uke is going down, you suddenly find yourself in flight going over and past uke before you hit the ground.

So how do you develop koshi? The most obvious first step is to have a solid core. That’s not complicated or mysterious.  There are thousands of sites and videos that detail exercises for building a strong core. I’m not going to spend time going over that ground. I will talk about learning to feel and use your koshi well. The first check is to stand up.

Just stand up, close your eyes and feel where your head and shoulders are in relation to your hips. Because the koshi are so fundamental to everything we do, small changes in the angle and relationship between your koshi and the rest of your body can have outsized effects on your stability and technique.  Where are your hips and pelvis? Odds are if you dropped a plumb line from the base of your neck, your hips would be a little behind it.  

That’s not where you want it. You want your hips and pelvis under your shoulders and your shoulders under your head. Take a look at the video of Kim Taylor above. He does a strike with the tsuka of the sword yet his shoulders and head are never in front of his koshi. All the power of his koshi is punching right through the end of the tsuka. The same thing happens when he turns and does the thrust with the sword. He doesn’t over extend his arm.  He doesn’t lean forward from the waist. He pushes the sword forward from his koshi.

That’s where the real power comes from.  Find where your koshi is, and then adjust it to where it should be. Can you feel the difference? Get familiar with that feeling. Really learn how it feels to stand like that. Now try walking.

It’s more difficult than we expect to move from our koshi when we walk because we have all sorts of habits from everyday life. These make walking difficult to do without paying a lot of attention to it. The upside is that walking is something we do all the time. We don’t have to go to the dojo, and we don’t need a skilled uke to practice moving with good koshi. We can practice this any time we walk, even at work.

The first thing to practice is just walking while maintaining a stable, connected koshi. This is the first step towards having a solid koshi to apply to budo. When you walk, do your head and shoulders stay over your koshi? Or are you a citizen of the 21st century whose head is permanently tilted forward and down, ready to check your iPhone at a moment’s notice? Can you duplicate the feeling of stability you have when standing still with a solid koshi while walking normally?  Once you get that, you’ll be ready to start introducing good koshi into your budo.

Koshi alone isn’t everything, but without good use of koshi, it’s difficult to progress in your practice. 

I want to give a bow of thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman more editing and advice on this one. You can read her excellent martial arts blog at 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Budo Puts The "POWER" In Empowerment

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

I watched the Avengers: Age Of Ultron last week. I admit to being an old school comic book geek. I’ve got nearly the entire run of Marvel Comics from the 80s in boxes somewhere. Watching the movie reminded me of one of the old motivating fantasies many have for starting martial arts; to be able to be able to do things other people can’t, to have something like a super power.  While watching the movie, some of the heroes, especially Black Widow and Hawkeye, did things that looked fantastic on screen.  While what was these characters were doing on the screen is an exaggeration, it made me think about that fact that budo practice really can endow people with extraordinary power.

Black Widow runs around fighting and beating the daylights out of whole armies of foes.  We all know that’s not realistic. On the other hand, a average size women, with plenty of training, is going to be quite effective against an ordinary man. Yes, the man will have size and strength.  After a few years of budo though, the woman will have an understanding of spacing and timing, as well as technique that will effectively multiply her strength because she will put it to targeted work rather than just lashing out.  I’m pretty sure any of the women who make it to the medal stand in Olympic judo could go through me so fast I wouldn’t know what happened. That’s speaking as someone who’s done judo for decades.  Their extensive and focused training makes them that much better than just about anyone.

Power is relative. From the Merriam-Webster dictionary we get the meanings

(1) :  ability to act or produce an effect

What budo practice endows someone with isn’t super-power, but it is power, and it’s available to anyone who is willing to work at it. There are lots of different sorts of power developed, and strangely, few of them have to do with raw force. The real power of budo comes from learning the precision application of small amounts of force in the correct way, at the correct moment. All the strength in the world, applied incorrectly, will not result in power.

That’s the genius of Kano JIgoro’s maixm 精力善用 seiryoku zenyo, usually translated as “maximum efficiency minimum effort. Kano was able to identify and encapsulate this in a simple phrase for Kodokan Judo, but it’s true of all budo. Regardless of whether we are talking about ancient or modern budo, karate, judo, aikido, weapons or any other art, the best, most effective budo will be that which applies force with the maximum efficiency and the least amount of effort.

