Showing posts with label technique. Show all posts
Showing posts with label technique. Show all posts

Monday, May 16, 2016

Sweat The Small Stuff. And It's All Small Stuff.

What details do you look for when you see a photo like this? Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

We had a really good keiko on Saturday.  It was a regular Saturday practice.  That is to say it we worked hard, sweat a lot of details, had great fun, and occasionally overloaded someone’s mind..
Sweating the details is the essence of practice. Sometimes it’s the same detail over and over. When you see that, you know you’ve got something fundamental to work on.

I jokingly told Rolf that I was going to give him the same correction on everything he did and then I nearly did it. We started talking about grip while practicing kihon waza (fundamental techniques), and it just snowballed from there.

We always start practice by reviewing the fundamental techniques of jodo. There are only 12 of them, so this serves as a good way to get our muscles warmed up and loose, while putting in some practice on the most essential techniques. Shinto Muso Ryu is a weapons art, so the connection between the practitioner and the weapon is critical.  As in so many things in budo, there are a million ways to do it wrong, and one way to do it right.

In jodo, power is transferred from the practitioner to the weapon through their connection at the hand using the last two fingers of the base hand.  The jo is a deceptively simple looking weapon.  That simplicity makes using it very complex, because you can move your hands anywhere along the weapon and even switch them around. Because the grip is mobile, it’s easy to start well and finish badly.

The grip is integral to every technique, and it’s easy to mess up. Holding and swinging a jo doesn’t look complicated. The grip is a small thing, like the tiny hinges on a huge door. If the hinges are just a little out alignment, good luck moving the door. Just as the hinges connect a door to its frame and allow it to move smoothly and easily, the grip is the connection between your body and the jo. In addition, it is the conduit by which power is transmitted from your body to the jo and from there into your training partner.

The grip is based, not in the thumb and forefinger as you might guess, but in the 5th and 4th fingers. The ones we think of as being the weakest, when used properly are the strongest. Using them properly is the trick. Using your fingers and palm properly is a complex task, and it’s one that you have to do unconsciously. If you have to think about the proper position and use of your fingers, you will be in trouble as soon as your attention is pulled in some other direction.

These small details have to be at the level of unconscious mastery before you can really begin working on the larger elements. Fortunately, most problems with grip are easy to identify when you see them being made. Using the thumb and forefinger instead of the 5th and 4th fingers. Or having your arm perpendicular to the line of the jo. Gripping too tightly. Bending your wrist too much. Thumb out of place.

You may have heard the saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” In budo we sweat the small stuff.  The longer I do this, the more I realize that it’s all small stuff.  All of the big problems have their origins in small details like the grip. That’s why we find ourselves coming back time after time to the small stuff. What angle should my foot be for the entry to harai goshi? How do I squeeze the sword with my little finger for kiri oroshi? What angle should my hips be when doing kaeshi tsuki? How do I grip the jo for honte uchi? These are all part of building a good budo structure, but each is such a small detail we easily look past it when trying to understand what is happening.

Big techniques look impressive and grab our imagination. Harai goshi is a huge throw.

But it’s built on many small details. How you grip is as important for harai goshi as it is for doing anything with a jo. The angle of your feet as you enter and set your body. The position of your hands and arms in relation to your chest can determine the success or failure of the technique. Are you on your heels, or the balls of your feet. Each is a relatively small detail, and yet each one is critical enough to ruin the technique if done wrong.

When I started judo and jodo, I saw the big techniques, the huge throws and powerful strikes. They were thrilling to watch. Through practice, my eyes have learned to see the details that make up the big techniques, and it’s the small things that amaze me now. These days I may not notice which throw someone does because I’m focused on the subtle way the are disrupting their partners structure. When I watch jodo, I know where the strike is going.  What I am trying to steal when I watch senior teachers is how they are generating the power for the strike and how they are controlling it.

The small details have big effects. So when we train, we sweat the small stuff. Of course, it’s all small stuff.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Budo Isn't About Technique

Budo is about traveling a path.  It’s not about being stuck in one place.  The road is always there, time is always moving and the world is always changing, even when we are still.  Budo is about maintaining balance and integrity (physical, mental and emotional) whether we are in movement or stillness, and having a calm, imperturbable center whatever is happening around us and however we are moving.

