Thursday, May 27, 2010

Yielding in the Martial Arts

Yielding is an interesting concept in martial arts, and a challenging skill to master.

One definition of yielding is:

"To give way; to cease opposition; to be no longer a hindrance or an obstacle;"

This definition is what many of us think about when we think of yielding. In the martial arts, however, it means a bit more. To yield is not to give up. Yielding to your opponent's attack means accepting their force and momentum, not meeting it head on. You 'give way' to their attack, you 'cease to oppose it'. By doing this, you can re-direct your opponent's energy, using their own strength and velocity against them.

This is one of the main tenants of Aikido and a big part of Jiu Jitsu as well. Accepting your opponent's attack is difficult. To do so effectively, you need to become one with them. In situations fueled by anger and emotion, it is even harder. For this reason, we need to always strive to have a clear mind during combat, unclouded by negative emotions. When we get angry, we make mistakes.

During training, really focus on accepting your training partner's energy. Think less about the technique itself and feel their energy. Yield to the incoming attack, become one with it and then re-direct it. By doing this, you will find you don't need to concentrate on your timing nearly as much. With consistent practice, it will begin to seem as if you knew what attack was coming before it even came. You will not be waiting for an attack to arrive, you'll be flowing with the energy coming at you, blending with it, then directing it elsewhere.

Watch any Aikido or Jiu Jitsu master and you'll see this in action. They seem to have some form or precognition and their defenses are seamless and effortless. They yield to their opponent's attack but turn it back on them.

By yielding, you can use your opponent's energy against them.

Winning by yielding. Food for thought.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Why do we start taking martial arts?

I remember walking into a dojo when I was quite young. The teacher asked me why I wanted to take the art (I can't remember what art is was). I answered that I wanted to learn how to defend myself, I wanted to know how to fight.

The teacher barked at me telling me that's not why you take the martial arts and told me I wasn't welcome there until I figured our what the right answer was.

Looking back, I think I know what he meant. He was a jerk about it and lost potential business, yes, but there was still something to what he said. Martial arts are about far more than fighting. They are about self control, discipline, perfection of character, building friendships, increasing fitness and so on. This is all very true.

You know what? They're also about fighting.

It's silly for anyone to say this isn't at least one of the top reasons for taking up a martial art. People want to learn how to defend themselves and their loved ones.

It's o.k. to want to learn how to fight. It's not o.k. to want to learn how to beat someone up. There is a big difference. This is where a Sensei or teacher must learn about their student's motivations.

After a period of study, you realize you are actually learning how not to fight. The better you get, the less likely you are to get into an altercation in the first place.

If you know that you can win in a fight, you're far less likely to be goaded into one. When you have confidence in yourself and your technique, you can laugh and walk away from someone who wants to fight you. You have nothing to prove. When you are confident you also carry yourself differently. Confidence and awareness are like bear spray to troublemakers who want to pick fights.

This confidence and being able to walk away as you have nothing to prove shows improvement of character. It shows self control, self discipline and all that other good stuff that comes along with martial arts study. But it all started with learning how to fight.

Martial arts are about violence, fighting and self defense. That's why we all got into it in the first place. It is our motivation for learning and out intended use of this knowledge that matters.

Be safe.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Japanese Jiu Jitsu vs. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu


Type in a search on google for Jiu Jitsu and the majority of hits will come back for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Much of this is due to the popularity of the UFC and the Gracie family of Jiu Jitsu. The Gracies were intimately involved in the birth and evolution of mixed martial arts as a mainstream sporting event.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu burst into the scene in the early nineties. Royce Gracie beat everyone he came up against, forcing martial artists to re-examine their training and the martial arts they studied. This was a good thing. Now ground fighting is at least a component of most martial arts styles.

For some time, BJJ was touted as being the ultimate martial art, essentially unbeatable. We now know that it has its flaws, or perhaps more accurately, its strengths and weaknesses.
In combat, deliberately going to the ground can be extremely dangerous. Without rules, rings, time limits and referees, choosing to fight on the ground is foolhardy.

I have read that 80, 85, 90 or 95% of fights end up on the ground. Those are pretty alarming statistics. You know what they say about stats? There are lies, dirty lies and statistics. You can pretty much find statistics to support any position you take, positive or negative.

