Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The foundataions

A friend asked a question about the foundations of Judo that is a great one.  Are we teaching a collection of techniques, or something else.  This is my answer to him.

I believe we are teaching something else.  My old dojo had a joke, “The only thing I’m going to teach you is how to breath and how to walk” which becomes more true for me every day.  The techniques are just pointers on the way to learning Judo, they aren’t Judo themselves.

I think focusing on the foundations of moving and breathing are important and not nearly enough time is spent on them.  It’s assumed that you’ll pick them up spontaneously from your technique training.  Personally, I think this is a backward approach.  The more I train in Judo and other budo, the more I believe that drilling the fundamentals of movement, posture and correct breathing are essential to developing good Judo (I almost said “great Judo” but the only way I will ever experience great Judo is in being thrown by some of the greats). 

If you take apart any of the throws, proper use of the body is essential.  You can’t do any technique well by bending over at the waist, and if move with a bounce in your step, you’re partner will bounce you off the mat.  Learning to stand in a relaxed, upright, well-balanced manner, and to move so that you maintain that is essential to doing everything else in Judo well.  However, just practicing standing and walking would bore even the most dedicated student out of the dojo.

The trick is to find ways to practice the fundamentals in such a way that the students can see the connection between the practice of the fundamentals, the techniques, and the application in randori and kata.  In iaido, I’ve broken out some of the primary movements that are commonly done poorly and we use 10 repetitions of the isolated movements as part of our warm-ups.  The students can see how the warm-up applies to the practice and can spend a little time focusing on the fundamental action before we incorporate it into the kata practice.

I think you might have some luck teaching basic tai sabaki movements as individual actions as part of your warm-ups.  The entering tai sabaki for osotogari and the turning tai sabaki for seoinage for example.  Students can readily see where these movements are applied and will do 10 repetitions without protest because they can understand why they are doing it.  Once you get them to appreciate the obvious tai sabaki such as for osotogari and seoinage, you can start introducing movements that make less immediate sense.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

When to specialize

A friend asked about when is it appropriate for a Judo student to start specializing in one technique.  He’d been talking with other instructors who emphasize that students should pick one technique and specialize in it.

I think the defining thing about this discussion is that the other instructors are building their entire discussion around competition.  For competitive judoka, there are really only a few techniques that have been proven overwhelmingly to be the strongest in the competitive arena.  I don’t remember the exact list, so I googled it. http://www.bestjudo.com/article/0924/frequency-judo-techniques

Harai Goshi
Tai Otoshi

If you are a competitor, based on the evidence, these techniques are clearly the most effective under the rules of judo competition.  For a competitive orientation, I think it would be a fairly simple procedure to introduce these 6 techniques and then let the student discover which one best suits that student.  I don’t really think it is too early to start specializing as a green belt if competition is your goal.  I don’t think you should stop learning other techniques, but those should be part of the variety of training, while you spend some time every practice polishing your primary technique.

If you are learning Kodokan Judo, or you want a more rounded self-defense base, then you will need to learn a variety of techniques that can be used in conditions other than those of the competition mat.  Competitive judo is great at close gripping range, but it teaches nothing about techniques and timing at other ranges.  That’s what kata are for.  Kata teach a lot of things that are useless to the competitor, but vital in self-defense, such as understanding striking ranges and timing, dealing with non-competition standard attacks and assaults, and what the range and distance of a variety of weapons are.  Too much specialization may actually be detrimental to this type of training because you have to have flexibility to change your responses to suit the conditions.

Competition is a very specialized activity and it makes sense to specialize if that is where your focus/interest lies.  If your interest lies elsewhere, heavy specialization may actually interfere with applying the appropriate response.

Thanks Frank.  This was a good question.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What is Budo?

I wrote this in response to a question on an email list about "What is Budo?" and thought it was worth putting out for more public comment.