It’s skill that brings about that efficiency and effectiveness. That skill multiplies the power of whatever strength someone brings into the dojo. Power “is the ability to act or produce an effect” and in budo there are two sides to that. The one that catches most people’s attention is the ability to do things to the world. Whether this is a karateka’s punch, a judoka’s throw, a the precise strike of a jo, or the clean joint lock of an aikidoka, these are all examples of power, and none of them require a huge amount of strength to be effective.

Karate folks know full well that the location of a blow is at least as important as the force behind it.  Strike a strong man in the chest and you might knock him back. Strike him in the side of the knee or one of a number of other choice targets and it doesn’t take much force at all to leave him broken.

How much strength does it take to throw another human being? Surprisingly little.  A college friend of mine who weighed something north of 300 pounds could be easily thrown by a young lady in our dojo who weighed less than of third what he did. Strength had nothing to do with it. He could bench press 3 of her. When he picked her up from behind in a bear hug though, she could put him in the air. It was not a landing he was fond of, but it was great at demonstrations. She could never match him strength for strength.  The lesson was that she had to apply her force and technique in the right place, at the right moment. Then she was powerful enough to throw someone 3 times her size.

The right point of application and proper timing have far more to do with the power to do things than raw strength. Otherwise, the young gung-ho guys in the dojo would be the powerful ones. Instead, if you go into a dojo, it’s the people with the most training time who are really powerful. Watch out for the relaxed looking older ones. They don’t have the strength and the stamina anymore, but for some reason they can keep up with 20 somethings when randori starts. People wonder why, but they really shouldn’t.

In common sense thinking, there is no way someone in their 50s or 60s or 70s should be able to keep up with, much less regularly dominate, people in their teens and 20s.  We all know life doesn’t work like that. Hang out in a good budo dojo for a while though, and you’ll see it happen all the time. Knowledge and skill make the folks with the gray hair powerful.  They don’t need youthful strength and stamina (though it would be really nice to have) to be powerful.  They know when an attack will be effective and when it won’t and they don’t waste their energy on things that won’t work.

They have something else too.  

It’s not just what the experienced folks can dish out. It’s what they can roll with and keep coming up for more. In that movie, the Black Widow gets thrown all over the place, and instead of going splat into the ground, she does neat ukemi and comes up ready to go. That’s another sort of power.  The power to absorb and negate.  In the dojo we learn how to do that! I get thrown into the ground all the time at practice, roll through it, get up and dive straight back in for more.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

In budo, power is a coin with two sides.  The side that leaps to the front of everyone’s mind is the power to do things to someone else. Equally important, is the power to absorb and handle other people’s power. When I used to watch Suda Sensei, who was in his late 70s, handle the attacks from all the teenage kendoka in the dojo, it was a lesson in minimum effort and properly applied power. He could absorb and redirect their attacks without getting tired.

Hikoshiso Sensei at 65 would do randori for 15 minutes straight with young judo guys in their teens and 20s and throw us all over the place. He could absorb our attacks without effort. He would also let students learning techniques throw him around.  Imagine a 65 year old man getting thrown repeatedly to the ground, and smiling about it. That’s power too.  

That’s a lot of power. Think about what would happen to a normal, untrained person who was picked up and hurled at the ground.  Bruises? Broken bones? Concussion? Death? Yet I see people in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s taking ukemi and getting thrown around.   Then there are the 70 year olds competing in judo and throwing each other around!

70-74 year division judo competition

It takes power to be able to throw someone, but it takes power to be able to be thrown and stay healthy as well. Imagine the kind of power that allows people in their 70s to throw someone, and to survive being thrown.  That’s real power that comes from budo training.

Budo training won’t turn you into a super-hero.  But if you keep it up, it does give some extraordinary power. Budo will empower you with whatever you train for.  And that power stays around as long as you train.  Just ask these karateka.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Budo and Responsibility

Budo is about a lot of things, but one of the least discussed is responsibility.  The longer we practice the more important it is that we consider this.  At a very fundamental level, in it’s rawest form, budo is about power.  We who have that power are necessarily required to use it wisely.  As Stan Lee said so very eloquently through the lips of Peter Parker “With great power comes great responsibility.”  

