Sunday, April 30, 2017

Atemi: The Thunder and Lightning of Aikido - Book Review

This book is written by Walther G. Von Krenner with Ken Jeremiah. Walther has been studying Aikido since the 1960s and runs a dojo in Montana, USA. According to his bio found here he is Hachi-dan in aikido and has studied with Morihei Ueshiba, Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Kochei Tohei.


I will review the book based on the sections it is split into so you can decide if it is something you may read for yourself. I bought the ebook version from Kindle.

The book is split into three parts; Shodan (basic), Chudan (intermediate) and Jodan (advanced). Each part is a section with its own chapters.

Section 1 focuses on striking both from the uke's (attacker) and nage's (defender) viewpoint. The author writes about striking well and with intent. For uke's role he looks at the three stylised attacks often found in aikido dojo; shomen uchi, yokomen uchi and tsuki. He also talks about the grabbing attacks and initiative. For nage's benefit he looks at the first four pinning techniques often practised; Ikkyo, Nikkyo, Sankyo and Yonkyo. He discusses where and why atemi (strikes) are used at the beginning, during or the end of a technique. Chapter Three of this section looks at striking during aikido throws. Kaiten-nage, Shihonage and Sumi-Otoshi are discussed. The final part of section 1 looks at "Putting it all together." The author gives examples of how strikes can be applied to specific examples of attack and defence using pictures. Throughout this section the author references the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba and attempts to relate sword arts to empty hand strikes. Although the whole section is really about striking correctly as an attacker and knowing when and where to strike during a pinning or throwing technique as a defender, the author offers more than this. He speaks about principles of movement. Such phrases as "The shoulders should never rise while striking.", "Always feel as though you are extending energy from the finger tips and even the elbow joint." and "The basics of stability and correct body movements are the key to performing more advanced techniques." are gems hidden within the text.

Section 2 assumes the Aikidoka has a good understanding of basic striking and moving. The principle of irimi is discussed and defined according to the author. He calls upon principles of Ona-ha Itto Ryu to help describe his concept of irimi. Of course it is only logical that a discussion of irimi leads into a discussion about irimi-nage and that is exactly what happens in this book. Irimi is discussed as a way to dominate an opponent. Keeping this in mind, the author explores aiki and kiai. I'll leave you to read the book to see what is discussed here.

Section 3 delves into the esoteric power of Aikido. Of course there are endless stories of Morihei Ueshiba's power and strength. What the author tries to do is to break down the illusion of mysticism around the founder of Aikido and suggests that there is a definite method of learning and improving this skill. Here the book explores the power of Takeda of Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu fame and one of his best students, Sagawa Yukiyoshi. Aiki is described as a skill that develops immovability and unstoppable force and not simply "the flow of ki". Tohei's four basic principles are introduced here as a method to develop aiki. Each of the four principles are explained in detail: Keep one point, Relax completely, Keep weight underside, and Extend ki. O-sensei's solo training exercises are also mentioned, especially funakogi-undo and ikkyo-undo. The author stresses the importance of these two exercises in the development of aiki. He takes the point further by adding that having people push on you while doing these exercises will improve your skill substantially. He ends this section with the quote, "The true source of power in Aikido is not within the varied techniques, but rather in the internal training exercises that have been overlooked by many practitioners." 

Conclusion. Finally, the author gives a short conclusion summarizing his main points throughout the book. It is a very good synopsis of what is written and I would actually recommend reading this first and go to the appropriate chapter to read further if key points interest you. 


