Friday, February 27, 2009

Theme of the month March 2009: Beautiful breakfalls

Our second theme of the month -- we resumed in February -- will be beautiful breakfalls.

Anthony demonstrates the side-breakfall warm-up exercise

Breakfalls are truly the foundation of our system.  In order to practice throwing techniques we need to be able to fall safely.  While mats help, breakfalls allow us to dissipate the force of a throw by rolling and/or slapping the mat.

We practice breakfalls  as our warm-up and -- in the form of rolls -- to cool-down.  I have previously written about some of the many benefits of breakfalling.

Once practical benefit of knowing how to breakfall is that when you fall over (which happens to most of us occasionally) you are much less likely to break something.  This is self-defence against one's own clumsiness.

Beautiful breakfalls
This month we will be aiming to improve the standard of our breakfalls - make them louder, more efficient, and -- through better form -- more beautiful.

We will go through as many of the supplementary breakfalling exercises as I can remember, and also delve into some of the applications of breakfalling to offence, including some sacrifice throws.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mastery is ...

From Carmen  Matthews's Amazon review of Mastery, by George Leonard:
Mastery is:
  1. The process where what was difficult becomes both easier and more pleasurable; 
  2. Long-term dedication to the journey - not the bottom line; 
  3. Gaining mental discipline to travel further on your journey; 
  4. Being goalless; 
  5. Realizing that the pleasure of practice is intensified; 
  6. Creating deep roots; 
  7. Knowing that you will never reach a final destination; 
  8. Being diligent with the process of mastery; 
  9. Your commitment to hone your skills; 
  10. After you have reached the top of the mountain, climb  another one; 
  11. Being willing to practice, even when you seem to be getting no where; 
  12. Making this a life process; 
  13. Being patient, while you apply long-term efforts; 
  14. Appreciating and even enjoying the plateau, as much as you do the progress; 
  15. Practicing for the sake of practice; 
  16. Winning graciously, and losing with equal grace; 
  17. Placing practice, discipline, conditioning and character development before winning; 
  18. Being courageous; 
  19. Being fully in the present moment; 
  20. Realizing that the ultimate goal is not the medal, or the ribbon, but the path to mastery its self (The "I am" stage); 
  21. Being willing to look foolish; 
  22. Maintaining flexibility in your strategy, and in your actions; 
  23. A journey; and, 
  24. Determination 
Apply this to everything in your life, to claim your authentic self.
I think that that material would make a great inspirational poster, in the spirit of How to be an Artist.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Feldenkrais's recipe for genius

Moshe Feldenkrais was a physicist and pioneering judo black belt (under Kawaishi) who invented what later became known as the Feldenkrais Method of movement education to fix his knees -- which he had wrecked playing soccer -- in the days before reliable reconstructive surgery.

His books are fascinating and at times perplexing, but always thought provoking.  Many of his students have written more accessible derivative works -- e.g. Hegge's "Running with the whole body" and Hanna's "Somatics" -- but for sheer depth it's hard to go past Feldenkrais himself.  I recommend "Awareness through Movement" as the most accessible. 

Ruthy Alon shows what it's all about:

Here's a quote that I have been puzzling over for a few years:
"Find your true weakness and surrender to it. Therein lies the path to genius. Most people spend their lives using their strengths to overcome or cover up their weaknesses. Those few who use their strengths to incorporate their weaknesses, who don't divide themselves, those people are very rare. In any generation there are a few and they lead their generation."
Recently it occurred to me that Feldenkrais was in-part referring to something that I have believed for a long time, but attaching a greater significance: 

By finding something that you are weak in, but keen on, you can embark on a great journey -- from weakness to acquired strength -- not merely a path to competence, but also one of learning, insight, and challenges.  By taking such a path not only will you gain personally, but also be in a position to help others on their journeys, far more so than if you had merely stuck to your strengths.

In my case, it is the things that I am passionate about, had to work hard at to get somewhere, that I not only value a little more than the things that came easily, but also which I feel best equipped to teach. 

This applies to my experience of martial arts as a whole, but at other levels too.  For example: As a beginner I struggled to learn our 2nd hip throw -- kubi nage (neck throw) -- and yet today it is one of my favorite techniques.  Furthermore:  My students seem to acquire its nuances quite quickly -- certainly much faster than I did -- presumably because having struggled with it in so many ways over such a long period, I am now well-equipped to teach it.  

