Friday, June 28, 2013

Question Everything? 6/28/13

Question Everything?

How many techniques?

I was teaching a basic Aikido class when I got one of those questions where a student wanted a simple one word answer, but I couldn’t give it to him.  These are the moments when I realize the great complexities of martial arts and why I love them.  The question was “How many techniques are there in Aikido?”  A valid inquiry, as we were doing a basics class.  It was his second class, and he was trying to establish a finish line, or a goal standard.  As I often do in Aikido I went with my immediate answer. 
“Two, Tenkan and Irimi,” I said.  “The rest is just flapping your arms around.” 
This was obviously not the answer he expected.  He looked at me with a combination of disbelief and confusion.  You know the Scooby Doo look when you talk to your pet dog, to give it a command and it kind of tilts his head when he doesn’t understand the order you just gave him?  That was the look.
O Sensei performing an ikkyo pin
So I told him there were about 25 different locks and throws and various attacks to trigger the different defenses.  If you add them all up, it totals somewhere near 300.  (In hindsight, there has to be more than that, but I had read that number somewhere and was repeating it.)  He seemed more satisfied with that answer and went on, learning and enjoying the rest of the class.  But the question stayed with me.  I could hear it echoing throughout my noggin for the rest of the evening.  There is a famous quote from O Sensei  saying there is only one technique in Aikido and many believe he was talking about ikkyo.  Personally, I think he was saying aiki, or blending was the one technique.  But I go back to my original answer: Tenkan and Irimi.  Is that all Aikido is?  If there are only two things in Aikido why have I spent the last 12 years learning how to do two things?  Shouldn’t I have been able to learn them by now?  I imagine similar questions were going though the student’s head. 

That being said, tenkan and irimi are two very complex things.  Every time they are performed it is a different experience.  Every person you perform a defense against is different.  Even if you you’re with your “training friend,” that person you train with consistently, he is different every day.  Your partner’s attention, enthusiasm, strength, and intent are different every time he performs shomenuchi.  Therefore, your perception of the attack, timing, and force, are all different every time it is performed.  That is the unusual and special trait of the martial arts.  Other arts don’t have to deal with this lack of changing levels of observance.  A painter doesn’t have to worry about the intent of the canvas.  Even in more physical, group interactive arts, like ballet, the belletrist only really needs to concentrate on his own performance.  They rely on everyone else to perform as well.  It is a more like a team effort in sports.  I have a job, and if I do my part, the whole will be accomplished. 
Martial arts don’t do that, and Aikido in particular, is about the feedback from your training partner.  Your partner gives you constant feedback.  As you move his wrist like so, his shoulder moves as such, which means I have to shift my weight like this… and so on.  You are not learning a technique so much as building a collective of experiences.  Your body, without conscious thought, is remembering other situations that were similar and making the adjustments based on previous examples.  This is why those two moves can be simple to learn and take years to become proficient, yet never perfected.

Originally posted on

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Martial Arts inspiration

      These are the first half of the lyrics of the Police's Synchronicity I.  I recently heard this song again and was struck at how well it illustrates the idea of aiki.  I had heard the song before, but never in the concept of aikido.  Music and martial arts often are paired together.  Many martial artists talk about rhythm and breaking rhythm. Many cultures have even hid martial techniques in dances, or used dance as a demonstration of martial skill.  Capoeira should be an obvious example of the cross between dance/music and martial arts.  Not just music, but all arts can serve as a device for inspiration of martial arts.  Art encourages people to look at things in a new ways.  Martial arts are a serious study, but don't forget about the art part of martial art.  All martial arts are also forms of self-expression.  Seek inspiration not just in other martial artists, but in other artists as well.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

4 Stars for "Aiki Secrets: Six Precepts and the Dynamic COB" by William Dockery

4 out of 5 Stars for Aiki Secrets: Six Precepts and the Dynamic COB 
by William Dockery.

