Saturday, 10 October 2020

Size and Psychology

 I want to touch on a topic that came up in a podcast I was listening to. The podcast was called Managing Violence by Joe Saunders and it was an interview with Savannah Archambault. Savannah shares openly in the discussion about her experience of rape and sexual assault and the impact that has had on her and the way that she teaches martial arts. It was refreshing to hear a woman's perspective on the martial arts. I highly recommend it!

During the discussion, Savannah is asked what the key factors are to teaching female students. She answers by saying that to her, gender doesn't matter. What matters more is the psychological state of that person and their size. In martial arts, size DOES matter. She admits that having a woman only class does help a female student recover from trauma initially but ultimately, once the student can move past some of those triggers, having a mixed class is more beneficial. This allows women to work with men and to see that the techniques being taught can work on a male. 

So I would like to explore the ideas of the mental state and size of  a person in martial arts.

Size does matter.

Firstly, size. To me, this is simple physics. The greater the mass of an object, the harder it is to move. I weigh 76 kg and stand 186 cm (6 foot, 1 inches). Think of a thin pole - that's me. Now if I am training with someone who is 110 kg and 168 cm (5 foot, 5 inches) I am going to have a hard time. I am giving away a lower centre of gravity and have less mass than my training partner. Of course, if I get my technique right I can move the other person around but I will have to have very good technique or I will most likely fail. I mean, this is the reason they have weight classes in sporting martial arts like judo. We discuss this very thing with body throws in TSYR. If we are trying to throw a person that is absolutely huge, then rather than take them over our hip it might make more sense to chock their ankle or leg and have them fall at that point. It still requires good martial principles such as taking their balance but there is less chance of injury for both parties if it goes wrong during training. 

Consider a tall, strong woman who is into training and conditioning, perhaps she goes to the gym, perhaps she is a competitive rower. Now, put her up against a smaller man who is fairly inactive. Perhaps he spends most of his days behind a computer screen at work or playing video games at home. The size and strength difference will be obvious, we can ignore the genders of either training partner because in this situation, the woman will most likely have an easier time of performing the technique than the guy. This is what Savannah was getting at. Size matters more than gender. Yes, this is an unusual situation but is possible. My wife is of Dutch descent, she is 183 cm (6 foot) tall and weighs more than me (I will not be stating her weight here, I have some sense.) So this makes her on par with me for height and reach but I give away a little mass. However, I have trained and conditioned my body for many years in martial arts while she prefers daily walks and yoga. If we have a fun, play-fight and wrestle about on the floor, I can prevail. However, I believe should she want to (and she doesn't), with a bit of training she would be formidable because she has the size already there. 

So with all things being equal, size IS more important that gender when training in martial arts.

What about the mental state of a person? I have already talked about mind set in one of my other blog posts so you will know how important I think this is. No matter your size, if you think you can't beat the other person or you think you can - you are right. Attitude is so important. Confidence is so important. Often we think of women being the victims of abuse, and while this is statistically, most likely, we mustn't forget that men can also be victims of abuse. Men can come to the dojo with trauma. Again, this is Savannah's point. Gender is second to the psychology of the martial artist. 

Where is your head at?

I started my budo journey in Aikido. Historically, it is a martial art that has a higher percentage of female practitioners than some other martial arts. So from the very start I have trained with women. I now teach Aikido to children and only one of my students is a boy, all the others are girls, my daughters included. If I look at my two daughters, their psychology is different, they bring a different energy to the mat. My youngest is a rough and tumble kind of kid and throws herself (sometimes literally) into her training. My older daughter is more considered. Here we can see, within the same gender, a difference in attitude. Both do Aikido, both are strong, confident girls, but approach their training differently. 

In Shindo Yoshin Ryu: History and Technique by Tobin Threadgill and Shingo Ohgami a past female student of Takamura sensei talks about how she was treated differently to the male students as she could not match their power. He had high expectations of her all the same and demanded that she surpass their speed and precision. He asked that she become deliberate, determined and dangerous. Just think about those adjectives for a moment. If that isn't all about psychology then I don't know what is!

I would like to add my own thoughts to Savannah's. Although gender is second to size and mindset, I do believe males and females communicate a little differently. My years as a secondary school teacher have taught me this as well as raising my daughters. Women and girls like to talk things through while men and boys like to just do it. While this is a generalisation, on the whole I find this to be true. As an instructor it is important to find a space for both approaches. Letting females talk out what they understand, at the right time, helps them. Letting a male just get on with trying the technique, helps them. The trick is making this work in a mixed class and of course, there are exceptions to every rule. 

