Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Most Essential Principles In Budo: Structure

A question came up in a budo group I’m part of asking what the 3 most important concepts in budo are. It’s an interesting question. What ideas are most fundamental in the art you practice? These concepts undergird and direct your training. They direct the focus of your training and what sort of things you are practicing. People offered quite a few ideas, including:

Keep your body relaxed.
Always keep your center (or be centered).
Keep your elbows down, and close to your body
Always try to control the first move

Many of the ideas offered were specific to Aikido, which is the point of that group. My thoughts are more general and apply to any form of budo.  My list  is structure/stance, spacing and timing, in that order.  Each builds on where the previous concept is, and without effective use of the previous concept the next cannot be employed effectively.  All apply regardless of whether you are doing kung fu, judo, boxing, aikido, swords, staves or scary stuff like kusarigama. This my list, and I make no claim that it is definitive.  I offer it in the hope of sparking good conversation and consideration of the most important elements of practice and application.   I’d thought to do these all in one post, but it looks like it’s I’m going to have to give each one it’s own post.  

My first principle is structure/stance.  Without a solid, connected, supported structure you can’t accomplish anything.  This why I’m only partly joking when I say that the only thing I really teach is how to walk and how to breath.  Good structure is what allows the fastest, most effective, stable and strong movement.  If you are slouching and rolling your shoulders, tipping your head at the ground and not supporting yourself, you can’t breathe deeply or efficiently.  Slouching and poor posture compress the torso so it cannot hold as much air.  You will get tired more quickly just because you can’t get enough oxygen into your body fast enough.  

Slouching also robs the body of it’s natural structural integrity.  If you slouch, you’re off balance already.  Judo folks stand or fall based on their balance, but this is true for anyone in any art.  If you’re not balanced, you’re not stable in at least one direction.  

slouch alexander technique.gif

In the picture above (from this site) the two diagrams on the right show what our structure looks like when we slouch.   Can you imagine trying to do any physical activity with that sort of compromised structure?

With good structure, loads and forces can easily be absorbed and handled, movement is quick, light and easy, and changes can be adapted to readily.  Without it we can’t carry or absorb loads or force, movement is difficult, slow and tiring, and it is difficult to adapt to changes in the situation.

I’ve been showing this to my sword and jo students for years with a simple exercise.  I let them hold a jo against my solar plexus whatever way they like holding the jo, and I can push the jo back into them and them across the room without any effort at all.  They can’t do a thing to slow me down and I can reach them with a weapon or my hands before they can do anything about it.  If the structure of the wrist is off it’s optimal angle even a little, it will collapse under pressure and be useless.  

Wrist structure Bad.JPG
With the structure of the wrist compromised like this (particularly clear in the left wrist) a push on the end of the jo will make the wrists collapse into the body and allow an attacker to easily drive in.

On the other hand, if the wrist is at the proper angle, I can stick a 140 kg goon on the other end of the stick and he can’t push into me, or even into someone half my size.  How can it be that just changing the angle of the wrist where you hold the stick can impact so much?  I’ll let the mechanical engineers and the physics boys explain the details, because I don’t have a deep enough background there to do it anything like accurate justice.

Wrist Structure good.JPG
With properly aligned wrists, you can support far more than your own weight pressing into the end of the jo, and push from the hips with more energy than the arms can generate.

This split between weak structural configurations and strong ones carries over to every joint in the body, and to the way the body as whole is arranged.  If the wrist structure is good, but another joint such as the hip, knee or ankle is not aligned properly, the whole body structure is still weak and will collapse even if pressured only slightly.  

Structure gives the body the ability to move, and when that structure is taken away, there isn’t much anyone can do.  Over the weekend Howard Popkin impressed that upon me anew.  He can, by simply moving around the force and structure of the body, completely undermine the power of people bigger and stronger than I am, and throw them casually, without so much as taking a deep breath.  He simply maintained his structure and went around the lines of strength in mine.  

You can push all you want on someone who keeps their structure aligned so your force is directed into the floor.  It takes very little strength to maintain your structure under this kind of attack.  The attacker’s force actually pushes your body to maintain good structure without the addition of much energy on your part.  If you decide to push back, it’s actually easy to do because your structure is already supporting and negating their power.  When you push back, they fly.

