Sunday, December 20, 2009

An unusual kung fu application

Things got rowdy at my son's sixth birthday party.  Young boys, balloon swords, and way too much sugar!  But it wasn't until the birthday cake came out that I resorted to kung fu:

More conventionally executed as a double-strike to the lower part of an assailant's rib-cage, this hand formation proved effective when shielding birthday candles from the wind.

Happy birthday, Jake!

Presentation Day, December 2009

Yesterday afternoon was the Australian Federation of Instructors 2009 Presentation Day.  There was a BBQ, black belt kata displays, "Santa Sensei" Kris Kringle, a raffle, awarding of grading certificates, and Kancho's class.

The trun-out from Monash Caulfield was pleasining:


Left to right: Anthony, Lizzie, Robin, Damian, 
yours truly, Lejoe, Lisa, Ashley

Holding their new certificates are:
  • Lizzie: purple I, jiu-jitsu
  • Damian: purple I & II, jiu-jitsu
  • Lejoe: purple I judo; purple II & yellow I, jiu-jitsu
  • Ashley: purple I & II judo; purple II, jiu-jitsu
Congratulations to all, and also to Steve (purple I, jiu-jitsu) in absentia.  Thanks to Anthony, Lisa, and Robin for coming along anyway, even though they didn't grade (this time).

Disappointingly, club kata presentations were bumped because of a tight schedule.  However, we should be very well practiced for next year!

There were numerous black-belt promotions across the organization.  Of particular note, Sharen Cummings, who started training a year after me, but left to work in America for eight years, received her Shodan Ho (provisional first degree black belt) in judo.

Monash mafia:

Left to Right: Sensei Tony, Sempai Sharen, me, Sempai Tim

Also, Sempai Tim Wilkin received his Shodan Ho in judo, and I received my Nidan (2nd degree black belt) in judo.

Well done to us, and to everyone else in the Federation who successfully graded this time, and to everyone for a great year!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Do black belts have to start their own class?

Karate instructor Michele asked Do black belts have to teach? on her blog and lively discussion ensued.  I suspect that those who like teaching gravitated to the affirmative camp, while those who do not tended to the negative.

All I'd add to that discussion is that in our organization -- The Australian Jiu-jitsu, Judo, and Chinese Boxing Federation of Instructors -- I don't think you can make it to black belt without an affinity for teaching.  As the name indicates, there's a lot of teaching in our system, and by developing everyone into teachers as well as martial artists there's a lot more hands-on instruction available than if teacher status is reserved for a select few.

Anyway, there's another dimension I'd like to explore.  The next step after doing some occasional class teaching -- typically stepping in occasionally for the full-time instructor -- is to start your own regular class.  In our organization this means that either you inherit and existing class or start a new club.

While this is something I recommend, you wouldn't want to rush into it.  I've just completed year 5 with my own club, and even only running one class a week (a two hour class, though!), it's a lot of work: Class planning, answering enquiries, record-keeping and collecting dues, maintaining equipment, liaising with the venue owners, submitting grading recommendations, advertising, scrutinizing candidate students.  There's a lot to do, and there's work and family life too, but once some simple systems are in place, most of that stuff becomes quite routine.  Blogging, by the way, should be strictly optional.

Oh, and there's teaching, too.  That's the fun bit!

It never rains, but it pours.  After four years of running my class on a Monday night I switched in 2009 to Wednesday and suddenly I went from a handful of students -- typically 3 to 6 per class, sometimes less -- to more typical class sizes of 8 to 12, peaking at about 14.

There's a lot less hands-on instruction by me on each and every student now.  The students who remain from earlier times sometimes say they miss that, but there's now more energy and camaraderie on our now crowded mat.  And next year should be that much better, with a core group who train week-in week-out solidifying.

Next step may be to increase the mat area!

* * *

Teaching someone else's class or running a short course is a bit like doing some baby-sitting as an uncle or aunt: hard-work, hopefully fun, but you get to give them back.  Starting your own class and/or club is more like parenthood; it's something you need to be ready for, and it's definitely not for everyone.

I highly recommend putting in a few years as an assistant to someone else first.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Superficial teaching, Real teaching, and Inspired teaching

Superficial teaching can sound good, but it's really by the numbers.  In The Anatomy of Change (page 121) Aikido teacher Richard Strozzi-Heckler writes:
Learning to ski last winter, I took a lesson from an accomplished skier and certified instructor.   He initially amazed me, as his instructions were very similar to the ones I use with my students.  He spoke of the importance of relaxation, going with the contours of the slopes, and trusting my body to feel weight, balance, and flexibility.  His images were creative and useful.  I  was inspired and immediately put to use what he was telling me.  But after a point, I got stuck.  The instructor came over, reeled off the terrific aphorisms, and I again tried to put them to use.  But there was no use.  Something was missing.

I realized that he wasn't making contact with me. He wasn't seeing me and what I needed to learn in order to move ahead. His wonderful information lacked a connecting bridge to the more essential part of me. ... Perhaps if he had tuned in, he might have brought forth the suffestion to turn my hip a little this way, or lean slightly that way, or even work with the energy of my emerging frustration.
Real teaching means more than passing on good information -- take it or leave it.  It also involves the contact that Heckler complains was missing from his skiing lesson, including observation and trouble-shooting, and establishing and maintaining a positive learning environment.

Much of the time I demonstrate with commentary, thereby passing on good information in visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (for my uke) forms, thereby catering to a variety of learning styles.  This is still superficial, but given good curriculum and personal technique, this transmission of "good information" is the foundation of effective instruction.

Next, I let the students get to work in pairs and try to leave them alone while they figure out the technique (or refine it) by themselves.  Part of good teaching is getting outta da way and giving the students space to figure stuff out for themselves.

Occasionally I'll intervene, or answer a question.  This is where the observation comes in,.  The student  starts to describe the problem.  "Show me your throw", I say.  I want to  see it in its totality, not hear what they think the problem is.  "Again", I say, so that I can get more data.  Sometimes I'll have them throw a different uke, perhaps with a different type of body.  If I can't identify the source yet I'll have them throw me, so that I can better feel what's going on.  Then I try to give one (sometimes two) succinct instructions, and apply the technique to the person so that they can feel how I do it, and/or to their partner so that they can see it.  I may also imitate what I want them to change.  With more advanced students, I might explain the cause of the problem and ask them to work out the solution.  In my book this is where much of the real teaching happens.

If I see that a problem is widespread, I'll make a particular point for the whole class.  If the problem is affecting every (or nearly every)  student in the class, it's time for me to have a good hard look at the likely source of the problem.  This usually involves a mirror, real or metaphorical.

Inspired teaching, by contrast goes above and beyond.  Sometimes it's when a new activity, or instruction clicks for a whole bunch of students at once.  On an individual basis, it can happen when the problems of the student seem intractable, the way to help uncertain, the likelihood of success low, all attempts at correction thus far have met with abject failure, and yet in a flash of insight the teacher realizes that there's something else that might just work.

Here is Brian's story about his experience tutoring Ali, a boy who was making no progress while attempting to learn mathematics, either at school and under the uber-systematic, yet non-directive Kumon method:
[T]here was one boy for whom Kumon did not seem to be working its magic. Ali was the boy's name, and he seemed to be in such serious trouble that Kumon seemed beside the point. When he did sums they were all over the place. Answers were totally wrong, and figures written the wrong way round. He could hold a pencil and write, but what he wrote was crazy. We seriously doubted if there was anything we could do, and we were ready to give up right there. He would make repeated mistakes, both of calculation and in the way he wrote numbers, and we even started to believe that he might be "dyslexic", or even brain damaged. Also, Ali seemed to be an extremely arrogant little boy. He had a way of lowering his eyelids and raising his head that made him look as if he thought the world to be populated entirely by fools.

