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Sample – Part 12, Early days in Leeds.

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1978 through to 1981. Undergraduate years at Leeds Polytechnic, studying graphic design.
Living in Headingley (and later Harehills) and taking over the running of the Leeds YMCA Wado Dojo under the authority of Suzuki Sensei’s UKKW.

Post Mansfield and my arrival in Leeds had given my karate full licence to develop in its own way – of course within the constraints of mainstream Wado and very much marching to the UKKW/Suzuki drum. In my own head I reckoned that the apprenticeship had been served.

By that time I had pretty much decided that competition karate was not going to give me what I needed. Although I did enter competitions in my early years at Leeds I became disillusioned with how things were run (e.g. Carlisle, Huddersfield, the Nationals). I had no desire to build a team to rival the top teams of the day, it just wasn’t part of my agenda (the same Leeds Dojo became famous only after my departure, after Keith Walker took over and embraced the competition world with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm).

Although I was building a Dojo, it was all geared towards ‘Project Me’. I think I must have figured that if I was going to be running the club with some authority as a twenty-year-old, I had better make sure that I could walk the walk.

Supplementary Training.

For me it was split between Dojo time and supplementary training time; and it was in this supplementary training that I became quite creative; basically, I was willing to try anything.

I started off living in student halls of residence at Beckett Park, Headingley, north of the city centre. While I was there, I gained permission to train in the weights room of the PE college, Carnegie, which was always interesting because you never knew who was going to walk through the door. I hardly saw any of the rugby set in there; the only heavy lifting they were interested in was in the Union bar. It became a bit of a joke, the piss-head rugby crowd were only ever seen in the evening, while the serious athletes were only ever seen at 6am for their morning run – always an early night for those people.

In the weights gym were specialist athletes; like the canoeists, guys with massive shoulders, yet tiny skinny legs. And throwers; lots of throwers, javelin, discus and shot; many of them trained by Wilf Paish, a small man who would drift in and out of the gym and never seemed to smile. Paish had his finest hour in the 1984 Olympics as mentor to Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread.

I initially tried to connect with the Shotokan group on the campus, but the Shotokan big cheese must have seen me as too much of an outsider and let me know that I just wasn’t welcome. He told me to go and train in a corner; as a result this was a very short-lived experience.

Always looking for a new opportunity to train, I used the gym equipment at the Leeds Playhouse when I was in the city centre, sometimes lunchtimes, sometimes early evenings. This was the ‘Multi-gym’ type equipment, but it was very manageable and I was always able to get a reasonable workout.

I even trained with the Leeds University boxing club, however, it interfered too much with my technique. I didn’t let the trainer know I’d done anything before; he liked how I used my waist, but it wasn’t to be; but it was worth a punt anyway.

On top of this I did an awful lot of running. The Headingley parkland and running track were perfect for that, and with all those PE student-types around, it just seemed to be the done-thing, although I always found the early morning runs a real chore.

Lifestyle.

I never lost the habit of walking everywhere; averaging four times a day from Headingley to the city centre site, back and forth; two miles each way. I enjoyed the walking, then, as now, it gave lots of time for thinking and it never felt like a hardship.

The few times I took the bus I always felt resentful, this was magnified by the lousy attitude of many of the bus drivers, who seemed to think that passengers were an inconvenience to their working day. They hated having to give change and were brutal on the brakes when they realised that people were precariously balanced stuffed into the aisles because the seats were all taken; a quick stamp on the brake pedal and people would tumble like skittles! I suppose it gave them some fun in a working day.

As I didn’t drive at that time, everything was on foot; I never saw the inside of a taxi, they were just too expensive.

Parties and events were just word of mouth, an address, a name, or sometimes a crudely printed ticket with the date and time on it. Pre-Internet days meant holding information and a complex map of the city in your head, and any networking seem to operate at the same telepathic level as Aboriginal ‘Song Lines’, we just ‘knew’ where people were liable to be at any point on any given weekend night; spookily accurate in its psychic predictions.

The Leeds Dojo.

Gradually I had picked up a small group of karate students who were all about the same age as me; some were college kids from various courses. This enabled me to really start to pump the official twice weekly Dojo sessions at the YMCA in the city centre.

I don’t for a minute think that we were very technical – certainly not by today’s standards. We used to joke that half of the class time was dedicated to calisthenics; a bit of an exaggeration, but not far off. After I’d left Leeds, Keith Walker had taken over the Dojo; as he’d started with me as a teenager, he very much followed the tradition I had established, and, a visitor from North Yorkshire, a female karate-ka who trained at the Settle Dojo, commented that when she went to train in Leeds (post 1982) Keith had put her through a session that was mostly boot-camp callisthenics. But, to his credit, he soon found his own way of doing things.

But, being honest, a lot of the content of the training was for me; it sounds a bit selfish but my thinking was that if the students benefitted from it then all well and good. In those early days, I set the pace, I directed the exercises and I enjoyed devising new ways to work the body. We may not have been terrifically technical martial artists but we were really fit.

Eventually, twice a week was not enough for me.

The YMCA were quite happy for us to book the training space for times when things were quiet; so early Friday evening was an additional class; about three hours of extra training. In the first part of the session it was often just me and young Keith Walker and then others turned up as the evening went on.

Saturday mornings at the YMCA.

But the most enjoyable session was the Saturday morning class.

Because nobody wanted the basement gym at the YMCA on Saturday morning, we grabbed it as an extra slot. Although, living a student lifestyle, training on a Saturday morning was a bit of a stretch. It developed into one of our most creative and free-form sessions, and I think those who took part really enjoyed the buzz.

The Saturday class was for two hours. It always started with about 45 minutes of kata, though this was a token, almost a warm up.

We then went into crazy sets of relay runs (it was a long narrow gym) punctuated with circuit training-style intervals; squats, press-ups and every exercise I could throw into the mix. By the time we’d got to the end of that we were a sweaty mess and, crucially, well warmed up for the sparring. This was the ‘light sparring’ I had ‘borrowed’ from the Wolverhampton team. It always started out in the right spirit, but the more we got into it the heavier it got, but nobody seemed to care, it was a total adrenalin rush, and, because we all trusted each other, we knew how to push each other’s boundaries; high energy, yes, but full spirited.

The bonus of the Saturday morning was that we had access to the most wonderful hot water showers after training. Rinsing off the sweat with muscles feeling like mush, the euphoria after the training was better than any massage. You could have poured me into a bucket.

On many occasions the Saturday morning training was the prelude to another bigger training session in the afternoon. We would often grab a quick lunch at the YMCA cafeteria and then catch a train from Leeds to Doncaster to train for a further two or three hours with either a Japanese Sensei or another guest instructor at the Doncaster Dojo, also allied to the UKKW.

This arrangement led to some interesting and intense Saturdays.

An ‘apex’, and not untypical weekend for us, was probably:

Friday; three hours training.
Then leave your sports bag and sweaty gi in a left luggage locker in the railways station.
Go out on a heavy night, including clubbing till about 2am.
Crawl into bed, about 3am.
Up early Saturday, collect the sports bag from the station.
Two hours of hard work in the YMCA gym in a stinky, sweaty gi; no chance to recover.
To Leeds station to catch a train to Doncaster, more training.
Back into Leeds for whatever the night offered; phew!

We didn’t congratulate ourselves that we were doing anything unique; we had nothing to compare it to; it was just what it was, we just plunged in, we had the energy to do it and youth was on our side. It is only in retrospect that I realise how bonkers it was. But, it was really about being young and pushing at any boundaries we could find.

A training diary from the time details how I would sometimes clock up twenty hours a week of training in various forms.

It is often commented on that youth is wasted on the young; I am sure that in those days we were convinced we were indestructible. I suffered relatively few injuries; a niggling lower back problem, a broken toe, broken nose, various hand injuries (thumbs wrenched back) and an unfortunate and very stupid stab injury to my thigh, to which I still have the scar, which (typical of me) I had bandaged up and trained through – because I was indestructible and would let nothing stop me, and hence the stitches wouldn’t hold and the wound opened up and now I carry a bigger and uglier scar than I needed to – fool that I am. (The course on that day was a squad training session under the then England coach Eddie Cox).

Influences and opportunities.

But what about input? Where was I getting my influences from, how was I able to develop?

So much must be credited to the initiative and enthusiasm of the Genery family who ran the Doncaster Dojo. They kept us well-informed about courses they were hosting and never failed to invite us. All of the main Japanese Sensei were invited to run courses and gradings at the Doncaster Judo club; Suzuki Sensei, Shiomitsu, Nishimura, Sugasawa, Sakagami as well as courses with England coach Eddie Cox, Charles Longdon-Hughes and world champion Jeoff Thompson. Add to that the big UKKW courses, Winter and Summer and some particularly iconic courses organised in places like Sheffield and Newcastle; there was so much happening. It is often assumed that the London scene for Wado karate was where it was all happening, but Suzuki Sensei and the other Japanese Sensei were encouraged to go all over the country and the demand was there. It must have been a good way of making a living as there was never a course that was unsupported, and that was quite something in an age that was pre-Internet. All communications took place through mail and phone calls. But, for me, living as a student in Leeds, we didn’t have a phone and had to make any vital calls through payphones, so it was all word of mouth.

As I worked on my body and predominantly my fitness level I probably undervalued the technical world. Not that I taught or practised sloppy techniques; I was very exacting in refining my own skills, but only really to the demands of the time. I had been well-tutored in the syllabus book and knew what was required to pass gradings and perform a fast and sharp kata; but there were other fish that needed frying.

Fight training.

In retrospect I enjoyed exploring creativity through fighting. Sparring was a crucible for me, as I chased ideas and explored new emphasis. I remember that at one time I got really excited about rhythm and setting up tempo patterns and then breaking them; a kind of ‘leading’, a disruptive interplay.

We tried to engage with contact work, but we were always short of equipment – I think that must have been where the boxing experiment happened.

It must be said that all of this did not happen in a vacuum. We developed some useful contacts through other martial artists, other karate styles. We met some of them through competitions; although, as I have said, our competition experiences were not always fruitful.

Other courses.

I attended most of the major courses and encouraged my students to do the same. I think I only missed the 1979 summer course, a landmark course because this was Sugasawa Sensei’s first summer course in the UK. I had seen him before at the 1978 Nationals, with moustache and long hair; but the 79 summer course changed all of that for him, as it was there that he reverted back to the shaven-headed look he’d had in Japan and has subsequently stuck with ever since.

The summer and winter courses from the Leeds days followed the same pattern as previous years; though the venue of the summer course changed to Great Yarmouth and then Torquay.

But, to return the focus to the training.

These courses were marked by their large numbers. Nowadays big courses across Wado organisations are boosted by huge contingents from abroad; this was not the case in the late 70’s and early 80’s, although the winter courses did tend to attract some Scandinavians and a few Dutch. The attendees were primarily UK-based and it was good for networking, and to train with different partners. Which in itself was a bit of a lottery; you could get some really outstanding, hardworking partners or some that were either lazy (too much wanting to talk about or analyse what we were working on) or some that were just clueless. Over the years I did partner Japanese Sensei who were there for the training; Fukazawa Hiroji was new to the Suzuki way of doing things and when I partnered him he asked me to teach him the Suzuki Ohyo Gumite, which I was happy to do. (In later years I partnered Tomiyama Keiji of Shito Ryu on a large course in Guildford; a real pleasure.). These were all great learning experiences.

Grading for 2nd Dan.

I took my 2nd Dan on the Summer Course in Great Yarmouth in 1980. There were a clutch of prospective 1st Dans, and the only ones above that were myself for 2nd Dan; one of a bunch of brothers who had emigrated to Australia for 3rd Dan, and another British emigree from Sweden who was going for 4th Dan; which made fighting all the more interesting. The most senior, the Swedish/English guy had a tough time in the fighting and the Australian gave him a real drubbing, I felt quite sorry for him, he never really got started, the Aussie was all over him like a rash. Then came the time for me to fight Mr Sweden, but he’d had all the fight knocked out of him; so, it was a bit of a non-event. Then I had to spar with the Australian… I admit it here, it was a tough fight, I went with the idea that attack was the best form of defence, I was definitely outclassed, it was almost impossible to stifle his aggression, but I felt that I held my own, I certainly didn’t disgrace myself – one of my most memorable fights.

Suzuki Sensei.

On these courses the majority of my time was under Suzuki Sensei. He insisted on taking the black belts for himself, as befitting of the senior man. Shiomitsu and Sakagami had to be content with switching the brown and green belts between themselves.

Suzuki Sensei was gruff in manner and thought nothing of kicking your leg from under you and growling at you if it wasn’t up to his measure. He also had no restraint in showing his amusement when someone screwed up. His humour had a cruel side to it. He had a favoured take-down which involved grasping your collar from the back and pulling you backwards at great speed. Tokaido gis at that time had a particular weakness; although they were expensive, they used to tear at the back of the collar, near the shoulder. I think he knew this and when he needed to demonstrate the take-down I’m sure he looked for the Tokaido label, and, sure enough, ‘rip!!’ an expensive gi top split all the way down, and he would just walk away chuckling to himself.

When Suzuki Sensei was teaching kata it was all ‘Ichi, Ni, San, Shi…’ but when Shiomitsu taught kata he would start out like that and then become impatient and say, ‘practice by yourself’. I actually found this quite useful as I could really dig into repetitions and try to get under the skin of what I was doing, with the added bonus of Japanese Sensei prowling round to correct your form and maybe field questions – although the ‘fielding of questions’ was very much a later development, Suzuki Sensei did not encourage questions.

Suzuki taught by physical example; ‘like this!’ he would say, and snap sharply into position. He was very ‘hands-on’ and demanded that you mirror his moves; he almost wanted you to ‘be him’, which was a challenge for me as we were physically quite different. I make no bones about it and stick by my theory that karate was designed by shorter guys, for shorter guys. I first realised this through experiencing Suzuki’s physicality, but it was further reinforced by having to train alongside Clive Wright and Frank Johnson. These two were physical carbon copies of each other body-wise. Quite short and light in build, closer to the Suzuki ideal. I remember training alongside Clive in Yarmouth and being puzzled as to how we were both doing the same move to the same count but he was getting to the end of the motion half a beat before I was? And then I realised what the answer was, ‘short levers’; because of my limb length being longer than Clive’s (or Frank’s) I had to cover twenty inches of distance to their twelve! No wonder I was behind!

I have often pondered this conundrum; the challenge for the taller person is to aim for the same speed as the shorter person, at the same time being aware that with the longer levers there is going to be a bigger challenge to move as an integrated whole – put simply; the ends of the limbs may have the advantage of creating a longer reach but this leads to the extreme ends of the movement being significantly divorced from the body’s central core; and it is this relationship that is integral to efficient movement in Wado.

Training methods and instruction.

On these summer and winter courses there was still the emphasis on going up and down in lines; which is a very efficient way of managing the large numbers. You would think that it was very easy to get lost in the crowd, but there were so many Japanese instructors to oversee proceedings that you always felt eyes upon you. But I am sure that these large numbers hindered the opportunity for the more bespoke coaching that is needed to progress – particularly post-Dan grade. I can’t think of any course that I went on in those years where the numbers were so few that you were able to enjoy a unique access to Japanese instruction. The only instances that came close was when Sakagami Sensei was teaching at the Doncaster Dojo; but this coaching didn’t happen in the Dojo, it happened in the changing rooms afterwards. Sakagami on his own was always friendly and talkative, though always earnest and enthusiastic, once you got him on a favoured theme. But in those changing room chats he used to get carried away and we were stuck in there for ages; so much so that the organisers seemed to be frustrated in their efforts to clear up and lock up. He just went on and on, but it was so interesting and so informative.

Tim Shaw

Featured image: Mark Harland and Tim Shaw in the Leeds YMCA basement gym, circa 1979.

You’d better hope you never have to use it – Part 2.

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“Smash the elbow”, “tear the throat out”, “snap the arm like a twig”, “gouge the eyes with your thumbs”. I have heard these things said by martial artists during classes. But I find myself asking, how do you know? and have you ever done that? Have you ever used your thumbs to gouge out somebody’s eyeballs? And on top of that, how do you know you won’t freeze like a rabbit in the headlights? Or, how do you know if you have enough resilience (or lived experience) to be able to suffer a terrible beating before you get a chance to put in that one decisive game-changing shot?

Empirical evidence versus anecdotes.

Effectiveness, can you prove it? Can it be quantified in a scientific way? Is the data available?

Every martial artist probably has a dozen stories as to why their martial arts method is effective as a fighting system and none of these incidents ever happen inside the Dojo – how could they, it’s supposed to be a safe training environment?

I have my own ‘go-to’ anecdotes, but equally I have another set of anecdotes where martial arts practitioners have come unstuck – but nobody talks about those, least of all the people who it has happened to (understandably). [1].

Anecdotes may be fun to recount but all they do is muddy the water, they are too random to qualify as evidence. And, if you look at some of these stories in the cold light of day you often have to wonder about (a) their veracity, (b) which way the odds were stacked, (c) whether elements of luck or chance were involved; but one thing is clear, they cannot really be used as definitive proof that your system works, after all, the system is the system and You are not the system.

The anecdotes may suggest that in certain circumstances your chances of coming out on top in a violent attack might be slightly higher – but they could also suggest that you might come out worse (probably because of over-confidence, or an unrealistic evaluation of your own ability).

The problem with fantasy.

Now compare that to movie fantasies of physical confrontations. I cite two examples that come to mind.

The first being Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, where Reacher takes a bunch of guys on after they offer him out from a bar ( link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hu1MtT_S3bc

The thing is, deep down, we all want it to be like that.

And then Robert Downey Jnr as Sherlock Holmes in a bare knuckles contest (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-z5139CW1I

This last one is about as extreme an example as is needed to make my point that fantasy is fantasy. (To paraphrase Mike Tyson, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get a punch in the mouth’.)

The Sherlock Holmes example is akin to treating violence like a chess game – if I plan and think several moves ahead then my plan will bring about the downfall of my opponent…. wrong. When it gets to the ‘trading punches’ stage you have already entered the world of chaos, thus ramping up the unpredictability exponentially.

It is potentially fatal to confuse Complex with Complicated [2] and the zone of chaos is indeed Complex. This is why those who are supremely skilful at navigating the Complex world have to do it without thought, artifice or calculation, they are like expert nautical mariners in a tossing sea, who work on instinct, they have an overarching understanding of Principle, their skills are not a bunch of cobbled together tricks that they have memorised hoping for that moment to happen.

I know that there are critics of the Principle angle in martial arts (particularly Wado), usually they fail to understand it and ask, what is this ‘Principle’ thing anyway? I am tempted to reply with something like the Louis Armstrong quote about the definition of jazz, “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is – you’ll never know”. (See my blog post on ‘Fast Burn, Slow Burn Martial Arts’ for a clue as to how it works). These same people remind me of the ‘Fox with no tail’ a moral story from Aesop].

When people talk about ‘functionality’, ‘functional combative skills’, this has to be about effectiveness, surely? But You can’t talk about that without some form of measure, if there is no measure then it’s all opinion and as such, we can take it or leave it. The person who makes the statement can only hope that we trust their opinion as an ‘expert’, but again, an expert based on what experience; their ability (as proven) to ‘snap someone’s arm like a twig, or gouge their eyes out’? I realise that there are people out in the martial arts world whose whole authority rests on this issue and it’s not my place to call them out, particularly as I also have no experience of ‘snapping arms’ to support any claims I make, but just apply a little logic to it.

Of course, I reckon that if I take my opponent’s elbow over my shoulder and exert a forceful two-handed yank downwards I might be able to ‘snap his elbow like a twig’, but I doubt he’s going to let that happen without a hell of a struggle (unless I am Sherlock Holmes of course). Meanwhile, he has barrelled into me, knocked me on my back and is sat on my chest raining punches into my face, and then his mates join in to kick me in the head for good measure – elementary my dear Watson.

Looking for evidence in history.

I feel I have to address this one. Anyone who looks for evidence in history is on to a sticky wicket. History is notoriously unreliable. We know this because current historical revisionist methods are revealing that many things we thought were true may not be so. For example; everyone knows that it is the victors who write the history.

If we take our history inside Japan and Okinawa and we listen to serious, open-minded researchers, we find that some of the things we took for granted may well not be true.

To give a few examples:

  • Zen Buddhism does not have the monopoly in Japanese martial arts, certainly karate is not ‘Moving Zen’.
  • The 19th century Samurai were not the apex of Japanese martial valour and skill. Set that two or three hundred years earlier and you might be about right.
  • Okinawan martial arts were not the result of a suppression imposed by Japanese Samurai; it was not that simple. Okinawan people were generally peaceful and society was well-structured, it certainly was not the Dodge City that some people like to suggest, it seems that the martial arts of Okinawa reflected this, an extreme martial arts crucible it certainly wasn’t, certainly if you compare it with what was happening in Japan between 1467 and 1615. I don’t point that out to discredit the Okinawan systems, it’s just an observation and there were exceptions, e.g. Motobu Choki, who certainly had his ‘Dodge City’ moments.

As time moves forward all we are left with is the mythologies, hardly something to judge the functional abilities of teachers who are long dead, so all we have available is guesswork, assumptions and opinions; not really scientific or objective. So, anyone who wants to hang their ideas on that particular hook would be wise to keep an open mind.

How would martial arts work in a defence situation? A proposition.

