Monday, July 7, 2014

A little punch drunk

Sooo, some of you may have seen the recent fight between Ronda Rousey and Alexis Davis.  If you haven't, you can watch it in it's entirely below. Don't worry—it will only take 16 seconds.

In the judo world, Ms. Rousey has served as something of an evangelist of the art (not so much in word as in deed), dominating her competition with trademark judo techniques, from hip throws to her bread-and-butter submission, juji gatame.

Case in point: during this particular bought, she makes very quite use of ogoshi straight to kesa gatame to end it before she can even manage to break a sweat.

Which is great. Hurray for judo, and all that.

Here's the thing. This example actually troubles me a bit. As long as your interest in judo is solely sport-oriented, then never mind, you probably needn't concern yourself. But if you look at judo in any measure as a viable form of "self defense" you may be in for a rude awakening—or, get put to sleep as the case may be.

Because if any of us (myself included) want to assume judo will save us "out there" on the proverbial "street," we should realize that in order to make judo a sport, one that be practiced with minimal injury, rules needed to be set in place. Rules that made it "illegal" to do certain things to your opponent that would  most likely will cause significant harm, such as leg and wrist locks, or—you guessed it—punching someone in the face. (Although, I'm sure many a competitive judoka will tell you that that rule doesn't necessarily stop opponents from slipping in a little chin music under the radar.)

So, while Ms. Rousey's performance may underscore many judoka's faith in their art, to me, it also points out a rather glaring weakness in it when it comes to self defense. If I train to deal with someone who can hold me in something like kesa gatame, but who is also nice enough to refrain from grinding my face into hamburger meat, what would I do in a true self-defense situation where my attacker isn't playing by any rules but his own?

And that's what troubles me. My particular school has never been interested in competitive sport judo, which leaves me to wonder, why am I doing it? Sure, there are the usual internal, personal benefits that come with the study of any art, and enrichment of the self and the spirit, so on and so forth, which I don't mean to devalue or dismiss. I just wonder how many folks out there are aware of the chink in judo's armor.

It's for this very reason that I dislike the practice of assuming a "turtle" position when grappling. In the context of sport, I get it, makes sense. Work it, drill it, break it down, score your point, go nuts. But otherwise, why on earth would I bother?

If I'm in an honest-to-goodness fight, and the other guy turtles up on me, well my friend, that's as good a time as any to run the hell away. Call the cops, for Pete's sake. Or, I suppose if you'd prefer to stick around and finish the poor bastard off, why mess with any fancy-pants upside-down, roll-around, arm-lock-choke nonsense, and just stomp on his head or kick him in the kidneys till he's peeing blood?

And if I'm the one who turtles up in a real fight, then I'm an idiot for thinking the other guy isn't going to do exactly that, and frankly, almost deserve the inevitable beating I get.

The same could be said for tate shiho gatame, of course. A bad guy isn't going to bother holding my like a teddy bear; he's gonna mount you and start treating your face like a speed bag. Anyway, you get the point.

So, where does that leave me? Well, while I certainly don't intend to start punching people during judo class, I would actually like to address some of these vulnerabilities in my practice. I still may not be able to withstand the human thresher machine that is Ronda Rousey, but against your run-of-the-mill ruffian, maybe I could at least save my pretty face.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Aikido's greatest hits

So the subject of atemi came up recently. Atemi, of course, refers to striking, punching, smacking, bitch-slapping, whatever. Ignoring for a moment the first five techniques of randori no kata / junana hon kata, we're talking about moments in other techniques (mostly in koryu kata) in which tori takes the opportunity to bop uke before moving on.

The student of modern aikido should understand that it did originate, after all, from arts that were designed and practiced by samurai—professional warriors, whose job it was to kick some serious ass. Now, for the most part, punching or kicking didn't do a whole lot of good when dealing with an opponent wearing armor (hence the predominance of joint locks, throws, choking, etc.), but samurai were occasionally called upon to deal with violent situations while dressed in their civvies, so why not add the proverbial insult to injury by cracking a rib before you pin him and politely separate his head from his shoulders.