Where are these numbers taken from? What is classified as a fight? You need to know this information to make any sort of conclusion.

The majority of these stats are taken from security, law enforcement and the military. After all, what other groups actually record altercations? Knowing this, does a fight going to the ground mean both combatants go to the ground? In policing, when there is a struggle or fight, officers are trained to take the person to the ground in order to control them and handcuff them safely. The officer isn't fighting on the ground, but the bad guy (or girl) ends up there. In this case, would this be one of the stats saying that the fight went to the ground? That could be quite misleading. If you perform a throwing technique, is this now classified as a fight that went to the ground? A wrist throw, a trip, a choke? As with so many things, it's important to source information. If 95% of fights happened on the ground, there wouldn't be the need for other martial arts.

I train not to go to the ground. If I'm taken down, I train to get back up as quickly as possible. If I can't get up quickly, then I fight on the ground. I never choose to fight on the ground but I realize the necessity to learning how to if I find myself there. It is because of this that I believe we all owe a debt to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It has made martial artists more complete.

Many people outside of or new to the martial arts don't realize that there is a far older form of Jiu Jitsu out there, one that stemmed from feudal Japan.

Japanese Jiu Jitsu goes back generations. While BJJ is essentially a new style, JJJ has lived and evolved for hundreds of years.

Japanese Jiu Jitsu is what I consider to be a complete martial art. It has weapons training, long range fighting, close quarter combat and ground fighting. Always has. It focuses on all ranges of combat. It takes longer to learn than some other styles, but in the end, it churns out more complete fighters, comfortable in all ranges.

Now I'm the first to admit that someone who trains exclusively in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would have the edge in ground fighting. After all, it's their speciality. I'll also admit I wouldn't want to trade punches with an experienced boxer. What I do have is options. This is a strength of Japanese Jiu Jitsu. It teaches you to adapt to your opponents.

JJJ continues to evolve. It changes with the times. It's rooted in time tested techniques that kept people alive in the battlefield and when confronted with armed opponents. It's flexible and adapts to changing circumstances and environments.

All martial arts are good. As mentioned in a previous post, the best martial art is the one you like to study. I have the utmost respect for different martial arts and martial artists. I have seen fierce and dangerous warriors in dozens of different styles.

It's important to note that no martial is limited to only one area of study. BJJ players don't only train on the ground. Tae Kwon Do practitioners don't only kick. Judo folks don't just throw etc.

Japanese Jiu Jitsu is sometimes referred to as traditional Jiu Jitsu, stand up Jiu Jitsu, small circle Jiu Jitsu, or just Jiu Jitsu. While JJJ and BJJ share many techniques, there are significant differences between the styles. It is important to know this when considering studying either one.

I study JJJ as a reality based martial art. If reality is what you're training for, make sure the style you take focuses on real combat. If you're training for the ring, you may find yourself in a rough spot if you find yourself on the street.

Ask questions, research and learn. Above all, enjoy your training.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bad Business, Fake Black Belts and the Internet

The Internet has really changed the business of martial arts. It provides fantastic access to a variety of styles. It provides information, opinions and videos of martial arts in action. I often spend spare time searching various martial arts topics. The Internet has provided me the opportunity to share this blog. I'm a big fan.

The Internet is one of the easiest ways for a budding artist to find a school, club or dojo in their area. It's great for clubs to showcase their style and provide information on their art and their qualifications.

As with anything, buyer beware. I've noticed lots of websites where the instructors list black belts in multiple styles, sometimes in to the double digits.

How is this possible? How can an instructor in his/her 30's, 40's or even 50's have gained that many degrees?

I'm not suggesting that there aren't qualified instructors out there with multiple black belts, but earning black belts takes years and years of intense training.

So how does it happen? Bad business and give away belts, that's how.

A Sensei whose skill and experience I highly respect shed some light on the subject. He sometimes posts videos on the Internet of seminars, demonstrations and special events for his dojo. This is available to all and is a great showcase of his art and a training tool to his students and other viewers. He received an envelope in the mail. It was postmarked from overseas. Inside was an "official" certificate promoting him to a 2nd degree black belt in a style he had never taken. The certificate was sent from a self proclaimed master that wanted to be issued a black belt certificate in return, to 'beef' up his credentials. The Sensei I know had chuckled and threw the package away but told me that it's not an uncommon situation.

