Saturday, October 24, 2009


People argue a lot about whether some art is a "jutsu" or a "do." They miss a simple fact. In Japanese culture, there is a way to do everything. There is a proper way for everything to be done. Not just those things that have been codified as arts with names. There is, for example, a proper way to wring out a towel.
"Huh? You've got to be kidding." I can hear people thinking. There really is. The idea is to find the best way to do something. All the arts we study and practice, judo, sado, kado, iaido and on and on, are little ways. They are supposed to point us at the big Way of life. But it's not just the named arts. Everything has a way. The unspoken lesson of Japanese culture is that there is a way for everything we do, every day. Even simple things like how to hold a pen, pencil or brush, or how we hold and drink our tea, or how we wring out a towel.
The ancient idea is that if the outer ways are correct, the heart and mind will also be correct. Unfortunately, I've known too many elegant and polished scoundrels to believe this to be true. I do believe that we can approach everything we do with the idea that there is a way hidden within it. A friend of mine taught me about the way of standing. She worked with me and taught me how to stand. Her way was much better than what I had been doing, and had the benefit of making my back feel better. I wish she was closer because I'm sure she could teach me a lot about the way of walking.
All of these little ways should give us clues about the way of living. None of the little ways is complete in itself, but they all point a finger at how to approach the rest of life, the physical, the mental and the emotional.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Training Direction

We go to the dojo and train. Ok, so what does that get us? We will show improvement in return for making the choice and effort to go practice. This can only be a good thing. As an American, anything that gets me up and active has to be counted an improvement. Going to the dojo to train means getting some kind of instruction in your art and being able to practice it. That’s good, but relying on the teacher to provide all of the direction in your training makes for weak, inefficient training and slow progress.

If we pick some fundamental aspect of our art to work on, whether it is entering, or timing, or posture, or movement, we can refine that aspect of the art while practicing whatever it is our teacher is focusing on for the day. This gives training more continuity from practice to practice, and gives something to focus on any time we think about our art, whether we are in the dojo for formal practice, or just thinking about it when we're supposed to be accomplishing something at work. We can either float through our training, or we can choose what kind of martial artist we will become.

Isn’t this how we should approach the rest of our time outside the dojo as well? With an idea of the person we'd like to become, and be making effort in that direction? Some people say things like "That's just who I am. I can't change." Every day though, life changes us a little. The question is, will we passively allow life to shape us, or will we actively participate in shaping ourselves? Whether we are in the dojo, the kitchen or the workplace, we can choose what we become day by day.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Kiyama-Sensei basically said to quit worrying about anything in the kata except making the cut incredibly powerful. His cuts are absolutely incredible. On the street he's a little, kindly old Japanese grandfather. At 85 years old, and maybe 5 ft tall, in a floppy hat and casual shirt, he doesn't seem powerful or unusual. He is though. I'm still working on the complete physical integration that he has, but a couple more little pieces came through for me this year. He calls it "heso powa-", literally, belly button power. He ties everything together with koshi and drives that through the blade's kissaki. It's really incredible, and it's going to take some time to get right. When I try it, I often end up tensing the wrong things, and my head will bob up and down as the unstablized powere I'm generating finds an exit through something other than the sword. I think it did it right a couple of times while I was there, but it's going to take some work to see if I've really got it.

Of course, once I get this down, then it has to be integrated into my practice without disturbing all of the other things I've worked on, like timing, spacing, pacing, movement, and other stuff I'll regret forgetting.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Budo and Old Friends

I went to Japan for a week to see my friends. I did some incredible jodo with Matsuda Shihan, and judo with old friends (and we all felt old in the heat), and iaido with Kiyama Sensei. It was wonderful. Each time I get a little more. This time I understood a bit about what Kiyama Sensei is pointing me at. I'm not sure I'm looking at the moon he's pointing me to, but I think I may have stopped focusing on his finger finally. I didn't catch on the to lesson in the dojo though. It was on a Saturday morning at his house, watching old budo videos and commenting back and forth. I think I finally got what he's been trying to tell me for years. Now I just have to translate it from understanding to expression.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One Punch, One Kill

I've heard karate guys talk about their art as being so "effective" that "One Punch, One Kill" is an outcome. I wonder, how effective is a tool that can only be used in lethal situations?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

generalist or specialist

In martial arts circles, you run into people who do only one thing, and do it incredibly well. You also run into people who try to do everything. Some of them are even pretty good. I know lots of guys who are great competitive judoka and MMA players. But they don't know anything about spacing or timing farther than they can reach. They know even less about hand held weapons. One question for people in combative disciplines has long been, "How do I train for all the different scenarios I may have to deal with?" I really haven't seen a modern answer to this question. I have my own solution, but it's not very modern.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


I've been expecially aware of the most basic aspects of movement in my iai lately. I noticed recently that when I'm doing kata from seiza a lot, it changes how I move from any seated position. Everything is much more stable, connected and solid. It's interesting.