But Ueshiba turned all that into an art of love and peace and harmony, right? Well, for one, Ueshiba did his fair share of atemi in his practice, but yeah, if that's you're approach to the art, and you'd like to refrain from doing something as barbaric as cold-cocking the guy, splendid.

And yet, it does pop up occasionally, as I mentioned, in the koryu kata (as far as Tomiki aikido goes), so it bares contemplating. Now, it does serve a purpose, but my concerns lie not in the why but the how.

Punching for realz
I'm by no means an expert, but I've studied enough Shotokan karate to know that there's a right and a wrong way to strike someone or something. Do it incorrectly and you're likely to hurt yourself as much, if not more, than the other guy.

So if you're going to keep strikes in your kata, beuno—but I would advise learning and practicing how to do it correctly, not to mention where to hit the dude. Alternatively, as many in our system do, the punch can be replaced by a simple shomen ate. It seems to achieve the same thing, it's in line with what we've already been practicing for years, and perhaps more importantly, uke doesn't get his bell rung over and over.

Do or do not
I'm a firm believer that what you do in practice is what you'll do in reality. In other words, if you practice the atemi in such a way that you feint the hit, or "stop short", that's more than likely what will happen "on the streets."

If you tell yourself that, "Sure, when I train, I pull my punches, but in a real fight, I'd really hit the guy," I suspect you're in for a bit of a surprise. That's a conscious decision, and fights often boil down to split-second, gut reactions—the subconscious. Which means, if you want to include the idea of really hitting someone in your training, you need to really hit someone when you're training.

This, as many martial arts can attest, can prove problematic. Most people don't like getting punched over and over, be they bad guys or friends and training partners. Which is why sparring gloves and protective headgear were invented, so that everybody can practice doing violent things safely. (Am I the only one that finds that idea somewhat ironic?)

Of course, sparring gloves can make it a bit difficult to perform any of the finer hand movements often required in aikido. Maybe use those padded, fingerless MMA gloves?

. . . . . . . . .

Ultimately, I'm not here to make a case for or against the using of atemi in aikido. I'm just urging folks to be realistic about it. Never forget that, while we will spend 99.9% of our time doing this stuff in a nice, safe dojo, with friendly folks and pre-arranged forms, etc., any martial art is fundamentally about very real, very violent, very dangerous situations. Even when used in the spirit of love and peace and harmony, chances are very high that someone is going to get hurt, sometimes badly. Better them than you.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Making sense of Owaza Jupon

The kata Owaza Jupon has always been a unique one in my mind. It feels sort of out of place, thrown in there between junana hon kata and all the koryu kata as an afterthought. I'm sure I'm not the first one to wonder why exactly.

And from what I can gather, it's not a very common kata either, even within other Tomiki schools (mostly American ones, it seems). Which means finding more in-depth information about it is tricky, and what I can find is often inconsistent.

But this is what I know so far about why it was developed, or what we can learn from it:

Who it came from

Owaza jupon was apparently developed by Hiroaki (Riki) Kogure sometime in the 1950s, who taught in the US for a few years in the early 70s.

More movement

It seems that much of the basic Tomiki aikido training coming out of Waseda University was typically exercised with a static uke. So, in an attempt to create a more dynamic situation, Kogure pieced together some techniques that demanded more movement. (From Eric Pearson's blog.)

Okay, that makes sense in that context. It explains why we typically attack from three steps out instead of one, the way we normally would. But our school has always been a fairly dynamic one, emphasizing constant movement, etc., so I still wasn't sure how I'd benefit there.

Ma'ai — Spacing or reach

Different spacing

Another idea is that it attempted to address is people coming in from a more distant ma-ai. Up until this point, most students train with uke beginning right at the edge of our little personal bubble, always reaching out and touching hands with uke to measure prior to executing the technique. This ingrains into our subconscious a more natural sense of where the boundaries of that bubble are, and how it relates to other people (or things).

At a certain point, however—probably around first or second brown belt, and certainly by shodan— students should begin working with more natural, spontaneous attacks from all kinds of directions and distances, without all the "get ready" business, so I definitely like the idea.

