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).

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Oh for the springiness of a flea or kangaroo!

The stretching that I do for martial arts is more about developing and harnessing the elasticity of the body than increasing my flexibility (range of motion).  For inspiration and understanding I look to our animal cousins, not the traditional five animals of kung fu -- dragon, tiger, leopard, crane, and snake -- but rather the flea (such as you might find on a dog) and the kangaroo ...

The flea and the kangaroo
Apparently fleas -- who can jump over 100 times their own body length -- can only jump so well because they have built-in elastic structures in their legs.  They don't use their muscles to jump directly, but rather to stretch -- much like pulling on a bow string -- and then the elastic snap powers the tremendous jump.  Source: The Flea, the Catapult and the Bow.

Another animal that uses elastic energy in dramatic fashion, this time for energy efficiency, is the kangaroo:
A red kangaroo
Kangaroos have large, stretchy tendons in their hind legs. They store elastic strain energy in the tendons of their large hind legs, providing most of the energy required for each hop by the spring action of the tendons rather than by any muscular effort. This is true in all animal species which have muscles connected to their skeleton through elastic elements such as tendons, but the effect is more pronounced in kangaroos.

There is also a link between the hopping action and breathing: as the feet leave the ground, air is expelled from the lungs; bringing the feet forward ready for landing refills the lungs, providing further energy efficiency. Studies of kangaroos and wallabies have demonstrated that, beyond the minimum energy expenditure required to hop at all, increased speed requires very little extra effort (much less than the same speed increase in, say, a horse, dog or human), and that the extra energy is required to carry extra weight. -- Source: Wikipedia.

Now: The human body, while not having the same degree of elasticity as the flea or kangaroo has a certain amount of elasticity in its muscles and connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, etc.) and it is possible to usefully harness this springiness both in day-to-day life, sports and martial arts.

A smattering of martial arts applications
In horse-stance punching beginners typically use their shoulder muscles to laboriously pu-u-u-u-ush out one fist and pu-u-u-u-ull back the other.  After 500 punches this is very wearing, but fortunately (or not) most people are more distracted by their sore legs to notice.  In time one should start to feel the stretch from the extended fist through the back and into the retracted elbow, and use the release of this stretch to help power the next punch and retraction, and to wind up the next stretch.

Similarly, a loud breakfall in part comes from the release of an elastic connection from the break-falling arm(s) into the back.  Beginners have wimpy break-falls because they are yet to learn to harness this connection, and instead rely (again) on their shoulder muscles.

Cutting with the bokken (Japanese wooden sword) is another good example.  When I took some kenjitsu classes my shoulders and inner arms became fearfully sore from over-use of these muscles. Recently -- after a long hiatus -- I picked up my bokken and tried to do it differently.   Having begun to notice the elastic connections between my arms and both the front- and back-sides of my body I now had some clues about a better approach.  By harnessing these connections I have been able to reduce the reliance on my shoulder-muscles when raising the bokken, and on my inside arm muscles to stop the downward cut.

Lastly, here's an awesome demo by sixty-something Chen-style taijiquan master Chen Xiaowang: 

You don't get that kind of proficiency from a short-course of self-defence!

Training the mind and body
So there you have it.  We all have the potential to harness our own elasticity, but first we need to recognize our own potential.  Next, it's handy to start noticing connections:  Where are the stretch connections in the body?  Which movements can (or could) use them?  Walking is a good activity in this respect.

And then there's the training of the body.  Suddenly stretching is less about increasing joint-flexibility and more about sensing and developing elastic connections.  This is worth reflecting on if you already do regular stretching, or hatha yoga.  Warm-up /stretching exercises such as you might find in a traditional kung fu or aikido class may also appear in a somewhat different light.

Besides my own training and exploration, I have been informed by Mike Sigman's approach to what he calls Internal Strength (see especially article #2: Connection).