The world is dynamic, so attempts to remain perfectly still are doomed, rather like trying to stand perfectly still on a sailboat in a storm.  You can be stable, quiet and calm, but these must be within a dynamic world where you are constantly making adjustments, and sometimes your overall and ongoing stability is only maintained through large, dynamic movements on your part.

Budo is not static. A lot of people seem to think that great budo has already achieved perfection in some previous age. Whether it’s classical judo, or Ueshiba’s aikido, a great koryu like Takenouchi Ryu or Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, or one of the famous iai styles like Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or Muso Shinden Ryu, people craft an image of a budo that was perfect when the founder or great teacher lived, and that they are trying to recreate the perfection that is contained in the kata and teachings.

I’ve run into aikido practitioners who look back on Ueshiba or Shioda or Tomiki as having achieved budo perfection. For many years of my judo practice I felt that way about Mifune’s judo.  Among koryu budo people, the idea that the founder of their ryuha was the paragon of ideal budo is common.  The thought that there was one, perfect budo that we are trying to emulate or recreate is an attractive one.

It’s also a trap. Budo is a way, a path. In Japanese, the styles are called “ryu” 流. It comes from the word 流れる meaning “to flow, to stream, to run (as a river)”. The road we travel is always changing. Every step we take along the way takes us to a different place. Rivers and streams flow through space and time and are even more dynamic, transforming the world as they move through it.  Even if Ueshiba or Shioda or Tomiki or Mifune or Yagyu or Hayashizaki achieved budo perfection, it was perfect for that point in time and space.

Budo isn’t a technique or even a collection of techniques.  It’s a Way. As we travel the path, as the world moves through the ages, budo has to adapt to new times and places in which it is practiced.  What was great budo in one situation may be completely unsuited to another. The thing about any great budoka is that their budo is always fresh.  They don’t try to force the same response, the same solution, onto different situations. They apply the principles of their budo afresh to each situation.

Budo can only ever be perfect for the moment it’s expressed in. What made the great founders and teachers of budo truly great was not only their ability to manifest budo that perfectly suited the situations they found themselves in.  What made them great was that they could also pass along a way to learn the same principles that they applied.

Budo is something that is practiced without end. It’s a path that doesn’t stop. If we’re doing it right, we’re not really learning techniques. We’re learning the fundamental principles that make the myriad techniques work.  Great budoka reach up and find a way to manifest those principles in training, in conflict, and in life. The greatest figure out a way for others to learn to manifest those principles.

The ideal is that anyone can reach up and touch perfect budo. With practice, I’m convinced we can. That thing about budo being a path and a stream is important though. I think I may have touched perfect budo a few times over the decades I’ve been training. These are times when I somehow manage to perfectly express the principles of budo that I study and practice spontaneously in life.

It happens and then it’s past. It never lasts. For a moment you manage to express your budo perfectly. It’s not a continuous condition though. We reach that peak moment, and it passes. As we get better, so does the chance that we will touch that perfect budo. For judoka, the first time we come close to perfect judo is that day we’re standing there, staring down at some poor uke as we demand “Why did you jump! Don’t jump for me! I want to earn my throws!” The poor uke looks up at us and says something along the lines of “Jump? You buried me with that throw. There was no way I was stopping it!”  When we did that throw, the universe aligned in our favor. The timing and kuzushi were perfect. Uke had no choice and no chance to do anything but fly, and because the timing and kuzushi were perfect, it felt like we didn’t do anything. For a moment we touched perfect judo.

Unfortunately, those moments don’t last. As soon as the moment happens it’s over. Uke stands up, randori continues and uke feels like a boulder every time we try a technique. Nothing seems to work. Touching perfection is momentary, but those moments are wonderful and inspire everything else we do. Once we’ve touched perfection we want it again. Then we try to force it, and the more we try to force the further away perfection becomes.

Those moments of perfection feel incredible, but they are moments. We’re not perfect. We can’t maintain a state of perfection. Any time we touch perfection it’s wonderful and incredible and momentary. It doesn’t last. It can’t.

