Early 20c Japanese Jujutsu.
I recently watched a YouTube video which was focussed upon the sanitisation of old style Jujutsu techniques that were cleaned up to make them safe for competitive Judo. Throws and techniques which were originally designed to break limbs and annihilate the attacker in dramatic and brutal ways were changed to enable freeform Judo randori where protagonists could bounce back and keep the flow going.
This inspired me to review techniques in Wado, some of which I believe went through a similar process.
We know that the founder of Wado Ryu Karate, Otsuka Sensei had his origins in Koryu Jujutsu and that Wado was crafted out of this same Koryu base; Wado is certainly still considered as a continuation of the Japanese Budo tradition. Koryu Jujutsu in particular had historically developed a reputation as an antiquated form of brutality which was not compatible with an agenda developed by modernisers like the founder of Judo Kano Jigoro.
To set the context; Wado went through many transformations, and even though quite elderly Otsuka Sensei was still reforming and developing Wado Ryu throughout his long life; a project that was continued through subsequent generations of the Otsuka family.
But how much has Wado allowed itself to be sanitised? Did we lose something along the way? Was Wado de-fanged, did it have its claws clipped? And, if it has, where is the evidence?
But beyond that – does it matter? The loss of these dangerous aspects may well be a moot point; the development of Wado may well have bigger fishes to fry, and this particular issue may just be a distraction from a much larger agenda.
However, to my mind it’s still worth considering.
First of all, I am reminded of a discussion I had with another instructor regarding the craziness of the practice of the Tanto Dori. Thinking back to when these knife defence techniques were part of the Dan grading syllabus, nobody seemed to care what kind of blade you pulled out of your kit bag; blunted pieces of stick, to razor-sharp WW2 bayonets, in fact there seemed to be a badge of honour based upon how sharp and dangerous was your Tanto! We laughed about how such practices would be looked at in today’s politically correct, health and safety environment.
In Judo there are the Kinshi Waza, the banned techniques; these include. Kani Basami (Crab Claw scissors), Ashi Garami (Entangled leg lock), Do Jime (Trunk strangle), Kawazu Gake (One leg entanglement). These are the techniques that the authorities decided were more likely to cause injury, so not necessarily banned because of their viciousness, more their proclivity to cause accidental damage.
Within Wado undoubtedly some techniques were ‘cleaned up’, even within my time.
I can think of at least fifteen techniques, most of which existed inside the established paired kata which were ‘made safe’. Sometimes this came out of trial and error, i.e. the Japanese Sensei saw too much damage incurred by over-enthusiastic students, so decided to soften the technique to minimise injury. Others were implied techniques, e.g. ‘if this technique were to be taken through to this position it would result in significant damage’. Some of these techniques were hidden; you would struggle to spot them if they weren’t explained to you. In some cases the ‘brutal’ part of the technique was actually easier to execute than the so-called ‘cleaned up’ version, but this latter version remained closer to the practice of Wado principles; a contradiction….maybe, maybe not.
A variation on Kumite Gata. The body is ‘scissored’ apart; this is combined with a leg action that completely takes away the base. It is almost impossible to practice this technique safely.
I think that most people are aware that some throwing techniques were designed so that a successful breakfall (Ukemi) would be extremely difficult or even impossible, resulting in damage that you would never recover from; not something to dwell on lightly. (A prime example in Wado is the technique known as Kinu Katsugi, which we now practice in a way that enables uke to land relatively safely).
This Ohyo Gumite technique is very effective on its own, but another variation involving standing up from this position would result in Uke being dropped to the floor with very little chance of being able to protect themself.
Right, Suzuki Sensei showing the ‘stand up’ associated with this technique.*
There are other Wado techniques which on the outside look incredibly dangerous but are sometimes so wrapped up in misunderstood formalism that the accepted coup de grace becomes a merely academic endeavour (works well on paper but could you make it do the job?). Usually this is because of a misunderstanding of the mechanism of the technique itself, or the mechanism of ‘kata’ and how the teaching model actually functions.
I remember Suzuki Sensei sometimes held ‘closed-door’ sessions, you had to be above a certain grade to participate and no spectators were allowed. I attended some of these and the best I can describe them was that they involved what some would think of as ‘dirty tricks’, but very effective fighting techniques which would really damage your opponent.
To reiterate; while it is interesting to speculate on these matters, compared to the other complexities of Wado they could be looked upon as a mere side-show, after all, just the fundamentals take a lifetime to get your head round, never mind all of this.
*Photo credit, Pelham Books Ltd, ‘Karate-Do’, Tatsuo Suzuki 1967.
This one has been around for a long time, but it’s a very useful model and can be used in many ways.
The Monkey Trap is supposed to be a real thing, a real trap used by primitive tribes to outsmart monkeys. Traditionally the trap features a narrow necked jar which is either tethered to the ground or weighted down. Scattered around the jar are treats the monkey would like but there are more inside. The monkey reaches inside the jar, closes its fist around one of the treats and, with a closed fist it cannot extract its hand past the neck. The monkey is stuck, because of its unwillingness to relinquish its grip on the treat – its own stubbornness, greed and narrow thinking trap it in position. The story was used by Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’ to describe the French’s unwillingness to discard their loot on the retreat from Moscow. Robert M. Pirsig made use of the same story in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. There’s even an episode of the Simpsons where Homer thinks he can reach inside a vending machine to steal a can of drink, the fire brigade have to free him but a fireman points out to him that all he had to do was let go of the can and his hand would slide out.
Therapists are attracted to this neat little story; it’s a literal example of the pitfalls of not ‘letting go’.
I can think of a number of ways it relates to training. In a way it’s another example of the necessity of ‘emptying your cup’, but, to me, it’s a much more interesting model.
I can see it relating to the problem solving involved in fighting, about the unwillingness to depart from set formulas to solve the problems your opponent is presenting you with. I also see a warning to those of us who have many years behind us in training. I know it’s easy for senior instructors to rest on their laurels and start to believe their own propaganda and particularly to trade upon their association with the stars in the Wado firmament (the ones still with us and the ones departed) but this can have a detrimental effect. In these cases it is possible to get stuck with your hand inside the jar, by being unwilling to let go of perceived status attached to such associations. It’s a matter of judging what’s important to you. By hanging on to such shiny baubles as a form of comfort you miss the opportunity to engage with the wider world and in particular to follow the path of development that got you to where you are in the first place. A monkey stuck in a jar, or a case of wilful arrested development? You decide.
Renraku Waza, Renzoku Waza, Renketsu Dosa, whatever we decide to call them Combination Techniques seem to feature on nearly every Wado syllabus.
In my early training I was as guilty as everyone else in treating combinations as a test of memory (as well as speed and power). But there are other ways to look at them. I would urge Wado practitioners to examine them more closely. Is there perhaps something inherent in their design that has more to give us?
At first sight as we advance through the grades the sets of combinations just seem to get more complex with more techniques strung together. Yes, they were physically demanding and you got a great workout and many of the strings of techniques programmed the body well for attacking combinations used within conventional free fighting. It was a good way of reviewing your available range of techniques, but it was impossible for it to be all-encompassing. Hand strikes seemed particularly limited. In the early UK syllabus created in the 1960’s and still used by many organisations, there were only three main strikes used in combinations, as well as only three kicks (albeit deployed to different levels) and there were no explicit blocking or covering techniques, they may have been there in some small way but they weren’t really highlighted. Admittedly, since then organisations have become more creative, either by adding more techniques or completely deconstructing combinations, with varying levels of success.
The lower level combinations give good foundations on how to utilise moving in a formalised fighting guard and how to operate the mechanics of particular movements while being in that guard. But if combinations have been designed well they add another vital component that is often overlooked – transition.
Combinations looked at as a test of ‘transition’ gives a whole new perspective. When you fight you are in transition all of the time; you can either do that well, or you can do it badly. When you do it well it allows for snap changes dictated by the ever fluid physical challenges in combat scenarios and puts you a great position to deliver the necessary payload. An image that comes to mind is of the great French tennis player Jean Rene Lacoste (1904 – 1996), it is no accident that the Crocodile is used as the Lacoste logo, Lacoste’s ability to ‘snap back’ from nowhere when returning the ball was the embodiment of the ferocity of the Crocodile’s movement. For the fighter this type of tenacity and flexibility is a terrific skill to aspire towards. Look within combinations; examine what positions you find yourself in, what techniques demand the most commitment in stance and posture? Where do you feel dangerously close to over-extension and then you find yourself having to move from one extreme to another?
Some combination strings seem to create relatively easy transitions from one attack to another; while these have some value I think they are red herrings; examples being ones where the hip extension from one technique automatically and comfortably flows from that technique to another. But these are not the ones I am referring to.
Within the combinations in the Shikukai Karate-Do International it is no accident that there are numerous examples of these transitional challenges. If instructors are devising their own teaching combinations I would heavily recommend looking at what transitional challenges you are including.
‘Never rely on autopilot, it will always let you down’. In kata training I am always saying this to students; particularly when preparing for grading of competition.
Autopilot in kata is just switching your brain off and letting your body take over and rattling through the moves at top speed. Most of the time you will get through the kata okay, but at what cost? Mindful practice is infinitely more valuable. But all too often autopilot will stall or glitch and then all the wheels will come off. The more kata you know the more it is liable to happen. Many of you will know what can go wrong part way in to Kushanku kata… everything was going well then suddenly you have missed out four shuto uke and slipped into Pinan Yondan!
That is one type of autopilot error. The other one affects the more senior experienced karateka. This is the one where you let your body take over assuming that all the moves are spot-on perfect, even at full throttle! It may not be the case. If you do that be wary of what audience you are putting it in front of. A knowledgeable audience will see all your weaknesses. If you are a senior Dan grade always give the same scrutiny to your own techniques that you give to your students; don’t assume you are getting it right.
