Monday, September 30, 2013

Why bother going all the way to Japan just to train?

I’m one of those annoying people who often tells people they should make a trip to Japan to train in their budo.  A lot of people wonder why anyone should bother paying all that money just to go train for a while.  It seems especially wasteful now that so many top teachers from Japan make the trip to North America every year.  In some arts like Aikido, there are top teachers living here that you can see every night in the dojo.  So why bother with the time and trouble and money to haul yourself to Japan?

I’m in Japan right now, and I spent yesterday at an iaido seminar.  I was the median ranked person at the seminar, which means that half the people out there training and learning with me are higher ranked than I am.  I’m 4th dan.  There were a lot 5th, 6th and 7th dans out there on the floor getting their butts kicked alongside me by the guy leading the seminar.  Tonight I went to a  completely mundane dojo for jodo keiko.  At a regular practice, I will be at the mid level or below.   Most of the students will 4th dan or higher.  That’s a lot experience on the floor.  Tonight I just made the cut for the senior half.  Again, I’m a fourth dan, and that just got me to the upper half of the dojo.  Above me were 5th, 6th & 7dans, while a 8th dan ran the practice and taught a couple of fairly new students.

Whenever I go to the dojo in Japan and train, in whatever art I can think of, this is the normal situation.  The dojo membership will be filled with high ranks, so many of them that you can be sure you’ll spend most of your time training with very senior people.  The dojo have so much depth that it’s hard for people outside of Japan to imagine what it’s like to train.  I know small country kendo dojo where five or more 7th dans show up on most nights for practice.  5th dan’s aren’t considered high ranks. They are people who’ve just reached the level where it’s ok for them to start giving corrections to people.

That depth of experience in the dojo just can’t be matched.  The skill and experience that surrounds you quickly pushes and pulls you to a higher level of performance.  All of these senior people keep practice at the highest level, and they all work to push students higher.  There are myriads of little details that a lone senior teacher outside Japan has to remember and try to reinforce by himself.  Here, where you’re likely to have multiple 7th dans taking part in practice, no has worry about getting details and ideas across to everyone.  The senior students take care of emphasizing all sorts of little training details and making sure beginners and junior ranks (up to about 4th dan in many dojo) learn everything they are supposed to.  There are all sorts of fine details of behaviour and technique that you absorb without even realizing it dojo like this.  Wherever you look there are senior students with outstanding form and skill doing the same thing you are.  You look at them and you can see the way things should be done.  The teacher doesn’t have to worry about making sure each students understands.  The whole dojo teaches everyone.

It is an atmosphere that can’t be duplicated outside Japan yet.  It takes a long time to build up a cadre of members at a dojo with that much experience.  Trying to do it from scratch outside Japan is tough.  Even in judo and karate, which have relatively long histories outside Japan, there are few dojo with this sort of depth to be found.  It takes 30 or 40 years to build up this sort of dojo once you have a senior teacher.  There is something remarkable about training with a group that measures it’s history not in years or decades, but centuries.  Plus, it’s really cool to watch the 7th dans get corrected.  It’s a reminder that no matter how good we get, we are all still learning.

Being surrounded by that level of experience means that you are breathing in lessons you aren’t aware you are learning.  The atmosphere is so rich with experience that you can pick up subtle lessons without any effort.  If you do put forth effort, the amount that can be learned in short time is remarkable.

If all you want is to learn how to fight though, there are plenty of new, efficient arts like Krav Maga out there that don’t come burdened with the history and philosophy of development and personal refinement that the various arts known as budo come with.  On the other hand, if you are interested in the history of the art, the traditions that make budo what it is, and expressions and practices for refining yourself, then you should make the effort to train in Japan.  The Japanese are no different than anyone else, there are wonderful people and there are jerks, just like everywhere, but the atmosphere in the dojo here is incredible, and it can’t be duplicated anywhere else yet.  I really do encourage people to make the effort to visit Japan and train in the old dojos of their art.  The experience is well worth the effort.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Training, motivation, and counting practice time in decades instead of years

I ran across a question recently about long term motivation, and why people keep training year after year.  It was on George McCall’s excellent site Kenshi 24/7

Budo, like any Way, is certainly a lifetime activity.  There are quite a few teachers in Japan with 70 or 80 years of training under whatever is left of their belts after all those years.  By comparison, I’m still just a beginner, with something over 25 years of budo training.  I’m still excited to go to the dojo every practice though.  What is even more surprising is how excited I am about training again when practice is over.  I bounce with excitement and enthusiasm (no, really.  I’m known as Tigger in some circles).

