Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Precision of the Sword

We recently had the privilege of having Marco Pinto out to New Zealand. Marco is one of only two people to hold a Chuden teaching license in Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu. Unfortunately I couldn't make the seminar due to family commitments. However, last night at our regular kenjutsu training session my teacher, Chris, went over some of the points that Marco had made. 

It was one of those sessions where Chris picked apart our batto. I really enjoy these sessions because it is good to have someone look at my technique and point out things that might need correcting that I miss. 

Battojutsu is a very precise practice. For instance, during one movement Chris said I needed to move my sword about 1 cm forward at the end of my cut. That extension meant my blade stopped in the correct position. That 1 cm was the difference between the tip of my sword dipping or not. 

An upright posture is critical in sword work as well. If you cut with a lean either to the front or back, it requires more muscular strength to hold the sword as the person's centre of gravity has shifted past their feet, slightly unbalancing them. If you keep your shoulders over your hips then gravity is pulling you down into your feet and you remain stable. Now this is easy to understand if you are doing a straight cut from above your head and down. But some cuts are on the diagonal or horizontal planes and you still have to keep your posture. Easier said than done. 

One area I am working on (one of the many!) is 'noto' or returning the sword to the saya. I am trying to do this without any extra body movement and keeping my weight down the whole time. Noto is one of the few times you have the sharp end of the sword pointing towards yourself and often the time when you can cut yourself. 

After last night's class I had a moment of thinking, "wow, so much to learn in this one kata but the overall curriculum is so large!"

I will leave you with Kaicho Toby Threadgill, showing how its done.

Toby Threadgill Menkyo Kaiden.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Budo Body Part III

I would like to discuss more about how my body is changing due to the training I am doing in Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu. In this martial tradition there is a set of exercises called Nairiki no gyo. These exercises are supposedly descended from southern Chinese martial traditions. These exercises attempt to create a body that is "capable of unified, powerful and relaxed movement that also manifests an extremely expanded level of sensitivity." As quoted by Threadgill sensei.

Practitioners that develop this body skill to a high level can not only feel acutely into their own bodies but through a sensitive neuro-feedback network, they can also sense someone else's center of gravity the moment they are touched.

Threadgill sensei demonstrating a connected body.
In the above picture, Threadgill sensei is not leaning on his training partners, he is simply channelling the force through is body and into the ground. The two men might as well be pushing directly at the floor, they would get the same result. If the two men were to suddenly jump away, Threadgill would not fall over, but merely stand up a little straighter like a spring released. 

There is a mental component to this as well. Intent is very important but after the physical skills are learned. Threadgill sensei says that after 20 years of training he can now think "right shoulder" and the adversary will fall right. This is a very advance mind-body connection. Everyone is capable of this sort of control. For instance, we do not think, pick up the spoon, we just pick up the spoon. Same thing but we are manipulating another person in doing so.

I like the word 'tone' in describing how my body is set up. Threadgill sensei used this term once on a forum and I find is fits perfectly. Without tone in my body, I can't begin to do some of things this training asks of me. In aikido I was always told to 'relax'. The problem with this direction is that I would relax ALL muscles involved and go sort of limp. This is the wrong idea, I think a better way of saying this would be to relax the unnecessary muscles and leave the others firing to generate the tone sensei talks about. I have spoken in the past about the posterior muscles playing an important part in this training. Without certain muscles firing we would have no structure at all. However, when only these muscles are firing, this sets up a body with sound structure that makes the most of the hips and legs in a unified manner. If you use your muscles in an isolated way, tone is going on and off and changing direction which leaves you open to counters. When I am training with someone and I take the role of uchitachi (uke) if I feel my training partner lose connection with me, I can re-establish control and counter-attack. At that point, he or she has lost the unified tone required and given me an opening and vice versa if I lose tone during a technique. A large part of our training these days is trying to perform the technique from start to finish with tone so that our opponent does not have a chance to get the upper-hand at any moment.

The extreme of this type of sensitive connection is using swords. If I touch my adversaries blade with my blade, and I do it with tone it gives me a connection to their entire structure without them knowing and I would have them from the beginning. This, however is beyond me at this stage. I find this very difficult.

Along with the Naikriki no gyo there are a series of kunren (drills) we do to help develop the budo body. Many involve another person providing resistance so we can work on channelling force through our structure while manipulating the other person.

So where am I with all this?
I would like to talk about the hara. This is difficult to discuss but I will try. Hara is a Japanese term describing an area just below the belly-button and is associated with esoteric things such as ki and life force etc. I will be using the term to describe a feeling I get in this area when I am moving with correct structure in my training and I feel my 'hara'.