Shinto Muso Ryu, Shinto Hatakage Ryu, Judo, and Aikido all share combative function and technique as their core practices. This gets them lumped together as “bugei” (literally “martial arts”) or “bujutsu” (martial skill). “Do” or “michi” both written 道 is a much more involved idea. While bugei / bujutsu can refer to just the techniques and skills practiced, anything with the “do” 道 suffix implies a class of not just technical activity, but also a means of polishing and developing the whole self and one’s way of dealing not just with the literal techniques of combat, but with how we approach every action and non-action throughout the day. This is both an elevation of martial activity to philosophical/spiritual and a spreading it out by making it apply to everything thing we do from putting on our shoes to sitting in a chair to drinking tea.  Anything that can be done mindfully should be impacted.
       To me, the first thing that is required for something to be budo is that it must be effective at a technical level. If it’s not effective for what it is trying to teach at the most basic level, it can never hope to reach level of a michi. If you’re not practicing to be martially effective, you’re certainly not doing budo. Any michi has to
be grounded in reality.  It’s clear how ways such as sado (Way of Tea) and kado (Way of Flowers) are grounded in reality. You are making, serving and appreciating tea, or you are arranging and appreciating
flowers. I haven’t figured out a way to fake either one of those. Budo unfortunately is rather dangerous to practice, so it easy to deceive yourself about what you are doing. I do Kodokan Judo, hopefully as budo, but it is very easy to do it as nothing more than a sport by forgetting or ignoring the parts that aren’t comfortable to do or aren’t allowed in the sporting context. In iaido, since it is a solo practice, it is easy to drift away from the martial aspects of the practice and let it become just a series of beautiful movements.
With jodo, if you and your partner are not serious, and don’t practice with strong intent, it too can become a pretty, choreographed dance  sequence. Budo requires that the intent, practice, and practicality.
       Effectiveness is only a necessary component of budo though.  Just because something is effective doesn’t make it a form of budo.  Krav Maga is extremely effective, but I’ve never heard anyone argue that it
is budo.  For something to be budo, it has to have the broader application to all aspects of life, and not be limited in its practice to combative situations.  It needs to have a philosophical bent to it that allows this broader application. It must be bujutsu, but it must have an additional facet that is informed by the threads of Taoism, Confucianism and 1000 years of Japanese thought on the issue of individual development through the mindful practice of mundane activities. This is the tough part, and I suspect there is a PhD dissertation in there somewhere.  I’m not talking about religion, but a concept of what it means to be human and how to perfect one’s self. The practices that effective at a technical level for a narrowly defined practical activity have to applicable beyond that, to all aspects of life. There is in Japanese thought the idea that by developing the body to do practical things perfectly, the mind will be developed as well. This is why people revere masters of flower arranging, tea ceremony, and calligraphy. Through polishing a practical skill, they are polishing their whole being, and when they display outer mastery of a skill, it is seen as confirmation of their
inner development.  I’m not sure it always works, but that’s the idea.  The tales of simple people who have achieved true understanding of the Tao through perfection of a common task abound.  The tale of Cook Ting is a great example.  He has mastered the art of cooking and through that gained insight into the nature of the universe.
       If your art can be do that, and be effective, then it might be a form of budo.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


I have a couple of students who started recently, and teaching them has me focused on fundamentals even more than I usually am.  I often say "All I'm going to do is teach you to walk and to breath."  Having new students reminds me that this is very true.  We are working on fundamentals of posture, how to move, when to inhale and exhale.

Practice seems to focus on the simplest, most common activities.  Lately we're spending a lot of time working on breathing in a sensible way for what we are doing, standing and moving properly.  Practice is like that, even when I'm working on the "advanced" stuff.  Practicing the advanced stuff mostly seems to consist of making sure I'm breathing properly, standing in a relaxed, stable manner, and moving well from my hips without messing up my breathing or my posture.  Practice is always practice.

Iaido and Jodo are both kata based arts. The number of kata is very limited.  You learn the basic patterns and then you continue  practicing them.  After a few years you've "learned" all the kata in the system.   That is to say, you've learned the pattern of movements that make up the kata.  But learning the kata isn't what practice is all about.  Practice is doing the kata, studying it, learning to apply those basic concepts of proper breathing and posture to make the movements stronger, more solid, more unstoppable.  Every time I do a kata I see things that can be improved.  That's just the stuff I become aware of as I practice the kata.  True horror awaits me every time I see a video tape of myself.  Then I'm left with a grocery list of things to address.

