Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sometimes the simplest answer is the best answer

There's kind of a kind of funny paradox in grappling.

It starts with a very basic, straight-forward technique. Let's say for example that uke is on his back and you're baring down on him. A relatively new or unskilled grappler will almost always try to push you off, to "bench press" your weight, right?

When he does that, he's presenting you with a straight arm. Naturally, you secure it and step right into juju gatame, end of story.

Consequently, most students learn or are taught very quickly, "Don't straighten your arms." Which now means you're rarely presented with the opportunity to use that juji gatame entry anymore. Which is great, right, because when your uke upgrades, you're forced to upgrade, and you both make each other better.

But then you realize no one's teaching that original, basic juju gatame entry anymore.

Or let's take the guard position. There's lots of fun things to do to your uke when you get him in your guard and he doesn't know to stay "south" of your belt and keep his posture upright: chokes, arm bars, turnovers, etc.

Consequently, most students learn or are taught very quickly, "When someone gets you in their guard, immediately posture up." Which means you're rarely presented with the opportunity to use all those fun techniques that require uke to be forward and "north" of your belt anymore.

But then you realize no one's teaching those original, basic arm bars and chokes from the guard anymore.

To be honest, I've skipped over teaching these sorts of "easy answers" myself. But I've started to ask myself the question, Why not?

Granted, straightening the arms or bending forward north of the belt is a rookie mistake, but hey, no matter how many students your school or any other has, the world is still chock full of rookies. And whether you meet them on the mat or "on the street," you're still going to run across people who make those kinds of mistakes.

I also can't help but think that you have to learn and practice the basic, "easy" entry in order to help understand what juju gatame (for instance) is and how it works. After all, just because your uke upgrades and doesn't straighten his arm for you anymore, doesn't mean you'll never use juju gatame again. You'll just upgrade your methods of finding or even creating it.

Sometimes I suspect we—in whatever learning endeavor, whether it be judo, aikido or piano or painting or surgery, or whatever—tend to eschew the simplest answers once we get to even an intermediate level. Perhaps we assume we're "too advanced" for it.

But really, how did we get advanced in the first place?

By practicing the basics, by mastering the simplest answers.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What I've learned about "kuzushi" (so far)

First of all, I'm learning not to spell it "kazushi." I suspect my pronunciation of Japanese words is, regrettably, somewhat tainted by the accent native to this particular geographic area.

Outside of that, one of the first things I learned is that kuzushi refers to "unbalancing your opponent." This is, by far, the most common definition of the concept I've heard over the years.

The next thing I learned is that there's more to it than that.

The word itself, according to Wikipedia anyway, "comes from the intransitive verb, kuzusu, meaning to level, pull down, or demolish. As such, it is refers to not just an unbalancing, but the process of getting an opponent into a position where his stability, and hence ability to regain uncompromised balance, is destroyed."

Well, that's certainly a good reason to think of kuzushi in such terms. But based on the myriad of things taught to and shared with me over the years by budokas far more advanced than I (or even will be for several more decades), I've come to realize it can include much more.

For example, kuzushi also seems to mean:

Forcing uke to take a step or make an action he didn't intend to make

Perhaps I simply step off the line of attack, even without touching my uke, and now he has to reorient himself on his original target (me) in order to continue his attack. Therein lies an opportunity for me to do any number of things.

If in judo, perhaps I give a quick little tug on my uke's collar, causing one foot to step forward, and as it does, I sweep it out from under him.

Or all I may do is lean a bit on the collar grip, loading a little weight into my partner's back foot. When I release that slight pressure, he can't help but "bobble" forward a tad. That unintended forward momentum, however slight, is an opportunity for me.

Limiting uke's options

If budo randori were a chess match, these sorts of applications would be the "check." The game isn't over, but the King had better do something, or he's going to get "got" in the next move.

For instance, while it may seem like a "dirty trick", there really is something extraordinarily effective about stepping on someone's foot and keeping it there. Suddenly, your attacker can't go anywhere, and he's now down to three appendages instead of his customary four. And if I happen to be standing more to his side than in front of him when I step on his foot, he will also have a difficult time reorienting his remaining weapons in my direction. Sucks for him, but yea for me.

In my early days of aikido training, I would very often find myself in the same position over and over again when practicing randori with a more advanced partner: him standing behind one of my elbows, with his hand just behind the notch of my elbow, and me, completely unable to turn around.

Or think about kote gaeshi as less of a "throw" and more of a sort of hold. There have been many times in randori where I've held my partner's wrist in kote gaeshi, but without them ever falling. I didn't, however, just abandon it—why should I let him off the hook? His posture was crimped, and his free hand was limited in it's effectiveness, because he knew (or sensed) that whatever force he applied with it would come back to the hand held in kote gaeshi. In which case a fall would be the likely consequence.

Forcing uke to focus on something that occupies his attention 

One of the most infuriating things you can do to an opponent in grappling is to grab a hold of him somewhere, say his arm, with two hands in one spot, bring your hands to your body, and simply let uke spend all kind of energy just trying to get his dumb arm free.