At which point I got very, very lucky. I said, let me have a try with him. I decided to do some teaching.

I separated the task he faced into a succession of tiny steps and got him to do each step right before proceeding to the next. You start by writing your name there. No, there. What's your name? Ali. Good. Can you spell that? Good. Please write Ali there. Good. Now: what does this say? I point at a two. Two. Good. And what does that say? I point at a one. One. Good. What about that? I point at the plus in between the two and the one. No? That says plus. That means you are adding two to one. What does this say? Don't know? That says equals. That means what does two and one come to. What's it the same as? What is two plus one, two and one, two added to one? So. What's two and one? Don't know? It's three. Do you know how to write three? You do. Good. Please write three there, which is where the answer is supposed to go. Excellent.

And so on. I never made him guess more than once, and I was unfailingly polite. I always said please before asking him to do anything, and I never raised my voice. I never, that is to say, confused Ali being ignorant with Ali being stupid. I did nothing that would be unfamiliar to an averagely capable aerobics instructor working with a arthritic old-age pensioner, but for some reason this sort of thing, when needed by a child, is not always supplied, even in something as widely known as simple arithmetic.

Aside from not knowing the answers, Ali's biggest problem was writing the numbers the correct way around. He would routinely write mirror reflections of them instead. Not all the time, just rather a lot. (This was what had prompted the dyslexia diagnosis.)

When Ali did this - getting, say, the answer right but writing it mirrored - I would say well done, you got the answer right. The answer is five, and that's what you wrote. Well done. However, you wrote the five the wrong way round. Please rub out the five you did, and rewrite it the correct way round. Good.

As I say, you aren't supposed to do this in Kumon. If all the children were to get twenty minutes of solid attention, the way I was attending to Ali, the place would have stopped being the learning factory for everyboy and everygirl that it's supposed to be and would have reverted to being a few tutors helping a few rich kids. But I didn't care.

And the reason that I didn't care was that it worked. After about three sessions along these lines, Ali reached his personal plateau of arithmetical excellence (a few sums wrong but almost all of them right), just like any other Kumon kid.
So there you have it, a real-life an example of inspired, outside-the-box teaching.  You can read more in Brian's post.

We should all strive to do real teaching all the time, and aim to rise to an inspired level as often as insight allows.  It's worth it.

An amazing transformation

I can't imagine watching this and not being inspired:

The only comparison that matters

Via Patrick Parker:
The truth is that there is nothing noble in being superior to somebody else. The only real nobility is in being superior to your former self. -- Whitney Young
Aim to improve.  Draw inspiration -- not envy -- from the achievements of others.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Self-defence Kata (December 2009)

For the last couple of classes I have been working with my class to create an original kata for part of the kata display on Presentation Day, later this month.

Last year we invented an original kata, The Kata of Possibility.  It proved to be a very rewarding experience, an opportunity for the class to work together as a group to show some of what they have learned to an appreciative audience.

We've still got one more class to finalize and polish up our new kata, especially the formalities, but after last night we have the outline.

Part I: Defences against Grabs

Attack 1a: Double lapel grab (with optional knee to groin)
Some defences: Side wrist throw, 2nd hip throw, 2nd leg throw (knee variation)

Attack 1b: Single lapel grab and punch to the face
Some defences: Double-strike turning throw, 1st leg throw, elbow roll submission, 2nd hip throw (after crossing uke up)

Attack 1c: Front hair grab
Defence: Retreating wrist-lock

Part II: Defences against Chokes

Attack 2a: 4th strangle from behind
Some defences: 1st shoulder throw, 1st leg throw (when dragged backwards)

Attack 2b: Front choke with straight arms
Some defences: 3rd hip throw, 3rd leg throw (when pushed backwards), "Cap'n Kirk" escape

Attack 2c: Headlock while walking forward
Defence: Sutemi between legs, transitioning into first immobilization

Part III: Defences against Strikes
Attack 3a: Right hand jab from southpaw stance
Some defences: 1st leg throw, 1st shoulder throw


Attack 3b: Haymaker
Some defences: 2nd hip thow, 1st shoulder throw, nurse's grip gooseneck

Attack 3c: Wild rush / push to chest
Defence: Drop to hands and knees (side-on)

Typically, I started with some more ambitious ideas for this kata, but over a few "workshop" sessions we've arrived at something suitable for the present group, and largely put together from their suggestions and experiments.

For each of the first two attacks in every category each pair demonstrates a different technique, one after the other, but for the final attack in the category all pairs employ the same defence, simultaneously.

In future years, I intend to work with my class on some of the traditional judo kata.  This year Sempai Tim from Monash Clayton and I will present Katame-no-kata, the kata of groundwork, and other black-belts will also be presenting traditional kata.


Thanks to my models -- Brenton (orange) and Le Joe (purple) -- for the quick photo shoot!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Higher Goals of Judo

This southern Summer, beginning 24 January 2010,  I will be teaching a four-session course, The higher goals of Judo, open to all members of our Federation.  This subject matter will not seem surprising to regular readers of this blog:

The Higher Goals of Judo: Course Aims
  1. Definition and history: To introduce participants to the higher goals of Judo practice, beyond self-defence and competitive skills, and to their historical basis
  2. Dojo / real life connection: To inspire participants to seek to apply what they learn in the dojo in the rest of their lives, and, conversely, to use the opportunities afforded by martial arts training to deliberately further their personal and social development
  3. Practice: To provide a venue in which participants can identify and explore areas ripe for their own personal and social development, in a practical fashion
But wait, there's much more!
Several other Federation instructors will also be presenting four week courses on a variety of aspects of the martial arts.  Other short courses include:
  • Sensei Stephen Cochrane: Combinations & Counters in Judo (starts December 8)
  • Sensei Peter Howell: Weapons of Mass Destruction (starts December 11)
  • Sempai Owen Dransfield: Dedicated Experience in the Art of Judo (starts January 9)
  • Sensei Colin Bachelard: Jiu-jitsu Application of Technique to Survive (starts January 12)
  • Shihan Chris Bailey: The Strategy of Weapons and the Empty Hand (starts February 7)
All recommended: these courses are a great opportunity to examine and train in some in-depth material with a variety of instructors and training partners.

I always look forward to summer training as a chance to learn something different; so I get a break from regular training, without having a break from training!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Three Levels of Judo

From Mind Over Muscle: Writings from the founder of Judo, pp94-5:
The Three Levels of Judo
We have now established judo's three aspects -- training for defense against attack, cultivation of the mind and body, and putting one's energy to use. We have also affirmed judo's highest goal as self-perfection for the betterment of society. For the sake of convenience, let us place the foundation -- training for defense against attack -- at the bottom and call it lower level judo. Let us call training and cultivation, which are by-products of training for defense against attack, middle-level judo. The study of how to put one's energy to use in society comes last, so let us call it upper level-judo.
When we divide judo into these three levels, we can see that it must not be limited to training for fighting in the dojo, and even if you train your body and cultivate your mind, if you do not go a level higher, you truly cannot benefit society. No matter how great a person you are, if you die without achieving anything, as the proverb says: "Unused treasure is a wasted treasure." It can be said that you perfected yourself, but it cannot be said that you contributed to society. I urge all practitioners of judo to recognize that it consists of these three levels and to undergo their training without undue emphasis of one aspect over another. -- Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo
Since the passing of the founder of Judo in 1938 can it be said that mainstream judo has truly honored Kano's aims? I think that it's fair to say that modern "Olympic" judo prioritizes victory in sporting contest as its main goal.