So my thoughts overall?  I found the book really interesting to read. Having a background in Aikido and what I believe to be some understanding of internal training I liked what I read. However, I am a naturally skeptical man and I have heard some of these terms thrown about (excuse the pun) by Aikido instructors before. Those same instructors didn't really demonstrate any of these principles on the mat (not at least to the level we are talking about here). The author didn't give me enough to be fully convinced he had cracked the internal power thing. I had a search of him on YouTube and there are videos. As is often the case with this stuff it is hard to really know what is going on from just watching someone perform techniques. His martial application of aikido strikes and concepts surrounding this, I agree with. Putting section 3 aside for a moment, the other two sections give plenty for an Aikidoka to work with to ensure they are practising a martially viable version of the art.  
If you are serious about your Aikido then I would recommend this book. At the very least it will give you another perspective from which to view the art. 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

One Year On...

This post is more of a short update.

On the 27th April 2016, Marco Pinto and Jules Robson visited and trained in my personal dojo in Te Miro. I had just got the mats down and although it was not complete, it was functional. I keep a visitors book and I was looking through it the other day and imagine my surprise to see that it has been open for a year already!

The dojo currently.

In this time I have had the other TSYR members from Hamilton out to train at various occasions and also a 10 year old boy out to learn aikido, my daughter has been joining him in practice. Of course I train by myself here, often. Mostly I perform TSYR batto or nairiki but also aikido solo practice. Unfortunately I have not done much more renovation in this time. The genkan still needs to be completed and finishing touches need to be made to the mat space. Threadgill sensei also saw the dojo in his most recent visit to New Zealand and now I feel the need to complete the rest of the space before I can officially open it with his blessings. 

What do I wish to add? Well a weapon rack on the wall above where you see the jo on the ground. Line the edging of the mats so they cannot slide around. Lay carpet in the reception area and finish lining the walls in the reception area. Above where the photo was taken is a loft and I would ultimately like to set this up for guests to sleep on (this is a long term goal). So lots to do but its always good to have a project.









Sunday, April 16, 2017

Why do I train?

When I started writing this post I wasn't sure where it was going to go. It started with a question raised while reading one of Rory Miller's books and as I really began digging deeper into why I train and I got really honest with myself I realised the truth of the matter. I struggled with deciding whether to publish this post or not because it is of a more personal nature than anything I have written before.
I did publish it because maybe one of my readers out there may appreciate me sharing, I'm not really sure. Maybe it will help in some way. 

I have asked myself this question many times over the years. Why do I train in the martial arts? While learning aikido I asked myself this question at certain points in my training. When I was a brown belt and close to getting my first black belt. When the weapons training didn't make sense to me. After achieving another dan grade. Why am I training? What's the point?

My answer to this question has changed over the years. Believe it or not, I got into aikido for reasons other than self-defence. I never felt I needed to learn 'how to fight' or do cool martial art moves. I had learned over the years that the best self-defence was to avoid trouble. It had served me well up to this point. I had never really been in any serious physical confrontation and never intended to start now. I was 25 when I started aikido and got into it because a workmate was doing it. I was single, had time to kill and energy to burn. I had a blast!  Aikido's philosophy intrigued me and I learned how to breakfall pretty well. Outside of my job at the time, it gave me purpose and something to work towards. During my time training in this martial art I met my wife, started a new career path (as a high school teacher) and not long after that we had children. 

At some point I began seeking something else from my martial arts training that aikido did not provide. For about two years I started looking for that new thing. Eventually I discovered Robbie Smith and Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu.  

My training moved up to another level. I trained in both aikido and TSYR for a while but with a young family and a job and now two martial arts, I was squeezing things pretty tight. Something had to give. As much as I still enjoyed aikido I decided to focus on TSYR. This martial art has a different feeling to it. There is an edge to it. I feel that the stuff we are taught comes from a place of knowing what it really was like in a violent confrontation. Toby Threadgill's sensei certainly had an air about him (according to those who knew him) that he was dangerous, not someone to be messed with. People don't just get a presence like that without having been through some stuff. I joke that TSYR is like aikido on steroids but joking aside, there is a no-nonsense training to the art that I never felt in aikido circles. 

