Friday, August 31, 2012

Compassion integral to aikido?

For the past several days I've been watching an intriguing series of videos by LA aikido teacher Corky Quakenbush (do a search on YouTube for "kakushitoride" to find his channel).  My first thought was something along the line of "hippie nutjob," but the more I watched the more I moderated that opinion to something like, "Sorta cool, but I wouldn't like to do that sort of aikido."  But funny thing - I can't stop watching it and thinking that there is something significant there that I am not understanding.

I think part of my negative gut reaction is some of his terminology.  He talks a lot about "beneficient intention" and "connecting" and "loving" and "giving" and "caring,"  and a lot of that strikes me as code-words used by aiki-charlatans who can talk a nice game but can't do the bu.  I don't think this guy is a charlatan, but some of the language just sets off my BS meter.

But then I got to thinking about, what is it about me and my own psychology that makes me flinch away from talk about beneficient intention?  I mean, as Christians, we're supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mat 5:44). So why is it such a stretch to think that a martial art that I know as efficient and effective and pragmatic can also include as one of its prime characteristics, compassion?

I remember reading many years ago some of the standard propoganda about SMR Jodo that said that jo was an art of chastising rather than killing.  I remember thinking, "That's a nice idea.  Kinda wimpy and flaccid, but nice," and then proceeding to do jo for years imagining cracking and breaking and stabbing and smashing.  Then I went to a seminar recently in which Sensei Corey Comstock discussed and demonstrated why jo was supposed to be a restraining thing rather than a destroying thing.  I was impressed because Sensei Comstock was the first person that I'd seen both articulate this idea and actually show how it made jodo work better than it would as a destroying thing.  Comstock's restraining, compassionate jo was obviously more effective than any destroying jo that I'd ever seen.

There is also a story about Jigoro Kano taking a trip on a ship and being chalenged by a Russian sailor.  Kano, so the story goes, grappled and threw the sailor decisively, but then fearing for the sailor's life if he were to hit the deck, protected the sailor's head as he lowered him to the deck.  We (I) don't usually think of the "gentle" aspect of Ju this way, but there is an element of compassion in judo, without which judo would not be as effective.

Then there's our great buddy, JW Bode.  He was a Law Enforcement Officer for many moons and ended up making hundreds of felony arrests without ever being hurt - but what he is more proud of - without ever hurting anyone.  The story goes that he developed such a reputation for his efficient, effective, safe, and compassionate handling of subjects, that frequently, people would find out that there was a warrant out for their arrest, they would call him to come get them so they wouldn't have to get beat up by some other yahoo.  I can attest, having laid hands on JW, that he is always in complete control of the situation, and that a big part of that control feels like love or compassion.

I bet, given a couple of hours I could come up with several more examples of how compassion is an integral part of pragmatic martial aikido - true budo.
So why do Sensei Quakenbush's discussions and demonstrations of "beneficient intention" make me flinch?  That's why I told several of my buddies a few days ago that I would really like to lay hands on Sensei Quakenbush so that I could feel his feel.
Patrick Parker

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tomiki-inspired aiki-knife practices

I've been thinking about knives a good bit lately - particularly in the context of aikido.  Tomiki sensei, the guy whose training system we ostensibly follow, must have thought that the knife was pretty important in aikido.  He implemented knife randori as a central feature of our training, and he (or maybe his successor)put several knife-taking and knife-using techniques in the more advanced kata.

But for a while now, I have thought that Tomiki's aiki-knife material must have been an incomplete thought.  It appears to me to be a good starting point, but mostly nobody ever goes beyond that starting point.

Turns out that I'm not the only one that is thinking similar thoughts.  Several of the sensei that I have interacted with in the past year or so have stated similar observations and have mentioned that they have undertaken to broaden our aiki-knife practice beyond Tomiki's starting point that he left us.  The really interesting point is that we have undertaken this project in slightly different ways.

