Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fighting Circles with Straight Lines

Fighting Circles with Straight Lines

Aikido circle
    This post is brought up because of something I saw years ago.  It was one of the police chase shows, you know the ones that usually show dumb criminals.  One part of the show was a helicopter view of Mr. Road Rager  Road Rager got out of his car, after an accident and was violently pissed at the Guy 2.  As they said on the show "What he didn't know is that the 2nd guy had a black belt in karate!"  (read that last bit in an annoying, over-the-top voice over, and you'll laugh at it too).  Guy 2, was actually trying to calm Mr. Rager down.  He had his hands up, it looked like he was trying to talk to Rager.  When Rager swung at him, Guy 2 blocked the punch,  circled and hit him with a ridge hand to the back of the neck all in one motion.  It caught Rager in just the right spot, and dropped him.  Unconscious.  With dejected body language, he pulled out his cell phone, and apparently called the cops.
    What initially struck me, as an aikido/jujutsu student, was the circular motion he used.  I'd always heard and seen how linear karate was.  Perhaps that was simply to distinguish it from other arts.  But Guy 2 used a move I'd seen in aikido/jujutsu endless times.  Was this karate or just a natural reaction?
Thibault's Circle
    A few years later, I was reading a book on the use of swords in Europe.  It talked about why European style fencing evolved the way it did.  The masters of the day diagnosed, correctly mind you, that a sword point that moves in a straight line hits its target, faster than a point moving in an arc (or curve).  They reasoned that a well-timed thrust would therefore always beat a cutting or slashing attack, so they built their systems based on that theory.  Again circles vs. straight lines.
    More recently I've noticed that my aikido is becoming less about circles, and more about being linear.  I've come to the conclusion is that there is a natural co-habitation of the two.  The higher level the aiki, the more linear it becomes.  The higher level the karate (I'm picking on them because in my head they are a good representative of a linear art), the more curved it becomes.  This is the general strategy I've started to employ.  I've expanded my personal strategy to include the general techniques where I use straight lines versus round attacks, and curves against straight attacks.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Meaning of a Black Belt

"A Black Belt only covers 2 inches of your ass.  You have to cover the rest."
-Royce Gracie

    For many neophyte martial artists, attaining the mystical "black belt" is the goal for their studies.  Often, a martial artist receive their new black belt and then disappear, never to study again.  Or worse yet, stay in the system, and assume elitist position, and assume they are now the shit.  This goes against the ideas and ideals of  martial arts.  Some martial arts don't even have a belt system.  From my understanding, most of the kung fu systems, and the really traditional Japanese systems don't use the kyu-dan method of ranking.  Some of them are starting to for commercial reasons.  The colored belt system itself is relatively new.  Kano Jigoro was the first to use it in Judo, roughly a century ago.  So there is not historical throwback to antiquity in this.  We'll discuss the myths of being a black belt in a different post, but first, a little education on the terminology from Japanese martial arts.
    Again, I don't know enough  about other martial arts system (my personal ignorance, that I am working to fix), so I can only speak about the terminology for the majority of Japanese/Okinawan  systems.  A person shouldn't properly be called "black belt" as if it were a title.  The belt is the piece of clothing.  It would be the equivalent of saying "You know, Joe is a Hardhat," when you mean he's a construction worker.  It sounds wrong to our ears, and calling someone a "Kuro Obi" sounds wrong Japanese ears.  Even calling someone a Shodan has a weird sound.  Shodan literally means "1st Rank."  When talking about some one's title, a better word would be Yudansha.  It means "someone who has rank."  It is a generalized term that says this person has entered the dan ranks (someone who has a black belt).  Consequentially someone who's working towards their dan rank is called a Mudansha (A person without dan rank.)
    Every martial art is a system.  Because of the nebulous realm that is human intraspecific physical conflict, some sort of organization is required for beginners to start to learn the particular theories and principles that work in the certain circumstances relevant to the origination of the art.  The system is a really a just learning tool.  A pathway to learn enough that someone can then apply the theories and principles.  In most systems, a rank of shodan means that you have passed through that system to learn the basics well enough that you can now work on learning the application.  That's all.  You now know enough to start learning.  I've heard it said that earning your shodan is the equivalent of graduating high school.  Or in an even more demonstrative statement, Allen "Big Al" Carroll says in Xing Yi "Congratulations, you just graduated kindergarten."
Martial arts is also useful for when Ninja try to steal your car
    The other side of the coin is MY black belt means a lot to me.  I've put in blood and sweat into my art to make sure I could learn enough.  I've consistently shown up, trained hard, and learned the presented material.  It is an important step in my life.  My belt is a symbol of all that I've put into my art.  Nobody else in the world should care about my belt.  To belabor the point, I had my equipment bag stolen from my car.  In it was my gi, hakama, and obi.  I know I could replace the physical belt, but I was upset that my belt was gone, because of what it symbolized.  Also, I know that all the contents of the bag were completely useless to anyone else in the world.  I'm short, the gi and hakama probably wouldn't fit anyone else anyway.  Fucking thieves... But I'm not bitter.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Why Practice with Outdated Weapons?

