Showing posts with label walking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label walking. Show all posts

Monday, March 11, 2019

Budo Isn't Natural

Jizo Sama on Mount Koya Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2014
I’ve heard proponents of various martial arts talk about how “natural” their art is. They proclaim that whatever they are doing is based on natural movements. Some are said to be based on the movements of animals. Others claim to be based on the natural movement of the human body.
I was working with one of my students this morning on some kata from Shinto Hatakage Ryu. His movement is getting good and solid. It struck me that his strong, smooth movement was efficient, effective and elegant, but not at all natural. When I began to think about it, I realized I could not think of any martial art where the movements are natural to human beings. By “natural” I mean that the movements are ones that people make without having to be trained for endless hours.

Along with Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho I teach Shinto Muso Ryu Jo and Kodokan Judo. Among the movements and principles taught in those three arts, I cannot think of a movement or technique that I would call natural.  In truth, the hallmark of good, effective budo seems to be how unnatural it is. Developing proficiency in any budo movement requires years of practice with a good teacher. It never just happens. Even with students who have a natural affinity for an art, it takes years, perhaps half as many as a natural klutz like me, but years.

I’ve written before that all I teach is how to walk and how to breath. I was exaggerating a little there, and Ellis Amdur was generous enough to call me out on that point and several others. However, walking and breathing are examples of unnatural budo movement.  There isn’t much that is more natural than walking, and breathing might be the most natural thing we do. Nonetheless, as budoka, we spend years learning to breathe properly from our guts and to stay balanced and stable when we walk.
Musings Of A Budo Bum - essays on the nature of budo
Why does it take so much effort to learn to do something that we were born doing? Breathing is the first thing we do for ourselves when we are born. We take a breath and let the world know how unhappy we are to have been kicked out of the wonderful home where we’ve spent the last nine months. Once we do that, we never stop breathing. What else about breathing could there possibly be to learn. A great deal when you dig into it. Our natural instincts aren’t very good when it comes to breathing.  Even before we get to all the inefficient ways people have of breathing, for all that it is a natural, automatic act, put people under just a little bit of stress and they will actually forget to breathe! I spend too much of my teaching time reminding students to breathe for the first couple of years they are training.

When they do remember to breathe, they usually are doing it poorly; breathing with their shoulders or taking shallow breaths or finding some other way to do the most natural act in the world wrongly. Proper breathing must be taught and practiced until it is an unconscious act. When sparring, you don’t have sufficient mental capacity to think about breathing correctly. If your breathing skills aren’t honed so that proper breathing happens even when you’re not thinking about it, you won’t breathe well under stress.

Walking feels nearly as natural as breathing. No one had to teach you how to walk. You figured it out for yourself, and you’ve been doing it for longer than you can remember. What could there be to learn about walking? From the condition of the students who come to the dojo, or just doing some casual people watching, we can see that most people haven’t learned very much about how to walk properly.  They roll their hips. They slouch their shoulders. They slap their feet on the ground. They lean forward past the point of balance. They stand on their heels. New students spend hours hearing me correct their way of walking. Because of all the bad habits people pick up over the course of their lives, learning to walk in a solid, stable, balanced manner takes a long time to learn to do consciously. Learning to do it unconsciously when under stress takes even longer. Good walking isn’t natural at all.

When you consider the discrete movements and actions that make up any budo art, things become even more unnatural. Just about the first thing we teach in judo, and the technique that prevents more people from getting hurt outside the dojo than any other, is how to fall safely. Two year-olds fall pretty well. They are relaxed and comfortable with falling down, perhaps because they do so much of it. By the time we start school though, falling is met with stiffness and fear. There is no technique in judo that we practice as much as falling. Falling well requires coordination of the entire body and I’ve never met anyone besides trained gymnasts who took to it without hours of accumulated practice. It’s an entirely unnatural act: we don’t like to fall.

This doesn’t even begin to approach the mental aspects of what we are teaching in the dojo. Mushin. Fudoshin. Heijoshin. Everything about the mental aspects of budo is unnatural.  We strive to override all of our natural reactions under stress: to not stiffen up, to keep our breathing and heart rate calm and steady, to ignore the monkey brain’s insistence on fighting or fleeing, to retain mental control instead of panicking, to adapt to the situation fluidly instead of trying to impose a solution.  None of these things happen naturally. All of them take training and practice.

Everything we do in the dojo leads to being able to respond to stressful situations with these unnatural skills. All that physical practice has effects on our mental states. Breathing properly comes in handy when things get stressful and the monkey brain wants to start hyperventilating. Having practiced good breathing statically and in all sorts of kata and free practice that gradually increase the mental and physical pressure, over time it becomes ever easier to maintain the calm breathing and heart rate which anchor calm mental patterns.

Once you can maintain mushin while people are trying to hit you with a big stick, or choke you unconscious, it becomes less of a stretch to maintain that mental state under the stress you encounter outside the dojo. Fudoshin is even better. This is the unmovable mind that isn’t disturbed by anything, no matter how stressful. People with fudoshin don’t seem quite human. They are no more natural than a Rolex is. Both take tremendous work to create. Both demonstrate the pinnacle of human development in their own areas. For all its combined beauty, engineering and functionality, no one would call a Rolex “natural.”  

Like a Rolex, the mind developed through budo is elegant, refined and resilient. This is a mind that can make the choice to step inside an attack to evade and counter in the same movement or to slip out of the attack and then disarm the attacker.

Relaxed when the natural reaction is to be tense, calm when nature urges panic, unflinching when nature urges you to dive behind cover, and unmoved when distractions abound, the mind and body of someone well versed in budo is not natural at all. It surpasses what nature gives us by refining the natural core of our beings into something new, with all the naturalness of high grade steel. Budo isn’t natural.  It’s better.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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