My current understanding of what my hara is involves the muscles around the head of the femur, the pelvis area in general including the front and the back. When I am using my hara correctly I feel all my weight sitting in this area. As I manipulate incoming force it feels like I have a ball the size of an orange rotating and moving in this area, almost like a gyro.  The challenge I have is to ensure tone throughout my body so that I get this heavy feeling in my hara. In fact when I nail it I feel the weight seep all the way into my feet and the ground. A very important part of this is the alignment of the spine. The spine must be correctly aligned to prevent 'kinks' that would cause a part of my body to be isolated and then prevent a unified structure. So this includes the angle of the pelvis, having the back straight and head pulled up. The spine is a chain of bones and this means it can take a while to find this position. Constant training allows you to feel the right position for your spine. In the resistance drills your partner slowly adds force and you will find very quickly if your alignment is out because you will not be able to withstand their force without exerting your own. This is the wrong thing to do.If you find yourself pushing back, this is incorrect.

The muscles around my shoulder girdle are thicker than they used to be and I think this is partly due to my poor shoulder alignment. Over the years I have learned to pull them back and down so they sit on the skeleton correctly. This has resulted in the muscles around this area strengthening to maintain this position. I have always had small shoulders with very flexible ligaments. This extreme flexibility has worked against me as this meant my shoulders were disconnected from the rest of my structure. In fact many of us have found that the shoulder joint is one area that becomes a 'choke point' when trying to establish connection. Through life-long habits we engage the deltoid muscles readily when they are not required in the exercise. This is one group of muscles that need to relax. They are unnecessary to the movement. When those muscles relax, the force can travel to the hara and be felt there.

Another area that I have developed is the cross-connection. The left hip moves the right shoulder or vice versa. This is useful in fooling your opponent in not knowing where the power of a technique is coming from. They expect the power to be coming from that arm, but the opposite hip (and leg) is powering it and they can't counter.

The more I train my budo body the more I am finding the alignment of the skeleton is important. The tone generated by the muscles is there to keep that alignment in place. There is much more I could talk about but I think that will do for now. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tsune (Daily Habits)

I am currently reading Moving Towards Stillness: Lessons in Daily Life from the Martial Ways by Dave Lowry. One of the chapters that struck a note with me was about 'tsune'  which translates as the actions one does on a daily basis almost without thinking. Such activities as brushing one's teeth or putting out the rubbish are considered tsune. 

Lowry goes onto to talk about how the training process of a budoka reaches a point where it becomes part of his or her daily routine. This reminded me of something I said to myself when I first started aikido. When I first started to train I told myself that this is something I would do until life got in the way. Little did I know that training in budo would become part of my life!

I'm going to paraphrase the process a budoka goes through according to Lowry.
When a person begins practice, the new budoka's enthusiasm is high and he or she has a strong motivation to train. There is much to learn and to start with it is slow going. How to bow, simple stances and where to place one's hands and feet are the focus. This can be a tough time for the beginner but many push through this stage due to their enthusiasm.

Once the student has been exposed to the basics the learning curve shoots up. Every practice session adds something new and is fun. The budoka can't wait for the next class. Although this is an exciting time this period of rapid learning doesn't last. Sooner or later the learning levels off and the practitioner has been exposed to the main body of the martial art. 

Now is the time for polishing waza and perfecting what is already been taught. The budoka has a chance to compare himself with fellow practitioners and may notice others are doing the techniques better or with less effort. Frustration and disappointment may surface at this point. Progress in the art slows, the novelty has worn off and the training has become routine. It is tempting at this stage to find excuses for not training. "I have too much work to do." "I am feeling unwell." "I'll start again after the holidays." This period of a budoka's training is the most challenging. It is the moment when training will become part of his or her life or it will not. 

For those who persevere there is the realisation that tsune has begun to work its way into their training and so into their lives. Gradually, over time the budo has become part of the daily routine. At this point if the buodka were to miss a class, he or she may feel that something is not right, like forgetting to brush your teeth before bed. The budoka has embedded practice into the routine of his life.

 I find myself some years down the path having trained in aikido and now TSYR. When I started with the koryu bujutsu once I realised this was for me there was no question the training would become part of my life. It was integrated into my life just like aikido. 

Building my personal dojo is just another example of how much budo means to me. My wife met me as an aikidoka and knows that budo are part of who I am.

TSYR members at my dojo.

There will always be the tension between work, family and training but budo will ALWAYS be there provided my body keeps functioning as it should. I know this like I know I will brush my teeth tomorrow or that I will drive to work in the morning.

It feels so damn good writing this post and realising that tsune describes what training is for me, part of my daily routine. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Ambitious Training to Start the Year.

Despite what I said in my last blog, I did train one more time after writing it. 

