And Whose Fault Is That?

Lots of thoughts about my teachers these days, and the simple seeming idea of lineage, of the passing of information from one person to another. I remember sitting in the budokan in Okinawa with Gakiya Yoshiaki and Yogi Jyosei. A group from the Midwest was visiting the island and were asking about kobudo training. One of the first questions Yogi sensei asked was who their teacher was. When he didn’t know that person he asked who his teacher’s teacher was, trying to understand their connection to karate in Okinawa. That got resolved (it was a pretty distant connection) and then Yogi sensei asked who they were training with. They were visiting a number of dojo during their trip and Yogi sensei bluntly asked them why, what they were hoping to do. They answered, essentially, visit, see some different things, learn what we can from different teachers.

Gakiya sensei was pretty quiet during all this but Yogi sensei got rather animated, and started a short lecture on having a teacher. He listed a number of reasons to find a sensei and focus- you don’t really get much from a teacher until they get to know you, you can’t really move forward unless you get a strong foundation, you need to learn and develop good manners and behavior, you should be developing strong personal relations. (These last hold far more weight in Okinawa than most people understand.) The group essentially yessed him but were happy to hear that he and Gakiya would be willing to teach them some kobudo, starting the next day. As they were getting ready to leave one commented to me that “the Okinawans are so obsessed with lineage! Who cares who your teacher is, isn’t your skill the issue?” Gakiya caught the look on my face, and asked me what they said. He and Yogi had a quick back and forth in hogen and Yogi looked at me and said with a smile: “I want to know whose fault it is. If your teacher is no good it is not your fault, and we can help you fix that. If your teacher is good, it’s your fault and there is probably nothing we can do.”

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Indeed. Your teacher, your lineage, doesn’t give you anything by itself. A good lineage is just a chance. If you don’t have a good teacher, at least in a traditional art with a deep foundation, you simply don’t have a chance to access the system. It isn’t your fault. Of course if you do have a good teacher and you are rude or have poor skills, if you have a chance, then whose fault do you think it is? I can’t do Yogi sensei’s impish smile, but if you know him I will let you picture it.

Structure

One of the core elements of our art is body structure. It sounds esoteric, but it really isn’t. It is just learning how to align the bones, the structure, of your body so it can absorb and transmit force. Two examples might be 1) if your hips and shoulders are out of alignment (your frame is broken) pushing with your legs won’t transmit force well to your arms and energy taken by your arms can’t be absorbed by your legs, or 2) if your elbow is out in a straight punch you won’t be able to transmit the force from your torso and legs, and when you hit the energy will be taken into your shoulder joint. The maximum power will be at the weakest connection point. With weapons the idea is the same; for example if you don’t have your elbow and body behind a gedan uke with a bo it will be pushed aside by a strong hit.

So structure is important for generating and controlling power. But to me it also does one other very important thing. It makes you faster. Not physically faster in the sense of who can run the 50 yard dash faster but martially faster, in the “leave later but arrive earlier” sense of faster. When your structure is good you don’t have to engage your muscles as much to do whatever you are trying to do, the proper structure and the mechanical advantage that confers essentially amplifies your strength. Of course this can help a smaller person be functionally stronger, but more importantly it limits extra tension in your body. When you are tight, you don’t move fast. To move in a different direction you have to first loosen the muscles in question then tighten them again to start the new movement. When they are relaxed you can just start the movement. Try it. Tighten up your arm and shoulder and then try punch as fast as you can. Now relax your arm and shoulder and do the same thing. Which happened sooner? Was faster? (Which more powerful?)

Now, taking that gedan uke with the bo example: when your structure is out of alignment you need to use whatever muscle you can to hold off the incoming strike, as getting hit would be bad. So you are tight, probably throughout much of your body, certainly your arms and core. Assuming the block works, to counter strike you then need to relax the muscles you have engaged and get them started on the strike. Your body goes from tight to loose to tight, and most likely with a broken base and from a bad position. If your alignment, your structure, is good, you just have to move from loose to tight to strike, and likely with a strong base. Fewer motions, less time, faster.