Go no sen

Different timing

Some practice it with a go-no-sen (or late) timing. While the techniques of junana hon kata are often practiced sen-no-sen timing (a middle of the spectrum, simultaneous, mutual timing), the Big 10 offers a chance to experience a more "oh, shit!" type of condition. We're caught unaware, we're unprepared, and all we can do is get out of the way.

Good idea in my book. Go-no-sen timing is often uncomfortable, a bit more frightening than the others because we're late and not in control as we'd like to be. Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and creating harmony out of chaos is what it's all about.

Absent techniques

For some reason I've never understood, Mr. Tomiki didn't include in his katas certain techniques that are considered something of a staple in Ueshiba schools, such as irimi nage or shizumi otoshi. The Big 10 includes them, but it also includes some repeats from the 17: shiho nage, kote gaeshi and ushiro ate. Some simply consider these versions as variations, or henka, while others find them too redundant and have replaced them altogether with different techniques.


This one always gave me some trouble. Many teach that this kata should be performed with separating, diverging centers, as opposed to the converging centers in junana hon kata. Separating, separating, always moving, moving away.

For one thing, I've had a hard time seeing all of the techniques in the Big 10 really work from a separating mindset. 1 through 4, sure, great, makes sense. But aiki nage, more commonly known as irimi nage? Maybe, I guess. But "irimi" means "entering" which seems more converging than diverging. And ushiro kubi gatame, well, I'm hanging onto the guy indefinitely.

I don't know, you could probably debate me on all that, but more importantly, I wanted to know why? Why would I want to separate? What purpose did it serve?

From a strategic point of view, I would think that just tossing uke away would only give him the opportunity to get back up and come at me again (if he didn't injure himself in the fall, which would be foolish of me to count on every time).

In fact, I've heard a number of teacher extoll the need for a more definitive approach. From classical samurai bujutsu to modern-day law enforcement, ideally we'd like to control the situation as best as we can. Pin him, lock a joint, (or from a judo perspective, choke him unconscious). Draw your wakizashi, run him through, and sever his head for a trophy. Whatever—just don't let the guy have a second shot.

So why would I just... "let go"?

Multiple attackers

This is the angle that caused a mental light bulb to go off. One thing that no other Tomiki aikido kata covers is the idea of several attackers. Now, in that case, our strategy changes somewhat.

If I'm surrounded by three or more hoodlums or ninjas or whathaveyou, I can't afford to get caught up in doing all kinds of fancy-pants techniques and locks and so forth with the first guy, because his buddies will be on my back in the blink of an eye.

So what I think people are trying to get at when they emphasize "separating" is more along the lines of "minimal engagement" and constant movement.

In other words, how can I deal with thug #1 in such a way that I avoid getting clobbered, and maybe even do something to break down his balance, without getting so preoccupied that I can't react to the next guy in line? How can I give each guy a problem to deal with without me stopping and giving everyone else a sitting target?

But here's the thing: even in a multiple attack situation, I don't always want to just throw the guy away. Sometimes, I'd like to throw, or even hold, an uke strategically—say, between me and the next attacker.

With that mindset, I see techniques like shiho nage, ushiro ate, and kote gaeshi not as mere repeats, or even henka just for the sake of being different, but as ways of possibly hanging a guy in space quickly—not letting him fall, but not letting him get back up either—with minimal commitment, to act as a sort of temporary human shield. I can, to a certain degree, control when or where he falls. Ideally, into the next guy, or at least between him and me. Ushiro kubi gatame and even irimi nage are exceptionally good for doing just that.

. . . . . .

So, is any of that what the Big 10 was created for? Don't know. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps only Mr. Kogure knows for sure. But for me, at least the Big 10 finally makes a lot more sense in my mind. At least for now!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Not the way I planned

Howdy, folks. Been a loooooong time, I know. Imagine I wrote about the usual excuses, and let's just move on to what I've got on my mind, shall we? Okie-dokie...

So last month, I had the opportunity to teach a few sessions of our kangeiko, or winter training session. I went... well, not like I'd hoped, truth be told.