Practice is clean.  Whatever I did the last time I was in the dojo doesn’t matter.  The only thing that counts is what I’m doing right now.  That alone is a great feeling.  Each practice is an opportunity to create something new out of myself.  I go in and don’t have to worry about the baggage of work or finances or other commitments. In the dojo, the only commitment is to my training and my training partners.

We should all be there for the similar things.  We want to train hard and correctly.  We want to maximize the effectiveness of our technique through optimal body mechanics as well as mastery of timing and spacing.  We want to learn effective technique.  We want to polish both our physical and our mental skills.  

There are days when I really want to train hard and push myself physically and other days where I’m completely wrapped up in the mental aspects and may not even break a sweat.  Training offers a variety of aspects of myself that I can work on.   There always seems to be something worth working on that brings me into the dojo and the longer I train, the more things there seem to be for me to work on.  With all the different facets of budo to work on, I can always find at least one that I want to polish on any given day.

I started budo in a college judo class in 1986.  I wanted to learn about Chinese philosophy in action, and that was the closest thing I could find.  I had some vague ideas from having read the Tao Te Ching but I really didn’t know what I was getting into.   Though I smile at some of my naive ideas I had back then, I really could have done a whole lot worse.
That class introduced me to budo.  Everything was exciting and fascinating and really, really difficult.  I had to learn how walk and move and fall down all over again.  I mean really, who needs to learn how to fall down, right?  But that was the very first lesson, and it’s one I’m still working on.  Oddly enough it’s still the practical lesson I’ve used more than nearly any other.  I’m clumsy, so I still fall down a lot, but I will admit, I use the walking lessons slightly more than the falling lessons.

Any good budo has so much more depth than just learning some effective fighting techniques (but if the base isn’t effective combat techniques for the situations being studied, than it can’t be budo).  Effective combat techniques are the first step, but all the really fascinating stuff happens after that first step.  Being effective is just the beginning. That’s why really masterful budoka seem to have magic powers.  They didn’t stop studying at just effective.  They keep polishing and learning, making their effectiveness more and more efficient, until it looks like magic.

For me, the wonderful thing is that everything is still exciting and really, really difficult to do right.   As I progress in the arts I practice, there is no level that is “good enough” because getting “good” isn’t the point.  The point is continuous improvement.  I have had teachers in their 90s who still practiced regularly and were working on improving right up until their bodies gave out.
My teachers were, and are, still learning, still making progress, and still improving.  That’s a great challenge.  It’s also a wonderful realization.  It means I’m never finished growing.  While I live there will never be a point when I am finished, a point when I am done.  That fact, that knowledge, that I am not complete, and that I can always get better is a fabulous motivator.  I can’t ever say “That’s just what I am.” Because I know it’s not.  It’s only what I am now.  It’s not what I’ll be tomorrow. 

It’s a wonderful feeling to know I have always have capacity for growth.  That’s my real motivation.  Yes, I’m working on cleaning up my kirioroshi these days, and yeah, I noticed that my foot is flaring out on some techniques so I’m working on correcting that.  The little puzzles are there all the time. Every once in a while I manage to tie a bunch of them together and make a large leap all at once.  Those are great feelings, but I don’t really pursue them.  I just appreciate them when they happen.  What keeps me coming back are the little steps forward, the small epiphanies, the knowledge that, to quote a good friend, I can suck at a higher level tomorrow.

Budo is gratifying that way, and it doesn’t matter how much time I have to give it.  There have been times when I was able to train 5 or 6 days a week.  There have been times when I had to fight to get 1 practice a week in.  These days I’m usually getting 2 or 3 practices a week in, plus some weight and cardio training to keep the old body in good operating condition.

There is one other thing about budo that I love.  That’s the fact that it’s not really about martial arts.  The martial arts are really just the container.  Budo is really about developing and improving and mastering the self as a human being.  That’s what being a way, a
is about.  If you just want to learn to fight, there are faster, simpler, more stripped down ways to it.  Not necessarily more effective for fighting, but certainly more efficient for learning.