That 'master' from overseas likely has a whole bunch of black belt rankings listed on his website.

This is a sad state of affairs. It is made more unfortunate for anyone starting out. How is a new person starting out supposed to know that the website that lists an instructor having one or two black belt rankings is likely far superior to one that lists a dozen?

Any belt or any rank should be earned. If it's not, it's not worth the paper it's written on or the dye in the belt. This phenomenon of trading belts and rankings essentially sight unseen over the Internet is disturbing.

When searching for a school or instructor, ask lots of questions. Legitimate teachers won't mind and will provide lots of information about their qualifications and any rankings they may hold. They are proud of their accomplishments and their teachers and won't hesitate to share this information. Source what they tell you.

My Sensei would list only one style. He has incorporated aspects of some internal arts into his Jiu Jitsu teaching. He has spent over 3 decades learning, teaching and perfecting his art. If he had a website, he would only list the one black belt (albeit a high degree black belt). It is my fear that in this world of 'more is better' and shifty fake belts, potential students might be drawn to a school that lists the instructor as having mastered 15 styles.

It takes a lifetime to truly master an art, so do your homework.

I believe it was Bruce Lee who said "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

Use the Internet to your advantage. It contains vast amounts of great information on martial arts. Remember though, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Awareness - The greatest technique of all...

The other day I was approached by a woman and her young daughter. This mom wanted to know if the area that she was in was safe, as she had an appointment for her daughter nearby.

Given the time of day and the local businesses, I answered yes, but told her to still pay attention to what was going on around her.

This encounter reminded me of what is often taught in women's self defense courses. The single most important way to increase your safety is to be aware of your surroundings. Of course, it's silly to only teach this to women, as it applies equally to anyone interested in self protection, man or woman.

From personal experience, the majority of incidents involving violence and victimization could have been avoided if the victim was more aware of their surroundings.

Most criminals who prey on others are lazy. If they weren't, they'd probably go get jobs. The easy score is what's on their minds.

When a criminal is selecting a victim, they are looking for people who aren't confident and who aren't paying attention to what's going on around them. They will wait for someone that is shuffling along, eyes cast downwards or someone that is oblivious, talking on a cell phone or texting and walking. Most criminals try to surprise their victims.

So, if a criminal sees someone, man or woman, walking along confidently and with purpose, looking around and paying attention, they take a pass. It's far easier to wait for the easy score. This is also why you should locate your car keys in advance of arriving at your vehicle. I've seen it too many times where someone has been attacked or robbed when they're standing at the door of their car searching for their keys.

The single greatest thing anyone can do is to be aware. A criminal that knows you're aware of them is far far less likely to try to make you a victim.

One caveat. There are times when rotten things happen to good people no matter what they do. You can do everything right and still find yourself in a nasty situation, but 9 times out of 10, you can avoid or minimize it by being aware.

Future posts will discuss more strategies for avoiding becoming a victim, but if there was only one lesson or one thing I could teach anyone, it would be to pay attention.

Be aware. Stay safe.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Point sparring and training methods

Point fighting and sparring can be a lot of fun. It teaches timing, angles, footwork, breathing, blocking and striking. It's a great workout and adds a dynamic training experience not always found in other areas of the martial arts.

These are the obvious benefits.

A word of caution though. Point sparring should only be one part of dynamic training. The danger lies in doing too much of this one type of sparring. If we become accustomed to getting a point and the ref stopping it, we program ourselves to stop after landing a technique.

One of the truths in the martial arts is that you will fight as you train. This is the reason we tap when a technique is applied. If you said 'Ouch!' or 'Stop!' instead, you'd train your subconscious to release when a real opponent cried out. This is why it is also important not to release a technique completely when your partner taps. Just back off on the pressure or technique but remain in control, able to increase the pressure again if needed.

Point sparring is great, but you need to include other forms of dynamic training. In our club we do what we call continuous Jiu Jitsu. One person throws, grabs, strikes or kicks and the other defends, then without a break the original attacker has to respond to the defense.

