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 . 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.
 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.
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.
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.
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.
Ido Portal, Image credit; London Real, Brian Rose.
What did the martial artists of the past have that we don’t have today?
I don’t think it is possible to give definitive answers to this question, but it’s worth asking the question anyway.
There are many amazing and literally unbelievable stories about martial arts masters from the past, and some of them not so very far distant from the current age. For example; is it true or even possible for Ueshiba Morihei founder of Aikido to willingly stand in front of a military firing squad at a distance of about seventy-five feet and, at the moment they pulled the trigger, some were swept off their feet and Ueshiba ended up miraculously standing behind them! And just to prove a point, he did it twice! Shioda Gozo, Aikido Sensei says he witnessed this. .
Some of the tales from the more distant history are just as amazing.
Even if we take these stories with an enormous pinch of salt, stripping away the propaganda and the myth building, surely, there’s no smoke without fire? Two percent of that kind of ability would be more than enough. They must have had something?
It has to be said that the background to these kinds of stories is presented to us in a landscape that is so very remote from our own.
I suppose a key question is; is it possible for someone in the modern age, living a 21st century lifestyle to achieve anything like the semi-miraculous skills of the likes of Ueshiba Morihei in Japan, or Yang Luchan (patriarch the Yang school of Tai Chi) in China. Logically, if such skills exist, it may well be possible to attain such abilities in the current age, but it is weighed down with an almost unsurmountable number of negatives.
Allow me to present a speculative list of advantages these historical superheroes may have had in their favour, and then run a few comparisons.
But there are some significant challenges; beginning with the task of imagining yourself in the cultural landscape of the far east maybe a hundred years ago or even further back. This is a tough call for Westerners, as we have to peel away our own cultural understandings and inhabit the mindset of people half a world away, existing on cultural accretions that sit upon thousands of years of history, but please bear with me.
First of all, I want to present you with a puzzle that would be a useful starting place:
The possibility of rapid development.
If we take Japanese Old School (Koryu) Budo as an example, and we understand that there existed a well-established stratum of advancement; traditionally acknowledged by the presentation of sequence of certificates and eventually ending with a certification scroll that acknowledged ‘Full Transmission’, i.e. mastery of the system. That in itself could be considered a grand statement with a massive responsibility sitting on the shoulders of the recipient, the expectations are enormous, surely?
But, researchers reveal that these scrolls of ‘full transmission’ were sometimes offered to individuals with only a couple of decades of practice! I refer anyone who doubts this to Ellis Amdur’s book ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’. You have to ask yourself, how is that even possible?
In the recent ‘Shu Ha Ri’ lectures (mentioned in my blog post ‘Budo and Morality’) old time Aikidoka George Ledyard, when talking about the abilities of modern Aikido people (comparable to Ueshiba) poured cold water on an argument often brought forward in Aikido circles that if you train long enough, eventually you will ‘get it’ (something I have also heard said in Wado). In the interview Ledyard clearly called bullshit on that argument; to paraphrase; he said that they’ve had Aikido in the USA for over fifty years and still nobody can do ‘it’! I am going to be careful here as to what constitutes ‘it’. I’m not talking about fireballs of Chi emanating from fingertips; just effortless mastery and control is enough.
So, what is so very different? Let me put a few conjectural musings before you, in no particular order.
In Japan in the 19th and early 20th century a huge number of mostly young men studied some form of martial art (it became part of the school system). These arts had evolved into a commodity with a price. Previously the martial arts were the domain of the warrior class, now, because of the abolition of this same class, out of work warriors found a niche living teaching anyone who would pay. (A good example of this is found in the detailed ledgers of lessons taught and fees charged by Ueshiba’s Daito Ryu teacher Takeda Sokaku.)
There was an awful lot of it about.
As a snapshot of the time; in his key formative years (pre Wado) the founder of Wado Ryu Karate-Do, Otsuka Sensei is said to have extensively sampled the huge proliferation of Dojo within a small area of Tokyo.
I think it is fair to assume that within this system there must have been a highly competitive filtration mechanism at work and it must have been very rough and tumble. To illustrate this point you have to wonder why it was that Otsuka Sensei would consider making a living out of treating predominantly martial arts related injuries? (At one point, Otsuka believed that this was an area worthy of supplying him with an income, but his teaching successes ultimately changed his trajectory).
While it is apparent that the weapon training aspect of traditional Japanese martial arts struggled to survive (Naginata as an art was kept alive by the skin of its teeth mainly through the stubbornness of a few single-minded female protagonists) the empty-handed specialisms were adopted and subsumed by the powerhouse of the developing culture of what was to become Kodokan Judo. Judo, of course had a USP of being a ‘safe’ competitive format (see my blogpost on ‘Sanitisation’) and a builder of character, very much in line with progressive ideas developing within Japan at that time.
Even before that happened martial arts were considered part of the culture, and the Japanese have always been big on their culture, with a high regard for the arts and crafts and a special place for the artisans, and, it could be argued that the martial arts teachers were ‘artisans’. It may not be what an aspiring Japanese mother of the early Meiji Era might want for her son, but it still had the potential to provide respect and some form of status.
Looking at ancestors, either ours in the west or the equivalent in the far east, and, taking into account their social constraints, aspirations, outlook, mobility and world view, their bandwidth was pretty limited, compared to ours.
Theoretically our particular ‘bandwidth’ is huge, or at least it should be. For us, it’s not just the Internet, it’s education and all manner of loftier aspirations (being told what we should aspire towards) all supported by modern mechanisms, the structural framework of the society we live in and how we are kept secure by infrastructures that protect us from harm and ensure we are healthy.
Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work, but very recently things have become, to say the least, ‘challenging’, which in a way has highlighted some of the flaws in our current system.
Research has shown that this arguably ‘widened’ bandwidth is causing an actual shortening of our attention span, resulting in us leaping from one stimulus to another; one item of clickbait, and yet more irresistible reaffirmations on social media to boost our feeling of worth. Critics say this is actually dumbing us down and even restricting our brain power .
In the modern age the pressures of work leave less time to pursue other activities. In terms of martial art training in the west, anyone who trains twice a week is doing well and has probably established a good balance. Three times a week and people may say you are hardcore, any more than that and you’d probably be classed as an obsessive.
But this is so incredibly lightweight compared to someone like Shotokan Sensei Kanzawa Hirokazu who’s university training included multiple training sessions in one day! Or the Uchi-Deshi; the live-in students of Ueshiba Morihei, who not only had their daily training but were sometimes woken up in the middle of the night to be tossed around the Dojo by Ueshiba Sensei.
