Monday, August 12, 2013

Is Martial Arts Training For Self-defense Really A Good Idea?

It has occurred to me that practicing martial arts for self-defense is not that sensible an idea.  On the surface, it makes a lot of sense.  I mean, train in the martial arts and you learn great skills for fighting and you can protect yourself if you are attacked.  And yes, I have read the anecdotes of people who have used martial arts for self-defense.  In addition, I’ve been training in various martial arts for over 25 years, during which time I have touted the arts I train in as wonderful forms of self-defense.

Lately though, I’ve been reconsidering the equation.  I can use martial arts to defend myself if I am ever attacked.  This may help me avoid injury and losing personal property.  These are both laudable things.  The odds of my ever being in a situation where I will need these skills however is small.  It is even smaller if I take very sound and excellent advice of Marc MacYoung at No Nonsense Self Defense and simply avoid areas where violence is likely.  Since the vast majority of violent crime happens in very concentrated areas this shouldn’t be difficult.  

Basically, the odds of being injured and/or losing property in an attack are really small if I avoid dangerous areas.  OK, but I still think self-defense training might be a good idea.

Let’s see, martial arts classes run anywhere from $50 to $150 per month.  That’s $600 to $1800 a year in most cases.  Since, in my experience, you need to practice techniques regularly for them to be effective when you need them, basically you are going to be paying this as long as you want your skills to be effective.  So over 10 years you will pay $6,000 to $18,000 just for the training.  That doesn’t include the cost of any uniforms and equipment you might need.  If you go on for 20 years you’re at $12,000 to $36,000.  Now you are way over what you can expect to lose in some sort of robbery of your person.  I know never carry anything close to that in cash and valuables.  About the only way you could steal anything close to that much from me is to take my car, and that’s insured, so fighting for it would be a stupid risk..  Besides, in 2002 the rate of carjackings in the US was 2.1 per 10,000 people.  That’s 0.02% chance of being carjacked.  Add to that that carjackings are most common in particular, known and generally lousy neighborhoods where I don’t go and the odds get even less likely.

Ok, so maybe martial arts training isn’t a cost effective way to protect my property.  What about protecting myself?

I can guarantee one thing that will happen if you practice martial arts.  You’re going to get injured.  It will happen.  It’s the nature of what you’re doing.  Just like football, in martial arts practice people bang into each other and the ground, so from time to time people get hurt.  It’s going to happen, and just like in football, it’s a known and accepted part of what goes on.  Every person, EVERY PERSON, I know who has trained martial arts such as Judo, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Jujutsu, Hapkido or any other vigorous, useful martial art, has been injured.  The longer we train, the more injuries we accumulate.  In my more than 25 years in Judo I have broken a collar bone, cracked several ribs, sprained my ankles a few times, hyperextended my elbow, torn my ACL completely, and accumulated more bumps, bruises, strained  and pulled muscles, torqued joints and other assorted injuries than can possibly be remembered.  This list, or something like it, some with worse injuries, some not quite so severe, can be rattled off by anyone who practices a martial art for any length of time.  If you insist on a practicing an activity that has lots of hard contact you will be injured.  Not a question of if, just when.

So wait a minute.  If I study martial arts for self-defense, but I keep getting injured studying martial arts, have I really gained anything?  Lets see.  Someday I might be violently attacked and injured. OK. That’s bad. If I train in martial arts, I am certain to be injured repeatedly.  Um, let me think about that.  I might be a victim of a violent crime someday, but if I train in martial arts to defend myself I am certain to be injured repeatedly as long as I continue to train.

Somehow this doesn’t make training in martial arts seem very sensible.  There is a small chance I will be a victim of crime at some point in my lifetime.  During such a crime I could lose personal property and may be seriously injured or even killed.  If I train in martial arts, the cost will be tens of thousands of dollars over my lifetime (far more than could ever be stolen from me by anyone other than a banker or a hacker), and I am guaranteed to get injured over and over.

Dang.  It’s a good thing I don’t do this stuff for self-defense.  The cost-to-benefit ratio for training in the martial arts for self-defense is so bad I’d have to quit.  Fortunately I train in the martial arts because I love the training and the arts for what the teach about all sorts of things that have little to do with self-defense.

I didn’t write this to knock martial arts for self-defense.  I believe they can have immense value, but this value is not easily quantifiable in dollars and cents.  How do you quantify the feeling of security and confidence that training can impart?  That’s a tough one, especially when it is so different for everyone.  

