Another winter is another winter course; but this wasn’t just ‘another’ winter course.
Each year the Shikukai winter course has been hosted by Shikukai Chelmsford and it just seems to get bigger and bigger, better and better. It could be said that the success of courses acts as a barometer for the health of an organisation; this is certainly true across all similar sporting/physical disciplines. Over the last twelve months Shikukai membership has continued to grow, in the UK and in Europe and it was noticeable this year that all bar perhaps a handful of students on the course were Shikukai members.
For the first time this year we decided to extend the training opportunities and actually kicked the course off (unofficially) on Thursday evening. As this was our normal club night and people had come a day or two earlier this was a great chance to gather at the regular venue and train and sweat together.
This year we had a larger contingent from Holland as well as students from the Czech Republic, Hungary, France and Norway. This worked really well for our continental students for two main reasons; firstly the closeness of an International airport to Chelmsford (London Stansted airport is only 30 minutes away) and so we were able to organise easy airport pick-ups for our guests. Secondly; we were in a position to offer accommodation for most of our guests which kept the overall costs down.
The first official training session was under Sugasawa Sensei direction, this was Friday night. It was a good indicator of how things were to go, in that the training space was only just big enough to comfortably hold the students. Part of Sensei’s theme was to encourage a bigger, more energised style of movement and he was able to show and explain how this should manifest itself in our movements. When the training was over we were close enough to walk to a traditional English pub and served excellent food and drink.
Saturday training at Danbury Leisure Centre was also very busy. Sensei directed the training but also split the groups between Shikukai’s most senior instructors to enable everyone to work on kata relevant to their syllabus. Three hours training flew by. Saturday evening involved a meal for nearly forty people at Sans Restaurant, Chelmsford and the entertainment went on until the early hours of the morning (for those who had the stamina).
Sunday saw another three hour session; this time after kihon practice the class was split again for pairs work with the seniors working on Kihon Gumite and Kumite Gata. Sensei took the Dan grading candidates aside for personalised instruction. After training the Dan grading panel was convened; congratulations to Kevin Evans of Swindon and Emma Hawkins of Chippenham for passing 1st Dan.
We were very conscious this year that people who took the time to travel and attend the course should get the maximum out of their training. For those who were able to train all the way from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon this meant that they were able to clock up an amazing nine and a half hours of concentrated training.
Our thanks to everyone who attended and to Sugasawa Sensei for his inspirational teaching.
What information is your body giving you? Are you truly your own best critic?
When we are desperately trying to improve our technique we tend to rely on instruction and then practice augmented by helpful feedback, usually from our Sensei.
But perhaps there are other ways to gain even better quality feedback and perhaps ‘feedback’ is not as simple as it first appears.
If we were to just look at it from the area of kata performance; if you are fortunate enough to have mirrors in your training space (as we do at Shikukai Chelmsford) then reviewing your technique in a mirror can be really helpful. But there are some down sides. One is that I am certain when we use the mirror we do a lot of self-editing, we choose to see what we want to see; viewpoint angle etc.
The other down-side is that we externalise the kata, instead of internalising it. When referring to a mirror we are projecting ourselves and observing the projection; this creates a tiny but significant reality gap. It is possible that in reviewing the information we get from the mirror we get useful information about our external form (our ability to make shapes, or our speed – or lack of speed.) but we lose sight of our internal connections, such as our lines of tension, connectivity and relays. We shift our focus away from the inner feel of what we are doing at the expense of a particular kind of visual aesthetic.
You can test this for yourself: take a small section of a kata, perform the section once normally (observe yourself in a mirror if you like) then do the same section with your eyes closed. If you are in tune with your body you will find the difference quite shocking.
Another product of this ‘externalising’ in kata worth examining is how easy it is to rely on visual external cues to keep you on track throughout the performance; usually this is about orientation. I will give an example from Pinan Nidan: if I tell myself that near the beginning of the kata is a run of three Jodan Nagashi Uke and near the end a similar run of three techniques but this time Junzuki AND that on the first run of three I am always going towards the Kamidana, but on the second run of three I will be heading in the direction of the Dojo door, I come to rely almost entirely on these landmarks for orientation, thus I have gone too deeply into externalising my kata; it happens in a landscape instead of in my body. Where this can seriously mess you up is if you have to perform in a high pressure environment (e.g. contest, grading or demonstration) your familiar ‘landscape’ that you relied heavily upon has disappeared, only to be replaced by a very different, often much harsher landscape, one frequently inhabited by a much more critical audience. A partial antidote to this is to always try and face different directions in your home Dojo; but really this is just a sticking plaster.