There is another aspect that connects with the physical understanding and performance of kata and that is the question; is it possible to depart from the kata while still staying with the kata? Sounds like a contradiction but it’s not; it all depends on how you use the kata. It is possible to go so far into the kata that you come out the other side. The second grandmaster of Wado Ryu gave some methods of departing from the kata while still holding on to its integrity. He had two methods of free-forming within the kata, but to do this demanded supreme confidence and knowledge of the character of the kata. It reminded me of something I had heard which was common to the creative Arts (visual and performing), the concept was; ‘Once you know the rules inside out and every which way, then you are allowed to break them’. This is the same with painters as it is with musicians. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis famously said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong”. This example from jazz fits really well with the second grandmaster’s approach to aspects of kata.
Otsuka Sensei performing Tobikomizuki.
Without a doubt nagashizuki is a hallmark technique of Wado karate; it is also one of the most difficult to teach.
In other styles of karate I have only ever seen techniques that hint at an application that could loosely fall into the area of nagashizuki, with a very rudimentary nod towards something that could be categorised as Taisabaki, but at risk of contradiction nagashizuki in karate is pretty much unique to Wado.
But there is so much to say about nagashizuki as it features in the Wado curriculum as it helps to define what we do.
If you were to explain nagashizuki to another martial artist who has no knowledge of Wado, you could describe it as being very much characteristic of Wado as a style; a technique pared to the bone, without any frills or extra movements. Done properly it is like being on the knife-edge, it is brinksmanship taken to the extreme. I have heard a much used phrase that to my mind gives a picture of the character of nagashizuki, as follows:
‘If he cuts my cloth I cut his skin. If he cuts my skin I cut his bone’.*
Here is a technique that flirts with danger and requires a single-minded, razor sharp commitment, with serious consequences at stake.
Technically, there are so many things that can go wrong with this technique at so many levels. In an active scenario you have to have supreme courage to plunge directly into the line of fire, the timing is devastating if you get it right. Many years ago it was my go-to technique when fighting people outside of Wado, particularly those who took an aggressive line of attack hoping to drive forward and keep you in defensive mode. But I also found out that this technique had added extras, which you must be aware of if you use it in fighting; one of which is the devastating effect of the strike angle.
On two occasions I can think of, to my shame, I knocked opponents unconscious with nagashizuki. When delivered at jodan level the strike comes in from low down, almost underneath the opponent and its angle is such that it will connect with the underneath and side of the jaw. As I found out, it doesn’t need much force to deliver a shockwave to the brain, and, if the opponent is storming in, they supply a significant amount of the impact themselves – they run onto it.
This last point about forward momentum and clashing forces illustrates one of the oddities of the way the energy is delivered through the arm. A standing punch generally has to have some form of preparatory action (chambering), depending where it is coming from; nagashizuki when taught in kihon is deliberately delivered from a ‘natural’ position, and as such the arms should just lift as directly and naturally as possible into the fulling extended punch – my favoured teaching phrase for that is, ‘like raising your arm to put on a light switch’, that’s it. The arm itself acts as a conduit for a relay of connected energy generators that channel through the skeletal and muscular system into and beyond the point of delivery.
This is where further things can go wrong; the energy can be hijacked by an over-emphasis on the arm muscles or the ‘Intent’ to punch. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Intent’ can be a good thing, but when it dominates your technique to such a degree that it becomes a hindrance this can cause all kinds of problems.
The building blocks to nagashizuki could be said to begin with junzuki, then on to junzuki-no-tsukomi and then to tobikomizuki and finally to nagashizuki. Lessons learned properly at each of those stages gives you all the information you need, but it is important to go back to those earlier lessons as well. Junzuki-no-tsukomi for its structure is the template for your nagashizuki, but not just for its static position, but how it is delivered through motion; it is an amplified version of things you learned in junzuki – it is junzuki with the volume turned up.
Nagashizuki is a good technique to pressure-test; from a straight punch (at any level) to a maegeri, even to a descending bokken; this is very useful because it emphasises the slipping/yielding side of the technique; a very determined extension of one half of the body is augmented by a very sharpened retraction of the other half, the movements feed off each other, but essentially they are One. In fact everything is One, in that wonderful Wado way. And here is the conundrum that we all have to face when doing Wado technique; you always have a huge agenda of items that make up one single technique BUT…. They all have to be done AS ONE.
*I am reminded of a line from the 1987 movie ‘The Untouchables’, where the Sean Connery character says, “If he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue”.
Image courtesy of Château de Malmaison.
‘Never interrupt your opponent when he’s in the middle of making a mistake’, a quote attributed to Napoleon, in a way the ultimate ‘passive aggressive’.
Napoleon as the supreme strategist has much to teach us. Ideas can translate easily from large scale warfare to single combat; much like the way that Musashi Miyamoto and Sun Tzu did in their writings.
In a similar way Chinese philosophers spoke about the action of no-action, called ‘Wu-Wei’.
Doing nothing has ethical consequences as well; think if its effect in the world of law, “You may choose to say nothing but to do so may harm your defence….” says the police caution. Refusing to act when you should act is ethically wrong. Also think of the much-used quote, “For evil to triumph all it takes is for the good man to do nothing”.
I mentioned at the beginning about ‘passive aggressive’; I once worked with someone who when he observed a rival colleague (who he hated) about to commit a colossal screw up in front of the boss, instead of warning him off he stood by and watched it happen – ouch.
In fighting we learn to capitalise on an opponent’s mistakes; in tennis they are sometimes called ‘unforced errors’, but sometimes we manipulate the opponent into making mistakes, or we lure them into a trap they would struggle to get out of. Musashi in his Book of Five Rings wrote about forcing the opponent in to difficult positions, bad footings, light shining in their eyes, etc. all to gain advantage. In warfare, tactics are totally paramount; armies are manipulated into making bad decisions; the whole thing is about forcing errors.
I once witnessed Otsuka Hironori II training with another senior instructor during a break in a class. In free movement Master Otsuka easily lead the instructor into making errors, then capitalised on them, but then to keep the flow going, instead of allowing his opponent to fall on their face, one deft slap knocked him back on balance and he was able to reflexively launch another attack, only to be destabilised again, this went on for a while until Otsuka Sensei seemed to think enough was enough and finally (neatly and precisely) floored the instructor. What Otsuka Sensei was doing was cutting down his opponent’s options, which easily lead him in to trouble. Job done.
This is not about politics (though it may start out like that).
It used to be said that if a man is not a Socialist when he is seventeen then he has no heart, if he is still a Socialist when he is fifty he has no head. This does not mean that you are supposed to swerve from left to right as you mature, personally I don’t subscribe to the tribalism of ‘left’ and ‘right’ anymore, they are both two cheeks of the same backside.
Socialists abhor hierarchies, while at the same time feeling it is necessary to utilise them (contradiction?).
Humans by their very nature have a desire to set up hierarchies, even where they do not exist.
Imagine a man who could balance ping pong balls on his nose; would he be content to be the only person who could do that? I doubt it; instead he would present it as a challenge to other jugglers and balancers, who would, inevitably, be able to repeat the trick thus rendering his ‘achievement’ as mediocre. So he then manages to balance two balls on his nose, one on top of the other; seemingly impossible and sets himself up as King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers! A hierarchy is created – out of nothing. I suppose a good question would be; would ping pong ball balancing put food on the table? There lies another discussion.
In all hierarchies there are winners and losers and people in between and there is supposed to be mobility; not like the old feudal pyramid, more like a ladder.
The people on top give you something to aspire to – unless you are hopelessly stuck on the bottom and then you either resign yourself to failure and give up, or you become a festering ball of resentment, which is not healthy.
These people on the very top are there for a reason. To briefly examine that, it might be worth making a quick reference to French and Raven’s six bases of power. This was formulated in 1959 by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven.
- Base 1. Legitimate power (or inherited power) – the person in charge has the right to be there.
- Base 2. Reward – You are rewarded by letting that person assume the position.
- Base 3. Expert – That person is the most skilled, so they should be on top.
- Base 4. Referent – the person is seen as the most appealing option because of their worthiness.
- Base 5. Coercive – The fear of punishment keeps this person on top.
- Base 6. Informational – (added later and very apt to today) The person on top controls the information that people need to get stuff done.
Every boss I have ever met considers that ‘Base 3’ is why they are there, with a liberal dose of ‘Base 4’ of course.
Everything you have ever done and gained a feeling of positive achievement from existed within a hierarchy, and that of course includes martial arts training. If the hierarchy is working well you have confidence in the system because opportunities arise from engaging in it, you reap the rewards of your own efforts.
Ambitious people tend to form their own hierarchies and strive to become king of their own tiny little hill, and we see that in the martial arts all the time – everyone wants to King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers.
Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung & Ueshiba Morihei.
Recently I have been reading a biography of Swiss Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and something just jumped off the page at me.
Jung suffered a prolonged mental breakdown between the years 1913 to 1918, but what happened to him during those years did not drag him down into an irrecoverable pit of despair and degeneration (as had happened with Nietzsche), he instead used his own condition to explore the workings of his mind, and in the process of doing so discovered significant and profound insight that he then wanted to share with the world, an unfolding of the mind. To me this sounded familiar.
In 1925 an energetic and obsessed Japanese martial artist called Ueshiba Morihei also underwent a significant change. In his culture it was described as an enlightenment; an extreme physical and psychological episode, during which certain ‘realities’ were revealed to him, motivating him to disseminate the message to all Mankind – the message was Aikido.