I do know that with a little discretion about where you go, what you do and how you behave, most men don’t really need self-defense training.  Stay away from places known for fights and violence, and your odds of needing to defend yourself go way down.  Detroit is known as an incredibly dangerous place, but even there most of the violence is concentrated in a few really awful neighborhoods.  I love going to Detroit for shows and food and cultural activities, but I know enough to avoid areas of the city where violence is not uncommon.  This strategy works great for men.
Women have a whole different paradigm to deal with.  Women have to deal with men, and the do so from a position of being smaller and weaker.  The statistics for violence against women are much higher than those for men.  In one subset, 5 times as high.  For women, martial arts training can be exceptionally valuable.  Not that there is any particular style of system, but that they learn that it’s ok to fight, they should fight, and that they can do so effectively.  Any reasonable martial arts system can do these things, and the effect on their lives can be far wider than just knowing how to fight back if assaulted.   it can translate into being treated with greater respect everywhere in their life, because they don’t accept intimidation from anyone.  That alone might be worth the monetary and physical costs of training.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Never Practice Anything More Than Once

I saw someone comment that :

“my Sa Bom Nim says, "You can't learn something until you are ready to learn it." That's why repetition is so important in the martial arts, because you never know when that "learning moment" will arrive. Doing that technique thousands of times was what made you ready to learn the new setup. “

I used to do thousands of repetitions of individual techniques and movements.  I thought it was essential to mastering the techniques.  I would set my mind on autopilot and do the same technique over and over, thinking I was building speed and consistency.

I can’t say about speed for sure, but I can speak to the consistency part of that.  I was building consistency.  I was teaching myself to always do the technique a the same level of skill.  I wasn’t improving myself, I was nailing my skills to the ground where I was at.  My father is a music teacher, and he has always said “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.” However you practice something is how you will do it.  A thousand repetitions of a technique done one way, make it a thousand times harder to do it another way.  You will always do it the way you practice it.  Any errors in the technique you are repeating will be reinforced and that much tougher to correct.

One of the few things I know about my technique is that it’s not perfect.  I don’t want to be doing things tomorrow the way I am doing them today.  I want to be doing them better.   So I don’t do lots of repetitions of my techniques any more.  I try to do every technique one time only.

This is a pretty radical sounding statement for someone who trains classical Japanese martial arts, with a teaching methodology built upon the continued practice of a small set of techniques and kata.  It’s true though.

Each each time I do a technique or kata it is a unique event, never to be repeated.  Now one of my goals is for my mind to never go on autopilot.  I try to always be fully present when I practice.  I want to be completely mindful of what I am doing.  By being aware of what I’m doing with each cut and in each kata that I do, I can make every cut and every kata unique.  I can sense that I am using my hips one way or another, how I’m gripping the sword, what sort of rhythm I’m moving with, how I’m breathing.

If my practice of the kata is a unique event where the combination of all these factors and many more come together to create a single, unique, expression of the kata, then with this awareness of the kata, I can change elements of my action to make my next expression of the kata both unique and, hopefully, better.   To do this though, I have to be mindful.  

The best practice is mindful, aware and always looking for ways to improve what you are doing.  SImple repetition means that you are just programing yourself to do the kata at whatever level you’re currently at.  It ingrains your current mistakes into your body and makes them permanent.  Mindful practice never does the same kata twice.  Mindful practice seeks to improve with every action.  If I’m not really aware of what I’m doing, I can’t change it.  To change things, we have to be aware.  When you do a kata, be aware of your hands, your feet, you tanden, your hips, the location of your head, the rhythm of your breath.  All of these are important. If you are aware, you can experiment with how you use all these elements of your body to improve the kata.  And even if a particular mix of elements isn’t an improvement, you’ll be learning.  You’ll know about another combination that you want to avoid.

I try never to do the same kata twice.  If I’m repeating the kata, I’m stagnating.  It’s only when I mindfully do new things that I can really improve.

(How I balance this with mushin is fodder for another essay)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Budo Expectations and Realities: Know what you don't know.

Budo.  We all train different arts.  We all have expectations and ideas about what our arts teach us.  It’s easy for us to imagine that the techniques we study are applicable anywhere, and that if we practice diligently, we can use our skills against anything.  We love to believe that what we study is the greatest art in the world.  We tell ourselves how strong the techniques we study are, how effective they are, and how they will beat everything else.  It doesn’t matter if the art is Judo or Hapkido or Brazilian Jujutsu or Savate or Escrima or whatever.  We like to believe that what we study is the absolute best.