Hopefully, I have given you some things to think about in this post. 

Train safe.


Sunday, 6 September 2020

Ironing out the kinks and removing the slack.

I thought I would just write a short post this time. 

Winter is a tough time for me as I don't get in as much training time as I would like. My Saturday morning training sessions are hijacked by my obligation to take my daughter to her football (soccer) games instead.  Now, don't get me wrong, I really enjoy watching her play but I miss a key training session each week. As weeks go by I find my body tightens up and old injuries start hurting. 

Jack having a bad day.

Saturdays at the Hamilton dojo usually focus around taijutsu and bodywork stuff. It is the foundation a lot of the other things hinge around. By the end of the football season I am really noticing the reduced training. During the week during our kenjutsu class, I really felt by body fighting me. Quality sword work really suffers if your body is not aligned correctly and it physically hurt to adjust habits I was forming from working on a computer and driving the 40 minutes to and from work everyday. Certain muscles had tightened up and it took fifteen minutes or so to get everything working correctly again. By the end of that session my body had limbered up and I was feeling better but I was discouraged how one less training session a week was hampering my progress. My lovely wife opted to take our daughter to training yesterday so I could get a Saturday session in. During the training we covered chokes, vital points for striking and body throws. I could feel tendons and muscles clicking and crackling back into place as I trained and walked out the the dojo feeling much, much better. 

As I get older I appreciate more and more the need to stay mobile for good health. Stuck in a chair for long periods or stooped over a computer increase my chances of getting injured as muscles stiffen and tighten. I have known this for a while now, mobility is the key to physical health in my humble opinion but sometimes as work and family keep me busy it is easy to get lost along the way.

As I write this I am reminded of a quote from Morihei Ueshiaba, the founder of Aikido:

The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit.

I certainly feel like I am in need of some serious slack-tightening! It feels to me like O'sensei must have had days like mine for him to say such things. 


Train safe, everyone!


Friday, 21 August 2020

Is the End Nigh?

 As I write this blog, New Zealand had recently succeeded in being free of Covid-19 for 100 consecutive days. Unfortunately, our luck has run out and we have had a small outbreak which has placed restrictions on Auckland and less so for the rest of the country. I have had the luxury of training at my usual dojo, I go to work and life is still pretty much normal. Not so for my friends in Auckland. Training has stopped for them until further notice as the Auckland region awaits the release of the restrictions.

As I have watched the Covid pandemic unfold around the world, as I have heard of long standing dojo having to close their doors due to low numbers and lack of funds in the U.S.,(a good aikido friend of mine in Tennessee recently let me know his dojo is closing its doors).  I can't help thinking about the hardship and obstacles the ancestors of our martial arts went through to keep our traditions going. 

In my own tradition of TSYR, the members of the ryu had to survive many 'choke points' in history where the school could have ended. The founder of Shindo Yoshin Ryu, Matsuoka Katsunosuke, created his school in 1864. Note this is a few years before the Meiji Restoration, a turbulent time in Japanese history where loyalists to the Shogun were thrown down in support for the Emperor and the Westernisation of the country. Anyone supporting the old regime was considered a fugitive and Matsuoka had to keep a low profile for a while as he was on the shogunate's side during the strife. Luckily, he was officially pardoned in 1887 and continued to teach his martial art and grow his membership once more. Had Matsuoka been killed in the fighting or tracked down afterwards by authorities, the martial art I now practice would have ended then. 

Moving forward in history we come to the Obata line of Shindo Yoshin Ryu. At this time Obata Shigeta was training his own son, Hideyoshi in the art, training him hard. Hideyoshi would eventually join the military and with the start of World War II, many students departed the dojo for military service. Hideyoshi was now an officer in the army and had to leave as well. Obata's grandson, Yukiyoshi was being trained at this time. In 1944, news of Hideyoshi's death was reported to Obata and seeing the future of Shindo Yoshin Ryu residing with his grandson, he put plans in place. Yukiyoshi was granted a Menkyo Kaiden at 16 years of age (his training would carry on) and he and his mother were moved to the countryside. This ensured the line would continue. The Tokyo fire bombings destroyed the Obata Dojo and Yukiyoshi's grandfather disappeared at about the same time. Through careful foresight and some luck, the school continued through Yukiyoshi. There are many moments through this part of TSYR's history that the koryu could have ceased. Had Obata been killed earlier without handing over the Menkyo Kaiden to his grandson, Shindo Yoshin Ryu would no longer be considered a koryu. One of the defining characteristics of a koryu is the unbroken line, documented with scrolls of transmission. As it was, Takamura Yukiyoshi had several years of training ahead of him at this stage. 