     Williams Dockery wrote a book that was desperately needed by the aikido world.  Aikido, like many martial arts, has a  mystery to it.  This mystery can be part of the attraction for people in the first place.  Some of the mystery is caused by the different cultures and languages that these arts were created in.  Because English was not the language of instruction, there was usually something lost in translation, or the initial instructors weren't able to accurately describe what was actually occurring.  Mr. Dockery has broken through some of language gap by describing the principles of aiki in terms of physics.
    I know, I know, I can hear the groaning now "ughhh... physics.  I didn't understand that is high school, how can I understand it now."  The book is well laid out to help with this, and it explains all the physics ideas used in term of aiki, so it anyone who studies an aiki art should relate to the descriptions.  The first section of the book gives you background definitions, and puts them in terms of the human body.  Since everyone has a human body, it is easily applicable.  Then the book goes one to use these now understood definitions in what are called the Six Precepts.  Each one sort of builds on the others to actually describe what is happening during aiki movements.  It also uses well illustrated pictures for those of you like me that are visual learners. What was also helpful was the exercises that were presented in each section.  They give you a way to test the ideas shown, and to practice the precept in order to improve that skill.

Positive points for the book
1. Simple language to describe the physics that are occuring
2. Good illustrations to add to the description.
3. Each section also give "exercises" or "practices" to apply the ideas just presented.
4. Gives instructors of aiki the language to describe what is occurring, which should enhance learning by students.
5. This book can be used by ALL martial artists, not just those in aikido.

Negative Points of the book
1. Not intended for the beginning student.  But in fairness, Mr. Dockery does declare this in the beginning and repeats it often.  You do need to have experience to be able to understand the aiki presented.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Interview with Tony Wolf

Interview with Tony Wolf
Mr. Wolf in a defensive cane pose
For this installment of our interview series, we have a bit of a coup.  We have an interview with Tony Wolf, one of the major forces involved in the reintroduction of Bartitsu, a lost mixed martial art of Victorian England.  For more information see the last article.  Tony Wolf has to his credit the editing of two compendiums of Bartitsu as well as co-directing and co-producing the documentary Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes.   He has worked as a movie fight choreographer, and has the unusual title of “Cultural Fighting Styles Designer” for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

                                Jaredd Wilson: Thank you for your time in doing this interview. First off could you tell us what  your martial arts background is?  
                Tony Wolf: I started out training in WTF Tae Kwon Do in my hometown of Wellington, New Zealand around 1978.  I spent roughly the next ten years deeply immersed in TKD and various other styles - capoeira, Filipino stick and knife, freestyle wrestling, etc. and ended up with a twin career teaching scenario-based "padded attacker" self defense and moonlighting as a professional wrestler.  The pro-wrestling led to movie and TV stuntwork and fight choreography, and thus a strong interest in historical European martial arts - fencing with two-handed swords and so-on.  That was my main focus for about another decade, until I switched historical gears and dedicated myself to reviving Bartitsu.

JW:         Could you explain what bartitsu is?
Bartitsu Cane Wrist Strike
                TW:         Bartitsu is essentially a cross-training method developed by a fellow named E.W. Barton-Wright, who was among the very first Europeans to train in jujitsu in Japan.  He returned to London in the year 1898 and started promoting what he called the "New Art of Self Defence" - the name "Bartitsu" was a portmanteau of his own surname and "jujitsu".  Barton-Wright also defined it as meaning "self defence in every form".  It was basically a combination of koryu jujitsu, some judo, elements of European wrestling styles, the old "fisticuffs" style of boxing, kicking and a specialized system of fighting with a gentleman's walking cane or lady's parasol, which were very fashionable accessories at the time.

Barton-Wright established a club called the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture in London's Shaftesbury Avenue and he brought in instructors from Japan and Switzerland to teach the various component styles of Bartitsu.  The Club eventually attracted an interesting clientele of aristocrats, soldiers, athletes and actors.  Barton-Wright gave interviews and lectures, wrote magazine articles explaining some of the theory and techniques, etc.  He also set up challenge contests in which the Bartitsu Club instructors took on wrestlers from other styles. Basically Bartitsu was this very novel idea that was, as it turned out, at least 70 years ahead of its time, but he was riding high for a few years right at the turn of the 20th century.

Then in early 1902, for reasons we still don't fully understand, the Club suddenly closed down.  The instructors dispersed and Barton-Wright seems to have abandoned self defense instruction in favor of his other great interest, which was physical therapy.  Eventually Bartitsu itself was almost forgotten, except for a cryptic reference in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Empty House", which explained that Holmes had used Bartitsu (misspelled as "baritsu") to defeat his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty, in their fight at the Reichenbach waterfall.