It’s interesting that according to Kano Jigoro, founder of Kodokan Judo, one of the two great secrets of great Judo is kuzushi 崩し.  Kuzushi comes from a verb in Japanese that means tearing down, knocking down, breaking things into smaller parts.  Sometimes it implies undermining and destroying a foundation.  This is one of the great realizations of Kano’s that he put into his Judo.  If you destroy the foundation of someone’s structure, take them off their foundation and remove the support from their structure, they become incredibly weak and a small woman can throw a large man.  

This is true for whatever art you are practicing, whether it is armed or unarmed, jujutsu, karate, sword or chain, staff or rope.  You maintain your posture and then you destroy your opponents.

The first step in mastering budo is learning to properly maintain your own structure.   If you can’t do that, nothing else is possible.  Once you’ve got that you have a powerful base to work from.  Then you learn to manipulate and undermine your opponents structure.  Once you destroy the integrity of their structure, throws and joint locks are easy.  The key is that destroying the integrity of someone’s structure doesn’t involve harming them.  It just means making them slump or slouch or come away from a balanced stance.  Once you’ve done that, the actual technique isn’t terribly important because without a solid, balanced structure, it’s nearly impossible to defend oneself, even from a very poor attack.

Judoka spend an immense amount of time practicing off-balancing techniques to accomplish this.  Aikido folks work on movements to draw someone out of good physical alignment.  Daito Ryu folks work on doing it with the smallest movements possible.  It all comes down to the same thing.  Destroy the ability of the body’s structure to support it, and the person can’t resist anything.

There are the two sides of structure in budo.  Create and maintain a solid, efficient, mobile structure in yourself while undermining your opponents structure and making it unable to support him and his movements.  Mastery of structure is absolutely to everything we do in budo.  We can’t begin to move and breath properly until we learn to do so with good structure.   We can’t defend against anything without good structure.  Effective attacks are impossible with an unstable structure.  

Good structure is at the root of all good budo, whether it is a striking art, a grappling art, or a weapons art.  Without good structure, you have nothing.  That’s why it’s the first of my essential principles of budo.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Language and Budo

A number of people sent me comments about a recent post.  They were telling me there is no reason to learn the Japanese or Chinese etiquette and terminology of their Japanese or Chinese martial art because they don’t live in Japan or China.  Let me address the idea of not learning the traitional terminology of your art.

The language used  is important if you are going to train with people beyond your immediate group. French is the language of Ballet.  A ballet dancer can go anywhere in the world and dance with others and they can communicate clearly and without giving offense because they share a common vocabulary of French terms that are recognized as the language of ballet.  The same is true for basketball.  It originated in the US and has spread around the world.  The common terms, the vocabulary of basketball, are English.  If you fence, you learn the vocabulary of fencing.  

All this is true for budo as well.  I have trained on three continents in many countries with people who speak all sorts of different languages.  We could train safely and effectively because we all shared the common vocabulary of budo.  The first time I discovered this was in the US with a Japanese guest to the dojo. He didn't speak English, but I knew the vocabulary of Judo and we communicated just fine.  When I moved to Japan, I still didn't speak Japanese yet, but I was perfectly comfortable in the dojo there because again, I already knew the common vocabulary of budo.

Budo terminology is a technical jargon and it serves much the same purpose as technical jargon on a sailing ship (to use another seemingly antiquated technology and skill for comparison).  On a sailing ship, there are no ropes. During a big storm or other emergency, there isn't time to explain which rope is needed, so there are technical terms that make that clear.  A piece of rope that doesn’t have a specific use yet is a line.  If it’s used to tie off a particular part of the boat, then it becomes a bow line or stern line or some other specific sort of line.  The lines that raise and lower the sails are not lines.  They are halyards. The lines that control the angle of the sails when they are up are called sheets.  On a sailboat there are no ropes, so don’t bother asking for one.  The same goes for right and left.  Never used.  Everything is either starboard (the right side of the boat when on the boat and ffacing the towards the bow) or port (the left side of the boat when facing the bow.).  Don’t even bother asking about right and left.  No one will use the terms. 

Why not?  Aren’t right and left perfectly good and useful for every direction that needs to be given.  Actually, no, they aren’t.  If someone on a boat needs a rope pulled in now, they don’t have time to explain that it’s the one on their right side, not your right side but their right side, and it’s the one that controls the angle of forward sail.  Nope, they have time to say “Pull in the starboard jib sheet!”   Absolutely no confusion there.

