Monday, June 25, 2012

Jigotai: Slaying the Beast!

Occasionally, in judo, I get asked a question about a common problem. Essentially, a student it trying to throw their partner but can't get in. Maybe he feels like his partner is just too tall, or too big and strong.

Fair enough. The same thing happens, actually, in aikido randori. Things are great when practicing a throw and we have a compliant uke, but when it comes to an uke who doesn't want to be thrown, he hit a wall. What happened?

I want to throw, but I don't want to BE thrown...

First of all, let me remove the aspect of sport or tournament judo from this discussion. Nothing against judo as a sport or those who participate in it, mind you; I love watching tournament judo, it's exciting stuff. It's just not why I myself study judo (and most of my peers, as well).

In a match, I'm trying to score points, to win; the other guy is also trying to score points and win. I'm trying to keep from being thrown so I don't lose; so is the other guy.

That defensive, resistant posture—jigotai—can be very difficult to break through, especially when adrenaline and desperation fuels our efforts. Sure, there are ways to break it down. The internet is a great place to find that kind of information.

The thing I wonder is, if I'm not concerned about the concepts of "winning and losing", why would jigotai still be happening? Not just from my partner, but chances are I'm doing it, too! Quite simply, it's because deep down, I am still concerned on winning or losing, just not in terms of a tournament.

Whenever we enter the dojo, we typically remove our shoes and leave them in the genkan. As one former teacher put it, "Leave your ego in your shoes."

If your goal, be it in judo or aikido, is always to throw the other guy, you have yet to internalize this advice. Which is not to say you're some kind of egomaniacal bastard. We all have an "ego", but without diverging into a completely other topic, that ego can sometimes get in our own way.

Long story short, we've linked the throw with "success" and being thrown is linked with "failure." We link a lot of things in life to success: a high paying or important job, fame, a happy wife and kids, a nice house, a college education. Likewise, we link a lot of things to failure: losing a job or working in a blue collar position, not having a mate or children, living in a small apartment in the wrong side of town, or dropping out of high school.

If this is the paradigm in which you operate in your daily life, it will continue to be the way you practice inside the dojo.

So let's say you've managed to do that, to abandon "winning and losing." You're okay being thrown and not worried about "success."

Your partner, however, is still locked in that mode and is maintaining jigotai. What do we do?

Again, there are ways to break it down and get past his defenses. But to me, it seems like I'm just trying to defeat him at his game. The best judoka I've played with, those who best embody the proverbial "fighting an empty jacket" concept, never joined that game, regardless of whether or not I tried to play it.

For starters, think about this: he doesn't want your foot to sweep his foot, he doesn't want your leg to reap his leg, he doesn't want your hip to displace his hip. Well, if he doesn't want you to have the bottom half, and he's still connected to you, he's giving you the top half. If I'm not constrained by a set of rules and regulations, why can't I play with his wrists, his elbows, his shoulders, his neck, his head?

Having said that, I will also say that if your partner is resisting, then what is he resisting? In other words, he must be feeling something if he feels the need to put up a defense. Some common culprits:
  • You made a change in your arms. You were neutral and then suddenly your grip tightened or your biceps pulled. He felt the change and the shields went up.

  • You got excited about snagging a certain throw and sped up. Or, you stopped altogether in order to deliver power. He felt the changed and slammed the door shut.

  • You're focused on only one or two directions. There are lots of directions you can break balance and throw. The best judoka I've worked with shoot at all the angles (forward and back, side to side, diagonally, etc.), and while I can stop one or two, eventually my body and mind can't keep up and down I go. Your view of nage waza is too narrow and needs to broaden.

  • You give up after only one try. You attempt a throw, it doesn't work and so you start over and go back to neutral. Again, the best players I know don't care—they're not concerned with success or failure—they just keep shooting, and without a chance to regroup, eventually I hit the mat.

  • You've assumed you have to operate within a set of standards—"this is just how judo is done"—such as where and how you're gripping. Tournament players I think are much more open to various ways of connecting with an opponent, but for some reason in our school, we tend to stick with the traditional kumi kate: "right hand on their collar, left hand on their elbow."

