Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Foot sweep drill, part 5

Yoko wakare

This time, we'll look at several options when you sweep at uke's foot and he pulls it away and you miss. Originally, we looked at putting the left foot down next to uke's left (toes pointed across the line, or toward uke's rear) and then getting kosoto gari. Then we put that left foot down turned toward uke and slipped into tani otoshi or a sit-down variation of sukui nage (or even gedan ate for the aikido players). Lastly, when we put the foot down turned even further in throw to uke's front we got either ashi guruma or o-guruma.

Another possibility (again, assuming I swept with my left and uke pulled his right foot back out of the way), is to put my left foot down right behind my right heel (on the balls of my toes). Basically, you turn and end up in a classical tai otoshi.

I'm always wary, though, of just spinning around willy-nilly in front of uke, so I feel like I'd better have a very real kazushi first. I think what prompts me to take this kind of backward step, as opposed to stepping forward as in the first three throws, is just how much uke is bracing against me to keep me away from his feet. If he's braced so hard that I can't step forward for kosoto or ashi guruma, I might as well go with that energy and put my foot down behind my support leg and use his bracing forward energy to through him forward. In other words, I don't think I want to just arbitrarily decide, Hey, I like tai otoshi, so I'm gonna spin around in front of him and throw him, ha ha! I'm pretty sure Kyle Sloan sensei would choke me mid-turn.

Here's a weird one. Let's say that I'm sweeping with my right foot now and miss (uke pulls back his left). My original idea was to put my foot down in between uke's, toes pointed out to my right (toward uke's front, parallel to his line), then let my collar grip slide down to his elbow, go up with my left hand (which is already on his other elbow), step in with my hip and get sode tsurikomi goshi.

It's not a bad idea, per se, and could work. But the interesting thing was, if I did exactly what I just described with my hands after he pulled his foot back, that alone tended to throw him or at least get him perched forward on the edge of a cliff. Something about the hand going from the collar to his elbow directly over that empty hole in space he just created by pulling his foot back just really screwed with his architecture. At most, I'd say all you might need is to stick the left leg out in front of his far knee and catch another ashi guruma.

I suspect, though, that if I swept with my right foot, actually caught uke's foot and made him pull it away, then I can predict that hole happening a little more in advance, and do the elbow thing at the precise moment his foot is traveling back (rather then after, or after I realized that my initial sweep had failed), no foot was necessary. Anyway, just something to play with.

Another possibility was yoko wakari, another sutemi waza (or sacrifice throw) or even yoko guruma or yoko otoshi. I attempt a sweep with my left, uke pulls his right foot out of the way and I miss, I don't just put that left foot down in a step, but I proceed to do a fall. I could do a side fall to my left which is yoko wakari, or let my left foot slide in between uke's and take a fall which is more yoko guruma. For yoko otoshi, I would put my left foot down in between uke's feet, then put out my right leg in front of uke's left as I sat down. I'm not 100% sure about any of these, but I suspect they live there.

Sacrifice throws are always a bit dodgy, of course. If I can help it, I'd rather not just jump on the ground and give uke the chance to just land on top of me. Usually, I think of sutemi waza as sort of a last ditch effort; I'm going down anyway because the other guy got me in a throw but didn't get all of it, and I'm attempting to counter it, that sort of thing.

Nick Lowry sensei also commented that yoko tomoe nage might exist in the condition where I miss with my left foot, I put it down, and stick my right leg into uke's gut, but I have no experience with that throw whatsoever, so I won't even attempt to elaborate on it!

Next, we'll take a look at a whole host of throws that stem off of uke pushing back forward after we catch his foot. We've been playing with this a lot lately in morning class and have had a considerable amount of fun with it!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Foot sweep drill, part 4

Having looked at 3 throws off of catching uke's foot with an initial deashi harai foot sweep from 3 scenarios (uke pulls his foot back, he pulls it out of the way and you miss, and he braces against you or even pushes you back), it's time to look at a few other possible entries that several of us have been playing with. At this point, these ideas become more and more nebulous; I'm not going to claim that anyone of them (or even the ones I've presented previously) will work all the time (or even a majority of the time). This is all, mind you, simply experimental.

But as long as we keep with principles, I think we'll find ourselves wandering down a good path.

First, we return to the idea of uke stepping back, pulling his foot free from ours.

With the first set of throws from this condition (tori sweeping with his left foot), we let uke pull our foot with his until ours landed near his back foot (as a reminder, I'll post the original illustration).

Now we're going to play with letting our foot land on the line somewhere in between uke's feet. We're not taking as large a step as we did in the first set, although uke is still taking a large recovery step because we've disturbed his stepping pattern with the initial foot sweep. In other words, rather than ride his big recovery with a big movement of our own, we're going to step a little short (which puts our foot in between uke's).

1) In the first instance, our foot is turned parallel to uke's in order to set up harai tsurikomi ashi. We can actually get it two ways, here, we found. The first is with the typical sort of "wrist flick" we would normally do (both of my wrists pop up and back, a quick "on-off" motion) which brings uke's shoulders forward as his recovery foot is going back. Simply reach out with your left foot and tough him and you'll have it.

The other variation we played with had to do with a different arm action (the foot placement was the same). This time, our collar grip slips down to the outside of uke's left elbow and as his recovery foot moves, we push his elbow into his hip at the same speed (don't rush it). When it works, you'll often get such a smooth reaction that you'll likely "sweep" uke without every touching his foot.