I was assigned four morning sessions. The first morning had a decent number of people show (about six, enough for three pairs), and I got to start delving into the topic which I had chosen for the Friday and Saturday morning sessions, which was aikido jo dori (defense against a jo).

In Tomiki aikido, for some reason, we really only deal with weapons in koryu dai san kata and again in roku kata, and that's pretty much it. I don't know about other Tomiki schools, but ours has never spent much time aside from that on it.

But I've run across a lot of other interest ideas from the broader aikido world that I thought would be fun to explore. They're ideas that demonstrate the same principles we all know, but putting an object in uke's hand changes the relationship a bit, so personally I think it's worth the time to practice it occasionally.

Not me, by the way...

Anyway, Friday went well enough, but for some inexplicable reason, I ended the session a lot earlier than I realized. Oops.

Saturday went better. I had more people, and I covered a lot more, although not everything I had in mind. I learned quite a few things myself from working with the various practitioners, and we just had fun.

Sunday... Not as well. Only a handful of people came trickling in as the time to begin came and passed. Eventually, I got on the mat with three others with the intention to talk about some judo renraku waza I had been working on for a while now. Unfortunately, we never made it past the first set of throws. Mostly because their various questions sent us off in other directions, which is fine, we all still (hopefully) learned something, but considering the sessions were being recorded I had hoped to get some of these chained series on tape.

And finally, when Monday morning came along, my back and shoulders were giving me grief, so I just texted and asked Nick to fill in.

So there you go.

Yeah. Not spectacular. Ah, well.

But I enjoy teaching, and all the time I've spent teaching the morning classes has in turn taught me a great deal, so hopefully I'll get a chance to do something like this again.

As they say in the budo world, "We practice falling in order to learn to pick ourselves up."

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What does the "path" look like?

If you study any modern Japanese martial art, you are no doubt familiar with the concept of "do." It's most often translated as "way" or "path," which makes for a very handy and versatile metaphor for the long, wonderful journey that is budo.

If, then, the study of a martial art (or really anything) can be likened to a path, what does that path actually look like? To me, it takes on different forms as you progress.

A paved street

When you first start your study of an art, and for some time afterward, the path will probably look like a paved street. That road has been paved by the many who have come before you, who have traveled this exact path a hundred thousand times. It's a solid foundation, and it's objective is firm.

There are all kinds of signs and maps to help you along your way, to guide you in the right direction, also designed by those who arrived long before you. Failure to follow that guidance will likely get you lost very quickly.

There are clearly painted guidelines to keep you from deviating off course. There are strict laws, partly designed for your protection and the safety of others, but also to help the process run as smoothly as possible, not just for you but all the others traveling alongside you (and there will be many).

The beginner's path tends to be straight and direct with little variation. It will get you from A to B, all you have to do is follow it.

A dirt road

After years of study, you may find the road you have been traveling has gradually changed to something more akin to a dirt road.

Now the path is less sure, less defined. Fewer people have come this far, so true guidance can come from only the most experienced travelers.

And you may also notice that there are a number of different paths, not just your own. Not better or worse, just different. As O Sensei once wrote, "There are many paths leading to the top of Mount Fuji, but there is only one summit—love."

There are fewer markers, it's not as straight, and there are more turns to choose from, so the likelihood of wandering off into unfamiliar areas increases. That can be a good thing or a bad thing: you could discover something new and enlightening, or you could get distracted and caught up in a direction that leads nowhere.

The responsibility of finding your way is less reliant on others as it was in the beginning. The journey is less about following and more about discovering.

The path you make

After even more time and training has passed, the path you take may very well be one you make yourself. 

There could be no discernible path at all, just a vast, ever-changing wilderness. It may then fall upon you to blaze new trails. You will run into obstacles: some you can clear, other you'll just have to go around. You will occasionally have to double back the way you came and try something else. It's both arduous and wondrous, frustrating and exhilarating. It can certainly get lonely.

It also becomes your responsibility, if you wish not to end up alone, to look back and reinforce the road you've traveled and make it sustainable, to make it available for those who come after you. You yourself become the map, the traffic light, the painted lines that guide the newer students.

