Friday, April 27, 2012

Tradition vs. Reality?

The Strongest Karate (check out his blog here) left a comment on my last post that go me thinking.  The comment was in reference to my assertion that before you could discard a technique, you really need to learn it first.  It’s in the same vein as Bruce Lee’s ideas on ‘keep what is useful, discard what is not’, a central concept in his vision of Jeet Kun Do.

The Strongest Karate said the following:

"Very informative post. 

You make the distinction that one must understand a technique fully before they can decide whether it is useful or not. I agree with this, but it does present us with a problem: one may have to practice every technique 10's of thousands of times before they really understand it and, regrettably, our lifetimes just aren't long enough. 

This, I suppose, is why the arts are passed down the generations, but then I run the risk of throwing away a technique that wasn't useful to me (due to size/strength/injuries/other limitations) but would be perfectly suited for someone else. "       

I agree with him.  We can’t master every technique before deciding to keep it or throw it away.  My concern is that many martial artists are too quick to throw something away.  If it didn’t go right, or it was hard, or it felt awkward or they simply weren’t good at it the first couple times, they throw it away, citing the ‘keep what is useful, discard what is not’ mantra.  Doing this without at least exploring it to discover a deeper understanding is a mistake. 

I’ve had serious doubts about the usefulness of techniques that I initially learned.  At the time I was convinced they’d end up in the mental trash bin.  I continued to work on them when required by syllabus or by Sensei.  Over time, some of these have become some of my preferred techniques.  Had I discarded them at the outset, I would have denied myself several valuable tools.  It took exploring the mechanics, the application and the variations to give me enough insight to determine their value. 

This brings me to the next point touched on in the comment.

“This, I suppose, is why the arts are passed down the generations…”

Good point.  To a degree, we must have faith in our art and our teachers.  This is not to suggest we should blindly follow without thought or question, but if you’ve managed to find a good teacher of high skill and character, you must accept a degree of the teachings as being valuable, even if not immediately apparent.  

This leads me into one of the powerful arguments in favour of keeping the tradition in traditional martial arts (TMA).  With a move towards the next reality based system (RBS) and the increasing popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA), we run the risk of losing what it took hundreds of years to learn, a comprehensive and complete system of effective, battle tested techniques. 

I’m saying this over genuine concern that with each new generation, we are increasingly getting ‘watered-down’ versions of what were once truly combat arts, or martial systems.  I’m not slamming MMA or RBS; I’m actually a fan of both, for different reasons.  What I am saying is that when you strip away large portions of a TMA’s system in favour of a ‘quicker-fix’ or rules based system, valuable history can be lost.

Not everyone is pursuing TMA for the long haul, and this is fine.  RBS and MMA are viable and effective options, each with their own focus and value. 

A significant challenge for teachers is to maintain and teach techniques that they may not feel are overly effective, for them, at least.  A technique that doesn’t work particularly well for one, due to height, weight, gender, flexibility, health etc. may be perfect for someone else.  So must a teacher maintain a group of teachings and techniques that they wouldn’t necessarily use themselves.  

What I fear is that martial artists, who start in TMA, but too quickly discard ‘not yet fully understood’ techniques in favour of a less traditional method, end up being the next generation of instructors in the martial arts.  This if fine if their instruction is confined to RBS or MMA, but it is an insufficient knowledge base to teach anything else.  You either have TMA systems not being passed down with the historical knowledge and understanding, essentially fizzling out, or you get unqualified people teaching an incomplete system.  Both are equally troubling to me.

You can see this all over the place.  It’s one of the reasons finding a good qualified teacher can be so challenging.  Many people, who I consider to be masters, are giving up on teaching.  I suspect this is due, in no small part, to society’s ‘quick-fix’ mentality.  The ‘now generation’ want it fast, and want it easy.  While I agree a training environment needs to be comfortable and respectful, too many students want to be coddled in their pursuit of a shiny belt.  The faster the better, and don’t make it too hard… 

I’m not a fan of some of the ‘old school’ methods of training that resulted in unnecessary injuries, but by and large, many students have ‘gone soft’ and are loath to experience pain or discomfort at the hands of a serious teacher or in training.  Sadly, the schools that provide a ‘no touch’ position on training are attracting a large student base.  This is also problematic for new students who don’t know any better.  Again, for fitness, fun and camaraderie, this is all fine, but for those seeking skills to protect themselves and their loved ones from real violence, they come up short.

