Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Stuck in a rut: Should I stay or should I go?

The other morning in aikido, we continued to build on our randori drills, gradually adding in chaos drop by drop. At a couple of points, I stopped everyone and asked if anyone had noticed anything unique, unusual, troublesome, wonderful. (A good practice to do, I've learned, by the way. People have a way of coming up with some great things that I never would have learned otherwise).

One yudansha seemed little discouraged with himself because he kept coming out of what was supposed to be a random drill with the same technique, tenkai kote hineri. I suppose he must have thought to himself, Geeze, I'm a black belt, shouldn't I be able to do more than that?

What my friend noticed about his training is not at all uncommon. It happens in judo, too, and I would imagine other martial arts as well. And guess what? It happens with other arts as well. As a graphic designer, I get "stuck in ruts", too: a tendency to favor a certain color palette, to prefer a minimal look, or even a messy grungy look, or maybe it's a font I like to use a lot (which is so universal in the design world, fonts are often ostracized because of their sudden ubiquity).

So, a young yudansha may wonder, How do I get out of the rut?

First of all, you may not want to. Not yet, anyway.

Consider kids. If you've ever had children, you might notice that babies and toddlers do something very similar by getting fixated on a certain activity and wanting to do it over and over and over again. To a parent, it can be maddening. But why do kids do it? Because they're new to the world; everything is a foreign experience. The repetition is a part of the learning process. It's how they absorb, internalize and make sense of things.

In time, however, they move on to something else. You may also notice that your own "ruts" seem to come and go, to wander from one technique to another. For now, it's tenkai kote hineri; in a couple of months, you may get stuck on waki gatame. But in the moment, the feeling of being stuck can feel pretty frustrating.

Now, I'm by no means qualified in any way to make psychological assertions, but I suspect that getting into these "ruts" is your brain's way of getting to know a technique. Of course, we get to know all the techniques when we do kata, but some just seem to trip our trigger, so to speak, and our minds latch on to them like a puppy on a chew toy. It may have to do with our physical build; something about our height, weight, athletic ability, etc. gives us a natural proclivity toward one technique or another (which leads us into the realm of tokui waza, but that's another post).

But for whatever reason, our brain (largely, the Subconscious Brain) has latched on to it because it's processing it and making sense of it, and does so by innumerable repetition.

So, for the time being, it's okay. Be at peace with it. Let aikido or judo (or whatever) simply flow out of you.

All of that being said, there will come a point when you really ought to move on. You will probably notice after a while that when you "have a hammer, all your problems look like nails." So long as the technique flows naturally, as long as it surprises you when it pops out, I think you're okay. When the road starts getting bumpy, however, you may have drifted into the realm of now trying to "make it work", or forcing a square peg into a round hole.

But, you're in luck! This is the opportunity to challenge yourself. If you can readily move on to other ideas, great, but if not, try forbidding yourself the use of that technique. No more tenkai kote hineri! Just for a little while, of course. Rest assured, things will get bumpier before they get smoother. That's okay. That's the process of your rough edges being smoothed. (No one ever said it was a totally painless process!)

Your Conscious Mind will undoubtedly have to get involved for a bit (and you know how much that guy can slow things down). You may fail. You may "get got" by uke. Again, that's okay. Be at peace with it. All of this will fill in the gaps, and paint a complete picture.

I've even found that you can make an interesting class exercise out of it. For example, pair everyone up, and have them do only the first release. After they do the release, have them try to find (not force) as many of the techniques from junana hon kata (or elsewhere) off of it as they can. Start at #1 and just go down the list. Then see how many more they can find with one hand change. You may be surprised by what you find!

Eventually, I think you'll find that your brain, much like the toddler's brain, will move on to some other shiny new toy, something else it finds interminably fascinating. Let it in, let it fill you, and then let it go. And the stone gets smoother....

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New hakama

My new new hakama arrived in the mail today. Huzzah!

My previous one was a bit too long. I ordered based on my height, but based on where my waist is, I would need to be another 4" taller.

For anyone interested, I ordered them from, and while I got the basic model (read: cheapest), I like it quite a bit. Can't wait to get home and try it on with my gi to make sure it all fits.

Now, if could only find a white uwagi that would cover my belly a bit better, I'd be happy.

Hear it, see it, do it

I once heard that the ideal model for learning something should follow a basic "hear it, see it, do it" format. In other words, hear a verbal explanation, watch it being done (probably several times) and then do it yourself (definitely several times).

In my own experience teaching, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the first step. Here's a few things I've come to realize about this stage over the years, both from my own experience, and also by observing the many wonderful teachers I've had the opportunity to learn from.

1) Keep it short.
I'm constantly trying to find the best way to describe to people what's going on in the most succinct way possible, while at the same time trying to avoid getting too verbose and veering off onto tangents. The less time I talk, the more time we all have to practice, and that's the important thing. Again, I'm of the Elvis mindset: "A little less conversation, a lot more action".

2) Repeat it three times.
I'm also a firm believer in repeating things. And from what's I've heard and experienced, 3 tends to be a magic number when trying to ingrain something into another person's memory. But here's the trick: it's not enough to repeat the basic idea in a slightly different way; you have to say the exact same thing three times. Another reason to keep things short and simple.

3) Assign steps to the process.
You know, "Step 1, get three feet on a line, pre-turning your foot. Step 2...." and so on. Boil it down to the essential movements. You don't have to include all the subtle intricacies of the technique here; these are the broad strokes that define the big picture. I find you can trust the senior belts to fill in the little details when everyone pairs up. (If, however, you notice everyone omitting the same piece, or doing the same thing incorrectly, that's the time to stop class, point it out quickly and let everyone get back to it).

Once again, 3 seems to be a magic number here, whenever possible.

4) Ask if there are any questions.
Seems like a no brainer, but not everyone remembers to ask. Many times, despite my best preparation, I'll completely overlook some basic feature that's important for everyone to know, and that will almost always be the first question.

. . . . . . . . . .

All that being said, it's step two, "see it", that I've been somewhat falling short. After a solid explanation of a technique, I tend to let everyone loose to practice.

Many Ueshiba schools, I've noticed, tend to actually spend more time with the physical demonstration of a technique, and often don't explain much verbally. Which is, in part, what helped me realize I was leaving something out of the process. The part was the occasional question from a student, asking simply, "Could I see that again?"

So that's one of my new goals to work on: doing the technique at speed several times. Once a student is presented with the pieces, he needs to see how those pieces are supposed to connect before he tries it himself, right? And even though I sort of went through it while explaining it, it's somehow not the same as performing it at speed, and without talking.

Ah, there is much to learn about teaching.

Monday, March 29, 2010

April is Ne Waza Month!

Well, it will be for those of us in the morning class. It's not really part of any grand movement anywhere, although feel free to participate and clue me in on what you do.

Mostly, I've just come to the decision that I need to do something to improve in that area, not only for me, but for the benefit of the morning class in general.

An hour class just doesn't seem to be enough to get in as much material and practice time as you need for judo, although it seems to suit aikido just fine. Most of the time, we talk about nage komi (standing throwing) for a little longer than planned, which little or even no time for ne waza. We may get in a drill or two, but we never seem to get around to doing some good ol' randori.

And to be honest, grappling is not my absolute favorite part of budo. And if I were to be even more honest, I'm not in that great of shape, and ne waza seems to make that fact more painfully obvious than other aspects of my martial training. ("Martial training"... that's funny, because I may have a certain number of skills in my back pocket, my body is no shape for war!)

