Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Releases with a knife

Lately I've been harping on the benefits of adding a practice knife to your regular practices.  Note that I'm not talking about spending a lot more time emphasizing knife defenses - the very concept of martial arts knife defense is probably greater than 95% B.S.  The only reliable defense against a knife attack is avoidance...
I'm talking about some collateral benefits to adding a knife to your practice. Just having either the attacker or the defender (or sometimes both) holding a knife changes your practice and adds a lot in a couple of ways.
  • It teaches you how to move and hold and use sharp objects, so maybe you'll be less likely to kill yourself while running with scissors.
  • Even if uke is not actively attacking with the knife, the blade absolutely screams at tori, "PAY ATTENTION TO ME!"
So, uke is learning how to move around in complex ways without cutting himself up, while tori is learning to move in a free and flowing manner while constrained by one thing and while paying attention to a second thing.
A great example is the set of 8 wrist releases that we learn as beginners and that we review every class.  These 8 movements involve uke stepping into ma-ai and taking a hold of one of tori's wrists.  Face it, a wrist grab is not the most realistic or threatening attack in the world - but they are perfect for beginners to start learning movement and principle. 
Problem is, after you're about brown belt or so, it's easy to feel like you've got a pretty good handle on wrist releases and they become just another boring thing that sensei makes us do for warm-up before we get to the real learning in each class.  It is easy to get complacent and lax and let your attention wander during releases.
But then uke grabs a practice blade in his free hand, and all of a sudden the blade screams at tori, "HEY! LOOK HERE! DANGER WILL ROBINSON!" but tori still has to be able to move around the constraint that uke is imposing on him through the wrist grasp.
Tori is learning in these releases to put some of his attention on the knife while still moving within/around constraints.
Tori is also learning another of the most vital lessons in aikido - one of the foundations for everything - that all ukes are deadly dangerous. If uke is able to touch you then he is able to kill you.  Keeping this in mind helps tori to learn to use taisabaki and kuzushi to disarm uke by removing his opportunity and ability to touch you with the knife.  Having uke carry a knife in his free hand helps tori to keep this lesson in the forefront of his mind during practice.

Patrick Parker

Monday, June 25, 2012

Knife practice is tranformational

A while back, Nick came up with a scheme for organizing our aikido explorations - he said that he divides the whole domain of material that we can practice in aikido into three circles - foundational, supplemental, and transformative.
The foundational material is the stuff that we think every student should work on first until they become quite competent with it - material like ukemi, taisabaki, releases,  Junana, Owaza - this is most of the focus of most of our clubs up to about shodan level.
The supplemental material adds to the foundational, expanding its scope or applying it to specific contexts.  This would include material such as the Koryu no kata, tactical systems like Merrit Stevens' or JW Bode's, and aiki weapons systems - in other words, stuff that we mostly work on from about nidan up.
The tranformational circle of practice would be various practices that re-interpret or re-contextualize all of the foundational and supplemental material.  Anything that magnifies the aikidoka's capacities by fundamentally re-imagining or re-examining the previous material.  Such material would include randori, the renzoku chains, and our explorations of internal strength and systema.  Transformational material is not linked to a skill level like the other two circles of practice.  For instance, one starts almost from day-one transforming their understanding with randori.
I personally think that the addition of the knife to our practice is more transformational than it is supplemental.  The knife is just that good of a training tool.  What the knife does for our practice is nothing short of transformational.  We are not adding x-number of knife defenses to our regularly scheduled (foundational) practice.  We are using the knife to change the parameters of our foundational practice.
It is quite easy, when practicing empty-handed aikido - especially because we emphasize slow and gentle - to develop the illusion that uke is not really a threat.  Becoming comfortable dealing with a slow, gentle, compliant uke is probably the deadliest error in aikido practice - it creates an intolerable laxity in our practice.  But throw a knife into the mix and that illusion is dispelled instantly.
The addition of the knife sharpens uke's attacks and it simultaneously hones tori's concentration and awareness.  It forces tori to start working in the domain of strategy as opposed to technique or tactics.
Because of the transformational nature of the knife, we have recently been adding practice knives to all of our foundational practices.  We do the walk holding a knife in one hand (totally transforms your perceptions of which hand is the active hand at any given time, and it tends to make you more aware of where your hands are and their orientation.) We do the releases with uke holding a knife in his free hand.  Even without uke overtly lunging with the knife, just its presence is enough to create a big perceptual difference in the exercise. We do all of our junana practice with uke lunging with a knife, as in the tanto-ni-taisuru kihon no kata. We haven't been working Owaza with a knife - but just because we havent had anyone working Owaza for a while.  I fully expect to be playing knife Owaza soon.
As one of my FMA buddies was telling me some years back.  "The knife teaches the hand, but the hand does not teach the knife."  If you don't understand that idea, I recommend adding a knife into your regular practices and looking at how your practices are transformed and sharpened.
The addition of the tanto as a training tool is, in my opinion, one of Tomiki's greatest contributions to the practice and teaching of aikido.
Incidently, as a sort of postscript... I have the feeling that our jo and bokken material should be transformational instead of supplemental.  It is my understanding that this is what made such a distinctive difference in Nishio sensei's remarkable budo - the inclusion of the bokken into all of their foundational practices.  But the way we tend to practice jo and bokken (as an aside as part of a couple of of the koryu no kata) it is supplemental rather than transformative.  I would like to change that - but first things first - grab a knife.