I’m all for kid’s martial arts programs.  They build confidence, discipline, self control, and the kids have fun and develop social skills while getting fit.  It’s tough to be critical of any of that.  What I do have an issue is when the only real difference you see between the ‘kiddie-class’ and the adult class is the age of the participants.  

Obviously, I have strong opinions on the topic.  This is because I believe that TMA are just that, traditional martial arts born on the battlefield.  Tried and true techniques tested in (often) life or death situations and real combat.

Perhaps ironically, the state of mainstream martial arts may be feeding the problem, or causing what I see as the decline of good TMA.  If students taking watered down martial arts are critical in their thinking, they may seek out a RBS to get real combat skills.  Or they may be attracted to MMA, which, for all its faults as a true combat art, does incorporate real and hard training against resisting opponents.  A hands-on sport based style can be better than a hands-off McDojo.

So, if students are creating a market for real combat skills development, they may naturally find themselves seeking out RBS.  And if qualified TMA teachers are frustrated with the business of martial arts or the desires of mainstream or ‘soft’ students, they may naturally find themselves instructing a RBS program. 

This can be good but also creates the very situation that I see as the problem.  When the TMS turned RBS teacher stops teaching, the next generation is only left with what was taught in the RBS.  Lost then, possibly forever, is the more comprehensive, and complete TMA system. 

So you either get TMA schools teaching watered down versions of a combat art and subsequent teachers who don’t have a complete understanding of the original art and its application or you get branched-off RBS systems which miss out on the larger body of work.

I’ve done a pretty good job identifying the problem.  The harder part is coming up with the solution.

If your goals of learning go beyond just the down and dirty of a RBS (which is valuable and more than sufficient for many), find a good TMA instructor and stick with him/her and the art.  Give the system and the techniques a chance before making any rash decisions about their worth.   Ultimately, I agree with the concept of discarding what is not useful.  Just make sure you’ve done enough of the work to make that assessment.  And, as always, keep an open mind.

Train safely.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Meditations on Aikido

I've got Aikido on the brain.  Here's some of my opinions on this fascinating art.


My last post touched upon the effectiveness of Aikido.  I’ve always been a fan of good Aikido and it’s been a significant influence on my own martial journey.  In many ways, the early movies of Steven Seagal kicked off my fascination with this type of art, and in no small way helped lead me to my now two-decade study of Jiu Jitsu.

Each time I post on Aikido, I invariably come across great videos of Aikido in action.  I also come across some not-so-great examples.

In many ways, I believe Aikido is one of the least understood arts out there. 

Morihei Ueshiba founded this style as part martial art, part philosophy on life.  More accurately, it was his vision of peace and harmony that contained martial elements. 

I am speaking in general terms, as I am in no way an expert on the art and its history.  I am, after all, first and foremost a student of Jiu Jitsu.  Having said that, it can be argued that Aikido came from Jiu Jitsu.  Morihei Ueshiba was a student of many martial arts, notably Aiki Jiu Jitsu, or Jiu Jitsu (personally I see these two titles as interchangeable), before he founded Aikido.

If you accept or agree that Aikido is as much a belief system, or philosophy on living and harmony as it is on a combat skill, there’s little wonder why the quality and nature of its instruction can vary so greatly.

From my perspective, no matter how noble one’s motivations are in a martial art, there still needs to be an understanding that you are learning how to engage in combat.  Even if your ultimate goal is to avoid conflict or violence (which it should be), you are gaining the fighting ability and skills to build the confidence to walk/get away. 

To my mind, it is very much a case of “Si Vis pacem, para bellum” – If you wish for peace, prepare for war

My major issue with the state of Aikido today?