Practice is going about the business of addressing those issues.  It's about never being satisfied with where you are, but always trying to move yourself forward.  There is always something to practice.  Breathing seems like such a simple thing.  Even babies do it, right? But breathing properly and fully is difficult.  I think I've gotten pretty good at breathing properly and fully, at least when I'm not moving.  The trick I'm working on now is breathing properly, fully, and at the right moment for each movement.  It's amazing how easy it is to get engrossed in the action of a kata and forget to breath until it's over.  I'm still practicing breathing.

And as for walking, I don't have nearly enough time to talk about practicing walking.  That's really complicated.  I keep practicing it though.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Art, Martial Art, and Life

I'm a martial artist. I train in several different budo. What does it mean to be a martial artist? For me it means that I'm constantly training to become myself. Not that I'm training strikes or cuts or throws or joint locks, but myself. I'm polishing who I am and how I interact with the world around me, and how I am connected to the world. It is training in the art of life.

I'm working on how to move in everyday life. The iaido kata I train aren't really about how I move with a sword. They are about how I move in the world. It's about how I get out of my car and how I move down the hallway. Most importantly, it's about what sort of face and posture I present to people I deal with. In iai, we spend a lot of time focused perfecting our movement. It's very similar to dance in that there are limited number of fundamentals that we drill and drill and drill. We drill until proper movement has become ingrained in our bodies so that we express it with every movement in or out of the dojo. A dancer is graceful on and off the stage, and a martial artist should be too.

In judo and jodo and other arts that emphasize paired practice, the focus shifts from perfect movement, thought this is still critical, to perfect timing and spacing. This is where the art of living in the world is practiced. In the dojo it's all about moving in time and space to be in the right place to dominate and control an opponent. Outside the dojo life is about moving in time and space to be in the right place at the right time for whatever is happening in our lives. The awareness and understanding of when and how people will move that we cultivate in the dojo is something that should be drawn on all the time. Moving through a crowd, dealing with a customer, a coworker, a boss, or a friend, what we can read from their body, and what we can accomplish by maintaining the relaxed, ready state we train for in the dojo makes budo relevant to every encounter, even ones we don't know we've had.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Washing a hakama

This isn't a discussion of great techniques, or esoteric thoughts on budo wisdom, but in the day-to-day life of martial artist, it can be important.  What's the best way to wash your hakama?  This is the method I use.

The first question is, is the hakama cotton or tetron or polyester?
If it's cotton, only wash it in cold water. I only wash mine in cold water and mine is tetron, but it's really important if it's cotton.

To wash the hakama, fold it neatly like you are putting it away, roll up the himo and put rubber bands on them to hold them, and then put the whole package in a delicates bag. Wash it in the delicates bag in cold water. This will help maintain the pleates so they are easy to find when you take it out of the washer.

Hang it up to drip dry. Press in the pleats with your fingers while it is still wet, and clip the bottom of each pleat with a clothes pin to help keep the pleats neat.

After it dries, fold it neatly.

If you have a tetron hakama, you probably won't need to iron it more than once or twice a year to keep the pleats looking nice.  If you have a cotton hakama, this makes the post-washing ironing process MUCH easier, because the pleats don't vanish in the washing machine.

Happy laundry day!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Getting to Black

I ran across the old chestnut about various belt colors from white to black resulting from a white belt that gradually gets dirtier and dirtier over time on a discussion board recently.  There are a couple of problems with this story, the biggest one being that it has no basis in fact.

Let's start with the fact that the traditional, white dogi tied with a belt isn't really traditional clothing for budo training in Japan.  Traditionally hakama were worn for budo practice.  There is no belt visible on the outside of hakama.  The hakama is tied over the top of the obi.  The modern training dogi was invented by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, over a period of years at the end of the 19th century. It's based on classical Japanese underwear! In other words, it's not really traditional.