In historical Japan discipline and dedication were parts of the fabric of society, as were the virtues of hard graft and perfection of character through whatever it was you chose to dedicate your time, or even your life to.
The physicality of the early martial arts protagonists came out of a different lifestyle; even more so in rural areas, they were said to have ‘farmer’s bodies’. Ueshiba was a big believer in the physical benefits of tough labouring on the land and used it as personal training. There was definitely a culture of physical conditioning in the Edo period martial artists, photographs of Judo’s Mifune Sensei as a young man show a very impressive sculptured physique. Otsuka Sensei was said to have been keen on strengthening his grip, though his attitude to knuckle conditioning was somewhat ambiguous.
And then there is the issue of diet… A traditional old style Japanese diet has got so much going for it. It doesn’t mean that they were living in a health food utopia; for example; because of certain farming practices involving the use of human waste, internal parasites were surprisingly common. However, even with that, compared to our heavy use of sugars, processed foods and dairy products, they were by and large pretty healthy.
This has been a particular interest of mine. To take as an example; if you look at the lifespans of senior practitioners of the arts that use as a USP their health promoting benefits, e. g. Tai Chi with associated Chi Gung, it’s not particularly impressive. I have tried to dig into this but the statistics are a nightmare, particularly when it comes to average lifespans, mainly because of a lack of reliable information and infant mortality stats messing up the metrics.
But examined broadly, it doesn’t look great. Even with extreme outliers like the miraculous Li Ching Yuen. He was a Chinese herbalist and martial artist who it is claimed was born in 1677 and only died in 1933, making him 256 years old! Look into the supposed facts around his life and it begins to appear slightly suspicious.
On more than one occasion I have heard Japanese Wado teachers mention that practices found in other named karate systems are guaranteed to shorten your life, and a cursory look at the available evidence from those systems seem to support that idea, but even that doesn’t really tell you the full story. It has been said that some Japanese Sensei who come to the west seem to suffer from the negative effects of the western diet. Similar things are actually happening inside Japan; with the import of western food trends causing medical conditions to develop that used to be rare in Japan. Obviously, something that needs more research.
The lottery that is longevity can be skewed in your favour, if you lead a lifestyle devoid of extremes, striving for moderation in all things, then you have a better chance at living to a great age, but that of course is in competition with your genetic inheritance. Aforementioned Kanazawa Hirokazu pushed his body incredibly hard as a young man, potentially inflicting much early cellular damage to his system, yet still lived to be 88 years old. Mind you, Kanazawa adapted his training later in life to be kinder to his body, and he took up Tai Chi. But maybe his whole family line were predisposed to good health and longevity?
There is no definitive conclusion, only speculation.
Try as I might, I struggled to find any statistics that indicated martial arts participation in the UK, never mind about world-wide. Besides, what does that even mean? What even counts as a ‘martial art’? It would be really interesting to compare it to martial arts participation in Japan in the opening years of the 20th century.
I think it’s a fair guess to assume that the preponderance of martial arts in Japan in those early days would ensure some kind of higher waterline than in the modern world (well, at least I hope so). If we take the seemingly fast-track roadway to ‘complete mastery’ in 19th and early 20th century Japan as a truism, then that surely supports the argument – they weren’t giving Menkyo Kaiden (full transmission) away with Cornflake box tops and there had to be something going on! 
It’s true that they didn’t have the level of information at their fingertips in those days that we do today – but surely, it’s not the information, it’s what you do with it that counts.
In the modern era we are becoming further and further detached from the generation of masters who could actually ‘do it’, and if there are people out there who are on that level then they are side-lined by popularism. I cite as a possible example, Kuroda Tetsuzan (‘Who?’ I hear you say. It is ironic that his sparse, minimalistic Wikipedia entry speaks volumes, without saying very much at all.)
I suppose it all boils down to; who in the modern age is prepared to go beyond the mere hobbyist level and dedicate time and effort into an in-depth study of the martial art, supported of course by a Sensei who really does know their stuff?
 ‘Invincible Warrior’ John Stevens 1997 Shambhala Publications, pages 61 to 62. Other sources (Shioda’s biography) tell the story in more detail and mention that the marksmen were armed with pistols. At a guess, this incident was pre-war, possibly in the 1930’s. Shioda inevitably questioned Ueshiba, asking him how he did it? Ueshiba’s answer was as mysterious as the acts themselves, but he seemed to suggest that he was able to slow time down. Both times, one man was swept off his feet; the first time it was the man who Ueshiba said had initiated the first shot; the second time it was the officer who gave the command.
 Numerous modern commentators have railed against the ‘dumbing down’ that is happening. Google, John Taylor Gatto or Andrew Keen, but there are many other examples that perhaps don’t contain political bias.
 I am aware that there is a political dimension to the Menkyo Kaiden, certainly as it appears in the contemporary scene, which to me makes perfect sense.
Image: Author’s own collection.
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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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
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).
Morality in Japanese Budo tends to be plagued with confusion and contradictions; not least of which is the concept of a warrior art used to promote peace. I am fairly sure that in this blogpost I am not going to be able untangle the knots; but perhaps I can add some new perspectives on this tricky issue.
I have to admit to wanting to write something on this theme for a long time but I have always swerved away from it; probably for the very same reason that many others seem to have avoided it.
I think that the main reason that people tend to duck discussing morality and Budo is the very same reason that people don’t feel comfortable discussing morality, full stop. Nobody is happy climbing on to anything that looks like a moral pedestal and have the spotlight shine upon them and risk looking like a hypocrite.
With me it is exactly the same, in that I don’t feel qualified or worthy enough to occupy that particular pulpit.
Introducing the subject of morality is a bit like the taboo around discussing politics and religion over the dinner table; two subjects guaranteed to spoil a good evening.
In the martial arts, I cannot think of any of the Sensei I have trained under who have been inclined to, or felt comfortable, climbing on to the moral soapbox. For the same reasons listed above.
Armenian mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866 – 1949) once said, “If you want to lose your Faith, make friends with a priest”. For me, that sums it up nicely.
However, I do believe that it is possible to tiptoe through that particular minefield and remain objective about morality in Budo.
In part, the reason for me writing this now is after recently viewing a series of on-line discussions with eminent Western traditional martial artists and, although their main theme was ‘Shu Ha Ri’, they often strayed into the thorny area of morality within Budo and the development of ‘moral character’. If you have six hours spare you can follow the link below.