It is perfect in that instant, under those precise conditions. We express the principles of our art in a way that suits that moment. If we try to cling to it, whatever it was we were doing will cease to be appropriate as the moment passes and the situation changes. The goal of training is to become better and better at expressing the principles of what we study in a way that suits the moment.

The journey of life never ceases. Every step is new. The real lessons in budo are not static techniques, but the principles that animate the techniques. It’s ironic that the main way we learn budo is through repetition of prescribed exercises when the goal is to be able to spontaneously express the principles in any situation.

We practice a limited set of techniques and kata that are like the finger pointing at the moon in the story from Chuang Tzu. The finger points to the moon, but if you remain fixed upon the finger you’ll never see the moon. The techniques and kata are the finger pointing to the fundamental principles. If you cling tightly to exactly the way a past teacher did the kata, you’ll never get to the principles beyond the kata. If you insist there there is only one way to do a technique, you’ll miss the million other ways and situations that technique can be used to express the principle.  I have books of judo technique in which the entire book examines just one technique, but looks for as many ways to express that technique as possible. Each technique is animated by underlying principles. Our job is to figure out what the principles are and learn to apply them.
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If we only study the technique, it becomes a matter of chance that we will pick a technique that is perfectly appropriate for the moment. If we follow the direction of the techniques we study, we begin to understand principles, and when we follow the principles, the technique will develop naturally out of the action of the principles. No two techniques will ever be exactly the same when they flow from the principles, but they will be appropriate to the moment. It’s like the judoka in randori who does a beautiful throw, then comes off the mat and asks the spectators “What technique did I do?” The judoka was working with the flow of energy from her partner and worked something that smoothly flowed with that energy. Working with their partner’s energy and letting the principles guide her, she ends up with a technique based on the principle.

That’s the ideal. It doesn’t happen as often as any of us would like. If we cling to techniques it will never happen. Go into a situation with the intent to do a particular technique and you have to force the moment to fit the technique. Go in with principles of movement, balance and flow, and the moment will guide you to the appropriate technique.

The more we practice, the more we internalize the principles, the easier it is to touch perfection. We can never hold on to it, but we can learn to get out of our own way and let perfect budo happen more and more often. We progress along the Way one step at a time. We learn to breath and to walk. Then we start learning some techniques. It’s only when we begin to understand what animates the techniques and makes them effective that we get close enough to touch perfection from time to time.

Perfect budo is a constantly moving target though. What worked yesterday won’t work at all tomorrow. Each step along the Way takes us to a different place. Each morning we awake and the world has changed a little. We can’t force the world to stay still any more than we can force the sun to stop in the sky. If we cling to things as they were our budo cannot advance.

Each day we have to find new ways to apply the lessons of the Way that we learn from studying the kata. The better we get at it, the easier it is to adapt to the whirling of the world around us. A novice sailor leaps and tumbles and is thrown around the deck of the boat by the gyrations of the waves. A seasoned sailor calmly walks the same deck, adjusting to each shift and jump of the boat calmly and smoothly. A master can sit calmly meditating on the deck while the ship pitches wildly, adjusting with muscle changes so small no can see them. The master is calm when the seas are calm, and when the seas seem to be enraged.

The world keeps changing, but the principles don’t. Budo gives us a Way to continually adapt. Classical iaido ryuha would be worthless relics if their techniques were what they are really teaching. No one has carried swords like that in 150 years. The principles that classical ryuha teach haven’t changed though, and learning to express those principles in life is what gives classical ryuha their value.

Photo Copyright 2013 Peter Boylan

We don’t study techniques and kata in order to learn techniques and kata. We study techniques and kata to learn the principles that animate them. The conditions under which a judoka can do uchimata are limited. The conditions under which they can apply the principles of kuzushi, timing and movement that they learn from studying uchimata are endless.

When teachers talk about forgetting technique, this what they are getting at. The Way is infinite and no one can learn a separate technique for every set of conditions. Each place along the way, every new morning, presents new conditions. We have to learn to see beyond the techniques we study to the principles. Then we can apply the principles in ways that work with the conditions we have rather than try to find conditions that suit the technique we want to do.