But here's the downside to that one (so far). If uke is playing loose (his elbows moving about freely), then sure, it's easy. If, however, he's playing a little more, shall we say "stalwart" (not strong, not jigotai, just more "disciplined" in the way he holds himself and isn't waving his elbows around willy-nilly but holds them more securely at his side), you may be able to disrupt his posture a little, but the sweep will definitely require a foot. And it may still not work at all because, while I have control over one side of his body (the one with the hand on the elbow), I'm not really doing much to the other side (it's a little far away). I prefer to be fairly equal when disrupting uke's posture; if I pull my right elbow up for hiza guruma to bring uke's shoulder forward, for example, I like to use my left to prop under his other elbow in the same direction to help along, like turning the wheel on a bus. That's just me...

2) If I let my foot land in between uke's, toes pointed at him, perpendicular to the line of his feet, I can start kouchi gari. I'll need to get my right foot underneath me very quickly to allow my left foot to snag uke's trailing left foot.

A couple of things to remember. If I turn my hips and shoulder at the same time as my foot as I'm entering, uke will likely spin me around and dump me backward. I have to turn my foot and step, but keep my hips and shoulders mostly forward. Once I connect with uke and fit in, I can start my hips and shoulders turning (because we're connected, chest to chest, I will turn him, too). Secondly, the angle is perpendicular to uke's foot; I'm not trying to throw him straight back. There's definitely a turning action happening.

3) This one's a little more dynamic. Also, I would start this one with a right-footed deashi harai simply because I'm not good at throwing uchi mata on my left side (I'm barely capable of doing it on my right!). At any rate, I'm going to put my right foot down in between uke's, toes pointed at him (maybe not as deep as I would for kouchi gari, though). Then I let my left foot come in right underneath me, right next to my right foot, letting my left foot kick the right out from under me. If I catch the inner thigh right as uke's right foot (his recovery foot) is traveling, this is will come out fairly slick and effortless. I can't stop, though. I have to continue traveling back, through uke's center, otherwise you'll get that classic uchi mata deadlock where both of you are standing on one leg, the other leg in the air, both heads dipped forward and nothing happening.

If I prefer, however, I can put my left foot—or the balls of the toes of my left foot rather—behind my right heel, and wait a tiny bit longer. As uke's recovery foot travels back, I'll use my right leg and catch harai goshi, a throw I'm a little more comfortable with.

The three foot positions look something like this:

There's a few fun ones when uke pulls his foot out of the way, and when uke comes back forward, we'll have a ton to work with, so stay tuned.

Friday, July 24, 2009

17 again

As our dojo continues to find it's own path after parting ways with our long-time parent organization, we've gravitated toward practicing "the 17" (junana hon kata) as our kata of fundamental techniques the way we used to in the "old days". Not that there was anything wrong necessarily with the additional techniques of "the 23" per se, but I think most considered those additional techniques to be more expressions of randori applications rather than basic, fundamental building blocks.

Just for the heck of it, I thought I'd toss out my thoughts on those variations from a student's perspective.

I actually like the two different entrances to waki gatame that we did, and wouldn't mind practicing both occasionally. I don't know of any other technique off the top of my head (unless it's in a higher kata that I've forgotten) that covers the condition of tori stepping to the inside and using his right hand on uke's right attacking hand except for shomen ate (which doesn't keep that relationship for long). It was kind of nice having another option.

The tenkai kote gaeshi technique, to me, seemed like just another possible way to execute what was essentially still shiho nage. Again, not a bad thing, just a little redundant for the 17.

I like kote taoshi, though. I wonder if something similar appears anywhere in the higher kata, though; I'll have to dig through them and see.

And the three options that stem from a failed sumi otoshi—sumi taoshi, sumi guruma, and sumi tai guruma—are great randori applications, ones which I certainly want to keep in my back pocket, but probably belong in a renzoku waza (combination techniques) exercise.

It's also been nice to practice the releases by themselves again. Not that we didn't get a decent amount of practice with them while doing the release "chains" in renzoku waza, but it's nice to isolate the individual mechanism and be able to teach it in a more detailed, focused way.

It's funny, actually, because I suppose on the outside it may look to some newer people that things are changing, but in reality, I don't think they are. The principles are still there, and they work rather well.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Foot sweep drill, part 3

Okay, let's wrap up the last part of this series, at least in the basic sense. Once I've finished this, I'll go back to each of the 3 entry conditions and talk about a few more possible throws that several other people came up with during shochugeiko and even since then.

In the first part, we caught uke's foot and we waited for him to pull it back; then, we rode that backward, exaggerated step into 3 throws based on the foot position of our landing foot. In the second part, we talked about another 3 possibilities if uke pulled his foot away and we missed our initial foot sweep, again, based on 3 possible positions of our landing foot.

This time, we catch uke's foot again, but now he's bracing against us or even forcing us to go backward, and we have to step back. Just as in the case with the first section where uke's recovery step was exaggerated, which prompted us to make a larger than normal step, tori's going to also take a larger than normal step back here too. In other words, we have forward momentum to begin with, we catch the foot, and for whatever reason, uke braces against us and we run into a wall. Rather than fight that sudden bracing energy, we're going to say, "Okay, uke, you wanna push me back, well I'm going to move back in the direction that you're giving me, but a little further than you intended."

In the first instance, our foot is still pointed forward, but a little off to the left side, across the line of his feet (presuming we're doing all the initial sweeps with our left). The sudden release of tension and the larger than normal step back will create a large drawing action (with our center, not our arms, mind you). As uke comes forward and begins to rise again, our arms collapse against our own bodies (the centers join) and we catch o soto gari. (This drawing action can sometimes be so dynamic that uke just falls down before we even get the leg in there, but obviously, you don't want to count on that.)

