Monday, April 29, 2013
In martial arts the root term uke is usually referred to the person receiving a technique. In karate it ukete, in kendo ukedachi. In judo it is uke and in grappling arts it can be referred to as ukemi. Each of these variations convey the same general idea of receiving a technique. It is not an exercise of force being met with force but rather a redirection of force.
Once this concept is understood it completely transforms your training. You are not training to see if you can shatter an incoming technique, but rather flow with the energy that is being directed towards you, using it to your advantage. You are not just a passive participant in the exchange. Together with this concept of uke a student must learn what maai (distance) means and the importance of timing. In order to redirect incoming force your timing must be impeccable, this is only learned with constant practice.
When advanced students engage in kumite or the exchange of techniques, this ability can be seen. It seems effortless and it usually is. The difference is stark when a less experienced student interacts with an advanced student. The junior can be seen to expend large amounts of energy and use much effort, while the senior appears to be using very little to none.
Initially these techniques are taught as "blocks" because it is easier to understand. However, as the student progresses they will hear comments like "there are no blocks" or "that technique is not really a block." If the student continues training they will discover that the techniques they have been practicing for years have different applications, that a parry is actually the inception of a counter, not and end in and of itself.
This transformation takes time. It takes time to learn the cadence and rhythm of dynamic interactions. It also takes time to become proficient at understanding the concept of distance and how it pertains to an effective uke. The benefit is that if the student perseveres long enough all of these techniques begin to unfold in their complexity, providing a deeper understanding of what it means when it is said "there is no first strike".
A vivid example of the power of "blocks" was Mas Oyama , the founder of Kyokushin karate. It was recorded on several occasions that those who would engage in kumite with him did so at their peril. His "blocks" were so powerful that he did not need to punch and kick.
It is a level of technique we can all aspire to.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Monday, April 22, 2013
Why reread these books and books like them?
First a little background: I was born and raised in the streets of the South Bronx in NYC. In the process of my growing, despite having a very strong parental influence I knew what it was to join and be in gangs. In my life I faced pipes, clubs, bottles, knives and the barrel of a gun several times. I know what it is to be in a fight one on one, the chaos of two armed mobs fighting and being in a situation when you are outnumbered. I don't share this as a badge of honor, it was and is a stupid path to pursue, grounded in a false sense of pride and ego that usually sends you to an early grave. I share it because it gives me insight into what the differences are between sparring and combat. I wont go into the military aspects of combat, because I have never been in the military (although I have family who have served with distinction) and so I cant give that perspective. I want to approach this from the perspective of street violence. Which is what we are most likely to encounter.
In our school we have the poster you see above hanging on one of our walls. In fact I have seen the same wall chart of striking points in several schools. Its so pervasive that it has become part of the scenery, no one really asks about it and its just accepted as part of the decor. If you stop a moment and take time to examine the wall chart you will see that the points it shows can be quite devastating if struck with force. The points are not often taught in a regular class even though most of them are contained in the kata in most styles of the striking arts.
This is the case with sparring and fighting. Most schools teaching fighting are actually teaching sparring, there is protective gear and points and places on the body that are off-limits. All of this is good and has its place. I like to send students home intact without visits to the hospital or broken and dislocated parts. The danger lies when this is all that is taught, or is taught as combat. At some point the student must be taken to the other side of fighting, which is combat. There are no rules in combat. No one is going to wait while you don gear and get yourself mentally ready. No one is going to step in and break you up if it gets too rough. There are no rounds and no points. When you are in this context survival is the goal.
This is not to discount the legality of this type of encounter. There are and can be severe legal penalties for causing damage and breaking a person when that level of force was not required. Which is why awareness is paramount. The concept of scaling force is also indispensable to meeting violence with the appropriate response. I always tell my students- if you have to get physical, you weren't paying attention and your defense failed. The legal ramifications are so involved that a book would be required to do the subject justice, see the above titles for a good start.
So how do we reconcile these concepts of sparring and combat? Sparring is a tool to introduce concepts and principles. It is a safe, controlled environment that allows for mistakes. It is a laboratory of sorts, where you can explore and ask and try out techniques. The stakes, if there are any are low.
Combat / Fighting is almost the exact opposite of sparring. It is not safe or controlled. It is chaotic, fast, sloppy and messy. It sends your body through a hormone cocktail that you will not be able to control. Mistakes usually result in serious bodily harm or death-the stakes are high, sometimes the highest.
If you find yourself in a school or self defense class that does not make this distinction, do your research ask questions of the instructor and find out the strategies and tactics of the style you are currently engaged in and how it would deal with violence in an uncontrolled situation.
I recently had to revise the way one of my students was sparring. The method she was learning was a formal sparring method, which she was struggling with. When that was changed to a no rules type of fighting, this works on the street method, her ability and understanding shifted and improved considerably.