Through great effort you might be able to hold your place in the world still and unchanging, but that won’t help. The world will continue changing around you. Even to stay still takes continuous adjustment, just like the master meditating on the deck of the ship. Walk the path. Learn the techniques. Transcend the techniques and learn the principles. Apply the principles and let the principles create new techniques to suit moment.

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.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Good Budo Is Simple. That Doesn't Mean It's Easy.

Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2014

I had a conversation with one of my Shinto Muso Ryu students that was interesting. He was having a common issue with a core technique. He was trying to make the technique unnecessarily complicated. The technique (in this case Maki Otoshi) is difficult enough without making it complicated.
Good budo is simple. Every koryu I’ve had a chance to work with at all has been extremely simple.  Shinto Muso Ryu has 12 fundamental techniques. The more I practice and study them though, the more I believe there are only 2: a strike and a thrust.

The Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai I do comes down to drawing and cutting. Even the defensive movements such as suri age and uke nagashi are applications of the fundamental mechanics and principles of good cutting. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.  Cut down. Reverse the motion and suri age. Maintain the relationship between arm, hand and sword and move it to the side for uke nagashi. They are all one.

Kodokan Judo has an impressive list of techniques: 65 throws, perhaps a dozen strangles, and a number of arm locks. They all manage to express the principle of 精力善用, or “maximum efficiency minimum effort” as it is most commonly translated. The throws, all of them, from big throws like seioinage and kata guruma to subtle foots sweeps like  de ashi harai to the seemingly impossible uki otoshi all rely on the principle of kuzushi. The more I study, more I see kuzushi as a simple thing, rather than many different movements I was taught for achieving kuzushi when doing various throws.

Good budo is always simple. I can do all of the jo kata from Shinto Muso Ryu in about 20 minutes. The iai kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu can be done in a similar amount of time. The kenjutsu kata of Muso Shinden Ryu can be done in about 10 minutes. There is nothing complicated in any of them. Iai kata are all “draw and cut” or sometimes “draw and cut several times.”  Jo kata, no matter how advanced all come back to those 12 fundamental techniques.

A good question to ask is “Why is good budo always simple?” Simple has several advantages. First, it’s easier to teach and learn. For iai, if you only have one grip on the sword, and you always use the sword the same way, you can learn it much faster than if you have multiple grips and a variety of ways to handle the swords in different situations.

Simple is smoother and more stable. Short, simple, uncomplicated actions are smoother to carry out and leave less room for mistakes. Complexity creates weak points. If I’m doing sword and I have to repeatedly change my grip I create an opening every time I have to change my grip. There is a moment during each grip change when my control of the sword is weak because I have to let go to make the change. If my opponent attacks at the moment there is nothing I can do since I don’t have a solid grip on my weapon, and she will defeat me easily.  The same goes for footwork.  Judo footwork is stunningly simple and uncomplicated. We avoid doing anything complicated that involves crossing our feet. The whole time our feet are crossed, we are standing on one point instead of two, making us unstable and vulnerable.  Complex is weak because it has many connections or joints where it can be attacked. Simple is stronger because it has fewer suki, openings, to attack.

Good budo is based around a few basic principles and movements that can be deployed in an exceptionally broad variety of situations.  Good budo almost never focuses on principles or movements that can only be used in a very few situations. The focus is on making the broadest possible use of the fewest learned movements. That makes each system much more efficient and effective.

Simple systems are easier to apply and use. If I have to choose from dozens of very different techniques, the possibility of me mixing elements of two techniques and ending up with neither increases quickly.  With simple, consistent systems, the techniques are built on a single, common foundation.  This common foundation makes the elements of the different techniques common, which means that there is little to mix up or confuse between techniques, and flowing from one technique to the next is easier because the fundamental elements of all the techniques are the same.

Complex techniques open up another set of problems. Every additional step required for a technique multiplies the opportunity for making a mistake by an order of magnitude. The best techniques are as simple as possible, creating no extra space for mistakes and getting the job done quickly and efficiently.