I’ve been doing this martial arts stuff long enough that I’ve learned that “best” is a highly relative concept.   A good friend, when asked if the martial art he teaches is the best martial art, replies “No, thermonuclear warfare is the best martial art.”   He makes a number of good points with that answer.  For a martial art to be “best” what does it have to do?  If you’re going to war, almost everything is better than a hand-to-(probably empty) hand martial art.

Every martial art teaches different things with a different focus.  I train in a sword art that teaches a particular way to use a sword, one that helps to maximize the range of the sword.  The sword is the core of this art.  A friend of mine trains in a different art, one that uses a different set of body mechanics to wield the sword. The way his art does it give a significantly smaller reach with the same length sword.  However, it maximizes the learning and usefulness of the core of his art, which is jujutsu.  The principles that guide the body mechanics are the same for his jujutsu and his sword work.  This makes the learning much more effective.  He doesn’t have to learn one way to move while unarmed, and a different way to move while armed, and he doesn’t risk mixing movement systems under stress.  The sword movement may not be optimal for the sword, but the movement is optimal for teaching  effective movement and action across a range of applications.  Which is “best”  then?

I have trained in judo for a long time and studied the knife defenses and counter attacks in the Kime No Kata and the Kodokan Goshin Jutsu .  I thought these were really great.  Then I started studying how to use weapons, and I became much less impressed with my skills against weapons.  I discovered there were all sorts of things about weapons that are critical if you want to be effective against them.  The first being, understand how something is really used.  When I trained techniques for use against weapons in Judo, I was training with other judoka, not with people who were skilled with the weapons in question.

When I started training in weapons arts with people who were skilled with the weapons, my understanding of the range and speed that particular weapons function at changed dramatically.  What I had been doing before turned out to have been little more than us imagining how a knife or stick or sword was used and then practicing against what we imagined.  When I started working with people who knew how to use those weapons, I discovered that their effective ranges were lots longer than I had imagined, and they were much faster than I had thought.  I had to throw out pretty much everything I had practiced and start over using actual knowledge upon which to build my training.  That’s pretty humbling.  I thought I was reasonably good, and I had to admit that I was worse off than beginner, because I had learned a lot of things that were nothing less than completely wrong.

I’m guessing that this is a not uncommon issue, especially in gendai (modern) martial arts.  Lots of modern arts teach defenses against a host of weapons, without really teaching how those weapons are actually used, so even when people do paired practice, the lessons are not effective.  This is what happened to me in Judo.  In koryu (classical, pre 1868) budo, the systems only train with weapons that they teach the use of, and the person doing the attacking is always the senior.  This takes care of two issues.  They don’t develop illusions about being able to handle weapons outside of those they teach, and their study is always directed by someone who really knows the weapons to be trained.

There used to be an incredible seminar held every year in Guelph, Ontario.  Kim Taylor would gather senior teachers from all sorts of koryu arts.  Each would teach a 2 hour introductory class about their art, and then spend the rest of the weekend learning side-by-side with you in other teachers’ classes.  It was a rare treat and a chance to get a taste of how all sorts of arts and weapons are used, from jujutsu stuff to swords to 10 foot spears.  The teachers all knew their stuff, and quickly knocked any illusions we had about how things worked out of our heads.  I vividly remember a high ranking Aikidoka saying after a sword class “I thought I knew swordwork.”  He was admitting to himself that what he had studied in the Aikido dojo about swords was very incomplete.  He certainly wasn’t the only person to walk out of one of those classes with the shards of previously held conceptions tinkling at the base of his mind.  I had quite a few ideas rendered into old junk in a jujutsu class with Karl Friday of Kashima Shinryu.  I just wish we’d been practicing on mats instead of in a dance studio.

I’ve discovered training with people who really know the weapons is critical.  It is possible to work out effective ways to deal with weapons you aren’t expert with, but I really don’t want to experience all the pain that goes with that sort of learning curve, and I can’t recommend it to anyone else because usually the only way to find out you’re wrong is the really hard way..  Working with someone who knows how to use a weapon properly means you never have a chance to develop inappropriate habits and techniques.  A teacher or partner who knows the weapon will disabuse you of any bad ideas as soon as they see them.  

I’m not saying don’t try anything new.  Just do it smart.  Work with someone who really knows the subject, so you don’t make mistakes that can have unpleasant consequences.  Train with your eyes open and try to realize the real limits of what you know. Kim Taylor’s seminars were an incredible experience because they were a chance to dive into our ignorance and find out just how small our islands of knowledge really are.

What is that other guy doing?

