Use Your Words

We’ve got a few new students in the dojo right now, which is great. (Welcome Jovan, Zak, Jeanna, Bob!) I enjoy sharing our art with new people, and really hope that they stay and become old friends and training partners. I also enjoy the opportunity new students give me to examine how we are training, and teaching. One thing that jumped out at me the other day is that when you train with people for a long time you don’t need to speak as much. A nod or a gesture might be enough to say “step it up”, “go softer on that, I’ve got a small injury”, or “you are still leaning a little forward; it is costing you both speed and power and I should not have to correct that anymore. Straighten up, raise your eyes, and tuck your hips”. (Yup, that last is from training on Thursday, and was communicated with a raised eyebrow and pointed look at the waist.) But with new members the shorthand that develops over years isn’t there, so you must use your words. And so must they.

There is a sense that “the dojo is for training, not talking” in most dojo. And that is correct- it is for martial arts practice, not chatting. But what exactly does that mean? Shut up and train is good advice for someone that prefers talking to doing, but it can also be really bad advice for someone who is not clear on what they should be doing. Speech is one of the things that makes us human. It is a powerful tool for sharing information. So use it! That does not mean blathering on incessantly, or talking about whatever pops into your head. It means to use all the tools at your disposal to learn.

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For teachers, explain clearly what you expect people to do, and why. Do it quickly and concisely- don’t get too attached to the sound of your own voice- but don’t expect your students to understand what they are supposed to do if you don’t tell them. And contrary to common practice in the martial arts, the why is often pretty useful. “Because I told you so”, while it may instill obedience and possibly a form of discipline, does not give a student any way to measure themselves except by your approval. Not the best measure, really. Instead help them understand the reasons for a training method so they can start to measure how they are doing for themselves. Not endless description and use of obscure terminology, but concrete descriptions and reasons. Convey information.

And then listen! Give students opportunity to ask questions. Let them figure out where they are confused, listen to that, and try to help them through it. This is harder. It is the leader’s role to facilitate clear communication, but also to stop incessant questions when they are not helping. You have to figure out a good balance- enough room for good questions but not so much talking that you don’t actually get time to do what you are talking about! That balance is going to be different for each student, and requires the teacher actually listen to the student, not him or her self.

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But perhaps the most important use of your words is between training partners. Words allow you to train better. For example, in kotekitae partners can take the “just go really hard and see how that works out” approach, but since the goal is working just over your partner’s comfort level, and different partners will have different thresholds, it saves a ton of time, limits injury, and helps development if partners just say to each other “harder” or “softer” as needed.  Discipline is the key, as it is in most of our training. You need to discipline your words. Use them carefully, and clearly. You need to be able to ask your partner to push you. That is a rather important discipline as well; part of it involves understanding your own failings.

In my opinion, a silent dojo is a poor one. People are missing out on the opportunity to learn from each other if they don’t communicate. But a chatty dojo is also a poor one, probably undisciplined and unfocused. There are times for a few words, especially during certain types of paired practice. And there are times when talking is simply the wrong thing to do. Kata is a good example here- except when getting direct instruction you should just be working on it, not talking about it. Finding that balance is up to the dojo and the dojo leaders. Maybe you should discuss it?

Are You The Karate Police?

A lot of what is written about karate is about how it is done wrong, how it is flawed or broken, or how it is missing or has lost something. Usually the writer is comparing “most” karate to his or her karate, with the missing elements of course being in the writer’s practice. Sport vs. Budo. Japanese vs. Okinawan. Traditional vs. Modern (though by definition everyone training today is training modern karate, unless they have a time machine, so I am not so sure about that one). But why is it so important to tell the karate world what they are doing wrong? It seems futile, I must say, as it is highly unlikely everyone else is going to change their practice and emulate any given author’s. But there are so many people writing comments on YouTube about how technique x is unrealistic or done improperly and writing books about how karate needs x. Let’s not even talk about blog posts! The karate police are everywhere!

That is not how you apply the first moves of Sesan!

But since it is futile, why? There are three answers, in my opinion. The first is the most common: ego. The author knows his style/practice/answers are the right ones. For everyone. Everywhere. At every stage of their practice, and their lives. And then follows the insecurity: if there are other answers they must be corrected! (Otherwise mine might be wrong! NO!) So they launch a crusade to “fix” the karate world, to save karate from the way it is getting degraded by, well by whatever it is they don’t like. (Of course marketing and money might also play in here, but let’s leave that alone right now.)