Now: With this in mind, which judo would you rather study? Modern "Olympic" judo, or Kano's classical judo?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pushing your boundaries

Gregg Mozgala is an inspirational artist. In March 2008 the 31-year old actor performed multiple roles in a well-reviewed production of Romeo and Juliet, working around his significant cerebral palsy.
The company, formerly known as Theater by the Blind, mixes able-bodied actors and actors with disabilities. Mr. Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy, in particular shatters the myth that actors with mobility problems make for static productions, throwing himself around the stage with abandon.
In his latest project Gregg has teamed up with choreographer Tamar Rogoff in an original dance piece, Diagnosis of a Faun. Please read the New York Times article about the project, and be sure to view the embedded video.

Gregg Mozgala in a dance rehearsal

After reading and seeing the video snippet -- and for those in New York, getting along to a performance -- I trust that many people will be inspired.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

You don't have to be great all the time

In her fabulous book, Writing Down the Bones, author Natalie Goldberg introduces a Zen-inspired practice of writing, whereby one sits and writes for an allotted time, say five or fifteen minutes without stopping, without correcting, always keeping the pen moving. This is not writing for publication, but rather writing as spiritual practice, more akin to meditation, therapy and martial arts practice than writing for an audience.

Here's my favorite anecdote from a book packed with wonderful vignettes:
Artistic Stability
I have a pile of spiral notebooks about five feet high that begin around 1977, my early years of writing in Taos, New Mexico. I want to throw them out -- who can bear to look at the junk of our own minds that comes out in writing practice? I have a friend in New Mexico who makes solar houses out of beer cans and old tires. I think I will try to build one out of discarded spiral notebooks. A friend who lives upstairs says, "Don't get rid of them." I tell her she can have them if she wants.

I pile them on her stairs leading up to her apartment and leave for Norfolk, Nebraska, for four days to do a writing workshop. When I return she looks at me oddly, plunks herself down in the old pink chair in my bedroom: "I've been reading your notebooks all weekend. They are so intimate; so scared, insecure for pages, then suddenly they are not you -- just raw energy and wild mind. And now here you are -- Natalie -- in the flesh, just a person. It feels so funny." ...

She said it was empowering to read my notebooks because she realized that I really did write "shit," sometimes for whole notebooks. Often I tell my students, "Listen, I write and still write terrible self-pitying stuff for page after page." They don't believe me. Reading my notebooks is living proof of that. My upstairs neighbor said, "If you could write the junk you did then and write the stuff you do now, I realize I can do anything. There's so much power in the mind. I feel like who knows what I can do!" She said the main thing she saw in the notebooks -- whole notebooks of complaints, boring description, and flagrant anger -- was an absolute trust in the process. "I saw that you kept on writing even when you wrote 'I must be nuts to do this.'"
When you see someone do something amazing, it's a mistake to attribute it to mere talent. You just don't see the hard work.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Female exemplars in Taijiquan

More from Turning Silk: A Diary of Chen Taiji Practice, by Kinthissa:
Apart from Chen XiaoWang's* magnificent XinJia** renditions, I have seen only one other person whose XinJia has impressed me. This was a woman, Japanese, one of the six, all teachers, who came to Sydney in 1997. She was of a narrow and light build. Her delicacy had a lithe power, it brought out quite a different quality in XinJia's character. I find wildness suits women. Female practitioners have a paucity of exemplars to be inspired by. Master Chen said that the woman was gold medal material, only her responsibilities in running an organization did not allow her enough training time. When I have asked him if the training for women is different from men's, his reply has been, "No, it is the same." When I enquired after women in his family who had reached a high level in TaijiQuan (as one hears almost exclusively of men), he said that some had excelled in their early years, but then they had married, etcetera.
* Chen XiaoWang is Kinthissa's famous teacher. An impressive video of Chen XiaoWang in action.
** XinJia ("new frame") is a more modern form of Chen style taijiquan, compared to the LaoJia ("old frame"). In her book Kinthissa writes interestingly and in detail about her experiences studying both frames.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The road to wisdom

From Turning Silk: A Diary of Chen Taiji Practice, by Kinthissa:
Practise mindfully, with ease in the heart. Practise because it is doing one good, not because it will make one a master. To become a master, or mistress, of TaijiQuan is a very long aim. Practising without expecting the day to arrive soon will be the most sensible way. Remember the road to wisdom: "Err and err and err again -- but less and less and less."
The quote within the quote is from a grook of Piet Hein:
The road to wisdom? Well, it's plain
And simple to express:
Err
and err
and err again,
but less
and less
and less.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Theme of the month November 2009: Fun and games

It's a busy time of year. Qualification contest, gradings and kata competition are all coming soon. So let's lighten things up with some fun and games.

In the last month I've taken my young son to a few kids' judo classes, and I've been stealing ideas for my regular class. Naturally, adults like a bit of fun too. Here are some of the activities and games that I've either tried, or plan to try soon:
  • Dive rolls over increasing numbers of class mates (arranged like sardines)
  • Rolls using big gym balls
  • How many throws can you do in thirty second seconds (racing back and forward between two ukes)
More generally, this month I'd like to leaven competition and grading preparation by bringing a bit of playfulness and game elements to our training. For example, with qualification judo contest coming up, I'd like to try some mock bouts in which points are awarded to pairs of participants for the most breakfalls, to encourage an attacking (and safe) approach to judo competition.

How about you? What are some fun activities that both kids and grown-ups look forward to in your classes?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hard stuff

Both stylistically, and by temperament I tend towards the softer end of the spectrum in my martial arts. Sure, when I throw my partner hits the mat hard and when I apply a joint lock it hurts, but I aspire to use leverage and whole-body power, rather than the "brute" force of local muscle.

That said, lately I've wondered whether a teensy bit of "hard" practice might do me a bit of good. So I've picked three training drills that have a hard element and have added them to my personal routine: 2-5% hard, leaving 95-98% soft.
  1. Horse stance with tension: Just stand in horse stance and tense every muscle, all at once, increasing the duration over time. Warning: If you try this do not allow pressure to build up in your head, as it can be dangerous.
  2. Low forward stance: The front knee should be in line with the toes; the back leg braced straight. Sound hard? It is.
  3. Circular punching: This should actually be fairly relaxed, but my shoulders and upper arms don't understand this, and tense up, making me want to stop.
Note that the former two exercises are static hard exercises, not dynamic. There's some virtue in exploring what hard feels like, as opposed to adopting it as a normal state of movement.

For dynamic I still want soft. The latter two drills are primarily hard in the sense of difficult, and this leads to hard in the form of unwanted tension. Certainly, the punching should become softer with practice.