Patrick Parker

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Putting the aiki in aikijo

So, I've been contemplating for a while - what is it that makes aikijo aiki?  For instance, if an aikido guy does a karate bo kata, is it aikijo just by virtue of the fact that it's an aikido guy doing it?  If not, why not?  Can one get better at aikijo by studying medieval quarterstaff manuals?
Seems to me there is a pretty distinct difference between aikijo and pretty much all other ways of weilding the stick that I've seen.  But even though it is distinctly its own thing, it's kinda hard to put your finger right on what is different.  I think it has to do with the body management and strategies that the practitioner is implementing with the stick.
Morihei Ueshiba did not teach aikijo - he did aiki, sometimes involving a stick.  He was doing aiki and then uke picked up a stick and Ueshiba was still doing aiki and he took the stick away from uke and swung it and he was still doing aiki, and uke grabbed the stick and Ueshiba was still just doing aiki as uke sailed off into the sunset.
Ueshiba, when asked, "What is aikido?" replied, "When I move around, that is aikido."  In other words, "You want to see aikido, look at what I'm doing right now - how I'm moving around."  - he was just saying something like, "My motion incorporates and serves as an example of those principles of aiki.
I guess all this stream of consciousness boils down to this - Our jo work must necessarily adhere to the same principles as our taijutsu in order to be aiki-jo.  The same principles must govern our stick work as govern our taijutsu (and our knife work, and our sword, and our pistol training...)
Ueshiba didn't seem to have a bulleted list of the ten (or however many) principles that make moving around into aiki, but here is a list that I came up with some time back that seems to serve pretty well...

  • relaxation
  • shizentai (posture)
  • metsuke (eye control)
  • ashi sabaki (footwork)
  • ki-musubi (synchronization with the opponent)
  • ma-ai (personal space and timing)
  • move offline (the aiki-brushoff)
  • orenaite (unbendable arm) and kite (ki-hands)
  • kuzushi (off-balancing the opponent)
  • atemi (striking the opponent down)
  • osaekomi (suppressing the opponent)
  • zanshin (remaining aware)
...and here is a much more extensive list compiled by someone much smarter and more skilled than me.
How much time do we spend going through the motions of the aikijo material or the Sankata jo material or the Rokukata jo material, blocking in the moves, trying to get the hang of the techniques (thinking technique instead of principle) and how much time do we work on trying to figure out how these principles of aiki govern the use of the stick?
The aiki appears to lie largely in the strategy, but when we work with sticks (or knives) we tend to get stuck thinking tactically.
Patrick Parker

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mutual welfare in zero-sum games