Henri Ellenberger wrote about such episodes in his 1970 book, ‘The Discovery of the Unconscious’, he described them as, ‘Creative illnesses’. Interestingly Sigmund Freud (Jung’s mentor) also underwent a similar breakdown and revelation. Amazingly, all three of these men experienced these episodes at the same time in their lives, between the ages of 38 and 43. To me this all adds up.
There is a common process here; all of these individuals had gone for a total emersion into their chosen disciplines; they had all stretched the boundaries further than anyone had ever gone before. In Japan this kind of process usually involved a retreat into the isolated wilds, which included meditation (introspection) and physical hardships.
If you look for it this pattern is all over the place; it’s a human phenomenon, part of what Jung was to call the ‘collective unconscious’.
Iconic American musicians of the early 20th century retreated to the ‘Woodshed’; Robert Johnson had his enlightenment at the crossroads at midnight when he ‘sold his soul to the Devil’.
The ultimate model of near breakdown and Enlightenment is the Buddha, but there have been many other figures from different traditions. I’m not so sure it all ended up in the right area, after all we only hear of the successes, never the failures. Or we hear of historical examples who have been adopted as successes, but whose lives, when looked at through modern lenses, may well tell another story – I am thinking of St Teresa of Avila as one prime example; I wonder what a Jungian or Freudian psychoanalyst would have made of her?
I have recently been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s ’12 Rules for Life’ and I have watched a few of his lectures online. Peterson is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and has some quite interesting things to say. His views on Order and Chaos chimed with something that had been going through my head for a long time.
Way back when I was a university student I attended a lecture on ‘Apollo and Dionysus’ that got me thinking. As you may know Dionysus (Bacchus) was the god of wine, darkness and of wild hedonism and chaos, a real fun guy. While Apollo was the god of reason, order, light, a total bore; the ‘Captain America’ of superhero gods. The logic of this was creating models of duality; virtually the same as the Taoist Yin and Yang, which is a simple circular motif of two halves, one black, one white separated by a curving line.
For the purpose of explanation ‘Order’ and ‘Chaos’ are the most useful terms.
The realm of Order is everything we know; where rules are followed, structures are in place, it is comfort and to some degree also complacency (but more of that later). Whereas Chaos is unpredictability, it is the gaps between the laws that protect us; it is what happens when things break down, small scale and large scale, ultimately expressing complete anarchy.
I witnessed a minor version of chaos recently on a Tube train in London late at night. The majority of the passengers were abiding in the world of order, following social protocols, but a small noisy part of drunken people came into the carriage, not following the rules; nothing significant happened but to me they were like illogical, fuzzy minor condensed version of chaos, anything could have happened, the potential was there, just by the presence of chaos.
Peterson says that it is healthy to not just acknowledge chaos but also to engage with it. The complacency that comes with order ultimately would just result in you staying in your room. Progress comes from stepping out into the world and moving away from your comfort zone and putting yourself in more unpredictable positions (chaos).
Look at what we do in martial arts training.
In a very simplistic way we discipline ourselves through the most orderly, regimented environments imaginable, we convince ourselves we are training for chaos, and, in a way we are, but not necessarily in the way we think. Violence is an extreme embodiment of chaos and should not be taken lightly, but it is a complex issue full of wild variables. Just think of one of the worst scenarios; multiple attackers, unfamiliar environment, motivations unclear, limited light, all parties befuddled or fuelled by alcohol – it’s a mess. But this is an extreme.
Let’s go back into the Dojo; here are some examples of engaging with chaos that lead you towards more positive outcomes.
It starts out very simply, where you pressure-test your training in more manageable ways.
In a formal setting there is scope for tiptoeing into the chaos zone; e.g. if you work kihon gumite but the Torime doesn’t know what the second attack is; you could gamble, but it’s better to see if you can resolve the problem through your conditioned training.
Every time you take part in sparring; there are rules but essentially you are engaging with controlled chaos.
In my Dojo we have been working for a long time now on devising new ways of pressure-testing our reactions to attacks, creating opportunities to really work our conditioned responses, one method we use is called Ohyo Henka Dousa, a method of continual engagement with an attacker’s intent.
To go back to the Yin Yang symbol, Peterson says that the curving line between the two areas is a line that we should tiptoe along, occasionally deliberately allowing our foot to stray into the zone of chaos and very much acknowledging that it is part of our lives – something that can be used for good.
‘Waza o Nusumu’ is a phrase I’d heard and read about some time ago; essentially it means ‘stealing technique’. It relates to an old style aspect of direct transmission of knowledge from Sensei to student. We know that verbal transmission or just telling students how techniques and principles work is not an efficient method of passing high levels of skill and knowledge on to future generations. We also know there are other models; for example in old style Budo teachers passed information to their students by having them ‘feel’ their technique, but even that is a flawed method. How do we know if the student is really getting to the core of the technique, or is just mimicking the exterior feel of what they thought was going on?
Waza o Nusumu sounds subversive or even dishonest, but really the teacher is in cahoots with the student; he wants to present the technique to the student, perhaps in an oblique way, a hint here, a hint there, or even a quick demonstration to see if they have the ability to grasp it.
I am reminded of a Wado Sensei I know who wanted to explain Okuriashi foot movement to a junior student and so had a £5 note on the floor with a piece of cotton attached and told him if he could put his foot on it he could have it; every time the student tried to put his foot on it (with Okuriashi movement) the note was snatched away.
It also makes me think of Fagin in the musical ‘Oliver’, the scene where he encourages Oliver to steal the handkerchief dangling out of his pocket.
Image credit Columbia Pictures.
As mentioned earlier, all of this can fall apart if the student only grasps a part of the picture. It is entirely possible for the student to make the assumption that they’ve ‘got it’ when they haven’t, probably because they’ve projected an understanding on to it that is immature or underdeveloped; this is where the importance of ‘emptying your cup’ comes in.
Another side of this is that the student has really work at it to decode what they have ‘stolen’. There is significant value in this; partially because understanding with your head only is never enough, this is part of making the technique or principle your own. If you are to truly value it and ‘own’ it it has to come from your own sweat.
‘We only have two arms and two legs’ is one of my least favourite sayings in the martial arts. I have to say that as a convenient aphorism it probably works well for some martial artists, but it doesn’t work for me.
It’s far too simplistic; it suggests that a human being is little more than a cartoon mechanical man; Robbie the Robot or a Lego character.
I understand that for those who are looking for neatly packaged answers statements like this have a particular allure. I have also seen this used as a trump card when Internet discussions descend into, ‘my style is better than your style’, or, ‘after all, we are all doing the same thing’ (usually to bolster the agenda of those who think a ‘buffet’ approach leads to a superior system). ‘After all, we only have two arms and two legs’.
‘We only have two arms and two legs’ is a convenience.
Although we do know that human limbs have a set length and that joints only operate through very particular ranges of movement; we also know that the body has strong areas and weak areas and that being bipedal we don’t have the advantages that quadrupeds have in balance and mobility; but this is only the beginning of the story.
There are other areas which make the task of dealing with human physical intent (fighting) significantly more problematic.
Physically the human frame in motion has to be treated like a piece of multifaceted mobile engineering, (but not bound by mechanical rigidity); this is an organic structure with complex dependencies, levers and pulleys and boundless numbers of tiny calculations which take place in a fraction of a second. Miniscule compensations which ripple through the system like complicated relays; long strands of connectivity all working in harmony. To understand this and work with (or against) it is the challenge of the skilled martial artist.
This aspect of human physiology/kinesthetics is not new; it has been examined in many diverse fields, from Myofascial theory to Alexander Technique. The sedate calculated movements of the Tai Chi practitioners also engage with this idea.
Of course this is a two way thing; all of the above relates to both sides of human engagement; the so-called ‘aggressor’ and the ‘defender’ (depending which way you want to look at it). To know, recognise and explore these qualities inside yourself extends naturally to knowing how it operates inside another person.
Beyond this is the investment of energy involved in both sides of the process (attack/defend), how do you read or calculate the amounts of energy involved and get it right? And then there is ‘Intent’; the ‘Mind’ working like a general directing troops. This also leads into another important aspect, something that humans are very good at, particularly when compared to other members of the animal kingdom, and that is the ability to calculate cause and effect, how one calculated action sets off a chain of other reactions.
All of these are a long way from, ‘We all have two arms and two legs’.
Another winter is another winter course; but this wasn’t just ‘another’ winter course.
Each year the Shikukai winter course has been hosted by Shikukai Chelmsford and it just seems to get bigger and bigger, better and better. It could be said that the success of courses acts as a barometer for the health of an organisation; this is certainly true across all similar sporting/physical disciplines. Over the last twelve months Shikukai membership has continued to grow, in the UK and in Europe and it was noticeable this year that all bar perhaps a handful of students on the course were Shikukai members.
For the first time this year we decided to extend the training opportunities and actually kicked the course off (unofficially) on Thursday evening. As this was our normal club night and people had come a day or two earlier this was a great chance to gather at the regular venue and train and sweat together.
This year we had a larger contingent from Holland as well as students from the Czech Republic, Hungary, France and Norway. This worked really well for our continental students for two main reasons; firstly the closeness of an International airport to Chelmsford (London Stansted airport is only 30 minutes away) and so we were able to organise easy airport pick-ups for our guests. Secondly; we were in a position to offer accommodation for most of our guests which kept the overall costs down.
The first official training session was under Sugasawa Sensei direction, this was Friday night. It was a good indicator of how things were to go, in that the training space was only just big enough to comfortably hold the students. Part of Sensei’s theme was to encourage a bigger, more energised style of movement and he was able to show and explain how this should manifest itself in our movements. When the training was over we were close enough to walk to a traditional English pub and served excellent food and drink.