I’m motivated to get up and go to the dojo because it helps me be better at being me.  As I said, I know that what I today is not what I am.  It’s only what I am now.  Practicing budo teaches me about how to refine my physical and mental budo technique.  These are lessons I apply directly to the rest of my life.  I know that if I can learn to not let uke play mind games with me in kenjutsu or jodo, that if I can learn to not let my opponent get under my skin and cause me to lose control during judo randori, I can learn to do those things outside the dojo.
Budo is the container for the lessons, but the lessons are universal.  This is true of any Do , but I find it to be particularly true of budo.  In budo, we deal with conflict at its most basic level.  Whether it is unarmed or with a sword or a staff or kusarigama or a spear or some other exotic weapon, we’re dealing with conflict.  The techniques for dealing with conflict in a particular system of budo seem to be specific to the particular situations that are practiced.  In the case of many koryu budo where the training is with archaic weapons, the lessons might not seem to be relevant to anything anymore.   The principles for dealing with conflict haven’t changed though.  They can be applied to any sort of conflict, whether it is has devolved to physical conflict or not.

Even if budo didn’t go any higher than teaching principles for conflict, it would be fascinating.  You’ve got the physical practice which challenges me every day, and which I expect to continue being challenged by for another 40 or 50 years.  Then you’ve got the mental level of learning to work with partners and opponents.  Above that are the fundamental principles of conflict that you can learn and discover ever more subtle depths to.  This might well be enough to keep my motivated and occupied for the rest of my life. That’s just the “bu” portion though. 

Beyond “bu” there is the “do” .  That’s a big motivator for me.  The lesson that gets drilled home every time I practice, that I don’t have to be satisfied with myself.  I don’t have to settle for being no more, no better, than I am today.  The lessons of budo give me a path, a way, for becoming better so that I will suck at a higher level tomorrow.  With budo I get to do this with some great people in lessons that challenge me on every level: physical, mental and spiritual.

Those people are another motivator for me to drag myself into the dojo even when I’m not feeling it as much as I can.  They help me and push and pull and sometimes drag me forward.  There is tremendous camaraderie in the dojo that is refreshing and simple.  I like these people and I like being around them.  I trust them and they trust me.  In the dojo we have a wonderful time together practicing something that can be deadly serious.  Having wonderful people to train with really does help pull me back even when I think I’m too tired.
I’m not sure these are the same things my teachers are getting out budo now.  I know that my reasons for training shifted subtly over the years.  At first it was Chinese philosophy, and then I really liked learning the techniques and skills of fighting.  For quite a few years now I’ve been focuses on refining my budo and my self.  Looking out at the next few decades of training, I wonder what other things might motivate me in the future.

For now I love going to the dojo and discovering more about myself.  I love pushing myself to do things that are physically and mentally challenging.  I love working with all the people I train with to mutually reach a higher level than the one we are on today.  I love learning about myself and learning how to push myself to do things that are mentally and personally challenging outside the dojo.  I love learning how to reshape my mind over time so that I each day I can be a better me than I was the day before.  All these things motivate me to get up and got to the dojo as much as I can. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Interviewing My Teacher

I'm headed off to Japan in few days to spend a week and a half with my sword teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi.  Kiyama Sensei is 88 years old, had been doing budo for all but 5 of those years.  He has more ranks than I can wrap my mind around.  He is 7th dan Kyoshi in iaido, kendo and jodo.  He holds ranks in Shito Ryu karate and judo.  Those are just the arts I know about.  He is an absolute budo treasure.  I am looking forward to this trip, and I'm spending a lot of time thinking about what sort of questions I want to ask him and the things I would like to hear him talk about.

I know from experience that anything he wants to talk about will be fascinating and give me food for thought for months and years to come.  He's very much a traditional Meiji man though, which means he tends to be reticent and reserved and not much for light conversation.  Getting him talking sometimes requires a bit of prompting.  That's why I like to go in with a bunch of questions ready to help get the conversation going. 

I've got a few.  I'm still asking him about various points in his budo career.  Lately I'm really interested in what it was like training kendo, iaido, jukendo and judo in the 1930s during the war.  I'm also curious about what the postwar training environment was like.  The common myth that martial arts were banned by the Allies after the war is just that, a myth. (See Joseph Svinth's article at That doesn't mean that the training environment was incredibly difficult.  Food was scarce, the country was in ruins, and through efforts of the militarist government budo has been used and manipulated for the war effort.  People were working hard to find enough to eat and rebuild the country from literal ruins.  I want to know how he and others found the energy to train in these conditions and what motivated them.

