Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Introduction

Normally I don't share the fact that I study martial arts. In a previous post I discussed how some people demand a demonstration hoping to prove you wrong or your martial art ineffective.

Over two years ago, I was out at a social event. I was chatting with a guy that I had met a few times and liked. Somehow it came out that I take Jiu Jitsu. Now, the other thing people do if they're not trying to prove you wrong is say that they want to take martial arts. Normally this desire is gone by the next day or when the booze wears off. I told him he was more than welcome to come for a class. I told him the where and when and left it with him.

I called him the night of the next class. He said he couldn't go for some reason. I told him that was no problem and to call me if he was interested in trying a class. I assumed that was the end of it.

To my surprise, he called me the next week saying he'd like to go. He went and tried his first class. On the ride home, he said he really liked it. We had worked him over pretty good, showing him the effectiveness of Jiu Jitsu. In truth, I wasn't sure he'd come again. Well, he called again and came to another class, and then another. In fact, he didn't miss a class for almost 2 years.

His name is J.C. and he has been faithfully training along side me on my journey ever since.

J.C. is somewhat spiritual in his approach to training. He often sees things in a slightly different perspective than I do. I like the contrast in approach and he has helped me improve and keep an open mind.

J.C. has started his own blog chronicling his thoughts on training and Jiu Jitsu. Check it out at or click the link on the side of my blog.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Realism in training / Being a good Uke

During training, it is very important to practice realistic attacks. If you punch someone and miss or have it blocked, you pull your arm back. At the beginning of our training, the arm is often left out there while you learn your defense. One of the criticisms from the reality based martial arts camp is that traditional martial arts don't always move past this phase.

Once we understand the mechanics of the defense, we need to make sure we account for what the attacker would most likely do. We need to respond instantaneously or use a trapping technique to defend realistically.

What is equally important is what to do when you receive the technique or the defense (being an Uke.) One of the first lessons we learn in Jiu Jitsu is that the body follows pain. To be a good Uke, when a technique is applied to you, be it a strike or joint lock, you need to respond as realistically as possible. If we're punched in the stomach, we need to double over somewhat. If we get poked in the eyes, we need to pull back.

Jiu Jitsu is about redirecting energy and using your opponents force against them. Distraction techniques are used to divert your opponent's attention from what you are about to do. As an Uke, if you don't respond to the distraction, you are doing your partner a disservice. He/she will not respond realistically to you and follow up techniques will be limited. By responding to the softening up or distraction techniques, we force our partner to adapt to where your body would most likely go as a result of their actions.

I'm reminded of skeptics that ask you to do some Jiu Jitsu (or any martial arts) technique on them. You attempt to show them a simple technique and they tense up using every ounce of strength to try to resist it. They look at you with that look that says "See, it doesn't work on me".

Sometimes you try to tell them you'd use a distraction technique or to stop resisting or they'll get hurt. They're usually not listening, believing they've proved it doesn't work.

On one such occasion, I was trying to share a technique with some of my co-workers. One cocky lad was set to prove me wrong. I was demonstrating a reasonably simple technique from a handshake. He was set to crush my hand and I could tell he was convinced nothing would work on him. I looked him in the eye and then kicked him in the shin (not very hard). His attention went to his shin and his face had a look or surprise on it. I easily finished the handshake technique on him, dropping him to his knees. He wasn't hurt, of course, but he was impressed. He now takes martial arts.

In training, we need to respond as realistically as we can, both as the attacker and as the defender.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Traditional Martial Arts vs. Reality Based Systems

This is a hot topic of late. Which is better, traditional arts or reality based? There seems to be an article in every martial arts magazine debating which is better and more effective. The internet is full of material on this hotly contested issue.

Reality based systems are big business. Are they a fad? Are they better than traditional systems?

Let me begin by saying something that I feel is often missed in both camps as they banter back and forth. Traditional martial arts were all reality based. The techniques contained were battle tested. If a technique didn't work, you didn't come home. Pure and simple.

So why the debate? Reality based systems tout that traditional schools are outdated and don't reflect the realities of modern conflict.

Are they right? Sort of.