To answer this, I would speculate that there are several high-level outcomes that are possible, and none of them look anything like either the movie fantasy image, or the types of techniques that are, ‘a bunch of cobbled together tricks that have been memorised hoping for that moment to happen’ [3].

  • The highest level has to be that nothing happens, because nothing needs to happen. The world calms down and order rules the day; chaos is banished.
  • The next highest level is probably where the aggressor just seems to fall down on his own. Here are my two nearest assumptions on this (one anecdotal and the other historical – but after all, I have to pluck my examples from somewhere). The first is a story about Otsuka Sensei dealing with a man who tried to mug him for his wallet in a train station. Otsuka just dealt with the guy in the blink of an eye and when asked what he did, he replied, “I don’t know”. The other is the historical encounter between Kito-Ryu Jujutsu master Kato Ukei and a Sumo wrestler who twice decided to test the master’s Kato’s ability with surprise attacks, and both times seemed to just stumble and hit the dirt [4].
  • Anything below those two levels would probably involve one single clean technique, nothing prolonged, maybe appearing as nothing more than a muscle spasm, nothing ‘John Wick’, certainly nothing spectacular – job done.
  • Then you might plunge down the evolutionary scale and have two guys smashing each other in the face to see who gives up first.

Conclusions:

The original objectives of these two blog posts were to challenge the assumptions we seem have made about the nature of self-defence (in its broadest interpretation) and to put forward some different angles, explode a few myths and to present the idea that all that glitters is not gold.

I don’t have the answers, but then it seems, neither does anyone else. But we shouldn’t just throw our hands up in the air. Keep on with the focus on defending ourselves and refining our technique and by all means teach self-defence as a supporting disciple or on dedicated courses, it is a brilliant way for martial arts instructors to engage with the community in a positive and confidence building way; however, keep it realistic and not just fearful.

For those who claim that their approach has more ‘functionality’ I would humbly suggest that that you might want to look towards the key questions; objectively, how can you prove that? Maybe what you are asking for is a leap of faith? My view is that the data is not there and that it is just lazy logic. [5]

There are people who want to claim their authority from the ‘short game’, while I would suggest that there is another game in town; the ‘long game’. Targets really need to be aspirational and ambitious, not ducking towards the lowest common denominator, i.e. the ‘fear factor’ of the anxious urbanite. Your authority is not derived from your ability to ring the metropolitan angst bell; or to yank the chain of the frustrated metrosexual male who feels he is cut adrift and fretful about his role in contemporary society and lost in a maelstrom of surging confusion.

The bottom line is; get real and dare to think differently.

As a last word, these posts are not meant to be definitive, or to cover all aspects of self-protection. I could have included comments about how the law views self-defence, or how much mental attitude is a part of self-defence, or adrenalin, fight and flight etc, without even mentioning the number of young men in the UK who die through stab injuries. But maybe another day.

Tim Shaw

[1] One event happened fairly recently where I had bumped into a martial artist from another system, an acquaintance, in a nightclub. He’d had a drink or two and proceeded to bend my ear about how ‘the trouble with most martial artists is they have never been in a real fight, never trained for it, etc.’ And, as if the God of Irony was looking down upon him; within seconds of him waving me goodbye, he crossed paths with the wrong person and ended up as a victim, laid out and bleeding. I guess he didn’t get the chance to ‘snap the arm like a twig’.
Be careful what you wish for.

[2] See my blog post on Systems. https://wadoryu.org.uk/2020/01/29/is-your-martial-art-complicated-or-complex/

[3] These methods often assume that the opponent is going to present themselves like a bag of sand and allow you to engage in an ever-complex string of funky locks, take-downs, arm-bars etc. etc. Sherlock Holmes would definitely approve.

[4] Source: ‘Famous Budoka of Japan: Mujushin Kenjutsu and Kito-ryu’. Kono, Yoshinori, Aikido Journal 111 (1997). According to Ellis Amdur in his book ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ this is pure Principle and Movement in practice (my paraphrase).

[5] Similar to the way people talk out about ‘life after death’, i.e. how do you know? Conveniently, nobody has ever come back to tell us. Ergo; you never have to validate your claims.

Image credit: Kiyose Nakae ‘Jiu Jitsu Complete’ 1958.

Please join us for the Winter Course 2022

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Shikukai Winter Course 2022 will be the first major face to face course that Shikukai has held post restrictions. Our vision is to create a focused, smaller, boutique course that connects us to our Wado. It will be different to the usual large courses we’ve held in the past, but with Sensei’s guidance it’s sure to be a success. 

It is important that we manage the numbers carefully this year.  Please contact us to let us know you are coming (or thinking about it) etc.  Give us your Mobile number and we will add you to a WhatsApp Group just for this event.  
 

Saturday 12th Feb 11:00 Registration / warm up   

11:30am – 3:00pm (3:00pm-3:30pm) personal practice

Sugasawa Sensei & Shikukai Senior Instructors

Danbury Sports Centre, Danbury CM3 4NQ

Sunday 13th February 11:00 Registration / warm up

11:30am – 3:00pm

Sugasawa Sensei & Shikukai Senior Instructors

Danbury Sports Centre, Danbury CM3 4NQ
Sunday 13th will also include:

  • Kyu Gradings   3:00pm – One month notice required please
  • Dan Grading     4:00pm – Formal handwritten letter to Sensei by 11th January 2022

Free parking –  Danbury Sports Centre has an upper and lower car park—————————————————————————————–

Course, Grading and registration fees 2022

  • Kyu Grading Fee £14.00 – One month notice required please
  • Dan Grading Fee £25.00 – Formal handwritten letter to Sensei by 11th January 2022

Attendance to the course must be booked for and paid in advance

Paypal https://www.paypal.me/StevenThain

2 Day Rate

  • Adult member – £50
  • Adult Non-member – £60
  • Junior (11-17yrs) member – £30
  • Junior (11-17yrs) Non- member – £40

1 Day Rate

  • Adult member £30
  • Adult Non-member £35
  • Junior (11-17yrs) member £15
  • Junior (11-17yrs) Non- member £20

——————————————————————————————-

Additional Dojo time
 

  1. Thursday 10th February. Shouwa Jyuku regular dojo session
    7:30pm -9:00pm
    Woodham Walter Primary school, The Street, Woodham Walter CM9 6RF
    Open to all.  £10
     
  2. TBC – Friday 11th February. Shouwa Jyuku Instructor led
    6:00pm – 8:00pm
    This session is TBC and very much subject to demand.


Covid.  We will be exercising an upper limit of attendance. We ask that if you aren’t double vaccinated that you carry out a covid test before arrival to the course and do not attend if you have any symptoms. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/symptoms/
Cancellation due to Covid.  If you test positive, we will refund any payments you’ve made to the course.

Social.  We won’t be organising the usual large group meal this year. We suggest people organise themselves for meals in the evenings. We will arrange a meet at a couple of central pubs at the time.

Accommodation. There are many options for accommodation in Chelmsford. Sensei will be staying at the Premier Inn Chelmsford City Hotel. CM1 1NY

Money.  We intend to be cash free this year. You will need to pre-book your place onto the course with payment made in full one month prior to the course, this will help us in planning to give the most benefit to your training.  Paypal https://www.paypal.me/StevenThain

WhatsApp. Please email your attendance and payment along with your mobile phone number, we will add you to a group for the event that will give important information out.

International students.  International students please email us for your attendance. Stansted Airport is the closest airport to us. There are regular affordable  buses that run to Chelmsford regularly. If you are having difficulty with this, please contact Steve, Tim or Natalie.

Steve. thethains41@gmail.com /  07989 257044 

Tim. timshaw499@hotmail.com /  07585 707718

Natalie. natalie.harvey9@gmail.com /  07972 790246

Facebook@chelmsfordshikukai 
www.wadoryu.org.uk
www.shikukai.com

In Search of the Perfect Gi.

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This has been worrying me for a while, and I am sure I am not on my own. It has become a personal crusade for me, and is currently becoming more and more urgent, as I know my favoured Gis are beyond their prime and I have zero chance of replacing them (the preferred model no longer exists).

But this in itself always presents me with a moral dilemma – I mean… does it really matter?

The white karate Keikogi (to give it it’s fuller name) is supposed to be a purely a no-frills, practical item of clothing; it’s not a fashion statement. If it is any kind of statement, it is one that is anti-ego and, like any uniform, a social leveller, as if to say, ‘hey, we’re all the same here!’, ‘check your egos at the door!’. It is also a declaration of community and belonging, which is clearly a good thing.

I know, it’s all about comfort, or durability, or any other excuse we give ourselves for paying out ever larger amounts of cash.

But we do have choices, even if we stick with the plainest white karate Gi.

For example, we have the weight of the fabric and we have, what is often referred to as the ‘cut’, ‘European cut’, Japanese cut’, I often wonder about that; are the Japanese so different in physique that they need their own ‘cut’?

With fabric weight, the kata competitors would go for the heavyweight cotton; the heavier the better; it gives the solid crack in the sleeves with razor-sharp creases and is as rigid as cardboard. Contrast that with the Kumite competitors, who seemed to go for the floppier the better, stopping short of being diaphanous, ‘freedom of movement’ was given as the excuse. I get this, as I have found that on a heavy sweaty kick-based session the Gi bottoms can bind and restrict movement.

How did this all come about? It’s probably more complicated than people think.

A little history.

Let me start with the colour thing.

Historically the white Keikogi probably came out of pure convenience. When cotton uniforms for martial arts training were first introduced in Japan there was no advantage in going to the trouble of dyeing them; they were just in their natural state. You could attach all kinds of symbolism about white being for purity of spirit etc. but that would be stretching a point.

The cut of the jacket is supposed to have originated from the heavy jacket worn by Japanese firemen called Hanten.

The longer sleeves and trouser legs developed out of necessity in the grappling world; as exposed elbows and knees were prone to mat burns. Of course, karateka were behind the curve on the design of the Keikogi. In the early 20th century the frontrunners were the Kodokan Judo people, who, incidentally, also implemented the ‘black belt’. (The idea of coloured belts for kyu grades is said to have originated in Europe).

The non-white Gi.

I remember from my early training days the idea of a black Gi was a bit of a joke, but it didn’t stop some people from the wilder fringes of ‘karotty’ from adopting them; but now, in some circles, black Gis became an unquestionable reality. Recently I listened to a martial arts podcast where a female instructor and founder of her own school justified the decision for adopting a black Gi on the grounds of limiting potential embarrassment for female Dojo members relating to their periods. I can see the sense in that. My guess is that 50% of the adult population would have never have thought of that.

Meanwhile, in Olympic Judo, their cutting-edge approach to all things sartorial seems to me to have gone a step too far.

In 1986 it was proposed the adoption of a blue Gi and a white Gi for opposing competitors, and so it has been ever since. Excuse me for being cynical but am I alone in thinking that maybe this decision was made by people with vested interests in the manufacture and sales of Judo Gis? It was done on the shaky grounds that it was to facilitate the distinction between two opponents for the sake of the judges, referees and the audience…. Really?! The poor Judoka now have to double their wardrobe if they are serious about competing. This same stunt was pulled when karate competitors had to have blue and red fighting mitts – a cheaper outlay, but I wondered whether they had considered blue and red Gis to match?

Elvis – when things got really silly.

For me, the extreme point of where reality snapped was the Gi that Elvis Presley chose to wear in 1974; it was ridiculously over-the-top! Whoever awarded Elvis a 7th Dan should have really had a quiet word in his ear about the decision to wear THAT Gi. If you are a senior grade and are considering buying (or redesigning) your Gi or belt, you need to have that picture at the back of your mind – print it off and stick it on your wardrobe now; just to restrain you from your wildest excesses! [1]

Returning to my problems.

My current favoured Gis are now slightly past their sell-by date; these are/were my Adidas Gis, but annoyingly Adidas have decided to redesign these already rather excellent Gis. The latest models are not hugely different, but they have added one feature that for me steps over a red line and as such makes them irredeemable – they have decided to have their own logo embroidered onto the jacket!

I have a real objection to the assumption by Adidas that I am content to walk around like a human billboard! If a company or brand wants me to advertise or endorse their product, they should pay me! Or at least reduce the price to reward me for the services I am doing for them!

The embroidered brand logo takes us a step further towards the complete anarchy we used to see within modern Jujutsu groups where they seem to have more badges than you’d see in the average scout troop, and twice the size!

Dear Adidas, less is more. You had it right twenty years ago!

I heard about an interesting development; an American company jumped on the ethically sourced and locally made bandwagon for Brazilian Jujutsu Gis. More expensive, but definitely made in America (to support American businesses); I like this model. If the product is intelligently designed and takes into consideration the traditional karateka then I would buy into it.

Drawstring versus elasticated waistband?

For me it’s like the difference between lace-up shoes or ones with Velcro fastenings. Personally, I don’t find it a hardship to tie a drawstring, and I have seldom had the problem of the drawstring disappearing (easily solved with a large safety pin anyway). If you do go elasticated at least it’s only something your closest friends will know about, or the people next to you in the changing rooms.

Still, if you compare the price of a new Keikogi to the price of kit and equipment people have to shell out for in other sports (golf or skiing) it still makes karate training a low-cost activity.

My Influencer pitch.

At this point I would like to issue a challenge to manufacturers of karate Gi. If you think your product is superior and meets the previously mentioned criteria (white, hard wearing, no unnecessary extras, particularly embroidered brand logos), then I will give you an honest review of your product in these blog posts. But there is a catch; you have to send me a free Gi (no import duty or other costs).

Tim Shaw

[1] Image of Elvis Presley in THAT Gi can be found at: https://www.elvis.com.au/presley/elvis-presley-and-karate.shtml

Karate in the early 70’s, sample No. 2.

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I wasn’t going to do this, but with over 58000 words still to go, why not offer another teaser?

Part 2.

From my house the walk to Mansfield to the karate club was slightly under two miles, and so, initially, twice a week, I did this four-mile round trip on foot, either side of two hours sweaty training.

Thinking back on it, it always surprises me that I never considered taking the bus, even in the foulest of weather. But buses meant money and the karate class fee was fifty pence! It doesn’t sound like much but bear in mind that the average price for a pint of beer in 1974 (always a good fiscal measure) was 14 pence!

This fifty pence fee became a standing joke with my dad. He never understood what I was up to, I think he found it funny. He was of a generation who had no reference to what karate was; he just let me get on with it and watched with casual amusement when I practiced my ‘moves’ on the back yard. The only time he commented was when I came home from training once with a black eye – “How much did you pay for that?”, “Fifty pence” I replied, “Give me fifty pence and I’ll black your eye”, he said. He wasn’t a violent man; he just had a mischievous sense of humour. He then walked away chuckling to himself. Parenting in my house was very laissez faire.

Mansfield karate club was one of the earliest established full-time Dojos in the UK (founded in 1969). It had originally been an old paint warehouse. An unassuming brick-built structure, it stood on West Hill Drive about fifty yards downhill from Mansfield General Hospital. The accident and emergency department was part of the hospital and I remember a few trips there to get myself patched up, or in one case where one of my kicks had split the eyebrow of one of my sparring partners and as such, it was my responsibility to sit with him in the A&E department until he was sewn up by the doctor.

The resident instructor was one of the early pioneers of British karate, David Allsop. By the early 70’s he had established a small team of willing ‘instructors’, at that time brown belts, and had timetabled regular classes that ran six days a week. This was a well-organised set-up.

The building was two storey, with its own changing rooms and toilets; male and female, which was really unusual as it is often thought that there were very few women training in karate at that time. While it’s true that men outnumbered women, the Mansfield Dojo bucked the trend; there were some very able women who trained there, who seemed unfazed by training and fighting with the men.

The upper floor was an open space, uncluttered with a wooden floor, which was well-worn, polished by footwork, stained by sweat.

It had windows on three sides, but one aspect just overlooked a brick wall, this was the building opposite an alleyway. Another side looked over the rooftop of the Labour Club next door, and on the other wall the windows were set in a doorway that was never used; the remnants of the warehouse; apparently, an upper floor loading access that was meant to slide open, but never did. The windows in the door were too high to give a panoramic view, but I have distinct memories of being alone in the building, hammering through repetitions of kata while observing snow flurries swirling before the orange glow of sodium street lights outside.

This all sounds very romantic and atmospheric, but the reality was that it was damp and, in winter, cold  – oh so cold.

The only available heating was electric fan heaters at ceiling level, they really had zero effect; any heat they produced travelled upwards – this barely removed the chill.

The changing rooms, which for the men was tucked under the stairs, were inclined to be decidedly dank and smelled like the inside of an old fridge, a combination of the fug of sweaty shoes and festering, slightly wet, gis.  I remember struggling to wrestle myself into a damp gi top, still pungent from the previous night’s training.

In the winter the floor upstairs was cold enough to split the skin on the soles of your feet. My grandfather had put me on to a salve called Snowfire, a ‘healing balm’, it was a green tablet of greasy overpowering potency. My grandfather was a farmer and out in all weathers, it worked for him and it certainly worked for me. I believe you can still get it, but only from those small independent pharmacies.

‘The Club’ as we called it was really close to the town centre. Later on, it became a good jumping off point for the pubs of Mansfield.

As I mentioned, next door was the Labour Club, if you wanted a drink in there, on most nights you needed to sign in, or be signed in by a member, but it wasn’t always the case. The Labour Club was big enough to host concerts for minor celebrities. One night I stood outside and heard Millie Small belt out her only hit single ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Such was the club circuit at that time. Although Millie was technically a reggae singer, she sang some soul classics. The Labour Club even managed to put minor American soul singers on the bill, like Edwin Starr, whose hit ‘War’ made a big splash in 1970. (Edwin Starr settled in nearby Nottingham and died there in 2003).

At this point I think I need to describe the 16 year old ‘me’.

I had stopped growing at five foot eleven inches, I was always disappointed that I never made six foot. I was very thin, I always worried that when standing sideways I would just disappear. My chest was broad and matched my shoulders but it was oh so very shallow, I would try deep breathing exercises, but they had no effect. Physically I felt a little awkward and self-conscious. I never wore shorts, which was fortunate because in those days nobody did. In summertime I tried to tan, believing at that time it would make me look healthier; it didn’t work; I just accumulated more freckles.

Schools sports held no interest for me; it was all about cliques and teamwork. I wasn’t very good at teamwork and I despised cliques. My favoured sports at school were mostly individual activities; field sports in the summer; particularly throwing events (at which I excelled, having a fast arm), and tennis, which didn’t go down well with the rugby crowd, who joyfully told me that tennis was a ‘game for homosexuals’, a view supported by the PE teacher, Welshman and rugby goon Mr Owen; I didn’t let that put me off.

Karate gave me a physical outlet. I didn’t struggle with the exercise, and I enjoyed the learning of new skills. I found fighting initially intimidating. I caught a low kick early on, which slowed me down somewhat and made my eyes water and brought on the type of pain that is generally… indescribable. It was a first, but certainly not the last.

There was no shortage of sparring partners. Make no mistake, this was a busy Dojo, even with a high drop-out rate classes were packed; lots of young guys all wanting to fight. A class of over twenty upstairs and another equally large downstairs was not unusual.

I realised that most of the men there were significantly bulkier and stronger than me; I think that this was because they were either in heavy industry or mining, at that time I struggled to make 57 Kg. This fact came home the one year that we were forced to enter a weight category competition. Out of a big club entry I was the only lightweight on the card. This was the year that the UKKW decided to decamp its National Championships from the regular London venue of Crystal Palace to Burnley in Lancashire. The then general secretary of the UKKW was a Burnley man, and it must have seemed more economical to run the event there, but it was not without its problems.

This weight difference influenced the way I fought; in a very Darwinian way I had to adapt or suffer. I needed to create distance between myself and my opponent and worked on pressurising him so that he would move back into my kicking range.

Attempting body kicks brought me pain, with toes bent back or collisions with elbows, so I worked on my head kicks and tried all kinds of sneaky ways of slotting them in. I was very poor at foot sweeping in those days, and envied people who could do it well. In retrospect the ability to sweep would have been a useful threat to discourage an opponent who was eager to get close.

David Allsop, my instructor, was an outstanding counter-puncher; his timing was superb, but it was the courage to forestall the opponent at the moment he launched his attack that I really admired. I remember watching him battle his way through multiple opponents at Crystal Palace using this kind of ‘stop ‘em dead’ gyakuzuki, only to lose in the final to the then unstoppable Vic Charles (this was 1975).

But this was the thing; there was no structured fight training, no squad sessions, we were just expected to make it up as we went along, learn from each other. In part I am sure it came out of the idea that the basics, pair work and kata training would give you everything you needed to know, and in some magic way you would pick it up. Whoever designed the system made a big assumption about how we would make the transition, because the majority of people just couldn’t do it. I suspect that if there was any surviving film footage of those days it would show a lot of clunky blokes with serious expressions muscling through like badly constructed robots, all convinced that they were really ‘doing it’. This was why the Japanese instructors who came over were treated like gods; they were just so very well trained and many were the cream of the Japanese university system, they were the best of the best.

I do remember an effort at squad training, conducted at a Lincoln sports centre. This was organised/hosted by the then Lincoln instructor, who clearly had his take on how things should happen. Although it didn’t work out too well for him when, at the event we were preparing for, he clashed with Neiman Prince who completely outclassed him despite him trying to execute Judo techniques out of sheer desperation!