Taking this example further, I am happier with how I execute kubi nage today than I am with other throws that came to me more easily: Weakness has overtaken strength; the tortoise has outraced the hare.  Now the challenge is to integrate what I have learned in struggling with kubi nage to improve in other areas.

There's still more to Feldenkrais's recipe -- including "finding your true weakness": How do you do that?  How do you verify it?  More food for thought ...

P.S. Feldenkrais's judo books are also great, but largely out of print.  Happily, Irene Gutteridge has pointed out that Higher Judo: Groundwork is available from

P.P.S. The classical judo that I practice comes via Mikonosuke Kawaishi,  who was dispatched by Judo founder Jigoro Kano to spread Judo to the Europeans after Kano met (and throttled!) a then young Feldenkrais in Paris.  Who was the first European black belt in Judo? Feldrenkrais.  His teacher?  Kawaishi. 

Patrick Parker's teaching tips

Judo and Aikido instructor Patrick Parker blogs faster than I can read, and not only that, the quality is great. Thanks!

I am creating this post as a mini-index of some of his teaching tips that I have either already applied, or intend to get to one day:

General Organization
Throwing techniques
Groundwork randori
Food for thought
I am sure that there are many other gems in Patrick's back catalogue; I'll note the one's that especially inspire me as I uncover them.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Structure and chaos

In commenting on a nice article over at Mokuren Dojo --  Heads up: Drills ARE kata -- I made the following observation:
Broadly speaking there are two poles to training: kata and randori.

If it's pre-arranged, it's kata. Otherwise there must some uncertainty (i.e. "ran" or chaos) so it's randori.

And it is not just true of the martial arts.  Other disciplines also show this division.  

Take music: Classical music is primarily pre-arranged; jazz is more improvised.  But it is not entirely clear-cut: A classical concerto usually has a section -- the cadenza -- where the soloist gets to show-off with an improvised solo.  Conversely, there are jazz standards that jazz musicians improvise around time and again.

Take theater: Plays are usually written down and brought to life in productions, but in impro(v) there is no script (really!) and invention occurs on the spot.  Again, the division is not absolutely clear: The expression "the show must go on on" comes from theater, and seasoned performers must improvise in written-out plays when something goes wrong.  In an interview with the actor Michael Caine he explained how he learned to "use the obstacle".  For example if a chair unexpectedly obstructed his entry into a scene in a play Caine would either get angry with it (in a drama) or fall over it (in a comedy).  On the impro side there are many games (think Theatresports) and set-ups to give some structure for the creativity to hang off.

Take science: From school science many (most?) get the impression that science is about learning what has gone before -- Newton's laws, rules of chemical composition, what bits make up a frog -- or following set recipes to recreate an experiment.  But original science is about discovery, formulating and testing hypotheses, making sense of a bunch of observations, bringing order to chaos.

Which brings me to my first point: 
Once upon a time the structured stuff was the product of a creative act (or acts), more akin to improvisation than recapitulation.  
The masters who formulated and codified katas, Mozart, Shakespeare, Newton etc. although "standing on the shoulders of giants" were playing with chaos, and bringing forth structure.

What about the rest of us?  Perhaps partly because of the lofty standards set by the luminaries who came before we shy away from even attempting to be original, or deliberately put down the old stuff as being worthless or out-of-date, but surely both attitudes are too extreme:
Most of us will do well -- in whatever field -- to study what came before, and also attempt to not only recreate, but create anew.
Pablo Picasso was first a wonderful draftsman, in a realistic style, and then he started to play with the rules.

Personally, in the areas where I have manifested more talent -- that is, where things came easily -- I have wanted less structure.  Let me figure it out myself!  Let me play!  On the other hand, where I have shown less ability, then I have craved structure to help me learn.

The traditional martial arts are complex and difficult.  Structure is needed, but so is chaos.  Traditionally randori, sparring, push hands, etc. have supplied the chaotic element in the form of competition.  But alternatives like simple games; figuring out combinations,counters, and self-defence applications; researching bunkai for kata movements; inventing new kata; etc. offer additional scope.

This year I will be giving more time to tuning the balance between structure and chaos in my own training and also in my teaching.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Last week I had four new people turn up to try out a class, three of whom I allowed on the mat, and one I asked to watch.

With hindsight I should have reversed the ratio.  Two of the guys that came on the mat were clearly interested in a more competition-oriented experience, and I was able to suggest some other classes that would probably suit them better. 

Happily, my class seems to be going through a transition from very small to a thriving smallish group.  I hope that people continue to find my class, but there are limits to how fast I can grow it.

