Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Lessons in Budo - Humility

The last couple weeks have been busy with belt grading at our dojo.

Just as with belts themselves, I have mixed feelings on formal testing.  Some are positive, some are negative.

It’s done for a while, likely quite a while.  My Sensei doesn’t believe in rapid ascension through the ranks.  It occurs to me that part of the journey with him is that of humility.  He decides when, and if, people test for a belt, and there is no automatic time frame or schedule.  This may not be the best business model for profit, but then again, he isn’t in it for the money.  Years ago, he moved away from having a commercial dojo.  He now has a small group of dedicated students and he teaches on his terms, which is fine with us lucky enough to call him Sensei.  While we are associated, or friends of, larger schools, his standards are his and his alone, and they’re high.

Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  You work for it, through blood, sweat and tears.  No student in our dojo ever need feel that they haven’t earned a ranking.

I share my teacher’s belief that your motivation shouldn’t be a ‘shiny new belt’.  In fact, we trained with no belt colour for the first couple of years when I returned to him.  It wasn’t until he decided to take on a few select students that rankings of any sort were added.

Here’s the conflict – from time to time students do want to be recognized for their study.  It’s really a non issue while we’re actually in our dojo, but that little hint of ego (is it ego?) can pop up when visiting other schools or attending seminars or demonstrations.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend quite a few great seminars or events with martial artists from a variety of different styles and schools.  It doesn’t take long to get to know the ‘regulars’.  From personal observation, I’ve seen a few of these students who have a higher belt each time I see them. 

I’ve seen one martial artist who I met as a white belt that has climbed 6 belt colours (in his belt system) since the last time our Sensei did a grading.  This isn’t to suggest that he didn’t deserve them or work hard for them (we are talking years here), but it’s interesting none the less.

Some students can have trouble dealing with this situation, feeling that they ‘deserve’ the next level.  They would probably not last in our dojo. 

There are valuable lessons to be learned here, such as humility as previously mentioned, and patience, and discipline.  

One of my loftier goals is to never be touched by ego.  While I aspire to be completely free of any desire for the next level, I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t say that, over the years, on occasion, I’ve coveted the next level, rank or designation.      

There are a couple reasons:

The first one I’m ok with.  Having a visual indication of experience automatically puts you ‘at the grown up’s table’.  In mixed groups, you are usually paired by belt or dan groupings.  It’s always a pleasure to train with experienced people from different styles.  You can learn just as much from working with newer people, mind you, but in some situations, (such as a seminar) working with similar ranks can maximize your learning while minimizing the chances of unintentional injuries.  Simply put, you can go harder and faster in the short time you are there.

The second isn’t quite as altruistic.  Ego can rear its ugly little head from time to time.  While I think people naturally like to receive praise or be recognized for their accomplishments, it should be by your skill level and attitude, not by the colour of your belt.

I don’t know if I’ll ever completely banish any inkling of ego, but I am working on it.  I know this is part of my journey.  It’s one of the main reasons that I ditched any and all belts from my meandering martial journey and started over when I re-connected with my Sensei several years ago.

There will likely not be another grading in our dojo for several years.  I’m ok with this. It keeps ego at bay, teaches humility and patience, and removes the pressure and distractions of prepping for a test.

This style or timeframe isn’t for everyone, and it’s not the only way to go.  Some schools or styles promote their students more quickly than others.  The requirements of the teacher for different levels can vary greatly.  Some schools may promote to black belt in two or three years of dedicated study, some may require ten or more at minimum.  Neither is necessarily right or wrong, they’re just different approaches.  As long as you’re always striving to do better and to keep learning, it probably doesn’t really matter how long it took you to get to a certain 'recognized' level.

At the end of the day, it only really matters what you think and what you know.  If you are not confident that you can apply what you’ve learned in a real life situation or violent encounter, it doesn’t matter one bit what colour your belt is.  Ideally, this should be the only measure of success or progression that you need.  In reality, this is often easier said than done. 

I may post soon on some of my thoughts on the actual grading, but for now, I’ll let my body keep recovering from the pounding it took…

Food for thought.

Train well with a beginners mind. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Lessons in Budo - An Open Mind

One of my hopes in authoring this blog was to have a written record of where my mind (and body) were during my journey.  A 'snapshot' in time, if you will.  

I had hoped that if I could maintain an open (or beginners) mind, that some of my opinions would change or alter over time.  After all, I've said from the start that as soon as you close your mind, you stop learning and you stop improving.

Well, here's something I didn't think would happen.  I've changed the way I look at the good old hip throw. After years of not really having any use for it, or seeing much value in it, I've recently become a fan.  

Why?  Well, I'd like to say it's because I did a deeper study in the biomechanics of it, that I delved into the history of this well worn technique or that I sought out an expert specializing in balance points and levers, but none of that's true.  

The answer is that all of a sudden (relatively speaking), I got good at it.  After years and years of struggling with it, not getting low enough, torquing my back, losing my balance and using too much strength, it just got easy.  It was as if a switch had been thrown, everything just 'clicked' and it all came together.  

I'm still not entirely sure what I'm doing differently.  That's the strange thing about it.  I'm not consciously doing anything different.  The only thing I can put a finger on is that I've made sure I keep moving throughout the entire throw.  Instead of breaking it down in my brain, I'm just trying to 'feel' it, to 'go with it'.  I've actually stopped thinking about where to plant my feet, how low to go, when to swivel etc.  And it's working.  In fact, I'm actively trying not to analyze what I'm doing, or what I'm doing differently.  