Simple techniques are also just faster. A two step technique takes twice as long to perform as a one step technique.  A three step technique takes three times as long. The longer it takes to finish a technique, the more opportunity there is for Murphy’s Law to come into play. I don’t about know about anyone else, but I don’t want to give Murphy the least chance to interfere.

As my student was discovering though, simple does not mean easy. It takes a lot of work to develop the most fundamental skills. For me, the most difficult technique in Kodokan Judo is the first technique from the first kata people learn, uki otoshi. After 29 years, I finally feel like I’m beginning to understand it. It’s as pared down and simple as a technique can be. It’s also as difficult to do right as anything I’ve ever tried. My version of Occam’s Razor is “The simplest budo is the best budo.”

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

You Thought Being Sensei Would Be Awesome

After hearing me comment about what a great day I’d had at Judo practice, a friend of mine lamented the fact that there is no one senior to her in her koryu budo dojo. At that Judo practice I enjoyed myself and learned a bunch. Because I’m not the most senior person in the room there, I can relax and absorb what is being taught. I don’t have to worry about how to teach a particular point or think about what we’re going to do for the entire practice. I get to learn. Yes, if someone junior to me seems ready to learn a particular point I’ll work with them, but it’s always within the framework of the class someone else is teaching. I can focus on learning and practicing as a happy student.

I understand my friend’s lament. Where I’m at, if I want partners to train iai and jo and kenjutsu with, I have to teach them. There is no one senior to me for quite a ways. I’ve known lots of people who wanted to be the big kahoona teaching martial arts. Having arrived at that position by the simple expediency of moving to a place where I’m the only option if you want to learn the stuff I do, I can let you in on a little secret. It’s not fun.

In fact, I don’t know of anyone who’s teaching that wouldn’t trade in their cold, windy, exposed position on the top of the heap for a nice, cozy spot somewhere down the side a ways. At the top, all the responsibility is on you.  You get to worry about what to teach and how to teach and and why the people aren’t catching the point of your carefully thought out lessons. Plus you get to worry about the dojo have space and enough money to cover expenses and that someone is there on Thursday night to lead practice because you are attending your daughter’s recital and gee, I thought I remembered how to do this kata, but now I’m not so sure….how did that entry go? When you’re on top, it all comes back around to you. This is a particular problem outside Japan where dojo don’t usually have decades and decades of history.

In Japan most of the dojo I train in are lead by people in their 70s and 80s. Many of them have more than 70 or 80 years of budo experience under whatever is left of their well-worn belts.  Imagine a dojo where the median rank on the floor most nights is 6th dan. That’s pretty common.  Training in a place like that is incredible. You absorb lessons without even realizing it because the atmosphere is so rich with experience. Your training partners as often as not started practicing decades before you were born and the head sensei started decades before that.  

You don’t have to worry about what teach or how to teach it. There are plenty of seniors doing that. You just go and absorb everything you can. Some of it you forget and other lessons you don’t realize you’ve learned until they bleed from your bones and muscles and heart when needed. Secure in the knowledge that whatever question you might have someone around you will be able to answer in more detail than you can handle, you can relax and just focus on your training, on improving your budo and yourself as much as possible.

When, for whatever reason, you find yourself at the top of the heap with people around you calling out “Sensei”, that security melts faster than ice cream in an Arizona summer. This is especially true if you’ve only got a couple of decades of experience under your still all too new belt.  I still have loads of things to learn about all of the arts I study, not just Judo. For iai and jo though, most of the year I’m the only teacher around for me to rely on. I don’t have all the details of every kata nailed into my head yet. This is a problem for my training. I can teach my students a lot, but they aren’t nearly ready to work on some of the things I’m doing, so I have no practice partners nearby.

I’ve got a pile of kata that I was introduced to at the most recent gasshuku. Anything I don’t remember and don’t have written down somewhere is lost until the next time I can get together with a senior student or teacher. Of course, the nearest senior for my Jodo practice is at least 600 miles away. For iai, it’s 6,000 miles. I don’t get those checks and memory enhancements nearly as often as I’d like. I can get together with a senior in Jodo a few times a year, but getting to Japan is a lot tougher.  