But the Japanese learning mentality is not the same as the western model. It is more suited to compliancy, which tended to be a more direct way of learning – cut the verbalisation, bypass over-intellectualisation and just get on with the job. Westerners were more inclined to ask ‘why’, which I think came as a shock to the incoming Japanese Sensei, and they didn’t have an explanation model to fall back on and were significantly hobbled by the language barrier. Nobody spoke about the mismatch between the cultures; the Japanese were too polite to, and the westerners were too much in awe to formulate their questioning in a coherent way.

Tim Shaw

Sample; Early Training.

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In my previous blog post I mentioned as an afterthought that I had written a chunky type of memoir (to exercise my brain over lock-down). This project grew and ended up being over 60000 words in length. And I joked that nobody would be interested in my obscure ramblings, but it seems I was wrong.

The document I wrote came in two flavours; one part was personal remembrance of what happened between the years 1974 to about 1982; the other part was a reflection on my experiences of how Wado evolved; at least, from my perspective. This sample is of the former flavour.

Here is a taster.

To set the scene; my training began at Sensei David Allsop’s Mansfield Dojo, in 1974, in the years just prior to the Kung-Fu boom [1].

Part 3.

What was training actually like in the early 1970’s?

It took me quite some time to get hold of a Gi, so I trained in jeans and a favoured yellow Adidas t-shirt. Nobody had ‘jogging bottoms’ and nobody wore shorts. Shorts were for football, and that was it!

A karate Gi in 1974 was a rare commodity, the Tokaido Japanese brand was the one to aim for, but they were so expensive. Cheaper Gis could be bought from Milom Company, I think they came from Manchester, but they were remarkably hard wearing. My first Gi was from a nameless company and was very light and badly made, but that was standard for the time.

In the sessions, generally, the warm-up was very callisthenic, low on stretching, high on boot-camp style sit-ups and press-ups, which were nearly always on the knuckles, no exceptions, this was an important part of your training. It made sense to us; it was explained as essential, as it forced you to align your wrist properly in a punch, and it had to be predominantly on the first two larger knuckles; instructors would sometimes check the indents left on your hands and it was very much frowned upon if the indents were in the wrong place.

Different instructors slightly customised their warm-ups.

Dave Nichols was heavily into muscle culture and as such there was a lot of arms and shoulders and heavy repetitions on squatting.

Robert ‘Sam’ Salmon was a lighter build and gave a good general warm-up that really did just prepare you for movement.

Whereas, one brown belt instructor in particular had it in his head that exercise was punishment; he enjoyed the reputation he gained from these ‘warm-ups’. He was often a stand-in instructor and when he appeared in front of the class, he must have seen how people’s faces fell in anticipation of what they were about to go through. It wasn’t rewarding, it wasn’t fulfilling, it wasn’t fun, it was just pain; you ended up standing in a puddle of your own sweat even before training began! This particular brown belt instructor operated a kind of gleeful cruelty. We had our own theories about him; we thought his sadism was a product of him getting too many knock-backs in his attempts to get Dan grade under Suzuki Sensei; incidentally, he never managed it. He eventually left – we didn’t miss him.

The Syllabus.

The bulk of the class was the basics; straight out of the little blue syllabus book with no variation. The book became the source of aspiration; you wanted to get onto the next page, to climb the ladder.

I studied it inside and out, wrote notes and memory aids on each page. I used mnemonics to remember sequences and the order of the pairs work.

Creativity and Japanese Sensei.

What is noticeable in retrospect is that any kind of ‘creativity’ in training was purely the domain of the Japanese instructors. I first experienced this on the early big residential courses. For me, this sealed the reputation of each of the Japanese Sensei, I marvelled at their freedom to create drills and combinations and they were incredibly devious in their exercise routines. The younger Japanese Sensei, fresh from the universities, delighted in showing us how physically inadequate we were – well that’s how it felt anyway. After each major course our instructors came back inspired by new warm-up exercises, not all of them healthy, or even safe.

The Mantra.

But for us, everything was done from the book and by the book. There was a level of correction and guidance going on but it was always about the ‘end position’, how you stood, the positions of your arms and much emphasis on making the correct stance. Nobody ever commented on how you moved. The mantra of ‘more speed, more power’ became a standing joke. In later years when an unsuccessful Dan grade candidate plucked up the courage to get feedback from Suzuki Sensei, the remedy was always the same, “More speed, more power”. And we took it to heart; the measure of our ability was on how fast and powerful we were.

In an early martial arts magazine there was even a cartoon drawn of Suzuki Sensei chiding Sakagami Sensei to execute “More speed, more power”!

If there was any creativity in our own training it was towards nurturing these two qualities and totally self-initiated.

Supplementary training.

For Dave Nichols it was the set of loose weights kept in the corner of the Dojo that supplemented his training. As for me – I went through a crazy period of drinking raw eggs with milk, sweetened with Horlicks powder. If I had access or the money for raw steak, I would have been chewing on that!

I had a chin-ups bar made out of an old TV aerial stretched between two trees. I also had an ex-army kit bag for a punch bag, really heavy, I would do squats with it across my shoulders; I procured a leather belt, from an old threshing machine, I wrapped it around a post and used it for striking. How much success I had is questionable.

The triad of; correct exercise; correct diet and sufficient rest and recovery was all misbalanced. Some of the exercises we were doing were just plain stupid; for example, harsh ballistic stretching, bunny-hopping and duck walking.

With diet; it was protein, protein and more protein; carbs never got a look in. And as for ‘sufficient rest and recovery’, nah, wasn’t going to happen.

It should go without saying, but our information sources were so limited; there was no Internet or YouTube tutorials. The martial arts magazines of the 1970’s were really sparse in their subject matter.

Ramping it up.

By about 1977 I had gradually I upped my training nights and doubled my classes.

In the evening there was an early class starting at 6 and then an overlapping late class which started at 7:30, and then there was time after the late class finished for some of us to get together for some more sparring.

One of the more senior grades; a total fanatic about his own training, used myself and another student as his personal sparring partners. His stamina was seemingly endless and the two of us would just tag team on him; when one of us was burnt out the other one jumped in, allowing recovery time, then rinse and repeat. It seemed to go on for hours, but I’m sure it didn’t.

As time went on, I took on more responsibilities. As a green belt I was sometimes asked to start off the late class, and then I seemed to take on more teaching. I was a little annoyed at first, because I was losing some of my training time, but I soon realised there were advantages; I could direct the training and train alongside – I was in control. I also learned so much by actually having to demonstrate and explain what we were doing, but crucially, once my role was established, I was given a key to the Dojo. This one privilege gave me space and freedom, as well as teaching me so much about personal motivation and self-directed training.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Tim Shaw

[1] The Mansfield Dojo is still there. It is probably England’s oldest established bricks and mortar Dojo, founded in 1969. David Allsop Sensei still teaches regularly at the Dojo. English Heritage or the National Trust should really slap a preservation order on the building!

Featured image: Myself, indulging in some ugly and ungainly scrapping as a green belt in 1975.

Why are there so few books on Wado karate?

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Or, the question might be; why would you want to publish a book on Wado?

I’m sure it’s not just me that’s noticed that if you want to buy a book on Shotokan karate then you are spoiled for choice; there are so many of them! Yet, if you search for books on Wado karate there are very few on offer. In this blogpost I intend to look further into this question.

Types of Wado books.

I am not going to do a critique on the books currently available; largely they occupy a very narrow category. The more recent ones seem to be plush publications that could be described as ‘coffee table books’, a credit to the amount of work put into them (God knows how many hours of editing and photographing have had to have happened to put them into production!). Slick hardbound editions, but still, following the same logic as the Ohgami books published in the 1980’s, or even the Pelham Suzuki book produced in 1967. That is, a picture book approach; step by step guide to Kihon, Kata and Kumite, with a measure of Japanese terminology and a few ‘pointers’ thrown in for good measure. But mostly, a syllabus book with pictures. [1]

I don’t say that disparagingly; where would we be without them?

I think that generally they supply a good set of references, but, in all honesty, probably offer much less than can be found on YouTube.

But why the discrepancy between Shotokan (or Goju Ryu) and Wado in terms of publications?

To shed a little light on this it might be worth going back to the root. From several sources the founder of Wado Ryu Otsuka Hironori is said to have been frustrated with his attempts at publishing books on Wado; an indirect quote from Horikawa Cheiko tells us that when Otsuka Sensei visited her husband Horikawa Kodo a renown Daito Ryu master, Otsuka said, “I’ll never write a book either” the discussion between the two masters continued, but they were in agreement that subtleties are missed and ‘techniques cannot be expressed in books or in words’ and he’s right, how can you convey that level of complexity in the pages of a book? [2]

It is my feeling that the ’catalogue of technique’ type of book, while it works for other styles, does a great disservice to Wado. It reinforces the complete opposite of what we should be aspiring to. It’s nobody’s fault, it was just a convenient medium. I am sure that some authors have already included a disclaimer.

However, it seems to play into the idea that we approach our karate like a picture book, a series of freeze-frames, akin to a flip-book, telling us that what is important is the accuracy of ‘end position’ (something I call ‘making shapes’), whereas we know that Wado is a discipline of movement; it’s not ‘A’ and ‘B’ that count, it’s what happens between ‘A’ and ‘B’ that is really important. Like fishes and water, movement is our medium.

Is it marketable?

It’s not that Japanese martial arts authors have not tried to push the envelope via the printed page, but it’s a really tall order and readers can get lost in the detail.

For me it’s quite telling that more recent sophisticated attempts have had to be published through private sources and ‘limited editions’, I am thinking of one particular well-connected author from within Wado who has been more adventurous and ambitious in his approach. But there are others, and again, they have to be published and financed privately for them ever to see the light of day. [3]

The problem is that the subject matter is so ‘niche’ as to be a complete non-starter in terms of how a publishing company might look at it, ‘How on earth is that going to sell a million copies?’ I can hear them say. It won’t, it’s not even ‘Fly Fishing’ by J. R. Hartley https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeicexenTmU (you have to watch the video to understand the reference).

Some martial arts authors have had to avail themselves of on-line publishing, production and sales; for some this may be the way forward, but it has its limitations.

The death of the book.

Is the book as a material phenomena finished?

Did it all start with Kindle? I ask myself.

No, the writing was always on the wall (pun intended); everything is being digitised now. Books are old technology; they are expensive and they take up space (look how many digitised books can be packed onto a device!). The digital archive has expanded to astronomical heights; beyond books, a YouTube channel packed with information and demonstrations costs nothing in real terms and as such becomes available to everyone… for free! This is the democratisation of information.

The audience can become huge.

As an example, Canadian psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson had become a superstar even before he launched into authorship, just through YouTube. He explained that an academic like him could work for years on a profound and meaningful publication only to have it languish on a dusty library shelf, read by very few people; whereas he started putting his lectures on YouTube, over 447 videos, but over a very short period of time his subscribers rocketed to what is currently around 4,060,000! His individual views on YouTube have reached a staggering 258 million!

Another example is American some-time stand-up comic and occasional MMA commentator Joe Rogan who has developed a podcast which attracts a massive audience, much bigger than Peterson’s, making him one of the largest media influencers in the world, as well as supplying him with considerable wealth.

What Rogan does is just podcast interviews, but what is surprising is that they are not just short snappy soundbites, no, these interviews can go on longer than most movies, averaging two and a half hours, some as long as five hours! (And people say that the average span of attention is shrinking – apparently not!).

Peterson and Rogan are not the only ones at it. There are some very ambitious characters within the martial art world that are keen to employ the new technology, all of varying quality. But it’s a buyer’s market. Sometimes it’s wise to employ your filter.

Will this be a good thing for martial artists? Ultimately yes; technology is a tool and has uncountable modes of operation and it is changing all the time. In the hands of the right individuals with the right intentions who knows what possibilities it will open up.

Someone recently asked me if I ever thought of writing a book about Wado? When I was in my mid 30’s I did consider the idea, but it never happened, and I am glad it didn’t, because at that age, even though I had been training since I was sixteen, I actually knew nothing of any value. I am still finding out how limited my knowledge is, even after all these years [4].

Tim Shaw

[1] Recently a couple of new Wado related types of publications have appeared in print; the Wado history book and the Wado autobiography. There may be more of those to come, and they are a welcome addition to knowledge of all things Wado – which ironically seem to be better suited to the printed page.

[2] Source: ‘Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu – Conversations with Daito-ryu Masters’ Interviews conducted and edited by Stanley A. Pranin. 1996 Aiki News.

[3] For me, of one of the best books on explaining Japanese Budo to Westerners, but it had to be published privately in the Netherlands, ‘Budo – ‘Thoughts on Michi’ by Kyudo master Matsui Iwao (2006).

[4] During lock-down I did start typing out the memories of my early training (technical perspective and personal), looked back from the vantage point of age, and I managed 60000 words, and that was just covering the years 1974 to 1982; that was just eight years out of a total of forty-seven years training. But I reckon it would only be of limited (niche) interest and might attract an audience of… two, if that.
It might be long on Marcel Proust ambitions, but would be certainly short on Marcel Proust talent.

The Ten Ox Herding Pictures.

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If you have an interest in Zen and the martial arts, you may or may not have come across the allegory of ‘The Ten Ox Herding Pictures’.

I have been meaning to post on this subject for a while now, and although I am not really a committed Zen Buddhist adherent by any significant measure, I have an outsider’s interest.

Before I get into it in any detail, let me say that I don’t see this allegory as uniquely ‘Zen’, I think it has a wider application, particularly for anyone exploring the conundrum of self-realisation and self-actualisation.

The ten images tell a story of a boy, the ox-herd, and his search for the missing ox and is a metaphor of the search for the true self (the original self); in Buddhist terms, the search for Awakening and the True Reality. The Ox-herd is the smaller self, the ego, who gradually realises that the reality is actually not far away and ultimately contained within him.

History.

Although these images developed a considerable following inside Japan, they are definitely Chinese in origin (as is Zen Buddhism actually). The earliest record of this sequence of images as a metaphor date back to the 11th or 12th century in China. There are usually accompanied by poems, but I would argue that you really don’t need them. At a visual level, you fill in the blanks with your imagination – no need for words – so very ‘Zen’.

The key differences between the various versions are usually found in the last three pictures. Some versions are content to just complete the series with a blank circle, (which particularly resonates with me), but, arguably, others have a deeper story to tell, making the final picture one of a Buddha or Boddhisatva in the ‘market place’, as if to say, ‘once enlightenment is complete, return to the world, to the busiest place and just ‘be’, amongst the people’. I like that – nobody disappears up into a mountain cave; that is not the place for the sage or the enlightened one. This is a philosophy that is nearer to the Neo-Confucianists, who I believe, have a closer resonance with the martial arts that we know. [1]

A description.

A boy is out in the countryside clearly looking for something. He is sometimes shown holding a kind of tether in his fist. (The wildness of the landscape increases as the narrative develops, as if to underline the difficulty of the quest).

At first he sees the ‘traces’ of the ox (which is sometimes referred to as a bull). Whether this is tracks, or even other things bulls and oxen tend to leave behind, is not really clear.

He catches a glimpse of the untamed ox. This wild spirit shows him a ‘Way’, it’s a hint, but it gives him direction and purpose. This is the beginning of ‘Do’ or ‘Tao’.

The boy pursues the ox, taking to his task with great determination. He finally connects with the animal and manages to attach the tether to it. The hard work begins. It’s a battle between the raw energy of the ox and the willpower and determination of the boy.

The boy is unaware that he is wrestling with his own true nature and trying to bridge the gulf between his uncultured petty ego and the untainted purity of his elemental self. The Buddhists enjoy the use of metaphor to describe this pure self; they are particularly fond of the image of a lotus flower that rises in its purity from the mud of the pond, perfect and unfouled. This is the true self that resides in all of us that remains pure and clean however much with sully it our own self-inflicted contaminants; which, with discipline, can shine forth again.

This is the discipline of the Dojo and the trials of the martial way; whether you want to describe it as a form of self-transformation (internal alchemy), or the ‘forging’ process of Tanren, it is a deep emersion in the greater process of training.

The disciplining of the ox in the various versions usually seems to take a couple of pictures, as if to accentuate the battles that occur between the boy and the ox. Gradually the creature succumbs to harness and becomes placid and resigned to the process. (In some versions the ox starts out pure black in colour and by degrees changes to white).

Eventually the boy and the ox establish a harmonious union. The boy is shown riding sedately on the ox’s back, playing his flute, without a care or worry in the world. This is sometimes referred to as ‘coming home’.

In the next pictures the boy and the ox are unconcerned about each other’s presence, there is no battle any more, there is no division; they exist in the same space because there is nothing to separate them; they are one and the same; this is a state of total harmony.

The next image is often described as ‘all forgotten’. The transition is virtually complete; nothing matters. The boys is there, the ox is there, but it is as if nothing is of consequence to either of them; it is just ‘being’.

The final images plunge deeply into the unknown and the esoteric, I don’t pretend to understand them, this is ‘returning to the origin’, whether you want to call this ‘the Great Tao’ or the ‘Universal Divine’ is up to you.

As an aside; many years ago, in my college education, myself and my fellow students were introduced to a retired educationalist, I wish I could remember his name. He was a very strange individual, very calm and patient, he spoke to us as if we were his children, but not in a condescending way. Here was a man who had lived a very full life (I think he’d been in the military during WW2). He encouraged us to ask searching questions, far beyond the limited educational brief. As the discussion opened out we found ourselves questioning the meaning of existence. He talked about ‘answers’ and I asked him, ‘what happens after you find all of the ‘answers?’ He paused slightly and then said, ‘You just… disappear’.

I remember, he smiled and just left that hanging in the air. If I am reading his reply correctly, this was the final message of the ox herding pictures. Here was the blank circle, or the empty landscape.

Leonard Cohen.

This set of pictures had a further reach than most of us realised.

I don’t know how many people are aware of this but singer songwriter Leonard Cohen had a soft spot for the ox herding narrative. I think it is common knowledge that Cohen plunged deeply into the Zen lifestyle, secluding himself in monastic Zen disciplines, indulging in harsh regimes of Zazen (seated meditation).

Some of his most thoughtful and erudite poetry and lyric writing came out of that experience. What ever you think of his vocal style and singing ability there is no getting away from the fact that Cohen was a talent that maybe even eclipsed Dylan. But people seemed not to have noticed a track called ‘The Ballad of the Absent Mare’ which featured on his 1979 album, ‘Recent Songs’.

Canadian singer songwriter Jennifer Warnes recounts how Cohen came over to her house after a meditational retreat, she said, “Leonard had found some old pictures somewhere, they were called ‘The Ten Bulls’, old Japanese woodcuts symbolizing the stages of a monk’s life on the road to enlightenment. These carvings pictured a boy and a bull, the boy losing the bull, the bull hiding, the boy realizing that the bull was nearby all along. There is a struggle, and finally the boy rides the bull into his little village. ‘I thought this would make a great cowboy song,’ he joked.” [2]

Here is a sample of Cohen’s ‘cowboy song’, obviously replace ‘mare’ with ‘ox’ and it’s the same tale:

“Say a prayer for the cowboy, his mare’s run away
And he’ll walk ’til he finds her, his darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood and the roads are awash
And the bridges break up in the panic of loss

And there’s nothing to follow, there’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer, gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking his heart with their song
As the day caves in and the night is all wrong

Did he dream, was it she who went galloping past?
And bent down the fern, broke open the grass
And printed the mud with the iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet when he was the lord

And although she goes grazing a minute away
He tracks her all night, he tracks her all day
Oh, blind to her presence, except to compare
His injury here with her punishment there…”

Conclusion.

For this story/allegory to have been around for such a long time says something about its cultural power and its spiritual value. If you take any of the great or iconic stories that have stayed with humanity all the way from antiquity to the present day, their survival is an indication of what they have to teach us, as well as their resonance with the human condition; from the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ (2100 BCE) to ‘Moby Dick’, they present models and narratives that touch and inspire us.

The ox herd pictures could be seen as a compressed version of what Joseph Campbell refers to as the ‘Hero’s journey’ [3], but Campbell’s journey has 17 stages rather than 10. Campbell’s idea is so deeply engrained into western culture that we take it for granted; examples are: Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Matrix’ and even ‘Harry Potter’.

The ox herd pictures are more overtly spiritual, but given their transcendent narrative there is much there to tie in to the martial artist’s personal odyssey, after all, martial arts also aspire to a transcendence, a development of character, a personal alchemy. Let us not pretend that our martial arts journey is devoid of spirituality; by that I don’t mean the ‘Spirituality’ that is allied to organised religion; but instead, the more secular brand, associated with pondering things that are outside and beyond yourself and your whole purpose of being alive and conscious and the meaning of your existence. Buddhism sought to address these puzzles without the need to resort to Gods or supernatural deities (although certain forms of Buddhism never quite shook off the shackles of shamanism, adding things that were never part of the original message).

Of course, martial arts people tend to be very pragmatic and deep meditation on spiritual matters are not to everyone’s taste. My thinking is that while I have no desire to become a Zen Buddhist there is something to gain from exploring the wider cultural context.

But that’s my view – to you, it might just be a load of old Bull.


For those of you have an inclination towards trivia; Cat Stevens’ 1972 studio album ‘Catch Bull at Four’ is an obvious reference, which may well have flown right over the head of the average pop music fan of the 1970’s. The album cover makes it very clear.

Tim Shaw

[1] Through personal research and correspondence with experts in the field, I have come to the opinion that works related to the Japanese martial arts that have been pegged as coming from the Zen tradition are actually Neo-Confucian in origin, e.g. Takuan Soho ‘The Unfettered Mind’.