It is a daunting task maintaining and ensuring the growth of a koryu bujutsu. It is important to have good quality deshi but perhaps more importantly, to have enough deshi to ensure someone from the group can rise up and fulfil the role of leading the koryu into the future. This is harder than it sounds. A simple mishap and a student who has been training for years can be gone. 

Ellis Amdur has said many times in interviews and in his books that he was the last remaining student of one of the schools he trained in. All the other students had dropped away for one reason or another until it was just him and his teacher. I wonder if his teacher ever thought that would be the case?

So I look at the situation the world finds itself in now. We are living in unusual times, there is no denying that. But I believe our ancestors have endured far worse and I see the best thing I can do for my ryu right now, is train. Keep grinding the stone and polishing the mirror. We don't know what tomorrow will bring so make the most of it.

Stay Safe!


Monday, 6 April 2020

What is koryu bujutsu?

Once work colleagues or people outside my close circle of friends hear that I practice martial arts the next logical question from them is, "What martial arts do you practise?"

I have found this hard to answer. I used to say 'jujutsu' but this would lead to people thinking I did Brazilian Jujutsu and was rolling around on mats and choking or tapping people out. Irritatingly, this is what most people think jujutsu is. So I changed my answer to 'an old Japanese martial art with swords'. This tends to get people thinking in the right direction but they started to think I was a ninja or samurai (eye-rolling at this point).

Lately (in the last two years or so), I have revised my answer once again. This time to, "I practice a classical Japanese sword art."  I like this answer for a few reasons. First of all, the term 'classical' indicates something old. It's very definition is that of being traditional or long-established. This is very true of koryu bujutsu. Secondly, it is of Japanese origin. Martial arts have many cultural backgrounds, I want the people asking to know that my tradition is strictly Japanese. Finally, I mention the word 'sword' so that they don't automatically think about the many empty hand fighting arts that come to mind when thinking martial arts. Even though my school does train without weapons, that is not our focus, so this is my answer. It tends to satisfy the curious while keeping true to what I do. If they have further questions or want an actual name then I will tell them that I practice Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu. This is usually more than enough!  Just uttering that phrase tends to blow their minds. 

This line of thought triggered this blog post. I would like to go a little deeper into what is koryu bujutsu? Now, I do not read or speak fluent Japanese and my understanding is simply my own based on conversations with and reading by those that know better than I do. So, I do not claim to be an expert on this subject. I am simply, as always, writing down my thoughts on the matter. 

Let's start with looking at the word 'koryu'. The characters that make up ko-ryu can be read as "old" and "flow". Essentially, this refers to styles or traditions of Japan of a particular past time such as flower arranging, tea making, dance and of course the fighting arts. Therefore, I can't simply say I practice a koryu. It is too broad. Therefore, I can add the word "bujutsu", meaning "martial arts". So you could translate koryu bujutsu as old school martial arts. Now, the words bujutsu and budo can be used interchangeably and have a fascinating history in English interpretation. There are some lines of thought that classify bujutsu as martial arts that focus on combat effectiveness while budo are martial "ways" that focus on self perfection and morals. I believe Donn Draeger was the first person to place a difference on these two words. However, others have said that most Japanese do not see a difference between the words at all. Some old school Japanese practitioners will say they study budo.
Ellis Amdur mentions in his writing that one of his own Japanese sensei didn't like the word kobudo (old martial way) as to him it meant something fixed and dead, like an antique. This sensei preferred, instead, to say koryu budo (old flow martial way) - an art that flows from the past to the present, still developing and relevant to the world. 
I tend to use the term budo for my general practise of TSYR and aikido but if I am specifically talking about TSYR I will refer to it as a koryu bujutsu. I never say koryu budo. It just doesn't sound right in my head. Each to their own.