The second, and far less common, is a desire to help. Author x sees a problem and says “hey, maybe people don’t know about this problem, I better tell them”. Good intentions. But you know what they say about good intentions, and where that road leads, right? Because intentions notwithstanding, it is still futile, wasted effort. And that leads to the third, martyrdom. Being the “hero” standing alone, seeing the devastation of an ancient art and being a lone voice fighting back, trying to save it. Appealing for some, I guess. But a self-fulfilling prophesy really, as amongst the millions of people practicing their versions of karate, no one voice is ever going to shine through as a guide or savior to them all.

The lion stands for everyone doing karate wrong. Get it?

And that is, in my opinion, how it should be. As Mario McKenna sensei notes here, karate is not broken. Sure it is fragmented, but that has always been the case. There are accounts of karate used as entertainment as early as any other accounts of the art. (I’ll go back to McKenna sensei’s blog for one from 1930 here.) And when Funakoshi wrote his autobiography he was already railing about how the art was being debased, well before real international popularity. These problems seem to be part and parcel of the art as far back as we can see. Therefore, I would hazard that the problem is not with karate, which seems to be able to encompass quite a variety of practices and is still going strong, but with people wanting to tell other people what to do. But with the huge numbers of people practicing their versions of karate, and with none of them having any reason to listen, any attempt to police them really does seem a bit, well, not to over-use a word, but, futile.

Of course I have my own opinions about what my karate is, and what the roots of the art represent. But I am not fooling myself. I have no monopoly on ideas about what karate is, and there is no reason anyone should listen to me, unless they choose to. Honestly, the same goes for everyone, including the top researchers, teachers, and practitioners of the art. Karate is not broken, it is just not one single thing. It is no one’s job, or right actually, to be the karate police, to decide what is right and wrong.

Well, actually, that is not true. It is one person’s job. Yours. What is right for your practice? Are you honest in it? Do you understand its limitations and strengths? Are you open minded about it? Do you push yourself? Use your energy learning and policing yourself. That energy is well-spent there. Essential really. But trying to police the rest of the world? Knock yourself out. Literally.

What movements matter?

We just had a good visit from Liu Chang’I sifu here in Boston. It is always good to see him and spend some time hanging out, sharing meals, and hearing about his family and life in general. And of course, training together. There was the annual seminar which, as usual, included folks from near and far. It is always good to train with our friends and kung’fu brothers and sisters from other groups. Thanks to those who drove up and stayed in the area, like Spencer and John, and to all the folks from around here who came out and spent the weekend sweating and learning. We had a great time (though I missed Sunday due to a rather unpleasant stomach bug) and covered a lot of new material, as well as going over earlier information in more detail. Plenty to work with moving forward, and plenty of sweat getting to it!

Saturday afternoon at the seminar.

Saturday afternoon at the seminar.

In addition to the seminar we did a fair bit of closed-door training with sifu. That is nothing too “mystical”, it is just training for those folks who are participating in our regular Feeding Crane classes and are therefore taking instruction in the system and trying to understand it more fully. Anyone who is training with the group is welcome but it is closed to visitors and non-members. In some ways it is simply a logistical issue- it is not possible to spend time working more in-depth on specific elements of the system with people who have spent only a few days learning it, regardless of their background in other arts. By closing the door we give those people who are spending the time and effort to develop within the system an opportunity for individual critique, and to see elements of the system harder to present in an open-seminar format.

All together it works out well. The weekend seminars introduce a variety of new material and training methods, stuff we worked on refining during the week, and sifu spent a lot of time in all our training going over the ji bei gong. The fundamentals. The important stuff.

I will admit that I have a limited tolerance for the approach to training that goes: “just do it 1000s of times and you will understand it and be able to make it work”. That is, I believe, nonsense. While repetition of basics is essential there comes a point of diminishing returns. There also comes a point, rather early on in my opinion, that a careful explanation of why the basics are being done, and therefore how they should be used in training, is essential. If that explanation is not forthcoming, or even worse if there is none, then I think it is time to question why, and if, the repetition should be continued.

And that is one thing I like about the Feeding Crane system. The basic movements have a clear rationale, and must be done very precisely. They are done to develop a certain, measurable, result. Once that result is achieved you start spending more time with a different set of basics, one based on the earlier set but more involved. Again, the goal is a measurable result. Once you are getting certain results with all the movements your goal is improvement of these results and maintenance of the existing results. Time spent with them is dictated by what you need to do this. It is not mystical, or mysterious, it is just hard work with a clear plan.