For my students, I hope our dojo is a great place with a good mix of juniors and relatively senior folks. This way they can learn and grow as quickly as possible. For me improvement is comparatively slower and takes more effort. It’s also lonelier.  

A big part of budo, especially koryu budo traditions, is all the stuff that is not techniques and kata.  There are discussions of history and traditions of the system. Koryu bugei traditions are not just collections of techniques. There are stories and anecdotes that enrich and enliven the tradition.  These are not supposed to be dead, fossilized collections of dried and desiccated memories from ages past. These are living traditions that flow on from the past into the future. These stories and memories provide an important part of the foundation and understanding of how the technical practice relates to the world outside of the dojo. Without seniors and peers, all the responsibility for sharing and remembering this part of the art is yours.

Being sensei sounds great. It’s a fabulous idea right up until the moment it becomes reality. Then you discover that it is lonely and stressful. Every buck stops with you. If you have any questions, there’s no one ask. You’re on your own.  If you don’t know or don’t remember something, you’re just out of luck. You never have the luxury of relaxing and letting someone else handle it. If you want to learn something then you’ve got to figure out how to do it right. You don’t get to ask anyone. You’re sensei, and you’re all alone.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

There Are No Advanced Techniques

There are no advanced techniques.  Really.  Early in my budo career, I was looking for the secret techniques and mysterious skills that would make me able to do the things my teachers did that seemed like magic. But what looks like magic is really just the basics done phenomenally well. It was hard to convince myself that Kano Jigoro's famous answer to the question of “What is the secret of Judo?” was entirely truthful. When asked about the secret of Judo, Kano replied simply “Practice, practice, practice.” This is not an inspiring answer for a kid who wants to be able to effortlessly throw people across the room.  

Sadly for all of us who are seeking the magic, it seems to be true. Whether I'm working on Judo or kenjutsu or iai or jo or my current nemesis kusarigama, careful, considered, focused and aware practice seems to be the real secret. More and more often, my own students look at something I've done with them like it's impossible, which is something I fondly remember thinking about my own teachers. It's a reaction I never have anymore though. Even when I can't begin to do what my teachers are doing, I can see how they are doing it and I can see the path to being able to do it myself.

Last week I was working on some taijutsu with an Aikido teacher and friend. Jim can do incredible things to your balance and make you fall down with the subtlest of movements. It's a very different technique than what I do in Judo, but I can feel what he's doing. The principle of what he does is clear. He is taking my balance (in Judo we call this kuzushi) and then drawing me in a direction where I can't support myself. I have to fall down. What makes it magic is that Jim does this with the least amount of movement possible. My Judo techniques have long been built on very large movements, but the principle is the same. Now I'm working on bringing a little bit of Jim's magic into my Judo.

It won't happen with mindless repetitions of techniques though. You can repeat a technique as often as you like, and you won't learn anything from the repetitions or get any better. You have to be fully engaged in your practice, and mentally looking for slight differences in your technique that will make you better. That's practice. Just doing something a hundred or a thousand times won't make you better. It will make whatever you are doing more solidly anchored in your body. If you are repeating poor technique, it will make it that much more difficult to change and improve your technique.

To get better at Jim's throws from a wrist grab, I didn't repeat what I already knew. I didn't repeat the big movement Judo techniques that I have been doing. I slowed down and focused on exactly what was happening to my partner when I moved just a little bit. I focused on feeling exactly when my partner's balance shifted from being supported by his frame to relying on me to keep from falling over. It was just a tiny bit of weight that was transferred to me, so little that I doubt my partner even realized he was using me to stay up. Once that happened though, all I had to do was turn my wrist over and he fell down, because I was withdrawing my support of his body. Jim can do this at full speed. It takes me several slow seconds to do it. By being aware of what is going on and practicing it slowly, I can develop the sensitivity to do this faster and faster over time.

One of the keys to making this work is to know what I'm looking for, and then focusing on developing that skill and sensitivity. If we just go to the dojo and quickly repeat the techniques we already know, we won't improve much. We have to be willing to slow down enough that we can focus on making changes to our technique. That's when practice really begins.