Traditional martial arts were never called traditional in their day. They were a matter of survival. These systems had to evolve and grow and adapt to new circumstances. Look at Japanese Jiu Jitsu. It contains many joint breaks and throws. Why? Fighting armoured opponents. Attackers were protected from many strikes due to their armour. So combatants learned to target the joints which remained vulnerable for reasons of mobility. This knowledge of leverage and human physiology just so happens to remain relevant today as it is still effective, armour or not.

No system ever said "That's it, we don't ever need any new techniques" They adapted to whatever the reality of the day was.

So if this is true, why the debate?

It all comes down to teaching. I have studied several martial arts over last two decades, and you know what? They all contain techniques that would work in reality. The manner in which they are taught and the mindset of the student is what makes or breaks them.

I think the argument is really which teaching methodology is better.

Critics of traditional systems say that the techniques aren't realistic. When someone throws a punch, they don't leave their arm out there extended while you perform your defense/attack. This is true, of course. What may be missing is the fact that this slower, more exaggerated attack that just hangs out there should only be one part of the learning process. It should be a step to teaching a student the mechanics of a technique. Once the student has learned the basics, the attacker needs to pull back the attacking limb if it is not trapped. It's all about training progressively. The technique speeds up as time goes on, getting more and more realistic. If a traditional school never moves past the 'leave it out there' stage, then the teaching is flawed, not the technique.

I believe the reality based movement is a good thing for the martial arts. They are presenting material and teaching in a more realistic way. Traditional schools are starting to re-discover what already exists in their art.

I have previously shared my views on mindset in the martial arts. No where is this better illustrated than in the battle between traditional and reality based systems.

Reality based systems tend to be purely focused on real attacks. Most reputable instructors have been involved in real world conflict, be it in military, policing or security. Many instructors in the traditional schools have not been. I believe this to be where the main gap between the two exists. This is not to say you have to be a soldier, cop or security officer to teach and practice effective techniques. My Sensei does not come from one of these fields but I have no doubts of his ability to apply his techniques in a real situation. It all comes down to understanding. If one Sensei never really understands a technique or how to adjust it if an opponent zigs when he should have zagged, how can he/she teach it to someone else?

It comes back to mindset. People who seek out reality based instructors are looking for simple, effective techniques that will work on the street.

People who seek out traditional schools may be seeking the same thing, or they may be looking to improve their fitness, or they might like the social aspect, or the uniforms, or their kids might go and they want to share time with them.

All these things can be good, but will they teach you how to survive a violent confrontation? As students, we need to understand our own motivations for taking a martial art.

As for me, I take a reality based traditional martial art. The combination of my teacher, my mindset and the teaching methodology makes it complete. My journey is also about self improvement and seeking inner harmony.

Examine what you want to get out of your training and then find a teacher and a school that provides it.

In the end, traditional systems are actually reality based and reality based systems have traditional roots. So what are we arguing about?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Importance of Randori

Randori, or free practice, is an invaluable tool in the martial arts. It is one of the best ways to measure your progress in the martial arts.

Randori could also be defined as unscripted or spontaneous attack and defense. In our dojo, you stand in the middle of a circle of fellow students. When it begins, one student attacks, you defend. Then the next student attacks and you defend and so on. What makes this unique is that the fellow students choose the attacks. You don't know what's coming. It is here that randori stands out from other practice.

The key is to react right away to each attack, to just do something. It is here that we discover what we have truly absorbed in our training. This can be quite an eye opener.

At first it seems that your technique goes out the window. It's not always a pretty sight. Then again, neither is real combat. You may have learned dozens of defenses against, say a punch or choke, but in the clinch only one or two seem to be there for you. This is actually o.k. The mark of progress is that something was available right away.

You may also find that try as you might not to, you seem to revert back to a few of the same defenses. This is also fine. This means that in a real attack, you will react, not freeze up or hesitate as you search your memory banks for a technique.

Randori should be started slowly and speed up as time goes on and confidence grows. Control is essential as adrenaline does seem to flow for many. The Sensei or senior students need to make sure that the defender is staying in control. After all, in Jiu Jitsu, if you put too much into a technique, bones get broken and people get hurt.

Randori can also be broken down into different pieces. For newer students, randori can be limited to grabs, or punches, or just kicks. As time goes on and experience increases, you can speed it up and open it to any attack.

Randori can be very stressful for some, especially newer students but is one of the best tools for them to gauge their progress.