    If that's always how you connect, uke can rely on that, then he's only got one thing to worry about. Things changed for me rapidly when I started connecting with uke not in the way I think I'm supposed to, but it whatever way best suits the moment and the relationship between our bodies. And I say "connecting" instead of "gripping" because I realized that gripping isn't always the best option. Sometimes, cupping my hands works better. And who says I always have to maintain a symmetrical connection, one hand on each side of his body?

So, what's the best way to slay the beast?

For one thing, don't fight beasts. Those things are dangerous! And if you must, the last thing you want to do is stroll right into it's cave...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Eyes up here, buddy

One of the things I was taught from day one, and have heard over and over since then, is "maintain eye contact."

The reasons why one should maintain eye contact usually came from a strategic standpoint. If I'm looking at uke's eyes, I can see what rest of him is doing out my visual periphery. So if I'm looking at uke's hand because I'm trying, for example, to do kote gaeshi, I'm vulnerable to his other hand smacking me upside the head.

But when it came to judo, we find that if I'm looking at uke's eyes, I can see what his upper body is up to, but his feet tend to fall out my field of vision. Therefor we were often told to look about chest level, and huzzah! Now I can see all of him, the sneaky bastard!

Then I ran across this quote from O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba:
Do not stare into the eyes of your opponent: he may mesmerize you. Do not fix your gaze on his sword: he may intimidate you. Do not focus on your opponent at all: he may absorb your energy. The essence of training is to bring your opponent completely into your sphere. Then you can stand where you like.

Wait—What? I'm not supposed to maintain eye contact then? I guess that sort of makes sense—keep my gaze upon the mountains, so to speak. Look at nothing and see everything, and a bunch of other similar maxims I'd heard over the years. Okay, so I tried that for a while.

I got mixed results. On one hand, I found myself more open to "going with the flow" and didn't get fixated on doing a specific technique. Great.

On the other hand, I also found that when those techniques did happen, they weren't any more successful or effective than they'd ever been. I just got pretty good at evading attacks. Additionally, my attention occasionally drifted completely away, and in randori, that's when my partner would normally zap me.


What's going on here? The answer might be unveiled by looking closer at what O-Sensei was trying to say.

"Do not stare into the eyes of your opponent." Have you ever paid attention to how we, as humans, handle eye contact in everyday life? If I look at someone directly in the eyes, it can get uncomfortable fast. When we're walking in the mall and that guy with the clipboard is trying to get people to take a survey, what do we do? We avert our eyes. When we're in love, we'll spend hours gazing into our lover's eyes.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then connecting two sets of eyes allows opportunity for souls to connect directly. Great, if it's someone you love and adore. Not so great if it's someone who wants to seriously hurt you. Their soul barges in through your windows and takes control.

"Do not fix your gaze on his sword: he may intimidate you." Well, we don't really go around carrying swords anymore, right, so he must be taking about any kind of weapon, like a knife or baseball bat or something. Yes and no.

Think about a real confrontation—not a practice session in the dojo with someone you know and trust—but "out there" in the real world. Here's some dude you've probably never met before who wants to at least dominate you mentally or physically, and at most cause you bodily harm. Maybe he's bigger, has tattoos, huge muscles, or just looks rough, like he's spent some time behind bars.

It's human nature to fixate on those things. Most animals as well as our prehistoric ancestors, use visual clues to quickly determine whether another animal or situation is safe or potentially dangerous. It's one of the many ways a species survives. We see signs that we associate with danger, and our lizard brain says time to panic, and flips the switch to fight or flight mode.

Ueshiba is urging us to rise above all of that. If we fixate on the sword and keep thinking, Man, that thing sure looks dangerous. What am I going to do to keep from getting cut? we've already decided that we're going to loose. But the fact that some guy has tattoos or even the fact that he has a baseball bat doesn't guarantee his victory—unless you let it.

"Do not focus on your opponent at all: he may absorb your energy." So we're not supposed to look at him at all? I tried that, and I got hands coming out of nowhere knocking me on my ass!