It is said that in traditional Japanese Budo the Morality rules are literally woven into the fabric. I use as an example the traditional divided skirt, the Hakama. This garment has seven pleats, with each one said to represent the ’Virtues’ sought within Budo, these are the guiding moral principles. Some people say there are seven, others say five, but for convenience I will stick with the seven model. These seven are:
- Yuki – Courage.
- Jin – Humanity.
- Gi – Justice or Righteousness.
- Rei – Etiquette or Courtesy.
- Makoto – Sincerity or Honesty.
- Chugi – Loyalty.
- Meiyo – Honour.
These are described as ‘Virtues’ rather than as components of a moral code. The word Virtue is a better fit because in the west the concept of being moral tends to lead you in a slightly different direction than the Japanese model. Being ‘moral’ in the West has too much baggage, a hint of the fluffy bunny feeling about it. Either that or it is associated with po-faced condemnatory Victorianism.
Rather, the suggestion here is a person of ‘Virtue’ or with ‘Virtues’, or, alternatively, ‘Qualities’, but these must be positive qualities.
But there are a number of things within the traditional list of Budo virtues that don’t translate well. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, because the translations, like the Kanji, are multifaceted and have to fit into a Japanese cultural and linguistic framework.
Secondly; these martial arts virtues are the product of an Edo Period mindset, or even further back. Clearly the social structures and the mental landscapes of warriors in that particular place and at that particular time are far removed from the way we live today.
Even the translation of what would seem a fairly self-explanatory concept offers up some questions.
I will address one example, not directly mentioned in the above list, but certainly connected to it. (and this is a person reflection):
From my experience, nobody under fifty years of age ever seems to use the word ‘honour’ anymore, let alone adhere deliberately to the concept. ‘honour’ only sees the light of day in the most negative of circumstances, as an example, the concept of ‘honour killings’, how did that happen?
In much the same way as, in today’s social interactions, no man is ever referred to as being a ‘gentleman’. Similarly, across the genders. I cite as an example this observation: For many years I worked as a teacher in a Catholic girls school, and it always amused me when I saw young girls being chided by female teachers for ‘un-ladylike behaviour’, what does that even mean today? I suppose you could talk about the same behaviour as being ‘undignified’, but even that word has worn a little thin these days. (I refer you to the justifications given by St. Miley of Cyrus for the contentious ‘Wrecking Ball’ video, of which I have only heard about, of course.)
I am old enough to remember when two ‘gentlemen’ shook hands over a deal it was this symbolic act and their ‘honour’ that sealed it. It all seems to have disappeared from the world of commerce and is only seen on the sports field.
Another example from the modern lexicon is the word ‘respect’, which seems to have been warped and weaponised and is permissible to function as a one-way street. This is particularly noticeable in urban slang.
But to return to the above listed Japanese Virtues.
‘Jin’ as ‘Humanity, also has a very nuanced meaning in Japan.
Yes, it does refer to the ideals of a care and consideration of other humans beyond yourself, but also ‘Jin’ is a model of humanity perfected; we all aspire to be ‘Jin’, or at least we should be. From my observation the Japanese concept of humanity is similar to Nietzsche’s model in ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’; of Man suspended on a tightrope caught between his animalistic nature and his God-like Divine potential. ‘Jin’ is that Divine Potential realised. It is Man perfectly positioned in the universe as the sole conduit between Heaven (the universe) and Earth. It is the triad of ‘Ten, Chi, Jin’.
For convenience sake, Morals, Virtues and Values can all be tied together into one bundle.
Regarding Values; there has been a relatively recent push towards looking for values shared across cultures; values for the whole of humanity. As we work towards an idealised global community this was considered a goal worth striving for. But it’s not as easy as it looks.
The dominance of Judeo-Christian culture and ideals over the last 1000 years has pretty much set the standards for what we understand as moral behaviour (and values) and has achieved a world-wide monopoly on what is acceptable and desirable. But we have to remember that Judeo-Christian culture is the new boy on the block.
Other cultures had been hammering out their moral codes for thousands of years before Judeo-Christian models appeared on the scene, and it is quite often at variance to what we would now deem acceptable. As an example; activities condoned in ancient Greece and Rome would cause shrieks of horror in modern Western society.
Further east, Chinese culture was blossoming when we in Europe were hitting each other over the head with sticks. Chuang Tzu in 200 BCE was wrestling with advanced philosophical problems of human consciousness (See, ‘The Butterfly Dream’) and the Han Chinese at the same period had advanced tax systems, hydraulics and machines with belt drives; while at the same time in Britain we were embroiled in Iron Age tribal brutality and cattle stealing, and then along came Christianity and everything was alright! (Sarcasm alert).
Morality still has an important role to play in contemporary martial arts, even though the world has moved on and the fabric of society has changed and continues to do so at a terrifying rate. The nature of martial arts study in the modern age inevitably involves people and wherever human interaction occurs we are better working towards common goals for the improvement of society. We are living examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
How about a campaign to restore the word ‘Honour’ and claim back the word ‘Respect’?
Respect to you all.
Featured image: Author’s own collection.
It is said that magic ceases to be magic once it is explained; although the late fantasy author Terry Pratchett contradicted this with, “It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.” I think I know what he means.
At an objective and scientific level this is the difference between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’.
Martial art skills often appear to be supernatural, where the masters are in possession of abilities that seem to be out of reach for the average person in the street; this is part of the mystique, a million fantasies have been built on this idea.
However, there are times when refined and developed technique seems to confound the mind and contradict the physical world, whether it’s Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch or Aikido’s ‘unbendable arm’ (See my previous blog post ‘On Things ‘Chi’ and ‘Ki’’).
Without allowing myself to be diverted, there has been some quiet rumblings about the more subtle aspects of Wado technique and, for the cognoscenti, a suggestion perhaps that there is more going on under the hood than the recent Gendai Budo incarnations seem to imply. And, as such, I want to shine a light into an obscure oddity that may have a peripheral connection to aspects of Wado technique (as I understand them), via a tortuous route – please bear with me.
I have been sitting on this for quite some time and thought I would share it with you*. It may be nothing, it may be something. It may even be an excellent illustration of the human capacity for boundless curiosity, and what can come out of it. You can make your own mind up.