In the second instance, our left foot lands with our toes pointed at uke, on the line of his feet. From this three-feet-on-the-line set-up, toes pointed at uke, there's actually a whole litany of throws you can catch, but for starters, we'll do hiza guruma, and save the others for a future post.

In the third instance, our left foot lands turned out, pointed down the line of uke's feet. This is the basic set-up from which we typically teach most basic hip throw ideas, so again, you have a number of options off of this entry. However, I've noticed that the large drawing motion involved in the set-up, which creates this exaggerated wave-like, down-and-up action from uke sets me up for a lovely ippon seoi nage. Which is strange because, for me, being rather tall (6 foot 2), shoulder throws don't exactly come naturally. But because of that large wave-like, down-and-up action I'm finding myself stepping under uke's shoulder just as he's on that exaggerated up motion and catching a lovely ippon seoi nage that surprises even me in how easy it is.

Again, for all of the entry conditions I've discussed, there are a number things you can do, but when it comes to introducing the series, I'm trying to start with a reasonable variety of throws (since we did o goshi in the first series, for example, I opted to focus on ippon seoi nage for the last of this forward series not just because it's a nice place to do it, but also to help maintain a little variety in tori's repertoire).

Next time, we'll venture into some of the other throws we discovered just for fun. I started with these three conditions primarily to reinforce the three basic ways of turning your foot relative to the line of uke's feet: across the line, toes pointed at him (on the line) and toes pointed away (down the line). I think the trickiest part of setting up any throw is learning where your set-up foot needs to be and learning to pre-turn it in these funny ways. Once you've learned where the line is, and how to step on it, you can start playing with all kinds of variations (at which point we rub our hands together and cackle menacingly!)

Friday, July 17, 2009

A plethora of irimi nage

This is the kind of crazy, flashy irimi nage the world seems to really love. And it does look pretty cool, I'll admit. This particular video features a plethora of irimi nages exclusively from French aikidoka Christian Tissier, 7th dan. And there are a lot of them. Plus, there's funky techno music to go along with it, just to get you pumped up.

I also kind of like the first entry in this video from Gary Boaz, which is from a yokomen uchi attack. I haven't played with it yet, but it looks interesting. (He's also done a sort of ushiro ate like technique from that same entry, "chopping down" the arm and turning uke, which is also kind of nice.) Off-hand, I think I might approach it with a little more of a circular motion, but I don't know.

Aiki nage or irimi nage

I'm constantly intrigued these days by the differences between the way I was taught many aikido techniques and the rest of not only the Tomiki world, but the Ueshiba world as well. Our whole dojo, as it happens, has been exploring those differences a lot lately, and it's been eye-opening, to say the least.

One such technique has been aiki nage, as it's called in Tomiki aikido, or irimi nage in Ueshiba circles (although irimi can mean a lot of things, it appears, but I won't get into to that here). In fact, we had a lengthy discussion on the forum about why the name is different at all, but I'm not sure anyone really knows.

At any rate, I'll try to describe the way I've always been shown (sorry, I don't have a video). The arm position is basically the same--the main hand centered in front, the palm sideways, the elbow out, the whole arm in a curved shape. But at the point of throw-- after spinning uke around in one direction and then reversing that direction and entering--tori simply keeps his hand in front of him and spins backwards in another circle, and let's that circle get slightly larger as he goes (like an ellipse).

Well, that method has never felt all that smooth to me, but I'll be the first to admit, that this may very well be because I don't really understand it. The Ueshiba irimi nage, however, is more linear. The arm position is more or less the same, but the arm sort of rises and then, once past uke's head, dips down again.

Now, from what I can tell, most Ueshiba schools seem to love making this throw as dynamic as possible. Sure, it looks pretty when you send uke flying through the air, but I wonder if they're a little too intent and getting a large, acrobatic throw out of it. I think that maybe one reason for the large acceleration of uke before the throw. I've also seen variations where tori sticks a hip in there to add a fulcrum around which uke can spin.

A lot of techniques can be dynamic, really. I've had ushiro ate done to me where my feet have left the ground entirely and my body ends up horizontal. It wasn't intentional, but the circumstances were just right. And it was all my doing, not tori's. He wasn't trying to get a big air fall out of it; we was just setting up a condition. My own, shall we say "enthusiasm" as uke prompted a more dramatic fall than the standard sit-down backfall.

Conversely, kote gaeshi doesn't have to illicit a large flip in the air. Tori simply sets up a condition; maybe uke flips, maybe he sits down. I think the moment I start thinking I have to create an acrobatic fall, I start adding energy, trying to dictate when the throw happens rather than let uke throw himself, or heaven forbid get ahead of him, and well, that gives uke plenty of opportunity to reverse the dumb thing on me.

Back to irimi nage. I've been playing with entering the way our Ueshiba brethren do it (and many times including the use of the other hand in the small of uke's back as in the video above, which works wonderfully). The one thing I don't do is try to make a throw. Rather, I just keep moving (stopping your butt is a common side-effect when trying to make a throw happen, one that can also lead to problems). If I simply set up the condition, and keep walking, always matching uke's speed, he finds he just can't walk backwards while his spine is bent back very efficiently. My hand doesn't push down, but simply lowers a little bit with every step uke takes. Light, no effort, uke falls in a nice sit-down backfall.

Not very flashy, but so far, it's been rather successful. I'm not saying that it's right or better, or anything. Just another interesting pit stop on my journey.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What I've learned about teaching

A while ago, I posted a request on the Kaze Uta Budo Kai / Windsong Dojo forum for any of the dan grades to submit what they've learned about being a teacher. Here's a few ideas that came up:

Less is more. In other words, I try to distill what I'm trying to convey in as few words as possible and avoid the dreaded "verbal diarrhea" that so often accompanies the accumulation of knowledge. What's the old adage about the way humans learn best? Hear it, see it, do it. I would imagine that there ought to be less emphasis on the "hearing" end and more on the "doing" end of that spectrum.