Amdur writes that the koryu bujutsu were established as entities that used combative practice as a binding force. Their purpose to teach the practitioners how to function perfectly as a member of the samurai (warrior class) under the leadership of the daimyo (feudal lord) whom the bushi served. To the modern observer it may appear that training in these old schools simply comprises of mimicking a preset series of movements called kata. It is far more than this. If we look between the lines at what Amdur has written we can see that at its heart, studying koryu bujustu demands loyalty from its practitioners. The ryu flows through its members (remember the translation "old flow") and when you sign up to be participant in one of these archaic arts, your individual wants or needs in your practice become second to the maintenance of the ryu itself. You are loyal to the headmaster and loyal to keeping the practice going into the next generation. Threadgill sensei discusses loyalty in "Shindo Yoshin Ryu: History and Technique." He mentions that loyalty should not be trivialised in a society where individuality takes priority. In other words, western culture. One must not let ego get in the way of real loyalty. The type of loyalty he writes about is not that of a mindless drone. More that of a thinking person who has made a conscious choice to be loyal to the ryu. Amdur describes this type of group loyalty as similar to a wolf pack. At first glance, wolves might play and frolic about but as soon as the leader prepares to hunt or perceives a threat, the whole pack is on the alert. They are finely attuned to the alpha's moods. Such is the case with koryu members who may appear to joke around with each other or tell stories before training begins. However, as soon as the sensei kneels to bow in, without a word, the casual joviality stops and everyone lines up ready for class. Immediate focus and calm ensues. 

I have battled with the balance of loyalty between my training, family and work for years. I have written about it from time to time on this blog. However, I have settled on this working paradigm for now - my family is first, my work is second and then koryu bujustu fills in the remainder of my time. I study a martial art so I can learn to use physical power to protect my family and others (family first). I work to obtain money to support my family (family first) and my koryu practice, therefore work needs to be second. However, once I have satisfied my needs for family and work, koryu training must be my priority. Let me clarify this. Having a drink down at the local bar is not as important as training. Binge watching a television series is not as important as training. Thinking "I can't be bothered going out to the dojo today" is not good enough. If I have time, I should be training. Now, training not only includes going through the physical movements of kata. It could writing my blog, reading one of many books on the subject I have yet to get to or cleaning and maintaining my sword. I can be practical about this. 

Right now, my country is in lock-down as it comes to grips with COVID-19. I am fortunate in that I can work from home. My children are home with me and my wife can also work from home. My daily routine supports my priorities. First of all I keep my family safe, we follow the health suggestions by our government and stay in our 'bubble'. We wash our hands well and only my wife is going out for essentials - family first. Secondly, I am a high school teacher so I am working from a digital platform for now. I make sure I am up-to-date with my work commitments online. Once they are satisfied I go out to my dojo and train for 30 mins to an hour depending on what I am working on, every day except Mondays. I give myself Mondays off from physical training - today is Monday.
I also read books about martial arts and write these posts. My mind is never far from TSYR or budo in general. 

My relationship with other deshi in the kai is quite unique as well. I cover these in more detail in this post. It is a very unique situation where I am part of an international community. 

So, that is my thoughts on this crazy obsession of mine.

Train safe and wash your hands.




Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Developing a Budo Body Part V

I have wanted to go into a deeper discussion on developing a type of body that can generate relaxed power for a while now. However, I am very aware that I am still learning and have a lot more to learn in this field. Due to this, I will be relying heavily on two books to help me clarify my thoughts along with my own experiences. Ellis Amdur's "Hidden in Plain Sight" and T. Threadgill and S. Ohgami's "Shindo Yoshin Ryu: History and Technique" are written by men that know much more than I and are where any quotes I use come from.

Takamura Yukiyoshi sensei called the type of body that had these esoteric skills, a budo body. I intentionally used this term back in April 2011 with my first Budo Body post. I had only been training in TSYR for a number of months but even then it was made clear to me that my body was getting conditioned for a certain skill set.

So what is this type of power I am training for? The term most often used is internal power or internal strength. Amdur summarises internal strength as managing the intersection of the ground and gravity forces within you and then directing these forces in the most powerful way possible. I think this is a good place to start. There is a fundamental exercise that I was taught very early on in my training called Ten chi jin. This is where a person stands with feet side by side, shoulder-width apart, arms slightly bent and extended forwards in front of the shoulders. The legs are slightly bent, the feet facing forward and the head up-right. Now imagine another person applying a lateral force through the first person's arms in an attempt to topple them backwards. As the force enters the first person, he or she splits the incoming force, half directed towards the ground and the other half upwards into the heavens. This exercise is teaching you to redirect forces acting on your body.