One instructor I talked to this summer said that his students (almost all military and law types) complained that the Tomiki knife stuff was simply useless bullshit (as we practice it).  So he undertook a year or so of stress-testing of the Sankata knife material in some resistive randori and he took their findings and fed them back into the kata in an attempt to make the kata training more viable.  He was obviously pleased with his results and you know what was really interesting - when he showed me their kata modifications they were very similar to some of my ideas from about 6 years ago!  Nice validation of both his and my ideas.

I was talking with a different sensei about aiki-knife and his assertion seemed to be that to get better aiki-knife practice we needed to improve our understanding of how blades work and how to use them in an aiki-fashion.  So he developed a training system that (if i understand correctly) places the knife in tori's hand and teaches tori how to do his tori-thing with a knife.  I have it on good authority that this sensei's aiki-knife material is exceptional.

Another sensei mentioned recently that he and his students were embarking on a prolonged project of developing a toshu randori system where the uke has the knife and tori is empty-handed.  This would differ from the standard basic Tomiki knife practice in that uke would not be constrained to thrusts only  but would be allowed to cut and slash - a practice that was heretofore limited to kata practice. I like the idea and i am sure that this sensei's knife randori practice will be a fruitful training method.

My take on aiki-knife most recently has been two-fold.  I figure that if we are going to do aiki-knife then it should abide by the same principles and guidelines as the empty-hand aiki that we are used to.  So, I have taken a fairly extensive list of aiki principles/ideas that was compiled a few years ago by a very high-ranked sensei and Ive been discussing them with my martial buddies with specific respect to their application to stick and blade - what does each aiki principle have to do with jo or blade?

Also, in my physical practices, I have adopted a knife training  system from Arnis master, Bram Frank.  Bram's modular knife system is a very exceptional training system quite similar to some of our renzoku practices.  This modular knife system puts a knife in uke's and in tori's hand so that both partners are simultaneously learning to attack and defend with a blade. An additional benefit of this system is that the motion and muscle memory translates directly to empty-hand so that it remains functional even if tori is unarmed.

I think that it is super-interesting that we four have come to similar conclusions (mostly independently) and that our approaches are all somewhat different but that they dovetail together so nicley.  I am looking forward to seeing what our collective Tomiki-inspired aiki-knife becomes!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Minimal power and power-in-reserve

In learning a throw, once you can achieve a recognizable effect that you can identify as that particular technique...
There is a tendency to add more power in order to try to make more amplitude or a harder landing or in order to accelerate the take-off.  But often the added power spoils the effect.  So, what to do?  Once you can make a throw go pretty good, how do you improve it?
Hint: this is Ju-do.  (even if you happen to be calling it aikido, it's still ju-do.)  Try this:
Once you can achieve an effect that is recognisable as a certain throw, try reducing the power until you cannot make the throw work anymore.  Then increase the power until you can make the throw again.  In this way, you can find the minimum power that you have to have to make the throw work.
You want to practice in and around this minimum-power level. Over time, as you get better, you will find that what you thought was minimum power is too much power and you will be able to reduce power again.  Resist the urge to add power for more effect - instead, reduce power while trying to get the same effect!
If this sort of practice makes you feel like you are doing wimpy-jutsu, then instead of thinking about it as throwing with minimum power, think about it as holding more and more of your power in reserve in case of an emergency - as developing a bigger and bigger hammer to drop on the opponent when your low-power throw does not work. :-)

Patrick Parker

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Filling in the corners

I got an interesting compliment from a brown belt student a while back.

Regarding why we place so much emphasis on the white and yellow-belt  material, he told the class, "I haven't learned any new throws since about yellow or green belt!"  That's not to say that he has stagnated since green belt - just the opposite!  He has seen all the material up to about shodan level and he has tried it and can do it just fine - because we spent so much time and attention to the white and yellow-belt material.

Everything after green belt is just minor tweaks or modifications of angle or timing.  The most important core of judo, we teach at white and yellow belt, and it sets the foundation that makes the rest of the syllabus almost trivial.

That is also not to say that you can do 9 months or so of judo and get a green belt and be done.  While you will definitely have the foundation by then, you will still need to learn how to properly make those tweaks and modifications to the core principles in real-time with a live opponent - and that is what you spend the rest of your lifetime in judo doing - filling in the corners!
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