Another quirky odd anomaly I have discovered when working in a Dojo with mirrors is that during sparring I sometimes find myself using the mirror to gain an almost split-screen stereoscopic view of what my opponent is up to, tiny visual clues coming from a different viewpoint, but it’s dangerous splitting your attention like that and on more than one occasion I have been caught out, so much so that I now try and stay with my back to the mirror when fighting.
Another visual feedback method is video. This can be helpful in kata and individual kihon. In kihon try filming two students side by side to compare their technical differences or similarities. If you have the set-up you could film techniques from above (flaws in Nagashizuki show up particularly well).
There are some subtle and profound issues surrounding this idea of ‘internalising’ ‘externalising’, some of it to do with the origin of movement and the direction (and state) of the mind, but short blog posts like this are perhaps not the place for exploring these issues – the real place for exploring them is in your body.
It’s very obvious that people always appreciate having the opportunity to offer their opinion; particularly when it is something they really care about. So with that in mind I decided to consult with our regular students at Shikukai Chelmsford through the medium of a questionnaire.
I must admit, I was curious as to how this can be done through new technology. So initially I not only set about designing my questions but also researching the available platforms.
I had heard about Survey Monkey and assumed that this was going to be the one to use, however, after signing up and learning about all the whistles and bells and putting my questions in to the template I hit a major hurdle at question 10…. Something that wasn’t clear from the outset; i.e. that this so-called ‘free’ service was only free if you didn’t go beyond 10 questions, after that they wanted £35 a month, (sneaky eh!). So, frustrated and ever so slightly miffed I had to abandon the smiley happy world of Survey Monkey.
More research lead me towards Google Forms, this was totally free and in lots of ways was even better than Survey Monkey.
The idea of a questionnaire has many advantages, particularly when it is anonymous (I made sure that this was the case as it would allow people to give candid and honest responses). Without wanting to use too much jargon I would also say that Dojo members are also stakeholders; it’s in everyone’s interest that all needs are being addressed; in a successful Dojo the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
I think we are very fortunate at Shikukai Chelmsford that the social make-up and personalities all mesh neatly together, largely because we have a common goal and it is in our interests to perpetuate that particular dynamic – although I must say that this is the same for Shikukai as an organisation across all Dojos. However it does not mean that we have everything right; so the best thing is to consult the members.
The range of questions went from organisational issues; times, number of sessions, costs, etc, to venue and facilities; then on to training content, and even looking at fairness and equality. The links to the questionnaires came through to members via email and through Facebook, which was very slick. I must say, the design template also looked incredibly neat and professional. The results came in steadily and were really helpful in getting a snapshot of where we currently are. The culmination of all this is that I will share the results with the students and this in itself will promote more dialogue and then work with them to address any issues.
Over many years I have experimented with numerous different forms of training for fighting. Not all of it was applicable to Shiai (contest) fighting, although quite a lot of it was. Let me be clear, all of Wado training is about ‘fighting’, in the broadest terms; but what I want to discuss here is very much about the modern ‘goal orientated’ western model of training, as opposed to an East Asian ‘process orientated’ approach – there is a difference; one that is crucial in understanding the methodology of the traditional forms of the martial arts; but maybe that is for another blog post.
Initially I acted as my own guinea pig (I think we all do). In the early days I didn’t get any formal training, outside of a tacit implication that you have to apply what you are learning in the more formal elements of Dojo training, but bridging that gap was never going to be easy; the gulf between formal Ohyo Gumite and being faced with a big guy wanting to go bare knuckles with you was too huge a leap to make; so instinct had to kick in, and then from instinct came creativity.
There is an assumption that in terms of weaponry you go with what you have got – two arms, two legs. How many times have I heard that one before, (‘After all, we are only dealing with two arms and two legs’), if life were only that simple. But not everyone can deliver on equal terms; if your flexibility is poor your kicks are going to be your weak points; if you are not blessed with a high level of fast twitch muscle fibres you are going to struggle with reactions against a skilled opponent; it could be limb length, it could be size (not always an advantage) or many of the other variables.
But creativity generates ideas; this should be your experimental zone, yes you should have your go-to, tried and trusted techniques but it is the creative/experimental zone that keeps you moving forward as a martial artist.