Another excellent tool is to start in a more traditional sparring situation. Instead of stopping when a point is landed, have it lead into technique. This method teaches all ranges of combat and more accurately depicts how a real encounter might happen. You start at long range and practice how to go from someone attacking you at distance to moving in and taking control and striking, throwing, applying a joint lock, or doing a take down. You cover the long range, medium, close combat and ground fighting. The key to this is not to have preset attacks and defenses.

This is similar to Randori, which is another extremely important training method that includes multiple attackers. See my previous post on this topic here.

All types of training are good. As with so many things in martial arts and life, finding balance is key. Know what you're trying to accomplish with your training and make sure you have a mix of different experiences. Learn from each different training method and realize their strengths and weaknesses.

Generally, the more rules there are, the less combat effective the training is.

One of the best things I read (and I can't remember where or I'd give credit) was a Sensei that told his students "We don't train for tournaments, we use tournaments to train." This showed me that the Sensei understood the value and the weaknesses of this type of training.

I'll say it again, you will fight as you train. So make sure you training remains focused on your ultimate goal, whatever that may be.

Train smart, train effectively.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Coloured Belt System - The Bad

In a previous post, I discussed what is good about the coloured belt system practiced in most martial arts today. See the article here.

That post mentioned that the belt system removed pre-existing class or social distinctions. That is a definite plus. Unfortunately, the belt system actually creates an all new dynamic. Will a blue belt take advice or constructive criticism from a yellow belt on a technique? A brown belt from a white? We'd all like to think that we're enlightened enough to keep an open mind, but in truth are we really able to do so? I mean, if you've paid your dues and put in your time, aren't you the more qualified of the two?

When I returned to training with my first Sensei on my current journey and donned a white belt for the first time in many years, it was an interesting experience. I trained for over a year without any mention of belt colour. In fact, it wasn't until other students joined that it came up at all. I didn't really care about belt colour, but it was necessary for me to be given a coloured belt to differentiate me from beginners. Without this, new students might have felt that they weren't catching on fast enough, comparing themselves to another white belt. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing.

Coloured belts can be a money grab in some clubs. I've noticed that a bunch of styles now have lots of different coloured belts. My particular style has white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black. From what I've seen, this is a fairly traditional progression. I've now seen purple, pink, grey, any number of stripes and checkered patterns. In most, not all, there is a cost for testing for each new level. If these progressions are used as motivators for students, that's great. If it is to generate more money, that's a problem. Don't get me wrong, I have no issue with people running quality clubs and trying to make a profit. I do have a problem with people who charge money for 3 stripes per belt and create new belts to charge more and more to students.

Another difficulty is student jealousy. What if two people start training together at the same time? They each train twice a week. One learns faster than the other. Come grading time what happens? What happens to the student who either isn't tested or doesn't make it? Do they think they've failed? Do they quit? What if they both get tested and make it but one is clearly ahead of the other? Does the more advanced martial artist then feel the system is unfair?

Each person learns and progresses at a different rate. Some of the finest martial artists I know have struggled over the years. Often the people with the most raw talent aren't the ones who stick with it and persevere.

One last issue is with cross-training. If you attend a seminar, who do you get to work with? Belts tend to get paired with other belts of similar levels. Sometimes, different techniques are taught to different belts. This is often a good thing, the techniques being aimed at people with the necessary skill and control to carry them out. So does the white belt with 15 years experience get to learn the more advance technique or is he/she seated at the kids table?

I have made it very clear that we can all learn from everyone, but there are times when experience level may/should make a difference.

The coloured belt system clearly has it's good points and it's bad points. As with so many things in life, it's all about finding balance. The belt system can be a good thing or a bad thing. It can be used to motivate and to remove outside influences or it can be used to make money and create false or unnecessary barriers between students.

You've probably already heard the saying that a belt is only meant to hold your pants up. We can never lose sight of the fact that the true goal of martial arts is self-improvement. The colour of your belt only tells part of the story.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Training with injuries

I was reading one of J.C.'s posts about pain and dealing with injuries and it got me thinking. See his article here.

Anyone who has trained for an extended period of time has likely suffered from and struggled to deal with some sort of injury. Managing injuries becomes part of our training. No matter how careful you are, if you train hard, from time to time you'll get hurt.

It's difficult to train with an injury. We want to keep training, but we also don't want to aggravate an injury or hurt ourselves further.