[2] Source: https://www.songfacts.com/facts/leonard-cohen/ballad-of-the-absent-mare

[3] See Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’. 1949.

If you are interested in the crossovers between far eastern traditions and philosophy and western psychology, I found that this book has some interesting sections relating to the Ox Herding Pictures; ‘Buddhism and Jungian Psychology’, J. Marvin Spiegelman and Mokusen Miyuki, 1994.

Other references and links:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Bulls

For an excellent description of the series follow this link: https://jessicadavidson.co.uk/2015/10/02/zen-ox-herding-pictures-introduction/

For the full lyrics by Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Ballad of the Absent Mare’ follow this link: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/balladoftheabsentmare.html

The image featured for ‘Catch Bull at Four’ is sourced from Wikipedia with the appropriate copyright stipulations cited here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3d/Catch_Bull_at_Four.jpg

Ox herding pictures courtesy of: https://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/mzb/oxherd.htm

Wado on Film (Anything on film!) – Part 2.

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Continued from part 1. What can we possibly gain from these ‘records’ of genius? How do we read the evidence presented to us?

What are we able to judge?

To return to the martial arts (and other arts).

Observing films on YouTube or other sources; shapes and patterns can only give us so much. It’s how we process the information that counts, but usually we cannot help but to attach our own baggage to it; this can cause its own problems.

To expand: If we look at the idea of works of art; it is said that it’s all about relationships:

  • The relationship of the artist to their subject – think of landscapes or portraits. The artist must engage and interpret their personalised understanding of the subject.
  • The relationship of the artist to their medium – this is the practical depiction of the theme and all of the technical aspects involved. This is the means by which the message is delivered.
  • The relationship with the artist through their work to their audience.

Now, extend that to master Otsuka, (whether it is on film or a demonstration in front of an audience):

  • His subject is his understanding of Japanese Budo.
  • His medium is his performance – what he chooses to show is through the prism of his selected material, be that solo or paired kata or fundamentals.
  • Then, ultimately, the connection/relationship between the ‘artefact’ as presented, and the viewer, the audience.

As with all of the above, clearly, the viewer has to be up to the task.

For a viewer in an art gallery, a Joshua Reynolds portrait from 1770 may present less of an intellectual challenge than a Jackson Pollock ‘Action Painting’ from 1948. The crisp clarity of Reynolds gives the viewer more to grasp on to than the mad, seemingly random, spatter of paint that Pollock applied to his canvases. But both have amazing value and depth (to my mind anyway).

It has been said to me on more than one occasion that those demonstrations that master Otsuka did in his later life were actually designed with a particular audience in mind; for the real aficionados, for those who really had the eyes to see what we mere mortals fail to see. They are not quite Jackson Pollock, this is perhaps where the metaphor is a little too far stretched, but sadly they still reside in an area above most of our pay grades.

To understand Otsuka (or Pollock) we would need to have considerable insight into the workings of the artist’s world combined with the ability to grasp the intangible.

With master Otsuka a good starting point would be to understand the world in which he lived, as well being prepared to ditch our western lenses, or at least be aware of how they colour our understanding of Japanese society and culture at that particular time. But even then, if we plunged headlong into that task, it would need to be supported by a huge amount of practical knowledge of Japanese Budo mechanics relevant to that particular stage in its development. You would be hard pressed to find anyone with those credentials.

The comparison with the visual artists and master Otsuka can also be exercised in this way: It is a sad fact that when we encounter an artist’s work in a gallery it is often in isolation; we seldom see the work as part of a continuum, instead it is a snapshot of their development at the particular time it was produced. There are very few examples in the art world where this development can be seen; the only one I can think of is the wonderful Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where it used to be possible to follow the artist’s development as a timeline; Van Gogh’s immature work looks clunky and uncultured, he’s finding his feet, he experiments with different styles (Japanese prints influenced, pointillism, etc) and then his work starts to blossom as it becomes more emotionally charged. What a pity he only worked for about ten years. My guess is that given more time he would have gone pure abstract, what a development that would have been!

What if?

To return to Nijinsky (from part 1) – what if a piece of film was discovered of Nijinsky dancing? What would a modern ballet dancer be able to gain; how would they judge it? Perhaps Nijinsky’s famous ‘gravity defying’ leaps would not look so impressive, in fact, compared to contemporary dancers he might look very ordinary. We will never know.

(Perhaps someone might comment that he has his hand out of position, or that he is looking in the wrong direction?)

But maybe the real power is in the myth of Nijinsky as another form of truth, which allows Nijinsky to become an inspiration, a talisman for modern dancers. [1]

For master Otsuka, as suggested above, the pity would be that his whole reputation and legacy should hang on hastily made judgements of those movies shot in later life.

But who knows; if he did have film of him performing when he was in his early 40’s (say from the mid 1930’s) perhaps he would have hated to have been judged by his movements and technique at that age? I would suggest that early 40’s would have put him at his physical prime, but not necessarily at his technical prime.

It’s a bit like the way great painters would hate to be judged by their early work. [2].

Like anything that is meant to be in a state of continual evolution, its early incarnations probably served some uses, however crude, but it’s never wise to stick around. Creatives like Otsuka weren’t going to allow the grass to grow under their feet. [3]

Anecdotes of Otsuka’s early days told by those close to him inform us that his fertile creativity was a restless reality; his mind was constantly in the Dojo. The truth of this comes from his insistence that Wado was not a finished entity, how can it ever be?

Conclusion.

I’m not saying that it is a completely pointless exercise. In writing this I am still working it out in my own head, trying to remind myself that we are still fortunate to have some form of connection to Otsuka Sensei, however tenuous, and how lucky we are to still have people around who bore witness to the great teacher, although, as we know, that will slip away from us so gradually that we will hardly notice it.

I have to remind myself that we are supposed to be part of a living tradition, a continuing stream of consciousness; a true embodiment of the physical form of what Richard Dawkins called a ‘meme’ [4]. This is why instructors take their responsibilities so seriously to ensure that Wado remains a ‘living tradition’, with emphasis on the ‘living’, not an empty husk of something that ‘used to be’. This is why I am reluctant to describe master Otsuka’s image as an ‘anchor’, because an anchor, by its very nature, impedes progress.

The best we can hope for from these ghostly moving pictures from the past is that they can be seen as some kind of inspirational touchstone. But, like the shadows in Plato’s Cave it would be a mistake to take them for the real thing [5].

Tim Shaw

[1] For anyone interested in Vaslav Nijinsky I recommend Lucy Moore’s book, ‘Nijinsky’. It tells an amazing story of an amazing man in an amazing age. Why nobody has made a movie about Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes and Nijinsky I will never know. I reckon Baz Luhrmann would do a fine job if he was ever let loose on the project.

[2] I have to acknowledge that in most competitive sporting fields the athlete is probably at his/her overall prime in their more youthful days. But, when looked at in the round, karate and other forms of Japanese Budo run to a different agenda. For me, and many others, sport karate is not the end product of what we do – it’s a by-product, an additional bonus for those who choose that path.

Look at the careers of dancers. I heard it said that dancers die twice. The first time happens when by injury or by more gradual natural debilitation they have to stop doing the one thing they love, thrive on and that their whole identity has been wrapped up in. The second time, is obvious. As this BBC article (and link to radio documentary) explains: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1fkwdll6ZscvQtHMz4HCYYr/why-do-dancers-die-twice

[3] I know that am rather too fond of making references to jazz musician Miles Davis, but I have a memory of reports of Miles refusing to play music from his iconic ‘Kind of Blue’ album in his later years; he would say, ‘Man, those days are gone’ underlining his forever onwards trajectory – just as it should be.

[4] ‘Meme’ NOT the Internet’s interpretation of the word but, like a gene. However, instead of being biological, it refers to traditions passed down through cultural ideas, practices and symbols. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme

[5] ‘Plato’s Cave’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_cave

Otsuka picture source: http://www.dojoupdate.com/wado-ryu-karate/master-hironori-otsuka/

Wado on Film (Anything on film!) – Part 1.

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On the surface it would appear that we are blessed to have so much film of the founder of Wado Ryu available to us. It is lucky that Otsuka Hironori was not camera shy and showed enough foresight to actually have himself recorded with the intention of securing the legacy of his techniques and ideas for future generations. I have heard that there is even more unseen material that has been archived away, held secure by his inheritors.

Although it is interesting that there seem to be zero examples of film of Otsuka Sensei as a younger man; while there are photographs a plenty. (Otsuka Sensei was born in 1892 and only passed away in 1982).

He appeared to hit his filmic stride in his mid-seventies. Although a while back, a tiny snippet of footage of the younger Otsuka did appear as almost an afterthought on a JKA Shotokan film. It was a bare couple of seconds, it certainly looked like him – he was demonstrating at some huge martial arts event in Japan; the year is uncertain, but I am guessing some time in the 1950’s. In this film there was an agility and celerity to his movements which is not so evident in his later years. [1]

Historically, it does seem odd that there is so little film available from those years of such a celebrated martial artist.

Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of Aikido has a film legacy that goes back to a significant and detailed movie shot in 1935 at the behest of the Asahi News company. Ueshiba was then a powerful 51-year-old, springing around like a human dynamo, it’s worth watching. [LINK]

On first viewing that particular film it left me scratching my head; initial examination told me that the techniques looked so fake. But the more I watched, there were individual moments where some strange things seemed to happen (at one point his Uke is propelled backwards like an electric shock had gone through him). At times Uke seems to attempt to second-guess him and finds himself spiralling almost out of control. Really interesting.

But for Wado, is this even important? Why does it matter? Afterall, Wado Ryu had already been launched across the world, much of which happened during Otsuka Sensei’s lifetime. Also, the first and second generation instructors were doing the best of a difficult job to channel Otsuka Sensei’s ideas.

So, what can we gain from watching flickering images of master Otsuka showing us the formalised kata or kihon? What value does it have?

I saw Otsuka Sensei in person in 1975. I watched in awe his demonstration on the floor of the National Sports Centre, Crystal Palace in London. I was only seventeen years old. I remember thinking at the time, ‘here is something very special going on in front of my eyes – I know that – but I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is’.

At that age and the particular stage of my development, I had very little to bring to the experience. I lacked the tools. Possibly the only advantage I had at that time was I was carrying no baggage, no preconceptions; maybe that is why the memory has stayed so clear in my mind [2].

Interestingly, Aikido founder master Ueshiba’s own students, in later interviews lamented that they wished they’d paid more attention to exactly what he was doing when he was demonstrating in front of them; even when he laid hands upon them, they still struggled to get it.

Can we ever hope to bridge the gap?

I think it is useful to acknowledge the problem. The reality is that we are THERE but NOT THERE; we are SEEING but not SEEING. I believe that we often lack the refined tools to understand what is really going on and what is really useful to us as developing martial artists. It comes down in part to that old ‘subjectivity’ versus ‘objectivity’ problem; can we ever be truly objective?

But it is the evanescence of the experience; it flickers and then it is gone and all we are left with is a vain attempt to grasp vapour. But isn’t that the essence of everything we do as martial artists?

To explain:

Two forms of artefact.

I read recently that in Japanese cultural circles they acknowledge that there are two forms of artefact; ones with permanence, solidity and material substance, and ones with no material substance, but both of equal value.

The first would include paintings, prints, ceramics and the creations of the iconic swordsmiths. For example, you can actually touch, hold, weigh, admire a 200 year old Mino ware ceramic bowl, or a blade made by Masamune in the early 14th century – if you are lucky enough. These are real objects made to last and to be a reflection of the artist’s search for perfection; they live on beyond the lifetime of their creator.

But the second, only loosely qualifies as an artefact as it has no material substance, or if it does it has a substance that is fleeting. This is part of the Japanese ‘Way of Art’ Geido.

There are many examples of this but the best ones are probably the Tea Ceremony (Sado) and Japanese Flower Arranging (Kado). Even the art of Japanese traditional theatre which is so culturally iconic actually leaves no lasting material artefact.

In the Tea Ceremony the art is in the process and the experience. Beloved of its practitioners is the phrase, ‘Ichi go, Ichi e’ which means ‘[this] one time, one place’.

The martial arts also leave no material permanence behind. Their longevity and survival are based upon their continued tradition (this is the meaning of ‘Ryu’ as a ‘stream’ or ‘tradition’, it seems to work better than ‘school’). The tradition manifests itself through the practitioners and their level of mastery; this is why transmission is so important. But a word of caution; the best traditions survive not in a state of atrophy, but as an evolving improving entity. It is all so very Darwinian. Species that fail to adapt to a changing environment and just keep chugging on and doing what they always do soon become extinct species.

Film (Nijinky, a case history).

Vaslav Nijinsky (1890 – 1950) was the greatest male ballet dancer of the 20th century. He was probably at his majestic peak around about 1912 as part of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. To his contemporaries Nijinsky was a God; he could do things other male dancers could only dream of; he danced on pointe and his leaps almost seemed to defy gravity. As this quote from the time tells us:

“An electric shock passed through the entire audience. Intoxicated, entranced, gasping for breath, we followed this superhuman being… the power, the featherweight lightness, the steel-like strength, the suppleness of his movements…”.

But, there was never any film made of this amazing dancer, so, all we have left are these words. Even though, at the time, movie-making was on the rise (D. W. Griffith was knocking out multiple movies in the USA in 1912 and earlier). At the time the dance establishment distrusted the new medium of moving pictures, they feared that it trivialised their art and turned it into a mere novelty; which clearly proved to be incredibly short-sighted.

If Nijinsky, arch-performer, had anything to teach the world of dance it is lost to us. Incidentally it is said that Nijinsky destroyed his mind through the discipline of his body. He ended his days in and out of asylums and mental hospitals.

We will never know how good Nijinsky was in comparison to modern dancers, or if it was all a big fuss about nothing. But then again, the very same could be said about any famous performer, sportsperson or martial artist born before the invention of moving pictures.

Other forms of recollections or records that act as witnesses.

A writer or composer leaves behind another form of record. For composers before the first sound recordings in 1860 it was in the form of published written music or score. We would assume that this would be enough to contain the genius of past musicians?

But maybe not.

Starting right at the very apex of musical genius, what about Mozart?

Well, maybe those written symphonies, operas etc. were not a faithful reflection of the great man? Certainly, there is some dispute about this. There has been a suggestion that rather like the plays of Shakespeare, all we have left are stage directions, (with Shakespeare the actors slotted in whatever words they thought were appropriate!).

We judge Mozart not only by todays orchestral/musical performances, but also by his completed score on the page, and some may see these pages as a distillation of Mozart’s genius; but perhaps Mozart’s real genius was expressed through something we would never see written down, thus, today, never performed? This was his ability to improvise and elaborate around a stripped-back musical framework. It is reported that he was able to weave his magic spontaneously. As an example, Mozart was known to only write the violin parts for a new premier performance, allowing the piano parts, which he was to play, to come straight out of his head. We have no idea how he did it, or what it might have sounded like.

More on this developing theme in the second part. What point is there to all this chasing of shadows? Are we kidding ourselves? Can we be truly objective to what we are seeing?

Part 2 coming shortly.

Tim Shaw

[1] If anyone is able to track down this piece of film, I would be grateful if they would let me know the URL. It seems to have disappeared from YouTube, or my search skills are not what they used to be.

[2] This was the same year as the IRA bomb scare, as well as Otsuka Sensei getting the back of his hand cut by his attacker’s sword.

Image of Nijinsky (detail). Nijinsky in ‘Les Orientales’ 1911. Image credit:  https://www.russianartandculture.com/god-only-knows-tate-modern/

Shikukai in Essex, Shouwa Jyuku – the challenge of returning to the Dojo.

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Shikukai in Essex is open for business. Since the middle of May we have been managing and designing an intelligent return to training.

It’s not really realistic to just bounce people straight back into a pre-Covid training regime, it needs to be handled with care and consideration, and we are doing just that.

Over the months of lock-down it gradually dawned on me exactly what the full cost of enforced inactivity was liable to be. I know that many people recognised the problem early on and set about engaging with any form of exercise that was available to them. Running and exercise apps acted as motivators to pound the pavement; anything was better than nothing.

But for some this headlong leap into road running may have been great for the heart and lungs and to burn off those indulgent calories, but the joints were ill-prepared for the amount of sudden pressure and wear and tear. The combination of lack of stretching, no real warm-downs and poor footwear soon slowed some of these runners down, or stopped them dead in their tracks. Hamstrings twanged, cruciate ligaments just gave up and knees went into revolt.

Of course, some people just waved the white flag and were content to watch the weight pile on, unaware of how long these lock-downs were liable to go on for, and assuming that their bodies would just suffer a minor physical drop-off and, after a couple of workouts… back to normal. Not so.

As the situation dragged on, the potential for physical and mental atrophy became very real. When motivation was needed anxiety and uncertainty created a kind of brain fog and the normal pressures and purposes of life morphed into something very unfamiliar.

Of course, everyone’s position was different. While for some Covid was a devastating experience, other were able to flip the world turning upside down into something they could benefit from.

The positive stuff.

One positive aspect of this was that we now had time to contemplate. I know that so much navel-gazing happened over the lock-down periods; which is not a bad thing. Normally this generates some kind of plan; but plan for what exactly? And on what time-scale?

I suspect that many people had the opportunity to recalibrate their lives, unsure of what they want, but certain about what they didn’t want. Forget about those pipe dreams of ‘learning a language’ or ‘buying a cello and turning into the next Jaqueline Du Pré, I don’t know anybody who actually did that.

Maybe, out of all that darkness and depressing TV news the human spirit was able to push beyond and reinvent itself? (This is the optimist in me speaking).

Another positive was that we were able to revaluate the importance of connections to family and friends. However, Skype/Zoom calls only went so far; a poor substitute for being face to face. People started talking about ‘hugging’, something that was hardly ever talked about or valued before, it was just taken as a given.

On top of all this, for me, it made me reframe the importance of the Dojo and training shoulder to shoulder, face to face.

It is said that you only really appreciate something after it has been taken away from you – so true.

Our own ‘return’.

When we did return to the Dojo in May; although nothing was said, smiles on faces and a palpable atmosphere of positivity spoke volumes.

After all, karate training is paradoxically something we do for ourselves, but in a group. Just look at all we gain from our training experience.

Put aside the physical benefits and examine all of those other life-affirming attributes.

For that evening, at that time, pressures melt away, you almost become someone else; but in reality, you are tapping into aspects of your persona that normally lay semi-dormant in your day-to-day life.

The Dojo can be described as a crucible or a hothouse, but there is something about being in that supercharged environment, alongside other people that makes it so special. Add to that all the benefits of being in a Flow State [See previous blog post] and it is everything that is positive and rewarding.

The first sessions back have really been about rehabilitation. I knew that the two areas to work on were; looking at what people’s physical condition was like and also how much of a slip-back had occurred in terms of technical knowledge? More of a memory thing.

In the first area, tightened muscles from so much sitting around was something to tackle. I spent longer on the warm-up and stretch and incorporated fascia and core work throughout, and I have kept that going.

I also knew that hammering up and down the Dojo in lines was going to be too much of a shock to the system; so, kihon work has been interspersed with kata.

For kata it was all about memory work and patterns. The same with paired exercises, although these were hindered by the fact that Covid regulations say that we still cannot work in pairs. We did however work body evasions against Jo; this gave some feeling of responding to a threat.

Speaking generally, there never has been a better time to get in the Dojo; if you are a new beginner, or a lapsed martial artist who has never really shaken off ‘that itch’, now is the time to take positive steps.

Even if you are just curious; come along, watch a session, talk to us. If you are of the mindset whereby you want more from your martial arts training than just making ever-faster shapes, then maybe Wado Ryu, as a form of Japanese Budo is what you are looking for.

Photo: George Krethlow-Shaw 2nd kyu working on Kushanku.

Tim Shaw

The Politics of Paired Kata Part 2.

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In this second part I will attempt push further beyond the boundaries of the standard workings of the paired kata in Wado karate. I am not expecting everyone to agree with me but please bear with me.

The Contract.

In Japanese Budo what I am calling ‘the contract’ is really important. You are measured and judged by your ability to assiduously, almost pedantically, stick to ‘the contract’.

This manifests itself beautifully, almost poetically, when it comes down to working with bladed weapons. One mistake, one ill-considered move or lack of intent and things get messy really quickly.

Consider the Tanto Dori (knife defence) paired kata of Wado Ryu. Uke has the blade, knows his role and not only sticks to the script but also delivers the blade as powerfully and accurately as he is able. Tori knows this and as a result his focus becomes hyper-acute; it has to be. He can’t move early (a clear betrayal of the contract) and to move late is potentially fatal. There is only one option; get it right!

How we got away with that in the late 20th century is a source of amazement to me – today, ‘health and safety’ would have been all over it!

But it has to be remembered that the paired kata are teaching tools. Yes, they are formalised, but as such they are the embodiment of wisdom refined over generations. I know that some may wag a judgemental finger and say, ‘but that’s not real, that’s not what would really happen!’ and of course they would be completely and spectacularly missing the point.

A Conversation.

To return to the theme of kihon gumite – if you look across the ten canonical kihon gumite and try to see them through the lens of a protracted sequential dialogue, then the wisdom and cleverness of them just leaps out at you.

Sequentially, they open up a series of overlapping conundrums and a shed-load of ‘what ifs’. I won’t go into them individually, but they offer themselves up like a puzzle box, where positives mesh with negatives in time and space. This is the ‘politics of paired kata’.