What exercises do you find hard, in either or both senses? How do you balance hard and soft in your training?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hand-y hints

In judo and jiu-jitsu we generally:
  • Keep our thumbs and fingers together (not splayed), so that an adversary can't snap 'em off, and for concentrated force
  • Grip more tightly with the weaker fourth and fifth fingers to strengthen them, while keeping the thumb, index and middle finger more relaxed and sensitive; these guidelines apply whether taking a grip of your partner's gi, forming a fist, or a holding a sword
  • Breakfall mainly with the hands (thumb and fingers together!), even though there is greater surface contact with the fleshy part of the forearms.
It's one thing to read tips like this; it's another to make them second nature. Good luck!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Go on: Put me in a lock!

In jiu-jitsu we learn a lot of joint lots, mainly as part of our restraint and control syllabus.

To apply them for real you need to be more skilful than your opponent because people will try to naturally try to escape, typically by either using muscular resistance or trying to twist themselves out. Part of the art is first breaking your partner's balance, so that (s)he loses the ability to effectively resist, as well as adapting to whatever response they (s)he manages to muster.

But what happens if your opponent is simply much, much better than you? Check it out:



Although the attacker is allowed to start to apply locks, at no stage does he control the defender's balance (or center). Quite the reverse!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Seminar Reactions

Two weeks ago the head of our martial arts organization, Kancho Barry Bradshaw, hosted and co-presented a series of three seminars along with two guest instructors: Perth-based karate master Hanshi Tony Jackson, and local karate master and zoo-keeper (more on this later) Shihan Angelo Foresi. Other local karate luminaries also dropped by.

I made it along to the middle seminar, and was gratified that three of my students -- Lejoe, Jeremy, and Damian -- all new to jiu-jitsu this year, but keen! -- also made the trip out to the Honbu dojo for two packed hours.

At the next class at my club, following the lesson, I asked the seminar attendees them to join me at the front of the class and talk a bit about their seminar experience by describing a personal highlight. These included:
  • Damian seeing "fireworks" when Kancho struck a couple of pressure-points on his wrist.
  • Lejoe seeing a technique demonstrated in the middle and wondering whether Kancho's uke was just "falling for him", until Kancho repeated the technique on Lejoe, and all doubt as to its efficacy vanished
  • Learning about breathing, mental aspects, and of course martial arts applications of animal movements from both guest instructors
  • Shihan Angelo's message to work to simplify your martial art as you progress
My own highlights included having Hanshi refer to our Kancho as "young fella", and the opportunity to train with and share knowledge with martial artists from other schools and other arts.

Some of the animals discussed were the crane (pictured), tiger, monkey, snake, deer, gorilla, and even the squid.

I also liked this format: I would happily attend a series of seminars given by any of the presenting masters, but it was also inspiring to see them working together. I was left wanting more.

* * *

It's also worth mentioning that Shihan Angelo blends his day job as a zoo-keeper with his martial arts avocation. Rather than learn about animal styles from other humans he has used his day-job as a zoo-keeper as an opportunity to extensively study from the ultimate source, the animals themselves. In turn his karate has been influenced by what he has learned from his decades of working with and observing the animals, supplemented by additional, more traditional studies leading to his own unique blend.

Now for the plug: Shihan Angelo offers a fairly regular and, I dare-say, unique one-session class open to the general public entitled Animals and the Martial Arts, held at the Melbourne Zoo. Having heard how great the seminar was, many of my students were keen on a visit to the zoo with a difference. I plan to get along at some stage, too.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful

My fellow blogger Kick Ass Sue asks: Should women train differently from men in martial arts? based "on the premise that traditional fighting arts were developed by men for men to fight other men and are thus best suited for the male physique".

I'm not so sure about the premise. Men, who as a broad generalization start out strong and top-heavy, have the option of developing their strengths while they are young, but this is a short-cut to nowhere. As we age, if this strength, speed, and even flexibility are the basis of our ability, the young guys will soon overtake us. The natural strengths of women -- low center of gravity, strong legs and core, superior grace and rhythm -- on the other hand, are a more sound and long-lasting basis out of which to build a martial artist.

On another point, though, in this day and age it is true that there are more senior male martial artists than females, and therefore fewer role models for aspiring female martial artists to look up to. In Sue's post she mentions the legendary founder of Wing Chun, Shaolin nun Ng Mui. But what about living female role models?

The amazing Keiko Fukuda springs to mind. Her grandfather was the first significant Jiu-jitsu teacher of Judo founder Jigoro Kano. In turn Kano taught Judo to Fukuda in the Kodokan's women's division. As a 5th dan, at the 1964 Olympics she demonstrated the advanced Judo two-person kata Ju No Kata, which she also wrote the book on.

At time of writing she still teaches judo 3 times a week at age 96, is the highest ranked female-judoka ever (9th dan). Fukuda's life is the subject of the film, Mrs Judo: Be strong, be gentle, be beautiful.


Here's the blurb:
Her destiny was set two generations before her birth, during the final days of the samurai era. In 1934, at 21 years of age, Keiko Fukuda embarked on a long journey with judo as her vehicle. This path meant giving up marriage, family, and her Japanese citizenship. She has endured war, discrimination, and crossed oceans, to become the highest ranking woman in judo history. She is the last living link to judo’s original history. Today at 96, she still teaches judo three times a week, and through her gentle soul she exudes wisdom and inspiration to all who come in contact with her. “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful,” is an hour‐long documentary film about K it eiko Fukuda’s inspirational journey.
I'm looking forward to seeing it.

[Edited May 2016: Keiko Fukuda was promoted to 10th dan in 2012 and continued to teach Judo until shortly before her death in 2013, aged 99.]

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Some Judo hand-throws and their Jiu-jitsu relatives

Judo techniques are great training for the body (and mind); in jiu-jitsu the techniques are more directly applicable to self-defence. In judo we start from a standard grip, where both partners hold each other's collar and sleeve (symmetry); in jiu-jitsu we often respond to an attack (asymmetry).

There are similarities too: The underlying gross -- meaning broad, not 'yuck' -- body movements are the same. The jiu-jitsu techniques add more pain by way of additional locks, strikes or strangles.

In class this week we looked at and practiced several of the judo hand-throws, immediately followed by one or more of their jiu-jitsu relatives:
  1. Tai otoshi (Body drop, Judo): Throat Attack & Double-strike turning throw (Jiu-jitsu)
  2. Uki otoshi (Floating drop): Lapel choke takedown & Sleeve pivot throw
  3. Kuki nage (Minor floating throw)
  4. Hiji otoshi (Elbow drop): Defence against a straight-arm choke from the front
  5. Mochiage otoshi (Lifting drop)
  6. Sukui nage (Scooping throw)
  7. Sumi otoshi (Corner drop): A follow-on to the Come-along armbar
  8. Obi otoshi (Belt drop)
  9. Kata ashi dori (Single leg drop): Pressure-point take-down to the lower leg
  10. Ryo ashi dori (Double leg drop)
There are, of course, others.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Theme of the month October 2009: Handy hand-throws

Theme of the month returns, with a difference: This October we will focus on a particular area of the syllabus: Hand throws.

In class we will concentrate on the 10 hand-throws in our system, explore some of the principles that they embody, and finding connections to other techniques and especially to self-defence applications.