I also try not to overload students (particularly white and green belts) with too much information all at once. One or two things to work on for a class is usually plenty; the rest will come in time, and probably from someone else. Bite size pieces. Kaizen is the Japanese idea of small, continuous improvement.

Build on success, as Nick has often said. Sure, a green belt might not being doing the technique 100% correctly, but remember, they're still relatively new, how could they? If you haven't been lifting weights, it's highly unlikely you're going to walk in to the gym and bench press 200 pounds. If you start slowly, train, and build on success you can do it.

Of course, I don't want to just fall down or jump in the air for them; they have to have some of the pieces in place. But I have to allow them to practice with a "big window" with big movements, where they can find success and the encouragement to go on. I also need to reinforce that success verbally. One thing I learned from writing and design critique groups is to follow the pattern of "praise, critique, praise again."

Know when enough is enough. Sometimes taking kohai through a lot of repetitions can help them get the hang of things; and sometimes, especially when they're frustrated by their own inability, it can just make them even more frustrated. Especially with new students, they don't have to be perfect (they've got years, decades even, ahead of them). Sometimes it's best to move on.

Rephrase it, or visualize it. Occasionally, when I'm trying to get something across, it just doesn't seem to be sinking in. I say the same thing over and over, but get the same (incorrect) result (the definition of insanity, isn't it?). So I've learned to re-phrase things, to put a things in a different way. Sometimes, that means finding a way to put what I'm trying to get them to do in a visual example. For example, when doing a double foot sweep, telling them to "sweep to the baseboards", meaning to keep the sweeping action going until your foot touches the baseboards on the far wall. Which may be physically impossible, but the visual often gets the right action from my partner where words had previously failed.

In the end, it's fun to see my partner's eyes light up: "Ooooooh! I get it now!"

Do it wrong on purpose. Sometimes I will try to replicate an incorrect motion so people can feel it, then perform it correctly. Feeling the difference between the two will sometimes help things click.

If they don't learn it from me, they'll get it from someone else. And that's okay. In fact, that's the beauty of working with different partners every class. So I don't have to worry if I failed to get something across. Maybe they just need more time to let it sink in. Maybe someone else will explain it in a way that clicks. I do the best I can in that moment, then let it go. The truth is out there, and over the course of countless years and countless encounters with countless teachers, they will find their way.

Of course, there's a lot of "right ways" to do it. What are some that have worked for you?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An innocent gesture

I read this post over at Johndo and I couldn't help but feel a bit of a twinge when I read of one student's experience attending another dojo. One sentence in particular leapt out at me:

"...During some move, the instructor who was teaching laughed at her. Now this was completely innocent as the instructor was, I'm sure, reminiscing about a time when he first started and struggled with [the same thing] as we all do, but little seemingly harmless gestures can be disconcerting to new students. There were one or two times I can remember where [my teacher] chuckled and I felt inept at whatever we were going over at the time, even though I know that was not his intention. We as instructors need to remember to be concious of how unnerving it can be for someone new to a class and remember how awkward it was for some of us when we first started."

I twinge because I'm almost certain I've done that at one time or another, without giving it much thought. And there are probably a number of possible miscommunications happening between not only the sensei or dojo cho, but senior students as well, and those who are just starting along the path, without us every realizing it. The post served as a good reminder to approach not only my learning with a "beginner's mind" but also approach my teaching with a beginner's mind: to bare in my mind where the new student is coming from, to remember what it was like for me, to realize when to ease off the throttle, so to speak, and when to add more, and so on.

I'm finding that as I make the slow transition from student to teacher that, while I was taught the techniques, I was never really shown how to be a teacher (other than by example). I don't fault anyone for that, though; I doubt any of us were. We learned by example and trial and error; those students that liked the way we taught stayed, and those that didn't went somewhere else.

There seems to be an art to guiding a pupil along the path, a part of my own training that goes beyond just the techniques. I'm transitioning from internalization to transmission (or I may always be internalizing, but at least now I'm adding the transmission part). So, in a weird way, I myself am a white belt again!

Fun with releases

For some reason, not many people are showing up to class so far this week. There were only two of us in judo yesterday, and this morning consisted of the same two, plus one more. Most be the heat.

But it's always a little tricky when you have an odd number of people; usually the highest rank, the one who is generally leading class, will elect to sit out and wander the mat offering any advice or correction as needed or requested. But today, we decided to do our releases and the 17 in a sort of "round robin" routine: the first guy attacked right side, the second guy attacked left; then it's the next guy's turn; when everyone has had a turn, we moved on to the next technique.

The interesting thing about it was that we did it all from a paradigm of constant movement, rather than the typical method of practicing kata, which is to reset at ma'ai every time and start from a static position. It almost felt like a "multiple attacker" sort of scenario, except that we knew which technique we were about to do.

At least we started that way. By the end, we eventually designated one of us as tori, who would just stick out both his hands; then, the first uke grabbed whichever of tori's hands he wanted with whatever hand of his own he wanted, and tori just did whatever release the situation called for. The two ukes would trade grabbing attacks, everyone always moving. After a minute or so, the next person played tori, and so on.

At any rate, we had a pretty good class, regardless. Everyone else just missed out!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Foot sweep drill, part 2

Only one other person showed up for judo this morning, which gave me the time and opportunity to review in my own mind (let alone with another person) the various aspects of this drill that I and many other explored during shochugeiko (a big old thank you to Scott Weaver for being such a willing guinea pig!).