Saturday training at Danbury Leisure Centre was also very busy. Sensei directed the training but also split the groups between Shikukai’s most senior instructors to enable everyone to work on kata relevant to their syllabus. Three hours training flew by. Saturday evening involved a meal for nearly forty people at Sans Restaurant, Chelmsford and the entertainment went on until the early hours of the morning (for those who had the stamina).
Sunday saw another three hour session; this time after kihon practice the class was split again for pairs work with the seniors working on Kihon Gumite and Kumite Gata. Sensei took the Dan grading candidates aside for personalised instruction. After training the Dan grading panel was convened; congratulations to Kevin Evans of Swindon and Emma Hawkins of Chippenham for passing 1st Dan.
We were very conscious this year that people who took the time to travel and attend the course should get the maximum out of their training. For those who were able to train all the way from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon this meant that they were able to clock up an amazing nine and a half hours of concentrated training.
Our thanks to everyone who attended and to Sugasawa Sensei for his inspirational teaching.
What information is your body giving you? Are you truly your own best critic?
When we are desperately trying to improve our technique we tend to rely on instruction and then practice augmented by helpful feedback, usually from our Sensei.
But perhaps there are other ways to gain even better quality feedback and perhaps ‘feedback’ is not as simple as it first appears.
If we were to just look at it from the area of kata performance; if you are fortunate enough to have mirrors in your training space (as we do at Shikukai Chelmsford) then reviewing your technique in a mirror can be really helpful. But there are some down sides. One is that I am certain when we use the mirror we do a lot of self-editing, we choose to see what we want to see; viewpoint angle etc.
The other down-side is that we externalise the kata, instead of internalising it. When referring to a mirror we are projecting ourselves and observing the projection; this creates a tiny but significant reality gap. It is possible that in reviewing the information we get from the mirror we get useful information about our external form (our ability to make shapes, or our speed – or lack of speed.) but we lose sight of our internal connections, such as our lines of tension, connectivity and relays. We shift our focus away from the inner feel of what we are doing at the expense of a particular kind of visual aesthetic.
You can test this for yourself: take a small section of a kata, perform the section once normally (observe yourself in a mirror if you like) then do the same section with your eyes closed. If you are in tune with your body you will find the difference quite shocking.
Another product of this ‘externalising’ in kata worth examining is how easy it is to rely on visual external cues to keep you on track throughout the performance; usually this is about orientation. I will give an example from Pinan Nidan: if I tell myself that near the beginning of the kata is a run of three Jodan Nagashi Uke and near the end a similar run of three techniques but this time Junzuki AND that on the first run of three I am always going towards the Kamidana, but on the second run of three I will be heading in the direction of the Dojo door, I come to rely almost entirely on these landmarks for orientation, thus I have gone too deeply into externalising my kata; it happens in a landscape instead of in my body. Where this can seriously mess you up is if you have to perform in a high pressure environment (e.g. contest, grading or demonstration) your familiar ‘landscape’ that you relied heavily upon has disappeared, only to be replaced by a very different, often much harsher landscape, one frequently inhabited by a much more critical audience. A partial antidote to this is to always try and face different directions in your home Dojo; but really this is just a sticking plaster.
Another quirky odd anomaly I have discovered when working in a Dojo with mirrors is that during sparring I sometimes find myself using the mirror to gain an almost split-screen stereoscopic view of what my opponent is up to, tiny visual clues coming from a different viewpoint, but it’s dangerous splitting your attention like that and on more than one occasion I have been caught out, so much so that I now try and stay with my back to the mirror when fighting.
Another visual feedback method is video. This can be helpful in kata and individual kihon. In kihon try filming two students side by side to compare their technical differences or similarities. If you have the set-up you could film techniques from above (flaws in Nagashizuki show up particularly well).
There are some subtle and profound issues surrounding this idea of ‘internalising’ ‘externalising’, some of it to do with the origin of movement and the direction (and state) of the mind, but short blog posts like this are perhaps not the place for exploring these issues – the real place for exploring them is in your body.
It’s very obvious that people always appreciate having the opportunity to offer their opinion; particularly when it is something they really care about. So with that in mind I decided to consult with our regular students at Shikukai Chelmsford through the medium of a questionnaire.
I must admit, I was curious as to how this can be done through new technology. So initially I not only set about designing my questions but also researching the available platforms.
I had heard about Survey Monkey and assumed that this was going to be the one to use, however, after signing up and learning about all the whistles and bells and putting my questions in to the template I hit a major hurdle at question 10…. Something that wasn’t clear from the outset; i.e. that this so-called ‘free’ service was only free if you didn’t go beyond 10 questions, after that they wanted £35 a month, (sneaky eh!). So, frustrated and ever so slightly miffed I had to abandon the smiley happy world of Survey Monkey.
More research lead me towards Google Forms, this was totally free and in lots of ways was even better than Survey Monkey.
The idea of a questionnaire has many advantages, particularly when it is anonymous (I made sure that this was the case as it would allow people to give candid and honest responses). Without wanting to use too much jargon I would also say that Dojo members are also stakeholders; it’s in everyone’s interest that all needs are being addressed; in a successful Dojo the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
I think we are very fortunate at Shikukai Chelmsford that the social make-up and personalities all mesh neatly together, largely because we have a common goal and it is in our interests to perpetuate that particular dynamic – although I must say that this is the same for Shikukai as an organisation across all Dojos. However it does not mean that we have everything right; so the best thing is to consult the members.
The range of questions went from organisational issues; times, number of sessions, costs, etc, to venue and facilities; then on to training content, and even looking at fairness and equality. The links to the questionnaires came through to members via email and through Facebook, which was very slick. I must say, the design template also looked incredibly neat and professional. The results came in steadily and were really helpful in getting a snapshot of where we currently are. The culmination of all this is that I will share the results with the students and this in itself will promote more dialogue and then work with them to address any issues.
Over many years I have experimented with numerous different forms of training for fighting. Not all of it was applicable to Shiai (contest) fighting, although quite a lot of it was. Let me be clear, all of Wado training is about ‘fighting’, in the broadest terms; but what I want to discuss here is very much about the modern ‘goal orientated’ western model of training, as opposed to an East Asian ‘process orientated’ approach – there is a difference; one that is crucial in understanding the methodology of the traditional forms of the martial arts; but maybe that is for another blog post.
Initially I acted as my own guinea pig (I think we all do). In the early days I didn’t get any formal training, outside of a tacit implication that you have to apply what you are learning in the more formal elements of Dojo training, but bridging that gap was never going to be easy; the gulf between formal Ohyo Gumite and being faced with a big guy wanting to go bare knuckles with you was too huge a leap to make; so instinct had to kick in, and then from instinct came creativity.
There is an assumption that in terms of weaponry you go with what you have got – two arms, two legs. How many times have I heard that one before, (‘After all, we are only dealing with two arms and two legs’), if life were only that simple. But not everyone can deliver on equal terms; if your flexibility is poor your kicks are going to be your weak points; if you are not blessed with a high level of fast twitch muscle fibres you are going to struggle with reactions against a skilled opponent; it could be limb length, it could be size (not always an advantage) or many of the other variables.
But creativity generates ideas; this should be your experimental zone, yes you should have your go-to, tried and trusted techniques but it is the creative/experimental zone that keeps you moving forward as a martial artist.
I sometimes use a simplistic military analogy; imagine that your tried and trusted techniques are like your front line troops; reliable well trained and seasoned by experience; but behind those are subsequent ranks of less experienced troops (techniques), these can be used against weaker opponents, or where the risks are not so high, and eventually, over time they also become your front line techniques/troops. And so, as the ranks go back, you end up with your reserves. These ‘reserves’ are your experimental zone; a whole training camp of ideas, sometimes extremely risky in combat, large portions of them doomed to failure, but, nevertheless, a real testing ground, a crucible of creativity.
It is important that you review, evaluate and build your repertoire. In the Book of Five Rings (1645) Musashi Miyamoto says, “When you sacrifice your life, you must make fullest use of your weaponry. It is false not to do so, and to die with a weapon yet undrawn.” It’s an extreme and interesting model, written by a man so far removed from our modern existence as to be almost on another planet. (I have an allergy towards ‘Warrior quotes’ hijacked by armchair ‘warriors’ or martial arts fantasists), but when it is boiled down to the current theme it applies quite neatly.
Your repertoire is your catalogue of techniques; sometimes these are set-pieces, the types of moves that sucker your opponent into a position he doesn’t want to be in giving you the opportunity to spring the trap. In a way you have to have your whole catalogue at your fingertips; to not pull out the appropriate technique when it’s really needed links with what Musashi said, you must always ‘make the fullest use of your weaponry’.
Another aspect goes beyond the ‘set-piece’, this is when you really get your stuff together and are drawing directly from the root of your training. Techniques that come from that area are more inclined to be threaded into the way you solve the problems the opponent is presenting you with; how your timing operates, how your body meshes with your opponent’s movements, how much energy is deployed to deal with the opponent, all of those and more.
But where is it stored, where does it come from? I have been doing a lot of thinking about this recently. One writer on martial arts said that he thinks of the body as another brain; it stores up knowledge and when it is well trained it delivers what it needs to deliver much faster than a ‘brain-calculated’ response can. This is similar to when musicians build up ‘muscle memory’ to play their instruments instinctively, in some cases they just respond to the groove. Jazz musician Miles Davis said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” All sorts of meaning can be taken from that one quote, particularly when it is applied to fighting.