Also, for some -- especially those who want or expect a primarily competitive experience with lots of randori, sparring, or rolling -- my class has little to offer, and this should be just as apparent from watching, as participating.

While in the past I was keen to get numbers up, it seems that I am now experiencing the opposite problem.

So a new policy is needed: Until I have a good chat with a prospective student and determine to let her or him on my mat, my new policy will be to ask that they watch rather than participate.  Especially when a heap of newcomers turn up all at once!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Victorian bushfires: A personal appeal

Unprecedented bushfires have affected my home state of Victoria, Australia, since last Saturday. I live in the capital city, Melbourne which has been largely unaffected, but like almost everyone else I have friends and family who have had narrow escapes.

Unfortunately, many have not been so lucky. Over one-hundred-and-eighty people are confirmed dead with estimates that this will rise to over 300.

Today I was saddened and shaken by the news that a family that I know -- a mum, a dad and two children (only a few years older then my own) -- perished while defending their home.

What to do?
Like most Victorians we are donating money, in our case through the Red Cross Bushfire Appeal. In addition Andi is donating patchwork quilts to the destitute. We are looking into other ways that we can help.

I urge all Australians -- especially Victorians -- to donate generously, and if possible to also help by donating goods, personally volunteering, and offering shelter to those rendered homeless.

Trying to do great things?

The writer and academic Debashish Chatterjee once asked Mother Teresa how she had been able to do so many great things in her life:
At first she looked at me quizzically, as if she was trying to figure out what I could possibly mean.  Then she responded by saying simply, "You cannot do great things.  You can only do small things with great love."
From Senge et al., Presence: Exploring profound change in people, organizations, and society, p139.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

First class back for 2009: New mat cover, kuzushi

Last night we had our first class at Monash Caulfield for 2009, and it was fun. Three regulars returned (including Ash in his new colored belt -- congratulations!), two apologies were sent, and two newcomers came, joined in, and got off to a flying ;-) start.

Our new mat-cover
The first notable thing that has changed is that we have a new mat cover -- at last! This is an enormous (and valuable) canvas sheet that we use to keep all our judo mats together during training. It's an important piece of safety equipment because it prevents toes from getting caught between the mats, and stops the mats from slipping apart.

Spreading out the new cover for the first time

The previous cover -- manufactured out of painters' drop-sheets by myself and my-beloved -- had been lost by the university while reorganizing storage areas at the beginning of last year. While making do with a borrowed replacement that was too small, I spent a ridiculous amount of time last year negotiating compensation, navigating bureaucracy and arranging a new cover to be specially made. Even so the club had to make a significant co-payment. What a hassle!

Tucking it in

It was worth it! The new cover is great: Heavy-duty and soft at the same time -- kind of like jiu-jitsu! It looks good, feels nice, and works well (no readjustments needed during class). And, importantly, it is safely locked away.

Theme of the month

We started off with kuzushi as the theme of the month (our first), and it worked well. Having a "point of focus" is helpful for me because besides having planned some material to emphasize the theme, I just seeing the theme pop-up everywhere in our regular techniques (I hope my students do too!). These observations can lend themselves to some improvised segments in my teaching.

For example, when first learning the come-along arm-bar to beginners they often have difficulty in getting their partner to tap. The technique has lots of bits and it easy to subtly resist it if hand- and arm-positioning is even slightly out.

A come-along armbar featuring excellent technique (including kuzushi)

I would normally focus on the technical points needed to make the lock work actively: Correcting positioning, two-way action, etc. Last night it seemed natural to instead work on ways to increase kuzushi to kill off resistance; in this way the technique can work despite imperfect positioning etc.

It seems to me that kuzushi can be thought of as part of a tactical two-way action:
  1. Positive: Correct technique and positioning, good timing, use of force, etc.
  2. Negative: Kuzushi (in all forms) lessens the opponent's ability to resist
Another nice example of this was when Chris, one of the newcomers, did something only vaguely related to the demonstrated throw, but successfully threw his partner (me!) anyway by dint of having applied effective kuzushi.

* * *

The only downside I can see with the theme-of-the-month is getting too carried away. Just a few morsels each class should be plenty for us all to chew over.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Training resumes for 2009: Tonight!

A refreshed Sensei, a new training night (Wednesday), a new mat cover, a new year!

The theme of the month is kuzushi: Get ready to get stuck in.