Kano Sensei also invented the modern rank system using "dan" ranks instead of the tradition teaching licenses that are issued by schools that predate the creation of Kodokan Judo.  As Kodokan Judo grew into a nationally practiced martial art, he wanted a visible means of telling the difference between beginners and students who had the basics, and so they used white belts for beginners and black belts for experienced students.  Originally there were also only 3 dan ranks, not the 10 that are now used.

As for the belt getting dirty over time, that ignores one great feature of Japanese culture.  The Japanese are fanatically clean as whole, and the idea of letting a piece of your training uniform get so dirty and nasty that it turned black is ridiculous.  No teacher would have let a student train with a belt like that, and no other student would have wanted to train with someone wearing anything close to that dirty.  Students take pride in their uniforms and are expected to make sure they are clean for every practice.  That includes the belt.

So, given the above, can we please put that dirty, smelly, obnoxious old story about dirty belts to rest?  Please.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What makes a good martial art?

So, what do you think makes a good martial art? And how do you judge?

A lot of people try to compare which martial art is better by comparing the very best practitioners each art has produced. This ends up being an argument over whether Bruce Lee could beat Ueshiba Morihei or something equally silly and pointless.  When your comparison involves people of great talent, what you end up comparing is the relative talents, not the martial arts.  I think it may be impossible to compare martial arts in a general sense.

Each martial art is created and practised with a different set of assumptions about timing, spacing, what weapons are being carried and what kind of attacks will be launched.  You can compare the effectiveness of a martial art in a particular scenario, but there are so many potential scenarios that all you are left with is that a particular art is better suited to any one scenario than another.  It still doesn't give you a clear base for comparison, unless you're convinced that potential scenarios come in a very limited set.  Is your scenario based on a confrontation in a bar, a bouncer at a nightclub, a police encounter on the street, a prison guard dealing with inmates, a soldier on the battlefield?  Different skills will be demanded for each of these.  And unless you work in a field where confrontation is part of the job description, the odds are good you won't need combat skills in your day-to-day living.

For me, it comes down to what the art offers me. Does it enhance some set of combat skills? Does the art address more than just the technique aspect of combat? Do the skills taught have some chance of being relevant for something in your life (not a fantasy of conflict, but what you're really liable to encounter)?
Are the skills learned applicable to anything besides actual combat?

So tell me, what makes a good martial art for you?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Effective Sword Arts

Someone asked me about finding effective Japanese sword arts, because they had heard some have been watered down.  I haven't answered them because I'm still trying to figure out what it means for a sword art to be "effective" in the 21st century.  We don't fight with swords anymore, and even if we wanted to, there are far more effective weapons these days.  So what does it mean for a Japanese sword art to be effective?
I'm afraid someone may be expecting too much from their idea of practice.  For me, an effective art is one that teaches the fundamentals of how to handle and use the weapon, and spends a lot of time teaching the concepts of maai and seme and sen.  Fancy techniques or "real" fighting scenarios aren't part of my practice. 

"Real" martial arts are pretty well stripped down to the basics.  Not watered down, but stripped down, as in anything extra or not absolutely necessary has removed.  Weapons combat doesn't leave a lot of room for fancy, even archaic weapons like swords.   But beyond that, when I think of effective martial arts, I think about how effective the practice is for refining myself and my understanding, not how effective it will make me in a Saturday night fight.  Training goes on every day.  If you're smart and just a little bit lucky, you'll never be in a fight.  So which is more important, those effective sword techniques, or effective training?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Training while injured

My knee is healing slowly, and I'm getting an education in the value of different kinds of training.  I still can't quite get into seiza, but I am pleasantly surprised to find that I can get into tatehiza.  I've been too a couple of iai seminars in the last few weeks, and I'm learning things about standing etiquette that hadn't really sunk in when I didn't have to use it.  Regular practice is good, and it is very interesting having to work out new kinks in seiza kata by doing them standing.  So much remains the same, breathing and posture are fundamental and some of the simple benefits I carry with every minute I'm not in the dojo.  But the foot work is just a little bit different standing, and that has been a lovely puzzle.

All that said, I really look forward to having a healthy knee again.