Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Hitting the reset button

So it is 2019.

As usual this is a time to reflect on the year that has been and the year to come. For me, it feels like I'm hitting the reset button on parts of my life. I have had a very busy year in my teaching career, too busy to think at times. This year that changes and it will give me space to be creative in my job. Personally, I was faced with the death of my mother in August and that month was pretty much a write-off. As far as my martial arts endeavours go, I still train, I still get on the mat but I have an ongoing injury that is becoming more and more of a nuisance and needs dealing with. Things are feeling a little stagnant on that front.

I started 2019 by getting up early (as I always do) and exercising. Then I changed the offerings at the kamidana and cleaned my sword and re-oiled my bokken, setting up for the year ahead. I am going to see an osteopath for my back in two days and hopefully I can make some progress. 

I am happy with my life right now, with my family, my nutrition, my lifestyle but I know that will change when work kicks off again. So I am thinking about how I can incorporate some of the good lifestyle choices of today into the more hectic lifestyle of tomorrow. 

Its time to reset my life. 

I have been reading a book called "The Okinawa Way" written by Bradley Willcox, Craig Willcox and Makato Suzuki. It is based on a 25-year study of centenarians in Okinawa. It reveals the diet, exercise, and lifestyle practices of these long-lived people.
Book Cover

It is well-researched and has been an amazing read for me. It has helped me evaluate my own lifestyle and I have made some small changes. One of the key components that these researchers believe contribute to these people living a long time is their ability to manage stress. They strongly advocate for people to have good social networks, meditate and get outside. The lessons for me here are around being social. As a school teacher I am forced into intense social interactions daily so that when it gets to the end of the day or week, I can be very antisocial. I am naturally introverted so I am drained after a day of teaching. However, it is good to have close friends and those relationships must be fostered. So moving into 2019 I need to find ways of keeping my social network strong. 

Of course, TSYR is an important part of maintaining friendships. My fellow deshi are very important to me. So I head into 2019 with a bit of a plan. 

Train safe.


Saturday, 20 October 2018

Aikido: the next generation.

For those of you that have been following my blog for a while you know that I have a private, 12 mat dojo on my property. This is a space used for my own TSYR training but for over two years I have also taught aikido to children in this space.

Recently my daughter and another local girl graded for their 6th kyu (yellow belt). I invited my own aikido teacher, Clyde,  to be on the grading panel. This was a proud moment for me as I have not spoken to Clyde, face-to-face for a long time. TSYR has become my focus these past years and although aikido is dear to my heart, I don't have the time to practise both martial arts. However, by teaching aikido once a week in my own dojo it is keeping my aikido waza fresh and I feel like I am passing on what my own teacher has taught me and in this way, aikido moves on to the next generation.

The girls were nervous on the day but so was I!
How the girls performed was also a reflection of my own teaching and I didn't want to let my own aikido sensei down. As it turned out, both girls passed their test and Clyde had some positive things to say about their performance. 

My proud yellow belts and Clyde Sutton sensei

One of the things he mentioned was how both girls moved from their feet. What he was saying was that the girls had good posture and moved strongly using the ground rather than focusing on their arms and shoulders which beginners often do. I was very proud of this comment because I have tried to instil solid principles into the girls' training and not only do I want them to know the appropriate waza for the grading I want to know that principles are being internalised. The fact my sensei could see this was a great achievement. 

I also asked sensei for critique and areas we could work on. This became the focus of my next scheduled training session with the girls. Each girl had a point to consider. My own daughter moves very well and this would mostly be from her ballet training (I can't take all the credit for that one) but sensei asked for a more martial approach, ensuring kuzushi at first contact and making her waza more positive. The other girl naturally rounds her shoulders forward, and although she has worked on this she was advised to keep thinking chest up and forward during her practice. 

What I really liked was how focused our next normal training session was. The grading had re-set their minds and cemented what they were doing well. The girls moved strongly across the mat with good posture and positive technique. 

Now considering these girls are only 11 and 12 years of age, I have the opportunity to turn them into magnificent martial artists provided they keep at it for the next few years. 

Sunday, 2 September 2018


I originally had this piece of writing in another blog post I am drafting but then I realised it deserves its own post. I wish to write about the mindset of our koryu ancestors.
Samurai Mask.
There is an excellent article written in this book "Koryu Bujutsu - Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan" Where the mindset of the Japanese combatant is discussed. Ideally the mindset of a warrior should be cool and calm, with a predator's focus. A story that highlights this mindset well is one told to me by a fellow TSYR deshi. He works for the Australian military and he volunteered to be a "hostage" on a training exercise where he and others were on a bus taken over by "terrorists". The Special Forces guys had to take the bus back. This was one of two activities he was involved with. A  prior activity found my friend seated in front of one of these SF gentlemen who looked like he had not had much sleep and had circles under his eyes but was completely focused and ice cold. Upon starting the siege of a grounded plane these soldiers dominated the space with precision, aggression and speed. When it came time for the exercises it was like the special forces guys exploded into action and while things were done quickly there was no discernible haste, just well-practised actions performed without hesitation. To give you an idea of just how aggressive and uncompromising these SF guys are, my friend experienced being "arrested" so quickly and so aggressively he thought he had broken his arm and cheek bone. The SF men are a perfect example of the modern day warrior who still faces the reality of dying suddenly. They still have the warrior's mindset. 

