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.


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!