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And this is how you use the back of your thigh to break the leg…

It is also a plan situated within a larger framework. Basic movements (I actually prefer the word fundamental as it describes their role better) are just one part of the plan. Excellent development of skill in them still leaves you hollow in the system if you are not doing your other fundamental practices. It is a system, not just power generation or nice techniques or cool kata, but a set of practices designed to support each other. All need to be developed to learn the system.

That is one thing I find interesting in the approach of some people who do multiple arts. Often they have a primary art and their secondary or tertiary arts are simply there to support that. That is a perfectly fine approach, unless you also want to be proficient in those other arts. My “favorite” is watching karate people do kobudo that in reality is karate with a tool in their hand: to me the lack of understanding of weapon use is immediately obvious in their movement. But the same goes for multiple empty hand arts. While Feeding Crane can add power to your karate, it is really a lot more than that. It is also difficult to really get the power generation that way, as some of the fundamental mechanics, like raising the elbows or lifting the shoulders, break the rules of most karate and if you are trying to keep to those rules you will get stuck. In some ways they are incompatible, and accepting that is essential to developing in both.

And that is part of what we do during our closed-door training. We work solely with a group of people who are studying Feeding Crane for itself, not as an adjunct to another art. In some ways that is really the most fundamental movement, the movement towards committing to the practice. Of course there are a lot of different ways to commit, and I think many have value. Getting a taste of another practice is a valuable experience, and can add a lot to your own practice. One can engage at a variety of levels and regardless of the level or approach, time and effort put into developing a skill deserve respect . I certainly don’t think you have to give up what you know to enter into a new practice; I know I have not. But starting with a beginner’s mind, opening up to the possibility of new fundamentals, is difficult. Making that initial movement towards seeing a new art as its own thing is, I believe, the best way to do that.

I have a beginner's mind, but ramen is the fundamental I need right now!

I have a beginner’s mind, but ramen is the fundamental I need right now!

And so open seminar, closed door training, or spending time with a teacher and friend are all fundamentals. They help create a base for continued practice and development. They help develop existing skills, improve existing relationships with material, the system, and most importantly with the people who embody those things. And, just to be clear, they are also a lot of fun! We are looking forward to the next visit already!

Feeding Crane Seminar

Liu Chang’I sifu will be back in the Boston area soon! On October 24&25 he will be teaching a seminar on his family’s Feeding Crane system. I look forward to this event every year. It is great to see Sifu Liu; we have a good time hanging out and training, and it is always fun to catch up with friends and teachers. The weekend seminar is also one of the training highlights of the year. Of course the instruction is excellent, and sifu’s enthusiasm for his practice is infectious! We have a great time sweating, nursing our bruises (by late Sunday, anyway), and taking in the training methods, applications, and insights into his art that he shares. Every year there is something new, and a new perspective on what I thought we already knew.

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Along with sifu’s instruction the thing that makes the weekend is the eclectic group of people that come out to train together. Last year we had Okianwan Goju, Uechi, Shorin Ryu practitioners, practitioners of a couple of different Chinese arts, and a couple of people completely new to martial arts practice. It is always a great mix. We get to touch hands with people from a variety of backgrounds and share each others experience and insights. Training is usually intense, with plenty of sweat and the occasional bruise, and throughout it all the atmosphere always stays engaged and you can feel how much everyone is enjoying training together. The mutual respect and friendship in the room is a great way to share a deep and fascinating art.

If you can join us for this fantastic weekend of training, please do! The sign up information is here, in the Events section of the site, and you can contact us via our FB page or the email in the sign up sheet if you have questions. It is going to be great weekend, and I am really looking forward to seeing all the familiar faces, and to meeting anyone new who comes out to join us!

What is the story?