As for the question on where or how it is stored; I again will use a musical example. Mark Springer is a contemporary pianist who specialises in giving completely unrehearsed improvised performances to packed audiences. How he warms up for this he explained in an interview, “I cram every conceivable thing I can into my head, which is slightly mad; I’m shoving in bits of Bach, bits of Schubert but when I’m playing [warming up] I’m cramming in all of this stuff with the express purpose of absolutely not playing any of it when I go out on to that stage”, to me this is an acknowledgement that Springer is drawing aspects of his inner catalogue and in the heat of the moment is pulling out melodic interpretations which are appropriate to that moment in time – this is what the so-called ‘instinctive fighter’ does.
More technical stuff.
Because you have to start somewhere, all of us use form as a framework to hang our stuff on. By form I mean, end position, making a shape, a posture, an attitude usually based around a stance, that kind of thing. This becomes our go-to teaching/learning aid. My argument is that we fixate far too much on that aspect of our training. Yes, it’s really important and can’t be by-passed, but to some it becomes an end in itself. It becomes a crucial moment of fixation working a bit like the full stop at the end of a sentence. Of course this is reinforced by a picture book mentality; where that end posture is used to judge quality, as you used to find in karate books that show kata, kihon or kumite. I have written before about the idea that some people think that the posture alone is enough to judge how good a person’s technique is – well, usually that and how much ‘bang’ they can give it. I find this really difficult to accept; surely we have moved on from this rather low branch in our evolutionary development?
Fixation points can be very dangerous; and habitually programming them into your nervous system is not what you should be doing as a martial artist. When the mind becomes fixated energy and intention stagnate and become momentarily stuck.
Don’t confuse this with pauses – I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but ‘pauses’ can be used as part of the necessity to manipulate the tempo and rhythm of an encounter, e.g. to create a vacuum to allow your opponent to fall into (another blog post perhaps).
Look for things that ‘happen’ on the way to something else. By that I mean; for example, watch an expert in motion and try and identify when the engagement first happens. If it’s of a high quality it will cause an effect on the other party; it may even cause his mind to fixate; a crude example would be an initial shin kick, or a distracting inner sweep; but it may well be something much more subtle and it won’t always happen on initial contact.
I can think of some very interesting manoeuvres in Wado where the atemi-waza occurs seemingly between moves. By this I mean, many of us too easily buy into the idea that a technique (be it hit or block) happens at the moment your ‘stance’ arrives; it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a time-line between moves, and that time-line has opportunities that relate to how your body is positioned in relationship to your opponent; it might be angle, it might be distance, or a combination of both, but you have an opportunity to do your stuff while on your way to your primary objective. All of this is the opposite of ‘fixation’. A mind frozen or fixated on a block or strike dies at that point; the engine has stalled and there’s nothing left but to throw away crucial time, slip into neutral and turn the ignition key again.
During sparring try and take a tally of how many times opportunities occurred and yet you were unable to capitalise on them. Often this reveals a number of weaknesses; one example being an overreaction to the threat of your opponent’s technique, but another is when you become fixated on what you are going to do, or have just done. Against a poor opponent you will get away with it, but against someone good your frozen nano-second will supply an excellent window of opportunity for your opponent.
And there’s another thing; don’t wait for the opponent to supply you with the big window of opportunity, slot into the smaller windows; be like a key in a lock.
“When incompetent people are too incompetent to realise they are incompetent”, is only part of the story of the Dunning Kruger Effect. There is a lesson here for all martial artists (as well as anyone involved in any areas of the development of skill/knowledge).
The Dunning Kruger Effect is a graph or timeline explaining our perception of our own competence.
The Effect was first described in 2000 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University. At the extreme left of the graph is a statistical pinnacle, this describes the supreme level of confidence that a person with very little skill tends to have. The timeline then turns into a cliff face and as the true nature of the specific skill reveals itself and the level of confidence plummets. Then comes a long pit of despair; followed by a gentle rise towards a modest level of confidence.
I wouldn’t presume to ask anyone to try and locate their own position on the Dunning Kruger graph line; that would be a wonderfully ironic contradiction, particularly if they are near the beginning of the graph line. As martial artists given enough time we may be able to look over our shoulder at our younger selves and remember our own ‘cliff face’ moment, but all I would say is, be thankful for it, and be thankful that you had enough fortitude to soldier on.
I am not naïve enough to think that the Dunning Kruger Effect is liable to be as neat a curve as the diagram suggests; but taken in general it is liable to follow that path.
But what about the ‘modest level of confidence’ at the end of the graph line? This is another part of the story; Dunning and Kruger also revealed that when people do develop their skills to a high level they are also inclined to score low in confidence, because they believe that those around them may also possess similar skills. This stands to reason in some ways because if your world is populated by people of a similar advanced technical background then you are likely to be only making comparisons with people like yourself.
The ‘modest level of confidence’ may sound like taking a position of being overly modest or humble but it also may be a symptom of what is known as Imposter Syndrome. Although not classified as a mental disorder ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is a frame of mind whereby a person feels that their success is fraudulent, or that they’ve just been lucky. An author once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think ‘Uh oh, they are going to find out now; I’ve run a game on everyone and they are going to find me out’”, the author was Maya Angelou.
There is a basic checklist for Impostor Syndrome; it is;
- If you exhibit signs of being a perfectionist.
- If you find yourself overworking.
- If you have a tendency to undermine your own achievements.
- If you have an unreasonable fear of failure.
- If you are inclined to discount any praise you receive from others.
I suppose for senior martial artists there is another negative tendency, best summed up by a T-Shirt slogan I once saw for elderly bikers, “The older I get, the faster I was”. For martial artists one of the symptoms of this unacknowledged condition is the illusion that your belt is weirdly getting shorter day by day!
Recently there has been a significant amount of media chatter about ‘Cultural Appropriation’.
Susan Scafidi defines the negative aspect of cultural appropriation as, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
It’s interesting to look at how might be applied to Western-based Budoka. Firstly I’m not so sure that the standard bearers for traditional Budo inside Japan worry too much about having their cultural practices and icons ‘appropriated’ by enthusiastic Westerners. Robert Twigger in his 1997 book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ said in a specific and telling quote, “Sara thought martial arts were pretty silly. To a trendy young Japanese, aikido was about as sexy as Morris Dancing”. I suppose that the more archaic and, dare I say it, ‘traditional’ a Japanese martial arts the westerners tries to immerse themselves into the more bizarre it must look to the outsider.
A friend of mine is a long established practitioner of Kyudo; a while ago he invited me to his Dojo. I must have looked upon it as creature landing from another planet; even though I desperately sought common ground I struggled to relate to the ritual and obsession around what in actual fact was a martial art that was based around just one simple action; firing an arrow at a target. Of course I realise there was far more to it than that, and he was able to explain to me the cultural significance and deeply personal struggle that all serious practitioners have to come to terms with. But the ritual observances and the setting up of the Shinto shrine, all of which seemed to take up half of the session, left me wondering exactly what was going on? Was I perhaps witnessing a more exotic version of what the Sealed Knot get up to every major summer Bank holiday? Or was this something else?
The opening quote hinted at an ownership issue; I get that, and I also understand that in the hands of the truly ignorant cultural icons can be misunderstood, misrepresented or even abused. They may even evolve into ‘Cargo Cults’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult ). I’m pretty sure this happens in the martial arts, it’s all over YouTube, but I think most people can see that and just find it a bit….sad. But hey.
But here’s a thing. Let me explain this through the lens of Japanese Art, just to show that Cultural Appropriation is not a one way street.
Pre the arrival of western cultural artifacts to Japan the Japanese printmakers and painters had no concern with western ideas of space and depth in visual compositions. I have at home an original woodblock print by Japanese artist Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748) of an Ox under willows, there is only the vaguest nod towards anything that might relate to foreground, background or middle distance; it’s all based upon a very formulaic and decorative methodology. When the later artists were exposed to western art the game changed, Hiroshige, Hokusai etc. embraced the ideas of perspective and distance and in Hokusai’s case he created visual puns, e.g the swamping of the mighty Fuji by the great wave!
But, when Japanese artifacts arrived in Paris wrapped in throw-away Japanese prints, Post-Impressionists became fascinated by the visual conceits and ‘appropriated’ their methods for themselves – oh the irony!
‘Oxen’ by Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748)
Let me start by saying that I am in no way an expert in this area and I hold no recognisable qualifications; but I wanted to put a few thoughts together about body maintenance based upon my forty-three years of experimentation, failure and accumulated damage; some of it self-inflicted. (I started my Wado training in 1974).
I say that, but in actual fact I think I have been quite lucky; I have never broken a major bone and to my recollection I have only ever been knocked out once. In my early training I did some really stupid things, practices that are now considered Neanderthal and downright counterproductive; but you can almost get away with it when you have youth on your side. In your teens and twenties you believe you are indestructible and the Mantra, ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, borrowed from Nietzsche, becomes an excuse for all kinds of damaging activities. In a macho society you all support each other in the delusion that if everyone is doing it then it must be right, and so ballistic stretching, repeatedly allowing yourself to be hit, throwing yourself straight into extreme exercises with no real preparation or warm-up all seem like the right thing to do.
They say that hindsight is always 20/20 but really; what were we thinking?
Thank goodness we are now all better informed. Developments in science, as well as information available on the Internet has resulted in us all being more knowledgeable. But even that doesn’t tell the full story. We are not all the same; our bodies don’t roll off a production line. We inherit our physical capabilities and limitations from our genes and in later life we carry around the burdens created by lifestyle, accident, illness and environment.