Or maybe you casually slip a hand inside the collar of his gi. You're not in a position to choke him, mind you, but many less experienced grapplers will nonetheless feel threatened, and begin to worry about that hand. Meanwhile, you proceed to nab an arm bar, and before he realizes what's happened, he's tapping.

It can even be, I believe, an action as silly as pointing over uke's shoulder and exclaiming, "What the hell is THAT?!?" and when he turns his attention away from me for even a split second, again, therein lies an opportunity. Now, some may think that's some form of cheating, or just not "proper budo," but really, when it comes down to two people trying to kill each other (it's a martial art, right?) I'm willing to bet you'd use whatever tool you had at your disposal to make sure you lived through the encounter.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . 

What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Is any of that kuzushi to you? Or would you define any of it as something else?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Defend by attacking

Not too long ago, friend and teacher Kyle Sloan dropped by one of our early morning judo classes. There was one thing he mentioned to me that has stuck with me, something that I think I was beginning to understand on some level, but when he said it out loud, a lot of things—in both judo and aikido—snapped into focus.

We were speaking specifically about grappling, and how, when you're being held down, or your partner is attempting to choke or arm bar you, one really shouldn't simply defend. Rather, defend by attacking back.

When we're first taught, say, kesa gatame, we're taught certain "escapes"—how to break the hold. But that's just the beginning, I realized. Don't just break the hold, but seek to get myself into a position from which I can choke or arm bar him, or at the very least, put him in a hold down.

It seems like a small difference, but really internalizing it has made a big difference.

The thing is, I think most judo players will eventually arrive at that mind set anyway. Something about the nature of judo that tends to foster an "attacking" mindset. Aikido, on the other hand, has always felt like a purely defensive endeavor: how do I survive this onslaught and get the hell out of Dodge.

For beginners, that's probably not a bad idea. If you don't have the skills and training to do something, don't try to do it. If I just started guitar lessons, I'm not going to go down to the crossroads and duel it out with the Devil. Simple enough.

But eventually, I think aikido ought to follow that simple mind-set: don't just defend (or "escape"), defend by attacking back.

I don't just get off the line of attack to avoid being hit; I move to a more advantageous position, a position that will give me the upper hand.

When grabbed, I'm not just looking to break his grip—"Get off me, you brute!"—I want to change the dynamics, the relationship between us, so that I, again, am in a more advantageous position, so that I'm driving the car now, not the other guy.

I don't want to simply deal with what his attacking hand is doing, and how to keep it off me. A very myopic approach. I want that hand; it's mine now. Then I want to progressively take away as many of uke's options as I can. I don't even want to "throw"— I want to systematically break down his posture to the point he can't stand up any longer, till he has nowhere else to go, but down.

Enter. Own him. Collapse him. Never let him off the hook.

Is that too aggressive to be "aikido"? Does that sound more like retribution and malice rather than the proposed spirit of aikido, of love, peace and harmony?

To me, no.

Rather than unleashing the hounds of hell and raining down pain and punishment on the poor fellow, I think of it as putting out a fire—of smothering the flames until they extinguish and the threat of the whole house burning down has been safely snuffed out.

But fire is dangerous, you can't be timid with it. It takes a fire hose, not a squirt gun. It takes buckets and buckets of sand being dumped on it until no oxygen remains to feed it. Waving at it just fans the flames. Hesitate, and the flames will engulf you.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A little "street judo"

I've been pondering for some time the idea of how to approach many of the judo throws from the standpoint of a sudden, unexpected attack. You know, like "on the street."

Okay, honestly, by now, I hate using that phrase, but for lack of a better one, there you go. I've always been somewhat troubled by one aspect of judo nage waza: the grips. Or to be more specific, the idea of walking around with your hands holding on to your partner and his hands holding on to before either of you attempts to throw.

What about the a-hole who's just trying to punch, kick and otherwise beat the living snot out of me? Can I launch a throw right at the moment he attacks? Or at least avoid the initial attack (get off the line) and then pull the trigger? I don't want to dance with the guy, and he damn sure doesn't wanna dance with me, frankly. The whole "grip fighting" concept seems to me, then, to really only apply to competition judo, and has little or no relevance to actual self-defense, in my own humble opinion.

To that end, I've taken much of what I've learned from the Merritt Stevens approach to aikido (some of which can be found here) and experimented with applying the same sort of "attack & evade, then throw" model to judo nage waza.

I'm hoping to play with it some more tomorrow, and if I get a chance, I'll elaborate here later.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


It's really strange how often I find new ways of doing old things. Like hiki taoshi from junana no kata.

It's really difficult to describe in words what I'm been experiencing lately, but in essence, there's a circular movement in there that's so light and sweet, but incredibly effective. In fact I've notice the same thing about tenkai kote hineri. Even big, stout, clunky, muscly guys seem to bobble like rag dolls.

The funny thing is, there's nothing about that flies in the face of any principle I've ever been taught. Since my background happens to be in art and design, I wonder if this is akin to the idea of the principles of painting being universal, but the style of each individual painter is as unique as fingerprints?