Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Getting Out Of The Comfort Zone

We like training.  It’s fun. We value it.  Training is good for us.  That’s why we do it.  We like what we are doing and what it does for us.  All those benefits that budo training is supposed to give are great, right?  Budo is great training for the body, all that exercise and developing speed and agility and strength.  Then there are those mental benefits of being calm and centered and confident and mentally resilient.

Expect when we aren’t actually getting most of these benefits.  It’s easy to train and not really progress.  I know there have been periods where I went to judo and did the whole workout, and never really progressed or improved in any of the areas I just listed.  Yes, it was a good workout and I maintained my level of fitness.  Yes, the exercise felt great.  Yes, I did a lot of techniques, but they were all techniques I already had a reasonable level of mastery of.  Yes I had to focus and work my mind but it was more of a reinforcement and repeat of lessons learned.  I knew what I could do, and I did it.

What I didn’t do was more.  I didn’t push my body to its limits of strength. I certainly didn’t do anything that made me develop my speed or agility.  When it came to mental training, I did things I was already confident that I could do.  It’s easy to be calm and centered when you’re working well within your comfort zone.

None of this is really training.  It’s more like maintenance.  It’s more like keeping up with what I’ve achieved in the past.  It doesn’t improve me in any way though.  In truth, even when I’m doing those things, I’m diminishing.  When I don’t test my limits they start shrinking because I’m not sure where they are.  If I’m not out close to the edge, I lose sight of where it is and my imagination always makes it closer than it really is.  When I’m not sure where the edge is I naturally give myself a plentiful safety zone so I don’t accidentally stray across the edge into uncertain territory.

I will admit, there are times in life when just treading water is tough enough. Most of the time though, we can do better.  The question is, how do we know we’re doing better?  A simple clue is your answer to the question “Am I in my comfort zone?”  If you answer yes to this question, you’re not getting any better.  If you’re not in your comfort zone, even if you’re just a little bit outside it, you’re pushing your limits and growing.

Ultimately, I’m responsible for the progress of my training.  I have to push myself and find people to help me advance each step along the road.  In judo, if I just show up every week and do my stuff, no will say anything, and people will be happy that I’m participating.  If I want to to really learn, they’ll be thrilled. It’s my choice, and my responsibility.  We each have to work at pushing our limits.  

For most of us, the first time we step foot in the dojo we are pushing against more limits than we realize.  We are learning to master our bodies and our minds.  We are learning about power and conflict dynamics in the most fundamental way, by actually learning to fight.  We are learning to go beyond the raw physical conflict and master our minds and ourselves.  Often, we are pushing limits society has told us we can’t go beyond, that we can’t be deal with violence because good people don’t do that.  It can be difficult if you’re male.  I can’t imagine the pressure against that first step if you’re female.

Once we’ve taken that first step and trained for a while, the new danger is complacency.  After we achieve a certain degree of competency at budo, or anything, the danger is leaning back, letting out a big sigh, and thinking “I’m good”.  At that moment we’re in danger of stopping dead in the path and not learning anything new.  This is true of anything we do, not just budo.

In a lot of things in life, a certain level of competency is sufficient.  One of the wonders of budo is that there is no such thing as good enough.  I have been privileged to train with people in their 80s and 90’s who were,and are, striving to improve.  They still get out in the dojo and actively work at becoming better today than they were yesterday.  Scroll down here and you’ll see the number 91.  That’s the age of Hada Hidetoshi when he passed his 6th dan in iaido on November 19th this year.

The key to this is to keep searching for that edge.  If you’re outside your comfort zone, even just a little, you’re growing.  So how do you know where that edge is?  Well, first, are you at all uncomfortable?  For many years I had the good fortune to train with a wonderful man, Hikoshiso Sensei, in Shiga, Japan.  The last 20 minutes of every training session was left for randori (judo sparring).  I always ran and grabbed Sensei because he was so good I couldn’t do anything to him, while he could toss me any time he wanted.  I learned from every 3 minute session he gave me.  I noticed after a while though that most of the time no one asked him to do randori.  In fact, people went out of their way to avoid meeting his eyes and getting asked to play (and yes, it was play.  He always had the biggest smile through the whole session.  It was pure fun for him).

I finally asked some people why they never trained with him and they all told me “He’s too good.”  They didn’t want to train with someone they felt they had no chance of throwing.  They didn’t want to go out of their comfort zone. On the other hand, that was exactly why I loved training with him.  For me, it was a personal victory when I progressed enough to be able to break his balance a little.  I wasn’t near to throwing him, but I had become good enough to affect him.  Yes I knew I wasn’t going to throw him.  Yes, I knew he would throw me.  It was exciting and I really had to work and present my very best judo just to stay standing.  