There are lots of different budo styles, and they each have their own way of doing things that is internally consistent.  Rennis Buchner, a fine budoka and excellent budo historian, writes about problem of assuming that you understand what another person or style does just from watching a little bit.  Rennis doesn't write often, but when he does, it's worth reading.  His essay is at

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Budo and Ego

All the classical “Do” 道, or Ways, of Japan strive to achieve a better understanding of the world and the self.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing tea ceremony, flower arranging, sword fighting, incense smelling (kodo 香道), calligraphy or any of the other common activities that have been organized into form Ways.  You study codified ways of doing things that have roots going back generations, and sometimes centuries.  The goal is not just master one esoteric art form, but through the focused study, master the self and gain a greater understanding of the Way of the universe.

As people practice and study and refine their art, they naturally move up within the art’s hierarchy.   This is the natural progression of beginner to senior student to junior teacher to senior teacher.  There is always the risk that a person can misunderstand the respect that they receive as their skills and status increase.  There are plenty of people who become recognized for the mastery of a particular skill, who someone conclude that because they are skilled and respected in one special field, they should be respected and lauded in every aspect of their lives.  Their egos seem to take over and they get upset when people don’t acknowledge their superiority and innate greatness.

This can happen with anything.  It’s a not uncommon human failing and it is found even in the Ways of Japan where one of the key things we are supposed to be mastering is our self.  To really advance in any of the Ways, whether martial art or one of the more peaceful Ways, we have to achieve a certain mastery over our self and the voices in our head.  All those stories of the serene tea master, or the calligraphy teacher who calmly looks at the paper for a few minutes and then with a sudden flourish creates a marvelous work of art, these all require that you master the voices in your head so you can concentrate well enough to be serene and peaceful and creative.  It’s true of martial arts as well.  If you can’t learn to quiet your mind, you’re never going to figure out how to get out of the way of that incoming sword cut or jo strike.  And trust me, when your mind wanders and you don’t get out of the way in time, it hurts.  Which brings on a different kind of mental focus.

We have to master parts of ourselves to master any of the arts or Ways.  In mastering a Way though, we don’t have to master one important part of ourselves.  We don’t have to master our ego.  It’s easy for the ego to grow even more quickly than our skills do.  It’s amazing how powerful a fertilizer for the ego a little praise and respect can be.

If a Way is to be more than simply mastering the base, physical skills of the art, then we have to do more than just learn to quiet our mind for the time it takes to perform the skill.  We have to apply the lessons broadly to our whole selves, and not let the mastery of one skill enhance our ego to the point that it prevents further growth.   This is a risk for anyone studying any skill.  In a Way, it is a sad thing, because it prevents a student from achieving everything that the Way can give.

For all this, few arts and Ways have the inherent hurdle of budo .  Budo practice actually makes the practitioner more powerful, which can feed the ego with the thrill of the power and the desire for more.  If acted upon and followed, the path of the ego is completely odds with the path of budo, but it is an easy path to start upon, and difficult one to abandon once you have started treading it.

The power taught in budo is real power in the most basic, literal sense.  A student learns raw, physical power over others.  This is a huge trap for some people.  The ability to physically dominate and intimidate the people around you is an alluring drug. In most modern societies, this power is even more seductive because it’s one we avoid socially and culturally we play down the realities of physical power.  We suppress discussion physical power within social dynamics because people aren’t supposed to use it.  We’re wired to react physical power even if it’s not supposed to be a dynamic of polite society.

Power dynamics are a part of most social interactions, and physical posturing is a part of it, even if people aren’t aware of it..  There are people who use aggressive posturing to influence and dominate the world around them.  This works on lots of people, but not on those who are unusually strong, or who have great confidence in their physical skills.  People who do budo don’t react the way untrained people do, and they can in fact become quite dominant because of their skills.  This is another ego trap.  It feels good when people defer to you and let you do things your way.  That’s fine if it’s for a good reasons, but if it’s just because of your martial skills, then it’s probably a bad thing.  Letting this sort of thing feed your ego, and using it to get your way, is another dangerous detour from the budo Way.

Intimidating people, power posturing, and even physically abusing people is an especially dangerous trap in the dojo, because we are supposed to be using and practicing our skills there, and senior students and teachers are expected to demonstrate superior skills.  The lure of power over others because you are physically capable of it can be subtle.  It is easy for senior practitioners to edge from demonstrating superior technique over the line to abusing juniors.  The throws can become unnecessarily hard and brutal.  Joint locks can be go from controlling to inflicting uncalled for pain to physically damaging.  Just because the senior can do it, and they like the feeling of being able to make the juniors react.  This is a subtle trap, because it can start out with simple things, like a throw that’s just a little harder than it needs to be, or a joint lock that is painful when it’s not necessary.  The senior likes how the junior reacts, and more throws become extra hard, and the joint locks get more painful.  From this point, things just get worse, as the seniors ego needs more and more signs of his power and dominance from those below him.