Looking at the paired kata as conversations between two protagonists; as we know, conversations come in many forms; not all of them are meaningful or even useful. Some conversations are clear in their intentions; others mask duplicity and deceit.

There are conversations (if indeed they can be called that) where one party harangues another; spouting their pet theories, looking for validation, shooting down any dissent, seeing the other party as an antagonist, not listening to counter arguments, etc. The kihon gumite version of this is where either party disregard the other; just doing their thing. It’s an empty experience for both sides, a total waste of time and energy.

High level conversations.

And then there are high quality conversations; ones where nobody is trying to score points, where opinions are speculations and not carved in stone and both parties have a common cause and listen respectfully. These are truly exploratory exchanges; all parties involved on the cusp of their knowledge, open-minded, aware and unafraid to venture into the unknown, while maintaining the solid foundations of a mindset which is matched to the task.

Within paired kata like the kihon gumite, both protagonists approach the engagement (conversation) respectfully and almost with an air of reverence. Their focus is complete and directed at all aspects of the unfolding sequence of events. They know there is a script but they don’t allow themselves to become totally straightjacketed by it. There is nuance and a battle going on inside the battle, observing keenly the micro-gestures; (whether they are aware of it or not), very much like meaningful and positive verbal exchanges.

Different styles of conversations – successful, or not so successful?

It is said that conversations are generally more successful when conducted between peers and rarely so when directed from the middle or bottom of a hierarchy upwards, as in, an under-manager upwards towards a senior manager or boss. It can be tricky because of the hierarchical positions; the underling has to approach his boss with great care for fear of stepping over the line, or seeming to criticise or undermine decisions or ideas.

But the same situation in paired kata can have a useful dynamic; because; if the junior is open and receptive, they can gain so much from working with a senior grade. Direct physical communication relating to issues like body feel, timing and cause and effect, these aspects almost bypass the intellectual and go right to the heart of the matter; tapping into that weird level of consciousness that exists as what Ushiro Kenji calls the ‘Body Brain’.

There may be more to this than we think.

The politics of paired kata could possibly have more complexity than appears at first sight.

The general understanding is that these kata are seen as sets of prescribed techniques that are linear and ruled by cause and effect, i.e. ‘In response to this attack, my response is…’. This generally fits in with how the physical world operates, or rather how we prefer it to operate; in a very predictable way, it’s comfortable for us. As an example; if someone climbs a high stepladder and drops a golf ball they can pretty much tell you to the millimetre where the ball will impact on the floor. Try the same thing with a piece of paper and, although you know it will eventually hit the floor, you can’t be sure exactly where. In a way, it is comparable to dealing with someone’s direct physical aggression, a random attack; you really don’t know how it’s going to play out. Here we can see the weakness of being bound by linear thinking.

Cause and effect; action and reaction follow a very comfortable pattern of Newtonian physics. For some schools of karate and certainly the so-called ‘Reality based Self-defence’ this is all that is needed, and the simpler the better.

But if you dig deeper, it all goes a bit Schrödinger’s Cat.

There are some tantalising conundrums in the paired kata that lean towards the same kinds of qualities and contradictions found in quantum physics and become a challenge to the Newtonian model [1].

Contradictions.

Examples of contradictions in Wado:

In the Wado paired kata these puzzles are sometimes presented to us overtly.

The second grandmaster would tease us by talking about ‘Wado mathematics’, he would say, “It works like this; in Wado it is 1 + 1 = 1”. How can that be so? Once you see it, it all makes sense, and it sets the bar really high if you want to work it at the physical level.

Another wonderful contradiction is that Tori and Uke are separate, but one. This is very ‘quantum’, the contradiction to the Newtonian form of action and reaction; in the quantum world action and reaction are one and the same, you are not waiting for things to happen, you are not waiting for feedback, you ARE the feedback, you are making your own reality. What happens between Tori and Uke is also an embodiment of a mutual resonance; there is a harmonic interplay which dissolves the convenience of thinking of these roles as separate entities.

Added to that is that the ‘attacker’ and ‘defender’ can be both at the same time! The river flows on and reality changes – like Heraclitus says, No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”.

This does away with the idea that Uke is a mere stooge, operating with dumb passivity; a punchbag for Tori to work his magic on.

This is why in Wado the oft-used platitude of ‘Karate Ni Sente Nashi’ (‘there is no first attack in karate’) becomes meaningless to us. It has uses and meaning to the Okinawan branches of karate, but in Wado it is a retrograde method. Japanese Budo has a more refined approach to cognitive reality, completely at odds with the morally ‘safe’ perspective of Okinawan pragmatism. The Okinawan moral standpoint is secure and (for them) unquestionable, but for me it is philosophically unadventurous.

The root of these contradictions is not unique to Wado. Many examples can be found in the older Japanese Budo.

Koryu practitioner and author Ellis Amdur describes the contradictions found within the Itto Ryu school of swordsmanship; specifically, the technique Kiriotoshi (dropping cut) “in which two swords cut along exactly the same path…”.

Amdur makes no bones about it, “Kiriotoshi accomplishes the seemingly impossible – apparently defying Newtonian physics. At the moment of impact, with two objects – swords – occupying the same space. One ‘passes through’ the other. This is the product of one individual who is striking with a sword meeting another who ‘is’ a sword. Literally, the sword and body are one entity.” [2].

Conclusion.

It is sad that some of the most valuable aspects of paired kata get lost in the weeds. In this case the ‘weeds’ are the positional minutiae; where this foot goes, or that hand goes – all of which are important of course, but it is a mistake to think that this is all there is to it. If your objective is doing it faster, harder and stronger, and making great shapes, then eventually you would meet your ceiling, as many do. And to assuage their deep-seated and largely subconscious worries that maybe that is all there is to it, they might feel inclined to just pile on more paired kata and kid themselves that this is progress – when all along all that’s needed is adherence to core sets of principles. It is these same sets of principles that become the fertile ground from which an unlimited range of technical options spring. Get them right and it becomes truly effortless (or so I am told).

Working with principles is like jazz musicians riffing on a theme and exploring each appropriate path of musical possibilities, always in step, even as new options unfold, beyond thought, beyond artifice; the music is almost a power outside of them.

I am tempted to appropriate a quote from the great jazz trumpet genius Miles Davis and apply it to options thrown up within paired kata; that is, 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”.

For me, the spirit of that quote works well with the politics of paired kata.

Tim Shaw

[1] I lay no claim to being an expert in the field of physics; please don’t bombard me with harsh and incomprehensible brickbats. I am only an amateur.

[2] Ellis Amdur, ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ 2000 edition.

Featured image; Tim Shaw and Martijn Schelen working on Tanto Dori.

The Politics of Paired Kata Part 1.

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Sugasawa Sensei & Tim Shaw, Holland

In this two-part blog post I want to suggest different ways of looking at our paired kata; whether that is kihon gumite, kumite gata, ura no kumite or ohyo gata.

Decades ago, a well-known western martial artist and writer had a chance to observe Otsuka Hironori, the original grandmaster first hand. The writer was from a different martial arts background not a Wado stylist. He wrote at the time that the ‘real’ kata of Wado Ryu were the paired kata. To my mind, either he was being deliberately provocative or he only assumed everyone would look at the context of kata exclusively in solo performance and neglected to draw connections between Wado solo kata and Wado paired kata.

To him the paired kata were clearer and more accessible. It is understandable in a way; particularly when you see what solo kata is currently evolving into, through the athleticism and drama of Olympic sports karate kata.

I am fairly sure that regular readers of this blog don’t need to be reminded of the root origin of the Wado paired kata [1]. These were never intended to be just sets of shallow two-man drills; they were meant to be understood and practiced as repositories of knowledge, containing layers of information in various forms.

It is these very same forms I want to speculate on in this two-part post.

Why did I refer to it as ‘The Politics of Paired Kata’?

When I am teaching paired kata I often explain what’s going on by referring to, “the politics of kihon gumite (or kumite gata etc)”. However, for the sake of simplicity ‘kihon gumite’ is one of the most convenient examples because it often contains the more complex but overt examples of ebb and flow and interchange that will perhaps support my argument.

Bear with me on this. Put simply; it is said that whenever you get two people in a room, politics is always playing out. For anyone with a keen eye its manifestation is obvious and subtle at the same time. Formal greetings, posture, position, proximity, eye contact and possibly small-talk which may lead on to serious discussion or even disagreement are all there to be observed.

There are rules at play, it’s all ‘political’ (with a small ‘p’). Add to that social niceties, protocols and good manners; everyone plays by the rules, you have to, because these same rules oil the wheels of society. Some might say that rules constrain us, tie our hands, and maybe they can become overly stifling – for example Japanese social rules are much more regimented than western European ones are.

The expectation is that all parties agree to follow the rules.

Rules are important.
As an example:

Imagine you are going to teach someone to play chess. They ask you what the objective of the game is? Your reply, “Simple… Your job is to take my king”. To which they then reach across the table and snatch your king off the board, hold it aloft and say, “I win!” By doing such a thing they achieve the logical objective (initially outlined by you) but the complex rules of the game in its entirety facilitate an opening up of amazing mental gymnastics and seemingly endless possibilities. So it is with paired kata.

In kihon gumite you have tightly prescribed roles with attached responsibilities. That is really your starting point. You know the rules – now live up to them and doors will open…or not.

What can go wrong.

Here are two examples of the rules falling apart in Wado paired kata; one more dramatic than the other, but in their own way quite revealing.

The first one is on a grading somewhere in the East Midlands around 1976.

Two girls were taking a kyu grading in front of Suzuki Sensei. Everything went really well until it came time for the paired kata; Suzuki Sensei’s three step kata, sanbon gumite.

One of the girls (the attacker) thought the punch should have been to jodan, but the defender, for reasons known only to her, blocked low; the result was that she took a full contact punch in the face. There was a lot of blood. The girl who delivered the punch was mortified that she had inflicted such damage, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, she spluttered, clearly distressed and powerless to do anything about it.

Suzuki Sensei sat at the table initially impassive, and then he stood up and railed at the girl for apologising! “Why are you apologising?” “it’s not your fault; it’s her fault!” he yelled, gesticulating at the girl with the bleeding mouth and nose.

Eventually, the club instructor stepped in and cleared the situation up.

It’s clear, if you operate outside of the agreed rules (deliberately or accidentally) all the wheels will come off.

The second example is not so catastrophic but it didn’t make it any less significant and, in this case, annoying.

For this one, I can guess that all of us have come across it – and, for that to be true, many of us will automatically have been the perpetrators of this particular crime… (but will never own up to it).

The crime is, being guilty of delivering a lousy attack.

The first time I came across this in paired kata was during the practice of Suzuki-ha sanbon keri uke (usually the last kick). Uke, knowing his kick was going to be swept aside, would stupidly and obligingly aim off target and swing it across himself! Deliberately off-line, meaningless, counter-productive… pointless; a parody. Nobody gains anything.

There are so many forms of this criminal disregard for protocol.

A friend of mine, a very able senior Dan grade (from one of the other organisations) told me how he came across a variation of this on a major course.

During the practice of kihon gumite with another Dan grade, (who really should have known better), he had to face an attack that in reality would have never made the distance. Instead of just going through the motions and obligingly allowing this pantomime to play out, my friend just stayed where he was, and as the attack fell short, he said, “What are you doing?” It is not really a polite response, but I would challenge anyone in the same situation to have behaved differently.

All of these are examples of the contract being broken.

I will discuss ‘the contract’ and other aspects in part 2.

[1] Because of Otsuka Sensei’s background in traditional Japanese Budo (he began his Jujutsu training under the age of eight and continued all the way through his twenties) he understood the long-established teaching method of paired kata, both armed and unarmed. He knew that as a vehicle for transmission this methodology had considerable value, particularly if the intention was to impart layers of established strategy, technique and wisdom. The kata were codified reflections of refined wisdom and the purest form of Principle (Ri) and not intended to be pure embodiments of refined, spontaneous active and living ‘Ri’. As such they were classified as ‘Ji’. (reflections, exemplars, models to reveal how ‘Ri’ manifests itself).

Featured image; Tim Shaw with Sugasawa Sensei explaining kihon gumite in 2017.

Tim Shaw

Has modern movement culture got anything to offer martial artists?

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About two years ago, by complete accident, I discovered the work and philosophy of Israeli movement guru Ido Portal. I have found him a source of inspiration ever since, particularly through working on my own training during the lock-downs.

I know the concept of ‘movement culture’ has been around for a long time, but the work of Ido Portal and others has put it on a different level, with a newer definition.

Normally, human movement has been focussed on specific aims, ultimately leading towards success in such things as sports, dance or martial arts. As martial artists, working with our bodies is what we do and movement for movement’s sake would seem like a preposterous idea.

We martial artists are surely supposed to be aiming to be specialists; but here’s the news; Ido Portal hates specialists! (more of that later).

If you search YouTube for ‘Ido Portal’ the first thing you’ll find is that Ido can do things that most people can only dream of. Part gymnast, part acrobat, part dancer and… dare I say it… part martial artist. However, I suspect that not many people will get past the twirls, spins, one-armed handstand balances and lizard crawls; it is truly amazing, it’s Ido’s shopfront.

But in a way it’s all confectionary; it’s a distraction; even Ido himself admits as much; he openly dislikes the fact that this is how people view him, and how this side of his work is like catnip to exhibitionists and extroverts. He wants people to look beyond – and for martial artists this is where the really valuable stuff is.

But then for us as martial artists, this is where we encounter the second hurdle to get over.

Ido Portal and Conor McGregor.

His media output trumpets another aspect of the Ido magic. Wasn’t this the same Ido Portal who UFC fighter Conor McGregor worked with to prepare for his fight with Jose Aldo? (The one in which McGregor took the much-favoured Aldo out after only three punches had been thrown). Yes it was.

Oddly, Ido took some flak for that, but only from people who didn’t understand his ideas. The rather conservative UFC community poured scorn on Ido’s training methods and snorted disdainfully that Ido and Conor in their training had been playing, “touch butt in the park”. How wrong they were.

Look beyond the McGregor thing; listen to some well-informed detailed interviews with Ido. I can recommend the ‘London Real’ mini documentary on Ido Portal by Brian Rose called ‘Just Move’. It’s a good place to start. Also, the Coach Micah B Interview with Ido Portal ‘Touch Butt in the Park’. Micah, as a martial artist, asks a lot of the questions that intelligent martial artists would ask.

Origins and development.

As you look into his backgrounds and the beginnings of his developing ideas you will see that it really started for him within the Brazilian art of Capoeira. Ido was clearly looking to go beyond and dig deep into the study of movement. In a way he seemed to me to embrace the magic and methodology that Elon Musk brought to the examination of technology. Musk’s secret ingredient, borrowed from Scientific ideas, is called ‘First Principle Thinking’, and Ido Portal did almost the same thing, going right back to the very source of human movement. Ido Portal studied hard, both through theory and practice and travelled all over the world (If you want to look at some of his sources, you wouldn’t go far wrong reading up or watching videos about coach Christopher Sommers).

Ido’s opinions on ‘specialists’.

What is it that Ido Portal does not like about specialists? This, surely puts all martial artist in the firing line?

To him a specialist is, by definition, a physically limited individual, who within their narrowed field ends up painting themselves into a corner. They are not developing the fuller scope of what their body is capable of, they are wilfully limiting themselves and existing within their own physical echo-chamber.

The good news is that the solution comes in many flavours, and ones which we would not find wholly unpalatable.

Firstly ‘learn to fail’. It is a truism that the zone of failure is the zone of growth. Traditional Chinese martial artists make much of the phrase ‘invest in loss’, this is another branch of the main idea. Not to get too poetical about it, but to grow we must dance the line between order and chaos (credit to J. B. Peterson for that one).

Ido is mischievous in his attitude towards the specialist. The reality is that from his perspective the fully moving, exploratory approach has to either come first or, as with McGregor, become a part of the overall training regime.

Some disciplines/specialisms from Ido’s viewpoint show very specific weaknesses. For example, Yoga he says, has no hangs, no suspension and ‘held’ positions are deemed paramount to the practice; Ido thinks that this is counter-intuitive.

‘Expertise in only one area sets up an habitualised body’, from Ido’s perspective the body is designed to take strain from all directions. This is not to say that we cannot work towards efficient body movement; this is what we try and promote within Wado. We also know that there are such things as movements which create bio-mechanical weaknesses; knees and backs pay the price of injudicious movements; but we also know that we should be looking to explore our fullest ranges of movement.

Agency.

This is why Ido Portal despises the title of ‘guru’, he is not a ‘guru’. He very much believes that anyone on such a personalised quest must have agency and take responsibility for their own development. He says that nobody should hand over the keys of accountability to another person – own it!

This chimes with my own thinking. Sometimes I meet people who are able to recognise something of quality but are unwilling to put in the work, or believe that the magic only happens when Sensei is in the room; another way of abrogating the responsibility away from the individual; a ‘get out’ card.

Having said that, Ido believes that if ever you meet a real master you must seize what is offered with both hands.

Listen to the wisdom of your own body.

I know I have written about this before; specifically, in the context of the older martial artist; relating to a kinder, balanced approach to your workload; knowing when to allow your body recovery time.

Ido Portal actually suggests two negatives to be aware of. The first being this same error of injudiciously punishing your body and foolishly accumulating long-term damage.

Once, in conversation with a Japanese Wado Sensei (who no longer lives in the UK), over his pint he lamented the training methods we were put through in the 1970’s and 1980’s, “The body can’t take that amount of punishment for long, eventually it will catch up on you” he said shaking his head.

Ido Portal’s second negative is not enough movement. This is an even bigger problem, mainly because it is so insidious and difficult to guard against, it sneaks up on you and you are just not aware of it. This recent lock-down experience for many has let the devil down the chimney. It’s so easy to let atrophy set in, and the damage is done and you won’t even know it until it’s too late, and even then you will probably let the real thief off the hook and blame something else, ‘Oh, it’s my age’, ‘Oh, it’s my underlying conditions, my genetic disposition’ etc, etc, and so the list goes on. Ido really does believe that ‘motion is the only lotion’.

Basic beneficial practice that anyone can do.

Ido Portal strongly recommends two exercises that if built up over time can have surprisingly positive effects.

Firstly; just squatting on your haunches; it’s actually what we were built for and we robbed ourselves of the benefits by inventing chairs. Thirty minutes every day, and not even thirty consecutive minutes, five minutes here, five minutes there is enough. The positive effects on this will be a beneficial manipulation of the back and pelvis, as well as the knees and ankles. There are additional bonuses which impact on digestion.

The second exercise asks a little more in terms of equipment or situation, and this is just hanging from a bar; no pull-ups, just stretched out and extended. There are so many benefits including counteracting the accumulated effects of gravity on your structure. In both exercises we are actively (or passively) working around gravity.

Why failure can be a positive thing.

Although failure can sometimes be a crushing experience, there is so much to be gained from exploring the zone of failure. Often, we find that failing to do something encourages growth (as the Stoics said, it’s the attitude we chose to adopt after failure that tends to chew away at us – and it is a choice).

Ido worships at the shrine of failure.

A typical Ido Portal ‘failure’ challenge.

This involves taking a tennis ball, throwing it against a wall and trying and return it with your fist; see how many times you can knock it backwards and forwards. It’s not impossible, just challenging, and you will fail over and over again.

Eventually you will experience some success and may even get good at it, but, if you reach that point, you may as well stop, because the objective is not to get good at it; the objective is to explore that zone of challenge and failure. That one practice teaches you so much about your body; about adjustments, coordination, control, spatial awareness, footwork and a whole host of other things, and also teaching you something about yourself and your mental attitude towards challenge. It is essentially a growth experience and we as human beings should be engaging such experiences both physically and intellectually.

Conclusion.

Conor McGregor was a smart man in engaging the services of Ido Portal. Short snippets of the training practices show how eager McGregor was to take on board Ido’s ideas; commentators and opponents said that it was clear that his style of movement changed.

Ido Portal’s journey from martial arts to pure movement is an excellent exemplar of the evolution of human ideas manifested through the physical mode. This is high-brow physicality, and to my mind it is not at odds with the more sophisticated martial arts; specifically, where there is such a high demand for self-knowledge and body awareness.

Tim Shaw

Ido Portal, Image credit; London Real, Brian Rose.

Is Stoicism useful to martial artists?

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Apparently, sales of books about Stoicism have rocketed during the pandemic. Why would there be a surge in interest about a school of ancient philosophy which is over 2000 years old?

Maybe, because one of the specific skill-sets associated with the Stoics is dealing with adversity; which is exactly why the Stoics may well have something to offer martial artists.

It is strange how the word ‘Stoic’ is used today. When you hear of anyone described as behaving stoically, it usually suggests that they are putting up with bad experiences or bad times in an uncomplaining way, or displaying zero emotion, or perhaps indifference to pain, grief (or even happiness). This is a little misleading and over-simplistic, and on its own, not particularly useful.

For anyone who has not heard of Stoicism before, a potted history may be necessary.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy originating in ancient Greece and enthusiastically embraced by key individuals in the later Roman Empire. It was established in the 3rd century BCE by Zeno of Citium in the city of Athens. Its main themes were the search for wisdom, virtue and human perfection.

After the Greeks it was eagerly embraced in ancient Rome, first by Seneca (4BCE – 65CE) a writer, politician and philosopher who was heavily embroiled in the politics associated with emperors Claudius and Nero and miraculously escaping two death sentences. Seneca’s ‘Letters from a Stoic’ is one of my go-to reads, an amazingly modern sounding set of conversations coming out of the long-distant past.