Up until last February, I had what is a fairly strong Hiki Otoshi Uchi strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Then I had the chance to train with one of the senior teachers in our group. I was lucky enough to watch him correcting a junior and demonstrate his technique over and over for my fellow student. What a fantastic opportunity for me! As I watched, I could see small differences between how he was swinging the jo and meeting the sword and they way I was doing the technique.

The technique is the same one I’ve been working on for years.  There is no magic here, just a more subtle, smoother use of the jo that results in a powerful, inexorable technique requiring far less effort than what I’ve been doing.  It’s up to me to increase my understanding of this fundamental technique that I started learning on my first day of practice.  It’s not magic.  It’s not a special, advanced technique taught only to senior students.  It’s simply a fundamental technique done really, really well.

This is true of everything I have done in budo.  When I wrote about Hikkoshiso Sensei tossing me around the Judo mat by waving his hands, I wasn’t referring to any special, advanced technique.  What he does is an extremely effective application of the basic principle of kuzushi.   What Hikkoshiso Sensei did to me is very similar to what I’m beginning to understand in my friend Jim’s technique, and both are extensions of the first principle of technique in Judo, which has been referenced in every Judo practice I’ve ever attended in any of many different countries.  It’s not a secret.  Hikkoshiso Sensei and Jim are just applying a basic principle extremely well.  The same goes for that Shinto Muso Ryu teacher.  He wasn’t doing anything secret or arcane.  He was doing the third technique taught in Shinto Muso Ryu amazingly well.  

None of these people have any secrets.  In truth, they are doing exactly the opposite of keeping secrets.  They put what they have learned through practice out there for students and fellow budoka to see and learn from.  One of the first steps is to stop thinking of it as secret magics, and start thinking of it as an attainable skill.  Then it’s really all about the quality and quantity of your practice.  It’s easy to wish that Kano Sensei’s secret had been something beside “Practice, practice, practice.”  

There aren’t any special techniques only taught to advanced students.  We keep practicing and step by step the advanced techniques appear.  Except that they aren’t advanced techniques.  They are the basics done so well they seem advanced.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Techniques Are Boring

I must be getting old.  I’m certainly getting out of touch.  I find that techniques bore me.   This is surprising because I can readily remember when techniques were the coolest thing going.  I was always ready to learn the newest cool technique or variation that I came across in Judo.  In iaido I couldn’t wait to learn more new kata, and it was clear to me that the systems with the most techniques and kata were the best ones.  After all, the more techniques you know the more situations you are prepared for and can respond to, right?

I’m sure there are a lot of people who think techniques are great too.  I’ve seen Hapkido schools advertising that they teach thousands of techniques.  I understand the attraction.  Each technique does one thing, so the more techniques you know, the more you can do.  Clear, simple math that even I can understand.  Learning techniques feels like solving a jigsaw puzzle.  Each technique you learn slips into a particular place in the martial arts puzzle.  Every time you learn a technique the picture you have of your budo becomes clearer and more precise.  With each technique you have a clear solution for more situations.

Learning new techniques doesn’t make things clearer though.  It actually makes them muddier.  The more techniques you have to choose from when under stress, the worse your reaction time becomes, so you might actually be better off with fewer techniques ( see On Combat by Dave Grossman for actual studies and statistics )   Worse, while you are busy chasing all the technical rabbits, you’re probably missing the real prize, the principles.

Techniques are really just clothing for dressing up and showing off principles.  A technique is limited in the fundamental principles it can express.  Most express one, maybe two principles if you’re lucky, and as a technique, it’s usefulness is limited to the particular situation it is designed for.  Learn a principle though, and from it you can express an endless variety of techniques.  A principle can be applied anywhere if you’re not blinded to the opportunities by a forest of techniques.