Studying a martial art is studying violence. No matter how much you pretty it up, that's what we do. I live in New Zealand, probably one of the safest places in the world, and I live in the countryside away from big cities. I am probably one of the least likely people to be confronted with violence in the near future. So shouldn't I be spending my leisure time pursuing something more meaningful or useful? Hell, I am more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a violent offender. Shouldn't I be working on defensive driving skills? What is this attraction I have to martial arts, to controlled violence?

Even if I do find myself in a violent confrontation is any of the stuff I have learned even useful or accessible to me in those extremely stressful situations. I'm currently reading Rory Miller's book, "Meditations on Violence" and he looks at martial arts training compared to real world violence. He talks about the freeze response and the debilitating effects of an adrenal dump. He talks about how all martial training has flaws to allow our training partners to be safe. So we can train with them again another day. So what does that mean for my training? What does it matter if I enjoy it and I live in a relatively safe society anyway? Why should I even care?

Why do I bother?
I feel I have to justify why I train to myself. I will continue to ask myself this question because it is a point of reference for me. It relates to where I am in my life and what my goals are. I am now a 40 year old father of two children and have a loving wife. My reasons for training have changed from my earlier aikido days. 

I have kept a quote that says, 
A student said to his master, "You teach me fighting, but you talk of peace. How do you reconcile the two?" The master replied: "It is better to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war."
I like this quote. It speaks to me but am I a warrior? What constitutes a warrior in this day and age. I am not a member of the armed services. So am I fooling myself by training in the martial arts? What drives me to pursue combat arts from another time? 

My first answer is because I enjoy it. It is fun. I still think this is the main reason I turn up to the dojo week in and week out.

It also keeps my body moving through a full range of motion. I sit in seiza which moves the ankles, knees and hips through a range of motion most people would not experience normally. I am placed in joint locks and take breakfalls. I get up off the ground again and again after taking falls. I am pushed around, twisted and attacked with wooden weapons. All this movement keeps me healthy and strong and gives me a better quality of life (you could argue being whacked with a wooden sword does not promote good health).

I train for camaraderie. Many of you may know that Robbie Sensei passed away suddenly a few years into my training with him. The loss was staggering for all. Dealing with the grief of his death brought me closer together with some of the members of the dojo who I still train with to this day. We practise potentially dangerous techniques on each other and laugh and joke about it afterward while getting changed. I value these people and count them as friends. I trust them.

I train to keep myself sane. The kick (pun intended) I get out of exercise makes me a happier person. A better father and husband. It helps me deal with the stress of teaching in a co-ed state school. 

I find myself thinking about one other answer that lurks beneath all these other ones. I want to know what I would really do when confronted with violent, physical assault. I have a short temper, but I am very good at restraining it. Controlling it. I am very good at avoiding situations that may get me agitated. In fact, I would say I had mastered avoiding confrontation. When my wife first met me she jokingly called me a 'fence-sitter'. I believe that strategy kept me safe for a number of reasons. You see, there have been times of high stress when I have snapped, really saw red and I have had to get professional help to pull back out of it. I was caught in an ever increasing spiral of blowing my fuse over small things. My responses were more extreme than the situation warranted. I started to loath myself. I felt guilt and struggled to find a way forward. I have since been given strategies to de-escalate my thinking, to spot the triggers and know when I am close to exploding. I know now that when the flight or fight response kicks in, I fight. That scares me. That scares me more than being attacked in a dark alley. It scares me because in those moments I don't think, I just act and I act out physically, violently. I have no rational thought in those moments. It scares me because I worry that one day it will surface at the wrong time and be aimed at the wrong people (those I love).  Even as I write this my heart rate has increased and my palms are sweating. In my gut I know this is at the core of my motivation to train. I want to confront this and deal with it. 