Both have their place in training and your life, just remember to know the difference between the two.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body,
Sunday, February 10, 2013
In our school we promote slowly. Its not because we don't like to promote, but rather because we as a school believe in focusing on foundations and not rushing to a rank. After all what would you be rushing to? There is no "end" to rush to. To give you an idea of how slowly we promote-I have currently held my rank since 1999. It never entered my mind to consider my next rank (OK, it has entered it once or twice) but never to actively pursue it. Its not my place to award myself rank, just like I didn't award myself the rank I now have. So after much thinking I started wondering what was the purpose of rank?
The system of ranking isn't very old compared to martial arts. The first shodans Shiro Saigo and Tsunejiro Tomita were recognized in 1883 by Kano. Even then there weren't obi or belts. The actual belts didn't arrive until much later. The first delineation was made in 1886 when Kano had his seniors(yudansha) wear black obi over their kimonos. In 1907 Kano introduced the judogi and the obi we see today, yet even then there were only black belts and white belts. The first karateka awarded the shodan rank by Funakoshi were Tokuda, Otsuka, Akiba, Shimizu, Hirose, Gima, and Kasuya on April 10th 1924.
The hierarchy of belts was established to represent a progression of learning with a syllabus and a corresponding grade indicating an individual's level of proficiency. Achieving shodan is like graduating from high school or university- It indicates that you have achieved a fundamental level of skill, learned the basic techniques and can execute them in a functional way. It means you are now prepared to pursue your art on a more serious and advanced level.
So rank at its inception was just a means to indicate how much you knew and that at a certain level you should be able to execute certain techniques. It can also mean that I have been on the path longer than you have, but remember that can be deceptive since not everyone progresses at the same rate.
So if that is all rank is for, a shorthand for instructors to determine the level of skill of the students, when did it become a situation of being a black belt is better than being brown belt or any other rank?
I think the moment ego enters into the equation, that is when the comparisons start to occur. This is a danger that every school and student must be wary of. The moment I begin to believe that I am better than another student simply by the fact of my rank, I have stopped growing and learning. I become a danger to myself and my fellow students as arrogance becomes part of my practice.
Another point worth mentioning is- Is my rank static? If I decide to neglect my practice of the material that is required of my rank, to the degree that I no longer can execute the techniques required of me with proficiency, should I still be considered the rank I am? That is a topic for another post.
So the belt, sash, rope you are wearing -while you have worked for it, sweat for it and in some cases bled for it, remember its just a piece of material that keeps your uniform closed. Its not the rank that makes the person, but rather the person that makes the rank.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Within the context of your chosen path should you automatically respect those who have come before you or should you scrutinize who they are, not only as martial artists but as people? If I have more stripes on my belt does that mean that I should expect deference from those who may not have as many stripes? It is, I admit a complex situation and yet also simple. It is complex because there are several variables at play. It is simple because at its essence it comes down to- respect must be earned, in and outside of the dojo.
Granted, in each dojo there are rules of etiquette that should be followed, rules that were established to promote order and to keep us present to the fact that we are embarking upon the study of an art that can and is dangerous. I am not advocating disregarding these norms of etiquette. However it has been my experience that within the higher ranks the respect and deference seems to flow one way. The seniors may expect this behavior towards them, but it is rarely demonstrated by the seniors towards their juniors. I recently witnessed this behavior in action.
A shodan was having a conversation with a fourth degree instructor when another fourth degree student interrupted the conversation stating that he needed to discuss something of import with said fourth degree. This incident made me think, how would have that fourth degree reacted if the roles were reversed? If the two fourth degrees were in conversation and the first degree needed to speak with one of them would an interruption be tolerated? My other thought was, that by stating that he needed to discuss something important he was implying that whatever was being discussed currently was not as important as what he had to say.
Now this may or may not have been true, but the act denotes a certain level of arrogance. Where is the respect? Does a first degree merit less respect than a fourth degree? Does a white belt deserve less respect than a black belt? When we realize that ranks and stripes are all artificial ( a statement which I'm sure will throw many high level sensei, shihan, kyoshi and hanshis into an uproar) and that what matters is the person wearing the belt, not the belt itself, then we will be able to relate to each other as fellow students along the way.
When seniors treat juniors with respect regardless of rank, then arrogance cannot have a foothold in the dojo or their life. This is when respect becomes mutual, deference natural and humility a way of life.
Monday, January 14, 2013
When I first received my shodan ( first degree) I figured this was it. Now I would finally learn the secret techniques, now all the black belt knowledge would be unveiled, imparting upon me a kind of super human ability to execute my techniques! I walked into my first black belt class full of expectation, I was ready. Imagine my surprise when the next two hours of training was spent doing basic punches, kicks, and blocks. We even went back and did our first white belt kata over and over. Surely this was a fluke maybe it was just a way to get the new black belts used to the idea of a black belt class? Next class was more of the same and the class after that and so on. This is not to say that I did not learn advanced techniques, I did. However those advanced techniques were usually made up of basic techniques executed in a different way or several basic techniques joined to make one advance technique.