Stoicism was then picked up by Epictetus (50CE – 135CE) an educated Greek slave who lived in Rome, but was later exiled to Greece. He left no direct writings, but had one faithful disciple, Arrian, who dutifully wrote everything down.

Perhaps one of the most famous and accessible of the Stoics was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121CE – 180CE). Anyone who has seen the movie ‘Gladiator’ may remember that Marcus Aurelius appeared in the very early part of the movie played by Richard Harris, and although he actually did die of unknown causes whilst on a military campaign at the age of 58, it was unlikely it was at the hands of his son and successor Commodus, as the movie suggests, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Marcus Aurelius was the last of the great and virtuous Roman emperors. Fortunately for us, he left behind a book, now titled, ‘Meditations’ and it is this book of Stoic wisdom that has been snapped up in the recent Covid year.

I had wondered if any modern martial artists had picked up on the Stoics? While there are a few online references, the tone very much suggested to me a misappropriation and over-simplified cherry picking; reminding me of how a particular disreputable 20th century fascist regime (who will not be mentioned) misappropriated and misunderstood the writings of Fredrich Nietzsche. 

Yes, some of the writings of the Stoics seem to suggest a kind of toughness, but Stoicism is a bigger package, involving elements of compassion and love. This perceived ‘toughness’ emanates from the Stoics’ detailed dissection of human motivation and how we should respond to the trials of just living. What is really of value, matched against what is trivial and not worthy of our attention.

It is a very pragmatic, workable philosophy. I often wonder if boxer Mike Tyson may perhaps have been influenced by the Stoics when he said, “Everyone has a plan, ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” That might have come straight out of Marcus Aurelius’’ ‘Meditations’. He would have liked that.

There are many cross-overs between Stoicism and Buddhism, as well as Confucianism. It is a strange coincidence but scholars have pointed out that all of these great thinkers sprang up at almost exactly the same time in human history, but in places with no obvious geographical or cultural connections (Persia, India, China and Greco-Roman culture). Philosopher Karl Jaspers called it the ‘Axial Age’. The cross-overs are indeed uncanny, but I can’t help thinking that civilisations reached a particular pitch in their development which supplied the right nutrients for these philosophies to grow.

There is far too much on this theme for one blog post, but I will supply one example which is relevant to martial artists.

Stoicism is often referred to by modern behavioural psychotherapists, who tend to use a very close variation of this particular pattern of Stoic thinking.

(This comes from a recent podcast interview with psychotherapist Donald Robertson, information at the foot of this post.)

The ancient origin of this go back to a mischievous commentary engaged in by Socrates (considered to be one of the root thinkers of Stoicism) and dealing with the subject of managing adversity.

One day, Socrates said that he was incredibly disappointed with the way the heroes of Greek dramas coped with adverse situations, and that they’d nearly always got it wrong. His young companion asked him, ‘how so?’. Socrates then gave four pieces of advice on how to cope with bad situations.

  1. When bad stuff happens how do you know it won’t actually turn out for the better in the long run? To explain; maybe that job you didn’t get was not really for you and the next job is really the one that will launch you into a more positive future. Or, that girlfriend that you broke up with, actually did you a favour?
  2. If it already hurts, why voluntarily add on another layer of suffering by indulging in your own misery? (He’s not against regret or even grief, but if it goes on and on, then you are into another realm altogether, in the modern age it would probably described as clinical depression). Incidentally ‘venting’ is also of limited use; again, it can become habit forming.
  3. Although to you, in that moment, it is the end of the world; but in the grand scheme of things it may well be microscopic (depending on severity of course).
  4. Anger or freaking out may give you energy, but it actually inhibits clear rational thinking, which is actually the very thing you need to make yourself useful in a crisis. If it is your habit to fire up your adrenal glands to respond ‘positively’ then you’ve got it wrong. Over time, that particular habit will kill you. Some martial artists think that the fire of anger is useful, and train to artificially ‘switch it on’, –  big mistake.

Of course, all of the above comes with a disclaimer; i.e. it depends on the situation and how extreme it is, not to put too fine a point on it, but, terminal is terminal, but even then, you still have choices. One of my heroes, Michel De Montaigne once said that the measure of a man is how he conducts himself when the ‘bucket is nearly empty’.

I recently re-read Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. He chimes clearly with the Stoics and supports their idea that even in the worst of situations, you still have choices, you still have control. You can choose how you want to view the situation and you can choose how you want to react to it; even resignation is a choice.

Now put that into a Covid scenario. What is really interesting is how people choose to respond to Covid.

What would the Stoics have made of our Covid days?

Well, for a start, it wouldn’t have been anything outside of their experience. Socrates experienced a catastrophic plague at the age of 38 while serving as an infantryman. Likewise, Marcus Aurelius had to deal with the deadly Antonine plague which started in 165 CE and finally blew itself out in 180CE, with an estimated death toll of between five and ten million, located within a relatively restricted area, all of this at a time when they had none of the tools we have. With the Antonine plague (which was probably Smallpox) there was a dramatic shift in social structure, because, like Covid, it was indiscriminate, but inevitably was the scourge of the poorer classes. Having said that, Marcus Aurelius had to rapidly promote people from the lower orders, even freeing slaves, to ensure the infrastructure was able to operate. This was a perfect opportunity for a Stoic emperor to show what he was made of. Very much the Stoic ideal of changing what you can change, and not obsessing about what you can’t.

Yes, the Stoics taught resilience and a deep examination of human affairs, take these examples from Marcus Aurelius:

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears”. (Obviously this not necessarily about physical injury.)

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life”.

And a particular favourite of mine and one to really ponder, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”. And this from a man who knew about combat, both individual and large scale.

My view; there is much to learn from the Stoics.

Tim Shaw

Links:
Mo Gawdat podcast, talking to Donald Robertson about psychotherapy and Stoicism (says ‘Part 2’, but it’s really Part 1). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8PH-DL5AI8

Marcus Aurelius ‘Meditations’ on Amazon.

Epictetus on Amazon.

Featured image: A marble bust of Marcus Aurelius at the Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, France. By Pierre-Selim – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954 (detail).

On things ‘Chi and Ki’.

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In this post I intend to take a cautious look at matters connected to the thorny subject of ‘Chi/Ki’ in the martial arts, with the intention of avoiding any landmines that normally seem to crop up when tiptoeing into this area.

Let me start by saying that I have always been sceptical about modalities and cure-all methodology, whether it is the Alexander technique, crystal healing, shiatsu or myofascial therapy. Most of them tend to look towards the science, and, whatever they are selling, they will bombard you with scientific proof through ‘evidence’ in books and on websites.

Personally, if a particular modality catches my attention I try to read up on both sides of the argument. A recent example being the trend towards all thing Fascia – the sheath-like material that sits just under your skin, and is seen in some quarters as almost an additional muscular system that has been anatomically ignored. Through reading up on the pro and anti arguments, I have a better understanding of what Fascia is, or crucially, what it isn’t.

But to return to my theme:

In recently re-reading a book which has been on my shelves for many years, I started thinking again about ‘Chi’ (Chinese) or ‘Ki’ (Japanese).

I am aware that this is sometimes seen as the touchstone for all kinds of charlatans and hucksters, and I have always approached it with a large dose of scepticism.

However, I have to admit that I have twice been under the needles of two separate acupuncturists, for two different conditions, and both times came out seemingly cured. But still, the sceptic in me continued to whisper in my ear; words like ‘placebo’ or, ‘the power of the mind’. I couldn’t keep silent; I asked one of the acupuncturists what he thought about ‘placebo’? He said, “They treat racehorses successfully with acupuncture, and a racehorse has no mental capacity for ‘placebo’”. What could I say? Good argument.

I am not going to try and explain Ki here; I’m not qualified, I can only give my personal take on it and what helps me to understand it as a phenomenon.

I could go into the area of how the word (character) is slotted into Japanese and Chinese language; it’s much more common than people realise, which in a way helps to demystify it, but again, I don’t have the qualifications; but it is a useful area of exploration.

I first came across it in the years I trained in Aikido. I was introduced to a practice called ‘the unbendable arm’; supposedly a utilisation and demonstration of the power of Ki that everyone could do. I even trained on a two-day course with Ki Society Aikido Sensei Wasyl Kolesnikov and found myself mesmerised with the set-piece demonstrations of the ‘power of Ki’.

Years later it was explained to me how some of this was achieved, and, at the time, I felt somewhat cheated. It seemed that most of it happened through well-disciplined and controlled organisation of the skeletal structure, muscles, tissue etc. In retrospect I think the reason I felt cheated was because it didn’t fit in with what I had constructed in my own mind – ‘the mysterious force of Ki’.

The realisation came to me that, although the explanation seemed disappointingly banal; the reality was that for this ‘organisation’ to happen it had to be firstly, highly trained and secondly, ‘energised’, a term which I found much more useful.

I think it is useful to recognise that the opposite of ‘energisation’ is ‘inertia’, being totally devoid of life, the antithesis of being.

The human body is fully energised and at so many levels. At a base level it is complicit with the phenomena of ‘homeostasis’, part of this means that our body fights hard to maintain its optimum temperature, so that it can function efficiently. A rise in ambient temperature will cause our inbuilt cooling system to kick in. A drop in the ambient temperature and our internal heating system comes into play. It’s all really clever stuff, all part of the autonomic nervous system, operating beneath our conscious control, like breathing, or heartbeat, or even blinking.

In death the body succumbs to the ambient temperature, which conspires in the body’s potential to surrender to its own very natural and inevitable return to the source. In the absence of life, the very things that kept it ticking turn against it, and so begins the very natural process of de-composition. The energy force has left the building!

At this point, let me expand on ‘energisation’, and for convenience and clarity abandon the words ‘Chi’ and ‘Ki’.

In traditional Chinese thought a newly born baby is thought of as a fully charged fizzing battery – totally topped up with what is referred to as ‘Pre-Natal energy’. It needs this raw power and strength because of what it has to go through in its initial growing years; physical development, cellular growth, development of the immune system, as well as the rough and tumble of just… living.

The theory is that over time the pre-natal energy dissipates; it gets put upon and is gradually used up to the point where it becomes a shadow of its former self. Hence, it needs topping up, given a boost. The energy which the body is able to draw upon to resolve this problem is referred to as ‘Post-Natal Energy’. What is interesting about these forms of energy (or, we might describe them as ‘nourishment’) is that pre-natal energy is an inheritance, almost a given, without a second thought; while with post-natal energy it is your responsibility to top it up, to nurture and culture it in a very deliberate way. Of course, you could leave this to chance and hope that however you decide to run your life you will just kind of fall into step and automatically do the right thing; this is really what most people actually do. But, it’s not a great plan, given how much is at stake.

So how do you top-up and develop your post-natal energy?

I really don’t have the answers; I have heard a number of variations and theories. Some of them just seem like common-sense measures, which are part natural impulses and part lifestyle choices.

To my mind it boils down to these contributing factors:

  • Establishing a balanced lifestyle through the correct measures of rest (recuperation) and healthy vigorous activity.
  • Nourishment (a balanced and healthy diet).
  • Disciplined, conscious and cultured breathing methods.
  • Psychological balance. Understanding yourself, your wants and needs and how you fit in with the world around you.

The reverse of this is to wantonly take an axe to your body’s inheritance and recklessly sabotage your own project. The common and most damaging elements tend to be:

  • Inertia, ill-discipline and laziness.
  • An intemperate lifestyle with chaotic and indulgent patterns of behaviour, including poor sleep patterns.
  • Thoughtless consumption of unhealthy foods (particularly refined foods and sugar).
  • Chaotic or damaging relationships which act as a drain on your energy and emotions and end up starving you of one of the most nourishing experiences of human existence; that is the joy of friendship, companionship and human intimacy.
  • Allowing an unhealthy level of stress into your life with no strategy for understanding, processing or managing it; or even converting it into an empowering growth experience (you always have choices).

What about the actual use, the direct application of this energising force?

I would say that specifically in relationship to the martial arts, the best visual analogy I have come across is of a kite on a string.

The hand that holds the string is the ‘Mind’ or ‘Intent’, the impetus, the brain behind the action, the motivating force. The kite itself is the manifestation, the resulting action; but the string is the animating conduit, that is ‘energy’, that is Ki in operation. And that, in my opinion, is how your technique operates.

Tim Shaw

Book Review – ‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson.

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American Anglophile author Bill Bryson has done it again!
Here I have to admit, I am a big fan of Bryson’s earlier books and this one is very much in-line with his ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, the science book for geeks and science popularists everywhere.

This new book bombards you with facts and histories relating to what goes on in your insides (and outsides). One GP wrote recently that he wished all of his patients would read this book! It’s a whole ‘did-you-know’ compendium, enough to bore people at dinner parties (when we used to have dinner parties).

Each chapter supplies punchy, readable descriptions relating to every major organ in your body; plus, the skin, hair, eyes, nerves, circulatory system, the process of ageing, disease, the immune system and, the book is so new, a final short chapter on Covid-19.

But it is the wonder of the human body that you are left with, add to that its fragility and what modern living is doing to us. However, it is a balance of pessimism and optimism. Did you know that it has been proved that good friends and companions in later life actually prolongs your lifespan, as this factor among many protects the degradation of your DNA?

Other sections that come as surprises are things like gender differences and how just by being male (or female) impacts on your ability to survive.

Refreshingly, Bryson doesn’t shrink from stating that there are some things we just don’t know.

He enjoys telling us about medical pioneers and amateur nut-jobs who seem to stumble across new discoveries almost by accident, or succeed in killing themselves in the name of science.

Chapter 10; ‘On the Move: Bipedalism and Exercise’, is particularly relevant to anyone interested in human movement and the consequences of inactivity, counterbalanced against the positive effects of exercise. At several points in the book it becomes clear that the biggest obstacle to our ability to survive and thrive is actually ourselves – personally, I almost want to apologise to my liver! And, as for the heart; I will never take my heart for granted ever again. In reading this, it occurred to me that I have a real advantage being an identical twin, and that maybe, in an medical emergency, I might need my twin brother; or at least a part of him.

Bryson is no fan of the American health system, which just seems to be a total rip-off, and one that actually puts the population at significant risk. However, the UK health system is not exactly sitting pretty; as it is hopelessly underfunded in comparison to other services across the developed countries – but then we knew this, didn’t we.

I had to battle with my conscience to recommend and review this book as I know that ‘things medical’ have been on everyone’s mind recently; but it is better to be informed than live in ignorance.

Other recommended reading:

‘Gut: The inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ’ by Giulia Enders.
‘The Clever Guts Diet’ by Doctor Michael Mosely (not a ‘diet’ book really, but it will change how you eat).
Any book by Mary Roach, but particularly, ‘Stiff: The curious lives cadavers’ (don’t be put off).
Bonk: The curious coupling of sex and science’.
‘Gulp: Adventures on the alimentary canal’.
‘Six Feet Over: Adventures in the afterlife’ (ever wondered what happens after you die?).

Enjoy.

Tim Shaw

Can a martial art ever be taught as an algorithm?

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Currently algorithms tend to be the fall-guys for all that is wrong in the world. People always leap towards the worst possible examples, like; would you every want a computer algorithm deciding who gets medical intervention, or is refused based on a calculated outcome? To some people algorithms ARE Skynet!

But, taken in the broadest definition we use some form of algorithm in many areas of life. In a nutshell it is ‘A’ leads to ‘B’, ‘B’ leads to ‘C’ or options branching off from any of the stages and it is really useful.

I ask this question in the context of martial arts because I have noticed a growth in algorithmic-style explanations of how some martial art systems work.

I can see the appeal of algorithms; they are accessible, predictable, understandable and communicable, all excellent things for a martial arts system to aspire to – the only weakness I see in terms of martial arts is that it’s really hard to make them measurable; but that’s for another discussion.

Building an algorithmic martial arts system is what you would do if you only had a very short period of time to prepare someone. A simplified system, stripped down, discarding all the inessentials (now where have we heard that before?). Four or five techniques repeated over and over until they are excellent would do the job. There are a number of obvious downsides to this; one being that its marketability is undermined by the boredom factor and the irony is that the ‘stripped down’ system has to build in greater complexity to make it interesting (more funky takedowns, armbars, gooseneck wrist locks etc.), and it turns into the one thing it was trying hard not to be.

In a way this follows on from a previous blogpost I had written; ‘Is your martial art complicated or complex?’

There are alternative approaches, but it depends on what your aspirations are – in fact it depends on a whole raft of things, including, how much time do you have available to invest in this? Where do your priorities lie in terms of what you want out of your martial art training? What system suits you both physically and mentally? (No, they are not all the same).

Something that is close to an algorithmic approach might be akin to taking a course in CPR or First Aid. In that instance you might be motivated by the worry of how you might be able to cope if you were unfortunate to arrive on the scene of an accident; would you be able to do the right thing? Lives might be at risk.

But let’s say you really wanted to dig deeper into this area, really wanted to become actively and positively involved in the saving of lives and human physical welfare. Surely then, if you had the opportunity and the inclination to do so you would study medicine? To do so would be to plunge deeply into what lies beneath the skin; even to looking at what operates at cellular level, with all the hours of dedication and years’ work that this involves. And for that to happen (as with all complexities) you have to go backwards before you go forwards, you have to turn over everything you thought you knew. In reality, this is a description of martial arts as a ‘Way’, a non-algorithmic ‘complex’ system; this is Budo.

Why would you want to put yourself through the long painful slog of a Budo system, one that is so arduous that you feel you are moving backwards instead of forwards, one where you are actually significantly weaker, structurally confused, coordinationally muddled and intellectually perplexed; in other words, not all that dissimilar to a first year medical student. Why would you do it?

To be clear; martial arts and everything associated with it is a physical conundrum that is engaged in by humans, not robots; fighting is not mechanistic, it is organic, it is a ‘complex system’. It is like swimming in the ocean, it’s not a two metre paddling pool.

A question that is often asked; just how do you engage with martial arts as a complexity; how does it actually work? I will have to be honest here; to answer that question I feel I really don’t have the qualifications, but I might offer some pointers. There are definitely guiding concepts that act like a map to keep you on the right road. But make no bones about it; knowing the concepts only in your head is about as useful as land swimming; this has to be done by the body and in as live a situation as is possible, while still remaining within civilised constraints of course.

To explain further:

The ‘complex’ martial art system differs from the algorithmic approach the same way that the chess computer AlphaZero was from its nearest rival Stockfish 8. For Stockfish all possible chess combinations were programmed in manually, while AlphaZero only learned the rules of chess (it took a mere 4 hours), AlphaZero then played itself through a phenomenal number of games to build up its stock of possibilities. It subsequently played a challenge match against Stockfish 8 and in a 100 games it never lost a single one. AI people say this is how human intelligence works. I would argue that this is how the ‘complex’ martial artist works. In algorithmic martial arts it’s pretty clear that you have to slip between modes, a bit like changing gear, but with a ‘complex’ Budo martial arts you are always in gear, because it’s built around a fundamental integral core of Principles, this is the nucleus of what you do, everything spirals out from that point; anything else is just nuts and bolts; even the funky takedowns, the armbars and the gooseneck locks.

The bad news is that you don’t read this stuff in a book, you don’t see it on YouTube and, unless you’ve got the eyes to REALLY see what’s going on, you certainly won’t find it in a one-off seminar.

Tim Shaw

Postscript: As an afterthought, Budo, like Medicine is not solely about the visceral stuff, both disciplines are underpinned by ethical, philosophical and moral considerations (in medicine it is reflected in the Hippocratic Oath).

Thoughts on communicating with your own body.

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In our training as martial artists we are taught ‘disciplines’, but are we taught how to get in touch with our own bodies?

As part of this we may ask the question, how do instructors teach people to move? How do they help the students to have a conversation with their own bodies?

In a way students are encouraged to have a shouting match with their own bodies – like that very English thing of trying to make yourself understood to someone who doesn’t understand English by just raising the volume; our internal voice is yelling at our bodies and the body just stands there literally dumbstruck.

Often the student wholeheartedly and with good grace buys into the whole teaching method associated with their system, with the assumption that everyone learns that way, it works for them, it will work for me, because I am supposed to have faith in the system… aren’t I?

The answer is, ‘no’, ‘no’ and ‘no’.

What should be happening is that a good teacher supplies doorways and access points for each individual student, because they are ‘individuals’.

However, we make an assumption that you know your own body, but this is far from the truth. ‘We know our own body like we know our own mind’, again, a false assumption. In the case of the mind, psychologists will tell you that you have much to gain from standing back and examining your own motives, noticing the times you lie to others, but more importantly, when you lie to yourself. ‘Tough Love’ administered to your own thoughts and motivation mechanisms is hard to do.

It’s the same with the body. You are only vaguely aware of your own somatic bad habits (unless someone points them out to you, like a well-meaning and observant instructor).

For example, problems with your posture, which then become the root cause of other problems, or when one muscle kicks in to take the load for another muscle, that should be taking the main load itself. Now, why is that muscle not doing its job? It might be transferring the strain from an area that is carrying a chronic weakness, an old injury, maybe one you are not even aware of! Consciously or unconsciously you protect the weakness as an ingrained habit and it’s not always in your interests to do so. Without expert advice you could well cause that part to become atrophied through under-work, thus compounding the problem.

On top of this, the human physical framework is a complicated system, and, as with all such complicated systems, you can’t move or adjust one part without it having an effect in other places, often the whole structure has to kick in to compensate for one small movement. I heard it said that even the action of raising a single eyelid has a micro-effect on the whole body.