The Japanese term to describe this cold-blooded mindset is fudoshin. It describes the ability to overcome the typical reactions to sudden violence and stay calm under stress. Where many of us may panic, freeze, or be overcome with rage, the trained warrior remains calm and doesn't hesitate. This allows the warrior to continue to access the movement patterns that will keep him or her alive. When I read about fudoshin in modern budo, it sometimes seems to me that the concept has become romanticised or diluted. Words that are often used are; staying strong in the face of attack, retaining composure or a quality that lets no outside influence affect your mind. While I believe this is true and is a great way to describe the concept to the modern budo practitioner, I don't think it is exactly the same thing to a true combatant that must face the reality of sudden violence and death. If I am to understand the mindset of the feudal Japanese warrior then the uglier, cold-blooded version makes more sense to me.

I know some of you reading this might say, "Hold on a minute. TSYR and many of the koryu founded in the Edo period were founded in times of peace. The Japanese warrior-class did not face death on a daily basis." I would argue that they still faced the prospect of death in the form of ritual suicide or seppuku. To face killing yourself by disembowelment would have required an incredible strength of will. Although killing yourself to follow your lord into death was banned during the Tokugawa period, seppuku could still be ordered of you by law and was often held in the presence of officials. 
The well-known samurai classic, Hagakure (written sometime in the early 1700s) has this to say,
"The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance."
It is clear to me that Fudoshin still very much applied to the 'peaceful' samurai.

Fudoshin is not the only component to the mindset of a budo practitioner. To be able to keep a relaxed vigilance in everything you do is important for a warrior. The Japanese term for such a state is zanshin and can be explained as being constantly aware of your mind, body and surroundings while remaining calm. Zanshin can be practised by being alert from beginning to end of a kata. It can be practised in the simple art of bowing. Zanshin would have had to be highly refined in the Edo period samurai as the society of the time demanded knowledge of many daily rituals. Should this etiquette not be observed, the samurai could find themselves in trouble quickly. By being constantly alert and observant, he or she was watching what others are doing, watching body language and looking at their surroundings to make sure they didn't act in an impolite manner.

Even a person who has trained their minds to exhibit fudoshin and zanshin would still not have the complete mindset of a warrior without one last component. In my martial study I have heard it called "intent", in the article I referred to earlier, it is called "volition" I would go further to say it is "permission" (a term from this article). It is the motivation the combatant has to see his or her actions through. In samurai stories it is common to have two swordsmen square off. Neither attacking, both waiting and watching. Suddenly one withdraws and bows, knowing he would have lost the encounter. This rather dramatic scenario illustrates that if your intent is stronger than your adversaries, then you will win. For me, this is one of the most challenging psychological lines to cross. To intentionally harm another person is difficult when you have had years of societal conditioning about what is right and wrong. It is against the law to assault someone. Yet, a warrior's mindset must allow a time for a switch to be flipped, a moment when you give yourself that permission to do harm without hesitation.

In the dojo environment, my training partners have given their consent for me to practice on their limbs and bodies. Yet we all know no one is out to really hurt the other. No matter how good I think my waza is getting, no matter how much I train fudoshin or zanshin, we all know that this is not a fight to the death. This is why it is up to me and my training partners to increase the intensity. To challenge the other person so they build skill under stress. Only then can we get a glimpse into the mind of a feudal Japanese warrior.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Training Day!

I have just finished a great training session with Pete and Chris. Pete had spoken for a while about working through all the waza in the Shoden Mokuroku, both weapons and empty-hand. So I invited Pete to my dojo for a Saturday morning training session. We bowed on sharply at 9 am and set my phone timer going. Then we proceeded to work through every kata one time each to see how long it would take. We managed to do all the kata in 1 hour, 16 minutes. This included idori, paired weapons sets, the works. It was great to pressure test ourselves to see what we really knew. We managed to remember all the kata even though for a few of them we had to stop and think or work out certain parts, but we got there. Not bad considering there is something like 90 or more kata to learn. It was great to get the heart pumping and my limbs warm. It is a mild winter's day here and it felt good to get to that magical 'training warm' feeling.


Not long after finishing the whole Shoden syllabus, Chris arrived. He had just flown into New Zealand early this morning and wanted to work out some of the swelling from a long flight. So he joined us on the mat as we slowed down and looked at some key points on the idori kata. 

Chris emphasised the right attitude in the techniques, an attitude that presses an opponent and takes the initiative immediately. It was just the right amount of fine tuning we needed after blasting through the techniques. 

Overall Pete and I were happy with our progress. Despite the speed at which we worked, the main points of each kata remained intact (despite the odd technique not being our best). It certainly showed us what we need to work on now for future training sessions.

Pete suggested we do the whole Shoden set some time again to see if we have improved overall. I know it will be a blast. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Training through/around injury.

So I have injured myself.