And so our emphasis this month is a return to the basics. We always stress our foundations but this month especially so. In returning to our foundations we can learn several things. We can see how far we have progressed and how far we still have to go. We can deepen our understanding of the art we have chosen to study by looking at its foundation and deconstructing techniques and kata. We can learn the functionality of what we do, why does it work and how. All this comes from going back to the basics. I also learned one other thing, that the higher the rank the more time you spend with basics, its quite the circle that is indicative of the arts we study. You train long and hard, invest many years, tears, blood and sweat-so you can be perpetual beginner.
As an aside, the photo is a picture of Morio Higaonna's hands. Anyone who trains for any length of time runs into his name and his influence on goju-ryu. Look him up.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Monday, January 7, 2013
We have a tendency to shun weakness, real or perceived.
So the real question is- What is strength? Webster states that strength is:the quality or state of being strong, capacity for exertion or endurance, the power to resist force, power of resisting attack. Is this really strength?
In the dojo there are several manifestations of strength. The strength to crank out numerous push ups is one. The strength to hit the makiwara over and over never wavering is another. How about the strength to come to class when every cell in your body is telling you to stay home? The strength to face that senior who is going to hit you. The strength to face that junior you have to hit? The strength to drill kata over and over until it is hardwired into your body and you are physically and mentally exhausted. These may not be the socially accepted definitions of strength but they are examples of it nonetheless.
You see its not all about physical strength. What happens when you become older and physical strength is no longer a factor? Or when you are the senior (in age and rank) facing that 18-20 yr old at the height of his physical prowess? It is as these times that we must have the strength not to use strength. For while being physically strong is certainly an asset, In training it is not the goal but rather a side effect.
The strength that is required in the dojo is more holistic. You need to be strong in every aspect of your being not just physically. I have faced behemoths that towered over me and handled them with relative ease because of their dependency on physical strength. Likewise I have faced my Shihan who weighs in at about 128 lbs and stands an entire five feet two inches and have been dismantled by him on a regular basis. So its not the physicality of strength. Mental fortitude is as important as physical strength. Precise techniques give that physical strength a vehicle for expression. Spiritual strength underlies it all.
So the next time you view someone as weak, take a moment to truly evaluate if that person is weak. If it is in the dojo it may be that they are so strong that they appear to be weak, for only the truly strong can be gentle.
Outside the dojo the same applies. Those who are truly strong may not appear to be so at first glance- look again.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Then there is the fear of letting go, of surrender. We all walk into the dojo with preconceived ideas, we also carry with us-insecurity, doubt, anger, unresolved self esteem issues, extra portions of ego and bravado, and for some an overestimated concept of our own intelligence. This is baggage that we carry around the dojo, making our training and life harder. Yet however hard it is to carry that extra weight around it is very scary to let go of it because the weight is comforting. It is a known quantity- something we can refer back to, it is security and so we are loathe to release it. The alternative, surrender and release is frightening to contemplate. In order to progress however, we must lose the baggage. For some we lose it all at once, for others its a slower process each piece a battle hard fought. Eventually you must surrender, the training and your growth demand it. It is implacable and infinitely patient.
Another fear encountered is the fear of being hit. This is by no means a sequential list. So each of these fears can appear at any time and usually arrive when you least expect them or want them to surface. Fear of being hit is very debilitating for many people. Many people embark on the study of a martial art because they feel powerless and want to learn to defend themselves. Some have been abused as children or adults and feel that learning a martial art will help them overcome their history. While you may learn about techniques by reading about them or even discussing them, in order to really learn them, you must do them. Spending years striking air will not prepare you for the first time you make contact, likewise walking through prearranged fighting drill will not prepare you for a free form sparring session. Free form sparring will not prepare you for prevailing on the street.
Together with this fear is the fear of getting hurt or having something broken. None of us likes to be hurt, much less go through the breaking of bones or tearing of muscles. It doesn't sound pleasant and its not pleasant to experience. We have students that come from schools where breaking something in every class was considered normal. I don't consider this to be the norm and it is something to be avoided wherever possible. This is not to say it will not happen, whenever you have contact the possibility of something breaking is there. We do try to minimize it wherever possible.
So how to deal with these fears? Each person is different. As an instructor you have to assess what each person is dealing with and when. This is where the safe space comment comes from. It is not just a nice thing to say to assuage fears. You have to create a safe space for the students to go as hard or easy as they wish. Some will have little or no fear and will want to push themselves to the limit and beyond- and it should be available to them. Likewise some will want to take a slower and more cautious pace- this too needs to be available without recrimination. Underlying it all is the presence of a space that is safe to experiment, learn and make mistakes exists and is encouraged not only by the sensei of the school but by every student in the school regardless of rank.
Fear will always be a part of the dojo, of training. Rather than being a negative influence, its presence can spur us to greater mastery. The key is acknowledging that it exists and surpassing its influence over our thoughts and actions. That is one of the primary roles of a good instructor.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body