JW:          How did you become associated with bartitsu?

TW:        I'd been intrigued by Bartitsu since I was a kid, but in those days it was very difficult to learn anything about it.  I'd come across a random reference in a book or a martial arts magazine once every couple of years, and that was about it.  Then, of course, the Internet happened.  In the very early 2000s I became one of the sub-editors of an online academic journal called the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences, and we received photocopies of some of Barton-Wright's original articles which had been discovered in the British Library by the late judo historian, Dickie Bowen.  To those of us who had been wondering about Bartitsu for decades, it was like finding buried treasure.  EJMAS started to get Barton-Wright's material online, and within a few years we had formed the Bartitsu Society, originally just to co-ordinate research into Barton-Wright's art.  By about 2005, interest started to grow in actually reviving it.

Mr. Barton in "Gi" (love the socks)
JW:          You said that he studied as a Jujutsu in Japan, is there any indication of which school of Jujutsu Mr. Barton was privy to?
TW:         Yes, he trained at the Shinden Fudo Ryu dojo of sensei Terajima Kuniichiro in Kobe for about three years, and also said that he had taken some lessons from Professor Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan judo.

JW:           Right now is there any kind of structure to Bartitsu, do you have a rank or title in the system?  Is there an agreed upon system, style, or curriculum?
TW:         As far as we know, there were no ranks in Barton-Wright's original art.  We also found that we were accomplishing everything we wanted and needed to by simply co-operating as colleagues, so after a while we just didn't see any point in setting up a formal hierarchy.

On that basis, the Bartitsu Society doesn't legislate anything; there are no dues to pay and no formal structure.  People tend to decide their own "stations" on the basis of their enthusiasm and contributions.  Likewise, individual Bartitsu clubs and study groups can devise their own grading systems or choose not to, as they wish.  There is also a lot of diversity in terms of aims and goals.  Some people concentrate on street practical self defense, some on historical recreation, etc.

There is a consensus that, in order for it to make sense for a revivalist approach to describe itself as Bartitsu, it should include Barton-Wright's original material, which we think of the Bartitsu canon.  The canon is highly detailed in some areas, but we only have clues and hints about others.  Thus, in order to bring the art back to life, we must extrapolate, also drawing significantly from the sources produced by Barton-Wright's assistant instructors and their students, dating up into the early 1920s.  We think of that process as "neo-Bartitsu", and it allows for a good deal of individual interpretation.  There's an element of deliberate anachronism in there, in that without that focus on that particular time and place, neo-Bartitsu basically turns into Dog Brothers-style sparring, Jeet Kune Do, MMA, etc.

JW:          What in particular, piqued your interest in Bartitsu?  Especially since you had been studying other Asian martial arts?  Was it the fact that it was European, the fact that is was an extinct system that could be resurrected, or something else?
TW:         Basically, we consider Bartitsu to have been a fascinating experiment in martial arts cross-training that was abandoned as a work in progress when Barton-Wright's Club closed its doors in 1902.  The purpose of the revival is to continue that experiment and try to figure out where it might have gone if that Club had continued to thrive for, say, another ten years.  That double curiosity about the history and what Bartitsu might have become is my own main motivation for wanting to revive the art.

JW:          In your view as a practitioner of Bartitsu, how does it differ from Asian martial arts that people may be more familiar?
TW:         Asian martial arts are so diverse in themselves that it's difficult to draw meaningful technical distinctions.  The way I teach Bartitsu, though, might be considered unusual in that I place a very heavy emphasis on experimentation and improvisation.  For example, we will very frequently perform the canonical stick fighting set-plays or jiujitsu kata exactly as Barton-Wright recorded them, but then use them as conceptual "springboards" for neo-Bartitsu experiments.  A central exercise in my own Bartitsu classes is to allow the "opponent" to spontaneously defeat the "defender's" pre-arranged responses, forcing the defender to improvise solutions.  This type of pressure testing drill also provides a useful bridge between the formal set-plays and free sparring.