What could be better?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Theme of the month February 2009: Juicy Kuzushi

This year my first theme of the month is Juicy kuzushi. Kuzushi is the art of disrupting your opponent's balance.  Even if (s)he is stronger,  faster, and/or swifter, once balance is broken these advantages evaporate, and resistance becomes negligible. The juicy-ness refers to my ambition to squeeze a lot out of the kuzushi concept.  Plus: It rhymes.

I have written about the broader concept of kuzushi before, and intend to explore all of the aspects of  kuzushi that I listed in that post:
Looking more broadly at the problem of "leveling" an aggressor, any or all of the following means can contribute to the cause:
  • Unbalancing: Bringing the aggressor's center of gravity beyond his or her base of support
  • Mis-alignment: Moving parts of the aggressor into an awkward configuration
  • Distraction
  • Pain (which can also be a distraction)
All of these measures help to reduce the aggressor's ability to resist the remainder of the technique. However, for subtle kuzushi, it is best when there is neither too much nor too little of the contributing components. Too little, and there is no effect. Too much, and your intentions are telegraphed.
These seem like a fine four points to look at over each of the next four weeks.

Some more specific ideas:
  • The kuzushi exercise: Use of the hands, role of the elbows, weight distribution
  • Same throw / multiple kuzushi
  • The base of support; the dead angle
  • Misaligning the hips and shoulders
  • Twisting in restraint and control
  • Combining unbalancing and misaligning
  • Examples of distractions: kiai, feints, strikes, annoyances
  • The effects of pain; a few pressure points
* * *

The next time we revisit kuzushi as a monthly theme, I might use another decomposition.  For example:  The role of kuzushi in:
  1. Throwing techniques
  2. Groundwork
  3. Restraint and control
  4. Striking techniques
  5. Day-to-day life
Also: The flip-side of applying kuzushi is establishing, maintaining and recovering balance and alignment.

Urban Training: Part II

I would love to train every day, but at the moment my life is very full, with a young family and career taking up the majority of my waking hours.  Martial arts is what I do in "my time" and other interests take a back seat.

While I am working on breeding my own regular training partners they are both still too young for serious practice.

So what to do?  
Most weekday mornings I get up at 5.30 am and practice some of my hung gar kug fu sets (kata), before breakfast and work.  But I am also on the lookout for mini-training opportunities throughout my work-day.  This has the following benefits:
  • It's exercise, fun and relaxing
  • It offsets an otherwise sedentary chunk of the day, giving me energy and de-stressing
  • It helps me in my quest to apply what I learn in the martial arts elsewhere in my life
  • It helps me to rack up more "training hours"
How I do it
Each morning I drive to the local train station.  If I have to wait a while I get to do some loosening exercises.  Alternatively, if I haven't done my early morning work out I might wait until the train comes in horse stance.  Then I take the morning train into town:
I like to catch an early train so that I can get a seat and do some reading, but if I miss out on a seat standing up on the train is a good way to test my balance.  Inside the 7.10 am train:

I always walk up the long escalators from the underground city loop.

I have read that some of the Olympic Judo guys find themselves compelled to  go up the down escalator, but that's a bit demonstrative for me!  Stairs are also good:

There's also a pleasant walk to the office, downhill in the morning, but pleasingly uphill on the way home:

Because I get in so early I rarely have to share the lift (elevator in American) to the 9th floor:

I am in the habit of using the 40 seconds of privacy to practice either horse stance punching or circular punching. The mirrors help me to check my alignment.

But wait, there's more ...

Roof-top practice
Withour doubt, the training highlight of my day is roof-top practice.  Having obtained the code for access to the roof of the office building:

I was delighted to find an area ideal for a spot of lunchtime practice:

The views of the city of Melbourne are terrific:

so on most days I take 10 minutes before my lunch-break to do a couple of runs through the 1st set of hung gar kung fu, plus a few minutes of standing relaxation.  Some more views / stances: 

These photos were taken on a hot sunny day, hence the sun-glasses, shorts, sandals, and shadows.  

Among my colleagues this time when I disappear is known as "going off to fight ninjas on the roof".  Actually I am yet to spot any ninjas, or Spiderman, for that matter.  Occasionally I have also had resting window-cleaners as an (appreciative) audience.

I find that doing the set in the middle of the day results in extra energy in the early afternoon, where in the past I found I would often find my energy levels flagging.

Also: Before I go to bed at night I also try to do this set two more times.  The routine suits me, and adds up to a little bit of extra training every day, in addition to formal training in-class, even on those days when I sleep in and miss my morning work-out.

Over to you
So that's how I do it.  What do you do to weave some extra training into your day?