As I mentioned in the last post, we've found a number of interesting possibilities stemming from these three conditions: 1) deashi harai where uke recovers by stepping back; 2) when uke pulls his foot out of the way; and 3) when uke pushes back forward). But to start with, I'm sticking with three basic throws based on three basic foot positions for each of those three situations.

The last post dealt with the idea that uke, once his foot has been caught, pulls it free and steps back. This time, we're working under the assumption that uke can see the foot sweep coming and attempts to pull his foot back to avoid tori's sweep. With the first situation, where tori actually does get a hold of uke's foot, it's a combination of two things that create a slight off-balance: 1) we've interrupted his normal step, obviously, which means his butt ends up past his feet (anytime uke's shoulder/hips/feet are out of line, we get a kazushi); and 2) the action of uke pulling his foot free to get it back under his butt is an exaggerated one, which puts his feet further apart than normal (which is a good thing for us).

This time, it's uke's own action that create a slight off-balance. Typically (though not always), when he pulls his foot back to get it out of the way of an oncoming sweep, he speeds his movement up and ends up in a wider stance than normal anyway. He also tends to straighten his arms a little to try and hold you out and away from his feet, which tends to pitch him forward slightly. Now, we're going to capitalize on that wider stance and defensive posture.

Let's assume that, for all three of these, that we're sweeping with the left foot for demonstration purposes. We sweep with the left and miss; uke pulls his right foot back. Our left foot is now hanging in the air, looking for a place to land. But we don't want to put it down just any old place. We'd like to continue our attack and not let uke off the hook by starting over.

1) If I put my foot down across the line, my left foot right next to uke's left foot (on the outside), I can continue my forward momentum, though turned somewhat at an angle perpendicular to uke's feet (to the rear), and use my right foot to catch ko soto gari. I also tend to switch my grip at this point: my right hand goes from the collar to cup uke's left elbow, and my left hand goes from uke's sleeve to his neck (on the right side). This tends to add a little extra bend to uke's spine in a lovely way.

2) If I put my foot down on the line (toes pointed at him), I can actually get a couple of things. My first thought was tani otoshi, a sutemi waza or sacrifice throw. Which will work, but I was informed that this particular throw has an unfortunate tendency to break legs. But there's another option which still works just as nicely, and still takes advantage of that perpendicular line to uke's rear, and is quite a bit safer for day to day practice.

I put my foot in the same place, but step behind him with my right foot, let my right arm slide in front of uke (I lift his elbow up and out of the way with my left-hand sleeve) grip, and gently sit down in a "nice" version of sukui nage. (The "not-so-nice" version is, of course, grabbing the guys knees and dumping him back on his head. The "sit-down" version is easier on everyone involved, and can tolerate more repetitions.) For all the aikidoka out there who practice judo as well, gedan ate is also a nice option here, and doesn't require falling down with uke.

3) For the last option, I put my left foot down across the line, put point in the opposite direction of the first throw. Now we're going to take advantage of the perpendicular line of uke's feet to his front. This is a weird way to step (unless you do the drills at the beginning of class that will help you walk like this!), but it sets you up for a nice entry into o guruma or ashi guruma (depending on where your foot and/or leg ends up) that should look a lot like the classical entry. I actually happen to have a video of this one (taken a long time ago, before I started thinking about these drills), featuring two wonderful judoka from Windsong dojo, Kyle Sloan sensei and Derek Hall.

The foot placement looks something like this (click to enlarge):

There's more possibilities here, of course, and hopefully I'll get to them soon. Stay tuned for part three!

Friday, July 10, 2009

More than one way to skin a cat

For most of my time spent studying aikido, life was pretty straight forward. We had the "walking kata" (tegatana no kata), the 8 releases (hanasu no kata), "the 17" (junana hon kata), and "the Big 10" (o-waza ju pon). We had the advanced katas (though we started with koryu dai san kata, and then did yon, go, and roku katas), but for the most part, our day-to-day class time was spent on those fundamental 4 kata. And life was pretty simple.

Then, not too long ago, we added a series of renraku waza (combination) techniques, which started with a given release and continued with a string of various techniques (mostly from the 17) that branched off in different directions depending on possible situations or responses from uke, etc.

And they've worked out great. We understand so much better how to flow from one thing to another, obviously, but it also helped us to keep moving, to use our centers, to maintain principle. It even managed to magically deepen our understanding of a given technique somehow better than doing that technique by itself had. Beginners picked up techniques quickly that they would normally not have seen until nikkyu.

The only down side, in my eyes anyway, was that there are just so many of them. And we kept coming up with more and more. There's just no way to memorize them all like any of the traditional kata. After we covered a section in class, I would go home and make notes of the different series, which has so far taken up several pages. I feel a bit silly when it comes to leading a class, when I don't know exactly what we're supposed to be doing (we have notes written on a dry erase board describing what we're to go over for the week in class, but I don't always remember everything just by reading a name or two). Junior grades probably don't think much of it, but I can't help but feel somehow inadequate.

Then on top of that, lately we've been exploring a number of different variations on how to do the techniques from the 17 based on other Tomiki styles, some classical Ueshiba ideas, and few others of our own. Which, again, has been really eye-opening. It's wonderful! Once more, I'm understanding each technique a little better when experienced from different approaches.

Then, on top of THAT, we've been working on ura waza (counter techniques) for the first time since I can remember, plus all the various possibilities that can branch off from there.

Good grief, my brain is overloading! It may help to understand my predicament to know that I am, by nature, a very neat and organized person. I like having everything mapped out in my head, so it's somewhat disorienting to not have all the techniques or variations of my art committed to memory.