This isn’t just about superheroes.  As we practice budo we really do become more powerful.  Under normal circumstances very few people would consider a 5’6” (168 cm), 135 lbs (61 kg) woman a significant physical power.  Ronda Rousey has been practicing budo for 15 years though and is an amazingly powerful individual.  Her skills give her power.  It’s a very simple equation.  Although many of our social rules and customs exist to keep individual power in check and prevent its abuse, there are plenty of people out there who abuse physical, social and economic power.  There is the office manager who uses his position to bully and take advantage of those under him.  There is the rich business owner who uses the power of her wealth to bully people who do business with her.  And we all know the physically strong guys who use their power to physically intimidate and hurt people around them.  

One of the great things about the power of martial arts skills is how equalling and equal opportunity they are.  Martial arts skills make the difference in power between a 135 lb women and 235 man disappear very quickly.  I have many vivid memories of small women reducing large guys to lumps on the floor of the judo dojo where I practiced in college.  Quite often, I was one of the lumps, whether it was from a powerful throw, a choke or an armbar, those ladies impressed their power upon me.

Skill doesn’t belong to those who are born faster or stronger or more talented.  Skill belongs to anyone who puts forth the dedicated effort necessary to develop it.  Once you make that effort though, you get not just that power, but responsibility as well.  At the most basic level once you have power you have to decide what to do with it.  I’ve seen people become skilled and then become bullies in the dojo. I’ve seen them subtly bully people outside the dojo as well. They learned only that they have power.  They haven’t learned anything about using it responsibly.  The difference between just learning a skill, and studying a way, a michi, a do, 道, is learning the proper, responsible use and application of that power.

This may be the biggest lesson of budo, larger than than all the lessons about technique and ma’ai and timing together.  Sadly, it’s also the most commonly missed lesson.  How do we use the power we have?  As a martial artist we can easily intimidate and hurt others.  After all, inflicting pain and damage is what we are practicing on each other in the dojo.

In the dojo we spend a lot of time learning when it is appropriate to use and practice what we know and when it isn’t.  Japanese martial arts are loaded with ritual that regulate practice so you know when it is ok to try to toss your friend across the room or for her to work on choking you unconscious or for the new kid to try the cool armbar she saw Ronda Rousey do in one of her fights.  All that meaningless etiquette and ritual turns out to have some very practical reasons for being there.  During practice there are times when it is ok to work on a technique and times when it’s not.  There are times when it’s dangerous to step on the mat and others when it is safe.  There are also considerations of how we treat each other when we are practicing.  We learn to treat each other with respect and honor and dignity regardless of how skilled someone is.  We are all on the same path, so there is no reason to look down upon someone because they haven’t taken as many steps along the path as we have.  As we gain skill our power to hurt and damage increases.  That means we are more responsible for not abusing that power by abusing others.

There are other kinds of responsibility in the dojo as well.  I am not one of those who believe that everyone who advances in rank has a responsibility to teach.  There is plenty to do around a dojo besides teaching.  Everyone can look at their personal capabilities, their powers, and figure out what they should be responsible for.

Responsibility changes as we grow.  Once we have the violent power that martial arts training bestows and we recognize the responsibility to act wisely and responsibly, then we become responsible for mastering something else.  We are responsible for learning the real consequences of using our skills, and not just the myths and irresponsible nonsense like “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”  That’s just a flashy cover for the fact that someone doesn’t know the real legal consequences of their actions and choices.  Knowing those is our responsibility.

This is one of those lessons that stretches out of the dojo and into every area of our lives.  What are our responsibilities?  There are plenty of things that we can do that it would be best not to do.  Even if it would be entirely gratifying to apply a joint lock and tie that obnoxious jerk in the next cubicle into a pretzel, or choke that self-righteous jerk into silence, and it would be a simple and easy application of what we do at practice, we know we shouldn’t and we don’t.  There are lots of places in life where we have power and we should consider if and how to use it.

We have lots many different kinds of power beyond the physical power that budo practice endows: economic, social influence, parental, business, and others.  We don’t often spend time thinking about the responsibility to use the power we have wisely, yet how we wield social and economic and parental power might be more important than how we wield the physical violence of the martial arts.  WIth the power that martial arts gives us, the responsibility not to abuse it is very clear, with other, more subtle forms of power, matters are not always so clear.  Sometimes it’s too easy to use power to shoo our kids away when they need some attention but  we’re a bit tired.  It’s all too easy on the job  to use power to dump work on people or to get out of doing things we should be doing.