Lulu Hurst was to all intents and purposes, outwardly an unremarkable young woman, born in Polk County, Georgia USA in 1869, daughter of a Baptist preacher, but overnight, as a teenager, she became a high earning freakish phenomenon who confounded the paying public with her jaw-dropping feats.
Dubbed ‘The Georgia Wonder’ she performed impossible acts of human strength. When asked where her skills came from the slightly built Lulu said they came as a result of her being caught in an electric storm, she was a supernatural human miracle. Even the great Harry Houdini was initially puzzled as to where this phenomenal strength came from.
Lulu was able to take the weight and strength of a number of men, often through a chair or a staff, and with only a light touch displace the resisting men. She was often completely immovable, no matter how much pressure was applied. When I first heard this story it started ring bells with me; where had I come across similar phenomena?
And then I recalled stories, anecdotes of comparable abilities being demonstrated by the founder of Aikido Ueshiba Morihei. He would hold out a Jo and ask his students to try and move it – sounds easy, but try as they might they couldn’t shift it. No explanations were given, or if they were, they were shrouded in mystical obfuscation.
Over time more of these unexplainable phenomena appeared on my radar – even with the possibility of conscious or unconscious compliance it seemed that there was something there.
But Lulu retired after only two years; she’d made her money and at the tender age of sixteen she ran off and married her manager.
Years later Lulu admitted what she had really been up to; which in my mind was no less of a wonder, but certainly there was no magical ‘electrical storm’, something much more ‘grounded’ was at work.
She finally confessed it all in her autobiography. It wasn’t the product of some great revelation; she just came across it by accident.
Her first realisation was when she held a billiard cue horizontally in front of her at chest height and invited someone to push with all their might, to try and knock her over; they couldn’t! She developed it to such a degree that a whole bunch of hefty guys could push on it and STILL couldn’t dislodge her! Then she really got into showmanship, and performed the same trick standing on one leg!
From this beginning she developed a whole array of ‘tests of strength’. What is surprising though is that initially even she didn’t know how it was done.
She was smart enough to deny the supernatural and set about studying what was really going on. The level to which she was puzzled by her own ability is illustrated by the fact that her manager/husband had asked her repeatedly to teach him how to do it, but she couldn’t, because she didn’t know herself.
Finally, she did figure it out, through studying mechanics and physics. To keep it really simple the first trick, with the billiard cue, came out of her ability to read and direct the energy of the resistance and send it into… nothing, the men were not engaging with her at all.
Houdini spotted it, but it took him a while. As the master of illusion and physical manipulation himself, it was only a matter of time.
She became more adept at these forms of manipulation, and added all of this to her act.
Does this make Lulu Hurst any less remarkable? No, not in the least.
You can read her autobiography for yourself, but be warned, it’s a slog of a read, couched in the flowery language of the time. It is called, predictably and unimaginatively; ‘Lulu Hurst (The Georgia Wonder) Writes Her Autobiography’ 1897.
To reiterate; human curiosity and the ability to explore and expand beyond the realms of what is normally accepted really does know no bounds.
*The first time I ran this idea by anyone was in communication with a now disgraced famous UK karate historian back in the 1990’s. He seemed to think I was on to something.
Illustration of Lulu Hurst chair act, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 26th, 1884. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/file/11051
Black and white photographs of Lulu Hurst: credit, ‘Lulu Hurst (The Georgia Wonder) Writes Her Autobiography’ 1897. Free of restrictions on copyright.
Book Review: ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’.
I have to admit to spending an awful long time mulling over what it is with the human race that makes us such a toxic species, with our proclivity towards violence and seemingly unplumbed depths of out and out badness.
I remember being convinced that everyone one of us has the capacity for unspeakable savagery and that the veneer of civilisation is so very thin. Now my opinion has changed considerably; all down to one book, ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman.
I had read Bregman’s previous book ‘Utopia For Realists: And How We Can Get There’ and was impressed. Bregman seems to be one of those people who are prepared to not accept everything at face value AND to think outside the box. In addition to that, he will call foul if he sees it, as he did with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, (Google it!). And shaming the Davos delegates; “Almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance…and of the rich not paying their fair share” . [Link]
Bregman is great at presenting the evidence and supplying concrete examples of how things have been done differently. But in this latest book he goes further.
Humans are hard-wired to see the worst in people and societies have further hard-wired themselves to expect the worst of the whole of humanity. Bregman explains how this has all been of use to us and how it’s been cynically exploited; from; ‘original sin’ to group culpability and the fear of the outsider. But the evidence suggests that if push came to shove we are also hard-wired towards compassion and amazing acts of cooperation and generosity. We are pretty awesome!
In his book Bregman deconstructs the premise of William Golding’s novel, ‘Lord of the Flies’, and proves that in a real situation the complete opposite would happen (and it did, in 1965, when a group of schoolboys were stranded on an island for fifteen months). Bregman says that our ‘superpower is cooperation’. He also examined the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 and called it out as baloney, the same with the Stanley Milgram ‘Electric Shock’ experiment of 1961. It looks to me like not only does a whole bunch of English Lit. commentaries on ‘Lord of the Flies’ have to be re-written but also lots of psychology text books!
We’re not completely off the hook though; the concept of ‘empathy’ takes a bashing, and additional bad news is that we can’t unweave the societies we constructed; but, perhaps, by reading Bregman’s book we can at least understand how our motivations work.
A chapter titled; ‘Homo Ludens’ (Man at play) really cheered me up, as it chimed with things that occurred to me gradually over years of working with children (the open-endedness of ‘play’ I mentioned in a previous blog post, here.)
It’s not that difficult to connect Bregman’s optimism to concepts found within Japanese Budo. Recently re-reading Otsuka Hironori’s book, particularly the section, ‘Analects of the Instructor’ it was obvious to me that master Otsuka’s underpinning philosophy was founded upon peace and the bringing of peoples together. In fact, if you deconstruct the Kanji for ‘Wa’, normally understood as ‘harmony’, and take it back to its basic pictographic level you would struggle to find a better example to sum up the spirit of the ‘super power’ of cooperation, with its allusion to the collaborative and civilising mechanisms found in agrarian societies. In Dave Lowry’s book, ‘Sword and Brush: The Spirit of the Martial Arts’, there is a description of ‘Wa’ from Japanese tea ceremony devotees, Harmony (‘Wa’) is, “the capacity to get along with others, to sublimate the self for a greater cohesion within the larger social nexus”. The image for ‘Wa’ is of a pliant healthy rice sprout positioned next to the symbol for a mouth; either representing ‘feeding’ or just civil discourse and communicating, or a combination of both.