So, I'm resulting to making ne waza more of a focus for the month of April and see if I can get us a little caught up. I still plan on working our way through the gokyu no waza, one throw per class, but after that, I think the rest of the hour will focus on grappling. Lessons, drills, yes, but also some rollin' around.

I do like to plan ahead what I'm going to talk about for classes in general, so I imagine that I will eventually formulate a plan to some degree, but at the moment it's still up in the air. There's so much to choose from!

For me, personally, my main goal is to keep grappling fun for myself. Ultimately, if I get worn out and frustrated, if it's not fun, I'm not going to want to do it. My main goal is to slow down, be patient, breathe and take my time. That's the characteristic I admire most from all the best grapplers in our school.

More on my plans as they develop!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Engaging the wrist... or not

After going through a series of randori drills based on releases recently, I asked if anyone discovered or noticed anything interesting. One shodan commented on how amazing the effect engaging the wrist had on uke as he grabs, whether cocking it up, or curling it toward you.

Yes, indeed! It is amazing how it can disturb his whole frame, his direction, etc.

But here's an interesting experiment you might try (per, as always, Lowry Sensei). Try leaving your wrist absolutely relaxed, without engaging it. Until, that is the very end—then engage it. I think you'll find it has an interesting effect as well!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Too busy (and tired) to think

For the rest of March in aikido, we'll be working on crossing over from kata to randori, from one end of the spectrum, kata, where everything is known and predetermined to randori, where nothing is known or predetermined. It's quite a gap, really, and for a long time, folks had a hard time making that transition.

The introduction of renraku waza years back has done a lot to help that. But in addition to that, there are other exercises we can do to help gradually add bits of randomness into the equation, something Lowry Sensei refers to as "incremental chaos."

To start, we broke into two groups of four (I wanted groups of three, but alas, there were 8 of us). We each took turns in our group for 1 minute each doing a release with 3 attackers. The first round, we focused on the 1st release, the second round on #2, then 3 and finally 4.

After everyone had a turn, we restricted tori to one hand, first a round with the right and then the left. The 3 uke's, however, could now grab with either hand; tori just had to do some kind of release, do whatever comes out.

Outside of the benefits of guiding us toward randori, I also like this kind of drill for a lot more reasons:

1) It forces tori to move constantly, never allowing him to completely "get set" the way we can in normal kata practice (reestablish ma'ai, get our feet even, etc.) You have to live with whatever angle uke comes at you from, and you have to work with whatever foot you happen to have in the air.

2) You have to be more aware of what's around you, of more than just one uke. Some students would look back and forth from one uke to another, wondering who's next. This, of course, would always make them slightly late when an attack finally did come. At least one in my group wisely began looking "at nothing" or what is sometimes referred to as "gazing upon the mountains." By not locking in on any one thing, you perceive much more in your periphery (I heard once that our mind actually responds quicker to things we see in the periphery than things we see from the front, which is interesting).

3) You're too busy to think about what you're going to do or what you did "wrong". You're also too busy and too tired to worry about the "messed up" release you just did (which really wasn't wrong at all, it just didn't fit into their idea of what it should have been).

4) High numbers of repetition. We all know why that's important, right?

5) The absence of instruction. As the old Elvis song goes, "a little less conversation, a lot more action." Sometimes, we just need to stop teaching and correcting, stop analyzing and even criticizing our own performance and just do.

6) It's kind of aerobic. You might actually break a sweat doing this for half an hour! And frankly, I think we can be a bit lazy in aikido class, and I personally think it would be valuable to move a bit more.

7) The dulness of relentless repetition gets you out of your own head. Call it a small form of misogi, repeating the same thing over and over, testing your endurance a little. Once you pass boredom and fatigue you wander into "blank" territory, or mushin. This is really just a "tip of the iceberg" form of it, but I'm not sadistic enough to throw folks into the deep end of the pool right off the bat ;-)

As a little added bonus, at one point, Scott, the leader of the other group, actually got them speaking in an Italian accent while doing it! Silly, yes, but he said it also helped get their head out of the "technique".

All in all, a very invigorating, refreshing class.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Big, strong, fast, light

I've been aware of the existence of different "levels" shall we say, for lack of a better word, to our training, or at least some of them, for a while now. For example, I knew that we started learning "big" and then progressed to... well, something else, lightness being part of it. But it was this video from Lowry Sensei that clued me in on the whole framework and how they start to relate to each other.

The concept applies, of course, not just to jodo, but to aikido and judo, too (as well as other arts, I suppose). Having contemplated it for a little bit now, I'm beginning to recognize how it relates to an issue I've noticed in our practice over the years (to varying degrees, and myself included).

We all started out big. No problems there. Doing things big helps teach us the choreography, help us to practice principles, etc., etc. Often that means slow, as well. A lot of skills are taught that way. For me, art and music were taught similarly, big and slow.

Funny thing is, I remember as I went through the ranks hearing a lot of talk about being "light" almost simultaneously. So, when I watched the video the first time, I thought it odd that lightness was the last level mentioned. How could my teachers be telling me to be big and slow and "light" (fast and small) at the same time?

I think, however, that there's a difference in definition, and we're talking about two slightly different things. The lightness my teachers asked of us from the beginning I believe primarily had to do with not using our arm muscles independently to do a technique (ikioi) and to do everything with the movement of our center (hazumi). You remember being a white belt, right? Or the last time you worked with one? Arm muscle all over the place.

I'm not so sure everyone understood or understands the difference, though. I wonder if many of us see the "lightness" of the really advanced guys and are shooting directly for that. Which is not a bad goal, in and of itself, but I worry that we overlook the middle two stages, particularly "strong".

Remember, of course, that we're not talking about "strong" in the sense of muscle (again, maybe a confusing choice of words), but structural integrity and the efficient delivery of true power (center-based).

In aikido, I've been seeing a lot of what eminent blogger, prestidigitator, and fellow budoka Sensei Strange once described as "soggy" technique. It cracks me up ever time I think about, and I have to shake my head because he's absolutely right. It's just part of something that I hadn't been able to put a finger on it until all of these odds and ends sort of coalesced in my mind. In the pursuit of lightness, by either definition, we had started to overlook strong, or structural integrity and the efficient delivery of true power.

Consequently, I've been focusing on fine tuning everyone's junana hon kata and owaza ju pon this month to make sure everything is solid (myself included). My point on shiho nage the other day was one such example. Ude gaeshi (#7) was another one. People would get uke's arm all tangled up, but his posture wasn't truly broken and while he wasn't in a great position, he wasn't falling either. He was close to the edge of the cliff, but not on the edge.

The main adjustment we made was with tori's left arm (if we're doing it to uke's right arm). More often than not, tori's arm was threaded through and in the right place, but it wasn't fully engaged. Soggy, in other words, a bit limp.

The moment you engaged all the muscle groups—shoulder, triceps, wrist, cocked the hand (you know, this whole "unbendable arm" we always talk about?)—just as with shiho nage, the coil tightened up, uke's eyes got big and he dropped like a stone.

Now, have we always been like that? I'm not so sure. When I first started, our method of practicing junana hon kata was fairly rigid by comparison to what we do now, a lot of stops and starts, sharp angles, etc. But by golly, it was strong, solid stuff. A lot of what I see from the Tomiki world looks like this.

But a few years back, our former organization started focusing on a constantly moving center, and on learning to flow from one technique to the next. Which, mind you, did miraculous things for our art, and the chasm from kata to randori became a whole heckuva lot smaller. The downside, it seems, was a process that glazed over the finer points of structure. Understanding how to go from one technique to the next overshadowed what made each individual technique work on its own in the first place.