Budo terminology does the same thing, and it does it effectively across borders and languages.  I can go anywhere in the world, and say “Uchimata” and judo people will know exactly which technique I’m talking about.  The same is true in kenjutsu and iai if I say “kirioroshi” or “monouchi.” If something dangerous is happening, I can yell "Yame!" in any Judo dojo in the world and expect that everyone will understand, no matter what languages they may speak.  Everyone knows what I’m talking about immediately.  There’s no need to explain.  The terminology is common across borders, cultures and languages if you’re doing Japanese budo.

That’s the point of technical jargon.  It makes things clear without a lot of explaining.  This particular point is not a cultural issue.  It’s a communication issue.  If you are doing a Japanese martial art, you need to learn the Japanese terminology so you can communicate with other practitioners. It’s the lingua franca of the art wherever you are.  If you study a Chinese art, learning the Chinese terminology is essential for effective communication.  If you don’t know the standard terminology of your art, you won’t be able to understand books about your art because they will be using the terminology.  You won’t be able to have a discussion on a bulletin board or in the comments section of a blog about your art because you won’t know what people are talking about.

Having a common vocabulary is critical to communicating and learning about your art.  Without it you are isolated from the rest of the practitioners in the world who share a common vocabulary.  I'm not saying you have to learn a foreign language, but you do need to learn the shared vocabulary of your art if you are at all serious about it.

Insisting on your local language is fine if you plan to never train with anyone outside your immediate circle.  If you do plan to ever travel beyond your hometown, or to receive a guest there, or read a book about your art, you need to learn the vocabulary of the art you are practicing.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Etiquette: Form and Sincerity In Budo

For a lot of people outside Japan, Japanese reishiki  or etiquette seems quite heavy, stylized and empty. There is so much of it in Japanese life that people who live in a low etiquette society such as the US assume that it must be just empty motions that don’t do much other than to make the people at the  top feel feel good about being at the top. Japanese groups appear to move in scripted scenes that don’t leave any room for human feeling and individuality.

This isn’t quite true, but it does take a little while to get familiar enough with how things are done to be able to read what is being done and said through the language of etiquette. Traditionally in Japan, and by this I mean during the Tokugawa Period (roughly 1600 - 1868), much of life was strictly controlled and people worked very hard to make sure they behaved within well known and carefully ordered norms. Getting your etiquette right was critical. It could quite literally be a matter of life and death.

Lord Asano was being instructed in proper Edo court etiquette when he lost his temper, drew a dagger and attacked the instructor, Yoshinaka Kira, setting in motion Asano’s sentence to commit seppuku and his retainers on the path of vengeance that led to Asano’s death and their immortalization in the tale of the 47 Ronin.  Getting the etiquette right was that important. One version of the events holds that it was because Asano felt he was not being properly instructed that he became angry. Whether this is true or not, the fact that it was plausible enough for people to accept it as motivation shows how critical etiquette was.

Thankfully, people in Japan don’t place quite as much importance on etiquette as they did in Asano and Yoshinaka’s time, but it is still extremely important, and people watch how others practice their etiquette quite carefully. Now it is about expressing respect, giving courtesy and honoring people, places and practices.

In the dojo the formal etiquette serves several purposes beyond just the social. It provides structure, a clear understanding of proper behavior, a means of expressing respect and appreciation, and a way of maintaining a safe training environment, among others. While there can be quite a bit of variation in etiquette between various martial arts, and even between dojo that practice the same art, it’s not that difficult to understand the basics. Etiquette is really about expressing respect for people and ideas.  

We take off our shoes and bow when we enter the dojo.  This shows respect for the art that is practiced in the dojo and maintains the basic function of keeping the floor clean and minimizing the amount of time required to clean it.  The dojo is a specially designated space for practicing arts that teach horrific combat skills while also refining students minds and bodies. The bow shouldn’t be tossed off like it’s a bothersome requirement.  It’s a chance to show that you appreciate the art, the person who is teaching it to you, and your fellow travellers on the path that enable  your learning by offering themselves as training partners, as well as your respect for the seriousness of what you are learning. These are certainly things worth a second or two to express your appreciation for. Watch people who regularly just toss off a head bob and come barrelling in without a thought for what they are doing.  Do they treat their partners in the same thoughtless manner?

The bows that open and close keiko, the training itself, are similar.  They are chances to express your appreciation for what the founder of the art you do, and all the teachers down to your own, are sharing with you. You’re not just going through a moldy old Japanese ceremony. That bow is a chance for you to think briefly about what practicing the art means for you and to express it through your action. If someone is watching, they should be able to tell that you care about what you are doing. You shouldn’t look like you are only doing it because you have to do it before you’re allowed to train.