To literally restore your faith in humanity, I would thoroughly recommend that you pick up this book and reflect on the wider implications of Bregman’s observations. It could not be more apt, particularly in the times we are living and with the vague possibility of a re-think of our values and systems in a post-Covid world.
What architects can tell us about kata.
I think there is much to be gained from approaching a well-known subject from a completely different angle. Kata has been the backbone of everything we do within Wado karate; it’s the text book we all return to, particularly when we are working to get to the heart of our martial system. It is everything; a receptacle, a framework, a compressed and concentrated format for us to explore, move through, or dwell upon; all qualities you may find in a superior piece of architecture. And, like amazing architecture, it may be inspired by pure Principle, but it is still a man-made construction, carefully designed and thought-through and meant to last.
Both kata and architecture have form and function; though, for many people, the initial focus for both kata and architecture tends to be on the form; function has a tendency to be a secondary consideration. But really, both of these aspects should be given equal status, and there are other qualities, harder to pin down, also of major importance.
Many years ago, I was in conversation with an architecture student. I’d asked him what were considered to be the most important factors when designing a building? He replied with one word, “Flow”. This was the ability for people to move in, out and through the building.
It certainly wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but it changed my appreciation and understanding of every great building I have since visited.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is to be found in the 2014 National Geographic ‘Bird’s Nest Stadium vs The Colosseum’ documentary ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVfQdjpXa4k ) where computer simulation compares the efficiency of the evacuation process of these two great buildings, separated by nearly 2000 years. Spoiler alert – It seems that the Roman architects did rather well and certainly understood ‘flow’.
A long time back, when I was a student of design, I came across the work of the Swiss-French designer and architect known as Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965). Initially I was drawn towards his ‘Modulor’, this was a calculation model that took into consideration the proportions of the human body to work out optimum living space; which again could chime comfortably with considerations of the design of kata; but, for the sake of this comparison I find another of Le Corbusier’s insights particularly pertinent, his description of a house being “a machine for living” (1927 manifesto); it provides us with a potential paradigm shift when looking at kata.
Try this thought; ‘Wado kata is a machine for human movement’? Or, ‘Wado kata is a machine for fighting’? Of course, depending on your predilection, you could tag on any number of concepts that would work for you.
But what of the spaces, the gaps, the shifts between ‘A’ and ‘B’?
Here I could dip into a much older source; Lao Tzu ‘Tao Te Ching’ (4th century BCE).
“A jar is formed from clay,
but its usefulness lies in the empty centre.
A room is made from four walls,
but its usefulness lies in the space between.”
Le Corbusier would have found that quote resonated with his own thoughts.
Certainly, the use of open or ‘empty’ spaces in Japanese Zen-inspired art is a highly refined utilisation of not shying away from the void.
The same could be said about another architect; Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959). It is said that he was able to create buildings which upon entering filled people with an ineffable sense of awe; but not one based on pure scale. Architecture students found it difficult to pin down, until they shifted their focus from walls, ceilings, supports etc. and looked at pure space.
Wright instinctively knew how to manipulate openness, airiness and the effects these have on the deeper levels of human consciousness. I experienced this myself in a museum reconstruction of a Frank Lloyd Wright interior in New York. Just being in this room made me want to stay, to breathe it in, I was overcome with a feeling of comfort, tranquillity and many other things besides. I was being manipulated by the architect!
Would it be too far fetched to describe the hardware, the walls, ceilings, floors as Yang; while the spaces in between are the Yin?
And what of the gaps in the kata? The spaces between the structure; the pauses in between, the apparent quiescence of the ‘Yoi’ position? The punctuations, the declarations of intent found through ‘Kiai’ (with sound or without)?
Katas become our cathedrals. Each kata is an edifice, a bringing together of ideas and resources to create a focal point. The kata also give us a sense of occasion, a place for ritual and reverence, including unashamed symbolism (the overt salutations found in kata like Bassai, Kushanku etc.)
With all the great cathedrals and temples, people bring their own psychological and physiological baggage with them, and may well attempt to refine or polish their spirit within that environment, within that framework.
It might be lazy categorisation, but I see those who look at buildings and see walls, floors and ceilings, and those who see kata as punches, blocks, kicks and the ‘making of shapes’, as ‘materialists’.
But sometimes materialists need to be put back in their box, and shouldn’t be allowed to have it their own way, to hijack the debate on kata. Yes, there is a material form to kata, for isn’t ‘form’ the literal translation of ‘kata’ – and here we could get into Otsuka Sensei’s ‘kata’ v ‘igata’ debate, but I will skip that for now.
Kata needs to be a living thing, just as buildings need to come alive through their functions. The original architects of the great buildings didn’t wholly impose their will upon the people who used them, but instead, through the spaces, galleries and chambers they created they fuelled the imagination of generations to come, who were then able to reach beyond themselves and engage with the greater project of ‘being’.
Reflections on how karate students sometimes struggle to grasp the idea that they are progressing and improving.
When you are sat on an aeroplane; comfy and strapped into your seat; alongside lots of other people who are also passively settled in their own seats; have you ever thought about the wonderful contradiction you are experiencing? There you all are, row upon row of people, not going anywhere. But just glance at the flight progress animation in the little screen in front of you (long haul of course) and think of the vastness of the planet and the distance your plane has travelled in the last hour and then tell yourself you are not going anywhere. Of course, it’s all so ridiculous and obvious and easily dismissible.
I know everything is relative; as Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. So why do karate students sometimes get the feeling that every lesson is like day one? Why is it so difficult sometimes to observe your own progress?
Of course, it is entirely possible that no progress has been made; what is it they say, “If you always do what you always do, you’ll always get what you always get”. But, as a quote, it’s a bit of a blunt instrument. It might just be that progress is so slow that it is barely perceptible, like the hands of a clock.
There was a Dojo I used to visit quite regularly in the early 1990’s which had the same membership for many years; but when opportunities came to advance came along, be it through gradings or something else, the students shrank away. Yet week after week they came back and did the same session. Oh, they would work hard and they loved what they were doing but they just stayed the same, they never improved. Whether they thought that the penny would eventually drop, or that maybe they learned by osmosis, or whether they were just keeping fit, I never knew, they just never improved.