And then there's the other side of the coin: uke. In fact, if I remember correctly, the soggy remark actually came about in relation to the quality of uke's attacks. A big part of what makes aikido work in the first place is an uke who delivers energy that we can do something with, right?

And that, I think, will be my next focus...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Take responsibility for your own development

I get regular emails from a BJJ site called Beginning Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu written by a dude name Stephan Kesting. A recent one happened to jump out at me and I thought it makes a good enough point to pass it along (obviously, he refers to techniques specific to BJJ here, but the idea can be applied, I think, universally):

Having a good instructor is a huge advantage when it comes to learning BJJ, but you also need to take responsibility for your own BJJ development. You might have the best instructor in the world, but ultimately you can't solely rely on any one person to always tell you what you need to work on.

For one thing it can be difficult for your instructor to cater to every single person's needs in a class. For example, 'Joe' might need to work on his armbar defense, 'Sally' might need to drill that basic guard pass, and 'Fred' should work on his leg and hip mobility in the open guard. How can one instructor spoon-feed everybody the exact information they need at all times?

The old proverb comes to mind: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

In a BJJ context, "learning to fish" means having a system to figure out WHAT you need to work on next, and HOW you can work on that topic.

Here's the kicker: YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT YOU NEED TO WORK ON! Let me prove it to you...
• Did you get armbarred three times last night? If so, then you need to work on armbar defense!
• Do your opponents cut through your open guard like a hot knife through butter? Ummm, better work on leg and hip movement in the open guard!
• Do you have no clue how to submit your opponent from rear mount? I guess it's time to learn how to do the RNC or a good collar choke!
By now I'm sure that you're getting my point.

So try this two-step experiment:

Step 1 - Using the method above, figure out what you need to work on. (Working on "everything" is not really an acceptable answer, since even a beginner will have stronger and weaker areas).

Pick a manageable topic, like escaping ONE position, or learning ONE submission, or trying to use only ONE guard pass. If you bite off too big a chunk right now (e.g. deciding that you want to master "passing closed and open and half guard" in your first year of BJJ) it will take too long and your overall game will suffer.

Step 2 - Then, using all the various resources available to you, beat that subject to death! Ask your instructor about it. Read whatever you can find on that subject. Watch DVDs and search YouTube.

Most importantly, target your sparring around that topic.

Do this for a couple of weeks, and then evaluate your progress. If you're new to the sport then might be time to move on and work on getting the basics of another skill. You don't want to become a completely lop-sided player.

Advanced players often use similar strategies to develop their skills. The only difference is that they'll often bit off bigger chunks (and use longer training blocks) to explore the area in question.

So go forth and learn to fish!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Philosophical discussions and when to have them

There a handful of subjects that have popped up lately, not only with me, but also pertaining to the dojo, that don't exactly fall within the normal realm of class discussion. They relate to budo, to be sure, but not necessarily the techniques themselves (I talked about the balance of philosophical and technical approach to the techniques themselves here).

Rather these topics pertain to the more... I don't know, "peripheral" aspects of budo. Actually, now that I think of it, it probably pertains to "reishiki" or etiquette, at least in part. But by etiquette, I mean more than just referring to your teacher as "sensei" or bowing at the right time and place (although that kind of thing is part of it).

It extends to how you treat the dojo itself, the art itself, other martial artists, other schools, your gi and obi, your weapons, the people around you even when you're not working directly with them.

Consider that last one: if I work with you one-on-one for any amount of time, I bow to you at the beginning of our session and at the end, and you do likewise. But what comes in between? How do I maintain the spirit of that bow when dealing with the class as a whole?

Part of the problem is, there's not as much "bowing" going on as perhaps there should be, literal or figurative.

Now, before I go any further, let me first make it emphatically clear that this dojo (including the people in it) is a truly wonderful place just as it is. I would rather spend time there than pretty much any other edifice on planet earth outside of my own home. And that's no accident. But we can always improve, right? Our own budo training is a daily reminder of that.

For starters, I think I need to start by remembering to bow when I'm supposed to. I owe it to the dojo, to the art, to my current teachers and to the teachers who have come before me, to my peers, and to my students. (I can't very well criticize anyone for a lack of etiquette when I myself am one of the chief offenders, now can I?)

I also want to seriously consider the words that come out of my mouth in the course of a lesson or discussion. Are they course and foul, even if only spoken in the spirit of humor? Or do they uplift and encourage?

I heard somewhere that the subconscious mind doesn't understand or "get" sarcasm like the conscious mind does. So, for example, while you might joke with your friend about how "dumb" he is, his conscious mind may laugh, but his subconscious mind takes the word at face value, and deep deep down, believes it. Why does that kind of humor come so easily to us, me included? Perhaps another deep-seated need on our part to belittle others to make ourselves feel better?

Well, that's a whole other discussion in and of itself. The point is, our choice of words matter, and the atmosphere and spirit of a place can whiter or blossom depending upon them. In you own careers, have you ever had the misfortune to work with a person that some might label as a "toxic personality"? I have, and it's amazing how they can change things for the worse, just by their attitude.

But all of this, then, raises another question: where and when is it appropriate to have this sort of discussion? For some reason, at our dojo at least, it feels rather awkward to broach such a subject in the midst of class, as if class is for discussing the techniques and how to do them, nothing else.

Yet, didn't Ueshiba often speak of love and peace and harmony in direct conjunction with his art? I don't really know the answer to that, since I was never there, nor do I know anyone who was, but I think I've heard tales along those lines.

I don't know the answer. As I said before, I suppose the best start is with me, and let that suffice for now.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A piece of the shiho nage puzzle

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been going over junana hon kata (or randori no kata) with the morning class a section at a time. The focus throughout was on how each of the sections approach the idea of disturbing uke's posture and balance (kuzushi).

In the first section, ateme waza. we're going after uke's center line pretty directly. To most of us, beginner or otherwise, that much is fairly evident. But it took me a long time to figure out what the next two sections, hiji waza and tekubi waza, the elbow and wrist techniques, were really all about. Because I was messing with the guy's wrist or his elbow, that's where my focus lay.

But in time I came to realize that kote gaeshi, for example, is not about cranking on a guy's wrist. Hiki taoshi is not about locking a guy's arm.

I always thought, I cause kuzushi, and then do something nasty to his wrist or elbow. Rather, I cause kuzushi, and then I cause a greater kuzushi, kuzushi with more control, kuzushi that's much harder to recover from.

The wrist and the elbow are simple means of manipulating or disturbing uke's posture and balance (kuzushi), just as the first section was. My ultimate goal with kote gaeshi and hiki taoshi (or shiho nage, or waki gatame, or ude hineri, etc.) is always to break down uke's structure, to create off balance.

As I mentioned, in the first section, we do it directly. From there, we move progressively further away, first out to his elbow, then further out to his wrist. In the last section, we're still messing with uke's center, but now we're using our own center to shear across uke's in different direction (the hands are doing relatively little other than providing a point of connection).

So we've been focusing on not just "how are you holding uke's wrist?", but "how are you holding uke's wrist so that his posture crumbles?".

Shiho nage has been particularly illuminating. Since the beginning, it never felt very comfortable to me. Sure, the Ueshiba guys did it all the time, and they seem to love it, but I didn't get it. Yeah, I might be able to get the guy stumbling backwards, which certainly makes it harder for him to attack me, but he didn't fall most of the time, either. In fact, I noticed that this sort of thing was happening a lot with other folks, too. Some posture was compromised, we got uke close to the edge of the cliff, but nobody was going over.