As you progress, you'll find you have more and more spontaneous reactions to attacks. You don't think about it, you just react.

This state of no-mindedness is called Mushin in Japanese and it is a state we should all strive to attain. When the mind is empty, it is free to respond instantly to any attack.

We should all try to include randori in our training.

Train safely.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Going through the motions

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch a couple of senior martial artists practicing some knife defense techniques. Observing from a distance, I realized that for all their skill, they were just going through the motions. They moved smoothly and quickly, but they clearly weren't 'in the moment'.

It was clear to me that they did not consider the training blade as anything other than that, a training tool. I felt the techniques they were practicing were sound, and I have a lot of reservations about the knife defense techniques being taught today.

The students had skill, the techniques themselves were efficient and effective, but something was missing.

They were just going through the motions.

No matter how good a technique is, no matter what belt you hold, if you don't take it seriously, it won't work. Going though the motions does yourself and your partner a disservice. This really hit home with the knife techniques since in the real world, if a defense doesn't work, it's a matter of life and death.

This isn't to say that you can't have fun in your training. You can and you should. I know I do.

Having said that, it is essential to practice your technique with a serious mind. Make it real and be in the moment.

If you are just going through the motions, you are only playing at the martial arts. If you're only playing, they won't work for you if you need them and you'll get hurt. Or worse.

Enjoy the journey but take it seriously. Who knows, it might even save your life some day.

Friday, April 16, 2010

My Journey - 'Above the Law' and life changing moments - Part 2

I found the dojo tucked away in a worn strip mall. It certainly didn't jump out at you. In fact, if it wasn't for the fogged up windows, I might have missed it. If not for the recommendation of my friend, I probably wouldn't have ever walked through the door. Clearly, not a lot of money was spent on flashy banners, window hangings and the like.

The windows were dripping when I opened the door. A tiny bell chimed as I entered. Shoes were on the floor, lined up. The first thing I felt was energy, positive energy. There were people working hard on the mats. Sweating, grunting and smiling.

Class was in session. I can't remember what they were working on but there was a fair number of students.

I stood watching for a moment until a man in a worn black belt came over. He told someone to take the class and stepped of the mats. I explained that his student had recommended I come in and I was hoping to watch a bit of a class. He was happy to let me do so. He also then offered to do a demonstration to show me a bit more about the style. He explained that it was Jiu Jitsu.

He stepped back on the mats and called over a senior student. For the next 5 minutes, he had his student throw a bunch of different attacks at him. (The fact that he didn't tell his student what kind of attack to use on him didn't mean much to me at the time, but it sure does now. A scripted attack is easy to defend from, multiple unknown attacks are a different story.)

I was in awe. The student attacked his Sensei over and over again. Punches, kicks, grabs, chokes, headlocks, bear hugs, the attacks kept coming. Each time, the Sensei would effortlessly evade, block, strike, or throw the student. He would drop him the the ground without seeming to move, pick him back up and drop him back down again. I felt very much like the character 'Nico' when he was describing his experience at the beginning of 'Above the Law'. (see part 1 of this post)

One thing that immediately registered with me was that what I was seeing was brutal in its efficiency and application. Although perfectly controlled, the Sensei was inflicting lots of pain on his student. Most techniques ended with a lock of some sort or just short of breaking bones. It looked magical but it also looked very real. Full force attacks being countered at full speed.

The student bowed and returned to the rest of the class.

I was blown away. When I mentioned Aikido, the Sensei smiled and explained to me that Aikido was like Jiu Jitsu, but with all the nasty stuff taken out. I chuckle now because this is probably the most apt description of the style of Jiu Jitsu that got me hooked. I have the utmost respect for Aikido and there are many shared techniques in the two martial arts but I have to say that that one sentence summed it all up for me.

The Sensei told me that I was welcome to come in and try a couple of classes for free (something I maintain every dojo should offer) to see if I liked it.

I thanked him for his time and walked out. I was in a different place mentally. I had just seen something that I had begun to think was only possible in the movies. This guy was good. Scary good. He moved like no one I've never seen. I was impressed.

The next several weeks, I thought about what I'd seen. I even came in with a friend again, feigning that she was interested. In truth, I wanted to know if what I'd seen was actually as good as I remember it. I got another demo. It was just as good, maybe better. I had found the real deal.

