Monday, June 27, 2011

Have you ever watched a magician perform tricks right in front of you? Not the David Copperfield type of magician, standing hundreds of feet away on a huge stage filled with smoke and pulsing lights and scantily clad assistants, the kind who make cars disappear or miraculously escape cages filled with tigers.
No, I mean the simple kind of magic, the kind done right in front of you, with you standing within touching range of the magician, the kind where the simple, yes, but nonetheless the impossible happens before your very eyes.

How does he DO that? you think to yourself.

The answer being, as you may know, something called "sleight of hand."

But what does that mean, exactly? Well, one way you might think about it is, the magician gets you to focus on one thing, to think about what he wants you to think about, while he does something else at the same time without you being aware of it.

Now let me ask you this: have you ever watched a really high ranking budoka, be it judo or otherwise, do things so slick, so quick and seemingly so effortless, you were left with only one inevitable conclusion: it's like magic!

How does he DO that? you think to yourself.

The answer being, you might say, something to do with decades of practice. And sure, that does have something to do with it. Magicians practice their movements every bit as much to the point of razor sharp smoothness.

But I'm willing to bet something else is going on when that red-and-white belt makes you fall down before you realized what was happening: he got you to focus on one thing, to think about what he wanted you to think about, while he did something else at the same time without you being aware of it.

Among magicians, it's referred to, I believe, as the art of misdirection. In budo, it's often referred to as kuzushi.

For most of us, the term kuzushi has meant "off-balance." Which it does—in part. But it also refers to the idea of making uke take a step or make a movement he didn't intend to make. And the reason we do that, my friends, is to give uke something to think about.

Here's a little demonstration you can try with your class some time:

1) Have two partners stand facing each other, about arm's length apart.

2) Tori is going to reach out and poke uke with a finger, either hand, anywhere on the chest or abdomen. Use whatever combination of hands you want, but go SLOW. Yes, you can do this fast, but seeing this work even though you're going slow makes the point that much more profound.

3) Uke's job is to bloke tori from poking him, simple as that. Again, don't go fast, there's no need to do it roughly by slapping your partners hand. Just brush it aside.

Pretty easy for uke to keep tori from poking him, right?

4) Now, at some random point, have tori raise one hand (doesn't matter which one) right in front of uke's face and wave at him. Don't touch him, don't even get within a threatening distance; just in front of his eyes, and wave hello.

5) While you're doing that, poke uke with your other finger.

What happened? You finally got to poke him, I'd bet. Why? Uke was focusing on the hand right in front of his eyes for a split second. And that was long enough for you to poke him easily.

Of course, the longer you play this game, the more uke is going to be prepared for what's about to happen, and he'll be able to tune out the waving hand long enough to defend himself from your poking finger. That's natural; humans are made to learn and adapt like that (those of our ancestors who didn't learn that lesson are no longer with us...).

But in the larger scheme of things (the art of judo) there's lots and lots of ways to misdirect uke. He may wise up to one or two, maybe three. But when shot at him in rapid succession, his subconscious mind will, inevitably cave, and focus on what he shouldn't.

Think now about your judo randori. How often are you successful when you just try to step in and throw the guy? Not much, huh? Yeah, me neither. Not that I'm suggesting waving at the guy before you throw (although, heck, try it, it just might work once or twice!), but find something to occupy uke's mind for a second. Catch his foot in a foot sweep, even if you don't throw him. Now he has to deal with that, he has to try and keep his balance and try to get his foot our of danger.

While he's doing that, there's a window for you to do something else, I promise you.

The misdirection / kuzushi can happen in a number of ways:

• Attempt a throw. When uke fights out of it, use his recovery motion to step into the next, and if that fails, immediately to the next one. This is renraku waza, or combination techniques, and I think you'll find the best players make very good use of it.

• Subtly load uke's weight onto one foot. Once that foot is pinned, there's really only a couple of things he can do with his other foot. And if you've got an answer to those possibilities...

• Make uke take a larger than normal step. You can do this in a number of ways: raise your elbow and draw his lead foot out; take a larger than normal step yourself (with your center under you, of course), which will require uke to take a large step to catch up. I've also seen folks use one foot to push uke's foot away, spreading his legs out a bit.