Hand throw #2: Uki otoshi

Note that while in the Kodokan's gokyo the shoulder and hand throws are considered a single grouping, in the Kawaishi classification the shoulder throws are split off as a separate group, leaving ten hand throws:
  1. Tai otoshi (Body drop): A handy take-down method for self-defence. Adding pain compliance makes it very effective. Note: The version that we do doesn't put the leg across.
  2. Uki otoshi (Floating drop): Almost like a half-sutemi, wherein tori drops to a knee rather than the back or side.
  3. Kuki nage (Minor floating throw): Performed as a combination technique
  4. Hiji otoshi (Elbow drop): Includes an arm-lock
  5. Mochiage otoshi (Lifting drop): A very useful technique for use in groundwork
  6. Sukui nage (Scooping throw)
  7. Sumi otoshi (Corner drop): Another effective self-defence takedown method
  8. Obi otoshi (Belt drop)
  9. Kata ashi dori (Single leg drop)
  10. Ryo ashi dori (Double leg drop): Similar to the double-leg takedown beloved by the BJJ-ers
Most of these throws are challenging to pull off in competition, since most offer limited connection to the partner: Feel and timing become all-important. Switch to self-defence though, add a little pain compliance, and it's a different story.

Practicing the hand throws instills effective body movements which are highly applicable to self-defence.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Slow, like a snake

I took a pleasant phone enquiry yesterday from a chap in his late forties, asking for some advice about martial arts, and about jiu-jitsu in particular.

This fellow is currently practicing karate, but the training is very hard on his knees, and did not seem sustainable. He had done judo as a child, and some aikido in his youth, and had decided to look at alternatives.

Like me, he wants to be able to continue to do martial arts as he gets older, without destroying various body parts. Now he was doing his homework.

I told him that I thought that this is an issue of school and teaching over style, and that I understood that in Okinawa it was quite usual for karate to be practiced into old age, but that I suspected that the kind of practice was different from what was being taught in many Western karate schools.

The conversation ended on good terms, with my main recommendation that he make a trip out to my style's HQ -- much closer than my own class, which was on the other side of town.

Regardless of whether he ends up training with us, I hope this man can find a martial arts school that suits his needs.

* * *

Going hard and fast is not a sustainable strategy as you get older. One of Roy Harris's older students explains:
We were encouraged to wrestle “slowly”. Slowly? That puzzled me. How could you wrestle slowly and be effective? Wasn’t fast and hard always better? I would have gone on believing this except for the fact that both Roy and his senior students were able to demonstrate this principle to me first hand. If you have never experienced being submitted slowly with an arm bar or choke hold, it’s hard to understand what it’s like. It’s the “boa constrictor” approach. The big snake on top of you holds you down patiently; he reads your mind and knows exactly what you are going to do next. Every time you move to get away, the snake tightens his grip a little more, and a little more, until you can no longer move or breathe.

So I too began to practice grappling by moving more slowly, more patiently, more precisely. And I began to find that it worked for me too. Of course, old habits die hard. Every so often when another student would start to get the best of me, the competitive urge would rise up. I’d start thrashing about, trying to make techniques work through sheer speed and power. I’d re-injure my back or some other part of my body, and go home cursing my stupidity. At forty-some years old, I was too old and vulnerable to injuries to try and compete head to head with athletes twenty years younger. So I had to get smarter.

After many years of practicing this new way of wrestling, I’m pleased to find that I can frequently hold my own against opponents who are much younger, faster and stronger than me, even if they are coming at me with everything they’ve got. I get injured less (and injure others less). I’m continuing to learn and can look forward to many more years of enjoyment in the sport. -- Tom Moon

I would post a photo of a boa constrictor, but I really hate snakes!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Go slow vs The need for speed

Train slow, or train fast?

I say slow. Speed can and will hide a multitude of technical defects, while practicing slowly means everything is on show.

Here's an excellent explanation from Ryron and Rener Gracie's site:
When practicing, always execute the techniques so slowly that it is impossible to make a mistake. The slow pace and predictability of proper training will provide your partner with many opportunities to counter the technique. Again, your training partner’s role is to consistently simulate the most common behavior so that you can perfect the techniques – not to fight with you. Eventually, your diligent and exacting practice will produce precise, efficient, and quick reflexes that will leave your attacker with no opportunity to counter your techniques. In a real fight, you will also have the advantage of surprise since your attacker will have no advanced knowledge of how you react to his actions.
As you gain experience the pace at which you can be correct, precise and efficient will gradually increase. This speed-up should happen naturally. By the time gradings come around it's not unusual for the panel of black-belts to have to ask candidates to slow down so that can observe their technique -- they may have started slow, but by grading time they are a blur.

By practicing slowly and cooperatively, we can practice dangerous techniques safely, develop sensitivity, fluidity and precision, and not kid ourselves in the process.

That said, I do train for speed as well. When practicing hung kuen kung fu sets, besides practicing at normal speed and really slowly -- think taijiquan (tai chi chuan) speeds -- I also do some sets as fast as I can. Similarly for punching drills. But these are individual drills (safety first). In jiu-jitsu and judo, when I'm thrown I get back up and re-engage as quickly as I can.

Another oft-cited reason to train fast is for the workout, but slow methods can be equally (or more) demanding. For example: Try doing a set or drill very slowly using only low-to-the-ground stances.

What's your approach to slow vs fast (and justification)?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Theme of the month is making a comeback

Theme of the month is on its way back from next month, by popular demand. After class last week Lisa, John, and Ash said that they missed it, as had Damian on a previous occasion.

The original idea, inspired by Patrick Parker's Principle of the Month, was to use an over-arching theme each month to provide a particular focus in class, exploring how the theme applies to our regular training fare, and bringing in some supplementary material. [In practical terms it helped shape my lesson plans, and gave me oodles of fuel for this blog.]

After a furious start I let it drop in July, as the class knuckled down to preparation for gradings, a period of consolidation. Also, my themes were starting to get a bit more "advanced", and with a new influx of beginners I needed to get back to basics, but I wasn't ready to repeat my basic themes just yet -- I figured I'd wait until 2010 before starting re-runs!

Anyway, when I asked the delegation what they were interested in theme-wise, the suggestions were fairly technique-area focussed: Hand-throws, sacrifice throws etc. And that may be a good way to go this time around: Do some extra training around a particular area of our syllabus, explore connections to other techniques, uses in self-defence, etc.

Other requests and suggestions welcome. Here's my original list of ideas.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What on earth is that technique?

I'll start with an easy one:
What on earth is the technique you’re trying to do in that picture? If it’s ude-giri your hand is too high up his arm (pressing down on his shoulder or the upper part of his arm isn’t going to do much), for waki-gatame you’re standing too upright and it can’t be just kote-mawashi since it’s impossible to put enough pressure on the wrist in that position. Besides that kiba-dachi, while traditional, is not a great stance for that position since he can just plant his knee into yours and you’ll collapse, losing the hold. -- Zara
This is reference to a now retired side-bar image, actually taken from a past post and reproduced below:
In Jiu-Jitsu formal stances are typically used transitionally, and are learned in the context of actual application. For example, in this photo I am applying a reverse-armbar -- a restraint and control technique -- from a horse-riding stance:


A reverse armbar

From here I could take Adam down to the ground or move into a more mobile lock to better escort him to the local police station. Either way I would not need to stay in this position for very long.
Of the techniques listed, I'd say it's closest to waki-gatame:


Standing waki-gatame

Think of it as a variation.

The neat thing about the reverse-armbar is that there are lots of ways to make it work. You can lock the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. If you have difficulty with one joint -- typically resistance or flexibility -- you can switch emphasis to another.

