Friday, December 31, 2010

Hard to fight what you've never seen

One of the greatest potential weaknesses of any martial art is the fact that it's hard to fight what you've never seen before. The Gracie family proved that quite effectively when they took every kind of fighter who signed up for the UFC and took them to the ground. Virtually no other style ever spent time on the ground, so the jiu-jitsu folks had a field day once they got down there.

Aikido is like that. No ground game whatsoever. Our particular school or ryu or whatever has a supplementary system of very basic, self-defense ideas for aikidoka because our organization historically has also been involved with judo as well. It works pretty well against people without much training should things degrade to a ground fight. Against a trained grappler, however, you're more or less toast.

But even in judo, which of course has a grappling component, has left out certain aspect of the ground game, namely in the interest of sport. There's no wrist locks, for instance, no ankle or knee locks. If you climb on top of someone, a judoka naturally tries to establish tate shiho gatame. We have an escape or two for that. But what about a guy who just wants to mount you and punch your face? Would a judoka, especially one trained for the sport, know what to do?

I guess this all depends on why you're studying whatever you're studying. Is it sport, or spiritual enlightenment, or self-defense? If it's sport, which sport? Which set of rules?

All of this has made me take a good long, hard look at what I've been training to do, namely in respect to judo ne waza. Our school doesn't focus on tournaments, and yet we still abide largely by tournament rules (no knee bars, or wrist and ankles locks, etc.) So what what happens when we're forced to deal with someone operating outside tournament rules? Sure, principles will help us deal with a lot of things, but even still, there's something about the human mind that has a tendency to pause when it encounters something new or unfamiliar. And that pause, I fear, may be long enough for someone to do some serious damage.

Take this video for instance. Putting the knee on the stomach. Never see that really in our dojo (that I'm aware of).  But that's just one example among many.

All in all, it makes me wonder if I'm missing something. Am I living in a bubble, a sort of imaginary "judo ne waza" world that can be easily shattered when someone who doesn't play by the same "rules" comes along?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Looking back, looking forward

Well, it's that time of year, isn't it? Time to look back at and reflect on the previous 12 months, and then to look forward to the next 12. I've been doing as much in my overall personal life, but I thought I might share a few thoughts as they pertain to my budo Path.

Looking back at 2010

♦ I missed quite of training this year, but fortunately not due to injury or illness. My wife, on the other hand, had the misfortune of undergoing 3, count 'em 3, operations: a C-section, a hernia and a tonsillectomy (which is a much more difficult recovery than one would think).

Which meant I spent a lot of time off from working staying home and taking care of the kids and missing some budo. It's a tough thing to go without training, but I tried to at least keep my mind in the game as I thought and pondered and watched videos. And since I used all my time off, I never got a chance to participate in either the shochugeiko or kangeiko intensives.

♦ I feel like I might several strides in my aikido. Mostly small details, but with large implication.

♦ I couldn't help but feel like my judo stagnated. I'm still trying to figure out why, exactly. I made a few realizations in terms of nage waza (throwing) that I think were good and helpful, but my intentions of focusing on ne waza feel miserably short. I did pick up a few things that I brought to class and worked on, which is good, but I never got in as much "rolling around" time as I need.

♦ I got a few blog posts promoted on Aikido Journal, which was marvelous and humbling all at once. The thought of anyone of advanced skill level reading my ramblings has put my perspective of what I say into a new focus. I definitely don't want to sound like I'm any kind of expert, like I'm preaching "this is how it is, people." In the grand scheme of things, I'm still a relative youngster, and my thoughts and ideas I hope do not come across as pronouncements as much as discoveries.

♦ I've done some filming, which I really wanted to do, but couldn't help very self-conscious about, mostly for the very reasons I stated above. But there are some things that words just can't handle as well or as accurately as words with sound and visuals.

♦ I continue to be fascinated by Henry Kono Sensei's statements about yin & yang. I saw more of it this morning, and it's very intriguing!

♦ I've been increasingly fascinated by the chin and the elbow. My catch phrases for the year have been "the chin is magic" and "the elbow is magic." Again, this morning, I saw even more applications.

♦ It's been a most enlightening year as I've continued to open my eyes to other schools and teachers of aikido and judo and jiu-jitsu. I've discovered some wonderful things from all these perspectives and I'm grateful for them.

♦ I've been a mad man with all these dumb little drills and exercises that I sit around and dream up. I wonder sometimes if it's overkill, or helpful, so I try to keep them a "once in a while" sort of thing.