Juniors can unintentionally encourage this behavior by showing greater respect and deference to the person being abusive, because they see this as evidence of the person’s superior skill, rather than as evidence of abuse.  This just makes the ego trap even bigger.

Power is drug for the ego, and in the dojo there is the danger that people will reward you for abusing the physical power that you have.  Just because what you are studying has “Do” 道 in the name, doesn’t guarantee that you will become a better person.  There are pitfalls along the way, and the one labeled “Ego” is perhaps the largest and most dangerous.  This is because it can be so subtle that you don’t even realize you are falling in.  Worse, it feels good.  Having your ego stoked by the people around you feels wonderful, and can be quite addictive.  It feels good to receive compliments and praise, but if you start trying to improve because you want the praise or the power, rather than improving to discover more about the art, yourself and the Way, then you have left the Way and are plunging into the pitfall of ego.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Travel and Training

I’ve been traveling for work to areas where I don’t have access to dojo or gyms.  It can make training challenging.  I am training though.  The trickiest part is taking a sword with me when I fly.  I’ve got a nice, hard-side gun case for flying.  

I get stared at going through the airport by every security person in the place, but I’ve never had any problems.  I check the gun case and carefully explain that it contains no firearms, only fencing equipment.  Sometime I have to open the case and show the airline folks, but they take one look at the sword and get bored.  After the airline staff tag the case, I drop it off at the TSA inspection point.  I’ve got TSA approved locks on the case so the TSA can unlock and lock the case whenever they please.  In 15 years of traveling like this, I haven’t had any problems.

The trick is finding a good place to train when I get to my destination.   Weapons training is best done discreetly.  I really don’t want to make the local folks nervous and have them call the police about the crazy guy with the sword.  It would be great if there was a nice iai or jodo dojo near every place I have to travel to, but the world isn’t arranged that way.  At least in Japan I can usually find a public dojo to rent on an hourly basis even if there is nothing else around.  I’ve resorted to doing sword practice in my hotel room.

It’s an interesting exercise working out exactly what I can and cannot do in any given room.  I can’t practice everything anyway.  This results in the location determining what I’m going to practice instead of me having to think about it.  Fortunately, most hotel rooms are big enough that furniture can be rearranged to make room for sword swinging.  Sometimes the ceiling is even high enough to stand up and do tachiwaza.  That doesn’t happen too often though, so I usually end up doing waza and kata from seiza and tatehiza.  

Since I’m rehabilitating my knee, I need lots of work in seiza anyway.  I’m rebuilding the muscles, and they have a long way to go, so enforced seiza practice is a good thing.  A few weeks back I mentioned that I couldn’t get all the way down into seiza.  The results of all the work in the hotel since then has made the effort to drag my buki with me on a business trip more than worth the effort.  The need to make my knee bend far enough to get into seiza has driven a lot of my practice.  I also have to make my leg strong enough to get me out of seiza once I’m there.  At this point, my right leg is still only half the strength of my left leg, so working from seiza is challenging me.  I can’t rely on the strength of my legs to automatically hold me steady.  

Doing the first kata from the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Iai fulfills all of my requirements for rehabilitating my leg.   I have to get into and out of seiza once, and then I do a further body raise, lower and final raise.  It turns into a real workout for my legs very quickly, and that’s what I need.  Right now I’m working to recover strength and ability that I had prior to April 22.  It’s going to take a few more months, but I will get there.  I get to do kata from seiza until my leg just can’t get me up and down.

While I’m doing all of that I have plenty of time to consider all those other aspects of the kata.  It’s never empty repetition.  I’m not just sitting in a hotel room doing mindless reps.  Like any time I do kata, it is supposed to be the mindful execution of a kata that is unique every time I do it.  This makes it endlessly interesting because there is always something to learn or work on every time I do it.

Doing my training in a hotel adds to the number of things I have to consider. Training in a confined space means I really have to be aware of spacing and distancing in a way I don’t have to worry about in a nice, roomy dojo. It is improving my spacial sense.  Exactly how close will my sword tip be to that curtain at the end of my cut?  I won’t spear that bedspread when I do the next tsuki, will I?  