Usually we are our own worst enemies.

Does this sound familiar? You have an injury. You tell your Sensei about it. Your Sensei instructs you not to do anything that aggravates it. You agree. Class starts. You start training and all of a sudden you find yourself doing things that you know aren't good for your injury.

Why do we do this? I think it's because we don't want to be labelled that guy (or girl) who stands off to the side while everyone else trains hard. In truth, I imagine we build this up in our own minds. Personally, I've never felt this way about someone else if they're injured, but for some reason when I'm injured I feel like all eyes are on me. The rational part of my mind tells me it's silly, but the not so rational part still makes me think I shouldn't be off to the side. I'm pretty much over this now but it's taken a bunch of years and a bunch of nagging injuries to come to this point.

Years ago, I had injured my shoulder in training. For several days I couldn't raise my arm. I knew enough to take a couple weeks off training. In my late teens or early twenties, this would likely have been enough to heal up but as you get older, weeks turn into months. I returned to training and told the Sensei about my injury. He did as expected and told me not to do anything that hurt. The class was doing rolls and break fall drills. I stood off and watched. No problem. I took part later on where I could. The next week in class I was standing off and the Sensei said, "Oh, are you still injured?" Sadly, he said it in such a way that I felt he either didn't believe it or that he felt I should be taking part. Now it's possible he didn't mean either of these things but it had a significant impact on me. Because of this I didn't go back until I was nearly healed. I missed out on a bunch of training as a result of an insensitive comment.

I mention this to illustrate just how much of an impact the words of a Sensei have on their students.

A good Sensei won't let you aggravate your injury. He/she won't let you take part in activities that will likely hurt you further.

One of the greatest things my Sensei does for me is not to let me do too much when I'm hurt. He pays attention to my physical condition and knows about any injuries. He watches me and on several occasions has made me stop doing something that he knows will make things worse.

This does two important things. #1. It stops me from injuring myself further. #2. It stops me from feeling like I'm not doing enough. Being told out loud not to do something stops you from feeling like you've let the class down. It also reminds your training partners of your injury, increasing your safety in the class.

My Sensei works with me on how to adjust techniques to compensate for injuries. From this I've learned that it's possible to improve while injured. I had a hand injury once so we focused on one handed techniques. It's very possible in a real confrontation that you could lose the use of a hand or limb. Being forced to improvise has enormous benefits in training.

Always train hard. Know when to stop. Find a Sensei that supports you and is sensitive to your condition.

Train safely and have fun.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coloured Belt System - The Good

There are several benefits of the belt ranking system used in most martial arts today.

One is that it gives you shorter term goals to work towards. It can also be used to make sure you are on track with your training, a measuring stick of sorts. Most people respond to this effort = award model.

One thing that I have always liked about the belt system is that it encourages respect for others, regardless of social standing. People from all walks of life study martial arts. The belt system removes all that outside 'stuff'. It doesn't matter if you are a neurosurgeon, a soccer mom, a cop or the CEO of a major company, you show respect to others for their knowledge and skill in the chosen art. The millionaire takes instruction from the out of work artist. This dynamic is rarely found in other walks of life.

Whether or not it's true, you also have to like the idea that the coloured belt system came about from martial artists studying an art for so long that their white belt darkened from years of hard work, sweat and tears. By the time your white belt turned black, you were a master.

That's a brief look at what's good about the belt system. In a future post, I'll discuss what's not so good.

See here for the bad

Train safely.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Ego is one of the biggest problems in the martial arts today. The minute we start thinking that our style is the best or that we're better than others, we stop learning. This is not to say that we shouldn't be proud of our accomplishments, but we always need to keep an open mind.

We can, and should, learn from every person we meet. It doesn't matter what style they study. And it doesn't matter how long they've been doing it.

One time I was working with a brand new student. We were doing a technique where he was attacking and I was defending. His attack got through and I missed with the defense. I remember thinking, "He attacked wrong." Attacked wrong? What does that mean?!?

Whether or not it was ego, I had to check myself. He didn't do anything wrong. He attacked me in an unexpected way, not in the way I would do it, and it worked. I learned from the experience and even experimented with what he did when I was attacking.

We can all learn from everyone we meet, regardless of style or experience.

It is only when we let go of ego that we improve.