I sometimes use a simplistic military analogy; imagine that your tried and trusted techniques are like your front line troops; reliable well trained and seasoned by experience; but behind those are subsequent ranks of less experienced troops (techniques), these can be used against weaker opponents, or where the risks are not so high, and eventually, over time they also become your front line techniques/troops. And so, as the ranks go back, you end up with your reserves. These ‘reserves’ are your experimental zone; a whole training camp of ideas, sometimes extremely risky in combat, large portions of them doomed to failure, but, nevertheless, a real testing ground, a crucible of creativity.
It is important that you review, evaluate and build your repertoire. In the Book of Five Rings (1645) Musashi Miyamoto says, “When you sacrifice your life, you must make fullest use of your weaponry. It is false not to do so, and to die with a weapon yet undrawn.” It’s an extreme and interesting model, written by a man so far removed from our modern existence as to be almost on another planet. (I have an allergy towards ‘Warrior quotes’ hijacked by armchair ‘warriors’ or martial arts fantasists), but when it is boiled down to the current theme it applies quite neatly.
Your repertoire is your catalogue of techniques; sometimes these are set-pieces, the types of moves that sucker your opponent into a position he doesn’t want to be in giving you the opportunity to spring the trap. In a way you have to have your whole catalogue at your fingertips; to not pull out the appropriate technique when it’s really needed links with what Musashi said, you must always ‘make the fullest use of your weaponry’.
Another aspect goes beyond the ‘set-piece’, this is when you really get your stuff together and are drawing directly from the root of your training. Techniques that come from that area are more inclined to be threaded into the way you solve the problems the opponent is presenting you with; how your timing operates, how your body meshes with your opponent’s movements, how much energy is deployed to deal with the opponent, all of those and more.
But where is it stored, where does it come from? I have been doing a lot of thinking about this recently. One writer on martial arts said that he thinks of the body as another brain; it stores up knowledge and when it is well trained it delivers what it needs to deliver much faster than a ‘brain-calculated’ response can. This is similar to when musicians build up ‘muscle memory’ to play their instruments instinctively, in some cases they just respond to the groove. Jazz musician Miles Davis said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” All sorts of meaning can be taken from that one quote, particularly when it is applied to fighting.
As for the question on where or how it is stored; I again will use a musical example. Mark Springer is a contemporary pianist who specialises in giving completely unrehearsed improvised performances to packed audiences. How he warms up for this he explained in an interview, “I cram every conceivable thing I can into my head, which is slightly mad; I’m shoving in bits of Bach, bits of Schubert but when I’m playing [warming up] I’m cramming in all of this stuff with the express purpose of absolutely not playing any of it when I go out on to that stage”, to me this is an acknowledgement that Springer is drawing aspects of his inner catalogue and in the heat of the moment is pulling out melodic interpretations which are appropriate to that moment in time – this is what the so-called ‘instinctive fighter’ does.
Recently there has been a significant amount of media chatter about ‘Cultural Appropriation’.
Susan Scafidi defines the negative aspect of cultural appropriation as, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
It’s interesting to look at how might be applied to Western-based Budoka. Firstly I’m not so sure that the standard bearers for traditional Budo inside Japan worry too much about having their cultural practices and icons ‘appropriated’ by enthusiastic Westerners. Robert Twigger in his 1997 book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ said in a specific and telling quote, “Sara thought martial arts were pretty silly. To a trendy young Japanese, aikido was about as sexy as Morris Dancing”. I suppose that the more archaic and, dare I say it, ‘traditional’ a Japanese martial arts the westerners tries to immerse themselves into the more bizarre it must look to the outsider.
A friend of mine is a long established practitioner of Kyudo; a while ago he invited me to his Dojo. I must have looked upon it as creature landing from another planet; even though I desperately sought common ground I struggled to relate to the ritual and obsession around what in actual fact was a martial art that was based around just one simple action; firing an arrow at a target. Of course I realise there was far more to it than that, and he was able to explain to me the cultural significance and deeply personal struggle that all serious practitioners have to come to terms with. But the ritual observances and the setting up of the Shinto shrine, all of which seemed to take up half of the session, left me wondering exactly what was going on? Was I perhaps witnessing a more exotic version of what the Sealed Knot get up to every major summer Bank holiday? Or was this something else?