I have been told I am too passive in my techniques. I think I hold back while training, not because I'm afraid of getting hurt, but of hurting others. There have been a couple of instances in my training over the years where I have felt myself lose it, quietly, inwardly (before I sought professional help). One time I was struck in the nose and the pain enraged me and I threw a training partner too hard. Thankfully he took the fall well and got up smiling and saying well done for the good throw. One of my seniors of the aikido club (who was also a good friend) saw my body language and said to me firmly, "Dean, breath". That simple command snapped me out of it.  The other time did not end so well. I was training with a twenty-something year old and we were working on a technique . He started to fool around, he was young and strong. He started to test my technique, I saw red and threw him to the ground, my forearm pinned across his neck. Our eyes met and I could see I was scaring him. I released him and he got up. We continued training but the damage was done. I had lost his trust. I have not had this issue while training TSYR. This may be partly due to the fact I sought professional help with my anger around the same time I was training in this art. It could also be that my training partners are more mature and there is less a feeling of proving ourselves with each other. Who knows. 

Perhaps I see martial arts as an opportunity to be pushed to/over the edge by people I trust in a safe environment and finally confront my demons. I am reminded of an article Ellis Amdur wrote titled, "Hiding in the Shadows of the Warrior."  He talks of raging against a training companion and of being pushed over the edge. This article still resonates with me. 

If my training can turn my fight response into calculating calm, then I will feel like I have achieved something more valuable than to how to fight in the street or face physical aggression. 

I'm not sure how much of this makes sense to people. Writing this has certainly clarified things for me. 

It would appear that I ultimately train to confront myself. 

Thanks for reading.




Sunday, April 2, 2017

Small Training Pilgrimage


Just a short post this time.

This weekend I was in Auckland visiting my brother-in-law and thought it would be great to train with Jules and his study group in the city. To make things easier for me, Jules had booked a dojo that is run by one of the other study group members who practises aikido. This dojo is more central and meant I had a 45 minute drive from where I was staying rather than much longer to get across the city to Jule's little dojo out West. This dojo also has a high ceiling that allowed us to work on batto and kumitachi. 

We spent the morning training and I must say I enjoyed myself immensely. The group is dedicated and sincere in their training and I was glad to offer my experience to the mix. They learned from me and I learned from them. One of the members only recently got his training sword when sensei Threadgill was over recently so he has lots to learn. Watching him work through the different kata reminded me of when I first started and made many of the same mistakes. 

I think it is important for those of us from the Hamilton TSYR dojo to train with the Auckland study group when we can. Training together helps TSYR in New Zealand grow and everyone benefits. 

I look forward to training with them again in the near future. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Shindo Yoshin Ryu and Shinto

While Threadgill sensei was over in New Zealand recently he spoke at some length about the importance of Shinto in our practice. Placing an importance on Shinto was one way Takamura sensei was trying to keep the martial art uniquely Japanese while being practised outside of Japan.
Shinto is embedded in Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu. Therefore there is an expectation that students of the ryu will learn and participate in various dojo rituals and practices associated with Shinto. At certain levels of study students are taught prayers and rites that function as initiation into higher learning.  

The TSYR Student Handbook mentions that Shinto is an integral part of the school's legacy because it functions as the foundation upon which the school's ethos resides. It is fundamental to capturing the cultural essence of the ryu.

So it goes without saying that deshi of this ryu must become familiar with Shinto and what it is all about. This does not mean you have to become a follower of Shinto, you are free to embrace any religion or form of spirituality that you choose. However, if your beliefs compromise the spiritual traditions of the art then you must ask yourself if Shindo Yoshin Ryu is really for you.

So what does this mean for my day-to-day practice?
In both the Hamilton dojo and my own private dojo there is a shelf holding a kamidana (spirit house) along with associated accessories such as a mirror and porcelain furniture. Before every training lesson we bow towards this kamidana. Often a short prayer in Japanese is said as well.

TSYR members in front of the kamidana at the Hamilton Dojo, 2017.