Over time though, my comfort zone increased.  Practicing with Hikoshiso Sensei made everyone else much less intimidating.  After Sense had thrown me around, even the big, tough guys didn’t seem nearly as imposing.  And then one day a miracle happened.   I’d been working on a technique, with Sensei in mind, I admit, and one day the universe aligned in my favor and I THREW Sensei.  He was laughing in joy and excitement before he hit the mat.  He was as thrilled that I had progressed far enough to throw him as I was.  When he got up, he made a bow to me with a grand smile, and then we came together and continued the randori session.  It was fabulous.  

If I had, like some many others in the dojo, stayed in my comfort zone and only trained with people I was already able to throw from time to time, I would never have progressed to the level where I could throw Hikoshiso Sensei.  

You have to go out past the edge of your comfort zone.  That’s the only way it will get bigger. If you look at a training partner and think “There’s no way I can do anything to him” than you’re probably outside your comfort zone.

If training with someone makes your heart beat a little faster and your breathing pick up, that’s another good sign.  When I do jodo or kenjutsu, there are certain partners who I know will be coming in faster and harder than I’m used to.  I trust them to not hurt me, but still, I know I’m out on the edge of my ability to keep up, and I may not be able to get out of the way in time, or get the block up, or place the counterattack properly to stop them.  It’s thrilling.  I know I’m learning when I train with them.  They push me to improve every time we meet.

Another clue is your mind.  Are you worried about making mistakes?  Are you concerned that you could fail to do things right?  These are clues that you are in the right zone.  If you don’t have questions about your ability to do something, you’re not pushing your limits.  If you’re not concerned about completely blowing the movement or getting overwhelmed in randori or sparring, you’re not advancing.  If you are putting yourself out there, and making the mistakes, being overwhelmed by your training partner, then you’re pushing on down the path, and your comfort zone is expanding.  

Don’t stay where you are.  Budo is a path, not a seat.  Don’t give in to the temptation to sit down and stay where you are.  There is always more to be learned, another hill to go round and another river to cross.  Push yourself.  Take the losses.  Make the mistakes. Go where you can’t win.   It doesn’t always feel like it, but when you push your limits, you are progressing, and that development can show up when no one is expecting it.   I was barely dreaming of it, and I know Hikoshiso Sensei wasn’t expecting it.  One day though, everything I had learned about sensing and responding to movement that I had learned from hours of frustrating practice when it felt like I was fighting a mountain came together, and suddenly Sensei was airborne.  And laughing all the way to the ground because I had learned enough out there on the edge that I could catch him in a bad movement.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kata Is Too Rigid And Mechanical

Kata are mechanical and rigid.  They teach petrified patterns and leave the person vulnerable if their partner does something different from the prescribed techniques.  People who learn kata don’t learn how to adjust spontaneously to new and different attacks.  They become rigid in their responses and thus are easily beaten by anyone who is familiar with their preprogrammed responses and can use them as a trap.  Kata don’t teach you how to deal with anything other than the exact form of the kata.

People in Japan have been making charges against kata training since at least the 1700s, and probably longer than that.  These are the basic accusations made against kata practice.  Then there are these stories.

Kim Taylor recently reminded me a of story that I heard many years ago.  As the story goes, two lines of an koryu art met at a big embu and decided to get together and train a little.  Even though the lines had not trained together in something like 200 years and they had developed different interpretations of the kata, it didn’t take long at all for them to start doing the kata fast and hard.

Another friend recently recounted an instance when training with a senior partner who seemed to forget the kata, so he just went on with what seemed appropriate.  My friend just adjusted to the new attacks and continued on.  After a few spontaneous attacks and responses the senior found his footing in the kata and they wrapped things up.

So what’s up? If kata practice is so rigid and promotes all the bad habits that it is charged with, why has it survived so long, and how could people adapt to scenarios like those above?  Maybe, just maybe, the people criticizing kata practice don’t do it very well, and really don’t how to use kata as a training tool.  In particular, practitioners of modern sports styles that emphasize sparring and grappling competitions don’t seem to understand what a kata is or how to use it.

The first thing to realize is that nearly all kata in Japanese systems (as opposed to Okinawan systems, which have an entirely different history) are paired practice.  The primary exception to this is iai kata for drawing and handling a live sword.  The problem there is that accidents from mistakes tend to be so severe it is difficult to recruit new training partners.  Pretty much everything else, including practice with stand-in swords for kenjutsu, is practiced in pairs, with an attacker and responder.

Kata critics get one basic fact correct.  That fact is that kata are prescribed patterns of attack and response.  From this basic starting point, they then proceed down a path that has little resemblance to what happens during actual kata practice.  Critics of kata assume that because the basics of the kata, which attack(s) and which response(s) are prescribed, that everything else in the kata is also prescribed.  They assume that because one part is clearly defined, that all parts of the kata are clearly defined, and that is where they get it all wrong.