However, you have to cope with one key reality – the body is a bodger!

The dictionary defines a ‘Bodger’ as, ‘A person who makes or repairs something badly or clumsily.’.

When an injury occurs the body goes into emergency mode and executes a short-term fix, enough to get you out of trouble, only ever meant to be a temporary thing, Nature has designed us through survival to work this way. When we hurt our foot we take the pressure off that side of the body and transfer it across to the other side resulting in a limp. That weight transfer throws the hip and back alignment out, and if it remains in that state a chronic problem sets in.

Millions of years of evolution has resulted in this, but even then there are contradictions.

I was having a conversation with my dentist, during which I happened to say that human teeth were a lousy design, I think at the back of my mind I was reminded that when a shark breaks a tooth off a new one grows back. His answer surprised me, he said, “You are not designed to live this long, that’s why your teeth are letting you down”. A depressing thought, made even worse by what he followed it up with, he said, “as far as evolution is concerned it doesn’t care about you beyond a certain age, you are surplus to demand. Your job is to breed and then die, that’s it”.

I must have walked out of the dentists lighter in pocket, numbed in the mouth and depressed about my fragile place in the world.

I am reminded about an energetic debate I saw regarding ‘Intelligent Design’, one person said that the human body was the pinnacle of God’s design process, to which his opponent replied, “I only have three words to say to that… The Prostate Gland”. I expect most men are aware of the preposterousness of the positioning of that particular doughnut shaped gland, hardly ‘intelligent’! I won’t dwell on that particular thought, but I will leave it there for men to contemplate their own prostate and women to be puzzled.

Tim Shaw

Use it or lose it – Part 2.

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pe lessons

After writing the initial ‘Use it or Lose it’ blogpost and listening to feedback, I realised there was more scope for exploration.

Right at the start I must say that I don’t hold myself up as an expert in this field, and I only have the layman’s understanding of the science behind the subject; so, as is often the case, all we are left with is opinion.

I will start by stating the very obvious; but it is useful to have these things nailed down to establish some kind of context, or framework.

It is clear that all living organisms have a limited shelf-life, and within that allotted time (which is in no way guaranteed) there is likely to be a physical peak which we as humans (hopefully) climb towards, this is sometimes referred to as our ‘prime’, and then we have to resign ourselves towards a steady slide into decline. It’s sad, but it has to be said.

What has always been of interest to me is how we manage this particular ‘allotted time’, specifically relating to our physicality. Do we stumble into an uncertain future and hope that our bodies follow some kind of unwritten innate game plan? Or should we perhaps be more proactive and realistic about how we want to develop and mature?

As I mentioned in the first blogpost, we are designed for movement; we are very good at it, well at least we start out being very good at it. Eventually, throughout our early development we emerge at the top of a very steep learning curve. Young children learn about movement through an amazing capacity to bounce back from failure and pure trial and error, while still remaining emotionally resilient they cope with adversity amazingly well, full of optimism and a ‘can-do’ attitude. If you think about it, it’s truly inspirational.

We all did it; we rode on the crest of a wave… and then the wave dropped flat and we descended into habitual modes of movement; for example; it’s much cooler to walk instead of run; take the lift rather than the stairs – there’s too much effort required to do otherwise, it’s a much smarter way of operating; or so we tell ourselves.

What happens to our youthful selves?

While still in the flush of youth we are corralled into institutionalised physical activity in schools, with one-size-fits-all P.E. lessons. For some people it worked; for the majority the wind was taken out of their sails and they had to navigate rules and regulations, militarised team structures, pecking orders, triumphs for a minority and potential humiliation for everyone else, and then, to add to the misery, a sizable majority found their ship colliding with the rocky coastline of puberty and body awareness of the most negative kind (particularly, though not exclusively, girls). The P.E. teachers I have met are always well-intentioned and very good at defending their corner of the curriculum; with talk of ‘team work’ and ‘life’s competitive realities’, they believe they supply a partial antidote to the snowflake generation. More progressive P.E. educationalists have tried to rethink what is essentially a 19th century mind-set but it’s like swimming against the tide.

But what happened to ‘play’? It always intrigued me how, in school gymnasiums and on sports fields the word ‘play’ (as in its most refined form) became redundant or even sneered at; unless, of course, it was used as a command.

Playfulness, the most valuable thing in children’s early development (of both mind and body) has been left behind. To ‘play’ is to explore. In its purest form it exists unashamedly in only a few disciplines.

Without apology or pretensions, musicians ‘play’, and when they get together they are inclined to indulge in ‘free play’, they might call it ‘jamming’ or free improvisation, a common thing with most musicians, particularly in jazz, but it’s still ‘play’ in the original meaning of the word. What is interesting about these musicians is that their freedom to play tends to come after a period of intense discipline, a prolonged apprenticeship. In the visual arts Picasso is supposed to have said something to the effect that you need to learn the rules well before you are allowed to break them. This does not mean it is the only path to the top of the mountain; some of the greatest musicians or visual artists achieved amazing expressive work without formal training, intuitively through play, unconstrained by boundaries.

Israeli movement guru Ido Portal holds ‘play’ as central to his system. He has developed some interesting practices to explore movement as a mode of personal discovery and development. One of his methods is to punch a tennis ball against a wall, to see how many times you can return the ball with just your fists; of course everyone fails horribly, but for Portal that is the point. Really the aim is not to get good at returning the ball, because as soon as you get ‘good’ at it, the benefit has gone; the cutting edge of exploration has disappeared. This is very similar to Jordan Peterson’s demarcation of the line between chaos and order (See blog post) you engage freely and willingly with chaos. As soon as we start to think this way we are in the zone of real learning.

The body needs to experience significant challenges through movement if we are to explore our fuller potential; but not in a damaging, reckless way. But beware of what your body is telling you, it is too easy to get boxed in by habitual patterns, to slump into a chair and tell ourselves we are being kind to our body, when the truth is the complete opposite.

A Pilates teacher confided in me that she observes how people get in and out of a chair; she says it tells her so much about their physical condition. After hearing this I became quite self-conscious and started observing more closely how I moved, which parts of my body were taking the strain, or rather not taking the strain when they should. Very young children use their knees when standing up; their body movements are instinctive, uncultured yes, but natural.

It’s similar with animals; I would challenge anyone not to be in awe of the movements of both hunter and prey caught on documentary films of big cats in action.

It is a truism that you really only appreciate something when it’s gone. From my observations young people take their mobility for granted; they seem to assume that it will stay with them throughout their lives, despite observing the opposite in members of the older generation.

People in the second halves of their lives tend to have a more uneasy relationship with their bodies; after a while the wear and tear begins to make it mark. It’s a complex subject but don’t believe everything you hear; sports people don’t necessarily reap the benefit of a lifetime of activity. For example; statistics seem to indicate that people who are long term and active sportsmen/women seem to go to the doctors less often. The assumption being that they are more healthy because of their sporting activities; this is not the full picture. Further research says that they may reap some specific benefits, but in their sporting lives they have also accumulated more reference points to pain and how to manage it. Put simply, they suffer pain as much as everyone else, but they just learn to put up with it.

Part of the answer is to know your own body, be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and don’t be afraid to take advice from the experts. I know there are a lot of ‘modalities’ out there, many offering miraculous results and claiming to have the evidence, but do your own research, look at the counter arguments, and, if you have the time, look towards the science. Figure out what works for you.

My conclusions to all this (bear in mind this is advice I direct towards myself):

  • Don’t take your body for granted.
  • Embrace movement in all its forms, even if it is outside of your usual discipline/comfort zone.
  • Enjoy movement; engage with the idea of ‘play’.
  • Recognise the opportunities created by chaos.
  • Learn to have an open curiosity to all forms of human movement, whether it’s dance, gymnastics, or balancing and acrobatics.
  • Look towards your own habitual ways of moving, and if you don’t like what you see, change it.
  • Decline isn’t inevitable; everything is under your control. If you are smart you can stack the odds in your favour by making good lifestyle choices.
  • Turn human movement into a study, but don’t accept everything at face value.
  • Be wary of ‘modalities’ in the same way you would be wary of ‘Big Pharma’, after all, it’s just business.
  • Look towards functionality rather than vanity.

Tim Shaw

Use it or lose it.

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Here is quote from Fred Turok chairman of ukactive from 2014,
“By 2020, the average Brit will be so sedentary that they will use only 25 per cent more energy than if they spent the whole day sleeping… Over the last 50 years in the UK, physical activity levels have declined by 20 per cent. Even worse, they are projected to decline by a further 15 per cent by 2030.” And here we are, in 2020 (but maybe not the 2020 that Fred Turok envisioned) and have we sunk to the levels that Turok predicted?

Despite the fact that evolution has designed us for movement technology has relentlessly moved us step by step towards a utopia we shouldn’t really be aspiring to; a future of avoiding movement.

For example; we travel short distances and long distances in motorised armchairs; we seldom make our own entertainment any more, we sit back and let other people do it for us. The argument has been that ‘labour-saving’ devices have freed us from domestic drudgery; but what do we do with that freedom? We ‘rest’, but ‘rest’ from what?

Essentially we have made terrific inroads into NOT using our bodies.

If we look at the longest timeline of human existence, the vast majority of it had movement as part of its vital make-up. This is movement for survival as hunter-gatherers; movement for warfare, movement in migration and movement in rituals and dance and other creative activities.

Maybe there is some good news – but it’s mixed.

It could be said that a kind of counter-culture has been around for a very long time. The so-called ‘fitness industry’ has been in existence in one form or another since the days of the ancient civilisations, but interestingly physical culture for its own sake was mostly available to only a limited range of people. The list included; the wealthy, with leisure time available, and the young. Looking at the price of modern gym membership and who the advertising is pitched at, not much seems to have changed.

We are now being told that poor diet and obesity is a national problem (particularly in the light of developing information about Covid-19). It is an interesting observation that for the first time in many thousands of years, the rich get thinner while to poor get fatter; what a turn-around that is.

But there are other contradictions here:
I see online ads for gyms full of people engaging in what I’m sure they consider as low-tech training methods; tractor tires are rolled, turned over and hit with sledge hammers, sometimes happening in converted industrial units – oh the irony. I wonder what my grandfathers would have thought about that?

My paternal grandfather’s job was described as being a ‘hewer’ or a ‘ripper’ which Wikipedia describes as, “men who remove the rock above the coal seam and set rings (arches) to raise the height of the gate or road as the coal face advances”. I never knew him; he was killed in a roof collapse at the age of 48 in 1935. My maternal great grandfather was a railway navvy (navigator) and a bare knuckle fighter; he dug tunnels, extending the London Underground network in the 1880’s. Both of these would probably have been amused beyond imagination at the sight of people sweating and grunting with tractor tires and ‘battle’ ropes, (snort!) and paying for the privilege! Pumping iron in ex-industrial units where men used to ‘pump iron’ for real. I’m sorry to say it but, this is satire beyond satire.

My physio says he loves these people who ‘play with’ tractor tires; saying that they keep him in business. I quote, “Here are people who in their daily lives never pick up anything heavier than a pen – nobody teaches them proper lifting techniques, nobody thinks to start them off on smaller tires and they wonder why their back has gone out! They keep me in business. Give them my card”.

‘Boot camp’ training often has the same problem; the assumption being that training that is designed for indestructible 17 year old recruits is going to work for flabby office workers, really?

Forgive my cynicism, but, despite all these advancements I wonder if we have over-complicated the issue. It is true that generally we are not moving enough, we are not engaging with our bodies or celebrating our own individual capacity for movement and hence not reaping the benefits. Fitness culture is too often conflated with vanity; certainly the Ad men would want us to believe that, it sells gym subscriptions and feeds off our insecurities.

But what about movement for movement’s sake, as when young children play, run and climb, or movement as part of human expression, as with dancers? And for the older person, there are immeasurable opportunities for engaging with movement, either through structured meaningful disciplines or just taking to your feet and indulging in the clean open air, in sunshine or foul weather and celebrating just being alive.

Tim Shaw

A different take on Martial Arts Media and History.

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Random reading during lock-down lead me back to a theme that had interested me for some time. In the past I had picked up a number of books on the history of the martial arts in the west. (I will give a list at the end of this post if anyone is interested).

What always intrigued me was the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. I was particularly interested in the civilian arts, how they were developed, how they were taught and how they were commodified.

This is a complex story but I will give a couple of examples that surprised me, and sometimes amused me.

I learned that historically the English did what the English are always prone to doing, i.e. despising the foreigners and always holding themselves up as the best. If you are interested read up on George Silver, whose book ‘Paradoxes of Defence’ written in 1599 took a swipe at the cowardly foreigners use of the rapier to stab with the pointy end instead of the slashing action of the ‘noble’ English backsword. The Italians and the French bore the brunt of Silver’s ire and he aggressively sought to make his point stick – literally. He had a hatred for immigrant Italian fencing masters, particularly Rocco Bonetti and Vincentio Saviolo. He challenged Saviolo to a duel, but Saviolo failed to turn up, which caused George Silver to crow about his superiority to anyone who would listen.

Fast forward nearly 200 years and the fencing master is still in demand. There was a market for slick Italian and French ‘masters’. Many of them taught horsemanship and, surprisingly, dancing (thus proving an observation I made in an earlier blogpost; ‘a man who can’t dance has got no business fighting’). The demand did not come from the hoi polloi, the proles – no, it came from the aristocrats, and for good practical reasoning.

From the 16th century onwards the idea of the ‘Grand Tour’ was all the rage. Wealthy young bucks were sent abroad to widen their horizons and soak in the classical antiquities around Europe and the Mediterranean. Although there was some effort made to chaperone these entitled and indulged young men (almost exclusively men) there was an expectation of expanding not just their minds but their… worldliness. This often resulted in an awful lot of bad behaviour (see, one of my particular heroes, Lord George Gordon Byron, 6th Lord Byron). Unfortunately, quite a number of these heirs came significantly unstuck. Sometimes whole fortunes were lost through gambling, or they fell under a robber’s blade or some equally dastardly misfortune.

Hence preparation for the ‘Tour’ was deemed necessary, and not just preparation of the mind, but the skills of defence, and often of fighting dirty. It was here that masters like Bonetti, Saviolo and in the 18th century the wonderful Domenico Angelo (more of him later) came in. These masters were paid well to teach sword and rapier, left-handed dagger and, intriguingly, skills like ‘cloak and lantern’; put simply, the cloak was used for defence and sometimes ensnarement, and the directed light from the lantern was used to dazzle or temporarily blind an opponent to allow the use of the sword or left-handed dagger.sword_lantern

But to return to Domenico Angelo (1717 – 1802). Angelo was sponsored by the Earl of Pembroke and later the dowager Princess of Wales; this patronage did him huge favours and boosted his reputation enormously. He was astute enough to build a business from his arts and turn it into a dynasty, three generations of Angelo’s thrived in their property in Soho Square and other premises. Angelo was an excellent example of early marketing, publishing a fencing instruction book, L’École des armes”, in 1763. He is said to have single-handedly turned the art of war into sport and health promotion; where have we heard this before?

But it is the issue of publication that intrigues me. This dissemination of martial skills through whatever means possible had been around for hundreds of years. There are medieval European fencing manuals still in existence. These are pored over by enthusiasts, researched both intellectually and physically by obsessives who enjoy nothing better than swinging two-handed blades at each other in full armour – the medieval version of Fight Club.

The manuals served a number of purposes. Expert in the field John Clements proposed eight possible motives for the creation of these books, all of which have resonance with recent discussion regarding how we access and archive martial arts material in the 21st century:

  1. To preserve the instructor’s teachings.
  2. As a private study guide for selected students.
  3. As a primer or reminder for students when not in class.
  4. To impress nobles with their knowledge as a professional instructor in order to gain patronage.
  5. At the behest of an interested sovereign or aristocratic supporter of the art.
  6. To promote themselves and teachers of the craft and acquire new students.
  7. To publicly declare their skills or dispute the teachings of other masters.
  8. As a means of acquiring a pension through recognition or appreciation of years of service and dedication.

What motivated medieval masters and swords masters right up until recent times to publish and present is pretty much the same as it is now. If we look at Japanese martial arts a similar pattern can be seen.

From the ‘patronage’ perspective I will cite a few examples:
The Yagyu dynasty of swordsmen from the 17th century, sponsored by the Tokugawa clan.
The 20th century sponsorship of Ueshiba Morihei founder of Aikido by various well-connected individuals.
Also Funakoshi Gichin, who worked hard to establish karate on mainland Japan in the 1920’s, something he could not have done without courting the right kind of sponsorship.

In the far east books and ‘master texts’ on martial arts have a long history; whether it is the ‘Bubishi’ or ‘Karate-Do Kyohan’. But they are never all-encompassing; it has to be said that it’s a virtual impossibility to give the complete body of information through the printed or written medium.

In line with the above list these publications fall into various categories; crib books, catalogues, visual cues, or in the case of Koryu Densho, transmission scrolls with opaque lists meant to be decoded only by the initiated. What surprises me, in this age of digital curation, archiving and future-proofing is that the old technology of printed paper versions have held up so remarkably well.

Some martial arts are better supplied by these various types of repositories. If your fighting method is comprised of only a handful of techniques, as can be found in some military manuals, then all you need is a few diagrams and a basic description. But if your art is more refined, with nuances and subtleties it is impossible to put these across in anything other than face to face encounters. The founder of Wado Ryu karate Otsuka Hironori is said to have expressed his frustration with trying to put his ideas into printed form. As this extract from a 1986 interview with Horikawa Chieko, widow of Daito Ryu master Horikawa Kodo tells us;

“On one occasion… an expert in Wado-ryu karate by the name of Hironori Otsuka happened to visit the dojo. He and Horikawa got on quite well. He was a wonderful person, and very strict about technique. He was talking with Horikawa and he said, “I’ll never write a book either” for example, there are many ways to put out one’s hand, but in a book all that can be conveyed is the phrase “put out your hand”, which misses all the subtleties. Both he and Horikawa agreed that techniques cannot be expressed in books or in words.”*

This is a discussion that could go on and on, and it is clear that the market place hasn’t so much become crowded as to have almost decamped altogether to the online world, where clamoring voices and slick marketing compete for our attention, almost to the point of overload.

A debate as to how this could all work out in the 21st century, with the involvement of new technology, can be found in an excellent slim publication by Matt Stait and Kai Morgan called ‘Online Martial Arts. Evolution or Extinction’. Ironically available in printed form and download from Amazon.

*Pranin, Stanley, ‘Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu’ 1996.

Recommended reading:

‘By the Sword’ Richard Cohen 2002.

‘The English Master of Arms’, J. D. Aylward, 1956.

Tim Shaw

 

Irimi in Wado Karate.

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I was recently teaching and explaining the concept of ‘Irimi’ within Wado on a Zoom training session. This post is meant in part to reinforce and extend that particular lesson.

Taken simply ‘Irimi’ is a Japanese Budo term which means to enter into your opponent’s space in order to defeat them. I once heard someone describe it as a ‘mad dash in towards the centre’, a good image to hold on to.

The concept of Irimi has been a part of Japanese Budo, armed and unarmed for a very long time and is inextricably wrapped up in issues of timing, distance, rhythm and ‘Initiative’ (‘Sen’). The founder of Wado Ryu, Otsuka Hironori would have understood this concept from the very early days of his training.

In Aikido, the founder, Ueshiba Morihei, thought it so important that he made it one of the cornerstones of his art. Ueshiba had gained experience in the concept of Irimi at the very start of his martial journey, even as early as his short military career, where he learned the importance of the ‘mad dash towards the centre’ in hand to hand bayonet training. Developments of this bayonet training (Jukendo) remained part of his personal repertoire, and can be seen in the iconic 1935 Asahi Newspaper film shot when Ueshiba was in his physical prime at the age of 51.

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Ueshiba Morihei in military clothing, with bayonet, photographed for Shin Budo magazine March 1942.

Sometimes Irimi is seen as a sidestep in towards the opponent; this can be quite misleading. A more meaningful and sophisticated way of using Irimi is to understand it as moving in deeply to occupy your opponent’s space – he wants to dominate and abide in that space; it’s his territory; the centre of his operation; his physical and psychological core. The laws of physics say that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time; so your job is to turn this particular law on its head – you conquer time and space; not through anything supernatural, but instead by an orchestration of superior judgement, the right timing, the right distance and the right cadence all working together with determination and commitment.

In Wado there are multiple opportunities to operate and sharped Irimi; it is part of our refined art, for example by creating narrow corridors of access through positioning and reading your opponent’s intent. For this you need sharpened perception (Kan) and an acute awareness of the ebb and flow (Kake Hiki), which is clearly a part of the formal kumite of Wado Ryu.

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Otsuka Hironori.

In my Zoom session I was teaching it specifically through the mechanics of Shuto Uke, starting with the slide into position and narrowing of the body to ‘sneak’ into the opponent’s centre. The body and the arm move in like a blade. If done correctly the point of contact becomes irresistible as the elbow of the blocking arm stymies the opponent’s attack without any harsh, angular clashing of force. This results in superior positioning and direct access into the opponent’s weak angle and the contact arm effortlessly slides into the inside line accessing the head/neck; all of this supported by kuzushi and together would have a devastating effect, following the dictum of ‘fatally compromising the opponent while putting yourself into a position of safety’.

Tim Shaw

An article by Ellis Amdur which partly inspired this post: https://aikidojournal.com/2016/05/06/irimi-by-ellis-amdur/

 

Just what are you imitating?