Find Martial Arts Equipmet from martial artists for martial artists

The other big piece of etiquette that is common across all Japanese arts is bowing to your teacher and training partners. I’ll be honest, it’s a lot easier not being Japanese in a dojo in Japan. For the Japanese bowing can be a carefully calibrated activity. How deeply they bow is dependent upon what their social status is relative to the person they are bowing to. This can get complicated fast, but the basics are you bow deeper the lower your status is compared to the person you are bowing to. So you bow relatively deeply for your teacher, deeply for her teacher, and very deeply for the head of your art In Japan people pay close attention to this, and many businesses will give new employees classes to be sure they are doing it right and won’t offend any customers.  

Here’s a nice video of ladies in kimono demonstrating a variety of different bows that would be used when greeting people of varying social status, and doing so perfectly.

Not being Japanese or in Japan, we don’t have to worry about getting just the right angle and depth to our bow to express the precise degree of relative social rank. We should still bow with sincerity though. We can take the tenth of a second required to make it more than just a motion we go through and turn the bow into an expression of how much we appreciate what we are learning from our teacher. If we are bowing to a training partner, it’s a chance to show our thanks that they will let us train using their body. It is all too common for people to forget that our training partners are making a gift of their bodies. They are trusting us to train using their body and to not damage them while we are learning. That’s a huge gift and deserves a sincere expression of respect. Don’t make the bow perfunctory.

These are the major points of etiquette in all the budo dojo I’ve trained in. We bow when we enter the dojo. We bow at the beginning of practice and again at the end.  We bow to each person we practice with. Different arts will have a little more than this, but I can’t imagine any Japanese budo that will have less.

Many iaido systems include a bow to the sword at the beginning and end of training.  Considering that a genuine shinken is an extremely expensive work of art comprising the efforts of several master artisans, and that it should outlast any individual user by a thousand years or more, it seems appropriate to express respect and gratitude to the makers and to the instrument they created that we have the opportunity to train with for a short while. Some aikido dojo make a point of bowing to their bokuto and jo when they take them out and put them away. Many koryu systems have special bows for beginning and ending kata practice that show respect for the opponent and partner, but also a complete focus on them as a threat.

There are lots of variations on the basic theme of expressing respect and courtesy but the basic format of bowing into the dojo, bowing at the beginning and ending of practice, and bowing to your training partners never seems to vary. If you do this with clear and sincere intention to show respect and honor, and you sincerely strive to be courteous, I have found that people tend to overlook honest mistakes. If you are sincerely trying to be polite and follow the local etiquette, regardless of how new and different it may be, people will appreciate the sincerity and help you get the details right the next time.
It’s very easy to see when someone is not sincere about the etiquette, and people will treat you with the respect that you express in your etiquette. If showing respect in your etiquette is to much of bother for you, and you insist on slouching through it, people will take this as sign of your respect for them and what they do, and treat you accordingly.

First and always, dojo etiquette should be sincere. The formal etiquette serves serves many purposes beyond providing a way for people to show respect for each other but it is always about showing respect and appreciation. This is true even for those incredible, aggressive bows the koryu folks do. If you don’t show respect when you bow in with them, they are likely to let you know how they feel about being disrespected, and it won’t be a comfortable experience.

I only get to bow to my teacher a few times a year now, because I live 6000 miles away from him.  When I do get to spend time with him, I want everything I do to express my respect for him as a teacher, my appreciation for what he has taught me, and my love of him as a person.  There is no room for stiff, empty form with all that within my heart. Kiyama Sensei will be 90 years old this year, and I know that each visit could well be the last chance I will have to express these things to him. With all that feeling driving my etiquette there is nothing stiff or empty in the etiquette between us. Instead every bow and interaction is filled with warmth and appreciation.  I use all my actions to show my appreciation and respect.

Etiquette and reishiki isn’t about putting teachers on pedestals or for controlling students.  It’s about showing respect for the people you are learning from, the partners who are helping you to learn, and the art you are learning. There is nothing there that isn’t worth showing sincere respect for.  If you don’t sincerely respect your teacher, the people you are training with and the art you are practicing, you shouldn’t be there.  Budo etiquette is about showing everyone how much we respect, appreciate and honor what we are doing and those we are doing it with.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Sensei, Kyoshi, Hanshi, Shihan: Budo titles and how to use them, or rather, how not to use them

You see and hear a lot of different titles in Japnaese martial arts.  Unfortunately, a lot of people have little or no idea how these titles and honorifics are actually used. I’ve seen people addressed as “Smith Sensei,”  “Bob Sensei,”  “Sensei Smith,” and “Sensei Bob.”  I’ve also seen people insist on being address as “Hanshi,” “Shihan,” “Soke,” “Shidoshi” and “Shidoin.”  In Japanese budo culture, only one of these is correct.