It is always a nerve racking experience walking into a new club to take your first class. It took me another few weeks before I summoned the courage to do so.

Little did I know that the tiny bell that chimed when I first opened that fogged up door signaled the beginning of a journey that continues today...

Monday, April 12, 2010

My Journey - 'Above the Law' and life changing moments - Part 1

Where did it all start? It may have with watching kung fu movies on the weekends. Terrible production values, lots of cheesy sound effects and dubbed English had me hooked for a short while. As a young lad, I tried Karate for a bit. I didn't really like it. I tried Judo on the advice of my father who had taken it for a while and always liked the concept of using some one's strength against them. I kind of liked it but never stuck with it. As I went from child to teen, I always liked fight scenes and martial arts movies, I even went through the mandatory ninja phase.

I tried a very hard traditional style of Karate again in my teen years. I appreciated the style and those in it, but it never seemed to click with me. These were tough guys and girls and excellent martial artists, but the hours of repetitive stance work, walking drills and single strike work wasn't enough to keep me enthralled. To be clear, I'm not knocking Karate, it just wasn't for me at that time.

Somewhere around 1988-1989, I rented a movie that changed the way I would look at martial arts forever. I rented Above the Law starring the relatively unknown actor Steven Seagal.

I was amazed with the things he was doing. Now I'm not saying it's the best movie ever made, but the martial arts techniques were incredible. They were unlike anything I had seen. They were realistic, done in real time and were brutally effective. I was hooked, rewinding and re-watching the scenes over and over again.

I may have a discussion on Steven Seagal in a future post, but for now I will just say that he was, and likely still is, the real deal.

Back to my story. If you are a martial artist of any style and have not watched Above the Law, you owe it to yourself to do so, if only for the techniques.

In the opening scenes, Nico (Seagal) tells a story that is essentially picked from Seagal's own life, if I'm not mistaken. He talks about being taken to a baseball game as a kid where there was a martial arts demonstration. He says how he was amazed and mesmerized by the way this little old man was effortlessly throwing opponents around. It was life changing and led to his study of Aikido in Japan.

Just watching, I knew there was something else out there and I wanted to know more. I was discussing this with a acquaintance/friend of mine a short time later. I remember scratching my nose as I was talking and being startled as he roundhouse kicked my hand away from my face. I didn't even see it coming. He wasn't trying to hurt me or anything, but it surprised me as I didn't even know he was into martial arts.

It was he that told me about a martial arts club that he went to that taught Jiu Jitsu. He said it had all the good stuff of Aikido plus a lot more (including kicks, as he had demonstrated so eloquently).

He suggested I pop by one night to check it out.

A few weeks later I did.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Headlock - What's old is new again

In addition to exploring counters the other night, we explored the headlock. The good old, fun in the school yard, noogie inducing headlock. We've all done it or had it done to us. We often practice various escapes from it. The other night we examined how to put one on effectively.

I know realize that the childhood staple that I knew so well can be a very dangerous technique if put on correctly. It can damage the neck, cause intense pain and disorientation if done properly. It can also cause unconsciousness.

In my last post, I mentioned that you can discover magic in routine practice. Perhaps I should have said repeated practice.

I discovered a method of turning a rather innocuous headlock into an advanced technique. I had no idea it could be so effective and painful. I often know when I'm missing something in a technique. I'm either working way too hard, I am off balance or I feel open to attack. What rarely ever happens is what happened the other night. I thought I knew how to put a headlock on someone, been doing it since I was a kid. I knew it would be unpleasant for them but realistically I would never make it a go to move. Now I'm not so sure. With the addition of a twist, some facial pressure points and the placement of my hands and wrist bone, this has become a technique that meets my threshold for a usable effective technique. Plus it can be done with gross motor skills when the adrenaline is pumping.

All this from the simple headlock. Not just for kids anymore...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My Journey

I find myself in a rather thoughtful mood tonight. Our last class was different than most. My Sensei sort of turned the class over to us, to discuss and practice what we wished. The conversation and practice turned towards counters to techniques. Sensei has been stressing the importance of breaking down our technique and examining it. By doing so, you discover the strengths and weaknesses of it, or rather the areas of vulnerability in any given technique.