The opening quote hinted at an ownership issue; I get that, and I also understand that in the hands of the truly ignorant cultural icons can be misunderstood, misrepresented or even abused. They may even evolve into ‘Cargo Cults’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult ). I’m pretty sure this happens in the martial arts, it’s all over YouTube, but I think most people can see that and just find it a bit….sad. But hey.
But here’s a thing. Let me explain this through the lens of Japanese Art, just to show that Cultural Appropriation is not a one way street.
Pre the arrival of western cultural artifacts to Japan the Japanese printmakers and painters had no concern with western ideas of space and depth in visual compositions. I have at home an original woodblock print by Japanese artist Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748) of an Ox under willows, there is only the vaguest nod towards anything that might relate to foreground, background or middle distance; it’s all based upon a very formulaic and decorative methodology. When the later artists were exposed to western art the game changed, Hiroshige, Hokusai etc. embraced the ideas of perspective and distance and in Hokusai’s case he created visual puns, e.g the swamping of the mighty Fuji by the great wave!
But, when Japanese artifacts arrived in Paris wrapped in throw-away Japanese prints, Post-Impressionists became fascinated by the visual conceits and ‘appropriated’ their methods for themselves – oh the irony!
‘Oxen’ by Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748)
Let me start by saying that I am in no way an expert in this area and I hold no recognisable qualifications; but I wanted to put a few thoughts together about body maintenance based upon my forty-three years of experimentation, failure and accumulated damage; some of it self-inflicted. (I started my Wado training in 1974).
I say that, but in actual fact I think I have been quite lucky; I have never broken a major bone and to my recollection I have only ever been knocked out once. In my early training I did some really stupid things, practices that are now considered Neanderthal and downright counterproductive; but you can almost get away with it when you have youth on your side. In your teens and twenties you believe you are indestructible and the Mantra, ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, borrowed from Nietzsche, becomes an excuse for all kinds of damaging activities. In a macho society you all support each other in the delusion that if everyone is doing it then it must be right, and so ballistic stretching, repeatedly allowing yourself to be hit, throwing yourself straight into extreme exercises with no real preparation or warm-up all seem like the right thing to do.
They say that hindsight is always 20/20 but really; what were we thinking?
Thank goodness we are now all better informed. Developments in science, as well as information available on the Internet has resulted in us all being more knowledgeable. But even that doesn’t tell the full story. We are not all the same; our bodies don’t roll off a production line. We inherit our physical capabilities and limitations from our genes and in later life we carry around the burdens created by lifestyle, accident, illness and environment.
I spent some time under the care of a very experienced physiotherapist who was helping me solve a particular joint problem. I always enjoyed treatment from him because of his blunt and frank explanations of how the body works and tales of the stupid things people do; it was worth every penny. I would advise anyone suffering with injury to seek out a really experienced physio; as someone once pointed out; you wouldn’t think twice doling out £300 to have your car fixed, what price do you put on your own body? The physio opened up a whole new world to me regarding the subtleties of the physical mechanism; how easily things can get out of whack and how resilient the body is; but it was the methods used to treat the injuries and imbalances that intrigued me the most; some of it coming out of a need to address engrained habits and the way the body, out of expediency, bodges its way through things.
Without turning this small article into a heavyweight study I want to boil everything down to a few basic pointers:
- Be informed and realistic about what your body can do (one size does not fit all) there’s no excuse for ignorance.
- Work your body in a way that it supports what you want to do with it. Don’t assume that everything you need for physical conditioning will happen in the Dojo alone. I learned this lesson from the late Suzuki Sensei. When I moved to the south of England and was able to train with him regularly I was initially surprised that we never did any warm-up exercises prior to the senior classes. We used to warm-up in any available space outside beforehand. Suzuki Sensei’s approach was that you are here to do karate not calisthenics.
- Remember, there is development and maintenance. As you get older maintenance becomes more important in that you need to maintain flexibility and core strength, particularly when muscle strength begins to decline; but if you aim for development then maintenance becomes a given.
- Be honest in identifying your body’s weaknesses, but also your limitations. For example; if you start your karate training later in life a jodan kick may not be possible for you outside of radical surgery, but really that doesn’t matter, mawashigeri jodan is one of many techniques used to solve a problem, and in reality it is unlikely to be the technique that gets you out of trouble.
