Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New Course on Super-Efficient Learning

During January 2007 I will be teaching a new course:

Super-Efficient Learning and Application

A four-session course introducing the concept of Super-Efficent Learning, with applications to martial arts practice.

Instructor: Sensei Dan Prager

When: Mondays 8, 15, 22, 29 January 2007, 8 pm
Where: Australian Federation of Instructors Honbu

Order of Presentation

Session One:
Break-falls and Beyond
Session Two: Don't Chance Your Stance
Session Three: Bring Your Throws to Life
Session Four: Portable Principles

This course will be of particular interest to students who are competent in their basic techniques, and are looking for tools to help progress from martial skills to Martial Art.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Super-Efficient Learning: Part II

As discussed in Part I super-efficient learning is all about training in exercises that have multiple benefits, i.e. killing two -- or more -- birds with one stone.

The foundational exercises of many traditional martial arts are -- as I will demonstrate -- super-efficient, even if they have not been described in that way previously. (The term "super-efficient" is my own invention, so remember: you read it first here.)

Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, selected his techniques from various Jiu-Jitsu schools that lived up to his dictum of "minimum effort, maximum effect". That's about efficiency at the level of the individual technique, so super-efficient learning can be thought of as extending the same principle into the realm of learning strategy. To summarise: "Learn the most efficient techniques, using the most efficient methods."

In this article I will describe the core break-falling exercises of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, and discuss some of the many benefits of these outstanding exercises.

Throwing and Break-Falling in Judo and Jiu-Jitsu
Here is a very quick 30 second video showing several Judo throws.
In any martial art training that features regular training of throwing techniques, the participants will need to be able to fall confidently, reliably and -- above all -- safely. Safe throwing and falling is best achieved:
  1. Under the supervision and tutelage of an experienced instructor
  2. In a controlled environment where participants do not perform unpredictably, or beyond their level of competence
  3. Using appropriate equipment, such as a padded mat, which enables repetitive and comfortable practice.
In the method of teaching that I follow, which goes back to Minosuke Kawaishi, we skip conventional calisthenic warm-ups such as push-ups and sit-ups, in favour of a superior super-efficient option: Break-falling.
In our system, almost every class warms up with the standard break-falling exercises, and cools down with a fairly standard sequence of rolls. In this way, both warm ups and cool downs provide an opportunity to practice falling (and more falling), so that over time everyone's falling techniques become second-nature.
The Break-falling Exercises
The core set of break-falling exercises consists of two sets of 3 exercises performed on the back, plus 3 distinct exercises performed from a squatting position, repeated from a standing position.
The 1st exercise commences lying on your back with knees bent; head raised off the mat; hands crossed at the wrists above your chest. You slap the mat with your palms and forearms striking the mat (hard!), and then return the starting position. This is usually repeated about 40 times, with -- ideally -- the entire class synchronised. The two variations add alternating left- and right- kicks, and double kicks.

The second set of exercises consists of asymmetric variations on the first set, in which one hand slaps the mat while the other hand protects the face.

In the subsequent variations leg, hip, and body-movements are coordinated with the slaps. Here is the first variation:

The following exercises further develop falling to the ground and getting up safely, with and without break-falls, starting from squatting (example below) and standing (not shown).

As usual for this blog, the preceding descriptions and photos are intended to convey the flavour of this system of instruction, but not the detail. Please do not try to learn break-falling without qualified hands-on instruction.

Benefits of Break-Falling
Now, to qualify as super-efficient, the benefits of these exercises must be multiple. What are they? Without further ado, here is my off-the-top-of-my-head list, broken down into a few categories.

Preparation for the rest of the class
  • Warming up the entire body
  • Gentle stretching
  • Starting to follow the instructor and participate as part of the training group
Foundational Skills of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu
  • Learning techniques of safe falling
  • Learning how to get up smoothly from the ground
  • Developing the conditioning to be able to survive the impact of striking techniques, and falls on hard terrain
  • Learning to protect the face in combat
  • Basic distancing
  • Basic kicking and punching
More Advanced Aspects of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu
  • Practicing important movements for ground-fighting
  • Preparation for “sacrifice throws”
  • Developing whole-body movement
  • Developing “soft” strength
General Physical Benefits
  • Strengthening the whole body; especially the neck, triceps, abdominal “core” and legs
  • Improving overall coordination
  • Improving posture and balance
  • Improving body awareness and sensitivity
  • Improving bi-lateral symmetry of musculature and movement
General Health Benefits
  • Learning to blend effort with relaxation
  • Practicing basic meditation
  • Practicing the coordination of breathing with effort
  • Improving auditory awareness and rhythm
  • Developing the ability to rapidly recover from sustained and significant effort
Note: I am happy to clarify the individual points in response to posted comments.

