Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What does the "path" look like?

If you study any modern Japanese martial art, you are no doubt familiar with the concept of "do." It's most often translated as "way" or "path," which makes for a very handy and versatile metaphor for the long, wonderful journey that is budo.

If, then, the study of a martial art (or really anything) can be likened to a path, what does that path actually look like? To me, it takes on different forms as you progress.

A paved street

When you first start your study of an art, and for some time afterward, the path will probably look like a paved street. That road has been paved by the many who have come before you, who have traveled this exact path a hundred thousand times. It's a solid foundation, and it's objective is firm.

There are all kinds of signs and maps to help you along your way, to guide you in the right direction, also designed by those who arrived long before you. Failure to follow that guidance will likely get you lost very quickly.

There are clearly painted guidelines to keep you from deviating off course. There are strict laws, partly designed for your protection and the safety of others, but also to help the process run as smoothly as possible, not just for you but all the others traveling alongside you (and there will be many).

The beginner's path tends to be straight and direct with little variation. It will get you from A to B, all you have to do is follow it.

A dirt road

After years of study, you may find the road you have been traveling has gradually changed to something more akin to a dirt road.

Now the path is less sure, less defined. Fewer people have come this far, so true guidance can come from only the most experienced travelers.

And you may also notice that there are a number of different paths, not just your own. Not better or worse, just different. As O Sensei once wrote, "There are many paths leading to the top of Mount Fuji, but there is only one summit—love."

There are fewer markers, it's not as straight, and there are more turns to choose from, so the likelihood of wandering off into unfamiliar areas increases. That can be a good thing or a bad thing: you could discover something new and enlightening, or you could get distracted and caught up in a direction that leads nowhere.

The responsibility of finding your way is less reliant on others as it was in the beginning. The journey is less about following and more about discovering.

The path you make

After even more time and training has passed, the path you take may very well be one you make yourself. 

There could be no discernible path at all, just a vast, ever-changing wilderness. It may then fall upon you to blaze new trails. You will run into obstacles: some you can clear, other you'll just have to go around. You will occasionally have to double back the way you came and try something else. It's both arduous and wondrous, frustrating and exhilarating. It can certainly get lonely.

It also becomes your responsibility, if you wish not to end up alone, to look back and reinforce the road you've traveled and make it sustainable, to make it available for those who come after you. You yourself become the map, the traffic light, the painted lines that guide the newer students.

You have gone from traveller, to trail blazer, to caretaker. Ultimately, you will be all of these. The road is what lays ahead, what lays behind, and what lays beneath your feet. 

Indeed, the world itself is your path, "heaven is right where you are standing." Because, as O Sensei once put it, "the Great Path is really No Path."

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Handling Burn Out Part 3

So, I've talked a bit about my experiences with "burn out", particularly why it tends to happen, and what to do when it does happen. The last dimension of the topic I wanted to touch on was:

How do you prevent burn out from happening?

Well, in a word: relax, man.

Pace yourself
As tempting as it may be when you're really into your art, I would advise not going to every single class and every clinic, like I did. Pace yourself, champ. Budo is, as they say, a marathon not a sprint.

There are people who exist as living exceptions to that, of course; there will always be those rare few who seem destined to do this stuff as their primary purpose in life, but you need to brutally honest with yourself whether or not that's you. And for many, that may take years to figure out.

Avoid major life events
Okay, I'm kidding. Obviously, you can't avoid major life events, expected or not. So to that end, you might as well just accept that they will come and they will derail your training for a bit, and be okay with that. Enjoy the break.

That being said, there are also many different kinds of training. There are still plenty of opportunities to keep your head in the game, even when you can't physically make it to the dojo: books, DVDs, apps, blogs, podcasts, videos, conversations with fellow students, or even just going over the movements in your own mind.

Vary your interests
Even if budo is a major interest in your life, a big part of avoiding burn out is maintaining other passions outside of it. Even the samurai studied things like poetry, tea ceremonies, painting, flower arranging, etc. In other words, your yin could use some yang.