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I was recently listening to a very good series of Shotokan karate podcasts.

The interviewers were discussing how the various Shotokan split-offs were sometimes characterised not by adherence to the Shotokan system, but instead by one individual’s interpretation of Shotokan karate. This was sometimes based upon that individual’s physical build, specialist area, or even their own blinkered understanding of what Shotokan karate was.

One of the conclusions they came to was that although the Sensei could make it work for him, the student’s attempts to ‘be’ him were doomed to failure. In the some cases the senior students techniques become an empty parody of their teacher – to borrow from Ellis Amdur, they are a ‘shadow’ of their teacher, and… a shadow doesn’t cast a shadow of its own.

Some do this in the name of ‘tradition’ but, it’s tempting to quote Gustav Mahler, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire”.

Thinking about this, I had seen manifestations of this myself, and not necessarily in Wado.

I trained with a Goju Ryu group many years ago; excellent hard working dedicated people, but I distinctly remember them talking about the need to develop a ‘Goju Ryu body’; to them this was the barrel-chested, stocky legged, powerful solidity of the likes of Miyazato Eichi or Higoanna Morio. I am sure that for some of them this was a physical ideal they tried hard to achieve; they seemed to suggest that this physicality was the embodiment of the ryu – how true that is I don’t know.

In the interview the Shotokan guys spoke of the physical models of Shotokan leading lights like Enoeda and Kanazawa; but one of the interviewers was quick to add that he thought this was a fallacy; he said he believed that people had to find ‘their’ karate, not somebody else’s.

This is something I would agree with; but it comes with some caveats. For example; I am reminded of a very senior Japanese Wado Sensei who once grumbled that students tend to imitate their instructor’s bad points but seldom their good points – it’s a fair comment. Also, in pursuing and formulating ‘your’ karate be sure you are not pandering towards your own weaknesses.

I suppose it comes down to the understanding of Principles. This is certainly true in Wado. If the core Principles are fully recognised and adhered to your Wado may become nuanced but never flawed. Right Principles, right techniques, right mentality. In Wado this can work well with dedicated students because Wado allows for nuances. But the down-side of this is that it doesn’t necessarily work well in mass teaching situations, unless your objective is cookie-cutter Wado. For me Wado works best as a bespoke, tailor-made thing, which is perfect, but only it is overseen by a master tailor.*

Tim Shaw

I couldn’t resist this; a very old example of Jewish humour.

*The Suit Joke. Source: https://www.121msg.com/single-post/2017/10/04/A-Fitting-Point-for-a-Classic-Joke
All his life, Blevins wanted a tailored suit. With hard hard work and self-denial he was finally able to afford one. He found a classy tailor and was measured and fitted. After two weeks he went to pick up the suit.
He tried it on and looked at himself in the mirror. He could not believe how elegant he looked.
“Gorgeous,” said the tailor.
“Unbelievable,” said the tailor’s assistant.
“Only one thing,” said the tailor. “You have a little scoliosis. Maybe you didn’t know. But your right shoulder droops. I did what I could to correct for it, but there’s only so much I can do. If you really want the suit to look good you’ll hoist your right shoulder a little.”
Blevins lifts his right shoulder slightly.
“Ooh!” says the assistant
“Wow,” says the tailor.
Blevins begins to go. “One more thing,” says the tailor. “Your right leg — maybe you don’t know — is about an eighth of an inch shorter than your left. I did what I could to correct for it, but you don’t want too much material on one side compared with the other side. So if you just straighten your right leg and bend your left leg a little, it’ll fall perfectly.”
Blevins straightens his right leg and bends his left leg.
“There!” says the assistant.
“Magnificent,” says the tailor.
“One final thing,” says the tailor. “Because you’re bending one leg and straightening the other, the crotch area is a pinched, so if you just tilt your knees out a little… there!”
And the assistant says, “I’m crying it’s so handsome.”
Blevins leaves and exits onto Main Street. He walks down the block with one shoulder up, one leg straight, one leg bent, his knees bowed out.
He passes two men.
One says, “Oh my, do you see that horribly crippled man? He must have been in a terrible industrial accident.”
“Yes,” says the other, “but that’s a beautiful suit he’s wearing.”

 

Challenging Times.

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I think the phrase ‘unprecedented times’ despite its accuracy has been overused of late, but really these are the unforeseen times that we were always told would come – ‘Not a case of ‘if’, but ‘when’ the experts always said.

But… what has been so uplifting in this current crisis was to see how karate could still function in people’s lives and perform a valuable service. This seems to have been almost exclusively accessed through various on-line platforms. Instructors and students have had to get nimble with new technology; necessity is truly the mother of invention. People have been going Live on Facebook (see Jerry Smit and Martijn Schelen’s Facebook classes), have been submitting videos through YouTube, and have been keen to let everyone know that despite the lock-downs they are keeping body and soul together and pursuing their passions. Tacitly people are making statements through their actions; whether they are conscious of it or not – they are saying ‘we are doing our best to work towards a future time when this will have all blown over’ while also acknowledging that the world will not be the same place afterwards.

The other side of this is ‘community’.

These various platforms are supplying extended virtual communities.

Most good Dojo are communities, offering companionship and mutual support as well as shared enthusiasm for the chosen discipline. Through these on-line platforms these communities can still function. Clearly, it’s not the same, but in a world of diminishing possibilities with everyone hunkering down behind closed doors, even a bad option is better than no option at all.

With this in mind Shouwa Jyuku (Chelmsford) decided to construct our own virtual Dojo through the conferencing platform Zoom. As of this posting we are only a few classes in but so far it has been a real success, although it has been a steep learning curve. Currently it is operating as a closed group but that may not always be the case. Sugasawa Sensei has even developed the habit of dropping in and observing lessons!

There is clearly scope for more flexible thinking incorporating targeted classes for grade groups, or exploring kata in greater depth. Shikukai members are presently enjoying another Zoom project championed by Shouwa Jyuku assistant instructor Steve Thain 4th Dan who is running an early morning kick improvement, strengthening and flexibility class, but 7.30 am may not be everyone’s prime time; but people are rediscovering their personal discipline, reclaiming some kind of structure and getting a definite feel-good buzz from knowing that they are doing something.

Tim Shaw

Course Report – Holland March 2020.

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I suppose at some level we could all see it coming; on the eve of this recent course in Holland Covid-19 was knocking on the door of European civilisation like the Goths invasion of the Roman Empire. We weren’t to know it but this course happened just before the doors were slamming tightly shut, and who knows when they will be opened again.

Naturally we had our reservations, but as of that particular time we followed guidelines and took the safety of participants very seriously.

I honestly thought that attendance would be very low but was surprised that only a handful of people had cancelled. This meant that the Dojo was not too crowded and we had the space and the time to make sure that everyone gained individual attention and we could really dig deeply into the planned agenda.

I had thought this one through very carefully – I always plan the courses in detail, and this time I wanted to tackle some of the lesser covered themes. This was deliberately designed to be challenging, not necessarily physically, but mentally and technically.

For our first two hours on the Friday night I chose Tanto Dori (knife defence). Initially we looked at techniques that were from the standard Wado playbook. I made sure that people understood that these were densely packaged forms (kata) with layered lessons contained within each specific part of the sequence. I then moved on to lesser-seen Tanto Dori; ones which operated from the formal kneeling position; much more demanding physically, as the body manoeuvres and evasive techniques demanded absolute concentration and control to avoid being skewered.

Tanto dori.

Saturday’s class was for three hours and covered different dynamics of movement which ultimately took us into Kushanku kata. For some reason a kata that contains so much information tends to be left behind, I’m not sure why. We did not avoid the more athletic aspects of this form; in fact I encouraged people to embrace the character of the kata, with its elongated movements, low drops and demanding spins and turns.

Kushanku.

The last day, Sunday, everything was geared towards pairs practice with Kihon Gumite No. 10 as the apex technique. We explored other principles which acted as an introduction to Kihon Gumite and made links to moves found in the Pinan kata. We were fortunate to have mats available and this gave everyone a chance to experience that big over the top throw found in Kihon Gumite 10 (in a safe manner).

And so it ended, and, with a heavy heart, I had to leave my friends in Holland, not knowing when we would all get a chance to train together again. We have spoken optimistically about another course in October, but let’s see how things work out.

Huge thanks to Martijn Shelen and his team who hosted this course and to everyone who came along.

Tim Shaw

Book Review – ‘Shindo Yoshin Ryu, History and Technique.’ Tobin Threadgill and Shingo Ohgami.

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Rumours about the appearance of this book circulated a long time ago, and so finally it is here.

For me it was well worth the wait. Although it is a weighty tome I found it difficult to leave alone and so now I am on my second reading.

The organisation of the book is neatly packaged with many excellent photographs, diagrams and images. It covers historical, theoretical and technical aspects of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu and supplies very informative personal and anecdotal experiences of key figures within the Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu.

The history section immerses you into the complex world of what was to be called ‘Koryu’ Budo/Bujutsu and it easily dispels any myth, which usually come out of oversimplification. Piece by piece an image of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu starts to appear out of the miasma of Japanese lineages. Facts collide with legend, which in turn throws up further questions, some of which are unlikely ever to be answered.

It is clear that Threadgill Sensei and the late Ohgami Sensei have been involved in significant on the ground research; chasing down leads and engaging with surviving descendants of some of the main SYR players involved in this complicated saga.

Throughout the complexities, the jigsaw images of evidence, anecdote and documentation SYR appears as a system that was buffeted by change, navigating around the powerhouse that was late 19th century, early 20th century Judo, which lured traditional Jujutsuka into a world of Randori and contest and away from their fuller curriculum. It also describes the ascent and descent of various SYR branches which echoed much of what was happening to the traditional martial arts of Japan in the Meiji to Showa periods of Japanese history.

Does this book have relevance to students of Wado karate?

It depends where you are on your journey in Wado. For history buffs like me it was like catnip. I couldn’t get enough. But also, although SYR and Wado are as different as cats and dogs their connection cannot be ignored and as such, a surprisingly large section was devoted to the founder of Wado Ryu, Otsuka Hironori.

I was impressed with the author’s approach to the potentially thorny issue of Otsuka Hironori’s role in all of this. This was dealt with in an even-handed and factual way with Otsuka Sensei reputation intact, perhaps even boosted. Throughout the book the authors acknowledge the huge contribution Otsuka Sensei had made to the survival of SYR, without really being aware of it. The irony of course being that at the age of 30 Otsuka Sensei left SYR behind to synthesise his accumulated Budo experiences into the formulation an entirely new entity, Wado Ryu Jujutsu Kempo. Thus, for a long time, SYR became a footnote in Wado history – but not any more.

It is clear that Wado enthusiasts were drawn by curiosity to the surviving SYR and this curiosity extended sufficiently to cause some of them to beat a path to the door of Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu Kaicho Tobin Threadgill Sensei – his recent seminars in Europe attest to that.

In the technical section of the book, although deliberately and understandably incomplete, it is possible to see common strategies and common nomenclature. Within the body of this section it is possible to read between the lines and gain glimpses of Otsuka Sensei’s technical base and the underlying strategies of Wado Ryu. My conversations and experiences of people within TSYR have certainly informed my reading of this text, reinforcing my view that when Wado was formed the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater.

Who knows, perhaps there is more to come from the pen of Threadgill Sensei. I certainly hope so.

I have it on good authority that the late Ohgami Sensei was able to see advance productions of this book and greatly approved of the completion of this joint project before his passing. Although I only met him once I know that he will be greatly missed.

Tim Shaw

Is your martial art complicated or complex?

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This is about systems; and martial arts are systems.

I came across this while reading up on the influences and developments of new technology and found myself reading Jordan Hall’s analysis of the dangers of the evolving ways that people communicate in the modern world.

I found myself thinking; whichever martial arts people choose to pursue they may find themselves engaging with a system that could either be described as ‘complicated’ or ‘complex’. This might be down to the system, or the practitioner’s approach to the system.

But first of all, what is the difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’?

To quote Jordan Hall, “A complicated system is defined by a finite and bounded (unchanging) set of possible dynamic states. While a complex system is defined by an infinite and unbounded (growing, evolving) set of possible dynamic states.”.

He uses a Boeing 777 as an example of a complicated system; it is VERY complicated but it is still a bounded system; very linear with regard to cause and effect. The only time a Boeing 777 can come unstuck is when it clashes with a complex system; like the weather or a flock of birds. We can read from this that Nature is the domain of complex systems – and, probably one of the most amazingly miraculous complex systems is the human brain, which truly has no limits (despite how people choose to run their lives).

When I first read about the definition of a ‘complex system’ the first image that came into my head was the sea; being both predictable and unpredictable; its capriciousness is held in awe by even the most experienced sailors. But it can be navigated, but not by approaching it in the same way you would a complicated system.

Complex systems have ‘dispositions’, the funny thing is that sometimes they can only be understood with hindsight, ‘oh, that’s why that particular thing happened!’ we get a reflective overview, this is why stories and metaphors can be useful; for example, old sailors telling tales of the sea – this is accumulated knowledge; valuable attempts to make sense of the truly complex.*

To work with complex systems you have to sense the patterns, read the signs. If this involves other people it can get even more complex, this could even include the messy interpersonal stuff. There can be cause and effect but in an amazingly interconnected way, not linear – focus on one small part and you are lost. Very much like fighting.

So, is your martial arts system complicated or complex? Or maybe you are approaching your system as if it were complicated, for convenience sake, when it is really complex? I have no doubt that some systems were deliberately designed to be complicated, bounded and finite. This may well have been out of pure necessity, for example, limited by time or situation.

A complex martial art system is perhaps too daunting for most people. For anyone wanting immediate results taking up a complex system may not be for you, unless you have an insane level of motivation and conscientiousness and a lot of free time on your hands. It is also possible that people might come to the realisation that they have bought into a system that they assumed was ‘complex’ only to hit the buffers on its limitations, or THEIR limitations, but for argument’s sake let’s say it’s the former, then to avoid backtracking they feel a need to concoct complexities that were never there! As the saying goes; what a tragedy it is when people spend their whole lives trying to get to the top of a particular ladder, only to find that it’s propped against the wrong wall!

It has to be said that ‘Complicated’ can reach its limits when it is driven by simplicities like ‘harder’, ‘faster’, ‘stronger’.

When navigating a truly ‘complex system by necessity we are driven into instantaneous and creative actions; verging on the instinctive and intuitive. This is the domain of ‘potential’, and growth, everything about human life is about about engaging with the ‘potential’, there is nothing else. The opposite of potential is stasis and inertia. For the martial artist (or the fighter) inertia is not just negative, it’s potentially fatal.

There is one more ‘system’ that has to be taken into consideration; but it’s really a system without a system, and that is Chaos.

The fact is that Chaos can erupt around us at any moment, this is when unpredictable events happen within something that should be navigable. Everyone has their own pet theory of how to cope in the middle of Chaos; whether that be, ‘stop, pause, think and re-evaluate’, or ‘just do something – anything!’. But overall, it would be wrong to fail to consider Chaos as a possibility we may have to engage with.

The last words on this should be with Otsuka Hironori founder of Wado Ryu karate, “Martial art technique is like the cosmos; it is infinite. Know that there are no such things as limits”.

Tim Shaw

*I am also tempted to draw a connection between the idea that the difference between complicated and complex are the same differences between technicians and artists.
For anyone interested in looking at the origin of these definitions, Google, ‘Dave Snowden Cynefin Framework’.

Book Review – ‘The Power of Chōwa’.

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‘Finding Your Balance Using the Japanese Wisdom of Chōwa’ by Akemi Tanaka.

調和

‘Chōwa’ when broken into its two parts means, ‘Cho’ ‘searching for’ or ‘working at’, establishing ‘Wa’ Harmony (Yes the very same ‘Wa’ 和 as in Wado Ryu!)

Although this book only takes a gentle nod in the direction of Japanese martial arts it is nonetheless a fascinating study and guide for anyone wanting to gain an insight into Japanese culture and society; as well as gaining an understanding of how the all-encompassing Japanese concept of ‘Wa’ operates within Japanese society.

The book is multi-layered; yes it gives a wonderfully unique perspective that crosses between eastern and western cultures but it also delivers incredibly practical and usable advice for modern living.

Akemi Tanaka casts an objective but critical eye on her native Japanese culture; unafraid to outline where she believes that Japanese culture has been somewhat adrift. She includes issues such as feminism and aspects of personal relationships, love, romance and family dynamics. She runs useful comparisons between the western approach and the eastern approach that were particularly enlightening and she includes fascinating Japanese concepts; some of which we encounter within our studies of Japanese Budo.

Her suggestions for focus and tips for modern living were a real breath of fresh air. There are ‘Chōwa lessons’ and suggestions about how to uncomplicate and unclutter your life. For anyone running a hectic household and balancing family life there are some real practical gems.

Akemi Tanaka is open and frank about her personal life and the difficulties she experienced trying to carve her own way in the world. The book crackles with her personal energy and drive; her battles to establish herself and her triumphs through her charity work. She adeptly balances the concept of ‘the self’ and ‘society’, encouraging individuality and creativity.

For me the book unravelled some of the complications I had often puzzled about when dealing with all things Japanese. I had always admired the very practical way that Japanese people dealt with the social conundrum of close living, particularly household living. The book outlined how carefully crafted social conventions acted to oil the wheels of people accustomed to living cheek by jowl. But this is also living Artfully, not just ‘existing’, which is a whole exercise in enrichment and personal fulfilment while still being inside of society and contributing fully.

At the end of the book there is a feeling that author has shared with you something truly personal.

For my mind the book was too short; but then isn’t that always the case with a really good read?

Amazon link

Tim Shaw

The two wheels of a cart.

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I had heard a while ago that theory and practice in martial arts were like the two wheels of a cart. One without the other just has you turning around in circles.

It is a convenient metaphor which is designed to make you think about the importance of balance and the integration of mind and body. On one hand, too much theory and it all becomes cerebral, and, on the other hand practice without any theoretical back-up has no depth and would fall apart under pressure.

But here’s another take on it, from the world of Yoga.

Supposing the ratio of theory to practice is not 50/50, and it should be more like 1% theory and 99% practice?

So, for some of the yoga people it’s is very nearly all about doing and not spending so much time thinking about it. I sympathise with this idea, but I feel uneasy about the shrinking of the importance of theory and understanding about what you are doing.

I am sure that I have mentioned in a previous blog post about how the separation of Mind and Body tends to be a very western thing. In eastern thinking the body has an intelligence of its own, over-intellectualisation can be a kind of illness. How many times have we been told, “You’re overthinking it, just do it”? Or, “Don’t think, feel”.

Maybe this points to another way of looking at the diagram above…

Perhaps it’s more like this?

I.e. a huge slice of theory, study, reflection, meditation, intellectual exploration and discussion (still making up only 1%), and an insane amount of physical practice to make up the other 99% to top it off!

Just a thought.

Tim Shaw

What Master Otsuka Saw (Probably).

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A presumptuous title, I know, but bear with me, I have a theory.

I have often wondered how Otsuka Hironori the founder of Wado Ryu thought. I wished I had been able to climb into his head, navigate all those very Japanese nuances that are so alien to the world I live in and see as he saw; a bit like in the movie ‘Being John Malkovich’. But more importantly and specifically to see what he saw when he was dealing with an opponent.

I am fairly convinced he didn’t see what we would see in the same circumstances, the mindset was probably very different.

This is all guesswork and speculation on my part but to perhaps support my claim, let me backtrack to a comment made by a very well-known Japanese Wado Sensei.

I was present when this particular Sensei made a very casual off-the-cuff comment about Otsuka Sensei – so quick and matter-of-fact it was easy to miss. It was in a conversation generally about movement; I can’t remember the exact words but my understanding was this; he said that Otsuka Sensei’s ‘zone’ was ‘movement’ – he (Otsuka Sensei) could work with ‘movement’, but inertia held no interest for him, it was no challenge. That was it; an almost throwaway comment.

I held on to this and thought about it for a long time, and out of this rumination I would put this theory forward:

It is highly possible that Otsuka Sensei was acutely tuned to zones of motion and energy; like vectors and forces governed by Intent and energised by Intent; an Intent that for him was readable.

For him it is possible that the encounter was made up of lines of motion which, in a calculated way, he chose to engage and mesh with. These involved arcs of energy that extended along lines limited by the physiology of the human frame (a refined understanding of distance and timing), but also he was able to engage with that frame in itself, not just its emanations and extensions. He saw it as Macro and Micro, as large or small scale tensions and weaknesses and he was able to have a dialogue with it, and all of this was happening at a visceral level.

The computations normally associated with reasoning and calculation would have just gotten in the way – no, this was another thing entirely; this was the ‘other’ brain at work, body orientated, woven into the fibre of his being, much more spontaneous, coming out of a cultured and trained body. And there is the catch… it would be a great thing to have the ability to ‘see’ those lines, energies and vectors, but ‘seeing’ on its own has no meaningful advantage; it becomes a self-limiting intellectual exercise; an academic dead-end. No, the body (your body) has to be trained to be refined in movement, otherwise the necessary engagement/connection is not going to happen; or, it happens in your head first and your body is too late to respond! The key to unlocking this is there, it always has been there; but unfortunately too often it is hobbled by formalism, or that perennial obsession of just making shapes.

It’s a lifetime’s work, and, even with the best will in the world, probably unobtainable. But why let that put you off?

Tim Shaw