- Don’t undervalue what you can’t see. By that I mean the benefits of body movement based upon training methods like yoga or Pilates cannot be overstated; but the external advantages are difficult to see. Internal structure and work on complementary muscles and tendons which support movement such as those found in yoga and Pilates are really valuable to martial artists.
- One last word of warning; the body is affected by the state of your mind. The mistake we make in the west is to split the body and the mind. If your mind is in the wrong place, or your thoughts, value and judgements are askew then this will wreak revenge on your body; maybe not at the beginning but certainly further down the line there are more possibilities of the wheels coming off.
For those of you who don’t know, Grayson Perry is a very successful British artist, initially a potter and past winner of the Turner Prize. He has branched out into lecturing and making TV documentaries. This book came on the back of a recent documentary series examining masculinity, called ‘All Man’ made for Channel 4. Perry is really interested in male identity (he is a transvestite and is married to a psychotherapist); in this book he takes an unflinching look at the position of men in today’s society.
You may ask why is a book on gender politics appearing on a martial arts blog? While acknowledging that martial arts today are not exclusively male, it’s difficult to escape the fact that they originate from a predominantly male culture and even though in the modern scene there are a lot of positive things sadly we still see aspects of unsightly macho strutting and posturing coming out of misdirected testosterone.
Something is clearly amiss when we look at statistics alone; 90% of all crime is committed by men, and at all levels of society and male suicide rate is at an all-time high.
Perry’s book is excellent at outlining the problem and the culture. While there have been some positive signs many men are clinging on to an outdated nostalgic view of masculinity; the embodiment of this is the fantasy of preparation for some kind of imaginary apocalypse; Perry says; “…we see this vision of masculinity rearing its head on TV programmes fronted by the likes of Bear Grylls or Ray Mears. They teach us how to survive in the wild, how to skin a deer carcass or build a shelter from tree branches. I would like to see them trying find an affordable flat to rent in London, or sorting out a decent state school for their children. These are the true survival skills for the twenty-first century”.
It is this same kind of fantasy that fuels the marketing of some of the less reputable ‘Reality-Based Self Defence’ schools. Add a liberal dose of the ‘Fear Factor’ and over-anxious urban dwellers will come flocking, particularly the unfulfilled male of the species, downtrodden and left behind clinging on to an outdated view of antiquated masculinity.
Perry’s view is that the decline of a particular model of masculinity has been going on for ever. For our generation of men masculinity has traditionally abided in the rigours of physical labour, a muscular idealised noble savage. Shipyards, mining, the boxing clubs of the old East End of London, these areas of male life have all but disappeared; but there is a primitive urge there, unfortunately it tends to manifest itself as a kind of comic parody of masculinity; as Perry says;
“One reaction to the redundancy of the traditional male role has been the rise of a kind of cosmetic hyper-masculinity. I see it as an overtly performed version of working-class manhood. The shiny muscles, tattoos, loud music and loud cars all hope to pump out the message that he’s still a real man despite the collapse of heavy industry and a clearly defined status. These performers pay great attention to detail: hair and beards are groomed in precision lines; torsos are waxed till they resemble figures from computer games.”
He also takes a swing at corporate blandness and the assumption of male control in the workplace; as he says, masculinity is not IN the background, it IS the background!
In no way is Perry’s book a manifesto; it does not set out precisely what the new twenty-first century man should be, neither does it act as a sop to overly militant feminism, it just asks men to GET REAL, stop living in a fantasy world and take your responsibilities seriously (particularly as the right kind of role models for the next generation).
In a Dojo situation a male instructor needs to think long and hard about how he presents himself. The good news is that there are many excellent role models who have a good head on their shoulders, are humble about their abilities, kind, compassionate and are comfortable in their own skin. Unfortunately you also come across far too many little boys hiding inside men’s bodies.
As a footnote; Perry made reference to Chuck Palahniuk’s book ‘Fight Club’, (the movie was good, but the book much better), but I would also have liked him to have referenced ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis, which for me epitomises toxic white collar masculinity and narcissism gone mad; as relevant today as it was when first published in 1991. The male political models are currently out there now, strutting their stuff; just think of Trump, Kushner, Bannon and latterly in the UK our own upper-crust version, the entitled members of the ‘lucky gene club’, such as Osborne, Cameron and Johnson et al, these are all part of the problem and certainly not models for the future.
For further reading I also recommend Steve Biddulph; who is excellent on anything to do with raising children, but for this topic his book ‘Manhood’ is another really thought-provoking read.