The Challenge: Exploring Super-Efficient Learning

  1. For martial artists who practice break-falling: "What's your perspective? Does the list help? Can you find other benefits?"
  2. For non-break-falling martial artists: "Can you find the super-efficient exercises in your martial art?"
  3. For everyone: "Can you find a good example of super-efficiency outside of the martial arts?"
Further instalments
In Super-Efficient Learning: Part III, I intend -- plan is too strong a word -- to look into super-efficiency in the Chinese Martial Arts, Yoga, and possibly Software Development!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Super-Efficient Learning: Part I

Efficiency, in general terms is usually taken to mean using the minimum of effort to achieve the desired effect. In quantitative terms: 100% efficient means without any waste.

So what is efficient learning? Is it picking up a new concept without wasting any time making mistakes? Perhaps, but there’s truth in the old saying that you learn more from your mistakes. How can that be reconciled with the notion of efficiency?

To better define efficiency in learning let’s take a step back and consider what the desired effect is in learning. Presumably it is to acquire or refine a skill, attribute, ability, or understanding.

To oversimplify: In conventional teaching I might set out to teach a new skill – say teaching young children to tie their shoelaces – and ¾ of my class might “get it”, giving my teaching of that skill an efficiency of 75%. No matter how brilliant my teaching is, the best that I can aspire to is 100% efficiency, and mostly I’ll fall a bit short.

Super-Efficency Defined
But what if instead of teaching an exercise with one benefit, I was able to find a set with multiple definable benefits? In simple numerical terms we could say that the efficiency can now exceed 100%. This type of teaching and learning could be justifiably termed super-efficient. The more benefits that are encoded in the exercise the better!

Do super-efficient exercises exist? You bet. The foundational training of several martial arts consist of super-efficient exercises, and I suspect that they may be found in other disciplines too.

In this day and age I believe we need to recognise super-efficient exercises as a time-effective way to develop and maintain high levels of health and skill. The more benefits an exercise has, the greater its:

  • repeat value
  • suitability for use with a non-homogenous training group
  • potential for training with different emphases
Super-Efficient Learning is not the same as ...
Perfect performance: Super-efficient exercises have many aspects to master, so they are more about learning and developing lots of things over time, rather than perfect execution and the absence of mistakes along way.

: Juggling while riding a unicycle and singing opera is impressive, but it is about doing lots of things at once, rather than using one thing to develop many capabilities.

Moving with awareness can transform any exercise -- from running to cleaning the dishes -- into a form of meditation. While undoubtedly a valuable mind-body practice, but moving with awareness is about making the most of any exercise, while super-efficiency involves making a particularly smart choice of exercise. The two practices are complementary.

Super-efficient learning is all about using learning exercises that develop many purposes at once. They are highly beneficial, flexible, and time-efficient.

In Super-Efficient Exercise: Part II I show how the break-falling exercises of Judo & Jiu-Jitsu constitute a wonderful (and super-efficient) set of exercises.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Jiu-Jitsu in Pictures: Your Questions Answered

Q: What is it?
A: It's an arresting technique from Jiu-Jitsu, a Japanese martial art.

Q: Who's performing the technique?
A: That's me, Sensei Dan, in the black belt, applying the technique. David, one of my students, is receiving the technique.

Q: Does it have a name?
A: It's called the Nurse's Grip Gooseneck. The Gooseneck refers to the bend in David's wrist. The Nurse's Grip refers to the means of entering the technique (not shown).

Q: Does it hurt?
A: Yes. In the picture I have stretched the wrist to the threshold of pain. If I were to continue further I would begin to damage the soft tissues, and eventually dislocate the joint.

Q [Nervously]: Is it safe?
A: Yes, under the supervision of a qualified instructor.

Q: But how do you practice it safely?
A: The technique is applied slowly (and smoothly), and when the receiver starts to feels the stretch he (or she) taps twice to indicate submission, and the applier releases the grip.

Q: If I were to use this technique in self-defence, would I have to cause serious damage for it to be effective?
A: Not necessarily. Self-defence is situation dependant. Once you are skilful enough you will be able to feel your attacker's body start to crumple from the pain and -- for example -- choose to escort him to a police station. Techniques such as this have built-in flexibility, allowing the practitioner discretion in level of escalation.

Q: Will it work in a fight?
A: Maybe. First, you need to know the technique inside-out. Second, an appropriate situation needs to arise in combat, and needs to be recognised and seized. Third, your assailant must fail to counter it. Fourth, if your assailant succeeds in countering, you need to flow into another technique.