Why Practice with  Outdated Weapons?

     Swords are an outdated weapons.  They haven't been really used in battle since the American civil war (maybe the Spanish-American War).  So why would people want to study how to use them?  Isn't it a waste of time?  Why do we find fascination with swords over, say something more useful in the present day, like knives or even bayonets?  There is something to studying the use of swords and other archaic martial arts weapons.  They have both good and bad associations, so here are my opinions, and personal conclusions as to why we still do this.

1. Weapons require increased attention and concentration
    There is something psychological that happens in a society when weapons are brought into a conversation.  Suddenly things become a lot more serious.  As it should be.  I have personal experience with this.  I had a job as a supervisor for a summer camp.  During the planning week, before any kids showed up, there was a box that we needed to open.  So I pulled out my CRKT and cut it open, closed the blade and put it back in my pocket.  The entire room of adults got quiet, because I had a "weapon."  We were not always an unarmed society, but we have become one.  Because so many people are now unfamiliar with something as simple as a pocket knife, there is now a mystique generated by them.  Knowing that weapons can hurt yourself or others means that in their practice and use, you have to be extra careful.  Much more so than with empty hand techniques.  A misplaced punch could result in a bruise.  A misplaced cut could land you in the ER.  In many ways, training with weapon requires so much concentration on the movements being performed, that it becomes a form of meditation.  Some areas of study, like iaido or kenjutsu place this meditative state as one of the goals.  I think this singlar focus, on one thing is an oddity these days.  We have become multi-taskers to the point that thinking of a single thing for a long period of time has become a luxury.  Using weapons is a way to exercise that luxury.

2. Weapons are amplifiers
Pencak silat master using kris
    Weapons amplify all of your mistakes.  Many weapons, besides acting as either a hard surface, or a cutting edge, act as levers.  They increase the force used by being longer than your arm.  That means that any small mistake is amplified and made larger.  Any small defect in your technique has now been made larger.  That means there is a smaller margin of error in your movements with weapons.  This means the use of weapons is a good way to check your techniques.

3. Weapons usually have empty-hand equivalents
    In my arts of aikido, jujtutsu and kenjutsu, all sword movements/techniques have a direct application to empty hand techniques.  The template of body movement that applies to my sword work, has direct corralation to empty hand techniques.  My background is exclusively with Japanese martial arts, but I assume this true with most, if not all martial arts.   There have been numerous times that when someone is having trouble doing a technique.  I tell them to think of the move as if they are using a katana, and they almost always improve their techniques.