The best part of training in a hotel room is just that I get to train regularly even when I’m far from home.  In rural Georgia, koryu dojo just don’t exist, and I haven’t found any place that I can borrow.  So I move the furniture in my hotel room and do the best I can.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s how it’s done.

So even if you don’t have a perfect dojo to train in all the time, you can still get your training in.  Travel is no excuse.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Just train

Just train. A couple of things brought this in mind today as I sit in a conference room waiting for the big meeting to start.  One is how nice I’m feeling today after getting up a little early this morning to do iaido in my hotel room.  Training always feels so good that afterwards I am amazed that I ever skip a day.  Even when, like today, setting the alarm forward another hour and slipping back into the arms of Morpheus was so very tempting, the energetic and smooth, well calibrated way my body works after training is just so good that the extra sleep really doesn’t compare.

Just train.  Training makes me feel good throughout the day.  My body and mind are forced to integrate and work together efficiently and effectively by the training, and the effect lasts throughout the day.  As much as I pontificate about how we can change ourselves and the long term personal development that is possible through training, it is even more about today’s training.  My training gives me benefits now.  I doubt I would stick around long enough for the long term benefits to develop and blossom if the training wasn’t good right now.

Just train.  I learned something this morning about how I move and how I want to improve my movement.  I’m rebuilding my legs after surgery, and even more than the exercises the physical therapists have me doing, I find that budo training is helping me recover more quickly than I had imagined.  I just go and train each day.  My legs develop new strengths and new abilities.  I find little areas of balance and control that I need to work on. Today I discovered new things about how to train for the best results.  This is today.  I apply this epiphany to myself, and I can share it with my students on Saturday.  Every time I train, I learn things.  I love learning things.  The discoveries leave me eager to find out what else there is learn.  I do that by training.

Just train.  Life is not always great.  Training is always great.  The dojo is a place I can go where issues of the world don’t reach.  I’m just training after all.  Work doesn’t affect that.  I’m training.   Arguments don’t change that.  Training has trained my mind to be still and focused on what I’m doing so I can just train.   I can shut down the noisy parts of my mind and get to work.

A lot of people worry about their rank or what level they have reached on the philosophical discussion of shu-ha-ri, which is just a distraction from the point of training. (Wayne Muramoto has an excellent discussion of shu-ha-ri here.)   Just train.  The act of training should include a lot of consideration and experiment.  It’s not mindless repetition of the kata.  It is mindFUL repetition of kata.  Don’t worry about how you compare to others, or whether you are at one level of training or another.  Mindful training will nearly always have you practicing at the right level.  The important thing is to do the training.  Don’t worry about the outside stuff.  That’s not training and it won’t help your training.  Just train.

Just train.  All the benefits of budo flow directly from the training.  As much as I love to talk about it, I don’t get that from the talking.  Every time I train I get a workout.  I teach my body to work more effectively and efficiently as a single unit rather than each part working against the others.  I feel better.  My mind is clearer and calmer.  I can relax and put things in life in better perspective.  Sometimes I even improve my budo.  Just train.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Injuries and training

About 18 months ago, I made a couple of bad moves at judo practice and messed up my right knee pretty well..  It was quite painful at the time, but I didn’t realize how much damage I had done.  When I finally gave in and had an MRI done, I found out I had completely torn my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).  At that point, the only real option was ACL reconstruction surgery.  The surgery was at the end of April, and it really messed up my writing routine, among other things.  I have discovered that budo training, post-op rehab and writing have a lot in common.  All the habits I have for good budo, regular practice, review of what is working and what isn’t, conscious repetition, and getting an outside perspective are all critical to successful, steady, ongoing improvement.

All those lessons from judo and iaido are applied regularly to my post-op rehab.  The week after my surgery, the doctor and the physical therapist gave me a set of exercises, stretching and icing to do 3-5 times a day.  There were exercises for regaining the flexibility  in my knee and starting on the long slog to get the strength back in my leg.  The first time I tried to bend my knee, I was sweating from the effortn by the time I got it to 15 degrees.  And the simple exercises to tense the quadriceps in my leg were amazingly frustrating.  I could will the muscle to contract all I wanted, but it just laid there.

Over a few weeks of doing all the exercises the physical therapists could think up, I eventually got enough strength back that I could go back to the dojo and start doing some simple standing training in iaido.  This is when I started getting some interesting lessons.  Things which had been quite fundamental for me, that I didn’t even think about doing anymore, had become nearly impossible. Just walking properly required all of my focus.   I have no idea what was happening with my sword when I was trying to simply walk and swing the sword at the same time.  My concentration was so heavily invested in simply trying to walk smoothly and with strong movement that there was no awareness left over for whatever it was my hands were doing with the sword.   I am sure I was swinging it, but I have no clear memories of it.  I’m not sure I want to know what I was actually doing.  I’m quite sure it was horrible, and I don’t need independent confirmation.