This is power too though, and it should be used with consideration and a sense of responsibility as well.  If we’re really serious about budo, we have to recognize that the lessons extend beyond the door of the dojo, and impact every aspect of life.  Budo is about physical power in it’s rawest and most basic form, but the lessons about considering when and how it is appropriate to use that power can inform everything we do.  Budo teaches many lessons, but how we handle the responsibility of power is one of the biggest.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Dojo As The World: Learning To Deal With Violence And Power

“If the aikido training mat is the world, it’s the world under a magnifying glass. Subtle personality quirks are made large and clear. Hidden agendas come quickly to light. Every attempt at overreaching is revealed in sharp relief.”—
George Leonard Sensei
“The Way of Aikido - Life Lessons from an American Sensei”
Budo, like many things, can be seen as a microcosm of life.  The dojo is a lot like the world.  It’s a part of the world so this shouldn’t surprise us.  What is often surprising is how intense experiences in the dojo can be.  Activities in the dojo are a lot like any other place where people gather to participate in a shared interest.  In the dojo though, everything seems more focused and intense.

Why should budo training in the dojo seem so much more intense than other activities?
Maybe it’s because in the dojo we are dealing with essential issues that we sweep under the rug and that polite society tries to avoid or hide rather than face head on.  In the dojo we deal with violence and power and force.  None of these things are even discussed much in polite society, yet we deal with them all the time.  It is considered unseemly to suggest that violence and force  are applied in life, or that people use power in ways that are bad for those around them.

I’ve written about trust in the dojo before.  That trust is built precisely because we are working with these raw building blocks of violence and power and force.  Society works to suppress physical violence and expressions of force and naked power.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live place where these are frequently in play.  I like living in a place where violence and physical encounters are rare.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand them and be able to deal with them.

We practice actual violence in the dojo.  We train in the purposeful application of force. These things translate into real, physical power.  Regardless of the ways in which society suppresses the use of violence, force, and power, they exist in society and are used in a myriad of subtle and not so subtle ways.  People use the implication of physical power, or the threat of the use of other power, whether economic or social, to get what they want.

In the dojo, violence, force, and power are all out in the open, and we have to learn not only the mechanics of how to do violence and apply power, but how we feel about these things.   Some people come in very timid and unsure of themselves and afraid to use whatever power they do possess.  Others enter the dojo brimming with apparent self-confidence and believing their strength will make them powerful fighters right away.  There are people who have had bad experiences being subjected to violence and sometimes there are people who have been bullies who are looking to enhance their reputation for power.  There all the other folks strung out along the spectrum, each with their own agenda and expectations.

In the dojo we deal with violence, force and power at their most basic level.  If I’m teaching sword or staff work, one of the first things that happens is I tell my student to hit me, and she doesn’t. She pulls the cut or strike. So I tell her to hit me again.  And again she doesn’t hit me.  Consistently new students will pull cuts because they don’t want to hurt anyone. This is the most common reaction the first time I ask a student to hit me. Most students have an admirable hesitation to do things that will hurts another person.  One part of training is learning to trust their partner, and one part is learning to trust themselves.  

Which is harder to do depends on the student.  Some of them have learned to be afraid of their own power, so we have to work together until they can commit to trying to hit me without fear that I will be angry or upset when they do.  Mostly there is no problem here.  As the teacher in a koryu tradition, I’m used to being the beating dummy for new students.  They need someone to attack that can safely handle what they are doing.  They have to invest the time to develop control and precision.  The time this takes varies a lot.

It’s wonderful watching students develop.  Those who are afraid of their power gradually learn that it’s ok to use it in the dojo.  The dojo is a safe place to learn about power.  Students take time developing a new relationship with power and violence.  One goal is for students who are afraid of their power and any sort of violence to establish a relationship with power and violence that contains neither fear nor domination.  Power is a tool, and I want my students to be comfortable with it, but not enthralled with using it.