Who doesn't want to be this guy?
4. Romantic ideas/Connection to the Past
    Lets face it weapons are cool.  We like to think of ourselves as modern samurai or knights, or whatever warriors from different cultures.  If this is your inspiration at the start of your art, that's fine, but I have never found it to be a sustaining motivation.  Eventually the reality of what weapons training actually involves runs over that dream.  However, this weapon study can be a link to the past.  People have used these weapons throughout history to defend their homelands, to attack innocents, and to settle matters of honor.  Some martial arts can trace their lineage back to those times.  Some of the arts are preservations of history more than a useful martial art.  And if that's their purpose, it works too.  Swords in particular have a special representation to us.  Because of the high level of skill that goes into making one, let alone using one, they a subject to a lot of semi-spiritual symbolism.  Swords are often used to represent the best of humanity, or at least the ideas of them.  It's not a coincidence that a knights sword was in the shape of a cross.  Marines still have their dress swords for this point as well.

5. You can practice by yourself
    Unless you are doing a sport form like kendo, there is very little weapons training that you can't practice by yourself.  That means that weapons training is an extremely solo journey.  This is both a good and bad thing.  On one hand, you have only your own successes and failures, on the other it can be a lonely art.  I study sword, and invite people all the time to come check it out.  They usually come once or twice find out how much work it is and stop coming.

6. No real competition/application
    This is tied into the 4th reason.  For some people, the lack of competition is a good thing.  They like the solitude of self-practice.  They enjoy the time spent in moving meditation.  Others require a sense of usability.  Because its been a long time since people were using these weapons in actual combat situations, there is a lot that has to be assumed about their use.  Until you actually use the weapons, which I hope you don't, there will always be a doubt.

    So even if your art doesn't have weapons training as part of its curriculum, there are often arts that specialize in specific weapons.  It is always a good idea, once you are far enough along your own path, to supplement your main art with additional arts.  When you get to that point, consider adding a weapon based art.  They often teach you different things that non-weapons arts.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Putting the Art in Martial Art

Putting the Art in Martial Arts

Picassso's Science and Charity
    If you read any thing on the internet, you  find a lot of people who will say aikido doesn't work (other arts too, but for this point I'm concentrating on aikido).  They'll say it is not effective in a self-defense situation.  They'll say that "it wouldn't work in a real fight" and other such comments.  The overall idea of all of these comments is that aikido is not as realistic as, say Krav Maga, or MMA, or... what ever happens to be popular at that moment.  As a high school teacher, I like to make people think of their own answers.  My students complain to me that I never give them a straight answer, to which I reply "Don't I?"
No one will disagree that at least O-Sensei was a badass.

To the aikido detractors I usually have a conversation which goes something like this.

Me:  "Which is more realistic representation, photography or drawing?"

Detractor: "Photography"

Me: "Why do we still have drawing then?"

Detractor: "...?"

Me: "Why do we have drawing and painting?  Why do we have impressionism, or cubism, which look nothing like the original subjects?"

Picasso's Bullfight...Bullfight?
    Detractors usually can't come up with a good answer.  Yes cubist paintings don't look very much like their subjects, but we, as a society, still place a value on them.  There is an artistic value placed on interpretations.  Humans are complex beings who rely on complex ideas and symbolism to get ideas and emotions across.  Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso were both excellent "realistic" artists as well.  The were choosing to express themselves differently.  Martial arts do the same thing.
    Hoplology is the study of martial arts from a cultural point of view.  The idea is that it is as representative and worthwhile part of a culture as pottery, or music or any other traditionally interpreted art. Jujutsu is a great martial art, if you are on a battlefield of medieval Japan with armored people attacking you with arrow, spears, and swords.  It has a specific value in this specific application.  MMA wouldn't be very "realistic" in that arena.  In that same case, because of the armor, a Philipino knife fighter wouldn't do so well either.  But Arnis is still a great martial art.  All three martial arts are great for their specific application.  They have their own specific value both culturally, on the battlefield.  Some martial arts are concentrating more on their cultural aspect than they are their combative aspect.  In the end all martial arts can all be used in self defense situations as well.  Afterall, it's the martial artist, not the martial art.
    However, there gets to be a point in any art, where it looses its applicability and can only be appreciated by other artists who are of that type of art.  In the art world, abstract art tends to do that.  They go so far to the realm of artistic that there is nothing realistic in their art.  Martial arts can do this as well.  There are some arts that have lost all their realism to the point of being almost an exercise rather than a martial art.  Tae-bo, the super-soft aikido, and kickboxing fitness all exemplify this aspect.
    So in the end, make sure you have your art, but don't get so lost in it, that it looses its realism.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Don't Practice Martial Arts...

 Don't Practice Martial Arts... Be a Martial Artist

    What's the difference you ask?  First off, let me say that these are purely my own definitions, but that I believe they are apt.  Once I explain further, you'll probably recognize the differences and know people in both categories.

Funakoshi, the developer of modern karate
    A person who practices martial arts is passive about his learning.  Their learning of martial arts only occurs at the dojo.  It is a compartmentalized part of their lives.  Once they go home, there is nothing in their lives that is martial, except maybe when they tell their coworkers that they do karate, or kung fu, or whatever.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this method, I just don't believe they will ever get as much out of their art.  Although they will learn the kata, and techniques, and may even stick around long enough to earn their shodan (black belt), there will never be any reality about what they do.  They will never have the mental focus required for a martial situation.  For them, martial arts is a thing external to themselves and their world view.

Ip Man and Bruce Lee, both Martial Artists
    This is contrasted with the Martial Artist.  A martial artist is active in his learning.  These are the people who internalize their art.  The are active learners, in that they take control and responsibility for their education.  Martial arts is an integral part of their lives.  They think about martial arts all the time.  When they are waiting in line at the bank, they are mentally working through a  kata, or practicing irimi and tenkan (C'mon you know you have.)  As they walk through the park they run through scenarios of how they would react if ninja attacked them.  They practice at home all the time, not just before the tests.  They see inspiration for martial arts in other arts.  The only people they talk to about martial arts, is other martial artists.  There is something different about a Martial Artist.  Their intensity is different.  They don't have to be violent people, they just have a deeper intensity when practicing.  People who practice martial arts are missing the fact that their martial arts are for hurting and/or killing people.  Even in softer arts, like aikido or tai chi, martial artists have a martial intensity.  This is not to say they hurt people in class, in fact, they probably work really hard not to.  They just understand what a martial art is for.  These are the people who will one day master their art (I'll talk more about mastering martial arts in a future post).  For a martial artist, they have the survivalist "not if, but when" attitude.

    If you find yourself aligned more with the person who is a practitioner of martial arts, and you want to become a martial artist, don't fret, there is a app path for that.  For the most part, just continuing the same actions you are doing now keeps you as a practitioner.  You have to change something.  The main aspect, is become an active learner.  There are four suggestions I have for becoming an active learner of martial arts.

1. Keep a Martial Arts Journal.
I've written a couple of posts on how and why to keep a martial arts journal.  The end results is by writing things down, you become more conscious of them.  You have to observe your art with a keener eye.  You'll be actively looking at what is being taught.

2. Read a Book
There are literally hundreds of thousands of books on martial arts.  Some deal with a specific art, some with the philosophy, some with history, and some are how to teach martial arts.  Read them.  This is the active part of your martial education.  Your sensei/sifu may be great, but they are still human.  Their knowledge is limited.  Other people have had different experiences.  By learning other's strategies, you grow.
If you're looking for a place to start, I made a list of 5 books every martial artist should have.  Pick one. Or five.  I know it may sound weird, but when you select a book on, there is a list at the bottom that says "if you like this book, here are some others."  I've found really good books I had no idea existed by tracking through the recommended lists.  Also, allows people who read the book to post reviews.  They will often be more honest and critical of the book then the dust jacket.

Moses Powell Seminar in November, if you're interested let me know
3. Go to Seminars
Seminars are special things.  They allow you to see a different martial philosophy from what you see everyday.  Our system has an annual seminar, and even though I go to class 3 times a week, at a our seminars I still am overwhelmed with the amount of new information I'm presented with in such a short amount of time.

4. Visit other Dojo
One of the problems with studying judo, is you only learn how to defend against judo players.  Same thing with Aikido, or Wing Chun, or Penjak Silat, or whatever art you study.  Ocassionally, you need to at least see how other people attack and defend themselves.  You can also make new martial friends.  I've yet to find a dojo that wants to keep themselves isolated.  We love it when people come in.  I love to talk to other martial artists.  I think Martial Artists like to do this as well.  If anyone is ever in South Florida, I personally invite you to come check out Atemi ryu Jujutsu, or Chendokan Aikido.

What else differentiates the two?  I don't know, what are your examples?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

England has martial arts?

England has martial arts?

Originally posted on

Engraving of Medieval Knight
    If you surveyed 100 people and asked them to name a country famous for their martial arts, England would not be at the top of that Family Feud list.  Sure, China, Japan, and probably Korea would fill in the top three.  Followed, possibly, by Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, or possibly India.  Brazil might come to mind, but England?  That country is known for its stiff upper lip, not upper cut.
    But why not?  Europe had a professional warrior class just light the Asian kingdoms.  They were called knights.  It has long been the popular idea that European knights were unskilled hack-and-slashers, protected from the lethal blows by their thick plate mail, but logically, that cannot be true.  The had to have a skill set that allowed them to be successful warriors.  Besides, any time you have humans in conflict, there is going to be an evolution of combat movements.  Some work, and you survive.  Some don't, and you die.  This will naturally lead to people teaching others how to survive better.  It is only relatively recently that some of these Dark Ages fighting styles have reemerged into the light of popular knowledge.  The book Medieval Combat is a translation, with reproduced illustrations of a 15th century Fechtbuch (fight book), bu German Master-of-Arms, Hans Talhoffer.  It describes many methods of combat, including long sword, various polearms, unarmed combat, combat against two people, and so on.  It a complete martial system  Reading the book, with its artistically don illustrations, reminds me of the picture scrolls of Asian martial arts where the techniques of a system were passed down.

Illustration from Fechtbuck
    Even after the use of gunpowder was established as a battlefield tactic, rapier use was still prevalent, and these Renaissance fencers were establishing schools of training.  There were different theories applied and colored by different countries.  Italian swordsmanship was different from German, which was different from Spanish, French, and English styles.  Officers in all the major armies of the world still carried swords up until WWI; although the Japanese, with their love affair with the sword, would carry this tradition through WWII.  The American Marine Corp still has their dress Mameluke swords, as symbols of these historic warriors.
E. W. Barton-Wright
    Even as countries and governments adopted advances in warfare technologies, private individuals were still at risk.  Just as today, there were back alley muggings, people were still scuffling over disputes, and others needed personal protection - enter E. W. Barton-Wright.  Mr Barton-Wright was a British engineer who worked as an antimony smelter in Kobe, Japan from 1895-`989.  In Kobe, he studied Jujutsu and Judo, incorporating these martial arts along with French Savate, La Canne (stick fighting from Switzerland), and boxing into what he eventually called "Bartitsu."  Barton-Wright introduced his new Bartitsu in London in 1900, and by incorporating many of the world's martial arts, he became England's first mixed martial artist.  Barton-Wright's style used jujutsu principles, but included equipment that an English gentleman might commonly have on him.  The Swiss La Canne was used with canes and umbrellas, which every good Victorian age gentleman in London should have on his person while about.  It was proliferated for three years and enjoyed increasing popularity.  Barton-Wright wrote two volumes on the content of Bartitsu.  Then, for reasons not entirely clear, his London Bartitsu club closed its doors.  If not for a brief mention by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Adventures of the Empty House, which spoke of his hero Sherlock Holmes employing "bartitsu,"the martial art may have been forgotten by history.  Recently there has been a movement to re-establish this forgotten martial art.  There are clubs which have sprung up in the last decade to investigate England's martial arts history.  Furthermore, other martial artists have been reviewing the two volume of information that Barton-Wright left behind in order to determine what the original Bartitsu techniques were in order to study and reintroduce them for a modern audience.

If you are interested, I conducted an interview with Tony Wolf, one of the men responsible for the re-establishment of bartitsu.