And while I don't plan on starting my own dojo any time soon, I am still relatively young with a long future of budo ahead of me, life has a way of changing in drastic ways without consulting you first. Should the need arise to begin my own program, what pieces will I teach? Will I even have the necessary notes and recollections to pass along even half of what we've been doing?

Perhaps I shouldn't worry so much about it. I can always start with the basic four, just like I did when I started, and go from there. Perhaps, rather than worry whether I can keep everything organized in my head, I should enjoy the fact that there's always something new to learn; that, after 15 years, there's still more to discover and probably will be 30 years from now. Which is always a good thing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A plethora of o soto garis

This morning in Judo, we only had three people, two black belts and an experienced brown belt. I don't know what possessed me, but I decided to focus on o soto gari, and we ended up spending the whole class on it.

Bascially, we looked at every entry I could think of: the standard approach, where uke is stepping forward; with uke stepping back; where tori steps away from the leg he wants; using your leg to drive back and create a large "wave" or tsurikomi action; when uke's locking you out in jigotai; and even did a few on the left side. (I'm sure there's more we could've covered given the time). We practiced them in uchi komi fashion, loading four times and throwing on the fifth, and each one of us did that with two partners. We had some pretty good discussions about it, too.

It's a basic throw, but it's such a good throw. It often seems like, when all else fails, you can usually always snag an o soto gari, so it's nice to be able to hit it from virtually every angle. Good class.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The responsibility of sempai

The other week, a green belt in aikido asked me a simple question that I have been unable to shake. It had nothing to do with technique or history; that kind of question is easy. Either I know the answer, or I can find it out from someone who does.

No, this question had to do with an aspect of my behavior in each class. I don't think he intended to confront me or even subtly rebuke me (or anyone else, for I'm not the only one guilty of it). He was just curious. But it's continued to gnaw at me. And after reading Dave Lowry's "In the Dojo", certain passages managed to shine an even brighter light on the subject.

You see, as I've mentioned before, our dojo, compared to most, is a relatively relaxed one. The rigors of obeisance to strict codes of conduct within the dojo walls have always come second to the cultivation of an atmosphere of fellowship and mutual benefit, of genuine warmth and camaraderie. Why? I can't say for certain; the dojo is almost as old as I am, and the organization which spawned is older still. But I think I can make an educated guess.

It's no secret that the American mindset has often proven incapable of assimilating Japanese traditions of respect, reverence and hierarchy without using them as an excuse to indulge in authoritarian behavior, not just for the sensei of a given dojo but for anyone in possession of a reasonably high rank. In such circumstances, progress is stymied, the mood oppressive, and egos run rampant. While not every dojo who adheres to traditional reishiki will suffer from such lamentable attitudes, but it's been known to happen.

I honestly believe our dojo simply desires to avoid allowing our egos to get the better of us. Whether or not anyone agrees with the decision to consciously allow a few details of etiquette to slide, Windsong has  created a wonderful environment, full of fine friends and amazing technique, and most of all one that encourages growth and progress, both in the individual and in the art itself.

All of that being said, I'm beginning to suspect I've relaxed a little too much over the years.

The green belt's questions was, simply put, why don't I do ukemi with everyone else?

You see, I've developed a habit of coming to class and getting dressed on my own time table, allowing the junior ranks to warm up while I chat or just sit on my butt (it is very early in the morning, after all). Additionally, I've been sitting out the usual rounds of ukemi or any other compulsory drills, and not jumping in to actually participate until the lesson begins. And while I don't say this as an excuse, I'm not the only one.

Now, as I'm not privy to all of those aforementioned Japanese traditions since this is the only dojo in which I've ever trained, I don't know for certain whether this sort of behavior is at all natural or even expected for a senior class member or the one teaching and running the class. Maybe once you've been around long enough, and achieved a certain rank, you don't really need to go through the usual ukemi and drills? I have at least, on occasion, taken to wandering the mat, checking on the junior ranks progress with ukemi, etc. and offering constructive pointers whenever necessary.

But still. My conscience is nagging me.

In Mr. Lowry's book, he begins by describing the make-up of the dojo itself, beginning with the four walls or "seats" and their significance: shimoza (the entrance), the kamiza (the well opposite, usually containing a shrine or calligraphy), joseki (the wall to the right where the senior grades gather) and shimoseki (the left side, where the junior grades gather).

In discussing the differences between joseki and shimoseki in particular, he brings up certain points that have struck a rather resonant chord with me:

"To think of the space [joseki] as an 'Old Boy's Club,' however, would be a mistake. On the joseki side of the dojo there must be an intensity and a soberness of practice that might intimidate more junior members. There will, if the dojo is a good one, also be a serious sense of obligation and commitment on the part of the seniors to members who are not as advanced."

He goes on to emphasize that such a commitment lies mainly in the realization that "the future of their art depends upon successive generations taking it up and perfecting it and carrying it on."

He continues:

'The joseki side of the dojo is always under scrutiny from the shimoseki. Guided by their art's high standards of rectitude, juniors watch and evaluate their seniors. Are the seniors' actions and lifestyles in accordance with the ideals of the art? Do the seniors demand more of the juniors than the seniors themselves can do? Seniors can sometimes believe their foibles are invisible to newer students. The truth is that beginners can be perceptive."

Indeed. So I have a lot to think about.

While I was taught the many facets of the art itself over the course of my training, what little I have learned about being a teacher has come through observation or just plain trial and error. But as I move more and more into the role of a teacher and a leader, I think I need to seriously reevaluate the standards I hold for myself as well as those I hold for the students of my sensei's dojo, to reevaluate the example that I set. I owe it to the students who allow me to teach them, and I owe it to my sensei who allows me to teach them (because in truth they are his pupils, not mine). 