Until I realized, Duh! It's tekubi waza—a wrist technique. What are you doing with the wrist to affect his center?

And here's the difference. I was holding uke's wrist the way I maintain any other grip in aikido, with a cocked wrist (which essentially maintains my unbendable arm). Notice the right angle in the grip below (I used my computer and my own wrists for these photos, so it will look kind of wonky). That's just how you're supposed to grab as tori, right? Well, like most principles, that works great—except when it doesn't.

Now, look what happens when I straighten my grip, like I'm pointing at a wall instead of the ceiling.

Notice how uke's arm gets a little more jacked up. The fun thing is, making this one simple change is enough to make uke's hip suddenly jut out, too (his eyes get all wide and everything, it's fun). When I demonstrated the difference between the two grips in class today, just the one little change, one student remarked with amazement that it looked some unseen sniper had just shot uke and he dropped like a stone.


But it's not pain, oddly enough, that does it. I used to assume that this was what was happening with "other schools", particularly regarding wrist techniques. Ah, they're just cranking on it, and the guy drops to relieve the pain.

Well, maybe some of them do, but only because they misunderstand what's actually happening. Turns out, there's really not a lot of pain involved at all. We're simply turning the wrist in a direction it's not physically made to go. It's a matter of a body's architecture: turn the wrist in a way it's not designed to go, it will start to turn the elbow; the turning elbow will then start to turn the shoulder; and the turning shoulder will start to force the center to jut out. Everything gets all coiled up until it can't coil up anymore and it has to uncoil. (Which is, of course, where the big flippy falls tend to come out).

Same with kote gaeshi, etc. No pain; everything just... crumbles, and you can just set them nicely on the ground (you don't have to do the flippy fall, but it sure looks cool).

So finally, shiho nage is not quite the misunderstood, "red headed step child" of the 17 for me anymore. Although I will admit, I suspect there's still more going on that I don't understand yet. That's okay. That's what makes it fun.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Aikido versus kicks

Some veeeeery interesting technique combined with some hellacious ukemi.

The Sphere of Influence

Blame it on me being a visual person, but I've always liked using concrete ideas and expressions to illustrate a concept or point, both to myself and to students I may be working with. One of those analogies has really intrigued me for a while now, especially how it relates to both judo and aikido.

The question comes up, from time to time, among those who practice both arts, when would you use one as opposed to the other? My answer (for the time being, as always) is that it depends on my relationship to uke's "sphere of influence."

First of all, let me define what I mean by "sphere of influence." I imagine it as a giant bubble that surrounds each of us, and it represents a section of air or space where my hands (primarily, although it includes feet, too) have the greatest ability to affect something or someone else. The outer edge of that sphere, then, would be the furthest extent of my reach. If I hold my hand out at arm's length and I can touch it, it's on the edge of my "sphere" (also, if I can stretch out my leg and touch it with my foot, it's on the edge of my sphere).

Now, the thing to remember about this extreme outer edge is that, while I can touch something or someone, I can't really do a whole lot with it. I certainly can't deliver a whole lot of power. You don't open a jar of pickles while holding the jar out at arms length, right?

To start deliver a significant amount of power, my target actually has to lie a few inches within my sphere. For example, try to kick a punching bag that's at the very outer edge (or punch it) where you can just barely touch it. You scarcely budge it. Scoot an inch or two closer, and suddenly you can kick/punch the crap out of that bag.

But here's the interesting thing: move even closer. Suddenly, your fist and foot can't deliver the same power. The bag "stuffs" you and you eat the energy and stumble backwards, even. This realization is why muay thai fighters begin to employ their knees and elbows. Shorter "weapon", smaller sphere.

At this point, uke can't really deliver as much power. About the best he can do is start to curl his arms back towards himself.

Aikido, for the most part, tries to stay at the outer edge of this sphere, where uke's power or influence is pretty weak. Notice how uke's sphere of influence fades as we get behind him. Imagine as well that it fades whenever we get on the outside of either arm; aikido thrives there, too.

On occasion, however, the aikidoka will notice that, for whatever reason, he's wandered into uke's sphere. He's in very real danger here. Much of the time, then, his best option is to keep moving inward, slipping inside uke's sphere, where he's weaker again. This gives us the irimi or "entering" ideas: irimi nage/aiki nage, tenchi nage ("heaven and earth"), forms of gyakugamae ate where you're inside uke's arm as in san kata (instead of outside as in the 17), even sumi otoshi.

But aikido's repertoire in this condition is relatively limited. Which, to me, is where much of judo comes in. I somehow end up in front of uke (not behind his arm as I'd like), and I've wandered into his sphere of influence. Best to keep moving in, join with his center, and find a throw.

When the whole Ultimate Fighting Championship business started out, we saw a lot of judo and mostly BJJ guys destroy all the punching kicking guys, right? They just started at the edge of the sphere, moved inward, weathering the storm of kicks and punches until they made it inside the sphere, and then proceeded to knock their opponent down and own them on the ground (where they had no training whatsoever). All of which, naturally, gave birth to the idea of "mixed martial arts". Learn what to do with a guy when he's in your sphere (kicking, punching), but also when he's inside (standing and on the ground).

Once inside, as I mentioned, we can't really deliver much energy outward (punching, kicking), standing or on the ground. And since our arms start curling back toward ourselves in order to do anything to the guy, we get into concepts of controlling uke's movements, primarily through osae komi, or hold downs (choking and arm bars extending out of the idea of first establishing some control).

At least, that's my understanding at the moment, anyway. So far, it's given me a nice frame of reference where I can at least start to view the arts in the same frame, as opposed to two separate, almost competing, entities.

Scooping under

This is one of those things that probably should have been apparent to me early on. The action involved with most, if not all, judo throws seemed on the outset to function something like this:

Uke's center was the fulcrum and I was essentially bracing the bottom half while trying to wrench uke's top half over that point. Often, there would be a slight lifting element needed to get it to work. Which means that, even if you start out moving around, you eventually stop to execute the technique, which in turn stopped and planted uke. This comes out most obviously with hip throws, but I noticed it happening with other students and things like the gari throws: they weren't reaping so much as planting their foot and trying to push uke over their leg. Same thing with hiza guruma: stop his knee and pull him over it.

After a while, as my throws got more polished, I finally figured out what I was really doing most of the time—scooping under uke:

And one of the most important parts of doing that is not to stop moving. This sort of method may seem more obvious with versions of a throw where you (as tori) are advancing and uke is going back. That's actually where I started to notice this, doing an advancing harai goshi.

Eventually, I began to see the gari throws this way, too. Uke's shoulders are going back at the same time as I'm reaping his leg. It spins uke like the propeller on a plane, with his center as the pivot point.

Even hiza guruma started to feel like this, although I'm not sure how I can describe it in words.

Here's a hint: getting this result usually requires a "tick tock" sort of balance break. For example, if I want to throw him forward, I load a little weight (not much) into his back foot. The throw, then, happens as he recovers back forward: connect to his center and spin him like a propeller. Same thing if he's going forward: extend him a little more forward than he intended to go and when he straightens back up, reap his legs out from under him.

Done right, it feels (to both of you) like you didn't do anything, like he's weightless. Of course, I'm still working on it, but when I do hit it, boy, it's exciting.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

What is "misogi"?