Pete and I had been talking about going through the whole shoden curriculum in one session. Just straight through the waza. Not concerning ourselves with the finer details of the technique but rather could we remember them all, at least, in their outer, basic form. So as it turned out, Pete did stop by and train at the Te Miro dojo before New Year's. Despite only doing the technique three times each and then moving on, we only managed the Buki no Maki in that session (about two hours). We squeezed in the Kuzushi no Kata and Tachiai Te Hodoki as well.

Jujutsu in 1922
So it was, that Pete was back today for my first session of training in 2017. We dived right into the Idori Te Hodoki then the 5 Idori kata before moving onto the Tai Nage and tanto disarms. We eventually moved into the Kansetsu Waza of the Katate set and then ran out of time. 

So despite our best intentions, trying to go through the whole shoden curriulum would take a good eight hour day I would think. We still have most of the Betsuden sets to do and the sword disarming waza. 

Now that my body has cooled down, I feel aches and pains creeping in. It was good to get some serious keiko in with Pete. We were happy with what we did despite not finishing the whole curriculum. As it was we completed at least 32 different kata (keeping in mind we repeated many of them three times as well) today and a further 39 in the earlier session. That in itself is a good effort.

Something we worked on was honest attacks from the uchitachi role. Some of the techniques (especially the idori) require a sincere attack to develop the correct dynamic for the waza. There is plenty to learn just in giving a good attack and Pete and I worked on this all through the session. 

So now I will bask in the knowledge that I have trained hard today, my aching muscles and joints testament to it. 

Enjoy 2017 everyone and train safe!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Last class before Xmas!

This week, Chris, Nat, Pete and Zac drove out to the Te Miro dojo to train. We had a great night making the most of the good tatami to practice body throws. The Hamilton Dojo has thin, hard, puzzle mats that are not comfortable to fall on repeatedly, so having the thicker tatami was a great opportunity for Chris to have us work on these falls. It was the last training session for me before my family takes to the road for Christmas holidays.

We started with practicing different forms of ukemi. After spending quite some time on this Chris took us through the kuzushi for body throws then we proceeded to work through the Shoden Tachiai Tai Nage. These are great fun and on the thicker mats we could throw one another around with little chance of anyone getting hurt.

Zac had some trouble adjusting to the smaller space. He hit the wall with his heel in one instance and knocked over a jo later during the session. He reminded me of a giraffe let loose in a cluttered shop.

After the training Ricci and I invited them in for a hot drink and a chat, then they headed home for the evening. It was a lovely way to finish off the year.

I always know if it has been a good session if I can feel some stiff muscles the next day and this was the case. Good training indeed!

I don't intend to post anything else before Christmas so train hard but train safe out there people!

See you in 2017.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Theory versus Practice.

The cycle of learning is an interesting one in Martial Arts training. On the surface, an instructor explains or shows a technique and a student tries his or her best to copy. This sequence is repeated time and time again, over this time the student starts to learn these techniques and perform them without guidance.

Sometimes there is an aspect of the technique that the student simply fails to do correctly. The instructor then patiently explains what he is expecting the student to do. Maybe he uses an analogy to help describe the positioning or movement. The students attempts to do the technique again and is still stuck on the same point. 

Sometimes the student understands what is being asked of him or her but still does the technique incorrectly. They struggle to take what they know and express it with their body. 

This idea of 'knowing' but not 'doing' has occurred with me many times. Even when I am absolutely sure what I am supposed to do, I can't get my body to do it. It can be very frustrating. Eventually, at some point the transition is made where finally after many attempts, hours, days or months later I can finally do the technique the way my instructor wants it done. So what is happening?

Well to start with it could be a neuromuscular phenomenon. I might not yet have the coordination to move those particular muscles in that particular way. So I see my sensei do a technique and I monkey it. However, my version doesn't look the same. I haven't got the same coordination as my sensei so my muscles may fire in a different sequence or even the slightly wrong muscles fire to achieve a similar outcome. 

Some of the biggest changes to the neuromuscular system occur during tasks that require explosive movements or when muscles are put under high loads. This sums up a lot of budo. Neural pathways linking to target muscles become more efficient at transmitting the message. As motor units send the stimulus from nerve to muscle, more and more often, the better they get at it. Messages don't get sent to the wrong muscles en route and messages also get to their target muscles with increasing speed and less delay. 

The martial arts often talk about the mind-body connection and this is what I think they are talking about. You have in your mind the movement (theory) and you attempt to make your body do it (practice). 

The world of theory seeks understanding while the world of practice simply wants to act. If all a martial artist does is sit in his arm chair and reads all about the concepts found in budo then can he call himself a martial artist? On the other hand, if the martial artist simply starts kicking, punching, and throwing without instruction, how does he know he is even doing things correctly?  
We must try and find a balance between the two. 