JW:          One of the first things someone sees when they look up Bartitsu on the internet is that it was, as you mentioned previously, the "Martial Art" of Sherlock Holmes.  Being that there were two blockbuster movies on Mr. Holmes, and he was shown doing martial arts is what was shown representative of Bartitsu, or was it relying more on Mr. Downey's own martial arts background?
TW:         The "Sherlock Holmes" fight choreographer (Richard Ryan) is an old colleague of mine and we sent him copies of both volumes of the Bartitsu Compendium during pre-production of the first movie.  As a professional fight choreographer myself, I knew that whereas verbatim historical accuracy isn't a high priority unless you're shooting a documentary, the more sources of inspiration a production team has, the better. 

There are strong technical similarities between Mr. Downey's Wing Chun and the style of boxing that was dominant in Europe during the late 19th century, and the grappling of Brazilian jiujitsu is also very similar to the eclectic "British jiujitsu" that was introduced at the Bartitsu Club.  Combined with walking stick fighting (as seen in the "Game of Shadows" movie), the overall effect is an excellent cinematic representation of Holmes's martial arts.  The impact on the Bartitsu revival has been entirely positive, in that millions of people now positively associate martial arts with late-Victorian London.  We used to joke about Bartitsu becoming cool on the assumption that it would never actually happen ...

JW:          If someone was interested in learning more about Bartitsu or studying it themselves, what would be your suggestion?
TW:       The Wikipedia page ( ) is maintained by members of the Bartitsu Society and 
 is a very accurate source for the basic history.  The Bartitsu Society website
( ) is our default repository for news, articles etc. and is basically a one-stop shop for Bartitsu online.  The venerable Bartitsu Forum email list ( ) is the best way to communicate with other enthusiasts.

I also recommend the two volumes of the "Bartitsu Compendium" (available from Amazon or and the documentary "Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes" ( ).

The Bartitsu Society encourages people to set up their own Bartitsu study groups and there are a lot of hints and tips in that direction available in this article - .

The Bartitsu Club of Chicago, which is my school, has a website at .

JW:          What have you learned from re-discovering Bartitsu?
TW:        I'd say that my interest in Bartitsu has taught me a great deal in three major areas.

First, I've learned a lot about the history of the Western world during the period circa 1900, which has been very interesting in that so much of the "modern" world was essentially invented during that time.

Second, the process of the revival has been hugely instructive re. how ideas or memes are spread and developed via the Internet and other media.  12 years ago only a handful of people had ever heard of Bartitsu, let alone took any real interest in it, whereas today it actually has some pop-culture currency.

Third, it's reinforced that's it's possible to create a successful "system" without imposing a formal structure or a top-down hierarchy.  The Bartitsu revival is deliberately an open-source phenomenon.

JW:          Does Bartitsu have a deeper meaning or philosophy associated with it?
TW:       Barton-Wright never recorded anything that could be described as a philosophy of Bartitsu, but there are certain ideas that are inherent to it, significantly a kind of open-mindedness and willingness to experiment.  He was very much the Bruce Lee of his time and place, and we sometimes describe Bartitsu as "Edwardian Jeet Kune Do".

JW:          Who was the most impressive martial artist you ever trained with and why?
TW:         It's a tie between Dan Inosanto, who made the martial arts I'd been doing up to that point look about as sophisticated as thumb wrestling, and Brad Waller, a combat biomechanics genius and the first man I ever met who had fully mastered a "revived" historical martial art.

JW:          What kind of difficulties have you encountered in re-establishing a "dead" martial art? 
TW:         Barton-Wright was very clear in his written explanations of the various formal kata and set-plays - I think his engineering background helped - and he had the advantage of photographic technology to record them as well.  There will always be minor differences in interpretation, but in essence the "canon" is quite easy to recreate for people with solid cross-training backgrounds. 

The greatest challenge at the technical level has been to "fill in the blanks", as is required in neo-Bartitsu.  For example, we know quite a lot about the jujitsu and stick fighting aspect of the Bartitsu curriculum, but not much about the "modifications" he made to boxing, apart from some somewhat cryptic hints.  Likewise, there are implications to the cross-training process that he never directly recorded; for example, what to do if an opponent seizes your walking stick.  My own approach to solving those puzzles is to pressure-test them via sparring drills and so-on, attempting to keep within the spirit and detail of what we know about the rest of his curriculum.  Most important, though, is the attitude that we are picking up where he left off; continuing his experiments, rather than trying to (re)create a definitive version of the art.  That process is designed to be open-ended and on-going.