One of the things I do with my kids judo classes is I quiz them on general judo knowledge as we warm up each class.  It is sort of a catechism-type Q&A deal.  One of the questions is, "What were Kano's two mottoes for judo?"  The answer, of course, being "mutual welfare&benefit" and "Make the best use of your power."  Well, try explaining mutual welfare or maximization of efficiency to a 6-year old.  So I re-worded these two mottoes.  For the purposes of my kids classes, the right answer is, "You and me both win" and "Find the easiest (or best) way for you and me to both win."
That has worked pretty good, but every so often we meet with a glitch in this simplistic wording of these complex ideals.  For instance, If you and I are supposed to both win, how come we do zero-sum games and contests where there are winners and losers?
I've been trying to figure out how to explain this to 6-year olds for a while now, and hadn't figured out how to phrase it just right, so I just decided to pose the question to my kids class and see if it was even an issue for them.  I asked, "how is it 'you and me both win' if we have a tournament and one kid wins and the other loses.
Right off the bat, my 7-year old son piped up with the perfect answer. "One guy gets a medal and gets to feel good about himself and the other guy gets to learn some stuff.  Both win."
I was floored - I mean, I know I have spawned an army of geniuses and all, but seriously!

Patrick Parker

Friday, June 08, 2012

Something special about ukiotoshi

There is something sneaky about ukiotoshi that makes it special...
A while back I was discussing  with some folks about what small group of techniques formed the core of kihon in judo.  For a while I have felt like it is a pretty small set but I havent been able to really pin down whether I think its 9-10 techniques or something like 5-6 techniques.  Well, one of them said that in his opinion and understanding it was more like 1-2 techniques - and the first one was ukiotoshi!
I thought, "Wow! That's probably the one technique I would have picked last for inclusion in a small set of kihon."  I mean, really that's just a curiosity that crops up in the beginning of nagenokata, right?  Just a semi-interesting high-amplitude kata demonstration throw, right?
Well, the more I look at that thing, the more I see there.  For instance...

  • Ukiotoshi is a prime, fundamental demonstration of the otoshi concept - one of only about two distinct throwing mechanics in judo.  There is not all that much that we actually do in judo tachiwaza other than try to otoshi the opponent and if that doesnt work, try to guruma them.
  • Ukiotoshi is the first technique in nagenokata - one of the "randori-no-kata" intended to teach/demonstrate something about randori.  How many of us ever try to throw ukiotoshi in randori?
  • Ukiotoshi is implied within the first technique of goshinjutsu - the modern judo self-defense exercises.  Ever thought about using ukiotoshi in "real self-defense?"
  • In both nagenokata and goshinjutsu, it is the first technique, suggesting it sort of sets the tone or states the theme of the whole kata.
  • Ukiotoshi (by other names) occurs in the koshikinokata and the itsutsunokata - two of the kata that are really supposed to epitomize the ancient roots and foundations of judo.

So, if you think that maybe you ought to give ukiotoshi and the other impossible hand throws another thought or two, here are a couple of excellent resources to begin your research...

Patrick Parker

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Kuzushi in osotogari

Where is the kuzushi in osotogari?  Easy - tilt them on a heel into the back corner - right?  Sorta... Sometimes...
That back corner is often the direction of the offbalance in osotogari, but you remember from my last few posts, kuzushi involves three things; 1) a direction, 2) a point in time, and 3) an unintended action by uke.  Saying that kuzushi in osotogari means tilting them into the back corner ignores the timing aspect of kuzushi and minimizes the unintended action aspect.
BTW - that reminds me of a joke: Q: How many judoka does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  A: 5 - one to fix the bulb and 4 more to say, "That's not how I do it."
Well, anyway, "Tilt uke in the back corner and kick the hell out of his leg" is not how I prefer to do it ;-)  Here's how I like to do it.
Assuming you want to reap his right leg with your right leg, move with uke and watch his right leg.  Anytime he takes a step and that right foot hits the ground, pull with your right hand perpendicular to the line of his feet - a short, sharp tug exactly opposite to the direction you want to throw - enough pull to make him bobble front-to-back, but not enough to make him take much of a step. Then, as uke acts to right his posture against the forward tug, you step in and reap.
So, the offbalance for osotogari (the way I like to do it) looks like...
Timing - the instant the foot you want to reap touches the ground after a step
Direction - tug their lapel or neck forward sharply into the hole.
Unintended Action - uke wanted to take his step and end up balanced.  When you tugged on his lapel, he tilted forward and had to correct backward into your throw.
Sure, this thing throws into the back corner (usually) but that is the kake phase of the throw - not the kuzushi phase.  The kuzushi actually happens in the opposite corner in the front ;-)
Patrick Parker
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