In this case Adam has a fairly flexible elbow -- note the hyper-extension -- so I'm using the wrist and using my ulna bone to painfully slice into his upper arm (an alternative to torquing the shoulder - probably more jiu-jitsu than judo!).

As to the risk of his planting his knee: I don't think so! Sure it's a posed shot, but given that I've got the lock and his balance, as he moves I either inflict more pain, stopping the movement, or flow with it into something else.

Dealing with conflict

Wow! My initial reply and last post seem to have rubbed my semi-anonymous commenter, Zara, up the wrong way. See his extensive comments following my initial response and follow-up post to this older article. A sample:
Granted, blogs aren’t the best source of information in the first place (usually the content is rather mundane, one-sided and superficial) but to be told to buzz off and ‘do your homework’ is a first. So much for common courtesy and cooperation in spreading martial-knowledge. A simple refusal would have been enough, I don’t need your condescending attitude, nor your useless advice. -- Zara
While somewhat miffed, I'm a bit surprised that I haven't run into this kind of conflict as a blogger previously. I am somewhat averse to public forums because I've got sucked into flamewars in the dim and distant past, where relative anonymity, plus lack of verbal and visual cues often leads to a downward spiral into insults and baiting.

In this case, however, I clearly lit the match, albeit inadvertently.

Let me explain my side:

Zara's initial post asking for some advice on a specific problem was sincere, and definitely not trolling, but I was hesitant to give a detailed reply because I am reluctant to even try to teach techniques over the internet. I don't know anything about Zara besides what he has written in his initial comment, and -- unfortunately -- because there was no way to contact him directly I either had to respond publicly or ignore him.

So I posted a somewhat curt reply and a low-level follow-up post with the kind of general advice that I normally give on this blog: Ideas that will help people with a clue already, but not specific instruction.

I hoped that he might get a bit out of it, and respond with a more specific enquiry, providing details of what he had tried and where he was getting stuck, etc. I probably should have given less advice and invited him to email then and there, but there you go.

Then I went off to attend to my daily chores, and that evening played around in my jiu-jitsu class a bit with one of the scenarios that Zara described, using it as a theme for part of the class, and tested out what to do in a tricky situation. I'll write more on that in a later post.

Late that night I read Zara's responses and thought: Whoops! You can read my comments at the end inviting him to email me, and pointing him to one more post.

Conclusion: From my perspective, I was pleased to get the interest, but cautious about how I responded. With hindsight, I should have taken more time responding, and asked Zara to be patient, and started off with an offer to take the conversation to email straight-away.

So, on reflection, I want to thank Zara for:
  • Asking good questions, which will stimulate some more blog posts (once I figure out how to respond more usefully, without breaching my self-imposed boundaries)
  • Prompting me to reflect once again on the nature of conflict, and to work on my tone and clarity when responding to comments from the privileged position of blog-proprietor
My offer stands to get in touch with me by email: tenchi.ryu.jiujitsu@gmail.com.

By the way, a brilliant book about applying martial arts concepts to conflict resolution is Terry Dobson's Aikido in Everyday Life: Giving in to get your way. Clearly I still have a lot to learn.


[Edited following Zara's reply to refer to Zara as a he, not a she.]

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Arresting techniques

Zara left a detailed comment on one of my articles from 2008 -- Some notes on come-along techniques -- raising some interesting points.
Very interesting article, come-alongs or taiho-waza (arresting-techniques) are fascinating to study but often an area that is poorly understood and consequently just glanced over. Probably because it's inherently dangerous to attempt to control a standing, struggling opponent (always risky in terms of escape and counterattack) and very technical in nature. -- Zara
Thank-you. Like most sophisticated areas in martial arts these techniques need expert instruction and significant, regular practice to achieve competence; and more instruction and practice to make 'em really good.
If techniques and body-mechanics aren't perfectly understood and executed the adequate pain-level will not always be maintained: either you'll injure him or he'll just slip out and since most people don't take kindly to such treatment you'll be in for one hell of a fight.
There's certainly a need for sensitivity in training these techniques and that comes with cooperative practice over a long period. You need to be able to feel that the lock is on, and practicing very slowly is both safe for training and a good way to acquire the necessary sensitivity.

I once trained with some Olympic judoka who were all very strong and had effective if muscular throws, but their locks were not good at all. They were used to competitive practice, and seemed afraid of having their arms snapped; not trust, and probably with good reason! Consequently they had no feel for locking.

Uke's balance must also be broken. Along with pain compliance this reduces the strength that can be brought into play to resist the technique. For example, I have some very flexible students who I just can't make certain locks work on, but in attempting to apply the techniqueI invariably break their balance to a huge extent. In a self-defence situation you need to be able to feel that a lock isn't working and aim to make a clean transition into a different lock or throw. This ability requires lots of practice to acquire!

The issue of making these locks work in a self-defence situation is interesting. In the system I do we teach model entries, plus effective transitions out of escapes from standard attacks (usually grabs, chokes, or other holds) into locks and throws. These also need to be practiced until they become second nature.
I'm training for my first dan in ju-jutsu, part of the requirements are two come-alongs while uke is standing, two when he's lying flat on his belly and two on his back (forcing him to stand up). I do think I have some notion of which techniques would be suitable for these tasks but I would appreciate it if you would write a follow-up post to this one delving a bit deeper and going over some appropriate techniques (preferably with photo's).
Interesting requirements. Rather than do your homework for you ;-), I suggest that you take the locks you have in mind and carefully experiment with them with a fellow senior student. Managing the movement from floor to standing while safely maintaining control is the name of the game. Telling your uke what to do is also helpful, "Roll onto your side! Get-up!", but you must allow them, even help them to do so.

Please let us know how you get on with your explorations, and what you learn. Your own instructor(s) should be your first and best source for detailed, hands-on guidance.

Good luck!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The dojo, its purpose and meaning

I came across this wonderful evocation of the nature of the dojo -- our place of training -- in aikidoka Richard Strozzi-Heckler's book Holding the Center - Sanctuary in a Time of Confusion:
A dojo is a space of commitment in which people practice together. What is powerful about the dojo is what it tells us of learning, and ultimately, of waking up, of being alive.
In Japanese, "dojo" refers to the place where we train "in the way". This points to two important distinctions. The first is that the dojo is a place of learning where one practices what is being taught. This is different from the conventional classroom where students sit passively taking notes or listening to a lecture. This is not to say authentic enquiry is unavailable in lecture halls, but it points to the difference between academic knowledge and an embodied knowledge that allows people to take actions that sustain and enhance their lives. In a place of learning like the dojo students practice what is being taught and over time begin to embody the subject matter. It lives in the body, it is who they are.
The second distinction revolves around the concept of "Do", which translates as "Way". The origin of the word "dojo" comes from the Sanskrit bodhimanda, which means the place of awakening. The Japanese kanji for Do is composed of two parts. One depicts a man walking on a road. The other is the human throat, which surrounds the jugular vein, representing the very core and pulse of our life. A man walking toward life. The Way is a theme of life. The dojo is a place where we awaken our body, grow the self, and unite with the spirit through rigorous and compassionate life-enquiry.
Walking back towards the dojo I can see students bowing at the entrance of the dojo as they arrive for the evening's training. Bowing is a ritual in aikido, as it is in many martial arts. At the beginning of the class we bow in respect, and at the end of the class we bow in respect. It's also a way of acknowledging the place where we learn. I have a Buddhist friend who bows to any place where he feels learning and training have taken place. This has included hotel rooms, a grove of trees, delicatessens, park benches, a friend's living room, even a jail cell where he was once detained for an illegal protest.
My teacher once tapped me on the chest and said "Jiri shin kore dojo". Mind as it is, is the place of training. He was reminding me that the dojo ultimately lives inside us, in our hearts, speech, thoughts, and actions. The dojo exists because of the meaning we give it. This meaning can never be lost from its place in the world because it is that place. The dojo is where we declare it to be. Each moment can be a place of awakening, of learning, of walking toward life.
Whew! That bears reading and re-reading.