 The remainder of training is similar to many modern Japanese martial arts with people bowing to one another before trying a technique or form and then bowing at the end to thank each other for the practice. 
There are rules concerning how weapons are placed and carried in the dojo with the kamidana present. 
Purity and cleanliness are paramount in Shinto. Even in modern dojo this can be seen when students sweep and mop floors after training. Corruption of a person or object is something to be avoided if possible and there are various rituals and prayers that are used to purify a place, object or person. 
For many students this may be as much as they are exposed to concerning Shinto.

Of course there is much more to it than this. I am only relatively new to the kai and after sensei spoke recently it is obvious that there is so much more to learn. 

Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu honours four Shinto kami, seeking their protection and guidance. Ofuda (talismans) representing each kami are kept in the kamidana of the TSYR hombu dojo as well as some branch dojo. 
The most important Shinto kami is Amaterasu Omikami. She is the sun goddess and rules over the Heavenly Plain. 
Sarutahiko Okami is a guardian kami and leader of the earthly kami. He is seen as a symbol of strength and guidance and one of the patron kami of the martial arts.
Ame no Uzume no Mikoto is the kami of dawn, sensuality and revelry and she is the patron of actors, performers and negotiators.
Takemikazuchi no Mikoto is the fourth and final kami. He is  associated with sword work and is a patron of martial arts.

I am also aware of annual Shinto rituals that are observed. There are six mentioned in the handbook. Maintaining a traditional dojo that observes all of the above practises is quite a commitment but does allow the practitioner to get an understanding of the mindset of those who have gone before. This facet of TSYR is yet another reason why I enjoy pursuing this art. There is always more to learn beyond the physical techniques.




Sunday, March 19, 2017

A great weekend of training.

Threadgill sensei was once again in New Zealand to assess our progress and further our training. I have had a great two days on the mats

There was the usual Friday night open seminar in Auckland where sensei demonstrated his skill with both sword and unarmed. I was not able to attend this but by all accounts it was enjoyed by those attending and sensei showed some new things he had not shown before.

The rest of the weekend we trained at the Hamilton dojo.
On Saturday morning Threadgill sensei spoke of shinto and its relationship with Shindo Yoshin Ryu before taking us through the first set of the kumitanto. The knife work is fun but teaches just how dangerous knives can be and why it is foolish to think that disarming a skilled knife-wielder would be an easy task (or even something you should contemplate).

In the afternoon we worked on sword disarms. A set of kata that teaches important body skills, distancing and timing.

My wife and I invited the group out to our house for Saturday evening and it was a night of great food, laughter and sensei telling his fabulous tales. The last of the guests didn't leave until after midnight. 
Threadgill Sensei and the rest of the crew relaxing in the evening.

I had the honour of sensei seeing my personal dojo for the first time. Some of the other TSYR members had not seen the space either and of course, like any good martial artists, they had to get on the mats to try them out. 

On Sunday morning we worked through the second set of the kumitanto. The knife is held in a different grip compared to the first set allowing for interesting techniques.

That afternoon we worked through battojutsu. The sword draws are very demanding as sensei is after precision. It is these techniques above all others we did this weekend that cause a lot of sweat and tears. They take a lot of concentration and sensei is very critical of our performance in these movements.

After the battojutsu we worked on one defense against a sword takeaway and then ran out of time for anything else. People were very tired by then.

The mood of the seminar was very positive. We had fourteen people there on the first day and only one less on Sunday. We also had one person from Australia looking to become a deshi of the school. The atmosphere was jovial and up-beat. People were training hard but enjoying themselves at the same time. With enough people of different shapes and sizes to work with it was very enjoyable.

Threadgill sensei said that he could see improvement in our teacher which is good news for us because if our teacher improves we benefit as a group. 
Everyone who was there was enjoying each other's company and I felt that the camaraderie and good will has not been this strong for a long, long time. It was exciting to be part of.

It is my hope that we carry on this good will in our training and that the various groups that attended train together more often to strengthen TSYR in this part of the world.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Is Koryu Bujutsu a Cult?