Monday, July 6, 2009

Working with difficult partners

When I say "difficult", at least in this post, I'm not referring to those people who are by nature obnoxious or stubborn, unwilling to listen, etc. That would make for an interesting post, for certain, but it's not what's on my mind today, anyway.

No, by "difficult" I mean partners who are, as far as their personality goes, perfectly reasonable and amiable. They can often be wonderful people, in fact. But something about the way they move and operate physically may be, well, less then ideal. They're not the young, spry type of brown belt who loves to fly and take ukemi all day (we all love to throw those guys). Maybe they're older, maybe a lot older, they move slower, their steps are smaller, they take more compensatory steps due to old injuries or just the general physical limitations that come with getting on in years.

When working with someone like this, suddenly, the spry young green or brown belt finds that none of his throws will work. His timing seems to go out the window. The broad, open window of opportunity to hit the mark with which he has been learning so far has shrunk dramatically. Heck, even black belts get frustrated! I watched just such a green belt get beside himself with frustration the other day in judo, and I could certainly sympathize.

It's a dicey situation, to be sure. Because these particular judoka are, again, fundamentally nice people, we have to remember that they're not trying to be a jerk about it and refusing to let us throw them. But how do we practice when we're still relatively "young" (both in age and in the art) and still end up feeling good about what we're doing, that we're making progress?

On one hand, there are little sneaky tips and tricks one can employ to create a bigger step, to pry open that window a little. Unfortunately, these tend to make the overall throw more dynamic, and consequently, the fall becomes a little more "dynamic." When our partner is older and especially when they have old injuries to account for, we just can't, in all good conscience, dump them on their heads! (I'll practice these little tricks once in a while on the spry, young guys who can take a good fall, who love falling even, just to practice them. It's nice to have in your back pocket.)

One should also bare in mind that, even if your first throw doesn't work because your partner doesn't walk very well, your second or third throw most likely will, simply because, well, they don't walk very well! Of course, that comes as little consolation when working on uchi komi where you have to repeat the same throw, or in hop randori when you're supposed to "trade" throws back and forth.

So what do you do to make the training time worth it? I have a few ideas, but I welcome anyone else's!

Rotate partners. This is, of course, primarily the responsibility of the person running the class. When I finally noticed how frustrated the green belt got, I immediately started rotating everyone around more. It's much more frustrating if you have to work with a "difficult" partner the whole class. If the frustrated judoka can see that his technique will actually work on other players, the situation hopefully won't seem so dire.

Focus on kazushi and tsukuri and don't worry so much about kake. Don't worry so much about throwing for the time being, but focus on your basics: are your feet are in the right place, is your posture straight, what are your hands doing, etc. Ingraining the off-balance and the fitting in are the biggest part of a successful throw anyway; if you get those well enough, the kake, or throw, almost happens by itself. It may not feel like you're accomplishing much without any throwing going on, but believe me, in the long run, you are.

Be the uke. A lot. You can learn a lot about a technique from the inside-out. Once your nervous system understands what's happening to your own body that makes it fall down, the easier it will become to do the same thing to others.

Any other ideas? I'll have to ask around, too, and see what kind of advice I get and follow up on this.

The bottom line is, don't get discouraged. Every partner is different and can offer unique challenges that will only help us grow if we face them with an attitude of "what can I learn from this?" and "how can I make the most of my training time?"

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My world upside down

Man, Jack Bieler Sensei really rocked my world during shochugeiko. I don't think he intended to, but he did nonetheless! At Windsong, we practice the Seitei no Kata from Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo, but Jack was kind enough to travel up from Denton, Texas to show us how the traditional Koryu no Kata. His demonstrations included some wonderful insight into the kihon, as well.

I feel like a white belt again! I love Jodo, but I can't help but feel a little sad that I can't devote more time to the traditional kata. Maybe I'm nuts to try and pursue more than on art, much less three. At any rate, it's given me a lot to think about.

Gyakugamae ate

I've been thinking about gyakugamae ate (#3 of jun nana hon kata) more and more over the last couple of years, especially since we've been exploring other approaches to aikido techniques lately at Windsong.

For the longest time, I was taught, and the way I always saw it done, was to use the near hand as a sort of "eye threat" (it could be with the edge of the hand, or the back of the hand, etc.). In other words, you just stick your hand in front of uke's face, usually without any contact whatsoever, with the intent of getting uke to flinch and fall down as a response.

Now, I have nothing against eye threats. I've seen a well-timed hand, or even finger, suddenly appearing in front of the face make an unsuspecting uke jump on their own head. It looks like magic, as if the person doing it simply reached out and extended their "ki" with enough force to throw his opponent without even touching him.

But I've also seen it fail. I mean, I've seen uke not flinch at all (at which point he'll usually grab tori's hand and end up doing something with it). I've also been on the receiving end of some very, shall we say, "pronounced" gyakugamae ate's, where my head is practically peeled off like a Pez dispenser!

Ultimately, it seems to me that one ought to be fully prepared to do something definitive, as definitive as all the other ateme waza from the opening section of the kata, but if uke flinches and jumps on his head at the appearance of a hand before you touch him, bonus.

For a while, I would do it with a hand to the face, just like shomen ate and aigamae ate, only from behind the arm. But as I observe some other Tomiki styles, I've found some interesting approaches. In the videos below, tori slides his entire arm across uke's upper torso, almost like gedan ate, but above the arm instead of under it (which I've also done on occasion, but by accident).