This was inspired, in part, by watching a guy climb a tall ladder to get on a roof.  I watched him near the top of the ladder and just continue to step, from rung to roof.  I realized that he just kept moving.  He didn't stop, examine his next footfall, place his foot carefully and push off.  He just kept moving.  Had he stopped to ponder each detail of his next move, he may have put himself in peril of a misstep.   I saw a parallel to my challenges with the hip throw.  It's sort of like increasing the chances of someone tripping by telling them not to trip.  The mere fact that they thought about tripping dramatically increases their chances of doing so.  

Budo is everywhere, after all, not just in the dojo...

I suspect there's more to this lesson than I've managed to uncover, but suffice to say, I now kind of like the hip throw.  Where for many years, I couldn't imagine a time where I'd ever use it, I now find opportunities for the hip throw popping up everywhere.  I find myself balanced and my opponent unbalanced.  I find that an advancing attacker can quite often easily be thrown.

I wonder if it's like learning a new word.  It seems every time you do, you hear it spoken or read it in print over and over again.  Something you didn't even know existed is all of a sudden everywhere.  Or is it that they, like opportunities for the hip throw, were always there, but it was you that couldn't recognize them?    

Food for thought.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Bad Habits in the Martial Arts - Part II

In Part I, I identified and discussed what I believe is a serious issue in the world of martial arts today - The practice of tailoring attacks to fit defenses. 

I had a lot of great comments on that post.  

So now that I've identified the problem...

What can we do about it?

Well, it’s not the easiest thing to fix.  It’s actually a bit more complicated than it might appear on the surface.  So, what does it take?

  1. An understanding of what real attacks look like.  In a safe training environment, it can be challenging to have people attack realistically, especially if they’ve never been involved in real violence before.  You must balance the need for scripted attacks based on real world probability and the need to have an element of unpredictability. 

  1. The decision not to stop if your partner attacks incorrectly.  Figure it out. If your intended technique doesn’t work, adjust it or change it to one that does.  Only after successfully working through it should you request the ‘proper’ version for the next time.

  1. The understanding that you need to break away from exact responses to exact techniques.  As time goes on, the requested technique/defense selection should get broader.  For example, ask for an arm lock or a wrist throw from a punch, but leave it to the attacker to decide which type.  Or from a grab, any type.  This way you have a general goal in mind, but the attacks, and subsequently your responses, will have to vary.  This will help you develop the mental flexibility and the physical skills needed to respond to the unpredictable nature of a real violent encounter.

  1. Building on number 3 - Use randori, or free practice.  No set attacks, no set defenses.  Just spontaneous attack and defence, preferably with multiple attackers.  You’ll quickly forget about someone attacking wrong and you’ll just do what you have to do.  See previous posts on Randori here.(links to several in post)

  1. Testing criteria should take all of this into account as well.  In my system (the one I study), the higher the belt ranking, the fewer the number of techniques are outlined in ‘required’ lists.  Instead of having each technique listed and from what attack, it simply lists things like:


Type - Hip (3 variations)

Attack – Punch/Kick/Grab - Any

In this example, it could be any punch. Then any kick.  There’s still structure for required techniques and an order for grading, but a certain degree of spontaneity is maintained. 

Go higher and you’ll find:


Type - All

Attack - Any

Essentially controlled, or led, randori. 

Earlier belt grading will have set lists which outline the specific attack and the specific response required.

Anyone can spend enough time and memorize a set number of attack/defense combinations.  On the surface, demonstrating forty techniques in a row from a lapel grab or a choke may look impressive, but in truth, it doesn’t tell you too much about the student’s ability to defend themselves.  The same can be said for kata, but that's a topic that deserves it's own post.

I’d rather see three or four well performed responses in randori. The true measure of success is the student’s ability to react, adapt and respond successfully to unscripted, unrehearsed and unpredictable attacks, all while under stress.  It doesn’t really matter which technique they select, as long as they react immediately and are able to adapt and adjust as needed until they reach a successful conclusion.  It doesn’t have to be pretty, as long as you never freeze up or stop fighting. 

This is how it is with real violence, so it’s important to recreate this dynamic (safely) as much as possible in training. 


At the start of our journeys, we work on building a decent foundation.  Repetitive practice of a set number of techniques is one excellent method for developing a good amount of skill in the basics.  Once you have the mechanics nailed down, it’s time to build on that foundation.  Learning to apply and adapt to more realistic attacks is important. 

Don’t get stuck in a right or wrong way of attacking or defending.  Shift away from specific techniques and understand that often your response will most often be dependent on what option is presented to you, not what you have pre-selected in order to deal with an incoming attack.  This is where the concept of Mushin, or empty/no mind, comes into play.  Not many people can observe, identify, and then select a specific response to an unexpected and spontaneous attack in time to execute it successfully. 

Strive to be like the willow tree.  The willow can survive storms that topple other rigid trees.  The willow, while it has a strong set of roots, is flexible.  It doesn’t fight against the force of the storm; it simply adapts and adjusts by being flexible.  So too, should you be at higher levels of training.

Don’t tailor your attacks to fit your defenses.  Don’t practice attacking or defending in ways you never would in a real situation.  Strive to achieve Mushin.  Accept that real violence in unpredictable and that even a successful defense will rarely resemble the smooth response you so deftly demonstrated in a controlled training environment.  Don’t worry about looking sloppy. 
Establish roots in the basics but never stop your training there.  Learn to apply and adapt and always remain flexible. 

Train well.