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:

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.