• Take a deep entry step. Take a shorter than normal step. Change your grips. Start to move one direction, then suddenly turn the other direction. Clamp his elbow to your belly button and don't let him have it back....

Frankly, the possibilities are probably endless.

Oh, and here's one more "finger poking" exercise:

1) Start out exactly as before, facing your partner.

2) This time, hold your hand up and poke uke with only one hand, and only poke in one spot on uke. Keep your hand held up where uke can see it, and do it over and over and over again, exactly the same way each time.

3) Allow uke to block it, or sweep your hand away, over and over and over.

4) At some random point, poke uke with your other hand, anywhere on his torso you like.

Did uke block it? Maybe. But he was probably late, at best. I think you'll find it surprising how easy it is for humans to fall into a pattern, to get used to a groove. And conversely, how suddenly veering from that pattern has a tendency to take us by surprise, and maybe uke didn't block quite as well as he did with first series of pokes.

All of this, of course, applies equally well to grappling. But what about you? What's your favorite way to get uke to focus on something, while you perform your magic?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The (chemical) bond between budoka

Once again, I've let this blog get quite lonely over the past several months, sorry. Life has been tumultuous, to say the least. And in the face of all that turmoil, I couldn't help but notice that the people who were the most natural for me to reach out to, the people who in turn genuinely cared the most, were those friends I had made through the dojo.

I've always thought it was interesting how I was always able to make such a close bond with "dojo folk", a bond that I've never really made with coworkers, fellow church members, or even my own family!

I've had a couple of theories over the years, but here's one link I had never considered. I read a few articles recently dealing with "oxytocin", a mammalian hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. Now, I know, you're thinking, "Isn't that the so-called 'love hormone'? The one they give women to speed up the birthing process?" Yeah, yeah, but wait. Take a minute and read this description carefully:
In humans, oxytocin is thought to be released during hugging, touching, and orgasm in both sexes. In the brain, oxytocin is involved in social recognition and bonding, and may be involved in the formation of trust between people and generosity.
Now, obviously, while in the practice of aikido or judo or any other form of budo, we're not not exactly hugging or snuggling (and I hope to God no one's having any orgasms...), but if you think about "touching" in general, well, we certainly do a lot of that. We're almost always in physical contact with another human being for much of the class, several times a week. Some of us don't touch our spouses that much!

It turns out, physical touch in general can and will release this subtly potent hormone. You can even release oxytocin by getting cozy with your dog.

When I consider my relationship with many of my dojo friends, the concepts of social recognition, bonding, and the formation of trust and generosity would definitely describe it pretty nicely!

Obviously, if we were being touched in a bad way—in someone were really, honestly trying to inflict serious harm or heaven forbid molested or raped—I seriously doubt any oxytocin is being released. But despite the fact that we are indeed practicing methods of combat, of inflicting harm on another human being, deep down, we don't really mean it. I don't want to hurt my partner. (Okay, sometimes, the occasional jerk walks through the dojo doors and we may be seriously tempted, but otherwise...)

What we're really doing is helping each other learn something. It almost doesn't matter what that something is; it could be ballroom dancing, I would imagine, as long as there's contact. The touching has an underlying motive that's positive, to help someone, and to allow them to help you.

You could even take it a step further. Oxytocin has also been shown to increase trust and reduce fear, as in this example:
In one study... 29 pairs of male college students played an investment game with tokens in which one member of the team acted as an investor and the other as a trustee. Half of the participants inhaled an oxytocin spray and the other half a placebo.

Of the investors who whiffed oxytocin, about half gave all of their tokens to the trustees, and most of the rest handed over the majority of their tokens. By contrast, only a fifth of investors on placebo parted with their tokens, while another third proffered most of theirs.
In another study, "participants who inhaled either oxytocin or a placebo were asked to decide how to split a sum of money with a stranger. Those who received the hormone offered the stranger 80 percent more money than those receiving the placebo."

I continue to find it astonishing how I will trust my dojo-mates enough to throw me on the ground, to lock up my arms and get within a hair's breadth of choking me unconscious. Yet I do, constantly; and they, God help them, trust me in return.

And undoubtedly, should fear be removed from a relationship, then I think every other positive emotion of which humans are even capable will have ample room to flourish.

. . . . . . . . . .

More information: