Friday, August 30, 2013

5 Books Every Martial Artist should have

Originally published on

5 Books every martial artist should have (own, not just read)

Yeah... Okay....
    I love reading about martial arts.  Martial arts, martial artist, martial philosophy; doesn’t matter.  I   I have a modest, but extensive library, and I’m expanding it as much as my shrinking budget allows.  I have to admit, I have a bias towards Japanese martial arts, so that is going to be where my emphasis lies.  In our dojo, I often have people asking about what books to read, or which ones are worth it, or cover a particular martial art and so on.  I’ve given enough advice to enough people, so I decided to share some with you.  What follows is a list, and explanation, of 5 book, which should be on the shelf of everyone who considers themselves a martial artist.  It is by no means exclusive, nor is it intended to be.  In fact, I had a hard time just picking 5.  If you have others to fill in, please add them in the comments.  And make sure you tell us why your book should be included on the list.
devour the subject.

5. Tao of Jeet Kun Do byBruce Lee
The first MMA?  BruceThis is the story of Bruce’s martial studies.  He doesn’t claim them as his own, only his own collection.  If you look closely you can see the genius of Bruce Lee.  He took information from everywhere, and incorporated them into his martial arts.  He watched boxing, fencing, and other martial arts.  He blended throws with strikes into a comprehensive martial art.  Besides that, there is a nice blend of technique and philosophy.  My favorite part is from the forward.  Bruce Lee says read this book, and then throw it away.  Meaning, don’t dwell on this.  It is my journey/journal.  Take what you can from it, and be done with it.

4.  Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts-Donn F. Draeger & Robert W. Smith
This is the first book in English where someone took the study of the history martial arts seriously.  If you have an interest in the history of any of the Asian martial arts, start here.  This book is also credited with bringing many of the more obscure Asian arts to the attention of the West.
3. Living the Martial Way-Forrest E. Morgan
This was actually one of the first martial arts books I’ve read.  I did so because it came recommended by a friend and Sensei.  Mr. Morgan breaks down the ideals of warriorship and how to apply it to today’s life.  If you want to make martial arts your life, and not just something you do on Tuesdays evenings, this book is for you.  I still go back and read it when I want inspiration.

2. The Art of War-Sun Tzu
There are many, many translations of this one, and they are all slightly translated differently.  Any way you read it, this is the classic that is still looked at today.  It breaks down conflict to its most basic elements.  Everyone involved in warfare and combat has studied this, so should you.  There are innumerable bits of wisdom and strategy to be gained from this one.

1. The Book of Five Rings- Miyamoto Musashi
Again, lots of translations, each one translates it a little different.  The intent is always the same, but the nuances are what separate the translations.  I'm personally fond of the William Scott Wilson's translation.  The only reason Go Rin No Sho (Book of Five Rings) was raised above The Art of War was due to the fact that Musashi was more of what we envision a martial artist to be; a lone warrior.  Sun Tzu was more of a military strategist.  This book is so influential, that business executives are now requiring their strategists to read it.  They view the negotiation table as a battlefield.  The strategy should be the same.  

Monday, August 26, 2013

I cheat at aikido

Originally published on

“I Cheat at Aikido”

    I have a confession to make.  I teach my students how to cheat.  In fact, I tell them “this is my cheat, try it this way.”  I’ve been studying martial arts now for over a decade, and I’ve been teaching aikido classes for just over a year now.  One night lying in bed, it occurred to me, these aren’t cheats.  I’m not importing a special code to get unlimited lives in Contra (and if you laugh at that, you’re as old as I am); I’m accomplishing the

O. Ratti's illustration of kote gaeshi
    Let me start off by giving an example of a “cheat.”  If the attacker performs a straight punch, the defender in aikido may perform a kote gaeshi wrist throw.  This involves using the momentum of the punch to continue the attacker’s motion forward, keeping them off balance as the defender grabs the wrist, and then turns to return the wrist towards the attacker. This results in either a broken wrist, or more likely, the attacker on the ground.  The technique only works well if the attacker is in motion.  If they ever catch their balance or composure enough, they will resist the returning wrist motion.  My cheat is that as I step next to the oncoming attack, I place the back of their elbow against my body, so that as I spin, I put pressure against their elbow forcing them to move more.  It allows me to prevail in some situations where the defense shouldn’t necessarily work.

Menyo scrolls of transmission
    I don’t ever remember being shown this.  This was something I picked up through experience somewhere in those 10+ years of training.  I’m not saying that this is some new discovery and I’m going to rename the technique.  What I’m thinking is that this was an accidental experience of an okudan, a hidden technique.  For those of you not familiar with Japanese systems, let me give you a little background.  In a traditional martial system, the instructor would demonstrate a technique, and then the students would try to infer, from what they saw, how the technique worked.  Okudan were techniques in Japanese martial arts curriculums that were not written down, nor were they taught to most of the practitioners.  These were reserved for the highest level students, usually only the head of the school and his descendents.  This way the instructor always could make sure he knew just a little more that someone he taught.  Most of you have probably experienced this.  You know that time your sensei threw you and didn’t appear to move.  That was an okudan.  But, like many things in the Japanese language, there is more than one way to define what an okudan is.  Okudan also can be the technique within the technique.  Once you have gotten the gross body movements of a technique down, you can then start to refine said technique.  In kote gaeshi, you can work on timing or the exact way to grab the wrist.  The okudan is a further refining where it becomes more internal and less external.  This is what I am calling my “cheats” – the things I’ve incorporated into my techniques to make them more efficient.

    Now that I’m teaching aikido, I’ve started to show my students my cheats.  I’m wondering now if this is a bad idea.  I may be robbing them of their own self-teaching experiences.   Am I reading them the last chapter in the book before they’ve gotten there?  Or am I just conferring as much information as I can to my students?  Because when I say “here’s a cheat I use,” the students react as if they are privy to some special piece of information.  Ultimately, I would hate to think that any student of mine would be the victim of an attack; however, I would hate to think of them as unable to defend themselves because I didn’t teach them everything I knew.   We live in a very information free society.  We’ve completely invested in the idea that information/knowledge is a right and not a privilege.   I agree with this as a general idea.  Nevertheless information and knowledge should be tempered by experience.  If I give all of my own experiences as instruction, my “cheats,” it will never become part of their technique as well as if the students figure it out for themselves.  And isn’t that the goal of an instructor, to make the martial art a part of the student?  I say it is which is why we may want to revisit the idea of okudan in martial arts.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A connection with the past

A modern day samurai?
    One of the things I love about martial arts is that it represents a connection to the past.  I'm not delusional enough to think that I am some sort of modern day samurai because I practice aikido, but there is a common thread.  The movements I am practicing are based on, if not replicating, movements done by Japanese warrior hundreds of years ago.  I practice swords arts, not because of their battlefield application, but because of what the sword, and kenjutsu represents.  With all of our modern conveniences sometimes we forget that life is supposed to be difficult.  Thinking about things in terms of swords and armor often puts that in perspective for me.
1963 Edition of The Secrets of Judo
    There is also the direct connection through people.  I learned from my instructor, who learned from his instructor, who learned from... and so on.  This creates a tangible influence from people in the past.  People we probably never knew, but they are touching our lives none the less.  I only had to opportunity to meet Dr. Moses Powell twice, and because I was very low ranking at the time, I never had a chance to work out with him.  But, my instructor was a student of his.  There is a knowledge and philosophy that gets transmitted to me, albeit vicariously, from Dr. Powell, and indeed all of his instructors he had.
    With that same idea, I got a pleasant surprise connection when I ordered a used book from the Internet. The book, The Secrets of Judo by Jiichi Watanabe and Lindy Avakian, is a classic book first published in 1960. It was, and still is, a great book for those who want the science, history and philosophy of Judo.  I'll post a full review once I finish the book.  The version I received was published in 1963.  My surprise came right on the inside cover.  There was a note which read "AC Whiley Jr.  A 82nd Birthday to myself Nov 22, 1965."  I love this.  Every time I read the book now, I read the inscription and smile  I have a book that was bought be someone in 1965 trying to understand Judo at age 82.  I know I'll never know who Mr. Whiley was, but I hope he would appreciate my reading, learning from, and enjoying the book over 50 years after he did, because I appreciate his reading it 50 years earlier than me.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Question Everything? Who was history's deadliest warriors?

Originally published on
Question Everything? Who was history's deadliest warrior?

                  Most martial artist, and many males in general, love to talk about the warriors of the past.  We each have our favorites.  Whether from a line of ancestry, though study, or some other form of sympathy there are historical warriors or groups of warriors we champion.  And there are many to choose from.  Many people like to think of themselves as descendent from Celtic warriors, or imagine themselves as modern day samurai.  We like to have some connection to the warriors of the past.  It is one of the draws of martial arts, this connection to the past.  Unfortunately these warriors we argue for are separated from each other by time and distance.  The arguments are largely academic fervor.  Until Now.
Spike' Deadliest Warriors logo
                  Spike TV is going through its second season of its original show Deadliest Warriors.  It attempts to do for the ancient warrior argument what No Holds Barred competition did for martial arts.  Whereas NHB competition showed which martial theories worked best (under semi realistic conditions)  Deadliest Warrior pits warriors from various eras of history against each other.  It’s time to put up or shut up.  The show also has modern warriors; Green Berets, Spetsnaz, Pirates, and other post gunpowder combatants, for this article I’m going to concentrate on the ancient warriors.  The show attempts to use modern technology-speed guns, pressure sensors, and the like- to add evidence to the arguments.  Each warrior is allowed to pick from his arsenal four or five weapons, and the show’s scientist compare between similarly matched weapons.  Short range versus short range, long range versus long range and so on.  The show also, for purposes of competition, tries to pair similar levels of technology, or similar themes to combat.  For example, no cave man versus armored knights.  At the end of the show, they use the data and a computer simulation to come up with a victor.  One warrior or warrior culture is deemed deadliest (or deadlier as the case may be.)
                  However.  The show really only concentrates on the technology.  The show could be titled “Deadliest weapons.”   It leaves a lot out of the equation.  Terrain, motivation, tactics and other conditions are necessary when considering battles.  For example, the show had one episode in season 1, Spartan vs. Ninja.  They tested the weapons of both sides accurately, and plugged them into their computer simulation to come to the conclusion that, if they met on a battle field, the Spartan was deadlier 2/3 of the time.  Sure, I’ll buy that, if fact I’d say the Spartan was probably a better battlefield soldier/warrior than the Ninja more than their simulation calculated.  But when would a Ninja be on the battle field?  Ninja attacked in your sleep, or more accurately were information getters and assassins.  You know, spies.  If he magically met a Spartan on the road, he would observe them, and then report back to the general.  He would have no problem with a tactical 
Samurai from season 1
                  The most recent episode was the Celts vs. Persian Immortals.  They had a one on one meeting, in an open field.  This actually favored one warrior over the other.  The Celts were more like Guerrilla troops, attacking from the forests.  Because the battle took place in an open field, the Persian’s bow was extremely useful and deadlier.  If they were both in the forest, the Celts shorter ranged weapons, like the sling, would have been more appropriate.  Or as another example, let’s see how a heavily armored warrior, like a Viking or a Samurai would do in the heat and jungle type terrain the Aztecs dealt with.  Also, continuing on with the sling, some weapons, that aren’t deadly aren’t useless.  An opponent struck in the head with a stone, and stunned for a second, would allow the Celt to close the gap and attack with the other weapons in their arsenal. 
                  Now all this being said, there are two aspects of the show that I find useful for the martial artist in us all.  One is the exposure of other warrior cultures.  I love to learn how different cultures, with different materials, different warrior needs, and even different warrior ethos have common threads.  Watching the show, I end up seeing more similarities than differences.  India’s Rajput warriors were defending their homeland from invading armies, like the Celts and Germanic tribes against the Roman armies.  The second aspect I find interesting and useful is the ability to see how powerful these weapons actually were.  Today, most traditional martial arts systems have some weapons training in them.  I personally train in Japanese swordsmanship.  I’ve cut tatami mats, which are supposed to represent human body parts, but I always wonder how equivalent they are.  All the weapons they test on Deadliest Warrior show the extreme damage that can occur.  How easy it is to cause severe damage or near instant death.  I think it allows us to respect the warriors who came before us just a little bit more.  Knowing that these were the weapons they trained with and against.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Martial Arts moving day

Martial arts moving day
By J. A. Wilson

      I hate moving.  I've just completed changing locations to call home.  I lived at my previous place for 5 years.  This may not seem like that long to live in one place, but it is surprising how much "stuff" you collect in that amount of time.  After packing up all the family's stuff, I realized how much, I threw away.  I went with the idea that if I haven't used it in 2 years, I obviously don't need it.  With that in my head I filled up about 10 garbage bags with of junk.  I appreciate this aspect of moving.  There is something that is satisfying to streamlining your life. 
    Moving also gives you a chance to dust off all the places that are normally way out of cleaning range.  You know, behind the entertainment center, under the bed, and all those other places that allow dust bunnies to breed.
    I started thinking this is what my martial arts needs, a moving day!  A day to dust off all those old skills that haven't seen the light of day in a while.  A refresher day if you will.  It also makes you re-evaluate the skills you haven't used in a while.  Why haven't you practiced them?  Are they no longer part of your path, or your goals?  If not why not?
      Moving, unintentionally, makes you review the stuff in your
life.  Every one's martial arts should have a day to review your martial arts path.  This can be a specific day of the year, or a day in preparation for a test, or whatever you want it to be, just be sure to have an honest review with yourself, and see what needs cleaning, and why somethings haven't been used in years.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Grow into your martial art

"Grow into your martial art."
By J. A. Wilson

    I teach high school, and every year students discover I am a martial arts practitioner.  I don't try to hide it, they find out by themselves.  I bring this up because whenever I talk to students, I invariable get an exchange that goes something like this:

Student: "Yeah, I took karate when I was a kid."  (Aside: This is a 15-17 kid telling me this!)
Me: "Why did you stop?"
Student: " I don't know, I guess I grew out of it."

    Usually I just nod and give non-committal grunt.  How can anyone grow out of martial arts?  You should grow into your martial art.  I started my martial path my first year in college, and I wish I'd started earlier. From my dojo experience, there are very few teenagers in martial arts, and teens are a group that definitely needs the beneficial qualities that martial arts has to offer.  There is something that is a gap in teaching teens.  In the US many parents sign their kids up for martial arts, like it is an after school activity like soccer, rather than a lifelong pursuit.  At our dojo we put teens in the adult classes and expect them to pick up more of the internal aspects themselves, like the adults do.  Perhaps this could be modified for teens.  Teens may need a more helpful hand in showing the deeper aspects of martial arts.  Depending on the student, they could be given small assignments that look into the history or philosophy of the arts.  Or, they could have the physical aspect increased as per their teen appetites. 
     I started when I was 18 or 19, and my martial arts then was much more macho and physical than it is today.  Now that I'm older, and more experienced, I also like to explore the other aspects of martial arts; the history, the spiritual/philosophical side, the internal aspects of the arts.  The martial art hasn't changed, I have.  I started out young and energetic and grew into my martial art, and I hope to grow old with my art as well.