Being introduced as Sensei is fine. Introducing yourself with a title sounds either ignorant of Japanese usage or extremely arrogant, as if you are giving yourself some sort of title. If you are introducing yourself, it's just "Peter desu" or "Lowry desu" Anything more is arrogant or foolish. Even the very senior shihan of my acquaintance just introduce themselves with their names. Their business cards will have their ranks and certificates, but that's all, no honorifics. Those are  are something other people use to talk about you, not something you use for yourself.  Certificate titles like “shihan” or “shidoin” aren’t forms of address either.

“Sensei” isn’t a title.  It’s an honorific like “Mr.” or “Mrs.”  In English it would be a little strange to introduce yourself by saying “I’m Mr. Boylan”.  It’s even stranger in Japanese where the honorific a person uses to address you depends on your age, position relative to the person addressing you, the particular situation and your relationship with them.  I have been addressed as everything from “kun” (a diminutive used to show that I’m a lot lower status than the speaker), to “san” (the general honorific used for people of relatively equal status), to “sama” (shows great respect and implies high social status).

Sensei is mildly honorific. It means teacher, and everyone who teaches gets called sensei, regardless of whether you are teaching biology or swimming or kenjutsu or skateboarding. The 80 year-old nobel prize winning physics professor and the 16 year old skateboard teacher are both sensei. As is, I should add, any doctor and any politician. Do you really think being lumped in the same category as politicians is all that wonderful?

Many people are fond of trying to find deep meaning in the characters used to write Japanese words.  I don't get too excited over how words are written in kanji. The writing was decided a thousand years ago or more, and the actual day-to-day usage has shifted since then. Much more important is how the word is actually used in Japan now than how someone decided to write it a millennium or more ago.

if you teach English in Japan "Eigo no sensei" isn't too bad a way to describe yourself. It's a job description. However, "Eigo no kyoshi" would be more in keeping with standard Japanese usage.  “Sensei” is a title used to address people.  “Kyoshi” is a title used to describe a position, like “plumber” or “teacher” in English.  Hanshi, shihan, shidoshi and shidoin are also titles to describe a position or certification.  These are not terms ever used to address someone directly.  Using them in conversation would be like walking around a university campus and addressing the instructors by their official university titles.  “Hello Professor Smith.”  “Good afternoon Assistant Professor Nakamura.”  “Good evening Adjunct Instructor Rosen.”  It’s sounds quite strange.

Another note, you don't generally say something like "I am x's sensei." You'd say "X is my student" It's one of those cultural nuances.

I can't think of anyone who puts "sensei" on their business cards, and without trying to sound pompous, I've got quite a few business cards from 8th dans, various hanshi and shihan (If you hang out in budo circles in Japan for any length of time you'll accumulate a few. It's just a normal part of the social interactions. It doesn't suggest that you actually know anyone or have any significance yourself). If you have an organizationally awarded title such as kyoshi, hanshi or shihan, you would put that title on your business card. It's like putting Ph.D. on your card. It's a title that an organization has awarded you. You aren't claiming that anyone should use it in addressing you. Usually it's added along with a listing of dan rank, such as "Nanadan, Kyoshi" or "Hachidan, Hanshi". That sort of thing. I've never seen "sensei" on a card though.

This how these honorifics and titles are used in conversation.  “Sensei” is an honorific like Mr. or Mrs., but since it’s Japanese and we’re doing Japanese arts, it has to go AFTER the person’s name.  Please show a little awareness on this and don’t tell me “This is America.”  I know it’s America, but we’re practicing Japanese arts, so get the usage right for the art you’re praticing.  If you’re doing boxing or wrestling, whatever is standard in those activities is appropriate for those activities.  If you’re doing fencing or savate, you use the forms appropriate for them.
Using honorifics and titles incorrectly is a red flag.  If someone is claiming rank or claiming to teach Japanese budo and they aren’t getting simple things like proper use of honorifics and titles right, this is a big warning sign.  It doesn’t take much to learn how these things should be used.  If someone is using them incorrectly, it suggests to me that they really don’t have any experience in Japanese budo.  

So please, show that you know as much about the etiquette of the arts as you do about the techniques, and use the titles and honorific forms of address properly.