You have gone from traveller, to trail blazer, to caretaker. Ultimately, you will be all of these. The road is what lays ahead, what lays behind, and what lays beneath your feet. 

Indeed, the world itself is your path, "heaven is right where you are standing." Because, as O Sensei once put it, "the Great Path is really No Path."

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Handling Burn Out Part 3

So, I've talked a bit about my experiences with "burn out", particularly why it tends to happen, and what to do when it does happen. The last dimension of the topic I wanted to touch on was:

How do you prevent burn out from happening?

Well, in a word: relax, man.

Pace yourself
As tempting as it may be when you're really into your art, I would advise not going to every single class and every clinic, like I did. Pace yourself, champ. Budo is, as they say, a marathon not a sprint.

There are people who exist as living exceptions to that, of course; there will always be those rare few who seem destined to do this stuff as their primary purpose in life, but you need to brutally honest with yourself whether or not that's you. And for many, that may take years to figure out.

Avoid major life events
Okay, I'm kidding. Obviously, you can't avoid major life events, expected or not. So to that end, you might as well just accept that they will come and they will derail your training for a bit, and be okay with that. Enjoy the break.

That being said, there are also many different kinds of training. There are still plenty of opportunities to keep your head in the game, even when you can't physically make it to the dojo: books, DVDs, apps, blogs, podcasts, videos, conversations with fellow students, or even just going over the movements in your own mind.

Vary your interests
Even if budo is a major interest in your life, a big part of avoiding burn out is maintaining other passions outside of it. Even the samurai studied things like poetry, tea ceremonies, painting, flower arranging, etc. In other words, your yin could use some yang.

For me, I'm a graphic designer and illustrator by trade, and I derive a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from that world. I also enjoy cooking, and even, on occasion, being with my kids =) Not only does focusing on one interest allow you to take a break from another, I think you'll be surprised at how stuff you learn and skills you gain from one interest will benefit another.

Routine vs chaos
In a nutshell, managing your training career over a lifetime is a delicate balancing act between knowing when to buckle down and focus with repetition, and knowing when to throw yourself a curveball. It's also part of being a good teacher, by the way.

All that being said, there are undoubtedly a whole host of reason why burn out occurs, all tailored to each individual. And just because I've dealt with it in the past and learned a few things doesn't mean I'll never face it again.

But it seems like that's all part of the journey. There's so much more to studying a martial art than just learning a handful of techniques, n'est-ce pas?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tenkan vs Tenkai

A question came up the other today about the difference between the words "tenkan" and "tenkai" which I think gets confused at times. As far as I understand it...

Tenkan 転換 breaks down as:
suddenly, quickly 
change, alter, substitute
and together 転換 as convert or divert

You might think of it as changing direction suddenly, or diverting uke's energy. In aikido, it refers to a turning movement (tenkan ashi), usually 180 degrees:

Tenkai 転回, however, breaks down like this:
suddenly, quickly
turn, rotate, revolve
and together 転回 as revolution or rotation

In much of the aikido world, it refers to a form of movement, what we commonly call a "hip switch", where you turn 180 degrees but without moving our feet (we do it in the Walking Kata, but there it's called "ude goshi gaeshi" or arm-hip reversal, which frankly is probably more clear):

Both tenkan and tenkai are part of what's called tai sabaki or methods of moving the body.

So, what about technique names like "tenkai kote hineri" and "tenkai kote gaeshi"? To start with, one should bare in mind these names are primarily a Tomiki Aikido preference. Ueshiba styles refer to them as sankyo or "third control" and simply shiho nage respectively.

To me, though, "rotating wrist twist" or "rotating wrist reversal" doesn't paint a very clear picture of what I'm doing. Now, I have seen some define tenkai as "inversion", or as I like to call it "bass ackwards" which makes more sense to me visually. With "inverted wrist twist / reversal" I'm putting my hand in a sort of inverted position compared to the regular kote hineri / gaeshi.

(By all means, if anyone reading this has any other light to shed on the subject, please share!)