Now, if we go back to Amdur's definition of internal strength you can see that is exactly what this exercise is training. I have been practising that exercise for nine years, week in and week out. It is now becoming easy to absorb and redirect that lateral force no matter who is pushing on me. What is more interesting is that it takes little effort to do. This is important. This exercise to accomplished through coordinating bone and muscle so it is aligned in such a way that the force naturally flows where you want it to go. It does not take excessive muscular tension to do. I am 186 cm (6 ft 1 inch) and only 75 kg (165 lbs) so imagine a tall stick. I am actually very easy to knock over in most situations. The fact I can have people heavier than me lean on me and not topple me is a testament to this type of training.

As I said above, this is a fundamental exercise we have been learning for a while. It is not the only exercise and there are other skills we need to learn that require a different approach. Any application of internal power/strength also requires a heightened sense of body sensitivity. Threadgill sensei writes about four dimensions that provide this sensitivity: Skeletal-Postural, External/Tactile Sense, Internal/Proprioceptive Sense and Dynamic-Kinesthetic. I will touch on these very briefly, if you want to know more, buy the book.

The Skeletal-Postural dimension has already been discussed above. The skeleton should be aligned in such a way that it takes minimal amount of muscle to stand upright. Without a decent instructor it is very difficult to know exactly what this looks or feels like. Tactile sensitivity identifies subtle pressure changes during body contact that allows practitioners to evaluate and respond to threats. Paired exercises are required to develop this. Proprioception is the awareness of knowing where your body is in space without using visual cues. Dancers and gymnasts have enhanced this ability as well as martial artists. With proper dynamic training, the final dimension can be honed. This is done by replacing inefficient movement patterns with more efficient and budo-appropriate ones. This results in the relaxed power I wrote about at the beginning of this post. Together these four overlapping dimensions allow a TSYR practitioner to consistently monitor the physiological state of their own bodies.

SAMURAI reJACKed: Episode VII – Jack and the Three Blind Archers ...
Samurai Jack training his proprioception.

Once an awareness of one's own body has begun to develop, five key skills can be practised. Again, I will not go into detail here (read Threadgill and Ohgami's book). The first is to have a connected body, a body that is flexible but strong and works in a unified fashion. The practitioner is able to act in a fully coordinated manner recruiting muscle, bone and fascia to deliver power. The next skill is that of having a subtle touch/feel so that your hands can detect tactile feedback. The touch must be light, only as much is required. The third skill is the cultivation of a precise grip. Flexible, yet firm and devoid of tension. Extremely important in this weapon-based art. The fourth skill is called Dragon Capturing and involves projecting force into an adversary when you grab them. Not in a linear fashion but with a subtle spiral. Finally, breathing methods are utilised to enhance internal strength.

I would like to talk about fascia for a moment. This connective tissue plays an important part in internal power. Recent research hints that fascia is more than just a passive tissue enveloping muscles and organs. It can be conditioned, toughened and used to direct and assign force. Many of the metaphors in internal martial arts appear to be linked to using the fascia network within one's body. I remember talking to the late Robbie Smith sensei before our usual Saturday morning practice. I said that my body felt more robust and springy than prior to training with him but I couldn't put my finger on why. Thinking about it now, I believe the exercises we were doing were developing my fascia along with the coordination of the muscles to created a more unified body. Even now, when I train I can turn on a 'tone' in my body. I'm not sure what this is but I can speculate and say it is a combination of key muscle groups and fascia. If that makes sense? I know that without that tone, I am more susceptible to having my centre taken.

In his book, Amdur has this to say, "With internal expressions of force, the mind directs muscles, ligaments, tendons, fascia AND one's body mass as a whole, organized primarily to exert actions upon oneself, which affect the other in the process." This is a fascinating statement and a great explanation, in my opinion, on how a budo body is created. What Amdur is saying, is that until you have control over your own body, you can't control your opponent using internal power. In my own experience, I find this to be true. Most of my training in internal power has been around me being aware of tension in my body, how I power movements efficiently and monitoring my body alignment. As Threadgill sensei says, once this budo body is developed, the very act of an adversary touching the practitioner results in the attacker being stripped of any structural support. The opponent loses their advantage on contact.

Now that we have established that the practitioner requires an element of sensitivity and an awareness of their own body mechanics the final, crucial element is intent. Threadgill sensei talks about intent often when giving instruction. For a person of his calibre to be talking about the same concept over and over again indicates to me that I should listen carefully. If he thinks it is important then so should I. Internal power ultimately requires a well-integrated mind/body connection. In a moment of conflict, I can't think sequentially through my checkpoints to make sure I am moving appropriately while someone tries to strangle me. My movements must become instinctual. Therefore I must get to the point where my intent drives my actions and I trust that the training I have in place allows for my body to produce the appropriate response. 