I mentioned the idea of "misogi" in a previous post, and it got me thinking.

First of all, I probably know what you're thinking. Most people, upon hearing the term, think of this:

While this form of "misogi" definitely has it's benefits, it's not exactly what I had in mind. (Although, being Scandinavian, I feel compelled to mention the fact that the Nordic people have a similar tradition of going back and forth from jumping into ice cold rivers and lakes during the winter and then running to a nearby sauna, where they heat themselves up into a sweat. I personally don't have access to that sort of thing, although it's kind of a dream of mine, but on occasion I have used my shower to similar effect, alternating between really cold water and steaming hot. Very therapeutic.)

But I digress...

There are, from I understand, other forms of misogi, which don't involve water at all.

Ueshiba defined it as "a washing away of all defilements, a removal of obstacles, a separation from disorder, an abstention from negative thoughts, a radiant state of unadorned purity, the accomplishment of all things, a condition of lofty virtue and spotless environment. In misogi, one returns to the very beginning, where one is at harmony with the universe."

From what I can gather (and if you're more familiar with the subject than I, please feel free to comment), regardless of the form, it seems to involve a handful of common characteristics:

1) An activity that is, in some way, is physically taxing. Obviously, stepping into a freezing cold waterfall would certainly qualify. But I've also heard of it being done with an otherwise simple, innocuous activity, such as making a shomen uchi cut with a sword. The stress, then, seems to come not from the task itself, but from how long you do it. Performing that same shomen uchi cut, for example, for ten, twenty minutes or more. Here's an interesting little blog entry about one aikidoka's experience.

An important distinction to make here, I believe, is the one between physical exertion or fatigue and genuine pain. If you have any kind of physical pain, due to either current or past injury or physical handicap, don't think you have to be a hero and "work through it". Know your own body's limitations.

2) The participation of a group. Okay, so this isn't really all that necessary, but a lot of the examples I found do indeed involve a whole class, exerting this super-human effort of endurance together. While there's plenty to be gained for participating in your own, personal, private misogi, I suspect there is just as much to be gained by joining with a group who is acting in one accord. Only more experience with it on my part would allow me to elaborate further.

3) A rhythm, both in motion and in voice. This can take the form of a simultaneous kiai or with counting in unison. Again, this isn't entirely necessary either, but the concept of chanting as a group goes back centuries and crosses a number of geographic and theological boundaries. Again, I don't have any experience with it myself (that sort of thing really isn't done in my church), but perhaps my friends who do would care to elaborate?

As for myself, I've only participated in such an activity to a limited degree, thus far in my life. As I've mentioned before, as a brown belt, I used to make myself do forward rolls on a blue crash pad over and over for five, ten minutes until I could barely stand anymore. Looking back, I suppose this was a small form of personal misogi, and I look back on it fondly.

I also mentioned how Chuck Caldwell Sensei would on a rare occasion make us do a high number of uchi komi's in judo (several sets of 20 each), which also had a similar effect.

Lately, I've not only been thinking about it, but actually craving it. Unfortunately, that may very well mean I drag my poor, unsuspecting morning class peers into it. (Insert evil grin here). The question is, what form should our little misogi exercise take? I've had a few thoughts, and I'll go into those in a future post. In the meantime, have any ideas or experience?

Misogi ideas

I've been thinking lately about introducing a little bit of misogi training into our morning classes. Nothing extraordinary, mind you. Ten minutes, maybe, max, and then back to regular class. The question became, then, how?

Here's a few thoughts I've had so far:

Uchi komi
This is about the best idea I've had for doing a misogi practice when it comes to judo. I would say, take a basic throw, probably osoto gari and get into pairs. The first guy loads it up about 19 times and throws on the 20th. Then it's the other guy's turn. Repeat ad nauseam. For this, I would involve some counting, probably in Japanese. I don't know if I would have one person doing it, or everyone, or maybe just the tori?

Tegatana no kata
The walking kata is probably the most obvious choice for aikido. It's already done as a group and involves counting. We could just keep doing it over and over, 5 or 6 or more times. Maybe have everyone count instead of just one person?

Rolling breakfalls
Since a couple of people have been asking me about ukemi lately, I thought replicating my own experience might be nice (or cruel, depending upon how you look at it). I think I would take both blue crash pads and put them side by side. We'd form a line on the south end of the right mat. The first guy rolls, gets up, and steps over to the north end of the left pad and does a roll there (on his other side). Then he goes back to the end of the original line. Whenever one person has cleared the pad, the next person rolls. Keep going until everyone's legs have turned to rubber.

Really, any ukemi could be used here.

I don't know that you could do these in unison, but you could still pair up and pick just one release at a time, and have each person do the same release, alternating sides, over and over for a short period. Then, change partners and do the same. The, possibly, move on to the next release (if I did this, I think I would keep it to the first four).

Pick a jodo kihon
Fairly self-explanetory, I think. The first one, shomen uchi, would be a great place to start. Your shoulders would definitely be screaming by the end of it, but I guess that's part of the point, isn't it?

. . . . . . . . . . .

One definite overall rule would be "no talking, no teaching." Only silence, except for those counting. Something Lowry Sensei referred to as a Buddhist concept called "noble silence." It invokes a sense of meditation, or reverence, that I think is critical to the process.

The one thing that makes me hesitate is the presence of newer students (say, white or green belt). I don't want to scare them off, or make them think that this is a regular part of training. In fact, I noticed that some schools only allow intermediate and advanced students to participate and only permit new students if they more or less beg and plead.

I'm not sure when I'll do it, either. Maybe I'll wait until I have a good size class filled with mostly intermediate and advanced students. Or maybe, I'll make a bit more of a production out of it, like with kangeiko and shochugeiko, in the form of a special training session. I don't know. I'll play it by ear and see how things unfold. Regardless, I'll definitely post the results.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ude gaeshi with the volume turned up

It's funny, because our concept and practice of the seventh technique from junana hon kata, or randori no kata (or "the 17"), ude gaeshi, has always been fairly light and easy. Uke basically does a backfall and sits down nicely. 

There is, however, an alternative version that's a little more... thrilling.

Here's another:

You don't have to do it with a big air fall, but it's the basic turning action, rather than going straight back behind uke that intrigues me...

Super amazing ukemi! Step 5

If you've stuck with me this far, you're probably wondering what on Earth could possibly be left to talk about. You've done a bazillion reps, you've got a pretty good handle on all the weird variations. What else is there?

Step 5
Take the "decision" out of it.

You might think you've done so many repetitions, you could do your ukemi in your sleep. True, but there's one thing I still see present in most students who have come this far that gets in their way: they've made the "how" automatic, but not necessarily the "when."

Doing ukemi while training for ukemi is one thing; falling when you don't expect it, or intend it is quite another. So take your falls during class. I'm not saying fall down for everything anyone does to you; the technique has got to be there. But I see far, far too many people in class resisting the fall altogether. They're choosing whether or not to fall, and that will get them hurt, believe it or not.

Take your falls, take your falls. Even when, for example, the instructor is using you for a demonstration and you both assume he's only planning on "loading it up" and doesn't intend to "finish" it and throw you, and you loose your balance to the point that you're on the edge of the cliff, FALL. Granted, the instructor will think you're jumping for him. Stand up, apologize, move on. But as far as I'm concerned, always, always err on the side of falling.

For what it's worth, I'll tell you right now, I don't jump for people. I'm not doing you any favors by doing the work for you. Of course, I'll "broaden the window" so to speak with newer students, but if they don't have it, I won't fall.