So sure structure is about balance, strength, absorption, but for me it is also about relaxation and speed. At least it should feel that way to my opponent…

Gasshuku in the UK

I would like to say thank you to the members of the Matayoshi Kobudo Association of Great Britain. The group and its leader, Michael Clayton sensei, invited me to come and teach our kobudo at their annual gasshuku. It was held in Leeds, England, from November 17-19 and people came from all around England (and Wales!). I had a great time. Michael sensei and the group were really hospitable, and did a great job with a lot of new material. I got to meet some people I have communicated with on line but never met in person, like Gary Lever sensei and Andy Moorehouse sensei, and that was also good fun.

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Training group Friday night.

Michael sensei is leading a really good group of kobudo practitioners. The energy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail over what was a long and full weekend was fantastic. While the seniors, not surprisingly, showed a good understanding of the material they already knew and had a lot to draw on to help them with the new material we covered I was particularly impressed with the large group of junior students who attended. They took on some usually senior material and handled it really well, getting into it and enjoying working with it right away. It speaks highly of the group and how they are led, as an atmosphere that allows people to grow, share, and experiment is essential but sometimes hard to develop.

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Michael sensei and I, just before the farmer roared up on his tractor, wondering if we were poachers…

I also had a nice time seeing some of the area around Leeds and York, with some visits to historic battlefields (which also included a farmer who was very curious about the two fellows doing nunchiyaku in his field…), the city of York, and some time in the Royal Armories Museum in Leeds, where the Leeds MKAGB group trains. What an atmospheric and beautiful space! We spent Friday night training kobudo surrounded by a variety of East and South Asian antique weapons and armor, a truly unique experience for me.

Thank you again Michael sensei and the whole group for your attention and enthusiasm. Everyone put in a lot of effort over the weekend (I think my favorite comment on Sunday afternoon was “what fun! I am physically and mentally shattered..”) and I could see people processing the new information and enjoying taking it in. I could also see a lot of smiles as people were training and working hard and that says excellent things about the group to me. I hope everyone had as much fun as I did, and I look forward to another opportunity to train together. Otsukaresama desu!

Feeding Crane Seminar 2017

Hello everyone. Liu sifu has finalized his schedule for the fall. He will be teaching a seminar on his family’s Feeding Crane the weekend of October 21 & 22. As usual, it should be a great weekend of training, with excellent instruction and some great people to share it with. The seminar info and sign up is attached. Looking forward to seeing everyone and sweating together! If you have any questions please let me know.

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Nigeru Dogu

Sometimes short conversations can make you think about your art differently, sometimes in a fairly fundamental way. I was in Okinawa in January and at one point while taking a short pause in training Ishiki sensei and I started talking about some of the smaller weapons in the system. We had been working with the tekko and san bon nunchiyaku and had played a little with some ticchu and some chizikunbo I had made for him. We were discussing the various techniques these weapons shared and how they related to the other weapons in the system. In particular we were talking about the techniques for each that emphasize concealment in deploying them, keeping them hidden until they are in use as well as keeping them hidden from sight during use. In lumping them together to more easily discuss these connections I used the term “kakushi buki”. (隠武器) It is a term used more frequently in mainland koryu arts and essentially means “concealed weapon”. Ishiki sensei made a rather sour face but was just going to go on when I stopped and asked him why the look?

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“I don’t like that term”, he replied. I asked why and he had a very clear answer. “It has some really unpleasant connotations. It means you, as an individual, have decided to conceal a weapon on your person. That implies you mean to use it. Do you want to be the kind of person that carries around a concealed weapon? I don’t. I don’t want to be a thug, or an assassin, or someone who likes to fight and hurt other people. Those would be the only reasons to carry a concealed weapon, because you planned to use it.”