A lack of understanding of the combat applications of the techniques.

Aikido, being a system based on the concepts of peace and harmony, a system in which many techniques are designed to ‘not’ injure your opponent (or to minimize injury) can be quite challenging.

Where I think some of the problems lie is with an incomplete knowledge base of techniques that actually cause damage and injury.  As I mentioned, Morihei Ueshiba was a student of Jiu Jitsu long before he founded Aikido.  He knew lots and lots of nasty techniques capable of causing extreme injury.  From this knowledge base, he worked on moderating, or adapting his techniques to be more in line with his belief system. 

I once heard Aikido described as Jiu Jitsu with all the nasty stuff taken out.  While not completely accurate (there’s still lots of nasty stuff in Aikido), it does have a kernel of truth.

A while back, I discussed the paradox of the martial arts and how in order to keep what is useful and discard what is not (a central component of Bruce Lee’s philosophy on martial arts); you first have to properly learn the technique before throwing it away.  If you only have a partial understanding of a technique in the first place, how can you know if it’s of value or not?  So you have to learn it before you can un-learn it.  Read the original post here for more details.

My theory, [once again, these are based on the general trends I have seen and don’t apply to all schools and teachers], is that the original knowledge base or understanding of the ‘original’ techniques from which much of Aikido has been based or adjusted/adapted from is not robust enough.  Some have even forgotten that atemi, or disruptive strikes were very much a part of Aikido.

The less injurious techniques of Aikido are very much a choice of the practitioner when applied.  The skilled student of Aikido chooses not to hurt their opponent, but this is not to suggest that they couldn’t. 

This is an important point to consider and an area that I suspect may be part of the problems that I see.

If you never learn the ‘nastier’ stuff, it is more challenging to fully understand how and what it is that you are doing.  I’d far rather know how to do more damage and then choose to do less than be unsure what options were available if the situation forced me to consider a more severe response. 

This applies to all combat arts, by the way, not just Aikido.

So, if a teacher lacks the depth of knowledge, so too will the student suffer.

As for students, who is attracted to Aikido?  Could the type of person who is drawn to Aikido play a role in the understanding and application of effective technique?

People are drawn to Aikido for a variety or reasons.  Some are drawn to it more for the technique and some more for the philosophical aspects.  For most, it is a combination of both.  Either way it is a worthwhile pursuit.

I would suggest that the motivation of the student directly affects the combat effectiveness of the techniques.  Not every student, or teacher for that matter, wishes to learn the dark side of Aikido, focusing far more on the intrinsic value of the “way of harmony”. 

I’m ok with that, but it can water down an art into a far less effective option for dealing with real violence. 

Ideally, you should be striving for both harmony and martial skill.  One without the other compromises the study of this fascinating art.  Aikido is a martial art of contrast.  It is this very contrast which makes me such a fan. 

When you find a teacher who has the knowledge of the nasty but the mindset of the peaceful warrior, you get something very special indeed.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Aikido's too soft...?

This post started with me working on a piece about 'crashing' in.  I've touched on this in previous posts about how to crash into a person when you are unexpectedly attacked.  This crashing in reduces your chance of injury and increases your chances of inflicting damage or shock, and unbalancing your attacker. In that vein, I was thinking about how to improve this stage, this 'crashing in' using your whole body.  I got thinking about whole body power.

I came across and interesting post on Cook Ding's Kitchen.  Read the post here on whole body power.

The following Aikido video was featured in the post:

Watching the video, I'm reminded of my own bad habits of sometimes reverting to trying to use strength or muscle in my technique.  I can see the Sensei demonstrating how not to do it and my own teacher's comments about not muscling it kept popping into my head.

The other thing that is apparent is that Aikido, while considered a soft style, is by no means a pushover art when it comes to effective technique.  Many schools I've seen have moved away from, or don't fully understand, the combat applications of Aikido.  I feel the video illustrates how a skilled practitioner can use the art.  I've always been a fan of Aikido, and I love to see it illustrated so well.

Is Aikido too soft?  You be the judge.