Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The "L" shape

The "L" shape

One of the principles or concepts I've heard about from time to time over the years is the "L" shape. Specifically, we're talking about making a movement starts in one direction, and then at a certain point, changes direction, usually 90 degrees or perpendicular to the first line.

It's a wonderful principle, really, and while the reasoning behind it is simple enough, it still feels like magic when someone applies it to you. Uke feels energy going in a certain direction. Typically, he reacts by resisting, even just a little. A moment of tension is established. He can deal with that singular line of force or energy pretty well, his body structured is set to withstand it.

But when that line suddenly changes at a right angle, uke isn't prepared or his structure isn't set to deal with that line so he's very weak. A simple concept, but hard to internalize!

Kata gatame

The first place I remember learning about had to do with a particular escape from kata gatame. Let's say uke is hold you on your right side. After you've "answered the telephone" and managed to get your right fist by your ear (between your head and the guy holding you) to create a little breathing room, you start by bridging with both legs and hips straight back (or up, I guess, toward your head). You can't half-ass it, either. You really have to drive.

Once you get as far as you can go you make a hard right turn as it were, turning toward uke. It tends to grind knuckles into the mat, so be nice. From there, you can weasel your way out any number of ways that I won't go into now.

"Look at your watch"

Another place I just discovered the other day is with hiza guruma. Man, I don't know what it is about that specific throw, but it seems like I'm always learning new insights on it! My fellow judoka Scott and I were just moving around the other day, and I don't know how we really came to it, but he was the one that started us down that road.

Let's say I'm trying to throw uke on his left knee, meaning I'm propping with my right foot. I'd always been taught to lift the right elbow, or "look at your watch." Lately, I've been playing with other options with that hand (namely based on something Bob Rea once mentioned about what he did, but now that I think about it, I may have misunderstood him all this time).

Now we were going back to the old elbow up/look at your watch method. What we found was once you do that, you've establish a certain line of force or energy, one that, if uke were trying to resist the throw, he could sort of brace against. But then we just yanked our hand straight down. Both of us would end up practically diving into the mat.

Basically, we were creating an "L" shape. If we started off pulling straight down to the floor, of course, we would be stabilizing uke, putting his weight into his own feet. But if did "elbow up" first, got uke's shoulders just a hair out in front of his hips and got him used to one line of force, and then pulled straight down, whoooooo-weeee.

Although, I did notice that it didn't exactly create the typical tobi ukemi, or flying, flippy air fall that hiza guruma usually does. Rather, uke would get somewhat vertical and then roll sort of sideways. I guess that's still technically a guruma, I don't know?

At any rate, it certainly was slick. I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye out for more "L" shaped instances, judo and aikido!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Past the point of comfort

There's a point in many techniques (heck, maybe all of them if I thought about it more, but I'm thinking of some specific recent examples here) when uke reaches the end of his range of motion. We talked somewhat about this with kote gaeshi, when a handful of people were struggling to make it "work".

They had the hand position, they kept their centers moving as we're so often told, they maintained ma'ai, all of that. Uke was slightly off balance, or at least his posture was a little bent, but didn't fall. He just continued to stumble along.

If that sounds familiar, try taking your partner and just stand there, not moving around, but facing each other. Take his hand in a kote gaeshi grip, and without moving around, just arms, go from the starting point  moving your arms in an arc until you get to the "end", the kote gaeshi. If you're tori, you should be able to feel all of the slack is taken out of uke's arm, everything's tight, and his arm just stops moving. He's moved his arm to the very edge of his range of motion. And even though his wrist is somewhat contorted, he can tell you he's actually still fairly comfortable.

I actually see that a lot with many techniques, and in fact, is exactly what I did for the loooooongest time. Oshi taoshi, ude gaeshi, and shiho nage are good examples, too. I would get uke to the point where all the slack was taken out, where I felt everything tighten up, where uke wants to stop, and I stopped too. Posture slightly broken, but no fall, no throw.

Well, I thought, I'm always told to keep my center moving at all times, don't stop, so maybe that will finish it for me.

Unfortunately, uke never fell (unless he was just being compliant) but just continued to stumble after me indefinitely. Finally, I realized I'm just making things convenient and comfortable for uke by stopping when his arm is ready to stop.

Go back to that little exercise I was describing earlier: standing still, moving uke's hand back and forth in that arc, from beginning to end, to the point where you feel you've taken out all the slack and uke's arm just naturally stops. Do that a couple of time, and then at some point, take uke's hand just an inch or two beyond that point.