♦ I spent a lot of time earlier in the year thinking about aikido ura waza (thanks largely to Nick Lowry Sensei), which was a lot of fun, and of course eye opening.

Looking forward to 2011

♦ I'm hoping every one is healthier this year, and I get a few chances to take time off and attend some special events, be it play days or intensives. I worry about myself, being the highest ranking person in morning class. I still need as much teaching as I can get!

♦ I'd really like to focus on ne waza more. It will be a struggle, I know. It's not my favorite thing, but I want to like it more. So I won't only be thinking about newaza itself, but thinking a lot about how I personally approach it.

♦ I'd like to make more films. I don't know if they're helpful to anyone, but I like being able to get the thoughts down so that they stop haunting my head =)

♦ I definitely want to continue to learn from other schools, arts and teachers. Time to empty the cup, abandon preconceptions and be filled again.

♦ I'd kind of like to incorporate weapons into aikido a little more. There's something about putting an object in people's hands that has a way taking their mind out of "a technique" and thinking more about the principle of the thing.

Otherwise, as far the future goes, I don't know that I have too many goals. I suppose I'd like to remain fairly open to whatever comes my way. And as the past goes, I'm grateful for anyone who happens to read this little blog of mine, if anyone. 

Many deep, humble bows to my teachers, to my students, to my peers, to my dojo, to life, to art, to failure, to success, to friends, to antagonists, to you.


A lovely demonstration of sensitivity, touch, and a bit of the ol' "on/off" principle.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Breaking balance with shiho nage

I've discovered that, after all these years, I was never really getting the balance break for shiho nage quite right. The same goes for mae otoshi, or any other technique that begins the same way.

I think it comes from starting our training looking at a technique from the stand-point of choreography: step here with this foot, put your right hand here, step there, turn, etc. etc. I think that's the way we need to start, working on ourselves first. But after a while, we find that, though we have the movements down (kind of), the technique still isn't quite working right, or maybe only works some of the time.

That's the point I think we all make a transition from thinking about what I'm doing, to thinking about what's happening to uke. We move from an inward focus to an outward one. We think less about how to do something, and more about why we do it.

Shiho nage, for me, is one of those techniques about which I'm starting to make a number of realizations. (Not that I've mastered it, mind you, but I'm learning!) The entry, for one, is interesting to me. I thought so long about where to step, and what to do with my hands, that I never really considered what I need to do to uke. Take a look at this video and see if you can spot what I mean.

Not only is tori getting off the line and getting the grip, but he's causing enough of an imbalance in uke that uke's leg can't help but swing back and away from tori. Which—huzzah!—makes the motion for doing shiho nage come so much more natural.

Oddly enough, I don't think I truly understood what needed to happen until I had enough students try and do shiho nage to me in recent years, and I realized I could totally counter it if I wanted to (and often did in randori). I had to really think about what was happening—or rather, what wasn't happening—to allow me the chance.

Another interesting element that I've noticed some aikidoka do (although not the chaps in this video) is using one hand to intercept the strike (say the left if uke is attacking with his right) and put my other hand (my right in this example) in uke's face, basically as an eye threat (similar to the entry for kubi guruma from owaza ju pon). It seems like this causes even more of the turning reaction I talked about earlier as uke flinches his head back; plus, it also serves as a bit of added insurance against uke's other hand.

Is it necessary? I don't know, but I think it's interesting. I will say that the idea of reaching over to uke's attaching arm with both of my arms makes me a tad nervous. If I fail to get his balance, uke is behind my elbow, a place I don't really want to be.

Fun stuff. I look forward what else I will discover as I continue to look outward.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The oft neglected mae ukemi

I have noticed recently that there is one element of ukemi at our school that I frankly think is somewhat neglected, or at least skimmed over too much.

Different people refer to it by different names, but it is essentially mae ukemi or "front falling". In some circles, this term refers to the forward rolls so common in aikido, but I think the terms mae kaiten ukemi ("front rolling fall") or zenpo kaiten ukemi ("forward rolling fall") are more descriptive and therefor clearer. Here's what the fall looks like:

For the most part, we have practiced only one piece of mae ukemi, as part of our opening warm-up, which is taking the fall from our knees. Unlike this video, however, we don't do the "worm" sort of movement, just reach out and slap the mat with our forearms, pulling ourselves a little forward, chin up. I'm not sure why, but while we would practice all the other falls from both a low, close-to-the-ground position as well as from a standing position, we only ever did front falls from the knees.