Then this morning, I went to the gym to practice, and I ended up in a different court than I usually practice in. This one has a very tacky, almost sticky floor. A lot of the movements that I usually practice almost as gliding movements across the floor I can't do that way in the court. My feet and knees stick and won't move if there is any contact with the floor at all. I have to disconnect myself from the floor to do anything. It's not really difficult, but it is different enough that I have to put a little awareness into it, without letting the other parts of the kata go because I'm changing this one aspect. Good practice.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Only about 7 weeks overdue. Instead of considering the parts of kata, I've been trying to apply timing, spacing, commitment and other bits of it to life. It's amazing how how much negotiations can be just like a kata. Waiting for them to commit, or to leave a space for me to enter. It's strangely like doing kata. But with negotiations, I'm not supposed to destroy anyone. We're supposed to come to an agreement that all can live with. Not having a clearly defined ending makes it more difficult, but that's not bad. Application always seems to be more difficult than practice. That's why we practice.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Timing and spacing in kata

Kata practice is usually thought of as restricted because you know what's going to happen. In good practice, you do know the movement of the kata. What you don't know is the timing, the distance, the speed, or the power your partner will be using. Traditionally, kata practice is done with a beginner doing the winning role, and a senior practitioner taking the losing role. It's the senior's job to control the timing, speed, distances and power.
It's one thing to know what the next attack is going to be. It's another to act at the right moment, move the appropriate distance, and do it fast enough and with without moving too much or too little. The first kata in the Kendo No Kata is simple, but teaches all of these lessons. The kata is nothing more than opponents approach each other, one attacks, the other avoids the attack, then counter attacks. That's all that's required to learn though. There are several critical lessons in this kata.

The first lesson is distance. What is the distance of engagement? This is fundamental. At what point is someone close enough to be a true threat? If he's too far away to be a true threat, you don't need to act. It's a threat without teeth. How close is too close? It's different for every person, based on reach, step length, what weapon they're using and other factors. Without this one, you'll never get to the technique.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The important parts of a kata

There are lots of kata around, from the kata of karate and iaido, to the very formal and seemingly fossilized two-man kata of koryu kenjutsu and jujutsu to the fairly loose kata of standard aikido practice (and yeah, most aikido practice is definitely kata). But what are the most important elements of kata.

It the techniques that everyone sees and focuses one. In karate, the kata are mainly about how to strike and block. In iai they are all about learning to draw quickly and with control. In koryu arts they are about learning the techniques for destoying your opponent. Or are they?

To me, the essence of kata are in how they deal with spacing, timing and the rhythm of the attack. The techniques are pretty much incidental to the primary lessons of the kata.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Musings about Kata

Kata invoke some strong feelings. Many competition oriented martial artists consider kata training a waste of time. Many koryu bugei folks think competitors miss all the important lessons, and Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido, proclaimed there are no kata in aikido.

What are "kata" that they generate such strong feelings and statements? They are just pre-arranged movement patterns. In budo, they are pre-arranged patterns for movement for dealing with conflict. In Japanese arts, with the exception of iaido, they are always paired practice. Since iai deals with handling a live blade, it would be tough to keep finding new partners after every mistake, this makes a certain sense. But what is being studied in these kata, and why kata instead of free sparring. After all, kata was the dominate teaching methodology for budo in Japan until the 1900s. And what was it about kata that made it strong enough to be successful against styles that emphasize randori (sparring) and in live matches for hundreds of years. It's still the dominate training method for most koryu bugei.

Kata must have something, because extremely successful systems like Yagyu Shinkage Ryu kenjutsu are all about kata. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu consists of 22 kata, through which the whole of the kenjutsu system is taught. What's going on here that an entire school of sword fighting can be boiled down to 22 forms?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What's important in a kata?

I'm thinking a lot about what goes into a kata? What elements should a kata teach? What are the most fundamental parts of a kata? Every kata contains techniques. Should the kata teach the most fundamental form of a technique, or a more advanced form? What is it that makes really good kata?