JW:          Have there been any techniques that you couldn't figure out from the descriptions or have you encountered any resistance from other martial artist, or martial arts purists?
TW:         There has only been very minor "resistance", almost always in the form of online commentary by casual 
observers of the revival process who make inaccurate assumptions about our goals.  I understand the objections; from the traditionalist standpoint, it's highly unorthodox to practice a martial art that doesn't have a direct teacher-student lineage, etc.  I suppose it comes down to subjective opinions on what constitutes an acceptable degree of "accuracy", "legitimacy", etc.  I would actually have anticipated more criticism along those lines, but I take the fact that it hasn't happened much as a tribute to our success at explaining what we're doing and why we're doing it.

JW:          What would be your long term goals for bartitsu?
TW:         I'd like to think that it will continue on its present course, which seems to be as an open-source, niche alternative for creative and somewhat eccentric martial artists.

There are still a number of historical mysteries about Bartitsu that I hope will be resolved one day.

Originally Posted on

“Can you make mushin a habit?”

Question Everything?
by Jaredd Wilson

Can you make mushin a habit?

And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit.  It hits all by itself.
                                                                                    -Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon

Kanji for mushin "no mind"
        Mushin is a state of mind characterized by a lack of conscious thought.  In many Japanese martial arts and martial ways this is a high-end goal to achieve.  There is a lot written on what mushin is, and how to best achieve it.  I wrote on mushin in a previous article and you can check it out if you want more information.  However, it can only really be experienced.  I’ve felt this a couple of times and it amazed me.  It was only in memory that I knew what happened or what I did.  What sparked this article was actually an article on another website .  Their website is one of my favorite perusing sites, and they put up new articles every couple of days.  What this particular article was about was the science behind habit formation. 
        MIT started doing studies in the 1990’s on mice to find out the purpose of a small section of the brain that is part of the brain called the basal ganglia.  Before this, the only thing we knew was that it was probably involved with Parkinson's Disease.  Basically, what the study did was hook up little electrodes to the brains of mice and put them through a maze.  The first time the mice went through the maze the basal ganglia showed almost no activity. The activity was centered in the cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain.  And this makes sense.  The mice had to learn the maze.  They were busy exploring, sniffing, scratching, doing micey things.  As they repeated the process over and over, the activity in the brain shifted from the cerebral cortex to the basal ganglia.  This meant the mice weren’t thinking about the maze.  It had been downloaded to the basal ganglia.  Through repeated experience, their mind had made a habit of remembering the maze.  The mice had created a routine set of physical actions.  They had created a habit.
The Basal Ganglia is a combination of parts deep inside the brain
        To make things even more habitual the experimenter produced a clicking sound right before the mice went through the maze.  This became a cue.  There was also a reward of chocolate at the end of the maze.  What their further research shows is that this cue and reward were required to for habit formation.  The cue triggers the basal ganglia to produce a response, i.e. remembering the maze pattern, in expectation of getting the reward, the chocolate.  It also showed that once a habit was formed it was permanent.  However, it could be overridden with other habits.
        So what does this have to do with martial arts?  It is exactly how we learn and prepare for combat.  At first we need to learn our technique.  It takes observation, thought, processing, and trail and error.  We are using the cerebral cortex part of the brain, our thinking part.  Eventually we have repeatedly practiced the technique until the response becomes habitual.   Our brain dumps the information into the basal ganglia where it becomes a permanent habit.  We even have sensory clues; a specific attack to promote a specific response.  When someone punches me in the face, I shift my body.  If we think of the appropriate response, it will take to long and we get a bloody nose.  If we react out of habit, we can do so quicker.  The reward is often a self induced one.  Not getting punched is pretty good, but the satisfaction of performing a technique correctly is the reward.
        Our goal as martial artist is to practice often enough and with enough variation that all our techniques become “basal ganglia” responses.  This means that we are trying do all of this without thinking.  When you can respond without though you are experiencing mushin.  Any activity that has a cue, a heavily practiced response, and a reward can become habitual.  Entering mushin is not exclusive to martial artist, it is just one of their goals.  Anything done with enough repetition can produce a mushin/basal ganglia effect.

Originally posted on