Emerson wrote: “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures”. For good fiction I believe this to be true. But when it comes to the martial arts and fiction, most of it is terrible. Far too often it gets it right. By right I mean it is often a tedious, technical, and interminable thing. It dwells on details that are usually boring even to someone who has done similar training. Stuff perhaps interesting to a neophyte or 10 year old takes precedence over the story. On the other hand, good martial arts fiction, rare though it is, gets it right. It cuts through the endless daily slog, the technical terms that don’t actually impress the outsider but instead leave him or her unengaged, and the mundane nature of most martial practice. It tells a story.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

And that is where it reveals a truth. In good fiction the story is more important than the details. What details get left in, what get taken out, are all driven by the story. Of course it is essential the details, no matter how minute, are correct; without the details being right the story doesn’t work. But in most martial arts fiction the details take over- techniques with cool names, fight scenes, incredible training sequences, are all gone into in excruciating detail.  While they may be cool, since they do not further the story they bore the reader. It doesn’t work. The story flounders.

The truth obscured then is this- it is the story that matters. The concepts and ideas. The details have to be correct, but the correct they have to be is the correct that furthers the story.  A lot of martial arts practice is too much like martial arts fiction- full of lists, unimportant details, obscure sounding names with nothing behind them. In practice the kata, drills, basics, should all be subject to the concepts, not the other way around. If you don’t have a good story- a good system (plot) to follow and good characters to go with- the details are unimportant. And if you do have these things a poor author or the wrong details- too much of something, too little of another, too much description instead of letting the reader figure it out- can still ruin it.

That truth revealed means that you have to examine your practice, edit it. What story are you telling? If a drill or form doesn’t inculcate the ideas behind the system then it is perhaps ruining the story instead of furthering it. So edit. And more importantly take charge of the writing of it! In the end the practice should enable you to use the concepts. The details should reveal them. They should enable you to write your story yourself, not just follow along.

In Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny, there is this ending to a longer scene. It works with popular tropes- Zen-esque phrases and tiny but powerful motions- but it is not about the martial arts, they are just there in service of the characters and the story. When they serve no purpose we do not hear anything about them. The characters’ training is not important, so we never learn about it. We just see what moves the story along.

   Timyin Tin leaned to his right then his left, his right hand still descending with extreme slowness. He leaned to the left again…

  “What,” Archie asked him, “is the color of thunder?”

   …Then to the right, hand still dropping.

   Archie feinted with another kick, then lunged forward, claws extended, hands describing wide semicircles about one another.

  Timyin Tin’s head turned back over his shoulder as his left leg moved behind him. His body turned sideways as his left hand became a V, catching Archie beneath the left armpit. His right hand moved upward toward the other’s crotch. He felt but an instant’s touch of weight as he twisted to the left.    Then Archie was gone, into the night, over the railing.

  “Behold,” Timyin Tin replied.

   He stood for several heartbeats, regarding the night. Then he bowed again.

 

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Medatsu

There is a term in Japanese, Medatsu (目立つ). It is usually translated as “to be conspicuous, to stand out”. But that is not actually a very good translation. In English to stand out is a good thing. It connotes people taking notice of your positive attributes. Standing “head and shoulders above the rest” is something to aspire to. But in Okinawa and Japan a well known saying goes “the nail that stands up gets hammered down.” In other words, deliberately standing out means that instead of respecting you people will feel you need to be taught how to be a better member of society. When I first came across the word medatsu it was in reference to the bosozoku, groups of teen motorcycle riders in Japanese cities. They ride about making lots of noise, acting “bad”, and drawing lots of attention to themselves. They certainly stand out, but not in a good way. Their antics are juvenile, and rude. Being a nuisance is not the same as being noticed. Medatsu implies that you are drawing attention to yourself for no good reason. You are, in essence, acting the fool.

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Awesome.

There is not actually a good equivalent verb in English, at least not one I can think of. But especially in the martial arts we really could use one. Getting attention is not a bad thing. If your efforts are recognized  there Is no reason not to feel some pride at being noticed for them. But drawing attention to yourself, insisting you get noticed whether you deserve it or not, runs contrary to both what I think the essence of budo is and my sense of what is in good taste.

For me, multi-colored gi, patches saying Master, Black Belt, and so on, and the screaming announcement of whatever you are doing to the entire group are just medatsu. Constantly making sure everyone knows your rank is medatsu. Wearing your obi over a tshirt is medatsu. (And a pet peeve!) Using grammatically and culturally incorrect titles like hanshi, soke, or shihan is medatsu. Reminding everyone you meet who you have trained with and the awards you have won is medatsu. Jumping up and down and shouting when you overcome an opponent or succeed in a grading is medatsu. These things are not budo they are showmanship. They look foolish.

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Martial arts or showmanship. You decide. (Either way, Elvis is cool.)