For me, I'm a graphic designer and illustrator by trade, and I derive a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from that world. I also enjoy cooking, and even, on occasion, being with my kids =) Not only does focusing on one interest allow you to take a break from another, I think you'll be surprised at how stuff you learn and skills you gain from one interest will benefit another.

Routine vs chaos
In a nutshell, managing your training career over a lifetime is a delicate balancing act between knowing when to buckle down and focus with repetition, and knowing when to throw yourself a curveball. It's also part of being a good teacher, by the way.

All that being said, there are undoubtedly a whole host of reason why burn out occurs, all tailored to each individual. And just because I've dealt with it in the past and learned a few things doesn't mean I'll never face it again.

But it seems like that's all part of the journey. There's so much more to studying a martial art than just learning a handful of techniques, n'est-ce pas?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tenkan vs Tenkai

A question came up the other today about the difference between the words "tenkan" and "tenkai" which I think gets confused at times. As far as I understand it...

Tenkan 転換 breaks down as:
suddenly, quickly 
change, alter, substitute
and together 転換 as convert or divert

You might think of it as changing direction suddenly, or diverting uke's energy. In aikido, it refers to a turning movement (tenkan ashi), usually 180 degrees:

Tenkai 転回, however, breaks down like this:
suddenly, quickly
turn, rotate, revolve
and together 転回 as revolution or rotation

In much of the aikido world, it refers to a form of movement, what we commonly call a "hip switch", where you turn 180 degrees but without moving our feet (we do it in the Walking Kata, but there it's called "ude goshi gaeshi" or arm-hip reversal, which frankly is probably more clear):

Both tenkan and tenkai are part of what's called tai sabaki or methods of moving the body.

So, what about technique names like "tenkai kote hineri" and "tenkai kote gaeshi"? To start with, one should bare in mind these names are primarily a Tomiki Aikido preference. Ueshiba styles refer to them as sankyo or "third control" and simply shiho nage respectively.

To me, though, "rotating wrist twist" or "rotating wrist reversal" doesn't paint a very clear picture of what I'm doing. Now, I have seen some define tenkai as "inversion", or as I like to call it "bass ackwards" which makes more sense to me visually. With "inverted wrist twist / reversal" I'm putting my hand in a sort of inverted position compared to the regular kote hineri / gaeshi.

(By all means, if anyone reading this has any other light to shed on the subject, please share!)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Handling Burn Out Part 2

Most of us, at some point in our training, will encounter some level of "burn out." In may case, it may even happen a number of times.

The other day, I wrote out some thoughts on what could possibly cause it (at least as far as I'm concerned). Today, I thought I'd offer a few thoughts on what has helped me deal with it.

What do you do when burn out happens?

This may sound crazy, but let it.

Whenever you get hurt or sick, your body has ways of telling you something is wrong. Whether it be pain signals or fatigue, your body is trying to tell you to slow down, that something just ain't right. In fact, I came across a study once that showed arthritis can be directly caused by—not just exacerbated by, caused by—severe anxiety and depression. The brain is essentially crying out for help any way it can!

So feeling burned out is probably your body's way of saying, Hey, something ain't right. Or, for the more poetically inclined, life it out of balance, your yin and your yang are all out of whack. It's time to stop and listen to what's going on inside.

Even professional athletes, who are at the peak of physical fitness, need time to rest, to allow their muscles to recuperate. The also enjoy an "off season" (they still train, of course, but it's not as vigorous or focused, or they engage in other activities).

You, my friend are no different. Your body and your brain need a little recovery time from training, too. So if you're overloaded, attending too many classes and clinics, etc., taking a bit of vacation can definitely help you hit the reset button.

Major life events
As for major life changes, you have to realize that they take much more of a toll on your body—physical and mental—than you'd think. Studies all over the place are showing how major life events, both bad (divorce, death in the family) and good (marriages, births) can place a tremendous strain on us physically.

So in short, take it easy and focus on what's important, for crying out loud. Budo will wait.

Low interest
If your interest level was never that high to begin with, then the nice thing about budo is that generally speaking (it may depend on the school I suppose) you can do as much or as little as you like. No one said you had to master kung fu, or coach a judo team, or open a tae kwon do dojo.