And for some reason, some classes over recent years have inexplicably decided to skip altogether some of the ukemi sections we all used to do (namely, yoko ukemi or "side falls" and mae ukemi) and only do ushiro ukemi and then the forward rolls. That baffles me.

Anyway, outside of that little section of practice at the beginning of class, it seemed like hardly anyone ever gave front falls much thought. Maybe one or two really athletic guys might perform the full version of the fall when they got to training in koryu dai san kata, but that was it.

The problem is, there are a couple of places within randori no kata where you should be able to take this fall as well (such as oshi taoshi), but I seriously doubt anyone under shodan (maybe even higher) knows how to do it. My only assumption is that we all (myself included) got into the habit of, when uke, falling to our knee first, and then doing a forward slap (like we do in warm-ups).

But here's the problem with that: at any reasonable speed, doing so will kill your knee. I know, because it happened to me the other week. And we were even on a nice, padded dojo mat, but man, my knee was sore for more than a week! I can't imagine what would've happened if that had happened to me on a hard floor or concrete! Bad, bad, bad...

Afterward, I thought I recalled someone, a long time ago, telling me that I could hurt my knee if I got into that habit, but obviously I, and I think many of us, has let the comfort of slow play and a padded surface cause that fact to slip our minds. Granted, some of our older students may not feel up to this, but then again, if they can do a forward roll, I don't see why they couldn't do this?

Needless to say, I think I'm going to spend a little time on it with the morning classes in the next week or so. Maybe I'll save a knee or two.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tying loose ends

For whatever reason, my frequency of posting has dropped off considerably of late, sorry. Not that I don't have a lot to think about, a lot that I'm learning, a lot that intrigues me. I definitely have a nice list of things to address for the coming year, if I ever get around to it all.

I also have a list of topics I've started but never finished, and hope to in 2011:

The chin is magic
This concept has been fairly pervasive in my aikido and is starting to creep into judo as well. I've only gone so far as to look at the first technique of aikido's randori no kata, shomen ate, but there's soooo much more. I tried making a video that glazed over many of the applications I've been thinking of, but I left some things out and it's too quick. Maybe next time I try, I'll bring a check list.

Practicing budo while killing time
I have a need to isolate and organize and categorize that borders on OCD. One of the things I really enjoy doing to creating drills. I made a few posts about walking drills for judo, but I have a few more little stepping exercises for aikido as well.

Renraku waza
We spend a lot of time in aikido working on combining techniques, stringing several together, but not as much in judo. I've covered some here, but I'd like to spend some more time working on ideas I've had and researching other's ideas.

The tall and the short of it
I started talking about approaching aikido with slightly different strategies depending on whether you're taller/bigger or shorter/smaller, but never got around to addressing it with judo.

In addition to all that, there's stuff I've been thinking about, but haven't started yet.

It's funny, when we start, both in aikido and judo, we're typically told not to think much about the hands. The reason being, without proper training and experience, using the hand will generally lead to bad habits, namely a kind of ikioi, or trying to use muscle and strength to force a technique to happen. But I'm at a point where I'm beginning to be intrigued by certain subtle uses.

Little details
I'm constantly reminded of little things, things that I've no doubt been told before, but have forgotten, little things that will make all the difference in the world. Once in a while, I'd like to jot one done, without a whole lot of explanation or fanfare, but a quick tidbit.

Mostly, I'm really behind. Seriously behind. I don't spend nearly as much time on it as I should have for the hours and rank. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with it, frankly, but I'd like to get a little more friendly with it over the next year.

And probably a lot more than that. I bet ya can't wait!

In the meantime, have a very merry Christmas, a happy holiday season, and a wonderful, prosperous new year!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More stuff

On the subject of minimalism, George Carlin's classic bit on "stuff". Which is, in my opinion, good... stuff.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Are you REALLY moving from your center?

We say it all the time—move from the center—but, truth be told, a great deal of the time, when something isn't working, guess what the culprit is?

And I don't necessarily mean "moving" in the sense of your center traveling over a certain distance, but just about every action (aside from some ikioi ideas) needs to have the hips engaged and zeroed in on the target.

We've been focusing somewhat on that concept in both judo and aikido in the mornings, and I thought I'd share a few drills/exercises I've pulled out of my bum to help illustrate it. The first set is...

Have everyone pair up, and give each pair an extra obi. There are two experiments each pair can do.

#1 The Truck Pull
Have tori stand stationary facing one end of the dojo. Have uke stand behind him, facing the same direction but several paces back. Wrap the belt around tori's waist so that uke is holding either end in each hand, and there's no slack.