A great analogy for this is driving a car. When we first learn to drive a car it can be overwhelming (especially if you learned in a car with manual transmission). However, over the years it becomes second nature to drive to and from work everyday, pass other vehicles and assess threats as you drive. This is what must occur for internal power to be practical. Think about how many hours you have spent behind the wheel of a car. Then think how often you train. Scary thought, huh?

It is well documented that athletes use visualisation to help them succeed in their physical endeavours. When you visualise yourself doing something, but not actually doing it, the same neural pathways fire that would normally activate those muscles that help you perform the activity. The mind is a powerful tool. I think of intent in the same way. If you have grabbed me I might put my intent behind you to make you topple in that direction. I think, "over there" and my conditioned, coordinated body does what is required to put you there. We can practice intent when attempting Ten Chi Jin exercises. Once we can redirect the incoming force we can start to try other things within this set up. I can move the other person around as they try and push me over. By thinking "move that way" my opponent gets moved. I can also place my intent into parts of my opponent's body. This is complex to explain in this post. Having face-to-face instruction is key to learning such concepts. 

So a budo body is not complete without the intent of the practitioner. Amdur says, "intent is the ability to use the forces of gravity and ground to your advantage, and to organize your body in such a way that, moment-by-moment, you shift to make another's power your own." It is the final puzzle piece in internal power training. 

Internal power training comes with a warning from Threadgill and Ohgami in their book, "Not all budo practitioners can internalize or master nairiki (internal power) skills. Nairiki training requires a significant investment in time and physical dedication." Further more, "Considerable mental patience and resolve are needed. Repeated failure and thousands of hours of repetitive training must be endured to acquire these skills, with no guarantee of success." 

Jack in snow | Samurai Jack | Know Your Meme
Even after training for years, you may not get it.

Sobering words.

I have found a certain level of competence in this area but have a long way to go before mastery. I see it being many years until I can claim that, if at all. 

Train safe out there everyone!

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Universal truths of budo and body mechanics

The title of this post has been taken from a quote from a martial arts friend of mine. He was discussing the cross-over he saw in internal Chinese martial arts and internal power trained in Japanese martial arts.

At the TSYR dojo where I train, we have karateka, aikidoka, judoka and gendai jujitsu folk training together. We all bring something different to the training based on our previous disciplines (in many cases people still train in that discipline). We often talk about how certain principles overlap in many of the martial arts.

A human being has a finite way of moving efficiently. By this logic, a martial artist has only a finite way to strike, apply locks or throw someone effectively. What we are noticing as we train is that we are conditioning our bodies to move more and more efficiently and as we look at the principles behind many of the techniques we see overlap in other martial arts.

Jigoro Kano and Kyuzo Mifune

Here are some of the 'universal truths' I have discovered, please note that some of these concepts are hard to explain with words alone and some have to be experienced to get the full meaning of what I am trying to say. Also I am sure I will change my mind about some of these ideas as I refine my understanding. So, a disclaimer - this is how I understand things as of now, in no particular order of importance, and they are all up for discussion.

POINT OF IMBALANCE (the third point)
Humans stand on two feet. Although this has its advantages, the major drawback is that we are not very stable compared to our four-legged counterparts. Good martial arts exploit this fact. If we trace a line between the two feet and then another line perpendicular to that one (forming a T), the end point of that line is where a person will lose balance if we put their centre of gravity there. Put very simply we have two such points, one at the front and one at the back. If you ask a friend to stand square on to you in a relaxed manner and then lightly pulled their shirt from the chest, they would tilt forward and have to step or fall over. You can move them by pushing them backwards gently as well. It doesn't matter what stance they take, there are always two points of imbalance waiting to be exploited. This concept can be found in aikido, judo, TSYR and I'm sure many other martial arts. How this is achieved depends on the martial art.

DOUBLE LOADING
So you take someones balance, so what? They will just step or readjust their weight won't they? Of course they will. To maintain an advantage the martial artist must stop this happening. Double loading/weighting is just one expression used to describe an opponent's weight being trapped in both feet so they cannot step without falling. This is hard to explain only with words. Imagine you are at that point where you are about to fall but you are so extended or compressed that if you should lift either foot, you will collapse on the ground. This is double loading/weighted. A martial artist will try and set an opponent up in this position so that they can then dictate where or how the opponent will move next. This might result in a strike, throw or joint lock. Double loading takes away an opponent's options. Without a secure base they cannot counterattack and therefore are severely compromised.