A dojo is a place where we train

Not only can we develop ourselves and our relationships with others, but we can also develop our relationship with a space. No matter what difficulties I am facing in the outside world I invariably feel better when I arrive -- or even in anticipation of arriving -- at a dojo that I know.

This same spirit that we invest in our dojos, we should labour to bring to our homes, our work-places, and our schools.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What is the ideal gender balance for a martial arts class?

Ideally, I would like a fifty-fifty male/female split in my class.

Most adult martial arts classes are male-dominated, kind of the mirror image of yoga, dance and aerobics classes. I think that this reflects cultural norms and pre-conceptions, rather than anything fundamental.

Oral tradition has it that the techniques of our school of jiu-jitsu were formalized by a group of Chinese buddhist nuns living in Japan in the 16th century, a group that no doubt would have needed effective self-defence! Consequently, our art is well-suited to women, although men can learn it too.

Melanie demonstrating the Nurse's Grip Gooseneck

Generally speaking, having girls and women in the class benefits the blokes. They bring grace, rhythm and a lower center of gravity. Usually not as strong, and often smaller, women and girls need to work hard on their technique from the outset. Their presence also helps diffuse the macho vibe that you tend to get in all male groups.

Conversely, girls and women benefit from having males in the class. If they are ever attacked, chances are that it will be by a male, and they need to feel and practice with the generally stronger and larger sex to achieve self-defence proficiency, and confidence in their own abilities.

A further argument for a mixed class is the same one for co-education in general: That we live in a mixed-sex society and that spending time together is good for our social development.

* * *

My own class has tended to follow the usual pattern of more males than females, although my senior student is female, and acts as a role model for other women who join the class. Lately we have had an influx of women, so hopefully we can keep 'em.

When I was working my way up through the student ranks I was part of a core group of 2 gals and 2 guys (Melanie, pictured above, was one of the gals) who trained together for about 5 years, and I found the mix beneficial.

What's the gender-balance like at your school? What would you like it to be? What are the factors that influence the balance?

A sneak technique

For now, my favorite "sneak technique" is the eighth leg-lock: ashi kannuki. In a slightly inferior position, on the bottom of what the BJJ-ers call the half-guard, ashi kannuki allows you to quickly whack a painful leg-lock on your opponent by forming a figure-four using only your legs. It's sneaky because it occurs out of sight, a kind of attack from behind. If your opponent is unfamiliar with ashi kannuki, the chances of success are further increased: (s)he probably won't be able to make sense of what's going on back there -- until it's too late.

Comparing my own execution against the official description (online here, just scroll down the page) from "My Method of Judo", I prefer a variation with my legs reversed -- but it still works nicely.

After introducing this technique to my class last week, along with a couple of other of the safer leg-locks, it was gratifying to see credible attempts being made during the end-of-class randori.

Do you have a favorite "sneak technique"?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

You can stop at any time

I got a bit fired up today reading Michele's blog post: Should they have been allowed to quit karate? about whether a pair of sisters who had been signed up for a year's worth of karate classes by their dad, and were miserable, but were forced to persist. You can read my reply in the comments, along with several other perspectives, but the issue got me thinking about my own attitude to people starting and stopping training at my own club ...


At the Monash University Jiu-jitsu Club, you can start at any time. There are no beginners classes, or special intake periods. Just give me a call, drop me an e-mail, or turn up and have a chat and check out the class. If you like what you see, and I think you're ok you can come on the mat and do a try-out class or two before committing to membership.

If you are primarily interested in any or all of self-defence, personal development, improving your all-round fitness, sophisticated technique, and like one-on-one training the chances are good that you will really like our class.

On the other hand, if you are mainly looking for something more competition-oriented, bloodthirsty or spectacular, you will probably be happier elsewhere. That's not to say that we don't have competition, and can't dish out damage, or that our style is devoid of impressive moves; they just aren't our main priorities. Instead I encourage you to look elsewhere -- there are lots of schools around, and if you look around you should be able to find a better match for your needs.

In the same way that you can start at any time, you can stop too. There are no lock-in contracts. Most students pay for a block of lessons in advance to get a small discount, but that's not the point. I want people training week-in week-out because they want to learn and develop, not to "get their money's worth". In this respect I am helped by the fact that my club is a labor-of-love rather than a business, and that my students are all (at this time) adults. The rent charged by the university is also modest, so there is little financial pressure to grow numbers, and in turn we keep prices affordable (especially for students of the university) and also use club funds to subsidize membership, insurance and equipment.

You can start at any time, and -- if needs dictate -- stop. Many students have to leave to return to their homes overseas when they complete their university studies, or travel for work, and I'm always a little sad to see them go. On the other hand, it's really good when, after a hiatus of months or years, they return and pick-up where they left off.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kuzushi with an invisible partner

Before you can hope to successfully throw someone, you need to disrupt their balance and/or alignment. To help develop this skill we practice the "eight movements of kuzushi". This exercise is normally practiced with a partner in the dojo. But once you know the choreography, you can practice it by yourself, at home, as a solo kata. Here I am in my back garden:

Going further: Although judo and jiu-jitsu favor partner work as the preferred mode of practice, it's not difficult to take a throw or technique and practice it alone. In fact, I recommend it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

If you could choose just one technique...

If you could choose just one technique to build an unarmed combat course around, what would it be? During WWII Moshe Feldenkrais selected Hadaka Jime, one of the rear chokes, for a 10-part course aimed at regular serving British soldiers.


Re-issued in 2009, with a new forward and afterword by Moti Nativ, Feldenkrais's little book includes additional photos, including an appendix with a sequence showing Feldenkrais's teacher Kawaishi applying the eponymous technique to Feldenkrais in a dojo setting.

Very clearly written and illustrated, this book will be of particular interest to students of the Feldenkrais method, especially those with a martial arts background, and to judoka and jiu-jitsuka with an interest in Kawaishi's methods of Judo and self-defence.

But please don't practice the content at home, or anywhere for that matter, without qualified supervision!

Leaving the original text unedited, Nativ has bolded the parts with particular relevance to Feldenkrais's approach to learning and education. Here is some footage of Nativ demonstrating one of the applications taught in the book:


Fans of mixed martial arts will note that the basic Hadaka Jime technique is similar to the rear strangles often used to achieve a submission in such contests. Interestingly, hadaka jime was not included by Kawaishi in his encyclopedic "My Method of Judo", where he preferred other (less larynx-crushing) methods for applying a strangle from the rear. [Tangent: There seems to be two main schools of thought as to whether hadaka jime aims to cut off the air or blood supply, chronicled here.]

Nativ has promised to re-issue another early Feldenkrais martial arts work, his 1931 Jiu-jitsu book, and then his own magnum opus on the synergy between the Feldenkrais method and the martial arts. I am looking forward to reading and reviewing these works!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Kate's Martial Arts Journey

This blog entry is a guest entry by Kate Mulcahy, with her kind permission. It originally appeared in the Australian Jiu-jitsu, Judo and Chinese Boxing Federation of Instructors' newsletter: Kunoichi.