The odd thing is, when I do fall, they sometimes accuse me of jumping, mostly, I assume, because they know their own technique was not that good. Here's the thing, though: Just because you do a mediocre technique, doesn't mean I'm going to do a mediocre fall. I'm the one hitting the ground, so I'm going to do it in the best, most efficient and safest way I know how.

Ultimately, I can't be in the habit of finding myself on the edge of the cliff and having to take a millisecond to decide, should I fall or not?

Some years ago, I was walking at night, downtown. I was chatting with some friends as I walked and wasn't paying attention and walked right off the curb. My ankle buckled. I didn't resist in the slightest, but melted with it, tucked and rolled back into a standing position. I kept walking and talking, and my ankle was fine. I got quite a few queer looks, however, but I walked away from it. Any hesitation on my part, though (should I roll, try to keep my balance, etc.) would probably have forced me to tweak my ankle or worse.

I've heard a number of similar stories over the years, and had a few other similar experiences myself. Chances are, you will, too some day.

But this is a critical step in any aspect of aikido, isn't it? Taking the conscious mind out of it. Flowing, going with the energy, accepting what is, being what is. And in my mind, that seems to be the defining difference between the good ukemi artists and the great ones.

Amazing ukemi, Step 1

Friday, March 19, 2010

Godo geiko this weekend

Planet Dojo

Another budo "play day" is upon us this weekend, but unfortunately, it looks as if I won't be going. At least, I don't think I will. The more young kids you have, the more time you're needed at home.

On the other hand, my wife is going out of town in a couple of weeks to visit sisters (although she's taking the baby with her), so maybe I can "trade" some time? Maybe a little aikido tomorrow morning?

If not, I hope everyone has fun and learns a lot!

Super amazing ukemi! Step 4

After surviving through the first three steps, you've done the bulk of the work. Hang in there, champ, you're almost there. Pretty soon, you'll have some of the best ukemi in the dojo, and you know what that means?

Exactly—everyone will want you to be their uke when they demo for rank advancement. From what I understand, in Japan, those guys are pretty valuable commodities. If you want that promotion, you need to look your best, and the guy taking the spectacular falls is the one to do it. Most of the time, these uke's are repaid for their efforts with beer and dinner.

And do you know what else it means? Guess who gets to be sensei's favorite uke for demonstrating technique to the class? Yes, my fine, falling friend—you. Which means you get to feel what any given technique feels like coming from very, very skilled hands, and not everyone gets that opportunity. And by feeling it from uke's perspective, you have a very good chance of being able to eventually recreate it yourself in time.

So get ready, you're about to enjoy a very special position in the dojo. After you tackle...

Step 4
Explore the variations

After you get the basic forward roll down, it's time to start exploring a few of the variations. Try these both on your own and also with a partner during ukemi practice:

1) Side rolls.
Solo: Start from a standing position but facing sideways, your right side facing the direction you're going to fall. Slowly start to lift your left leg out, until it tips you over sideways, over the side of your foot. (Do both sides, of course.)

With a partner: Have someone lift your leg for you. Partnered ukemi helps take the decision of when to fall away from you, which is a good thing. More on that later.

2) Opposite hand and foot rolls/air falls.
Solo: Just like it sounds, start from a standing position with your left foot forward, but lead with your right hand as you go down. This is basically the kind of fall you'll take from a guruma throw, such as in the Big 10 or from hiza guruma, etc.

With a partner: Get out the crash pad. Stand with your left foot forward, your right hand out in front of you. Your partner will hold that hand by your wrist. Slowly, he'll lower your hand, gradually pulling it across to your left side (don't move your feet!). Eventually, your body will coil as far as it can, and will spring out of it.

3) Sumi otoshi rolls/air falls.
Solo: Start from a standing position but with your back to the direction you're going to roll. Slowly lift your left leg up, right in front of you, until it tips you backwards (it will also turn you a bit to the right). At the last possible second, if your weight is primarily on the balls of your feet, your foot will spin and your toes will point in the direction of the roll.

With a partner: Stand with your back to the crash pad, your right foot forward, your left back against the edge of the pad. Your partner will be standing to your right, with your right wrist held in his right hand. Start to take a step forward (away from the pad) with your left foot. As you do, your partner will push your right hand to your right, rear corner, sending you flying. Weee!

. . . . . . .

When doing all of this, there's one very crucial thing to remember: don't jump.

At this stage in a budoka's ukemi development, this is probably the most common mistake I see with flippy air falls (mine included when I was at this point). Something inside our brains says, Oh, we're flying through the air, so I need to leap up before I go down to get as much "air time" as possible.

Wrong. Unfortunately, that will screw everything up and you'll land incorrectly most of the time. It's called "falling," after all, not "jumping". Jumping tends to launch you too far forward, and you won't rotate enough in time to hit the ground in the proper flat position. You need to turn pretty much right underneath yourself. At the risk of sounding crude, I often describe it as trying to bend forward and put my own head between my legs and up my... well, where the sun typically doesn't shine, shall we say.

Which brings up to the last of the variations you ought to explore:

4) Flipping yourself.
That's right, you do a flippy air fall without anyone holding your hand for support or reference. Now, for the longest time, I seriously wondered what the point of being able to do this was. As a brown belt, I saw other people do it, and became determined to learn how, and spent a long time on the blue crash pad, trying to flip myself. And today, I see many brown belts and new black belts doing the same thing. I'm not sure what the allure is, but it seems irresistible.

I think, though, that now, I see some use for it. There's something about having such a complete and in-depth understanding of the falling mechanism that you can do it to yourself without any help that allows you to completely be at peace with falling. Once you've mastered it to that point, you can mentally let go of it, you can do it anywhere, any time, with whomever. Any lingering subconscious fears evaporate.

I'm not sure that even comes close to explaining my reasoning, but the more I think about, maybe I'll revisit the idea...

. . . . . . .

There are other falls that come out, under certain circumstances, but I don't know yet how exactly you train for them. I never did; they just popped out. Maybe that means we don't have to worry about them if everything else is in place.

5) "Gator roll" air fall
This one tends to happen mostly with okuri ashi harai, the double foot sweep from judo. You start rotating sideways in the air, like the propeller on a plane. But somewhere in the air, you turn lengthwise and end up landing on your other side, just like any other regular breakfall. Not many folks I know can do this one, but it sure makes your partner's footsweeps look reeeeeeal pretty.

6) Backwards air fall
This one tends to happen with osoto gari in judo, or a really "enthusiastic" irimi nage in aikido. Essentially, you start falling straight backwards, like you're about to do a back flip. Again, somewhere in the air, you end up turning and landing like a regular breakfall.

You're almost there. Spectacular ukemi is within your reach. One more step...

Amazing ukemi, Step 1

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Super amazing ukemi! Step 3

So, what more advice could I give the aspiring ukemi artist?

Step 3
Do a lot of it (I mean a LOT)

I know I've said it before, but the main obstacle standing in the way of great ukemi is good ol' fashioned fear. Our Subconscious Mind is afraid of hitting the ground because it thinks it will get hurt. The only way to change it's opinion on the matter is to convince it—through bazillions of repetitions—that it's okay to fall.

I've also gone into the benefits of a crash pad, but as far as I'm concerned, I can't emphasize it enough. As a brown belt, I would spend the ukemi time during class alone with a crash pad. I would start on one side, roll, get up, and roll back the other way, over and over, until it was time for the class to move on. By then, my legs were so rubbery, I could barely stand. 15 years later, I still use the crash pad.