Hang on—think about the words he uses: stare into, fix your gaze on, focus on. He's talking, I believe, about more than just whether or not I'm physically looking at the guy. He's talking about where my attention is at, where my thoughts, my awareness, my intent, my mind, my imagination, my emotions, my energy is at. Where my "ki" is. Is it stuck on something specific? Am I trying to predict the future outcome of the encounter, or am I fully present in the moment? Am I allowing him to intimidate me, or am I open to the whole person, the whole experience, the whole room, myself included?

Eyes are not just the windows to our souls. Our energy, our ki, tends to go where our eyes go, at least when we want to do something with any degree of efficiency. If I'm looking around at nothing, as I tried to do for a while, my ki ended up just flowing out into space randomly, like a sprinkler. Maybe my uke got hit with some of it, maybe not. And if I look at his sword, or his big muscles, my attention narrows and those things quite literally steal my energy, like a black hole sucking in all the surrounding light.

Ultimately, it's not just about where my eyeballs are physically looking. I now suspect I was told as a new student to maintain eye contact as a way of preventing me from focusing on the technique I was trying to do and not to neglect my uke; to keep me from thinking, Okay, I'm going to twist his wrist this way and do note gaeshi. 

Ueshiba did not want us to neglect or forget uke; he urged us to "bring him into our sphere"—to embrace him, all of him. My attention, my thoughts, my awareness, my intent, my mind, my imagination, my emotions, my energy—my ki—is on him, flowing over him like water, engulfing him. Not just his eyes, not just his hand, everything. I'm not trying to defeat his energy, nor escape from it.

It's difficult to put into words, but you can definitely feel it when you're on the receiving end of it! Whether we realize it or not, we often just go through the motions when it comes to practicing kata. We then wonder why nothing seems to work right when it comes to randori! When we find ourselves in the midst of chaos, we suddenly wake up and start wondering what to do.

Ever notice how, when driving home from work, you can think about all kinds of stuff, and not even remember seeing other cars, or passing certain stores, etc? Because it's familiar, our subconscious mind can handle it, so you go on auto-pilot. Then we make a wrong turn and end up in a neighborhood we've never been in. Now we pay attention!

The secret is more than just where our eyeballs are pointed. Where is your ki pointed?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A hammer for all occasions

For most of my aikido life, I've been taught to always, always, always maintain an "unbendable arm." Palm outward, fingers up, elbow slightly bent but with tension in the muscles. The hand should stay, for the most part, in line with my body's center line, and rarely stray outside of the torso "box" (the area defined by my two shoulders and two hips. It looked something like this:

Which is fine, great. The problem I'm coming to find is that was ALL we focused on. We looked something like robots moving around out there, stiff and inflexible, as if someone had simply nailed a 2x4 to the side of our chest. It worked great when it met the needs of the situation, but overall it has quickly become—to me at least—a problem of having only a hammer and all of my problems look like nails.

In the Walking Kata, tegatana no kata, however, we practice a handful of other arm positions that I found I rarely, if ever used. Why? Why were they in the Walk if I rarely used them? Specifically, I'm thinking of these "unbendable arms":

Palm facing upward, elbow tucked in toward the center line.

And palm facing out, fingers sideways, elbow bowing out from the center line.

Not only that, but the transition from a "neutral arm" into the palm up arm has become increasingly interesting and useful, as well as the transition from a "neutral arm" into the elbow out arm, or even the transition from one to the other, rolling at the shoulder joint.

Suddenly, I'm finding it everywhere! It's helping me listen to my body and what a particular structure does for me. In other words, by feeling which muscles are engaged, I can feel what sort of "job" or task my body is then suited best to perform.

So, rather than the "just keep moving and maintain a robot arm" school of thought, I'm learning to conform my entire body to a situation to "fit" the need, to "fit" uke. And all of this is coinciding with recent musing on the subject of "ki" which (believe it or not) was never talked about when my school belonged to it's former governing organization.

Once again, I'm like a kid in a candy store!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Be like water, my friend"

Imagine a small rivulet of water, flowing gently downhill. Now, let's say a rock appears directly in front of this little stream. What happens?