I do get a few on the other end of the spectrum though, who try wholeheartedly to put me in the hospital with a concussion.  Some of them are already brimming with confidence.  Some assume that if I’m dumb enough to tell them to hit me, I deserve whatever I get.  Some are bringing their own issues to the dojo and are just thrilled to have someone to hit.  Strangely enough, one of the goals for these students is the same as for the students who are afraid of their power: to establish a relationship with power and violence that contains neither fear nor domination nor an excessive reliance on it.

The dojo is a microcosm of life, and it is populated by all the same characters the rest of life is filled with.  What is unique is how raw the interactions in the dojo are.  Dojo etiquette can feel unbelievably stiff and strict, but that’s because it has to mediate the raw power and violence that is the life of a dojo. We see how people handle the etiquette and we see how they relate to power and violence.  We see how they treat their partners and we learn how they respect others.  This is life in a jar.  We get to practice all those encounters we have every day outside the dojo where the power and violence are only implied and suggested in place and manner where the power and violence is overt and literally in your face.

That jerk who insists on intimidating people by standing way too close and leaning into people’s faces?  He’s in the dojo and he’s still trying to push too close and intimidate you.   Don’t worry about it.  Here it’s not only acceptable to push him back, it’s entirely appropriate, and if you combine it with a gentle whack up side the head to remind him to keep safe ma’ai, all the better. The quiet one in the corner cubicle who is always worried about not upsetting anyone and keeps her head ducked down so you can’t see her eyes?  She’s there, and give her all the respect she deserves.  Just coming in the door is one of the toughest things she’s ever done.  That mouthy, arrogant guy who knows he’s better than everyone?  He’s there too, and hide your smile.  Yes, he’s going to get slapped down repeatedly by the seniors until he learns that he’s not better than everyone, but it’s rude to show how much you enjoy seeing it happen.  The guy who seems to like causing pain and problems purely for the pleasure of being able to cause them?  Yes, he’s here too, and the seniors will undoubtedly let him know that unnecessary pain and violence won’t be tolerated here.  They’ll probably let him know this and start ratcheting up the amount of pain and violence he receives until he gets the message. All the types of people that you meet in the world come walking through the dojo door, bow at the side of the training space, enter and take part.

So is there anything different from the dojo that makes putting up with all of these characters worth the bother?  Really, they are bad enough at work or in the gym where they aren’t allowed to act out their issues physically, so why would anyone want to put up with them in the dojo where they can act upon all the implied violence of polite society?  

Perhaps because all of us in the dojo are working on the same things, whether we know it or not.  We are learning to handle our own ability for violence as well as the extent and precision of our own power.  Whatever issues we have outside the dojo will be clear to everyone in the dojo.  It doesn’t matter what issues we bring with us though, in the dojo we all learn to generate and apply power with precision, whether the application is straightforward or subtle.  Some have trouble using power and violence, others are completely comfortable with it. The ones who have issues using power and violence gradually become adept at it.  Eventually I don’t have to tell them to hit me.  They know they can do it, that it’s expected and that it’s okay. They become comfortable with their ability to apply power and not hurt me, because they choose not to.  They get comfortable with being pressured and attacked.  The ones who had learned to pressure and attack people outside the dojo discover that always pressuring and attacking people may not be the best route.  Everyone develops a new relationship with violence and power and force.  

Out there in the world we have to make do applying the lessons we’ve learned.  In the dojo, despite having all the same people and issues are staring back at us, or perhaps because they are there with us, we are actively working to learn new lessons about violence, power and force.  Both the overly aggressive and the overly timid can learn the same lessons about being discriminating as to when and how much force to apply.  We learn to discriminate between when someone is an actual threat and when they are trying to be threatening from what is in truth a weak position.  The timid learn that they have power and how to use it.  The aggressive learn that being overly aggressive is not a successful strategy.  Both are learning when and how to apply force and when not to.  They learn how use the power they possess and not place themselves in weak positions.  

The dojo is the world in microcosm.  All the same people and problems are gathered there.  The interactions in the dojo are intensified because all the issues with power and violence are out in the open and being actively worked with.  The wonderful thing is that in the dojo we are all learning to better understand and appreciate the use of power, force and violence.  We learn when to use it and when not to, what can be successful and what will be ruinous, when to push back and when to just get out of the way.  It’s the world in microcosm, but better, because we are learning what to do in the world instead of just stumbling along with whatever lessons life happened to teach us before.