Kata are not rigid constructions where every movement is written in stone.  The first thing that is open to variation is the timing.  Uchi, the striker or attacker, is by traditional convention, the senior.  This is because uchi controls the timing of each major attack against shitachi, the person learning the weapon or empty hand skills.  There is no set timing for the attacks.  Uchi doesn’t have to do the attacks all in the same timing and rhythm.  If you happen to watch a relatively junior student doing the shitachi role, then uchi’s attacks are likely to be clearly visible and easy to see coming.  On top of that, the rhythm and timing of the attacks will be very straightforward.  This is because the person is learning the basics of attack and response.

Once a student is past that basic level, which doesn’t take long at all, things quickly get complicated and interesting.  The first thing uchi can do play with the timing.  Just because uchi is within range for an attack doesn’t mean they have to immediately attack.  They can stand there and wait as long as they want, forcing shitachi to really watch for the attack, maintaining focus and awareness the whole time.  If uchi notices shitachi’s focus slipping, that’s the moment to attack for maximum learning.  Or uchi can do something to draw shitachi into acting before uchi is committed to an attack, leaving shitachi wide open for uchi (I’ve had several uncomfortable meetings with wooden swords and other weapons because I fell for these sorts of things).  These are prime teaching experiences.

The attack and response of the kata are prescribed.  Nothing says that uchi can’t adjust when she attacks, or what movement she does before attacking.  Learning to only respond to a real attack is a significant lesson, and one that students learn in kata practice. If shitachii is drawn into responding before she’s attacked, that’s something you have to learn. It takes a while to really learn to read someone’s movement and intent, but that’s one of the things you learn in good kata practice.

Uchi can also mess with the rhythm.  As you get comfortable with the kata, there is a tendency for people to fall into a consistent rhythm.  One of uchi’s responsibilities is to change up the rhythm of the attacks so shitachi stays alert and doesn’t fall into the habit of thinking that the attack will always be at one speed and one timing. It’s amazing how slipping a half or whole second pause into a kata can transform the rhythm, upend shitachi’s grasp of the kata and self-control, and cause shitachi to make a grave mistake that leaves them wide open to an attack from uchi.

Which leads to another misconception.  Just because a kata’s attacks and response are prescribed, that doesn’t preclude uchi from stepping in to demonstrate a mistake shitachi has made or a juicy opening they have left.  Uchi isn’t going to bash shitachi in the head (I hope), but uchi is likely to gently attack through the inviting gap shitachi has left.  How else would shitachi learn to not make a particular mistake?   I know I’ve moved only to discover a weapon tip an inch from my nose because as shitachi I didn’t control uchi properly, leaving a nice hole in my defense that my partner was more than happy to demonstrate for me.

There is a core technique in Shinto Muso Ryu called hiko otoshi uchi.  It involves striking your partner’s sword so it is swept down, around and behind them, pulling them slightly off balance for an instant.  At least, that’s what happens if you do it right.  I can’t count the number of times I have done hiki otoshi uchi expecting to flow into the opening left by the missing sword, only to find the sword had somehow gotten to a spot where it was about to run up my nose!  There is nothing in kata practice that says your partner has to let you get away with weak technique.  If your partner is allowing you to use weak technique, he is doing it wrong.  Kata is the perfect place to find out you are doing something wrong.

In addition, kata practice is perfect for the endless “what if” questions students ask.  If a student asks “What if I do this?” or “what if uchi is stronger/bigger/dumber/etc?” kata provides a great, controlled environment for students to explore these options.  Of course, if they ask about something completely different, it’s always reasonable to say “We’re working on this kata right now.  What you’re asking is completely different.  We’ll get to a kata that deals with that another time.”  

There are lots of moments in the kata of the systems I study where it’s quite reasonable to wonder why uchi or shitachi doesn’t do something different.  I’ve asked these questions, and usually Sensei doesn’t bother explaining.  He just says “Ok, do it.”  We do the kata with my variation, and I discover a sword in my ribs, a fist in my nose, the floor smacking me between the shoulder blades or some other equally unpleasant result.  Then Sensei will go on to show me what he did.  Later, I usually grab a fellow student and we play with it until we can make Sensei’s response work for us too.  

Koryu bugei kata are a framework for learning that people have been working with, tweaking and testing for hundreds of years.  They can certainly stand the pressure of students pushing and pulling on them to see if they are sturdy.  If students have questions, they should be playing with and testing the kata.  They will find the answers.  I know I’ve seen my teachers play with kata and technique when someone asks a really interesting question.  

Then of course there is the recurring problem of beginners mixing kata and doing something other than what is in the kata.  Seniors don’t seem to have any problem adjusting to these impromptu changes to the kata.  It happens quite frequently.  It even happens that senior people will do something other than the kata from time to time, and if their partner can’t respond, they may get hurt.  