Get the basic, fundamental rolling breakfall thoroughly ingrained. All the other versions—the flippy air falls, guruma falls, sumi otoshi falls, sideways rolls, backwards flip in mid-air osoto gari falls, etc.—all come from having the basic version firmly implanted, period.

Then, have someone hold your hand while you do your big, flippy air falls on the crash pad, over and over. Do it until you're sick of it, then do it some more.

Hey, you asked, and I'm telling you. Okay, well maybe you specifically didn't ask, but to those who do, this is what I recommend. Many would call this approach to training as "misogi" or purification. And unfortunately, most people are unwilling to go there.

Humans get bored fairly easily, it turns out. Often times, I assign students a given technique or drill and pair everyone up to practice. Guess how long it lasts? Most will do it three, four times and then look around and wonder if I'm going to give them something new to do. Why are you stopping, I wonder. Mastered it already, have you?

I remember, years ago, Chuck Caldwell Sensei having us do uchi komi drills in judo from time to time. We'd take osoto gari, for example, and one of us would load it up 19 times in a row, and then throw on the 20th. Then it was the other guys turn. Then we both did it again. Maybe even a third time. Talk about your body turning to jelly. Not a day of judo goes by that I don't thank him in my mind, and I guarantee you, my osoto is all the better for it.

Something within us wants to be constantly entertained, and expect the instructor to keep things moving, cramming as much info in as possible. But there is something to be gained from isolating a thing and drilling it until your eyes go blurry. No, scratch that. There's mountains to be gained.

This applies, of course, to more than just ukemi, but that's the topic, so go do your rolls. When you start to get bored, keep doing them. When your legs start to ache, keep doing your rolls. When you just want to stop, keep doing them. Push through it, and keep doing it until your mind goes white, blank and numb, unable to focus on anything.

The roll will engulf you, swallow you whole. Let it.

Then you'll be ready for step 4...

Amazing ukemi, Step 1

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Super amazing ukemi! Step 2

Granted, I've talked about some of this before, but I've also thought about it even more since then. Hopefully, there's some new information here for all those dedicated readers out there.

Whether or not you've followed my supremely valuable advice in step 1 and started while you were young and fearless, you can still develop super human falling skills by moving on to...

Step 2
Take your time, and start low

Okay, that's actually two pieces of advice, but in a way the two go hand in hand. One of the drawbacks of starting young is getting in too big of a hurry to get to the big, hairy falls. It's great that they're willing (or perhaps dumb enough) to do them, but you need to build a solid foundation of basics first.

Most folks I've talked to over 30, however, are more than willing to take their time, which is good. That evolutionary tendency to resist falling takes nothing short of time and repetition to overcome. There's no shortcut, folks, sorry. So you might as well sit back and enjoy the process.

Because rushing on to something you're not really ready for will most likely get you hurt. And even if it's not drastic—maybe you just bump your shoulder and make it sore for a couple of days or weeks—you're Subconscious Mind will positively freak out. I told you falling was stupid! it will scream at you. From then on, your Subconscious Mind will make little tweaks and adjustments to your falls to try and protect the injured site, which will actually make your overall fall worse. And trust me, it will take months to get over that and fix it.

And since the hardest part of falling is convincing ourselves that it's actually safe (when done right), start as low to the ground as possible. Doing so will first, isolate certain key elements of falling like tucking the chin, breathing out when you slap, etc, and second, if you're not traveling very far to reach the ground, the impact and chance of injury will dramatically decrease. Take for example a few of the drills here:

Now, after you've done that for a while and it's feeling comfortable, you can start to move your way up to standing. Once there, it's time for step 3...

Amazing ukemi, Step 1

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Yes, you too can have amazing ukemi! Step 1

I get asked fairly frequently about ukemi, or rather, more specifically, for advice about it. I suppose I fall well enough. People say I do, anyway, but I'm certainly not the only one; there are plenty of budoka in our dojo and organization that have been falling prettier and longer than I.

Regardless, the question does get asked of me. In one form another, it all basically comes down to this: How can I fall like you? And it gets me thinking. What should I tell them? How did I get where I am today?

Now, I'm still relatively young, both in age and in budo experience, but this is what I've discovered so far about ukemi (and this may change as I get further along the path). Ready? Here's how you, too, can have amazing ukemi, absolutely free of charge!

Step 1
Start young.

Not that you have a whole lot of choice in the matter. You may have only discovered aikido or judo after turning 45, and that's where you have to start. All is not lost; you can still fall well with time and work. But I have to say that, after several years of watching others, young folks do have a unique advantage: put simply, it's an outright sense of fearlessness.

From what I understand (if the Discovery channel is to be believed), the human brain gets completely rewired during adolescence, starting at the back and working its way forward to the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe, I'm told, contains the part of our brain responsible for "higher reasoning". And since, physiologically, adolescence doesn't stop until your mid 20s, your higher reasoning center doesn't get rewired until then.

Which is why, I suspect, you can take a bunch of 18-19 year old soldiers (or younger) and tell them to storm a beach in Normandy against all odds and they'll do it. Ask a bunch of 30 year olds and they're likely tell you to go screw yourself.

All of which means, there's not a lot of logic or common sense or fear to get in the way of a young person throwing himself into the ground. (I post the picture above because that is exactly the sort of thing we did when I was a young lad!) Because let's face it, falling down is not natural. In fact, I'm willing to bet millions of years of evolution have more than likely programmed us that falling is a bad thing, don't do it, ever ever. You'll get hurt. Resist the fall at all costs, 'cause your gonna break something.

Fortunately, amazingly, we can actually overcome all that biological programming (in time). And while it's not absolutely necessary to start while still young enough and fearless enough to know that what you're doing is kind of dangerous, it certainly does help. I, myself, started just before I turned 20. And all the best ukemi artists in our school? Much the same. Most everyone I know who started when older have always had a sort of stiffness and hesitation in their falls.

Still, there are exceptions in our school, so don't let that discourage you. Follow Dr. Sean's sure-fire method for amazing ukemi, and you'll be flying about the dojo like a sugar-buzzed acrobat from Cirque du Soleil!

Next, Step 2...

Monday, March 15, 2010

Trying out some tai otoshi drills

This week in judo, the two throws from the gokyu no waza that we're looking at are okuri ashi harai and tai otoshi. Okuri ashi harai has, for whatever reason, seen a lot of time and attention in our school and most folks are pretty well acquainted with it already, so we just worked on the stepping around/drawing action today, and devoted the rest of the time to tai otoshi.

This is a throw that I've spent a lot of time investigating and exploring over the past couple of years, and I'm always finding something new about it.

First off, we tried a simple little drill to emphasize the basic body relationship. We had uke stand still, feet square. Tori just stepped forward, letting his right arm collapse (hand to shoulder and his elbow in uke's armpit). By the time tori is turned, facing the same way as uke, he's radically pitched forward. For this, we didn't even have a grip with the left elbow. All the action came from the center stepping to uke's side, and the turning of our center transmitting through our right hand, which pitches uke forward. Uke, then can just do a front roll out of it, much like you see here at about the 1:45 mark:

This whole approach has a very aikido feel to it, almost like tenchi nage ("heaven and earth") or maybe the guruma throws from the big ten. If my center was even slightly in front of uke, he could brace and kill it. My center had to be at least even with his, side by side, or even slightly behind (which is a little different than some of the rest of the judo world; they tend to do it right in front, uke still rolling over tori's back, which is a little hip throw-ish to me). It's almost like you're stepping in (a little off to the side) and scooping under him while turning, if that makes any sense. Done right, you virtually don't even need the foot, of course.