I'm really interested in how he managed to train to an advanced level in so many arts, both from a matter of time, and how he kept them all straight in his body.  I constantly find aspects of one art showing up where it shouldn't when I am training in something else.  I really want to know how he kept, and keeps, them straight.  At 88, he is still in the dojo

Which is another topic I want to ask him about.  What is he working on in the dojo now?  Does he have any goals for his daily training?  Are there particular aspects of his budo that he is still trying to polish.  I look at how my training goals and motivations have changed over the comparatively short time I've been training and I wonder how Kiyama Sensei's have changed (next to someone with 83 years of training, my 27 years feels like I'm still at the elementary school level).

Kiyama Sensei was trained during a pivotal time in the development of modern Kendo, Judo and Iaido.  I wonder what his thoughts are on the changes they have undergone in his lifetime.  Kendo and Judo seem to have become more and more about competition every year.  How does he feel about that?  On the other side, he has also delved deep into koryu bugei.  He has been doing Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu for at least 60 years, and he did Shinto Muso Ryu for I don't know how many decades.  He knows both the koryu and gendai budo worlds intimately.  Does he prefer one to the other?  How  well does he think each is adapting to the 21st century?

These are the lines of thinking I'm following, but if anyone has good suggestions, I will try to bring them up with Kiyama Sensei and see what he says. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What Is A Good Uke, and Why Is One Important?

I’ve run across some discussions within gendai budo arts with people talking about the varying qualities of the uke they encounter as they train in different dojo.   The quality of ukes and the training people do with them is thoroughly inconsistent.  All of this brought two questions to the fore for me.  First, what is a good uke?  Second, just how important for training iis it to have a good uke to work with?

When we train in most martial arts, we have to have a partner to train with.  It is difficult to practice solo, whether you are training in an unarmed or armed art.   In arts like judo and aikido, many people seem to view uke’s role as simply being able to take the fall when we throw them.  While I agree that uke must be able to handle being thrown, I believe this is the smallest portion of an uke’s skills.  I was witness to a recent discussion of people from one art complaining about the quality of attacks their uke were performing.  The poor attacks were making good practice difficult.

When we go to the dojo to train, we need partners to train with.  Our training partner, our uke, actually determines just about everything that happens in each training encounter.  Our uke sets the spacing and speed of the encounter, as well as the determining how much energy will go into it.  This is true for judo, aikido practice, kenjutsu kata, jo kata, kendo training or any other practice with a partner.

To be a good uke is not just to be able take the fall for however hard your partner thows, or to be able to absorb the attack with the sword, jo, or naginata.  To me, being able to survive the technique is the basic prerequisite for learning how to be a good uke.

A good uke
  • understands the appropriate distances for various attacks
  • knows how to make the different attacks effectively
  • can adjust the speed and power of their attacks so tori can practice whatever element of the technique or kata they need to focus on
  • understands spacing and timing intimately so they can teach us when we are too early or too close, too late or too far.
  • can handle what tori is doing without trouble.  
  • can present new problems for tori to learn from

Being a good uke takes a lot of skill.  In places where only people who are skilled at the role act as uke the training  environment is far more intense, exciting, and most importantly, effective .   The skill of the uke means that there is never any question of them not understanding their role in the technique or kata being practiced.  They provide the optimal learning and training experience for their partner.  

Getting to the point where you can be a good uke takes time, something a lot of modern dojo don’t seem to want to give students.  The first step in becoming a good uke is learning the fundamentals on the tori side.  You really have to know the techniques and the kata from that side before you can do an adequate job as uke for someone.    Learning the tori side is where you lay a foundation of good technique, timing, maai and reading your partner.

A good uke understands the technique you are doing and can offer the right feedback to help you improve.  This feedback won’t always be verbal.  A lot of it is just not letting you get away with sloppiness in posture and positioning and energy application (some people say “force” but that is a crude an inaccurate description of what we are doing).   This level of understanding is critical.

Once someone has a solid understanding of the technical side they can start learning the uke role.  I have vivid memories of the first few times Matsuda Sensei called on me to act as uke for someone he was teaching.  I was really honored, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was there to be taught every bit as much as I was to help the other guy.  Sensei offered as many corrections and advice to me about how to make the learning experience better for my partner as he did to my partner.  