Q: That sounds complicated.
A: Well, you build up to it over time. It's why a high standard of instruction and regular training are needed to learn sophisticated martial arts. You start by learning isolated techniques, in a standard format, and later practice them against specific attacks. Free-form practice comes later still.

Q: Are there many techniques like this?
A: In our syllabus there are around 80 standard restraint and control techniques, not counting variations. The Nurse's Grip Gooseneck is the second taught in the standard sequence.

Q: Can I see more?
A: Sure. Here's another arresting technique, the Come-along armbar.

Q: So you allow your students to apply these techniques to you?
A: Yes.

Q: Why?
A: It allows me to feel for imperfections in their technique, and for them to feel how to receive a technique. Mainly I teach in a small group setting and students practice in pairs.

Q: Sounds great, but how do I find out more?
A: Check out the links down the side of this web-page and read some of the other posts. If you have a specific question, please leave a comment, and I'll get back to you.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

What is Classical Judo?

As part of my Jiu-Jitsu I study Classical Judo, which emphasises self-defense and personal and social development. In the framework of Classical Judo competition plays a subsidiary role: It is useful to help develop fighting spirit and simulate the stress of a violent encounter, but winning in competition is not an end in itself.

If you find it difficult to see how judo could work as self-defence, here's an entertaining 2 minute clip from the 1945 movie Blood in the Sun with actor (and Judo black-belt) James Cagney:

The core techniques of Classical Judo include:
  1. The art of falling: Breakfalls and rolls
  2. Methods of disturbing the opponent's balance
  3. Throwing techniques
    • 15 leg throws
    • 15 hip throws
    • 6 shoulder throws
    • 10 hand throws
    • 15 "sacrifice" throws
  4. Ground-fighting techniques
That's 61 throwing techniques alone, without considering variations. Also, the idea is to combine these techniques into combinations and counter-attacks, leading to unlimited possibilities.  This page lists the names of all the individual techniques.

Many of these techniques are clearly unsuitable for sport competition -- neck dislocations, anyone? -- and have accordingly been dropped from Olympic Judo because they do not serve its aims. But for effective self-defense, and as part of a rich cultural inheritance, they retain their place within Classical Judo.

One of the characteristics of Judo is taking a grip of your partner's jacket, but as they say in the Chinese martial arts, "Masters refrain from people that simply grab a hold of you like they are falling off a 100 story high rise, and won't let go". The taking of a grip is a convenience of practice, and a convention in Judo competition, but with appropriate training and sufficient experience, it becomes feasible to flow between striking and grappling, and to throw an opponent without necessarily grabbing.

With a foundation in Classical Judo, it is not so hard to supplement this basis with additional techniques of Jiu-Jitsu, including striking (including vital points), restraint & control (arresting techniques, typically joint-locks), and tactics for common self-defense scenarios.

Lastly, it is worth describing the meaning of "judo" and "jiu-jitsu". Usually, these are translated as "ju" (or "jiu") = gentle, "do" = way, "jitsu" = art. So "judo" = gentle way, and "jiu-jitsu" = gentle art. But another translation of "ju" is flexible or adaptable, making Classical Judo the flexible way, adaptable to any situation.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What's your motivation?

Getting Started
I first became interested in martial arts in my late teenage years. I had viewed the requisite number of Bruce Lee movies (wow!), knew a couple of boys who had learned some Taekwondo and Karate, and even a girl whose father was a local Judo instructor, but at no stage did I think that martial arts were something "for me".

Then one day when I was 15 or 16 I was talking with two friends who were also state-level gymnasts. A new guy had started training with them who had a black belt in Karate, and in under a year he was performing some "level 8" (i.e. very advanced) moves. This was unprecedented. I thought, "This is interesting": I had cottoned onto the idea that the martial arts hold important keys to learning transferable skills.

My friends and I agreed that it would be cool to learn a martial art, and that we would all definitely do so while at University. When I checked back with them a few years later, their interest had evaporated -- What about the pact? -- but I was motivated to begin.

Means, motive and opportunity
In crime fiction a character needs means, motive and opportunity to be considered a suspect. These criteria also apply to taking up any new activity, such as learning a martial art. Here's how:

Means: You need enough time and money. For the un(der)employed, money may be a barrier; for those with significant work and family commitments like me, finding the time is the limiting factor. In both cases, when starting out, taking one class a week has the advantages of easing you in gradually, and should be affordable and possible to schedule.

Opportunity: You need to find an instructor whose class you want to attend and who is prepared to take you on.