The most amusing complaint about kata from many people is that they are an old-fashioned, out-of-day training method.  Yet the same people will talk endlessly about their great training drills. What’s funny about modern sports stylists criticizing kata training is that the bulk of their training is kata style training, they just don’t realize it because they call it by different names.  Guess what the word for “training drill” is in Japanese?  “Kata.”  Look at the “kata” in these training drill videos.  Or in this one below:

Those nice, controlled practice of a prescribed attack against a specific defense are kata.  Depending on the skill of the people involved, the practice will be faster or slower.  Just like in martial arts kata.  People in modern martial arts are constantly refining their training drills to improve their training.  Koryu martial artists have been refining their kata for centuries.  It’s no surprise they’ve got them down to a solid set.

Kata are teaching and learning tools.  There is room in them for playing with speed, timing, distance, and even different responses. If all you do is numbly repeat a set pattern at the same speed, rhythm and intensity, you aren’t doing kata training.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tough Teacher

Many people think of artists and musicians as somehow being weaker.  Today I read an article reminded me of that and of a post I wrote a while back about the importance of walking and breathing

This vocal teacher is at least as tough as anyone I have met.  And I'm not sure I could survive her class.  Not with instructions like "Sing as though you are being stabbed in the back."  I'm sure it would improve my budo though.

The full article is "Vocal Instructor Commands "Enough-Sing!""

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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

One Thing At A Time

A while back I wrote that you should never practice anything more than once.  There is a corollary to this, that you should never do more than one thing at a time.  We live in world that bombards us with stimuli and urges us to try to do everything, and do it all at the same time.  Society seems to frown on being quiet and focused.  Multitasking is praised and held up as some kind of ideal form of functioning, when the reality is that far different.  We are all likely to fall victim to it though.  It’s just too easy in modern society, when we can be talking on the phone, working on the computer, eating lunch and texting with our kids all that same time, and I’m as guilty of falling into this trap as anyone is.

The truth is though, we’re at our best when we do one thing at a time.  I was reminded of this while reading a very nice piece about giving things 100%.  One of the great things we work on in the dojo is just doing one thing at a time.  Trust me on this, if you try to do Judo randori and even think about anything else at the same time, you will quickly find yourself flying through the air and the floor leaping up to smack you between the shoulder blades.  You just can’t do more than one important thing at a time.

We work on developing this focus and our abilities every time we’re in the dojo, and hopefully we are applying this and developing it even more when we are not in the dojo.  In the dojo we are trying to learn very complex skills that require coordinating our entire bodies and getting all the parts working together.  The first part we have to train is our mind.  We have to learn to just be in the dojo doing the technique or kata that we are practicing.  We can’t be making a shopping list or planning dinner or figuring out tomorrow’s work schedule or deciding what to watch on TV tonight.  We have to in the dojo practicing.  

We want to let go of all the other things we could be doing, and do this one thing we have chosen to be doing.  Initially, the one thing we are focusing on my be how we walk, or how we hold our head or how we swing the sword.  Over time, with focus (!) we can integrate these things so holding our head in the appropriate position and how we walk become one thing.  Then we get better at swinging the sword so we are holding our head and bodies in good posture while walking and swinging the sword in one action that we are focusing on.  Or it is drawing our partner slightly off her base as we interpose our foot between her foot and its next targeted step while maintaining our own balance, posture and proper movement.

No matter how far I progress, if I try to do more than one thing at a time, even if it is just thinking about something other than my physical activity, my physical activity suffers.  In the dojo, this means I get thrown during Judo or hit with a stick during Jodo or whacked with a sword during kenjutsu.  I’m better at focusing and just doing one thing than I used to be, but I still have a long way to go until I’m satisfied.

The surprising thing is that the more we work on focusing on just doing one thing, the better we get at everything.  With practice our ability to focus and concentrate improves, and it gets easier to let distractions float by without giving them our attention.  As we get better at this, we get better at mastering whatever it is that we are actually doing.  The time in the dojo is concentrated focusing time, whether we are doing judo or kenjutsu or iaido or whatever.  As we get better at focusing that plugs into better training results.  We get closer to achieving the goal of flow, or mushin, where we are just there, doing what we are doing without overthinking it and without being bothered by outside thoughts.

I really recommend “The Art Of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin.  He does a phenomenal job of describing the real work that goes into getting to a state of mushin or flow.  In addition, he is a great story teller who is just plain enjoyable to read.  Getting to a state of flow or mushin is  not an easy process, but he does a nice job of showing how to get there.  If we try to do more than one thing at a time though, it’s an unattainable goal.  Multitasking just takes us down a road that leads further and further from the goal.

Don’t be lured into trying to multitask.  We know it’s a siren song that will wreck learning in the dojo and our ability to get things done outside the dojo.  Multitasking doesn’t work.  Just do one thing at a time, and then you can do it well.