I've noticed, too, that sometimes tori's hand is pushing, palm out, but then sometimes, his palm is up. I don't know if it matters, or maybe it creates two subtly different phenomenon?

Then there's this technique, called sayunage, which comes from a traditional, Ueshiba background:

His palm is definitely up, and his action is more of an up-and-down, riding the wave, sort of motion, as opposed to the more linear shomen ate/gedan ate type of approach familiar to Tomiki styles. I've played with this some and I've had some pretty decent results. I like what he says about lifting uke's chin, too. It seems to break uke's posture very quickly (just as shomen ate can do) and make it much harder for him to resist.

I'm not saying I think gyakugamae ate should be done one way or the other, I just think the variations are interesting. But I do worry about practicing only the eye threat, mostly because what you do in practice is what you'll do in reality. (There's the story of the police officer who trained to disarm an assailant, but in practice, he always picked up the fake gun and gave it back to his training partner to do it again. When caught facing a real gun, he disarmed the bad guy, and then, per his training, picked up the gun and gave it back! Luckily, his partner was also on the scene.) If I'm used to just waving the back of my hand or side of my hand in front of uke's face, and the eye threat doesn't work, will my subconscious be sufficiently trained to do the version that definitely cleans the guy's clock like gedan ate?

As a side note, I also think it's interesting the way these aikidoka do gedan ate. They sort of knock uke back over their thigh, causing more of a backwards, spinning breakfall. Ours have always been more linear, causing uke to do a side fall. I think I'd better have an experienced uke if I were to try something like that, though!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Foot sweep drill, part 1

[NOTE: As of July 13th, I've modified the foot placement image in this post to something I think is a little more accurate.]

We have a drill that we do toward the beginning of most judo classes based on deashi harai. I don't have a video of it (there's a major effort under way to make a large number of instructional videos for Kaze Uta Budo Kai, so I'll let the folks in charge of that take care of that), so a written description will have to suffice for the time being.

Basically, two partners stand on one side of the dojo floor and take their grips. The first partner (tori) steps forward and makes a sweeping action as the other person (uke) steps back, catching and picking up his foot (I believe most of the judo world does deashi with uke advancing, but we tend to execute it as tori moves forward). Tori holds the foot for a beat, until uke essentially pulls his foot away. When he does, tori promptly sweeps with the other foot and picks up uke's trailing foot. The two progress across the mat like that, tori catching uke's foot, one after the other. One they get to the other side, then it's the second partner's turn to sweep back the other direction.

Once we've learned the basic idea of sweeping properly, we can start to add to it. This is something that has been percolating in my mind for a while now, but during last week's shochugeiko, I got a lot of wonderful input and insight into. I've scribbled down notes as new bits and pieces come to light, but I thought I'd use this blog to help organize them.

Before I get to the first set of throws, I want to mention a few things to remember. Kazushi (or off-balance) can be created in a number of ways. Sometimes, it's through the movement of our centers (hazumi) and sometimes the hands and arms trigger a little off-balance independent of the center (ikioi). But we can also create kazushi by capitalizing on uke's recovery from a throw that didn't quite work (the basic idea behind renraku waza, or combination techniques). In this case, we're taking advantage of uke's recovery from his foot being swept and controlled as we did in the basic drill.

When we sweep his foot and hold it, he has to put it back down some time. Many times, he'll simply pull it free and continue his step back (he can do other things with his foot, but we'll get to that in a later post). The problem is, that back step will usually end up being bigger than a normal step, which spreads his feet a little wider than shoulder width, where he'd like it. It also means, of course, that his second step, or follow-up step will also be exaggerated. We'd like to take advantage of that moment.

To start this, I would recommend not doing the usual foot-sweep drill that I described earlier, simply because uke will often leave his foot dangling out in front, even if subconsciously, for tori to pick up. That means he's purposefully standing on one foot, which in turn means he still has his balance (albeit on one foot). But if you walk several paces without doing anything, just getting in rhythm and then, at a random point, sweep and pick up uke's foot and hold it, he'll be more likely to be caught in a weak structure; he thought he was going to be able to step back, but his foot got stopped. Therefor, when you finally do release his foot, you'll get the exaggerated back step from uke you want.

Also, to make things easier, I would start by doing this just on one side, probably sweeping with the left foot (uke's right). Now, as uke takes that step back, he's going to pull our foot with it. We'd like to take that step with a purpose in mind rather than just set it down arbitrarily. To start with, there's three basic positions you can put your foot in relative to the line of uke's two feet: toes pointed forward, toes pointed in, and toes pointed out (click for a larger version).

With most throws, we set them up with our foot somewhere on the line of uke's two feet. However, with this back-stepping motion, it's virtually impossible to get exactly on the line, so my foot goes as close as I can get it.

Toes pointed in and out require you to pre-turn your foot before it touches the mat, without turning your hips or shoulders (yet). That's not an easy or natural thing to do, which is why we also do special walking drills occasionally where we walk across the mat with our feet turned in or out.

From toes forward, you'll find yourself in position to do o-soto gari.

From toes pointed at uke, you allow your hips to uncoil and your body to turn to your right as your right foot props uke's left foot and your right elbow goes up, giving you sasae tsurikomi ashi. (I really like this one, it works well!)

From toes pointed away from uke, you'll step through with your left, right next to your right, your right arm around uke's waist or over his shoulders if you'll tall (that's how I do it) and get o goshi. Naturally, if you get o goshi, you could probably get other hip throws, but I would start with the grand-daddy of hip throws; if you can nail this one, the rest will follow suit.

As I said before, there's more to it, but we'll start here. More to come.