Eventually, I got wise and stopped trying to swing the sword and just focused on basic walking and footwork.  My feet needed a lot of work.  After the surgery, the knee swelled up like a grapefruit that had lost a bar fight, but I was expecting that.  The really difficult adjustment was to how weak my leg had become.  The leg muscles atrophied almost immediately, and even now are a little more than half their pre-surgery strength.  

The sudden disappearance of the strength in my legs has given me an instant appreciation for many of the difficulties my beginning students go through.  The leg muscles are used in a rather unusual way in iaido, especially in the suwari waza sets.  The body has to be absolutely stable and solid, with the movements smooth and fluid. I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t remember how I felt when I started, but I can see my own struggles with trying to get my legs to do good iaido now whenever I look at beginners.  One of their biggest issues is simply that their body doesn’t have the strength in the right areas to support what they are trying to do.    

I’ve long been a fond of breaking apart iaido kata to find simple sets of movements that students can focus on to build the strength and stability in some of the unusual positions that we deal with in iaido.  My current condition is teaching me just how really useful and important this is for students.   One of the simplest things we do in iaido is sit down into, and get up from, seiza.  This is even more basic than how we hold the sword.  There are thousands of ways to get into seiza that are clumsy and off-balance with posture so weak a two year old could easily knock you over.    There is only one way that is the strongest and most stable based on the human bodies structure: back straight, quadriceps screaming with the effort of holding you up and supporting you while you look relaxed as you lower yourself into, or rise from, seiza.  I often have students just practice the movement from seiza rising up until the legs and torso are a straight line, and then going back down, keeping the back straight the entire time..  Now I am doing the same thing, because my quads really don’t like this movement anymore.   Another one they don’t like is the lunge-like movement at the end of some suwari kata where we drop down to one knee, and then come back up.  So my students and I are doing both of these as a warm-ups / calisthenics to strengthen the legs and practice doing the basic movement correctly without having to worry about what to do with the sword or anything else.

I am finding it really helpful for me, and I hope my students will as well.  I am reteaching my body to do fundamental movements on its own, without having to be directed by my mind.  I am drilling these basic movements in my hotel room, and using them as a warm-up when I do full iaido keiko.  By warming up with them, I am getting my body used to doing the motions correctly, so when I move on and do the kata, I can focus on other aspects while my body does these motions correctly on its own.

The motions are fundamental, and the more I isolate them and focus on getting them smooth and strong in isolation, the easier I am finding it to do them properly when I go back to the kata and do them in conjunction with everything else that is happening in the kata.  My legs are still recovering, but already I can feel the improvements in strength and control.  I have always thought of the techniques and kata as the basics in budo practice, but now I am looking at the kata with an eye towards isolating even more basic movements and drilling them.

If I can come up with simple drills students can do at home without little no equipment, I think beginning students will be able to improve much more quickly, and get more out of their training.  Instead of developing the strength in their legs and hips during class, they can work on developing the essential strength away from keiko.  

A few simple exercises that can help them develop the strength to move smoothly and effectively quickly, will also enable them to start smoothing out other common problems faster as well.  Integrating the complex and wholly unnatural movements required for suwari waza  is difficult.  There is nothing natural about gliding over the floor with one knee up and the other down while swinging a sword around.  My new goal is to isolate basic movements that can be practiced outside the dojo in a hotel room (since I’m spending a lot of time in hotel rooms for work) that students can drill until they become habitually correct, so we can spend our training time together working on integrating the movements and then go on to more mind-bending things like rhythm.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A pointer from Rory Miller on training and violence

Rory Miller is a remarkable martial artist with an amazing background: modern Judo, koryu jujutsu, and decades of experience in police and corrections.  This interview is fascinating and insightful.

"I once had someone tell me that those throws were worthless in a real encounter because "you never turn your back on an enemy" and it made sense at the time.  Thing is, though, that real enemies jump on your back.  Not only was something that was deemed 'worthless' actually effective, the part that was hardest in training was given to you in real life."