I thought that Kate's story would resonate with a wider audience. Enjoy!

My parents encouraged their children to always do at least one sport during school. As I either did not enjoy or was uncoordinated at most sports I tried, I stuck with swimming for several years. Finally, after some interest which stemmed mostly from television clich├ęs, I began Karate at the age of thirteen years and nine months at a dojo in Hobart at a school recommended to me by my uncle.

There were people of all ages, but I was acutely aware that I was the lowest grade by far for someone my age or older. The only other white belt, in fact, was six years old. I passed the first grading, but was still absurdly ashamed of my level. Not being remotely competitive by nature, something like this should have been a put off. Here I was, spending hours at a time making awkward, jerky and unbalanced movements for reasons I was aware I didn’t really grasp, and generally feeling abnormal and uncoordinated. And yet I loved every minute of it. I wanted to do it for no other reason than to do it. The concept of improvement was lurking in the back of my mind somewhere, but I found that each time I did a technique it was enough to just concentrate on trying to get the movement right. Indeed, it was more than enough. It felt fantastic. I had never felt this passionate about something before, and indeed only once since.

During class, Sempai would often move to one of the students to correct a block or strike. I dreaded that it would be me she would have to correct. I hated standing out in class – I was happy to just repeat the same techniques over and over, trying my hardest to copy what I saw others do. More often than not, it was me that needed correcting. I clearly remember the first class where Sempai didn’t have to explain something to me even once – I was near the back, next to an insurmountable green belt. I also remember the first time I was asked to help instruct a new member of the class. And the first time I was the highest grade at a class. Even the first time I taught a class. All the while, I found it increasingly difficult to explain certain things: the way one moves their hips, the way one tenses the core muscles, the way one uses qi during a technique. None of these had been taught, although they had all been mentioned at points (and so I could be certain others experienced the same things), and yet they all seemed to develop naturally after training properly for long enough. Eventually it became apparent that there are many things, indeed a great portion of the martial art, which cannot be easily verbalised, despite seeming to be natural developments.

Hayashi-ha Shitoryu-kai Karate-do, my first martial art, originates in Japan (specifically, Okinawa). Unlike a sport, it comes with a deep mentality. After going to Japan myself, I began to see that many of the strange unnamed concepts that were cropping up in karate were much easier to explain in Japanese, and indeed had links to the Buddhist philosophy from the area. These strange ideas had already been heavily studied and developed by many others. Although I hadn’t realised it, finding out about this had taken a load off my shoulders. I had desperately wanted to find out more about these things, but had felt that it was impossible. I could train all I liked, but there are many things that one cannot learn alone.

In 2005, I moved to Melbourne to pursue a Science degree. This meant being away from my home dojo for most of the year, so I began to look for another place to train. Although I knew my first dojo was superb, it wasn’t until I saw others up close that I was able to fully appreciate the impact the teacher and his attitudes has on the students. At this stage I was able to learn by training by myself, but not at a high level. One and a half years of searching proved fruitless. I could not find a dojo where I could learn martial art rather than sport.

In 2006, the annual AMAHOF Awards Ceremony was held in Hobart, and so of course I attended with my dojo. The event itself was spectacular, but I did meet someone very important there. A man who I could tell from how others treated him was very respected (which is quite a feat at an AMAHOF event) was speaking with my Sensei and happened to find out that I was living in Melbourne. He explained that he taught Judo, to which (he asserted) the female body is ideally suited. After a brief five minute talk, he gave me a business card and said I was welcome to train at his dojo.

In my for a good school in Melbourne, I had previously only considered Karate dojos. Not once had I considered another martial art, but I liked the way this man had explained things – he clearly didn’t just teach the movements, and he clearly understood martial arts much more than I did. Upon my return to Melbourne, I looked up a train timetable and visited the website on the business card (which I still have) and set off to see how things looked.

I arrived half an hour before class was due to begin so that there would be time to talk. Unsure of which title to use, I resorted to “Sensei” until told otherwise (‘you can call me “Kancho”’), and explained why I was there, with the expectation that he wouldn’t remember me. The rest was completely unexpected. It was not just a good dojo; it was more than I could have imagined. I began learning Judo hoping that it would fill the gaps in my understanding of Karate. Having at the time learned only Karate, I was unaware of what these gaps were, but was sure that they existed. After all, nothing is complete by itself.

Since then, I have found that Judo has not simply helped my karate. It is a whole other world, but connected very intimately. As I am beginning to learn Judo, I am remembering things about when I was beginning to learn Karate and understanding things I could not have before.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Do try this at home!

Among yoga practitioners there is the notion of a home practice. You might get to class once or twice a week, but ideally you practice at home every day, or -- more realistically -- on most days.

If you practice a martial art with solo katas (also known as sets, forms or patterns) -- such as karate or kung fu -- you can always practice those by yourself, but what about styles that rely primarily on partner practice: jiu-jitsu, judo, aikido etc.? Here are some ways you can practice at home:
  1. Most styles have some solo elements: For example, in my jiu-jitsu classes most of the breakfalling exercises are performed individually (although as a group). Many of these require mats -- another obstacle to home practice -- but many do not. Try those ones at home. Benefits: These sorts of drills develop coordination and physical conditioning appropriate to the art.
  2. Partner techniques can be practiced within an imaginary partner: You've practiced a technique class. Practice at home, but imagine your partner. In karate or kung fu the challenge is often to figure out the application of a solo form. In partner-based styles we can go the other way. You can practice against different-sized phantom opponents, invent combinations, etc. For my students I highly recommend practicing the eight movements of kuzushi in this way (video). Benefits: Improved fluency, strengthens the imagination, etc.
  3. Partner techniques can be visualized without moving: This one borders on some forms of meditation, and can be practiced while standing, sitting in seiza, on the train, as a cure for insomnia. Visualize an entire technique, imagining the movements in as much detail as you can. Feldenkrais had a nice idea in his Awareness through Movement technique that we can steal: Practice an asymmetric technique several times in its right-handed version with an imaginary partner. Then do a few reps visualizing the left-handed version without moving. Benefits: Even stronger mental training. Improves your adaptability. Learn to transfer skills drilled on one side to the other with minimal physical practice.
  4. Find the fundamental movements: Applications in the martial arts can be quite elaborate, but there are movements that come up over and over. By practicing with your imaginary partner these should become more and more apparent. Isolate them and practice them, visualizing the various applications. This kind of practice can start to look a bit like qigong. Benefits: Most of the above, plus gain deeper insight into your martial art.
Not quite what I mean, but impossible to resist:

Colin "Bomber" Harris wrestles himself

And furthermore ...
Making a go of this kind of home practice is a great step towards incorporating martial arts into the rest of your life. Doing a short session before work (or whatever) is a great way to start the day, and I personally try to run through (in my case) a hung kuen kung fu set a couple of times during my lunch break and again in the evening.

I'm not advocating hours and hours of daily solo practice, but rather 30 minutes to an hour, perhaps spread through the day. Not only is this a very physically healthy thing to do, it has meditative benefits, and will help you progress in your chosen martial art. It increases your "flying hours" and, if you properly engage your mind, questions should arise that can be answered the next time you go to class, through further practice (with a real partner).