I spent some time under the care of a very experienced physiotherapist who was helping me solve a particular joint problem. I always enjoyed treatment from him because of his blunt and frank explanations of how the body works and tales of the stupid things people do; it was worth every penny. I would advise anyone suffering with injury to seek out a really experienced physio; as someone once pointed out; you wouldn’t think twice doling out £300 to have your car fixed, what price do you put on your own body? The physio opened up a whole new world to me regarding the subtleties of the physical mechanism; how easily things can get out of whack and how resilient the body is; but it was the methods used to treat the injuries and imbalances that intrigued me the most; some of it coming out of a need to address engrained habits and the way the body, out of expediency, bodges its way through things.
Without turning this small article into a heavyweight study I want to boil everything down to a few basic pointers:
- Be informed and realistic about what your body can do (one size does not fit all) there’s no excuse for ignorance.
- Work your body in a way that it supports what you want to do with it. Don’t assume that everything you need for physical conditioning will happen in the Dojo alone. I learned this lesson from the late Suzuki Sensei. When I moved to the south of England and was able to train with him regularly I was initially surprised that we never did any warm-up exercises prior to the senior classes. We used to warm-up in any available space outside beforehand. Suzuki Sensei’s approach was that you are here to do karate not calisthenics.
- Remember, there is development and maintenance. As you get older maintenance becomes more important in that you need to maintain flexibility and core strength, particularly when muscle strength begins to decline; but if you aim for development then maintenance becomes a given.
- Be honest in identifying your body’s weaknesses, but also your limitations. For example; if you start your karate training later in life a jodan kick may not be possible for you outside of radical surgery, but really that doesn’t matter, mawashigeri jodan is one of many techniques used to solve a problem, and in reality it is unlikely to be the technique that gets you out of trouble.
- Don’t undervalue what you can’t see. By that I mean the benefits of body movement based upon training methods like yoga or Pilates cannot be overstated; but the external advantages are difficult to see. Internal structure and work on complementary muscles and tendons which support movement such as those found in yoga and Pilates are really valuable to martial artists.
- One last word of warning; the body is affected by the state of your mind. The mistake we make in the west is to split the body and the mind. If your mind is in the wrong place, or your thoughts, value and judgements are askew then this will wreak revenge on your body; maybe not at the beginning but certainly further down the line there are more possibilities of the wheels coming off.
For those of you who don’t know, Grayson Perry is a very successful British artist, initially a potter and past winner of the Turner Prize. He has branched out into lecturing and making TV documentaries. This book came on the back of a recent documentary series examining masculinity, called ‘All Man’ made for Channel 4. Perry is really interested in male identity (he is a transvestite and is married to a psychotherapist); in this book he takes an unflinching look at the position of men in today’s society.
You may ask why is a book on gender politics appearing on a martial arts blog? While acknowledging that martial arts today are not exclusively male, it’s difficult to escape the fact that they originate from a predominantly male culture and even though in the modern scene there are a lot of positive things sadly we still see aspects of unsightly macho strutting and posturing coming out of misdirected testosterone.
Something is clearly amiss when we look at statistics alone; 90% of all crime is committed by men, and at all levels of society and male suicide rate is at an all-time high.
Perry’s book is excellent at outlining the problem and the culture. While there have been some positive signs many men are clinging on to an outdated nostalgic view of masculinity; the embodiment of this is the fantasy of preparation for some kind of imaginary apocalypse; Perry says; “…we see this vision of masculinity rearing its head on TV programmes fronted by the likes of Bear Grylls or Ray Mears. They teach us how to survive in the wild, how to skin a deer carcass or build a shelter from tree branches. I would like to see them trying find an affordable flat to rent in London, or sorting out a decent state school for their children. These are the true survival skills for the twenty-first century”.
It is this same kind of fantasy that fuels the marketing of some of the less reputable ‘Reality-Based Self Defence’ schools. Add a liberal dose of the ‘Fear Factor’ and over-anxious urban dwellers will come flocking, particularly the unfulfilled male of the species, downtrodden and left behind clinging on to an outdated view of antiquated masculinity.
Perry’s view is that the decline of a particular model of masculinity has been going on for ever. For our generation of men masculinity has traditionally abided in the rigours of physical labour, a muscular idealised noble savage. Shipyards, mining, the boxing clubs of the old East End of London, these areas of male life have all but disappeared; but there is a primitive urge there, unfortunately it tends to manifest itself as a kind of comic parody of masculinity; as Perry says;
“One reaction to the redundancy of the traditional male role has been the rise of a kind of cosmetic hyper-masculinity. I see it as an overtly performed version of working-class manhood. The shiny muscles, tattoos, loud music and loud cars all hope to pump out the message that he’s still a real man despite the collapse of heavy industry and a clearly defined status. These performers pay great attention to detail: hair and beards are groomed in precision lines; torsos are waxed till they resemble figures from computer games.”
He also takes a swing at corporate blandness and the assumption of male control in the workplace; as he says, masculinity is not IN the background, it IS the background!
In no way is Perry’s book a manifesto; it does not set out precisely what the new twenty-first century man should be, neither does it act as a sop to overly militant feminism, it just asks men to GET REAL, stop living in a fantasy world and take your responsibilities seriously (particularly as the right kind of role models for the next generation).
In a Dojo situation a male instructor needs to think long and hard about how he presents himself. The good news is that there are many excellent role models who have a good head on their shoulders, are humble about their abilities, kind, compassionate and are comfortable in their own skin. Unfortunately you also come across far too many little boys hiding inside men’s bodies.
As a footnote; Perry made reference to Chuck Palahniuk’s book ‘Fight Club’, (the movie was good, but the book much better), but I would also have liked him to have referenced ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis, which for me epitomises toxic white collar masculinity and narcissism gone mad; as relevant today as it was when first published in 1991. The male political models are currently out there now, strutting their stuff; just think of Trump, Kushner, Bannon and latterly in the UK our own upper-crust version, the entitled members of the ‘lucky gene club’, such as Osborne, Cameron and Johnson et al, these are all part of the problem and certainly not models for the future.
For further reading I also recommend Steve Biddulph; who is excellent on anything to do with raising children, but for this topic his book ‘Manhood’ is another really thought-provoking read.
I thought it was time to write something technical, though normally I am loath to do so as I get frustrated with people who ‘learn’ from the Internet, and I have recently had to deal with unscrupulous individuals plagiarising my past articles (this is why I haven’t published any lengthy articles in a long time).
But here goes anyway.
In my attempts to work with my own students on sharpening their paired kumite and develop a real edge to their practice I recently listed a whole catalogue of aspects and concepts that must be ticked off if students are to get under the skin of what is going on. Inevitably some of these concepts are interconnected; this was where the idea of Mikiri came in.
Mikiri is basically the ability to judge distance by eye and act accordingly. Naturally this is linked to timing as well. In Wado paired kumite the ability to perfectly judge the danger distance, or the potential and reach of an opponent’s technique is vital. But all of this may have to be calculated in a split second. In Wado and other Japanese Budo you can see references to this quite frequently and it becomes more critical if weapons are involved; this means that calculating for one distance (kicking of punching range) is far too limiting; for example, an eight inch blade gives the opponent an eight inch reach advantage.
But this is only a part of what I want to discuss.
We are actually amazingly well-equipped already; we actually do this stuff naturally. Picture a moment from everyday life when we have had to drive an unfamiliar vehicle; something much larger than we are used to. Imagine if you have to manoeuvre the vehicle down a narrow street with parked cars both sides, and, amazingly you succeed; a calculation just based upon a mere glance at your wing mirrors and the distance they occupy. Or even just walking or running. When running you instantly calculate the half second before your heel hits the ground and then all your muscles coordinate beautifully and propel you on to the next stride; and this happens hundreds if not thousands of times! You only really notice it when something goes wrong, e.g. on rough ground where you miss that pothole sneakily hidden behind a clump of grass and then the landing is jarring and the muscles have to go into emergency mode to stop you going head over heels.
But, what is interesting is that when you have to deal with a punch or a kick this well-coordinated judgement eludes you. The reality is that your mind becomes the real enemy; you become overly cautious, fearful of the intent of your opponent and often we just over-compensate.
A conversation with a Japanese friend who has a background in swordsmanship informed me that this same concept is an important part of engaging with the traditional Japanese bladed weapons.
But it’s no use just acknowledging the concept; it’s what you do with it that counts. In training there are multiple opportunities to practice it; not just the formal kumite but also within free sparring; observe how close or far away you are when dealing with a committed attack. Congratulate yourself if the attack misses you by a whisker, or scrapes your skin; but be aware, that is only the prelude…. The opponent has given you a window of opportunity; if you don’t condition yourself to take it the concept becomes redundant and meaningless.
This takes an awful lot of training.
Not a book about martial arts at all, but one that relates to the martial arts.
Professor Michael Puett is a Harvard professor who lectures on oriental philosophy. His classes are oversubscribed and often host around 700 students (how is that even possible?). The popularity of the lectures comes out of the promise that these lectures will change your life!
Puett repackages the teachings of Confucius, Mencius and Lao Tzu, etc. for a modern age and presents the ideas of these ancient Chinese teachers in a transformative way. The book contains material from the lectures compressed into themes and chapters making it all very accessible.
Confucians and Neo-Confucians have always had bad press because they have been blamed for Chinese rigid class and social structures, reinforcing gender discrimination and even promoting insular selfishness within the society. This is all a bit lazy for me. The rigidity of the last years of the old Chinese national structure, pre-Mao, was epitomised by the Civil Service exams in which the applicants were expected to memorise huge amounts of the ‘Classics’ to demonstrate their worthiness. Although this served the Chinese well in the earlier centuries the decaying husk it turned in to just proves how things go when they develop into ‘institutions’ and lose their meaning becoming fossilised relics of what may have originally been fresh intelligent philosophies on how to live the good life.