I woke up one morning to intense pain and aching in my right hip. I had trained the night before but had not noticed any problems before I went to bed. As I got up I found my right leg wasn't weight bearing without pain. I knew I had landed hard on that hip a couple of times during training and assumed I had bruised some part of my hip. After gently pressing different parts of the problem area I discovered the pain was coming from a protrusion of my femur known as the Greater Trochanter. I think I had bruised it and the area had become inflamed overnight as I lay on it. I was pretty sure I had damaged some of the soft tissue around the area as well because certain lateral movements caused me pain as well. After a quick bit of research online and talking to my wife who teaches anatomy and physiology to nursing students, it was quite probable I had tendinitis of the medial glute as well. This made sense as the same day as I had training I had a therapeutic massage appointment. The massage therapist had worked on my medial glutes as they were quite sore.

So here is what I think happened.
Last week I participated in the staff Tug o War (I'm a high school teacher). Now, due to a busy schedule with work and family I have only been getting to training once a week and teaching aikido once a week. Therefore my mobility and activity had dropped considerably over the winter months. Then to suddenly participate in some pretty serious isometric movements (Tug o War) didn't do my body any good. I had also stopped seeing my massage therapist over this winter term due to being too busy. Last year I made sure to see her at least once a month. 

This week I finally got back to my massage therapist and my body was a wreck. She did her best to iron out muscular kinks but more still needs to be done. I had that massage at 10 am of the same morning I had training. I then went to training that evening. Here is where I think my problems started. I had a fairly vigourous training session and pushed myself physically. I got home tired but not really sore. However, the massage therapist would have stretched and loosened muscles around my hips which, I believe, reduced my stability leading up to the training. In fact I believe that having a deep tissue massage PRIOR to training was my down fall. Nothing I did at training was unusual or new, other than increasing the intensity. Therefore the only thing I did differently that day was have a deep tissue massage earlier on. Also, knowing that the therapist worked on my medial glutes and that is the very tendon that is inflamed now seems to support this idea. 

Its my second day with the sore hip and it is healing quickly. It is most painful when I lie down so I slept with a pillow between my legs which reduced the tension on my hip tendons. Plenty of Deep Heat (Menthol cream) has been applied and I did take Ibuprofen yesterday to help with reducing inflammation. I am annoyed with myself for getting injured. However, it is in these moments that I find myself reflecting on my practice and what I can improve on. I will still go to tonight's training session but I will train around the injury. I know what planes of movement I can do without pain and I will stick with those. 

It goes without saying, that I will not be getting a deep tissue massage before training in the future.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Brazilian Jiujitsu Experience

Yesterday I my wife was talking to a guy who use to teach our children at their primary school. He told her he was competing in his first BJJ tournament as a novice. When I heard this I was interested in going along and seeing what it was all about. My knowledge of BJJ is very limited. I have not practised it myself and all I know of it is based on the Gracies and the UFC. I wasn't sure what to expect but I wanted to be among New Zealand BJJ practitioners and get a feel for the type of people they are. I also wanted to see my daughter's ex-teacher having a go.

So I managed to get to the tournament after my daughter's soccer game and watch not only Adam's novice bouts but many others as I was waiting around. The first thing I noticed was the great sportsmanship shown by everybody there. Not only the practitioners but also members of the crowd. The crowd always applauded the winner, no matter who they supported. Credit given where credit is due.

I had a great conversation with a guy I met there. He was a father and his whole family was involved in the MMA gym there. He and his daughter practise BJJ and his son goes to parkour which is also attached to this gym. His family had tried BJJ and then left for awhile to try other sports but had come back because the of the great atmosphere.

During the bouts, the competitors shook hands before and after and during one of the more elite bouts where only two men were in the division, they were smiling and chuckling as they were rolling.

This was a real grass-roots competition at an amateur level and the atmosphere was chilled out and friendly. I was pleasantly surprised. There was no posturing because you spoke with your actions out on the mat. You won or you lost...end of story.

The guy I went to see did well for himself. He won both his bouts. First with an arm bar and secondly with a choke. He was really humble about it all, but man, he could move. He was fast and he was balanced. I don't know if he will continue with tournaments but he certainly has potential.

All in all it was a very positive experience.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

TSYR NZ in the paper!

The last time Threadgill sensei was out, our club took the opportunity to put an interest story in our community newspaper. The local paper known as the Hamilton Press sent a series of questions via email for sensei to answer then booked a time for a photo shoot down at the dojo. 

Chris McMahon and Threadgill Sensei.

You can look at the digital version of the article here.

It is a very light article but gets the point across. We are a Samurai-era historical preservation society in need of more members to preserve the teachings and techniques of Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu. 

It is an obscure pastime that only a few people are interested in. This makes holding members difficult with a city of about 200,000 people. Martial arts such as karate, judo, aikido and mma dominate the community and of these people only a small portion may look into koryu. 

Our martial art also favours budo practitioners 20 + years who have already gained a dan grade in a Japanese martial art. So this narrows down future students even further. 

It is my hope that after the release of this article and increasing our digital profile with a new website, we may get one or two committed students to join our ranks.