Even standing, I think you'll find uke's posture goes into catastrophic failure and he drops pretty readily. I didn't force it, I didn't crank on it—you don't need to. Whatever uke does, you don't resist, you follow, and keep following, and when he stops, you keep going and take him a little further than where he expected to stop, right? Sounds pretty obvious, but I still missed it and I still see it happen still. Do the same stationary drill with oshi taoshi, ude gaeshi, and shiho nage.

So where does the bit about keeping a constantly moving center come in, if you can clearly create the conditions necessary for a throw while standing still? The main reason I can think of is that if I stop my ass, and uke continues to move his, and uke knows what he's doing, he can very readily reverse it and dump me on my head. I suggest doing this while standing still as merely a drill, to isolate the one thing we want to focus on, so students don't have to try and think about their feet, etc., too.

Stopping, I believe, will also "lead to the dark side" so to speak, and the temptation to use strength and crank on a wrist, or ikioi (arms moving independently of the center, and many times implies the use of muscle strength) which has a spotty success rate (little ladies trying to do it to giants, or guys who just don't respond to pain and believe me, they're out there) When we take uke's wrist (or whatever) past the point of uke's range of comfort, we still need to have our moving centers behind it.

Like I always say, this probably isn't news to many of you, but it was a critical realization to me!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Yin & Yang with Jo Nage

Ever since I heard Henry Kono Sensei talk about understanding "yin and yang" in aikido, I've been searching for it. Below is an interesting little piece of yin and yang with jo nage (techniques that involve tori holding the jo staff).

Lightening the load

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits:

"Minimalism is lightening your load so you can soar, & land lightly if you should falter."


I've been fascinated lately by two aspects of "space" in aikido.

There's the sort of movement that creates space, or in other words a vacuum, when uke finds himself drawn into this emptiness.

Then there's the sort of movement where you occupy space that uke either used to occupy (displacement) or wanted to occupy but couldn't (interrupting).

For example, the first technique in this video demonstrates to me the idea of creating a vacuum, while the second and third technique involve occupying uke's space and displacing him.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The chin in magic

One of the phrases folks in the morning class have been hearing from me more and more lately, in both aikido and judo, is this: "the chin is magic."

There's another phrase they're probably tired of hearing that falls along the same lines: "the elbow is magic."

I'd like to film some video on my thoughts relating to both of those statements, but for now, I'll share this bit about the chin as it relates to aikido (then judo in a future post, and hopeful both and in a little more detail in video). 

While I've always sort of known that displacing uke's chin (or in general, his head) can have a potent effect on the rest of uke's body, I'm only recently beginning to see how wide spread the application is. Or rather, could be. Or perhaps should be.

Of course, like anything else I post here, the things I talk about are probably old news to you and your school or system, but it's not necessarily the way I was "brought up" in the art, or I'm just now noticing it after all this time, so it's fascinating to me!

Let's start here: as long as uke's head is lined up with the rest of his body, with his spine, he has optimal control of his entire body and over his balance. But once the head gets bent out of alignment (backwards, forwards, to the side), posture and control seem to deteriorate rather rapidly. It's also very difficult to recover from that loss of control, for in many cases, once you've moved the head out of alignment, it's fairly easy to keep it there.

The most obvious place for me to start was with the first technique of junana hon kata (or randori no kata) shomen ate. Most of the forms I saw it practiced in my neck of the woods, and the way I was taught, involve placing the palm on or around uke's chin level and pushing straight ahead. For the most part, we've always practiced this as lightly as possible, where you might imagine uke has a short beard and your palm is just barely grazing the hair.

You can certainly throw uke with that sort of light touch IF you have the timing right and IF you have a committed attacker (not someone who's just standing there, waiting for the technique, but someone actively engaged in coming after you), and IF they have a fairly normal nervous system. It's a great feeling when you catch uke at just the right moment and, without even touching him, he jumps out of his jockey shorts and falls to the ground like he's been shot by a sniper. You feel positively magic.

But maybe you're like me and you've found yourself in a situation where you've put your hand in uke's face (probably in randori) and nothing happens. The two of you walk around until the other guy does something to get your hand out of his face or you give up and try to make something else happen. Or you get some hulking neanderthal who just doesn't have the same "oh crap!" reaction that most of us have when something flies in our face and they don't move an inch when you do it (believe me, they're out there).

Or let's look at it from a different scenario, one based a more in "real life." There may very well come a time, "out there", when the situation is going downhill fast, or perhaps a third person's safety is in question, and you need to be more preemptive. I know, I know, that goes against the whole defensive, reactive philosophy of aikido, doesn't it? Sure, but bringing peace out of chaos, I believe, is a higher principle. Sometimes you may need to bring things under control before it starts and gets out of hand.