This re-packaging of ancient Chinese philosophies gives a refreshing perspective on ideas that are woven into most oriental martial arts and we can easily discover these ideas within Japanese Budo. Have you ever wondered about how ritual is used within Japanese martial traditions? Puett’s unpicking of the importance of ritual in Confucius’s ideas is a revitalising breath of fresh air that blows away the fustiness of institutionalised ‘rites’.
Mencius (372 BCE – 289 BCE) comes across as the voice of reason and has always been a particular touchstone of mine. His views on humanity, development, growth and spiritual cultivation all fit in neatly with the ideals of the man of Budo.
Puett challenges us to think differently, he questions some of our very basic assertions and asks us to re-frame our references; this was refreshing and made me think that perhaps some of my own assumptions need a more rigorous grilling.
The section on Chi is a real myth buster.
His explanation of spontaneity and how it can reach a high level only after prolonged prior training follows the exact model that most martial artists adhere to.
It is a very thought-provoking read and deliberately breaks free from entrenched ideas about how with think the world should work. Definitely worth more than one read-through.
In another posting I mentioned the importance in Wado karate of focussing on Principles. Here I am going to present another angle to maybe supply a slightly different perspective.
Principles are not techniques; they are the essence that underpins the techniques. These work like sets of universal rules that are found within the Ryu. Don’t get me wrong these are not simple; they work at different levels and in different spheres. An example would be how these Principles relate to movement. There is a hallmark way of Wado movement; something that should be instilled into all levels of practice, from Kihon and beyond. If in a Wado training environment technique is prioritised at the expense of Principles of movement then students are learning their stuff back to front. The technique will only deliver at a superficial level; the backbone of the technique is missing.
This is where I think that learning a huge catalogue of techniques in itself is of limited application, and particularly mixing and matching techniques from other systems; it may work but only to a certain level. To me personally this approach lacks ambition and has a limited shelf life.
The underpinning Principles are not modern inventions, they originate way back in in early days of Japanese Budo and were forged in a very Darwinian way. These were created and adapted at the point of a sword by men who witnessed violence and blood; these things were deadly serious, no delusion, no fantasy, instead sharp reality. Those days are gone but the Principles stretch forward into the future, but they are vulnerable and the threads can easily be broken, we ignore them at our peril. It sounds dramatic, but in a way we are the custodians of a very fragile legacy.
If we look at the life of the first Grandmaster of Wado Ryu, Ohtsuka Hironori, it could be said that he had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. There is a connection between him and the men of the sword who experienced the smell of blood, particularly his great-uncle Ebashi Chojiro who we are lead to believe experienced the reality of warfare probably in the Boshin Senso (but that needs to be confirmed by someone more knowledgeable than me.). Traditional martial arts supply a direct line into the past and their values come from concepts that underpin Japanese Budo of which Wado is part.
Principle is the key that unlocks multiple opportunities and techniques. This works surprisingly well. The human psycho-physical capability is amazingly sophisticated. I have often come across students asking about the problem of learning techniques on both sides. My reply is that personally I have had no trouble switching from one side to the other. I remember hearing about sleight of hand magicians who have to learn a piece of complex manipulation with one hand and spend hours and hours of laboriously practice (and failure) to master the trick. But if the one-handed trick was to be switched to the other hand then the learning time was dramatically decreased. This is an aspect of body memory and it is not to be underestimated, it is complex, multi-faceted and amazingly fast when compared to a more calculated thought-based approach.
There are lots of Japanese terms relating to martial arts that in the West have become either talismanic or even fetishised. I am certain that there people out there who are non-Japanese speakers who may even collect these terms and phrases.
For me, they are interesting because when you examine them and try to get a handle on what is going on you really have to figure out how they fit into the whole of Japanese culture both historical and present, and that is a challenge in itself.
One phrase that cropped up recently in a conversation over beer (as most of these types of conversations seem to be recently), was ‘Shugyo’.
I remembered an explanation by Iwasaki Sensei about three types of training; ‘Keiko’, ‘Renshu’ and ‘Shugyo’. Keiko was explained as just hard physical training, it could include all the supplementary stuff like strengthening, conditioning, etc. Renshu was like drilling, refining, engaging with the technical aspects. Whereas Shugyo was a period of total emersion, some say ‘austere training’. Sensei explained that to engage in Shugyo you had to imagine some kind of martial arts monk, someone who has nothing in his life apart from mastering his art. At the time the idea seemed appealing; particularly the bit about turning your back on the world.
But there are other ways to think about Shugyo. Does it really have to involve a split away from society? I don’t buy the idea of meditating half way up a mountain, except perhaps on pragmatic grounds (where else can you find peace and quiet?). I am also sceptical about the Taoist monk retreating from the world. I’m more for the Neo-Confucian idea that practice and enlightenment can be found in the marketplace and the hurly-burly of city living.
I am coming round to the idea that Shugyo isn’t perhaps some all-defining experience; a one-off commitment like a pilgrimage. And the idea that you are guaranteed to come out the other side enlightened and cleansed with mastery at your fingertips is perhaps a little too romantic and creates fodder for the fantasists. It also seems to leave no room for one of the rude facts of life….failure.
Perhaps Shugyo is more episodic. It is possible that some people have engaged in Shugyo without even knowing it? Maybe those times of intensity were just seen as ‘rites of passage’ but in reality ticked all of the ‘Shugyo’ boxes. Admittedly they weren’t self-directed, but those grinding relentless repetitions were focussed, unforgiving and as near a perfect hot-house as you were ever going to get. I am thinking particularly of those long, long hours on whatever course or camp it might have been. But here’s the question I have been asking myself; if those were episodic ‘Shugyo’ opportunities were they well-spent? Or did they happen at the wrong time in our development; or beyond that, did we have the right material to work with?
From a personal viewpoint; with the right material, the right direction and the right background, the best time is…now.
It has often been said that to an ‘expert’ in absolutely anything you need to have accumulated 10,000 hours of practice.
I am sure that in our search for quick answers and ‘sum it all up in one soundbite’ style solutions many people will focus on this factoid and be instantly comforted by the convenience of this as a theory.
But, unfortunately, like a lot of simple answers this idea supplies a generalised truth but fails to describe the whole story.
Scientists and statisticians have drilled down into this idea and have found it to be wanting.
I must admit to have been seduced by this formula, and even busied myself trying to work out how many hours a day I would need to train in Wado Ryu karate to reach ‘expert’ level. By the way it works out as about 4 hours a day over about 10 years.
This is far far too simplistic. The experts looked at chess masters and classical musicians; a good choice if you want mental capacity and high levels of manual dexterity; I would worry about the levels of physicality required for martial artists, after all, certain types of athleticism have very limited shelf-life.
But, time in service alone did not cut it. The experts found that with chess masters there were examples where it took one expert 26 years to reach a high level of mastery, while another ‘expert’ achieved the same level in two years. Statistics like this make a mockery of the ‘10000 hours’ theory.
So, what’s going on? There is of course the wildcard of ‘innate ability’, but that alone is not a prerequisite for success. I have witnessed individuals of innate ability who reach a glass ceiling and are so cock-sure of their own ability that when they reach a high level of success that they become drunk upon their own perceptions of their ability that they are then unable to empty their cup and move beyond this level – effectively they become unteachable.
There are of course those who are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again – martial arts ‘Groundhog Day’. Those who claim to have twenty years of martial arts experience yet actually have one year of martial arts experience twenty times!
Personally, I would posit that the way to success is to maintain an active curiosity and a secure work ethic, tempered by correct guidance and a clear direction. Keep your cup empty.
I’m going to try to describe my perception of something that is really quite difficult to pin down. This is just my opinion, but it is based upon things I have seen and experienced at one level or another.
When something is ‘tangible’ it is observable from the outside; when it is ‘intangible’ it is often hidden or difficult to perceive. The tangible could be described as the exterior; while the intangible is the interior. Often we think we understand something based upon what we see is happening on the outside but the real truth of the matter is what is going on in the inside. Or we base our judgements upon prior experience and run the risk of misunderstanding what is really going on – like the story of the blind men and the elephant (Link).
When we are looking at the martial arts, specifically Budo traditions we are observing and experiencing something that is often difficult to grasp.
According to Japanese karate master Ushiro Kenji in his book ‘Karate and Ki’; Japanese arts fall into two categories; those that have an obvious outcome, an end product that is a quantifiable commodity, like the craftsmanship of a Japanese carpenter or a visual artist, swordsmith or potter. And those traditions that have no material outcome, like the Budo master or the traditional Japanese flute player; they are just as valuable but their end products are impossible to lay your hands upon, to weigh and measure, they are more ethereal, their true value is found in the intangible. Often they are part of a living tradition, one that has developed over time, but only survives through the physical human frame.
This ‘physical human frame’ is the instrument, not the finished artefact; there is no actual material artefact. So the martial artist’s body is like a musical instrument, superbly crafted in itself but it’s the output, the workings of the instrument where the real value lies.
The instrument is merely the vehicle for the music. As an example; recent studies on the prestigious violins made in the 18th century by Antonio Stradivarius reveal that there is no real difference between the Stradivarius and a well-made modern violin. Blindfold experts could not tell the difference and even favoured the modern instrument over the Stradivarius. This just goes to prove that we have to be wary of mythologies that accumulate over time.
What is also interesting is that these very rare and expensive violins are given out to world famous musicians who are considered as temporary custodians, this is an acknowledgement of the fleeting, intangible nature of music at the highest level; what is produced cannot be held in your hands, so it is with the highest levels of Budo. The exterior appearance can be caught on film, but the real value is in the intangible. Trust your feelings not your eyes.
As an instructor (and a student) one thing I feeling strongly about is that I should be in a state of constant learning.