Motive: This is the big one: Motive (motivation) is incredibly important, because not only will it get you started on new activities and expose you to new experiences; it is the main thing that will keep you going once the novelty wears off.

In the modern consumerist world there are any number of other things that you could be doing with your time (and money), so much of the remainder of the article will outline the aspects of the martial arts that I have personally found appealing and commendable.

What's my motivation?
When I went to my first Classical Judo class, at the age of 22, I was impressed by the abilities of the instructor and senior students and how they taught. I had always thought of myself as clumsy, but this was of no interest to my instructor. I was transported away from my everyday concerns, and fully absorbed by the task at hand: How to fall safely. Soon I was making progress, and within six months I was hooked.

As a beginner, I appreciated that:
  1. The instruction was impressive, and different to what I was used to from school and University
  2. The practice sessions were absorbing and flowful
  3. It was challenging, but I was able to make fairly steady progress
Over the next few years, as I started to attain some degree of proficiency, I began to appreciate the gains that I was making in technique and fitness, and my motivation changed. I had progressed from being a naive beginner to a slightly less naive student. By now I had some idea of what Judo and Jiu-Jitsu were about. Having scratched the surface, I was keen to dig deeper.

As a committed student, I enjoyed:
  1. The opportunity to keep refining and extending my skills
  2. The friendships that I was making through martial arts
  3. Learning realistic self-defence
  4. Improving my concentration, coordination and fitness
  5. The rush of competing in occasional tournaments
  6. The challenge of trying to apply my martial arts training to non-martial arts situations
As an example of transferring skills to other situations, one day I went kayaking with some expert kayakers. I had never been particularly good (or bad) at kayaking at school, but on this occasion I closely observed the experts, mucked around a bit, and then the penny dropped, first for my body, and then in my mind. I had understood a key point, that power comes not so much from the near hand, but from the far hand -- and I was doing it. One of the expert kayakers looked over, pronounced me "a natural", and invited me on the "Murray Marathon" (a multi-day long distance kayaking event). I declined, but was thrilled that my study of martial arts had trained my observational skills and intuition about levers so well.

Now, as a more grizzled student of the martial arts, and also as an instructor, my motivation continues to evolve. In addition to the points listed above, I want to:
  1. Teach my students well, and learn through teaching
  2. Help popularise the martial arts, and promote quality teaching
  3. Learn something every time I train
  4. To find connections between different aspects of my training, between the various martial arts, and between my training and my life
Those are some of my motivations, older and more recent. What are yours?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Welcome to Martial Arts and Modern Life

Hello, and welcome to my blog about martial arts and life.

I intend to write a lot about the martial arts, not in isolation, but primarily how lessons learned in the training hall can be applied to other aspects of life, including:
  • Getting along with others (at school or work, as part of a family, and raising a family)
  • Ways to learn and ways to teach
  • Transferability of skills from one area to another
  • Drawing on cultural traditions other than one's own
  • Creativity and Imagination
Plus anything else that seems a) interesting, and b) at least tangentially related to the martial arts.

I will not be attempting to teach martial arts online, because it is dangerous without proper instruction. I will accept no liability for any harm sustained (or inflicted) by anyone after reading my blog.

On the other hand ...
If you want to learn martial arts find a good class. If you live in Melbourne, Australia I may be able to make some recommendations.

Even better, come along to my class!

My Martial Arts Cred
I started learning Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and Classical Judo in 1993, and have been training consistently in these martial arts ever since. I started teaching my own class in 2005, and had been acting as an assistant instructor for several years before that. I hold a 4th degree black belt in classical Judo and a 3rd degree black-belt in Jiu-Jitsu.

I have taught Jiu-Jitsu and Classical Judo to many young adults, teenagers, and older adults, some of whom had previously trained in other martial arts, including: Aikido, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Olympic Judo, various Karate styles, and Taekwondo.

In addition to my continuing study of Jiu-Jitsu and Classical Judo, since 2002 I have also been studying Hung Kuen Chinese Boxing (a form of Kung Fu), and hold the rank of 1st Degree Master (1st dan equivalent).

Although these are nowadays primarily empty-hand arts, I have also studied elements of various weapons as part of these styles, plus additional 

 I am interested in other martial arts and have dabbled -- i.e. taken a few classes or attended seminars -- in Aikido, Aiki-jiu-jitsu, Capoeira, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Judo-do, Ken-jitsu (traditional Japanese sword), Karate, knife-fighting, Krav Maga, Olympic Judo, Sambo, stick-fighting, Chen style and Yang style Taijiquan (Tai Chi).