I also liked this turning drill that happens at the 4:05 mark, so we played with that this morning (another version of it appears at the 4:50 mark, where uke steps over tori's leg so tori can get a lot of repetitions in).

It's actually quite nice. Basically, as you keep turning, uke's center will gradually drift a little until it's no longer pointed at yours, but a little off to the side. Once you sense that this is happening, the turn and throw are as smooth as butter, no speeding up or anything.

The drawback was, however, as is often the case with new guys, uke would starting turning so his back went into the throw. Which is fine for tori; he can just do osoto gari. But, that's not the drill, and besides, this is a good time to start teaching the new guys how to keep their centers (and their weapons) pointed at tori (we glanced over the fact that a very nice tani otoshi lives there for uke if tori isn't doing his job right, but you've got to keep your center "active" and pointed at tori).

Now, the interesting thing about tai otoshi is that it can be thrown two ways. Most of what I see is done perpendicular to the line of uke's feet, but you can also do it down the line of uke's feet. Chuck Caldwell Sensei liked to throw it that way, and I remember his teaching a subtle balance tweek set-up to it that's pretty nice. You can see a bit of it at the 1:50 mark.

Incidentally, at the 3:10 mark, you'll see the other guy use his foot to brush back uke's far leg to set it up, which is interesting (you get a similar effect if you try an advancing ouchi gari that fails, which he also does).

For Wednesday, I think we'll stick with the same drills and see if we can refine it. We also may talk a bit about Zdenek Matl Sensei's verion, just for fun.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Consider ying and yang

I mentioned an 11 part series of videos featuring Henry Kono Sensei in a post the other day. In one of the videos, he mentions something that O Sensei told him years ago, which was, simply, that he (Kono) didn't understand "yin and yang."

Kono subsequently spent years, decades even, contemplating the meaning of that statement. Presumably, he figured a few things out in that time, but if he explained any of it in the video, it has since slipped my mind (it's a long video and he can be kind of tough to listen to).

Still, it's got me thinking about yin and yang myself (in and yo, I guess, in Japanese). Of course, while I have studied aikido, judo and jodo for a few years, my knowledge of Japanese culture, history, and philosophy is rather scant. (Not by choice or omission, mind you; I just don't have enough hours in the day to do everything!) I'll admit right off the bat that I'm no expert on the subject. All I know about yin and yang is what I can discern by intuition and a few off-hand references from other who presumably know better.

As I thought about aikido, and about what I wanted to talk to the morning class about before jumping into kata, an analogy formed in my mind that I think might be fairly valid.

I look at the bottom of the circle and what do I see? A large, dominant black area, seemingly overwhelming a small, thin white area. This seemed to me like the moment uke attacks. His energy is large, forward and nearly overwhelming, while I, the tori, who was just hanging out innocently, minding my own business, am still, with little to no energy.

But as things progress, as I blend with him and his center and establish kuzushi, things change. Suddenly, uke's posture is broken, he's moving backward or sideways, or someway that has become weaker or less advantageous. Meanwhile, I am moving more forward (mostly), my energy has grown, and uke is nearly overwhelmed himself until he falls. So at the end of the technique, we look more like the top of the circle, where tori is the larger white area, and uke is the thin black sliver.

All this occurred to me as I thought about offering some finer points to kote gaeshi. In one version of it that we do (which is a little different, I think, than many aikido schools), tori is moving away from uke, kind of backward and in a circular many, almost like we're playing Ring Around the Rosie or something. Centrifugal force seems to be the thing that is meant to topple uke.

But it struck me as a little too... fearful, maybe. Running, fleeing.

Well, you might say, Isn't that a good thing? Run, get away, this big bad man is trying to harm me, shouldn't I be trying to survive? Yes and no.

When a gazelle runs, it's also trying to survive. Unfortunately, the lion almost always catches him and eats him for lunch. There's no cycle, nothing changes, no blending of energy, no yin and yang. But with aikido, tori actually seems to flow from a reacting, retreating position to one of, well, dare I say it, dominance. I'm holding uke's wrist in kote gaeshi, his posture is broken, he is close to falling. I, on the other hand, am standing straight, my hand is in my center, etc.

That all could change, of course, in a flash. Uke reacts, busts out of kote gaeshi, and attacks our free hand. The cycle continues, now he is back to being the lion, and all the energy is his, and so on, until one of us collapses.

This is one of those things that comes down to mentality, I think. It's something we start to think about once we've learned the choreography of a technique.

Anyway, I don't know if any of that makes sense, and it may seem ridiculous to me tomorrow. But then again, right one day, wrong another—isn't that yin and yang, too?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Technical vs philosophical

Over the years, one of the main differences I saw between our aikido dojo and other examples I saw here and there (mostly online) was the method of conveying information, or teaching the technique.

We always seemed to approach things from a strictly technical viewpoint. We described what was happening in very concrete terms: put your foot here, turn it like this, put your hand there, move in this direction, and do it all to with this timing, etc.

Other aikido schools (Ueshiba styles, at least) tended to demonstrate a given technique several times, over and over, while the class watched. If there was any discussion (there tended to be more during special clinics with high ranking sensei than there was during regular class), it tended to veer toward the more abstract, philosophical, esoteric sort of description: get in harmony with the energy flow, yin and yang, extend your ki, etc. Then you paired up and tried to replicate what you just saw.

Frankly, I just never understood the poetic, abstract stuff. Most of us seemed to like our plain, physical descriptions just fine. We liked understand the mechanics of the thing as related in terms of geometry, anatomy and physics. That, we could wrap our minds around.

Suddenly, though, I find my mind drifting toward these more esoteric teachings. Not that they make sense to me now, but I think I'm beginning to catch a glimmer of it. I think most would agree that all our teachers were talking about the same thing, but using different ways of describing the same phenomenon.

Even still, I think there's something more. The best analogy I can think of is a student musician learning music, or an actor performing his lines. You can learn everything about eighth notes and quarter notes, key signatures, tempo, chords progressions, etc. You could play the music exactly as it's written, with exacting detail. But where is the emotion, the feeling, the fluidity, the ability to improvise, to infuse the music with meaning?

Or take the lines of a play. Anyone could stand there and read the words. No matter how beautiful the writing, you can kill it all without following the flow of the emotion behind the words, without the body language, the inflection of your voice, the way a professional actor would.

These things are harder to describe or quantify or measure. Plus, two different musicians and two different actors while perform the same piece differently, though equal well.

In my own teaching, I've always shied away from the more poetic way of describing things, and stuck to the more concrete descriptions, and while I think I'll keep that as my foundation, I think I may venture into the more abstract just a tiny bit, from time to time. Maybe it won't make sense to anyone. Maybe it will years down the road.

But I'm discovering that there's beginning to be a difference between how I perform a give technique (or move in general) and the way a shodan, nidan, sandan might. Nothing against what they're doing, mind you. But while the notes might be played back to me in the right order, the music doesn't move me to tears yet.

Have you ever watched a really high ranking aikido sensei perform technique in such a way that it literally took your breath away, just amazed you, and seemed like utter magic, effortless and beautiful? And then we think, Why can't I do it that way?

Perhaps that is one aspect of the yin and yang analogy (or "in yo" in Japanese): the technical, concrete blended with the abstract and emotional. And as the yin and yang concept suggests, I suspect we might need to embrace both to make really, truly beautiful budo.