Does the water stop and push against the rock, trying to shove it out of the way? Of course not.

Does it try to pull the rock off to the side to make more room? Nope.

Does it simply turn around and go back where it came from? Huh-uh.

The water simply flows where it can. Let me repeat that: The water flows where it can.

Water does not, conversely, flow where it cannot. I know, I know. All that sounds painfully obvious, but it's a rather basic principle that nature seems to understand quite well, without having to "think" about it. But people? Well, there's both a blessing and a curse that comes with the ability to think.

The ability to reason has it's benefits; I don't think many would disagree with that. It's through the process of thoughtful analysis, or careful study, and detailed experimentation that we discover cures for deadly diseases, we create fantastic works of art, we solve profound problems and improve the quality of life.

But reason has it's drawbacks. Think of the terrible atrocities one man has inflicted upon others, not because he just wanted to be a bastard, but because he sincerely believed he was doing the right thing. The human brain devised the machine, the things that can do what the job of a hundred men. Along with that, we created a few problems: we ravage the earth and pollute the skies in order to make those machines run. Sometimes reasons creates as many problems as it solves.

So while we have continued to improve our ability to think over the millennia (hopefully for the better), we are often urged by sages past and present not to forget nature. Not just to remember it, but become reacquainted with it, to embody it once again.

As Sir Ken Robinson once pointed out, we have a tendency to live entirely in our heads (and a little to one side), and our bodies are merely vehicles to get us from one meeting to the next. I believe I am undeniably guilty of doing just that.

This is one of the many marvelous things I think budo teaches us. From day one, we are placed directly in front of an obstacle and asked, "Now, how do we deal with this?" Typically, the first thing a new student will do is try to "push against the rock." And just as typically, the first thing a new student discovers is how futile that can be.

Next comes the reasoning. The student retreats into their minds, their focus zeros in on the hand that's firmly grasping their wrist. They begin to study and experiment. Okay, what if I do this? Ugh! No? Hmm. Maybe if I... or move here and... Ugh! Crap. What am I supposed to do? This is impossible!

Our first guess—pushing the rock out of the way—didn't work, so maybe we can pull the rock off to one side to make room. Maybe, but it's a lot of work, and I don't think it would work with a bigger rock. What if I try to pull back—Umph! The rock rolls right over us.

As months pass, and we learn more techniques and a few kata movements, be begin to believe these are the answers to that initial problem. Ah-ha! What if I find a big stick that I can use as a lever! Then I can just place smaller rock here to use as a fulcrum, and I can uproot that pesky rock.

What if you can't find a stick that won't break? What if that rock is gigantic? What if it's not one heavy rock, but a thousand smaller ones? What if that rock is less of a problem than the angry bear behind you?

The difficult thing for many is to understand that we do not study one form of budo or another to learn techniques and kata; we study techniques and kata in order to learn budo. We don't do budo—we ARE budo! The water does not try to solve; it just flows. It does not flow where it can't, but finds space to fill naturally.

How does that apply to your aikido or your judo or whatever you study? When does your movement feel forced or even stuck? When does it feel almost effortless? If you've never felt yourself do something that seemed effortless, reflect on a teacher who has handled you with unsettling ease.

No, no—Stop. Don't think about what they're doing. Feel it. Have them do it to you again and again. Or get with a partner and let him put you in the worst position. You're in the gutter, your back against the wall. Feel where your ki is obstructed, where it feels like moving a rock. If water does not flow where it can't, where would it go? Can you find space to flow into and fill naturally?

Trying to get out of our heads can be enormously frustrating. I understand, believe me. After all, it's how we've lived most of our life! That is why we practice—both in and out of the dojo.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Aiki is becoming clearer

I've been getting so much out of watching this guy. This is a nice example of just pure "aiki": no focus on any specific technique, no competition, not randori just yet, but what's often referred to as jiyu waza, just.... aiki. (It clocks in at almost 20 minutes, but for me, worth it.)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

"How Aikido Works"

I really enjoyed this explanation and demonstration of "how aikido works."