In the teaching profession they rightly make a point that all teachers should be setting themselves up as what they call ‘Life Long Learners’, as an example to all of the young people in their charge. It’s the same in karate.
Wouldn’t it be a shame if instructors rested on their laurels and past triumphs and conducted themselves as if they had topped out on all they can learn?
Some seniors seem to tacitly acknowledge that their cup is not full and seek to top up from other sources, without realising that the well-source of Wado has not run dry and that what we see is just the tip of an iceberg.
Recently I found my Wado boundaries being stretched by my Sensei who laid upon me yet more concepts and practical interpretations, and, while searching for an appropriate metaphor, I hit upon the idea that I had been subjected to yet another ‘operating systems update’. This useful piece of jargon from computer science seems to fit neatly with what should be happening to all of us.
Of course this metaphor can be extended, and it’s only when you meet up with other operating systems that are still running the equivalent of Windows 8 that you realise how valuable these ‘updates’ are. It’s not uncommon to actually meet someone still operating on the equivalent to a 1982 Commodore DOS and in such cases the two systems will find it virtually impossible to communicate, short of a rebuild.
Apple and Microsoft both pressure test their latest updates by releasing them before they are fully functioning and that is when they find the bugs and glitches that they can then fix with other minor updates (well, that’s how I see it anyway). This also fits neatly with what happens to me while working with my Wado updates; my body is still working things out on the hoof.
But the up side is that if you are following Wado Logic then the adjustments should eventually click in; either that or Sensei comes along and tweaks your system.
On the first weekend of February 2017 the Chelmsford Dojo again hosted the Shikukai Karate-Do International Winter Course with chief instructor F. Sugasawa Sensei.
This year the venue for the two days training was the Danbury Sports and Leisure Centre, which has an excellent training area large enough to cope with the expected numbers. This event seems to attract more and more students every year, and although it is an open Wado course the majority of the students who attended were Shikukai members.
We were honoured to host students from all over the UK and abroad. This year we had Dan grades attending from the Netherlands, Hungary and France. Being so close and well connected to Stansted Airport made it very easy for connections and transport. In addition, all of our visitors were able to sample the delights of Chelmsford, particularly the restaurants, bars and nightlife.
Sugasawa Sensei directed the training and introduced concepts which were new to many students. As always Sensei established a theme and then built upon it, helping the students to make practical connections across kata and kumite. Saturday training included kata at all levels, taught by Shikukai senior instructors with Sugasawa Sensei on hand to clarify specific points and add new dimensions. Sunday’s training involved kumite, across Kihon Gumite, Kumite Gata and other pairs work.
A Dan grading took place on the Sunday. Successful candidates were, Roberto Ciuffa from Shikukai Hertford for 1st Dan and Attila Jakab Shikukai Hungary for 3rd Dan.
Everything ran incredibly smoothly; airport runs coordinated efficiently and for those staying over, accommodation suited everyone’s needs. All of this was down to a very efficient team; a huge thank you to all involved.
We are already making plans for the Shikukai Winter Course for the first weekend in February 2018.
I am sure he won’t mind me saying this but Shikukai chief instructor Sugasawa Sensei always impresses me with his appetite for embracing words and concepts that exist in the English language. He is always searching for the most apt linguistic model to try and cross cultural and language barriers. Once he latches on to a new word, analogy or aphorism he exploits it with great energy.
One such word cropped up a little while ago.
On an instructors course Sensei used the word ‘composure’; I won’t go into detail about the context in which Sensei used this word; but it had me thinking more about what it means for us and how it is applied.
‘Having an air of composure’, i.e. what the attributes of composure communicate to others. This is without a doubt a useful and positive persona to project, especially for martial artists. But it has to be real; it should not be faked or put on and taken off like your Keikogi jacket.
Projecting composure should be a natural by-product of a balanced mind; something we should all aspire towards; easy to talk about but difficult to achieve. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim to become more balanced and more composed, but identifying the times when we are cool and composed; (or the reverse, flustered, angry or allowing situations or people to overcome you), are good places to start.
In Oriental philosophy Neo-Confucianists like the Japanese scholar Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714) encouraged self-examination, monitoring your behaviour and ‘renewing yourself each day’. He also said that you should listen to trusted and reliable friends and allow them to point out your errors. Expanding on this he says it is like the game of Go where the outsider/onlooker can often see the right move before the players can.
Returning to the ‘air of composure’. Your mental attitude projects outwards and is easily picked up by others. As humans we are very good at this and are sensitive to even the most subtle forms of non-verbal communication; look how we ‘mirror’ other people’s gestures subconsciously, to let them know that we are on their wavelength. A steady gaze, relaxed and alert posture, confident, (but crucially, non-aggressive) give clues and act as hints and messages to others. The reverse is also true: shifty downcast eyes, tensed shoulders are all negative messages; as are aggressive looks, pushed out chest, agitated behaviour, all red flags to others in the vicinity.
New Age philosopher and guru Eckhart Tolle in his description of what he calls the ‘pain body’ describes the burdens people carry around with them, of past anger, anxiety and pain; on to which they willfully heap new anxieties, pain, anger, creating a destructive cocktail which often has further unhappy endings.
But he also says that negative angry people act as a magnet to other negative angry people. They spot each other across a crowded floor and are drawn to each other like preening cockatoos who attack their own reflections in a mirror.
Or another example is how angry negative people are pulled into relationships with other angry negative people; their life dramas mirror each other and their destructive flashpoints cause chaos which affects all around them, but is particularly damaging for themselves. Wrapped up in their own back-story they can’t see the wood for the trees.
Composed people are a much more attractive option. They are the people you can rely upon in a crisis, they are cool, unflappable and confident; but, hopefully, they are not just a machine, they also have a beating heart. Something every martial artist should aspire to.
It was lovely to see so many parents at our end of term session. The children really enjoyed working with the adults. It gave them the opportunity to ‘learn through teaching’ and the adults the opportunity to see just how much the children understand and how far they have come.
Before the session started the children explained about the importance of being respectful and kind in the dojo. They modelled how to sit in seiza, how to bow and how to stand in five different stances. Fun was had ‘checking’ the stances of the new recruits ☺.
The session began with a very good warm up that was taken by a mixture of children and parents.
The class quickly divided into three groups with two groups alternating between Sensei Dave and Sensei Alex who went through kicking, blocking and striking techniques. The third group worked through the beginning of the 8th kyu syllabus and practiced Kihon Kata using chudan zuki, jodan nagashi uke and gedan harai uke (that they had just learn’t ). The parents of the third group bravely performed the kata to each other and then to the whole class.
A positive experience for all.
“It’s really hard. I’ve got a whole new respect for the kids training now. I didn’t know they knew so much. I hope Jess can continue in Y7”. Louise Flavell ( Jess and Joe’s mum)
“Karate was amazing with the adults doing kicks, ’punches and blocks. And we taught them to move from the middle – to move with their hips” Milo
“It was a really fun experience and the parents really enjoyed it. My dad said he’d like to do it again. We taught him Kihon Kata and they had to do it in front of everybody. I didn’t think he’d do it, but he did. He done well” (Joseph H)
“It was different terminology to what I was used to. Mine was like meeting strength with strength (like Shotokan) but yours is more like deflecting which makes sense so you are always moving off centre. I like it. I really enjoyed it” Simon Lott (Megan’s dad)
“Apocrypha: A story or statement of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true.”
The truth is that the martial arts abound with Apocrypha, but I don’t think that this is a bad thing, as long as they are all taken with a huge pinch of salt.
My approach to some of the apocryphal stories about the martial arts is that I look for the kernel of truth within the myth. Not from the view that there must be tiny element of veracity lurking underneath the embellishments of stories told and re-told hundreds of times; but instead I look for the lesson or moral behind the survival of such a story – it could perhaps contain a greater truth than the fairy-tale pretends to.
Here are two of my favourites that serve to explain my thinking.
Someone told me a story about tourists being shown around a famous Chinese Temple associated with martial arts. On arriving at a particular courtyard the guide pointed out regular hollows worn into the brick paving. The tourists were told that these hollows were the result of martial arts monks spending hour upon hour in horse stance practicing their moves. However, the observant tourist might also notice that the hollows may also have been the result of weak spots in overhead roof drainage where rainwater had dripped over hundreds of years. Naturally the guide chose to ignore this very practical explanation; thus the myth lives on. Should we therefore scoff at this deliberate hokum? I don’t think so. The factual account might be wrong but the essence of the story contains another truth; more like a model, an idea, a concept. It conjures up a heightened and exaggerated admonishment endorsing the fruits of disciplined and prolonged practice, and, to my mind that makes it useful.
Another example concerns a story about one of members of the Yang family of late 19th century Tai Chi fame. It was said that if a bird was to land on master Yang’s outstretched index finger, the bird would find itself unable to fly away unless the master permitted it to do so. The explanation for this was that the master was so highly tuned to pressure sensitivity that when the bird tried to use its legs to launch the master would detect this and very subtly deny the bird a platform necessary to spring forth. Is this actually possible? Would a specialist in avian anatomy and the physiology of flight be able to tell us that this story is complete bunkum, because a small bird does not actually need to launch with its feet? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. The concept of heightened sensitivity is vital to practitioners of all martial arts (or at least should be) therefore to cook up such a seemingly tall tale serves as an aspirational template; albeit an apparently impossible one.
There are other stories where the essence surpasses the truth. There is something about the martial arts that promotes the telling of tall tales. Obviously some of these are there for political reasons; the mythologies live on long after people have passed away. I have seen recent examples where a certain level of gloss has been applied to boost the reputations of the living and the dead. Tales retold have an inevitable life of their own.