What is it exactly that you expect from yourself? Maybe one or two one-hour classes a week is all you really need or want. Will that mean it takes longer to advance in rank? Sure, but who cares? Any school who would put enough attention on rank to make you feel like you should be doing more is probably not worth attending.

Or perhaps a different art might prove more suitable. Who said you had to study some high-octane, high-impact art like karate or tae kwon do? What about tai chi, or kyudo (the Japanese art of archery)?

Or, to be perfectly honest, you may be like me and music: I may take time to get into it later in life, but until then I'm content to enjoy other people playing it.

Same old routine 
I could write a whole other blog post or two solely on the subject of how to spice up your training. But in short, the main prescription is "do something different." Throw yourself a curveball, make it challenging again, look at it from a different perspective.

You could: attend a different class, work with different people, spend time with a new teacher or even dojo, investigate a different style of your art, narrow your focus to one aspect of your art for a time (such as only kuzushi, or your footwork), take one technique and explore as many possible variations of doing it, focus on your left hand (or whichever hand is nondominant), play only the role of uke (meaning, invest in losing over and over), practice outdoors, practice in street clothes, teach a kids or teen class, practice techniques as slow as humanly possible, do them as small and tight as possible, and so on.

All that being said, is there a way to prevent burn out from happening in the first place? Well, I have a few thoughts on that as well....

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Handling Burn Out

It doesn't seem to matter how intensely interested a person is in studying his or her martial art of choice, all of us, at some point or another, come face to face with burn out.

Now, "burning out" can range anywhere from a small sort of fizzle—in which your interest dips, or your body is just plain worn out so you take a brief vacation for a week or two—all the way to a complete and utter implosion, where you give up entirely on the art and never set foot in a dojo again.

I myself, have gone through several burn outs, so you might say I'm something of an authority on the subject. Fortunately, in each case, the burn out was never so bad as to prevent me from returning. I took months, even years off, but (so far) have always come back.

So what is "burn out" exactly? Why does it happen? What do we do when it happens? How do we prevent it from happening?

Over the years, I've developed a few ideas, and this post is the first of three on the subject.

Why does burn out happen?

The main reason is probably fairly obvious: overload.

For many folks, myself included, when you first start your study of a martial art, it's easy to get very excited about it. When I started, for example, I had just turned 20. I was young, unmarried, and in college so I had time and energy to spare. For a couple of years, I attended just about every class the dojo offered at the time. Couldn't get enough of it.

Until eventually, I evidently did get enough, and I stopped going. As delicious as ice cream is, if you ate nothing but ice cream everyday for every meal, you would get tired of it.

Another reason may be undergoing major life changes.

The other times I stopped coming to class followed some major life events. A "life event" might include getting married, moving, new job, death in the family, having kids, that sort of thing. Those sorts of things often require a lot of adjustment, and demand a lot of time and focus. Trying to squeeze in classes just felt like burning the candle at both ends and something had to give.

Another possible reason is you might not be as interested in budo as you'd like.

I love music. I played a couple of instruments growing up, I even played the guitar for a while as an adult. A part of me really wishes I still played something. But I have a ton of interests and only so many hours in the day, so ultimately I have to choose, leaving music by the wayside.

Budo may be that way for you. You like it, you enjoy it—but when it comes right down to it, it's just not high enough on the priority list.

Lastly, you might find your training has become too redundant and predictable.

Bow in, stretch, do your ukemi, practice your kihons, work on the kata, bow out. Repeat. Month after month, year after year….

On one hand, repetition is the cornerstone of martial learning. As Bruce Lee once said, "I do not fear the man who has done 10,000 kicks one time, but one kick 10,000 times." Repetition-over-time is the magic formula that ingrains techniques and principles into our sub-conscious and allows them to flow naturally like our own breath. The ability to focus and endure that kind of repetition is a test, for sure. It has a way of "separating the men from the boys," if you will.

On the other hand, too much of the same repetive action has a way of dulling the very blade it was meant to sharpen. We all need period challenges to push us higher and further than we thought we were capable when we begin to plateau.

So what do you do when you feel burned out? And what can you do to prevent it in the first place? Stay tuned, boys and girls....