Friday, January 25, 2013

Traditional Martial Arts

Not long ago, I received some impressive training at a seminar that my Sensei and I attended.  I’ve reflected a lot on what I saw and did that day.  It was like watching my Sensei for the first time, all those years ago.  I was blown away. 

The Sensei putting on the seminar is an expert in several traditional Japanese systems, including weapons.

The observations I made are fodder for many posts.  Below I’ll list some of the main points I took away.  Then, in this and future posts, I’ll delve into them a little deeper.

So, here goes:

1.  Traditional systems are nasty.  Most were designed to  cripple or kill  armed attackers. 
2.  Traditional systems often employ the same movements or concepts to armed and open hand techniques.
3.  Traditional systems tend to have far more committed attack/defense movements than many modern-day, or sport based systems.

I’ve made mention of this before, but traditional systems were bred and tested on the battlefield.  Many times in life or death battles.  Often against armed or armoured opponents.  At its simplest, if it didn’t work, you were dead.  

Techniques that were passed down worked, period.  Battle tested is something far more difficult to accomplish nowadays.

If you’re pursuing a traditional art, it’s important to find someone that understands the original technique fully.  This is key.  We adapt deadly techniques so they’re safe enough to practice, which is absolutely necessary, of course.  Once you’ve learned how to do them (or before), you need to understand what modifications have been made.  You need to know how they’ve been ‘watered down’.

One of the statements that struck a chord with me was when the instructor was talking about how throws aren’t really throws.  


It means that the throws we practice in the dojo are done as a method of allowing your partner to exit a technique safely and in one piece.  Most traditional techniques don’t allow the opponent an ‘out’.  This isn’t to suggest someone isn’t going to be accelerated into the ground, but it does mean, at its core, that you have made a choice to allow your training partner to avoid injury.  Done traditionally, there’s no thought to ‘releasing’ your opponent. 

It is this ‘watering down’ effect that can have long term ramifications in the quality and effectiveness of the martial arts.  This is why it’s crucial to find someone that understands the original art.  As techniques get passed down from person to person, the original intent and technique is often lost, leaving only the ‘safer’ version.

This also isn’t to suggest that these safe versions can’t be effective for self-defense.  They can still work.  The concern lies in the scenario when you truly have to fight for your life and you may only get one chance.  Allowing a person to roll out could then be a fatal error.

Traditional systems are also good at identifying tried and true targets on the body.  The areas that are targeted are vulnerable, even in armour.  There’s not many, “this might work” stuff thrown in.  Joints, eyes, groin (in some cases), throat are all targets.  They can’t defend themselves.  And they take very little muscle to injure.

Traditional techniques are by their nature, far more committed.  Not a lot of ‘feeling out’ occurred in feudal times.  Your attacker was committed and so were you.  This is in stark contrast to the MMA sport competition style. 

Many contain deeper stances for power generation at the time of the attack.  I’m back and forth on mobility vs. power generation, but when you look at sword or traditional weapons training, the attacks are fully committed, powerful techniques.

Speaking of weapons, traditional systems often have what I’ll call ‘cross-over’ techniques.  Meaning that most techniques can be performed armed or empty handed.  I’m a big believer in this.  Train a concept or pattern of movement, not separate systems within a system for armed and unarmed work.  There are some exceptions of course.

Any modern day system is built upon a traditional system.  Martial arts need to continue to evolve and adapt to the realities of the environment around us.  We are not in feudal times, so many self defense techniques are, and should, be altered to fit the world around us.  This is a good thing, and essential to responsibly use force and react to some forms of lower level violence. 

When you lose sight or understanding of the original technique, however, you reduce your available options in a real violent encounter.  If in practice, you don’t really understand the underlying, or original technique, and you just sort of go with it with your partner, that’s all you’ll have available when you need to defend yourself.  

Understanding the original, traditional, or core techniques allows you to ramp up your response, if needed.  Understanding the origins can give you an edge in combat.

Train well.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Shoshin - "Beginner's Mind"

Hello all,

I apologize for the lack of posts.  I ended up taking an unexpected hiatus from the blog for a variety of reasons.  I hope to be posting more regularly once again.  I’ve often been frustrated when I’ve enjoyed someone else's blogs and the posts stopped without any real explanation.  Suffice to say, an awful lot has been going on in my life of late, and some things slipped for a bit.  So I thank you for being patient and for continuing to read or check my blog or make comments.

I’ve managed to get some interesting training, albeit in drips and drabs.

One of the tags on my blog is “What to look for in a Sensei”

A while ago, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar taught by an extremely talented martial artist.  He teaches classical weapons, Karate and Jiu Jitsu.  This guy impresses my Sensei and he impresses me.  The seminar was great (more on that in upcoming posts). 

I attended the seminar with my Sensei and we worked together, both to bring back material for the rest of the dojo and to mitigate the issues of a few nagging injuries (both of us).  That’s not the point, however.

While I’ve been at a variety of seminars, my Sensei is usually one of the instructors.  While he always watches the other instructors, he usually assists them, or the students to get the techniques.  Rarely have I seen him as ‘just’ a student. 

“shoshin“ – zen concept of having a ‘beginner’s mind’.  We should always train with this type of mindset. 

This can be tough for many people, especially instructors.  Many instructors don’t take part in training events with other styles, students and Sensei.  Why?  Because every time you, I, or any ‘master’ is learning new or different stuff, they will make mistakes and they will have to work at things to get it right.  Many have egos too big to allow anyone to see them do anything other than ‘perfect’ technique.  They fear it would lower them in the eyes of their, or other, students.  They can’t be seen to be struggling with a move. 

The truth is, of course, if you don’t train with beginner’s mind, you will cease to improve.  Many martial arts teachers no longer feel a need to, but the enlightened ones tend to continue to seek out new ideas, techniques and people.

So there I was, messing up this and that, as usual.  And so was my Sensei.  In my mind, if anything, it increased my respect for him.  So we blundered away (mostly me) until we got the material down pat.  Then we took it back to our dojo and shared the ideas, concepts and techniques with the other students.   

It also demonstrated that we each learn a bit differently, and at different rates.

I don’t know how many of you out there have had an opportunity to train alongside your martial arts teacher as equals (ie both just being students).  It felt strange to me to do so, but I liked it.  It was weird for me to correct him when he was struggling with a piece of the new puzzle.  It didn’t seem weird to him though, he just wanted to learn it.  Not a hint of embarrassment.

I think out of all the things I learned that day, the idea of ‘shoshin’ and seeing how my Sensei trained with an open mind and without any ego may have been the most valuable one.

A lesson within a lesson.

Food for thought.