That was my first lesson in being an uke. It was not my last.  I’m still getting lessons.  And everything I learn about being uke also informs my understanding of being tori.  It all cycles around.  On the foundation of techniques you learned as tori, you then build an understanding of the various attacks and how they need to be done for each of the techniques or kata your partner is learning.  Not every attack is so hard and deep it blows through tori if they miss, nor are they all so light that there are no consequences for tori if the fail the technique.  A good uke controls that intensity and can pull the attack if they see tori isn’t going to be able to handle it.  Uke can dial the intensity up and down as needed.  

One of the things that a good uke can do is push you outside of your comfort zone.  Whether you are doing kata training or randori, a good uke can push you by making you practice what you are weakest at, and by moving things a little faster than you are accustomed to, by changing up the timing and spacing.  All of these are critical lessons.

It is very easy to get comfortable and not venture out of safe, known territory.  If you are always in a neighborhood you know well, you aren’t likely to learn anything or to improve.  You have to go out where you aren’t comfortable and where you aren’t sure your technique will work. In fact, you need to go out where your technique will fail so you can learn what is necessary there, and grow enough so that your technique will work.  Taking you to where your technique can fail safely and you can make your next steps forward is the responsibility of a good uke.

Uke controls what we learn.  Uke has to be able to take us outside our comfort zone to work on aspects of technique that need practice, whether it is timing, spacing, speed, power or a combination of all of them.

So just how important is a good uke to learning budo?  As important as having a good teacher.  The teacher leads and points the way, and your uke provides the grinding stone you shape your early technique upon, and the fine grit polishing powder that you polish it with when you understand the general shape of the art.

You can see then why I cringe when I see beginners working together so much of the time in many judo and aikido dojo.  A beginner training with other beginners will have a difficult time trying to learn anything useful.  The attacks they receive won’t help them learn distancing or timing.  They may even learn the wrong lessons.  If they learn to react to attacks that would never reach them they are learning bad distancing and timing.  The same if they think someone has to stand very close to initiate an attack.  Attacks that are too weak don’t give tori experience with appropriate energy levels, while attacks the are too energetic too early can easily injury tori, or cause them to react with energy they can’t control yet, which can injury uke.

When a beginner acts as uke for a beginner, tori can’t practice good technique.  Tori needs attacks geared to their level, and feedback from how she deals with those attacks.  That feedback is critical to making good growth and progress in the art.  If the beginner uke’s attacks aren’t teaching a good understanding of timing and spacing, the feedback they give to tori’s techniques is worse than useless.  They don’t know what a good technique is yet, so they can’t guide tori’s technique in the right direction. They are more likely to guide their fellow beginner in the wrong direction without realizing it.  These are, lessons that may take years to undo.

Good uke provide the framework within which a good teacher can work.  The teacher can’t practice with everyone all the time.  Senior students who are good uke do that.  The good uke gives their partner the chance to assimilate what the teacher shows and explains.  They provide the correct feedback immediately, and there are never 2 students staring at each other because neither one knows what they are doing. The good uke provides a great training experience, even if the teacher isn’t around.  They can train well and help tori raise her level every time they work together.

I would also say that good uke speed the learning curve immensely.  I believe a student who has ample time training with good uke will develop several times faster than one who does a lot of training with other beginners.  I’m not saying never train with other beginners.  In many dojo, especially outside Japan, there just aren’t enough seniors to go around.  But I will say that you should try to train with skilled uke as much as possible.   One of my favorite dojo in Japan doesn’t allow juniors to act as uke until they are at least 4th dan.  I was shocked by this the first few times I trained there.  Practice starts with everyone doing solo kihon, and then the seniors line up and all the juniors do paired kihon with the seniors.  Then the juniors are paired with seniors and they practice for 45 minutes together.  The final 45 minutes the juniors watch the seniors practice.  This works even more effectively than it sounds, because the juniors get the opportunity to carefully watch the kata being done at a high level of skill, so they can see how the corrections and lessons they have just received are applied.  From this watching and thinking they can get a deeper understanding of the kata for their next practice.

As dojo develop sufficient depth, I think they should switch to the older practice of junior students training with senior students.  That is the way it works in the mature dojo I have seen in Japan, both koryu and gendai. This is not just because it’s traditional.  It’s traditional because it works best.  

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.