We began with familiar techniques, countered it, then countered that and so on. That's what we tried to do, that is. J.C. and I both blanked somewhat, but eventually the gears started moving and we made some progress.

Both J.C. and I now feel pretty comfortable with several techniques. As good as we get at say, a wrist throw, we are reminded that we can still refine our technique and improve on what we've done hundreds, maybe thousands of times. If that wasn't enough, we now learn that for most techniques we learn, there are up to 5 counters to them. J.C. said it best on the way home, "It's like learning Jiu Jitsu all over again."

That's the thing about this journey. It never ends. Basics can always be improved upon. Once you get really good at a technique, you need to learn the multiple counters. Learning how to counter makes you examine your technique for weaknesses all over again. I suspect this process never ends. You really can discover magic in routine practice.

One wise warrior once told me "Advanced techniques are just the basics done better..."

There might be some truth to that.

Monday, April 5, 2010

UFC thoughts - Spoiler alert UFC 111

I have many opinions on the UFC and mixed martial arts. I think they are the best and worst thing to happen to the martial arts. Having said that, I am, and have always been, a fan. I have watched since the beginning, when there were no time limits, no weight limits and very few rules to speak of. It's come a long way since the early 90's and is a fantastic sport today. In my mind, it is just that, a sport. This is its strength and its weakness. But it is entertaining...

Like many topics, there will later be a longer discussion on the pros and cons of mixed martial arts. For now, I will discuss two fights I watched from UFC 111. St-Pierre vs. Hardy and Mir vs. Carwin.

I missed the event but managed to see both these fights on the internet.

St-Pierre dominated Hardy. I have to say I was very impressed with how well St-Pierre had prepared and fought. He outclassed Hardy, shutting him down at every turn. I felt bad for Hardy, who just wanted to fight but couldn't mount any offense against St-Pierre. Hardy can take a hit, but that's all he could prove that night. St-Pierre was technically superb the whole fight. The fight was great, but it sure was a snoozer. I appreciate how well it was fought but it was boring to watch.

How about Mir vs. Carwin?

I find Frank Mir fascinating. He came out looking fantastic. He's put on muscle and looked tight. I've always felt there are two Frank Mirs. One is nearly unstoppable, technically sound and a force to be reckoned with. The other is some sort of a punching bag. Sadly, he resembled the latter in UFC 111. It seems to me he was not prepared or didn't take Carwin as seriously as he should have. The road back to Brock must be distracting. Maybe Mir only saw Carwin as a bump on the road, but clearly Carwin was prepared to fight it out. Well done Carwin. Your chance against Brock? I don't know.

My prediction? (and you heard it here first). Roy (big country) Nelson takes Brock down. There's just something about a guy who's not that into the elite athlete aspect of UFC and just wants to fight that's appealing. Time will tell.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Missing Classes

A future article will discuss the importance of showing up. So what about when you miss a class? Did you talk yourself out of it? Did something come up unexpectedly? Did you talk yourself out of going?

What about when you are planning on going to class and something intrudes?

Training is precious. Anyone who has been studying for any period of time knows the general malaise that follows when you miss training.

I missed class the other night. I worked all day and was looking forward to going. I was exhausted but had already missed a class earlier in the week due to work (one thing I can't control).

When I got home, I figured I had time for a half hour power nap before I got ready for class. I arrived home to find unexpected guests. They had come by for a visit and waited for me to get home. What to do? Be rude and go, or stay?

I wanted to go. I knew I should stay. I stayed. I called J.C. (you'll be introduced to him shortly) to tell him I wasn't going. He could hear the disappointment in my voice. I asked "How am I going to get new fuel for the blog if I miss class?". He joked that maybe I should write about the depression of missing class.

I'm now rested and looking forward to my next class. I've had to make peace with the fact that life intruded unexpectedly. It happens sometimes. The lesson to take away? Make training part of your life, treat it like any other scheduled event. Treat it the same as a doctor's appointment or work. For the most part, it's time you're unavailable.

When your plans are thrown off, forgive yourself. Do some technique in your mind. Practice kata if you style contains it. Move on, re-commit yourself to training and hit the mats mentally refreshed the next time.

Life can intrude. That's ok. The martial arts are a journey. Consistency is key, not perfection.

A bit of a ramble, but we'll always have to work on balancing our training with our lives.

Food for thought.