But then there is the other type of Dojo; which also has regular membership and attendance, coming back week after week. But, maybe, lurking at the back of their minds could be some personal doubt, “Why does it feel like I am not improving? Come to think of it, why does it feel like nobody in the Dojo is improving?” Maybe they fail to see what is right under their noses. Like the passengers in the plane, they are all there together, all on the same ride, shoulder to shoulder and all moving forward as one; all developing on their journey almost in step, in unison.
But for them, the clues are there to be found. A visitor comes to the Dojo, someone who was there a year earlier and says, “I saw these same people here a year ago – wow, haven’t they improved!”
These same students find that on bigger courses they measure up well against people of the same grade, and, as such feel pride swell in their chests. They put themselves in for grading examinations and they pass! They enter competitions and they do well!
But sometimes they still doubt themselves. In the competition, they could say to themselves, “Maybe I was just lucky that day”. In the grading, “I feel that I didn’t deserve that pass, why did they let me have it? I wasn’t even on top form”, but nobody is ever on ‘top form’! Competition wins are rarely ‘life defining’ and, as for gradings, they are just endorsements and markers along the way, neither of these are ends in themselves. If your sole objective is the next belt, or winning ‘that’ competition I would seriously question why you are even doing martial arts?
Sometimes karateka slip into the trap of Imposter Syndrome, (Definition: “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”) I wrote about this in my previous blogpost about the ‘Dunning Kruger Effect’. A crucial element of this is that sometimes the karateka doesn’t feel like she is progressing because she is no longer in the company of inept amateurs. She is in the world of people just like her, well-practiced and skilful, and also, if she is lucky, in the company of those who are better than her, which acts as an incentive and a draw to push her to excel. Experiences and environments like that keep her constantly on her toes; this is the zone of growth.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
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.
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?).
Luohan, courtesy of V&A.
There has been a lot of discussion about what makes a good teacher or a good Sensei; and people have found value in preparing and training the new generation of teachers/Sensei; and rightly so.
But I have a feeling that maybe we need to also look at it the other way round and perhaps teach people to be good students?
We typically think of our students as the raw material; the clay from which we mold and create; the blank slate to be written upon. Oh, we nod politely towards the idea that not all students come to us as equals; but then proceed to blithely continue on as if the opposite were true.
Can we teach people to be good students?
But first we have to think that this cuts both ways. For are we not also students? Or at least we should be. We as teachers should lead by example as ‘life long learners’. As a teacher, never underestimate the student’s ability to put you under the microscope and observe how you learn and take on new material. So, while I pursue my theme, I have to cast a glance over my own shoulder.
At this point I feel I have to mention my own (additional) credentials in the area of teaching and learning, having recently retired after thirty-six years of teaching in UK secondary schools. Some of that experience boils down to very simple principles; key among these is that you are engaged with an unwritten two-way contract, or at least that’s the way it should work; the teacher gives and the student gratefully receives, in an active way (students also teach you!). Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way because one side of this contract sometimes welches on the deal; either actively or passively. The contract states that from the teacher’s perspective you are not doing your job if the student who walks into the room at the beginning of a lesson is the same person who walks out at the end. Something positive should have happened that results in the student growing – admittedly it might be small; it might be cumulative, but it is still growth.
Of course, this is very simplistic and there are many other factors involved. As in the Dojo, the environment has to be right to build an atmosphere conducive to development, with a positive encouragement of challenge and change; but not in a coddling bubble-wrapped way. I am reminded of commentator and thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea of ‘Antifragile’, put briefly the concept that systems, businesses (and people) should aim towards increasing their capability to thrive by embracing stressors such as, mistakes, faults, attacks, destabilisers, noise, disruptions etc. in an active way. The antithesis of this is ‘resilience’. Resilience will protect you to some degree but it is not enough, it’s just a shell, potentially brittle, that given enough time and pressure is eventually breached.
Here is my personal take on what I think are the prerequisites of a good student:
- Empty your cup.
- Pay attention – martial artist Ellis Amdur says that progression in the martial arts is easy, all you have to do is listen. I am reminded of that very human inclination when involved in discussion; sometimes what we do when listening to someone is to fixate on one thing they have said, work out our own counter-argument in our heads while failing to listen to the rest of what they have to say. I have seen this with students in seminars, where the student asks the Sensei a question that they already know the answer to. At one level they are just looking to have their ideas endorsed, at another level they want everyone to see how clever they are – not the right place to ask a question from.
- Linked to the above; Open-mindedness. Nothing is off the table, but everything in its right place and in the right proportion.
- Understand that knowledge is a process that is ongoing; the sum of what you know is infinitely outweighed by the sum of what you don’t know. There is no end point to this.
- Self-discovery is more valuable to you than having something laid out on a plate for you. The things you achieve through your own sweat, pain and frustration you will hold as your dearest discoveries. I have seen times where a really, really valuable piece of information has been given to student and because it came so easily they dismissed it as a trifle.
- Leave your baggage behind. You may have had a lousy day at work, a fight with your partner, your kids have been ‘challenging’, but, check all of that at the door, you are bigger than the burdens you have to carry. Acknowledge that they are there but put everything in its right place. Personally, I found that troubles shrink after two hours of escape in the Dojo; distance gives you perspective.
- Avoid second-thinking the process; or, transposing your underdeveloped thinking on top of something that already exists. A blank slate is always easier to work with. I once spoke with a university Law professor who said he personally preferred the undergraduates to enter his course without having done A Level Law, he preferred the ‘blank slate’.
- Avoid making excuses in challenging situations. Nothing damages the soul more profoundly than realising that in fooling others you are often lying to yourself; it’s a stain that is really difficult to wash off. If you fail, fail heroically; fail while trying to give it your very, very best. That style of ‘failure’ has more currency than actually succeeding; not just from the perspective of others, but also from your own perspective.
- Put the time in! The magic does not only happen when Sensei is in the room. Get disciplined, get driven. Movement guru Ido Portal probably takes it to the furthest extreme by saying, ‘Upgrade your passion into an obsession’, that’s probably a bit heavy for some people, because obsessive individuals tend to be overly self-absorbed, and as such cut other people out of their lives. Whatever passion/obsession you have it is far richer when you bring other people along with you. Other people add fuel to your fire, and the other way round.
The list could go on, because teaching and learning are complex matters, much bigger than I could ever write down here. And besides… what do I know?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- To preserve the instructor’s teachings.
- As a private study guide for selected students.
- As a primer or reminder for students when not in class.
- To impress nobles with their knowledge as a professional instructor in order to gain patronage.
- At the behest of an interested sovereign or aristocratic supporter of the art.