I've found that if you were to just push on uke's face in these sorts of circumstances, you may get him to walk backwards, and you may even get his spine bent back—but he never actually falls down. That's frustrated me and others I know for a long time.

One way to look at it is, Well, at least I've put uke in a compromised situation where he'll need to react to get out of it, and then I'll just do something with whatever he does. That's certainly true, but we have another option.

Lift his chin.

When you place your hand in uke's face, you might notice that the bump of his chin fits very nicely in the concave part of your palm, and the heel of your palm, the fleshy bottom part of the thumb, tucks nicely under his chin. Just shear your angle from a straight forward push to a forward and slightly up push, lifting uke's chin. Once his posture is broken, you can let your hand begin to sink downward as the level of his head sinks downward. I found that uke has a much harder time staying standing up.

You'll also find that your fingers can easily drop and the tips find their way into uke's eyes, as well. Good to keep in your back pocket, but be nice in practice, and be extremely careful with that, too.

Once I looked around at the rest of the aikido world, I began to see this sort of approach to shomen ate a little more often, but I don't think it's as common around here.

All that being said, there are more applications of manipulating the chin or the head that have been rarer still to me. Stay tuned, and I'll have a video of the rest of the applications I've been thinking about!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Do you need the hands? Yes and no.

One of the things that has fascinated me of late is the use of hands in aikido. By way of example, I'll talk about kote gaeshi.

Last Saturday, I attended part of a godogeiko, or dojo "play day" (a sort of informal gathering of various schools and styles of aikido getting together to play and experiment without any real formal teaching). One of the things we played with was performing kote gaeshi without ever getting what you might think of as the "classical" grip or twisting uke's wrist. Instead, uke clasped both of his hands together, outstretched in front of him. As tori evaded in a tenkan, turning, fashion, he simply laid his hand on uke's. When it came time to change directions and apply the throw, tori simply put his other hand on uke's forearm.

I've also seen many other very subtle, high ranking folks throw it as they separate from uke, with little more than a pinky and ring finger lightly hooked on the base of uke's thumb. Not a lot of contortion there, either.

That might seem antithetical, considering the name itself means "wrist reversal" and as far as Tomiki systems go, it's part of a section of junana hon kata, or randori no kata, called tekubi waza, or "wrist techniques." So why would we even bother with trying to execute it without doing anything to the wrist?

But that's not all. You can look at many techniques the same way. There's a point in mae otoshi, for instance, when tori will usually coil uke's arm prior to the through, or there's a certain amount of wrist control involved with shiho nage.

I think the point, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: even though there are many times and situations where uke's wrist is available for contorting and controlling, is it necessary to make the throw happen? While wrist control is great and all, are we too fixated on it, rather than on basing our aikido in our centers (hazumi) and on timing?

Now, all that being said, I've made a particular focus lately of what exactly my hands are doing when I've got a hold of uke, and I've noticed some amazing, albeit subtle, things, things that many of my peers don't seem to be aware of to the fullest extent. Is it necessary? Obviously not. But I think it's important to study the big picture as well as the details, to master the broad strokes and the minute details.

The critical thing to remember is that I'm not manipulating the wrist just for the sake of manipulating the wrist. I'm certainly not in it to cause pain, to rely on discomfort to make uke voluntarily jump on his own head just to alleviate it. Believe me, I've seen enough people who are immune to it (plus I don't see many tiny women inflicting much pain in a larger, refrigerator-shaped uke).

Wherever I'm connected, be it the wrist or the elbow, or whatever, my ultimate aim is to break uke's posture, to break his alignment down (good alignment and posture is shoulders over hips over feet; we want to disrupt that somehow). The wrist or the elbow or the chin, etc. are merely ways of affecting that alignment. It all involves a moving center, but you also gain an eerie degree of control when you know how to manipulate a wrist.

Let's go back to kote gaeshi. I know of one lady who used it as a means of control when a gentlemen tried to get a little frisky with her. She held him prone on his knees with it until security came and escorted him out of the building. No one ever got thrown, but she was able to bring a situation under control and prevent anyone from getting hurt. That strikes me as a good a definition of harmony and "true budo is love" as I've ever heard.

If I simply take uke's wrist and start contorting it, it may break his posture; if the guy is bigger and stronger than me he can easily resist, and certainly if he's skilled enough, he can reverse it. But once uke's posture is broken, I find you can keep it broken with those wrist controls. Rather than a big air throw, you can set uke down gently. And it's amazingly difficult for even the biggest and strongest people to deal with those joint controls from a broken posture.

To get into the specifics of some of the things I've been playing with, I think I'll have to make yet another one of my fine videos =)