To me they speak of insecurity, and of a desire to be noticed doing instead of a desire to do. It is better to come to the dojo and train, day in and out, and never be noticed than to spend your time attempting to draw attention to yourself. At least I think so. It certainly speaks to a more secure and tempered life. So for my two cents I would suggest you avoid medatsu. You might not get much recognition, but you won’t look like a fool.

Haute Couture

Do you wear a traditional keiko gi to training? When I started training that question would have seemed absurd; of course all traditional karate-ka wore a gi. But these days things are different. The current trend, dare I use the term “fashion”, is for “real” karate-ka to leave the keiko gi behind and train in tshirts, shorts, and other workout clothes. Some note the lack of keiko gi in pre-WWII training and suggest that they are harkening back to an earlier time. Some say they want to train in clothes that more closely approximate what they would wear on “the street”. Some say it is more comfortable and does not inhibit movement. And some note it is less expensive. While these reasons are all good I can’t help but think that part of it is also that the most visible martial artists today, MMA folks, train in workout clothes. It could just be they are setting the unconscious cultural standard for tough guy attire, and the keiko gi, as seen in strip mall dojo across the land, seems more like clothes for children, not for real adults really working out.

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Is the choice really this,

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or this?

We usually train in keiko gi in my dojo. Amusingly enough (to me) I get occasional guff for it. “Oh, you still wear a keikogi? OK.” Don’t get me wrong. We also train in workout clothes, especially when we are out in the park where I feel the keikogi draws unnecessary attention. (Another reason, I know…) And I never wear a keikogi when I am working out alone. That would feel weird. Certain elements of training in workout clothes I really like. I do think they inhibit certain movements less. They are less expensive, and can be more comfortable. Best of all, you don’t need belts with them, and that is a real plus to me. I have seriously considered abandoning at least the gi top and having “official” dojo attire be a tshirt and gi pants. But I have not, at least not yet.

Why? Well, if I showed up to formal training in one of my teachers’ dojo in Okinawa wearing a tshirt it would be considered inappropriate. I think that should mean something to me. It may just be habit, but my teachers are not fools that just blindly follow tradition. It occurs to me there might be reasons for it. Karate is an Okinawan budo, and if we want to follow that path we may want to consider that what can seem like trappings may have a little more content than it at first appears.

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Yogi sensei was just relaxing with us.

So why the keikogi? I think they do a variety of things. First, they are a uniform. Uniform means “all the same.” So when you come to the dojo and put on a keikogi you are symbolically becoming the same as everyone else. For the time of training, just a karate ka, just a member of the dojo. Wearing workout clothes allows for a variety of other symbols- your most recent vacation, how much you can spend on fancy gear, your work, the seminar you alone went to. Even worse, products you endorse, the trivia of our material culture. These symbols can be used to draw attention to yourself as different from everyone else as opposed to yourself as part of the group working together to train. Separation, joining, these things are important. Therefore these symbols can take away from training, on a very subtle level.

The uniform is also a symbolic reference to what you are doing. When you are wearing it you are declaring yourself to be separate from the rest of your daily life. It tells both you and everyone around you that you are engaged in a special and specific activity. That can, I believe, help create a separation from daily life in the dojo. While in uniform work issues, family life, worries, hopes, concerns are all put aside to focus solely on the task at hand. On top of that the austerity of the uniform is a reminder that what you are engaged in is not trivial or for show. Do you need a uniform for that? No, but symbols can have power, especially subconsciously. On some days making the mental shift is difficult and the uniform can help. It can also help others treat you as nothing but a karate ka, to expect you to be in that mode. That in turn can reinforce the role to you.

Finally there actually are some technical benefits. I have torn tshirts completely off people doing grappling or throwing. Keikogi tend to be pretty durable, at least decent ones.

But all in all I just keep coming back to it being part of our martial culture. That may not be a great reason but it is one with some emotional import, at least to me. I also keep thinking about what the keikogi adds instead of what it is taking away. If we ever do change to workout clothes here I would want to keep the symbolic referents of the uniform intact. A simple, austere tshirt with nothing except perhaps a dojo symbol on it. Not too expensive so when they got destroyed they could be easily replaced. Everyone would have to wear it, defining them as members of the dojo engaged in their chosen activity. No mélange of various colors, cuts, and symbols. Just a simple tshirt. A keikogi, really, just in a different shape.

We could lose the belts though, which would be awesome.

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