- To promote themselves and teachers of the craft and acquire new students.
- To publicly declare their skills or dispute the teachings of other masters.
- 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.
‘By the Sword’ Richard Cohen 2002.
‘The English Master of Arms’, J. D. Aylward, 1956.
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.
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.
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’.
An article by Ellis Amdur which partly inspired this post: https://aikidojournal.com/2016/05/06/irimi-by-ellis-amdur/
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.*
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
*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’.
‘Finding Your Balance Using the Japanese Wisdom of Chōwa’ by Akemi Tanaka.
‘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?
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.
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?
Re. Wado Kata performances on YouTube or forums, be they competition honed kata or personal kata movies. Comments are invited, but I really don’t understand what people want these comments to say?
Competition kata is… a performance, practiced to comply with a set of criteria so that one kata can be compared to another and clearly people look at examples of the kata online and match it off against their own personal expectations.
No kata is ‘perfect’, but if we notice flaws in the kata through the imperfect medium of video what kinds of flaws are we looking for?
Some people get all hung up on ‘a foot position there’ and ‘hand position elsewhere’ yet fail to see the bigger picture. I guess people will disagree with me here, but surely the bigger picture is the method of actually moving – and I don’t mean how fast or strong a technique is delivered; that would be a bonus – if the techniques are performed with the refined principles of Wado AND have celerity, energy and intent, yes that is probably going to be a damn good kata.
Surely we have come a long way from ‘harder, faster stronger’? Wado is a complex system – by that I mean ‘complex’ not complicated; there is a difference. One move, like Junzuki, can contain many complexities, while 36 kumite gata can become complicated – but not insurmountably so.
For me the curse of kata appraisal is what I call the ‘picture book approach’. In that some people judge the kata in a kind of ‘freeze frame’ of the end position of any individual move, taking that frozen image and judging it just by its shape. This method of judgement is really low on the evolutionary ladder. Since the 1960’s Wado has evolved significantly and students and instructors have access to a far greater level of understanding than they had fifty years ago, except of course for those areas where people have clearly opted for a policy of arrested development.
Then there is Observer Bias:
“Observer bias is the tendency to see what we expect to see, or what we want to see. When a researcher studies a certain group, they usually come to an experiment with prior knowledge and subjective feelings about the group being studied.”
People see what they want to see, because they are uncomfortable with anything that interrupts or contradicts their current world view – it’s human nature. Thus, when we feel a need to say whether this approach to kata is superior to that approach, maybe it’s just an expression of our own bias; we focus on those things that either comply with our world view, or don’t.
Judging by comments of forums regarding Wado kata, it also tends to bring about a worrying tendency towards tribalism. I fully understand this, and I am sure that at times I have also felt the knee-jerk inclination towards my own tribal instincts, but I try my best to keep these in check. However, as long as we recognise this for what it is, without the need to call it out, then it will hopefully wither on the vine and conversations will remain civilised and polite.
Then there comes the argument; is there such a thing as a bad kata? I would say; yes there is.
Some say that as long as they stay within a particular bandwidth that represents an acceptable understanding of Wado then that’s fine. But that’s just a fudge – exactly how wide is this bandwidth?
Is the bandwidth just about shapes? From my understanding Otsuka Sensei established some very sound guidelines and sent his best students out into the world with the responsibility to pass on these essential guidelines and although it may have been part of it, shape-making was not the main priority on the list.
A shout out to one of the nicest Dojos I have ever had the privilege to teach and train in.
Kenkokai Dojo in the Netherlands is situated 14 miles south of Amsterdam and 6 miles outside of Hilversum. It is the personal project and newly formed business of Martijn Schelen, who is an instructor both with Shikukai and the Dutch organisation the KBN.
When I first visited there in May of this year what struck me was the amount of care that had been taken to create the right feel. Martijn explained to me that he was particularly careful to utilise aspects of traditional Dojo design supported by ideas of Fusui, which is the Japanese version of Feng Shui, where the orientation of the Dojo is in harmony with directions and elements. To my mind this created a positive vibe that worked within the space. Inevitably the Kamidana was the main focus of the room, Martijn had designed this in a way that was personal to him and it remained tasteful and not overblown, as sometimes can be the case when people just try too hard. ‘Less is more’ was probably not a quote of Japanese origin, but it should have been.
The Dojo space is perfect in size for manageable classes. What was noticeable this time round was that I never had to raise my voice; the acoustics were ideal. The air circulated freely and sunlight was able to spill across the Dojo floor. Really, unless you were in some ancient revered location in Kyoto, you couldn’t get a more photogenic set-up (I hope the photos will prove my point for me).
This was the second time Martijn had invited me over for a course in this particular Dojo; I had been over before either on my own or assisting Sugasawa Sensei, but this was organised differently; numbers were limited to 20, which was ideal, as it meant I could work easily with everyone in the room and we could really get into things. What was really enjoyable was that it allowed information to flow in both directions; I learned so much from the lines of questioning; obviously people felt comfortable asking questions and exploring different possibilities. There were three sessions organised over the weekend and we were able to build upon the previous themes and look at Henka waza exploring many of the varied possibilities found within Wado (well, at least that was my intention). Another attribute that dawned on me over the weekend – I noticed lots of smiles…. it goes without saying that this has to be a positive thing in training.
The course was not confined to the Dutch; Wadoka had shown up from the Czech Republic, Belgium and the UK which gave a real international flavour.
Of course the weekend wasn’t all work and no play. Saturday evening out in Hilversum, perfect for good food and good company.
If anyone reading this finds themselves in this part of the world contact Martijn and drop in for training. It’s not just about the location and the Dojo, Martijn is genuinely one of the most knowledgeable Wado instructors you will ever come across and one of the nicest people in the world of Wado.
Monday, 16:00 – 17:00 children, 19:30 – 21:00 adults.
Wednesday, 16:00 – 17:00 children, 18:00 – 19:00 teenagers, 19:30 – 21:30 seniors.
Saturday, 8:30 – 10:00 karate, all groups.
Martijn also runs classes in, Do-In Yoga, Critical Alignment Yoga, Corestability and medical fitness
Days and times are Monday 16.00 – 21.00, Wednesday 16.00 – 21.30 and Saturday 8.30 – 11.00
Dojo address: Vogelkersberg 5E, 3755 BN Eemnes
Phone number +31641977773
Mudana Chikara is one of the watchword maxims used in Wado circles.