Ok, I answered, that makes sense. But these weapons are meant for concealment, and we were just talking about how those techniques are built into their use. Isn’t carrying them their purpose? The purpose of any self-defense weapon, really?

Yes, he said, but mind set is really important and I think the word Concealed Weapon creates a bad mind set. It moves you towards an immoral place. I like to use a different term, “Nigeru Dogu”. (逃げる道具 This translates pretty well as “tool for running away or tool for escaping”.) That sums up the real use: it is for getting away if you get in trouble, not for fighting or attacking.

OK, I thought, not much difference but sure, why not? But as I thought about it more, it is actually a much better, and more precise, term for those implements. It cuts directly to the chase- if you are attacked your goal is not to fight, not to harm or punish your attacker or surprise him with your armaments, but to get yourself out of the situation. It eliminates a bunch of the macho BS that can accompany discussions of self defense and concealed weapons, at least in my experience, by making it clear the entire purpose of the tool is to escape, to run away. Like a chicken, if that suits you terminologically. I won’t get into the possible permutations of protecting a loved one or other victim, or the differences between civilian and law enforcement responsibilities. They are not relevant- your goal if you are protecting someone is get both or all of you away, not fight or defeat someone, and the responsibilities of law enforcement personnel is a different conversation entirely.

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Perhaps in part due to the language barrier we can forget our teachers have spent decades thinking about the various combative, social, philosophical, moral, and practical aspects of their arts. In this particular instance, Ishiki sensei’s perspective also has some back up from modern science- there is evidence that carrying a weapon makes one more aggressive. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/get-psyched/201301/the-weapons-effect

By re-framing the purpose of the tool internally, Ishiki sensei was saying, one can also reframe one’s mind-set around the tool. Not thinking of it as a weapon may in fact change how you act and how you respond to aggression.

Obviously there is no data to back up that particular possibility. However, the tactical perspective is pretty useful. The point is to be thinking of how to stay out of trouble and get out if you fail at staying out. It is not to be thinking about how your weapon can help you in a fight. It is also a clear moral perspective- one uses one’s art to evade and escape, not to start fights or stay and fight unless necessary.

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Anyway, the conversation has me thinking about a variety of things. How our applications relate to the concept of escape and evasion. How concealing our intent is different from concealing our weapons. How surprise can be used in different ways depending on your goal. How your starting point informs your tactics. How morals are practical. That kind of stuff.

It is also nice to have a term for some of our weapons that gets to the heart of their use.

Snowflakes?

So I have not posted in a while. Not because I don’t feel like I have anything at all to say, as I am still enjoying sharing some thoughts this way, but because of two things. 1: I have been rather busy. Not totally swamped for months and months but things like visiting friends and teachers in Japan and Okinawa, work, training, and spending time with our son among others have kept me from sitting down to write much. And 2: One concern I have with this forum, like any other that is dyadic in format, is that it very easily lends itself to coming across as at least a self-perceived expert. Someone who is special.

 

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I see this all over the net. Many people who run blogs or post regularly on Facebook can come across as if they have something they want to share it with the rest of us. Sometimes it feels more like preaching or lecturing- do it this way, you are wrong, your approach is bad, etc.. And they have something special to pass along. In some cases that is true. I see a lot of good stuff out there. People training hard, investigating, researching, developing. Sharing that stuff is great. Thank you to everyone who does! But you need to be careful, both as a reader and as an author. Because, I am sorry to say, you are not necessarily right, and you are not special.

Sure, no one else may have the connections to your tradition, or the approach to application, or the honed body mechanics, or the fitness, or the time spent doing research or cross-training, or living in the culture, or instructional skill, or one of a thousand other things. Legitimate things (and here I would not include rank, hall-of-fame status, trophies, etc.). Things that others can learn from. Sharing them can be instructive, helpful, and generous. But, and there is always a but, be careful.