HAVING A SOLID BASE
It is important in any martial art to move from a position of power. To maintain your own balance and be 'strong'. It is no good executing a technique while your own balance is compromised. This goes for transitioning from one movement to another as well. Should you not be in a position of balance as you move, your opponent can take advantage of this. I have heard dancers comment on the importance of 'finding the ground' with your feet at all times. They too know the importance of a solid base. 



This may mean lowering your centre of gravity by bending your legs (like the sumo practitioners above). It may mean having your feet flat on the ground or it might mean making sure you have your weight directly over your feet, or one of your feet at all times. 

MOVE FROM CENTRE
This usually refers to the use of the legs and lowerback/pelvis/core to support and move the body about. To correctly move from centre the practitioner is not using extra muscles to complete the movement. I find this simple idea to be one of the most challenging to achieve in practice. Through my life I have generated certain body/movement habits. As I train myself to move from centre I am discovering these habits and am challenged to change them into new ways of moving. If you are moving from your centre correctly, your upper body is stacked on the bowl of your pelvis and will move where your centre moves. This is written too simplistically but hopefully gets my point across.

CONNECTING TO ONE'S OPPONENT
This is an extremely difficult one to explain but I will try. By making contact with another person, the practitioner can feel into their opponent's centre and take their balance. It requires a great deal of sensitivity and we spend some time every training session on this at the dojo. Ellis Amdur calls this the Listening Skill. I believe all martial arts that have elements of prolonged contact are ultimately trying to develop this. You can see this in the BJJ of the Gracies, the interplay between two fencers and the subtle Judo of Kyuzo Mifune. Once you can feel where an opponent's balance is, you can move it, take it away and ultimately control their actions.

POSTURE
Maintaining a good posture as you move is fundamental to Japanese Martial Arts. Even when a person bends at the waist they do so with a straight back. Does this mean you can't bend? No. However, where you bend from is important. Many people bend from the lower back or round their shoulders to get lower to the ground. What is better, is to bend at the hips or bend your knees. In this way you keep your centre engaged, your upper body stacked upon the pelvic bowl to tap into the power of your waist, hips and lower back. I have had both my instructor and a ballet teacher talk about 'moving around your spine'. Essentially this is the same idea. You shouldn't be twisting your spine or rounding it in a way that takes strength away from your structure. If you can spin or turn on the spot without your head moving, then you are moving around your spine and maintaining good posture. 
Throwing with good posture.
STRUCTURE
This term refers to body structure - the alignment of bones and muscle to remain stable and strong. Misalignment of the bones will cause certain muscle groups to contract to maintain stability, when this happens, an adversary can exploit this moment of increased tension. Unifying the structure of your body with sophisticated joint articulation, muscle coordination and controlled breathing leads to internal power. This is the ability to use maximum power with little effort. Threadgill sensei discusses this in depth in his book Shindo Yoshin Ryu: History and Technique. 

I believe all of the above concepts apply to good martial arts mechanics. If I see someone applying these principles, no matter what their background or training history then I know I am looking at a proficient martial artist. 

Train safe.






Tuesday, 24 March 2020

What are your win conditions?

When we bow onto the mat, whether it is judo, aikido, kendo or some older budo, we engage in controlled violence where there are set rules, limitations and boundaries. No matter how hard I train I know that I will still be getting in my car afterwards and driving home, healthy and happy.
That is a good thing. I want to reuse my training partners from week to week and we all need each other fit and healthy. Unfortunately, this mentality doesn't lead to good self defence psychology.

I have been re-reading Rory Miller's book, Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence. I also have been listening to an Australian podcast called Managing Violence by Joe Saunders and another podcast called Walking with the Tengu by Matthew Kreuger. These three men have left me with many thoughts about my own martial arts training.

Joe Saunders has created the Violence Survival Pyramid. He talks about four factors that go into increasing your chances in a violent encounter. From the most important at the base of the pyramid to the least important at the top. If you have a look you will notice that he puts physical techniques at the top (the least important factor). Rory Miller writes about dealing with sudden, violent encounters. Although he wrote a whole book on the subject, most of his writing is not on physical techniques, why? Finally, many Walking with the Tengu episodes mention win conditions. Despite the different topics this podcast host explores, he often returns to win conditions. 