In Kodokan Judo, Kano Jigoro Shihan clearly described a fundamental principle that can be applied in any budo.  He named it kuzushi 崩し.  In English I’ve usually heard it described as “off-balancing” or “balance taking”.  The more I study and practice though, the less complete those descriptions become.  In Japanese it has feelings of “destroying the foundation” or “undermining a structure”.  The base verb kuzusu 崩すmeans “break; pull [tear, knock] down; whittle [chip] away at; divide into smaller pieces; break down; knock down” (definitions from Kenkyusha Online Dictionary) so we can see that the principle is more than just “off-balancing”.  I’ve begun to think of it as undermining uke’s foundation and destroying uke’s posture.  Looked at this way, it can be much more, and the applications become more subtle and varied. 

None of this however will come out of learning a hundred techniques, or a thousand.  You get this from studying a limited syllabus of items that let you explore the principle in depth.  Learning techniques gives one a huge range of techniques, but none of those techniques will have much depth.  The way to depth is to master the fundamental principles that drive technique.

These days I find watching people who really embody great principles far more interesting to watch than any number of “cool” techniques.   The principles are what people are talking about when they talk about “mastering the fundamentals”.  The stuff you practice when you practice basics are the stuff of principle, the principles of using the body in the best way, of kuzushi, of timing, of spacing.   

This video of Jigen Ryu’s Okuda Shihan is wonderful.  All he does is raise and lower a training bo practicing correct movement and use of the body.  The bo in this case is a good 6 inches (12 cm) in diameter and probably 5 feet (160 cm) long.  He doesn’t bend his back and use it to lift.  The power flows smoothly from his feet to his legs to hips up to his arms.  The bo rises and falls smoothly and powerfully.  His body expresses the principles of optimal structure and effective movement at an incredible level.

All this is practice for using a sword.  He is developing his body to express fundamental principles of movement and power generation.  When he raises the bo it goes up without any visible effort.  The motion is smooth and clean.  He stance is relaxed yet clearly it is also incredible powerful.  He has obviously mastered principles of posture, stability and power generation.  In a couple of shots he shows how not to swing the bow, and the difference is clear in the visible instability of the posture and the weakness of the swing. 

This is the real stuff, the real secret of budo.  It’s not some obscure technique.  It’s not knowing a thousand techniques.  It’s knowing how to be an expression of the fundamental principles as you do a technique.  In the video, Okuda Shihan is solid and powerful.  From this foundation, whatever he does with the sword will express that solidity and power.

These principles and their expression are what I find interesting now.  I was lucky enough to be invited to train with a very nice Aikido group recently.   The training was good.  What was interesting for me was seeing and feeling how people express the budo principles that I understand.  Many principles seem to be universal, whether they are named and identified or not.  I saw people working on the principles of kuzushi and controlling the center line, whether they called what they were doing by those names or not.  The particular techniques we practiced really didn’t register with me.  In each technique we did, I was still looking for how to apply the principles I have been studying.  

Once I began to see fundamental principles in my own techniques, I began to see their expression all around me in the budo world.  It’s the principles that make the techniques work.   I’m not interested in learning a lot of techniques anymore.  I’ve discovered that if I can’t apply the principles, the techniques don’t work, so I’m more interested these days in learning to apply and express the principles I’m studying in a few techniques very well, rather than learning a lot of techniques with a paper thin understanding that won’t support the technique well enough for it to be useful for anything.

I can hear people saying, “but if you don’t know a good technique for a given situation, what will you do?”  The funny thing is, in Judo randori that happens all the time.  You express the principle and something good happens.  I say “express the principle” here, because “apply the principle” suggests that there is something conscious going on.  Trust me, in randori, even friendly randori, things are happening too fast to be thinking and then doing.  Either you express something, or the moment is gone.  And things are expressed by people all the time.  They feel their partner’s foundation crumble for a moment and apply the principle of kuzushi and a throw happens.  Later they ask the people watching “What did I do?” because they were so busy doing it they didn’t have time to register what they were doing.  Sometimes what they did was identifiable as a discrete technique.  Other times it wasn’t exactly like a classical technique, but the applied principle worked as it was supposed to and uke landed on their back.

If you’ve got the principles, techniques will happen.  If you don’t have the principles, it doesn’t matter how many techniques you “learn.”  They won’t work.  They won’t work until you understand and apply the principles that govern the techniques.  Studying techniques is boring because there isn’t much to any particular technique.  Studying principles is deep and difficult and fascinating.