You are not special. There are a lot of people these days who have spent time living and training in their art’s culture and who may understand parts of it better than you. Your application approach may be unique and very functional, but there are many others investigating and training and they may have some other approach that is excellent as well. There are other people who have fajing, martial power, excellent application, strong roots, fantastic body control, an ability to experiment and grow, and strong healthy dojo. That is just how it is.

Sure there are thousands of people, possibly thousands of dojo, out there who are training in a vacuum, training poorly, with little intent, poor fitness, and next to no understanding. But don’t compare yourself to them. All that can do is to help you feel superior. And, I will say it again, you are not. Because there are people, dojo, all over the world training hard, training well, and probably doing some things better than you. Than me. That is just how it works.

By comparing yourself to the lowest common denominator you do get some benefits. You get to know more, be more capable, have an audience you “know” needs your guidance and instruction, and perhaps most insidiously “know” you are on the right path. You can be a special snowflake. But, yes I will say it again, you are not special. I hope that does not make you sad. It encourages me. I like that there is a vibrant, if small, community of people working to grow their arts and themselves. I like being able to know less than people, because then I get to learn. I like having another reason to keep growing, and every time I see others who are pushing the boundaries of their art I am more encouraged, and often humbled.

So one concern I periodically have with the blog is that while I feel I have some thing to say that may be useful and interesting, I don’t want to start thinking of myself as special. That is too easy, and in the end just like a snowflake on a hot day, it melts away when the heat of training is applied. I hope to get some things out there to share in the near future, but if I start sounding like you all need to be following my path, please remind me, I am not…..

Why Do It?

I recently had the chance to spend another weekend training with my friend Sensei Russ Smith. He ran a small weekend training at his dojo in Florida. Once again his focus was on the whys of application in Goju and how they relate to some of the southern Chinese systems. Whys are difficult to frame sometimes. The word “principles” has become common lately. People keep using it but I do not think it means what they seem to think it means. To me principles bind a practice. They are limiters more than anything else, taking away options that do not conform with the ideas they represent. More often I seem to see vague “principles” that instead of limiting allow the teacher to fit just about any technique that occurs to him or her into their rubric. Not really helpful, at least to me.

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Great group of people to share a weekend with.

 Russ sensei has put together an approach to training that is principle centered in what seems like a very functional way. Instead of vague ideas that sound like a translation of the Book of 5 Rings the principles he is talking about are directly linked to physical action. One example might be Strong on Weak. That can sound esoteric but in practice it simply means not using the weaker parts of your body against stronger parts of the opponent- not trying to lever the elbow out of the way with the wrist for example. Attached to the principles are simple drills that demonstrate them, so the ideas are not just hanging out there but are immediately accessible.

This last one is really important. Ideas and principles are great, but if you cannot put them into action they are pretty much useless. One nice measure of that action is if they enable self-correction. Can a student, or anyone new to the principle, use it once it has been explained and they have done some time with an appropriate drill to feel it in action? I watched people over the weekend take an approach they were using and, when it didn’t work, go back to the ideas we were talking about and try to figure out why. What principles did it violate and how did that make it fail? This is was in unscripted practice, not set drills. In this environment people new to the material were able to use it, to break down their movement and application and use the ideas that bind the art to adjust it.

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Learning through touching. Only way, really. Fun too!

That seems like a good approach to the whys of practice to me. Why do something? Because it works. Because it fits the moment. And the same goes, really, for spending the weekend training with friends. Why do it? Because it works. Russ sensei runs a good training weekend. He has a lot to share and a good platform developed to do it with. And that format is important, because instead of a lecture or repetition of forms or basics (all necessary but able to be done mostly alone, IMO) I believe we learn better by interacting, testing each other and the ideas. That is a better way to spend time than memorizing yet another drill or form or technique, doing hundreds of reps you could have just done at home, or going to “get instruction” from someone who is just going to tell you to do it their way. Instead  share, grow, and have fun doing it. Taking some time with the whys can enable you to better direct your own practice. That and a glass of usquebaugh and good conversation at the end of a fun day seems like good whys to me indeed!