I have been thinking about this one for a while. Koryu practitioners can be known for their elitism and secrecy, so I can see why some people might view involvement with a koryu as cult behaviour.

Amaterasu - Japanese Sun Goddess

So, let's explore the idea of a cult. A simple definition is a social group that is devoted to or worships a person or object. 
In a martial art where people believe there to be cult behaviour the sensei is often the object of the devotion or worship. This is easy to understand as many people come to the martial arts to learn from a teacher. Some people have watched films or read books about wise, old Japanese men who pass on their martial prowess to those who are worthy. They can sometimes come along to a dojo with the idea that they must prove their worth to the sensei. There is an instant power imbalance in this relationship. 

A clip from Napoleon Dynamite illustrates this nicely.


Now that was fairly blatant and as one of the characters says at the end, "Well, that was a rip off."

So if many people already believe they have to prove themselves to the teacher, this could lead to all sorts of problems. New students may tolerate behaviour from their teacher that may deem unacceptable in another setting. They may not be as ready to question their teacher's actions because they are being 'tested'. So this opens up an opportunity for a less-than-decent person to exploit the situation. Of course this happens in religion, public education and just about anywhere else where there is a teacher-student relationship. In martial arts however, we deal with violence. This is to be expected. So how this situation can be abused is concerning. Not wanting to veer off topic too much, the martial arts has its fair share of egomaniacs that use this medium to manipulate and exploit others, sometimes to a point of creating cult-like behaviour.  In fact my aikido sensei was subjected to this very thing early in his life and had to come to terms with breaking away from that toxic environment. So does it happen in koryu?  My answer?  I am not sure. I have not experienced it nor do I know anyone who has. But people being people, most probably, somewhere, sometime. 

I think what leads some people to generalise about koryu and claim they are all cult-like is some of the differences to the shinbudo (modern Japanese martial arts). Phrases such as "Your life belongs to the school" and "The school is more important than you" are thrown around when people argue about koryu being cult-like. 

The reality is you have an obligation to do what you can. We all have to keep our jobs and commit to our families, what time and money is left we dedicate to our training. Most koryu practitioners I know (not that many to be fair) are intelligent people who question things. They are not sheep. So I do not think they would still be students of a koryu if they thought they were in a cult. 

In my very limited experience, people teaching in a koryu are often no-nonsense types that are happy to accept people but not concerned if the student walks away either. They are there to train and pass on the knowledge of their own teachers to their students. It is not so much that what they have to teach you is secret or special its just that it took them a long time to learn what they know and they know what is required to get you there. So if a student is appearing flaky or trying to move quickly through the curriculum when they are not ready for it, the teacher must address this. This might make them seem cagey or grumpy or even 'secretive' if you like, but at the heart of the matter it is the simple fact that the student is not grasping what is being taught.

A sensei that is ambiguous about their training history is someone to be careful of. A koryu sensei will be up-front about the lineage of his or her school and who taught them, why wouldn't they?  They really have nothing to hide. Although asking these questions on the mat might not be the best time as they want you to train. However, off the mat, while out at dinner or over a few drinks they will happily discuss history and lineage and they will want to get to know you. Your character is important to them as you may be carrying on what they know in the future. 

Another aspect of koryu that lends itself to criticism is some of the archaic practises and rituals that the school may contain. Koryu have their roots in a different time period, when Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism were very important to the people of the time. Students will participate in these practices to maintain a particular mindset or attitude but that doesn't mean we have to believe in all the hocus-pocus. For instance the utterance of a prayer to ask the martial spirits and ancestors to watch over our practice does not mean I believe that invisible spirits are watching me but it reminds me of the people that have trained before me and the respect I should have for the art while practising. 

At the end of the day I can say, faithfully, that I am not in a cult-like martial arts school. I am sure some exist but hopefully what I have written above clears up some of the ambiguity. 

Take care and keep training.

Dean.