These thoughts and ideas have been percolating in my mind. I keep coming back to win conditions. What have you decided is your goal for any given confrontation, whether it is verbal or physical? In sport karate it is scoring a clean touch on a designated area. In MMA it is getting the tap or the knock out. In kendo it is getting a clean strike on a designated target area while showing strong spirit. As a high school teacher managing challenging student behavior, it is deescalating the situation to a point that allows learning to continue. For a police officer it may mean the restraint of a person with handcuffs. To a soldier it may mean killing the enemy. 

All these win conditions set up very different training regimes for the people above. It makes no sense for a karateka training for his next tournament to learn the verbal deescalation techniques of a teacher. The teacher does not need to learn how to fire a rifle to get the focus of students in a classroom and teaching an MMA fighter how to strike with a kendoka's shinai is not going to help him much in the cage. This may seem obvious but people still have arguments over 'the best martial art' or 'the best technique' when what they should think about is the win conditions assumed with each of those statements.

If I am put in a self-defence situation where my life is threatened and I may be able to escape,  my win condition is to get away. Everything I do in that moment is to try to make that a reality. Any actions I might perform that aren't helping me achieve this goal are pointless and in this case, potentially deadly. 

If you are practicing a martial art I hope you have thought about the win conditions that have created the training paradigm you are involved with. Is this what you thought you were training for? Is it not clear what you are training for? I started aikido in 2002, I joined because a workmate of mine had been practicing a long time, he was a black belt and because he was a nice guy. I thought the dojo must be pretty good to churn out a guy like that. I went into it with the thought that I would do it as long as life didn't get in the way. Little did I know that martial arts training would become part of my life. However, my reasons for training in aikido changed over the years and so did my assumptions about its practice. You could say that my interpretations of what the win conditions were changed. At first I considered the win conditions to be the resolution of conflict through superior technique. An aikidoka could skillfully use his opponent's force against him and the adversary would see the error of his ways. The more I trained, the more I found this difficult to believe. So I started to doubt my practice and the purpose of my training. That was a confusing time for me. Because the win condition was not clear, it was hard to decide which elements of my training I should focus on and which parts I should forget. Then I decided the win condition of aikido was still about conflict resolution but through deescalation and we were practicing a physical metaphor. It was more about training a mindset that was open to resolving conflict through deescalation be it verbal or physical. The physical training kept me fit and flexible and wasn't that practical. For me, this was particularly true of aikiken, the wooden sword training. At this point I had started as a high school teacher in a co-ed state school and the mental skills I had learned in aikido practice paid off. I could see a link between my training and my profession. My training found renewed purpose. I could also blow off steam on the mat. 

I still had my doubts about all the sword swinging I was doing. That didn't seem to fit into my deescalation paradigm very well. In 2011, I was introduced to Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu. This is a classical Japanese sword school. Everything I thought I knew about using a Japanese sword was wrong in this training paradigm. The win condition in TSYR is very clear. Kill the other guy. However, do this in the context of medieval Japan. The mindset is different. Deescalation is not important. You have to have the mind of a predator in this martial art. Everything I learn and train for in TSYR is to gain advantage over an adversary to kill him. This makes training so much clearer and straight forward. If I perform a movement that gives an advantage to the other person or is done in an inefficient manner I am 'dead'. There is something very pure about this type of training. 

The funny thing is, I still practice some aikido. I teach it to children. My TSYR training has clarified the win condition of my aikido practice. It most certainly is not the desire of my aikido training to kill the other guy. That, I am very sure of. So what is it? 
 I believe it is beneficial to learn to be strong of mind but willing to deescalate a situation. That is the win condition I have for my students. Do what is needed to deescalate and no more. That is a valuable skill I can give them to take into the world. 

So I go back to Joe Saunder's "Surviving Violence Pyramid". We see mindset is the very foundation of this diagram. As he says, "get your head straight" and everything else falls into place.  Rory Miller discusses the psychology of both attackers and victims in his book. He understands that the mindset of a person is key. Know what your win conditions are and train hard to ensure you can achieve them. Your win conditions will decide your mindset, your mindset will decide your training parameters. Then you can train with sincerity and purpose, without distraction and without the 'fluff'. 

When I step onto the mat I will be one of two people in that moment. If I am practicing TSYR, then I am the predator, seeking an opportunity to kill. If I am practicing aikido then I am the mediator, seeking to find a solution through deescalation but not devaluing myself in the process. As my mindset shifts, so too does my training. This gives me a sense of clarity.

So, what are your win conditions?

Train safe.