The whole interview is at

I can't recommend Rory Miller's writing enough.
I once had someone tell me that those throws were worthless in a real encounter because “you never turn your back on an enemy” and it made sense at the time. Thing is, though, that real enemies jump on your back.  Not only was something that was deemed ‘worthless’ actually effective, the part that was hardest in training was given to you in real life. - See more at:
I once had someone tell me that those throws were worthless in a real encounter because “you never turn your back on an enemy” and it made sense at the time. Thing is, though, that real enemies jump on your back.  Not only was something that was deemed ‘worthless’ actually effective, the part that was hardest in training was given to you in real life. - See more at:
I once had someone tell me that those throws were worthless in a real encounter because “you never turn your back on an enemy” and it made sense at the time. Thing is, though, that real enemies jump on your back.  Not only was something that was deemed ‘worthless’ actually effective, the part that was hardest in training was given to you in real life. - See more at:
I once had someone tell me that those throws were worthless in a real encounter because “you never turn your back on an enemy” and it made sense at the time. Thing is, though, that real enemies jump on your back.  Not only was something that was deemed ‘worthless’ actually effective, the part that was hardest in training was given to you in real life. - See more at:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Training On The Road

I find myself recovering from knee surgery while spending weeks traveling far from home and living in a hotel for for work.  So for this 2 week stint, I hauled along a jo and an iaito so I can train at the hotel.  The hotel room has enough space that if I move the furniture out of the way I should be able to do iai kata from seiza fairly well.  The jo is not nearly as likely to cause people to panic and call the police, so I’ll take that out in the hotel parking lot and train in a quiet, back corner of the lot.

This evening I tried doing iai in the hotel room.  I will admit that it worked better than I expected.  My knee is still quite stiff, so just practicing getting into and out of seiza is very good for it.  At the beginning of practice my buttocks are a good 2 inches (5 cm) from my heels.  By the end of a good practice session they touch.  I still can’t get down far enough to relax at all in seiza, but that I can get down this far is great progress.  And going down into seiza while still holding all my weight with the muscles in my legs is great training for my legs too.  Really strengthens them and makes them much steadier.

One problem I had not expected was how much friction the carpet would cause.  I have to exaggerate my movement a bit in order to prevent myself from getting a rug burn.  I am working at doing the forward movements without dragging my knee at all.  I have to lift it off the carpet and move it forward.  This is changing my body mechanics in a way that I suspect will be helpful because it eliminates the possibility of leaving my leg behind and just dragging it forward.  It forces me to lift to drive my leg forward strongly.

One thing I hadn’t thought of that I am finding useful is that the hotel room has two large mirrors in it for dressing.  They are nice for checking my form.  It’s been 8 weeks since my surgery, and I am just beginning to train again.  I can see lots of places where my form is weak from a combination of not training for a couple of months and having my body messed up from knee surgery.  The mirrors are great for spotting and correcting some of these problems.  Unfortunately, I got excited about a point I was working on with my furikaburi, and stood up to try it from that position.  This is a problem because the hotel room doesn’t have cathedral ceilings.  I do hope the folks in the room above me hadn’t gone to sleep already.  I also hope the hotel staff doesn’t mind the nice line I cut in the ceiling.

Training in the hotel is not ideal, I will agree.  But since I must be on the road for several weeks, it is the best option I have.  The drawbacks are limited space and a concern that I will damage something in the room.  I would love to be able to move more freely and to have a nice, smooth, dojo surface to train on, but since I don’t, this will do.  The up side is that I have more than sufficient fundamental points needing work and polish that not being able to do a lot of full kata really won’t hold me back.  I can certainly work on moving from seiza, getting into seiza, furikaburi and kirioroshi for quite a long time.  They all need plenty of polish.
Focusing on the basics like this is something that can be easy to forget when I’m healthy.  I’ve reached a level where there are quite a few different things I can work on, and the basics, the fundamental stuff, is not always the more fascinating stuff to practice.  However, they are fundamental to everything else we do, and time spent improving the basics is immediately reflected in everything else I do.  My legs get stronger and more steady, more capable of correct movement and supporting good posture (even when I misstep).  Furikaburi and kirioroshi appear in almost every kata we do, so there is no way I can imagine time spent polishing them will not be reflected in improved performance when I do the kata.  And of course, since I can’t quite get into seiza, practice that gets me closer to getting into seiza and and not being in extreme discomfort while I’m there can only be a good thing.

For all these reasons I dragged a sword and jo in a big black gun case along on a flight across the country for a 2 week business trip.  Just picture me in my hotel room creaking into seiza and then moving across the floor taking great care not to drag my knee on the carpet or to let my kissaki drop below horizontal, and then trying to make the big, fluid, powerful cuts required in Shinto Hatakage Ryu.

What unusual places do you train in, and why?