It’s one of a set of three, all described as ‘illnesses’, things to steer clear of if you want to remain on the right track. Mudana Chikara loosely means, ‘Do not use (too much) strength (to do the job)’, it is a key concept of Wado.
It is supposed to signpost the rule of economical movement, the embodiment of no waste, no fuss, no huffing and puffing and no tension.
It is so easy to describe what it is not but harder to pin down what it is – particularly if it is personal to your own technique.
Let me deal with the ‘tension’ thing first.
In between movements you are supposed to develop a feeling of live neutrality. I say ‘live’ because neutrality can easily slip into inertia, and an inert position is a dead position. An exaggerated example would be to say that you need to be in a position where you are deploying enough strength/energy to hold your posture, no more, no less. If your arm is stretched out (as in Tsuki) and someone rests their hand on the back of your hand, your hand should just gently drop under the extra weight; that’s enough.
Correct muscle management in movement is absolutely vital to efficiency. Often in our efforts to employ more power we actually end up sabotaging our objective with inefficient use of the muscles. Antagonistic muscles kick in and ruin the physical potential by actually working against what we want to achieve; I tend to describe it as like driving with your foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.
Wado instructors are very insistent on good muscle management; energy should be deployed appropriately and muscles should be fired off in the right order. Things can go wrong when the energy is generated from the wrong place and muscles work in isolated groups rather than a coordinated whole.
Energy should be turned on instantly, and then, just as abruptly, turned off; there should be no tensioned build-up and certainly energy should not be held on to. It is the ‘holding on to energy’ that causes an inability flow from movement to movement, or situation to situation, the energy becomes atrophied or stagnated. It is this ‘stagnation’ that can be fatal in a live situation.
But how do we know that we are using too much strength? Self-diagnosis is a really difficult thing; something might feel good but is it right? (Is it appropriate?). Clearly your Sensei can flag up if you are using too much strength, but only you can do the work on it.
My teaching experience tells me that this can often be a ‘guy thing’, women don’t tend to suffer as much from tension in their technique; guys tend to feel obliged to give their technique that extra thump; they have a model of strength in their heads and aspire to reach it, however unrealistic it may be. It is not something that can be reduced by degrees; the best approach is to soften it right back to zero and then build it up incrementally – but that takes a lot of time and some serious re-programming.
I suppose it comes down to energy investment. Some styles actually aim for over-kill, but really you have to calculate if all that investment is really necessary – can you afford it?
That is the thing about Wado, no frills, no artistic flourishes, all purely pragmatic and stripped to the bone.
As a follow on to my 10,000 hours post
in which I looked at the amount of time and effort needed to build a high level of expertise, I came across an article which set out an interesting addition to the debate; something I hadn’t really thought about.
The article was headed, ‘Generalise, don’t specialise: why focusing too narrowly is bad for us’ and was a condensed version of a larger work by David Epstein.
Epstein set up two very different examples by giving the back story of two of this century’s most stellar sportsmen; Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Essentially this was the story of ‘push’ and ‘pull’.
Tiger Woods was famously hothoused by his ambitious father; while Roger Federer, as a youngster, was given the freedom to access all kinds of sports and generally ball-based activities.
Woods was an example of hyperspecialisation, he was ‘pushed’ while Federer was risking what’s sometimes categorised being a ‘late developer’ and frowned upon by the establishments in whose interests it is to keep this mythology alive – for, as the article shows, it is a myth that a single focus specialisation is the only way to achieve success. Hence Federer was ‘pulled’ by the opportunities and enjoyment of tennis.
Epstein was able to draw upon multiple examples where athletes bounced from one sport to another before crucially moving into their specialised field. Federer was able to draw upon a broad base of physical skills to enhance his approach to tennis; his mother was a tennis coach and she found herself having to resist the urge to check his unorthodox approach to specific techniques and problems found within a tennis match; he was liberated from ‘textbook tennis’ and as such was allowed to flourish. Federer’s mother was worried that her son was becoming too obsessed with tennis. I couldn’t imagine that Tiger’s father Earl would have thought such a thing about his son.
Specialisation has a number of negative aspects, Epstein said, “I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination).”
Epstein’s conclusions were that although the generalised approach appears slower it has a greater shelf life than the specialising approach.
To give the other slant to this argument – very much drawing on the ‘mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice’ – read Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’. Or read this neat summary by Paul Arnold, here.
As a postscript (and returning this back to being about martial arts) I wouldn’t be in a rush to go running around randomly ‘cross-training’ with other sports or other martial arts, particularly if you are at a point where you have clearly decided what your life’s focus will be.
I always think about a story of two men prospecting for gold. One just runs around digging lots of little shallow holes hoping to strike it lucky; the other does his research, locates his prime spot and invests time and money and digs one shaft really deep.
As I am a big fan of metaphors and also enjoy when the essence of one metaphor contradicts or reinforces another. On this theme, and to maybe complicate things, I would add one more; a quote from Thomas Merton.
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall”.
*Recommended reading: ‘Range – why generalists triumph in a specialized world’, David Epstein.
Shikukai Karate – Do International was founded F Sugasawa Sensei, its chief instructor. It now has a nucleus of clubs run by dedicated instructors under his guidance. Saturday 6th July saw many of the instructors coming together in Essex to train the children as one group.
It was a real honour for us to have Sugasawa Sensei oversee the day. The children behaved impeccably and were so respectful in all that they said and did. It was amazing to see children from the different clubs working and training together as one.
The day began with a joint Kata training session where different instructors worked with the children on their chosen Kata.
This was followed by a competition, which involved some of our youngest Karateka taking part for the very first time.
The results of the Kata Competition were:
Pinan Shodan: Gold Jenny Clarke Woodham Walter
Silver Nate Ogier Hertford
Bronze Charlie Ogier Hertford
Gold Aidan Everitt Woodham Walter
Silver Holly Stallard Woodham Walter
Bronze Luca Riedling Woodham Walter
Gold Oliver Cornwell Woodham Walter
Silver Taylor Perrin Woodham Walter
Bronze Madeline Hardey Hertford
Gold Christopher Coates-Jones Woodham Walter
Silver Katie Taylor Woodham Walter
Bronze Aiofa Riedling Woodham Walter
Bronze William Dines Woodham Walter
The day culminated in a grading session for children from 9th Kyu to 5th Kyu.
Again, the children were commended for their positive attitude.
A day of real teamwork. A credit to the instructors and Karateka of Shikukai.