Discussing these two ideas, theory and practice reminds me of something I read once. This was about the way Japanese teach and learn martial arts and how westerners teach and learn. The traditional Japanese method involves little instruction from the sensei. He will show techniques then ask the students to do them. He may say "No, not like that, like this." and repeat the movement. But no further instruction. A whole lesson may go by with the student being told, "No, not like that, like this." The student diligently repeats a movement over and over, hoping to capture the technique of their sensei. There is not a lot of talking in this kind of dojo.

A western instructor (and student for that matter), talks more. He or she will show the technique, answer questions from the students and talk abut why a technique is done a certain way. Students will try the technique and stop and ask more questions. The sensei will try different ways to explain what is happening. 

Both methods have their value. You could argue that the Western method is more theory-based while the Japanese method is more practice-based. Is one better than the other?  I don't know. I believe that we could talk less in some western dojo and perhaps Japanese instructors could take the time to explain things further. 

The danger for any martial artist is losing the balance between theory and practice. When I am on the mat I am conscious of the amount of time I spend talking about a technique rather than simply getting on and training. You can talk all day about how to place your feet or get the right positioning, but it is sometimes better to just get on with the training and work it out. One thing that can come out of the Japanese style of training is how observant the student becomes. As they cannot rely on the sensei so much for instruction they tend to look very closely at what he is doing. They pick up things that a western mindset might not. 

If you spend too much time trying to make a technique work and not listening to your sensei then you have another problem. Your training will venture off course and what you end up doing is not what your instructor asked you to do. You will lack the understanding behind why the technique is done that way and may hurt yourself or training partners accidentally. I know some stories where good martial artists are asked how they do something and they say "I don't know, I just do what my teacher did." This is no problem for that student but the martial art suffers because that person will struggle to pass on the art in any depth. 

TSYR is a funny beast as it tends to attract intellectuals. I'm not sure why, maybe its the history and culture associated with it, maybe its the complexity of the art itself. What ever the reason it is easy for some people to become too academic on the mat and try to think about the movements too much. Theory creeps in and tries to make a home. 

Even the most accomplished martial artists must continue to put theory into practice. I once asked my past sensei, Robbie Smith what was the key to ongoing training in the martial arts and he said, "Find a source." He was saying that you need a teacher to set the standard by which you can follow and keep training. This avoids your training straying. He was bothered by people who taught martial arts but never trained for themselves anymore. They would run a class, speak at length about the philosophy of the art, demonstrate the technique then let the students train. These teachers had let the balance tip heavily towards theory and had almost given up practice. 

So where do you see yourself on the continuum between theory and practice?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Latest musings - Family, work and training.

Below is a picture of the kamidana of my private dojo. I finally finished putting the shelf up. 

It has taken a while because work and family always come first. So when I get the chance, I go out to the dojo and work on the current project. For a while it was the shoe rack. I put together some old shelves, sanded them and painted them. Now I have a shoe rack in the area which will be the genkan eventually. 

I had the shelf for the dojo made for a while but the brackets were being made as a project by a young man at the high school I teach at. They were eventually finished and then had to be stained to match the shelf. Just staining the brackets took a while because the oil-based product needed 24 hours between coats. I would try and get some of the staining done in the evening after work or in the weekend and sometimes it would be two or three days before I could get back at it. 

Once the brackets were done I wanted to buy brass screws (I eventually used zinc gold) to match the colour of the brackets. I had to wait two weekends before I had the chance to get to the local hardware shop. Visitors and family kept me busy until then. I eventually had to tell my wife that I wouldn't be going on the latest family road trip just to get time at home to drill the brackets and shelf to the wall. 

The whole off-mat area is still awaiting my attention. It is functional but the walls need lining and most surfaces need a paint job. The matted space is functional but small things still need some work. I have to decide how I am going to finish the floor space that borders the mats, at the moment the plywood flooring is still exposed 

I'm not complaining, work provides the money for the projects and family comes first. I just accept that things get done in the dojo at a slow plod. As long as I keep making progress I'm not too concerned. 

Training in TSYR continues as always. The core group are still at it and I never tire of it. The Hamilton dojo will be closing for renovations in December and I have said I am happy for the TSYR group to come out and train in Te Miro. I'm looking forward to sharing the space with them. I can practice batto in my own space which is a bonus but I need bodies to work with for most of the shoden curriculum. 

Since Threadgill sensei's last visit to NZ we have been going over the key points he mentioned. I know for myself I need to be less passive in my sword work. We all need to work on smoothing out our unarmed techniques so that they flow more and establish a connection with our partner earlier to get control as quickly as possible. 

It is all good for the mind and body.