The object here is for tori pull uke and for uke to try and resist being pulled. First off, have tori move incorrectly. Try going forward by stepping with your foot leading. You probably won't move uke an inch. Now, try leaning forward with your torso. Again, uke probably won't budge much.

Now, tori can move with their center. Pick up a foot and drop into the step, leading with the center. Suddenly, even small a tori can drag a bigger uke!

#2 The Karate Kid
Start just the same as before. This time, uke's job is not to prevent tori from moving anywhere, but just to keep the slack out of the belt, pulling just enough to establish tension.

First, have tori stand with their weight on their heels. Okay, remember the Karate Kid (the original) standing on that pier in the ocean, lifting on leg and both arms in the fabled "crane style"? Well, tori doesn't need to raise their hands like that, but try to lift just one leg like a crane. I think you'll find that, even though uke isn't necessarily pulling on tori, but merely with enough tension to keep out the slack, tori will stumble backwards.

Now, have tori stand with their weight on the balls of their feet, knees slightly bent. Try and raise one leg like a crane. Here's the thing—you still might find yourself falling back if your posture isn't quite right, if your shoulders and hips and feet aren't quite in the right alignment. You'll feel it when they finally do settle in; your body will feel so much more stable and strong (and despite the slight tug of the belt, you won't fall). It was surprising to me how much so.

. . . . . 

Indeed, it's amazing what we can get away with when moving about casually through the world and still keep upright. There's lots of ways to "cheat" and to stand or move with the least amount of work possible! 

But when it's time to do a job—be it aikido or judo, construction work, playing sports, operating tools—our body needs to move in the most efficient and powerful way it can in order to do that job effectively.

And "moving with your center" is easy to practice outside of the dojo. For one thing, start thinking about how you open doors. Rather than push or pull with your arm, open them with your center (the hand as merely a connection point). Or how about when you mow the lawn? I try to keep only a very light grip on the handle with my hands (to do a bit of steering) but actually do all the pushing with my hips. Sure, I probably look silly, but I haven't cared what people thought about how I look since high school ;-)

Or the pushing/pulling of a vacuum cleaner. Image your elbow (of the arm with the hand that's holding the handle) is glued to your side, and move the vacuum with your hips, dropping into the step forward and dropping back (sometimes an under-utilized aspect of budo movement, in my own humble opinion, by the way)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Getting better as you advance, not worse

I've noticed an unfortunate tendency creeping into my training the longer I do all this budo stuff. It's most noticeable when I'm the one leading class on a regular basis.

Basically, I stop doing things correctly.

Which seems odd, doesn't it? You'd think that the more advanced you get, the more correct your technique would be, right? Well, yes, it should, darn it.

But the truth is, when I'm the most senior rank, I have a bad habit of getting lazy. Why, I ask myself.

For one, I can get away with it with lower ranks. Because they're not as skilled, I only need to get most of the pieces in place to make a technique happen, and they typically don't know enough to take advantage of it to counter it.

And frankly, deep down, sometimes I'm showing off a little. Look how easily I did that technique, aren't I smooth? Check it out, I'm not even looking at the guy...

Sigh. Not good.

Even then, I'll botch something on occasion, and frankly, that just tarnishes my credibility as a teacher in the long run (and likely makes the wonderful people who taught me look bad, too). Also not good.

I may also be mimicking what I see really, really high ranking people do. You know, the guys who have been doing this stuff since before I was born? Now those guys make it look effortless! Some part of me is probably just trying to copy what they do, the same way my four year old son might copy what he sees me do.

Are those high ranks lazy or showing off? I don't know, maybe. Then again, maybe they've done a thing for several decades the correct, proper way, and after all of that they know full well exactly when they can cut corners. Or maybe the way they do it has become so small and subtle, it only appears to be simple from my limited perspective.

It doesn't really matter. Regardless, I need to refocus my efforts, double check every piece, practice slow and as precisely as I can. And do that for a couple more decades.

Not just the throwing leg—the support leg, too

There's always lots of little things to think about on any given throw or technique, and this is a nice one. In this video, Yamashita Sensei talks about o soto gari. He starts off emphasizing the idea of pointing the toe, which is a pretty common pointer, but it's one of the things I see people get lazy about far too often.

The other interesting thing I think is worth noting starts around the 3:35 mark, where he talks about what the support foot is doing. It's true for a number of throw entries and worth the reminder.