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Never satisfied with ukemi, a New Year’s resolution

“We find it absolutely necessary to acquire new modes of doing, that is, to make adjustments and allow our growth in directions that were previously barred for us or simply neglected.” Moshe Felenkrais, Higher Judo – Groundwork

I want to put into words a resolution that I’ve had for a while. Ukemi is the door to meaningful paired practice, counters, stealing techniques, etc. Some of the aspects of ukemi I’ll be working on:

  • Meaningful attacks
  • Sensitivity
  • maintaining physical integraty through the whole technique (including falling and regaining posture)

I’ve two main motivations for this:

  • Improving skills to gain more from practice.
  • Avoiding chronic injuries that some older practitioners have.

I think it’s an important time for me to make this resolution as:

  • I still have a young body that can learn new skills.
  • I’ve practised for long enough that there’s a danger of becoming complacent.

In the coming year I’ll work on some of the more gymnastic styles of falling like feather falls.

here’s a link to some other posts I made about ukemi (excuse the format, they’re transcribed from an online discussion)

Suki, 隙: part 3

This is a short series about openings/opportunities in aikido and other martial arts.

Part 1: introduction, openings in others

Part 2: from the opposite perspective: openings in ourselves

Part 3: off the mat, vulnerability and compassion

Part 3, off the mat

The reader will already appreciate that some of the technical points from the last parts can be applied outside of the physical practice of aikido.  In this final part will look at some to our life outside the dojo.    We will skip through:

  1. a recap of the previous parts
  2. arousal
  3. zanshin, with Takeda as an example
  4. Tohei leather jacket
  5. leaving openings
  6. empathy

Recap

In the previous two parts we discussed openings from a technical point of view.  These included:

  1. Types of opening
  2. Where openings come from
  3. Exploiting openings
  4. Closing openings (avoidance)
  5. Irimi
  6. When closing openings fails (evasion)
  7. Fall back plans
  8. Deliberately leaving openings

Arousal

All of this is worthless if we are not appropriately engaged to be aware of what’s happening around us.  As humans our level of engagement, also known as arousal in sports psychology fields, varies.  There is an optimum level of arousal for the performance of different tasks.  Defining this optimum level is both personal and situational (Stepahn Kesting’s blog has a good series about this optimum level  http://www.grapplearts.com/Blog/?s=arousal&x=0&y=0).

Initially our arousal in the dojo swings between too high (panic) and too low (distracted) to perform properly.  With familiarity we become less prone to panic.  A harder problem to identify is when arousal is dipping too low.  This is particularly likely to happen between bursts of activity e.g. between techniques. Some dip in arousal is natural but in budo this should be managed; we cannot assume the situation is safe.  A considerate training partner will show us when our awareness has dropped too low, waking us up.

Zanshin

After victory, tighten your helmet chord.

This attitude of enduring awareness is referred to as zanshin or lingering spirit.  It is evident in both our physical and mental attitude.  An example of awareness is Takeda Sōkaku, the Daito-ryu teacher of Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei.  Reports of his constant vigilance go as far as always having his food tasted for poison and carrying a sharpened pair of metal chopsticks with him.  He appears to have been paranoid in an way that was old-fashioned, even for that time.

The leather jacket

Two generations of student later Kochei Tohei had an incident with a leather jacket [1]. The story is dealt with in depth in many other places but here’s a brief version.

Tohei went to Hawaii to help spread aikido outside of Japan.  He came back to Japan with a leather jacket.  At the time leather was expensive in Japan and a whole jacket made of leather was a real luxury.  One day Tohei discovered his jacket had been stolen.  He went into the training hall and berated the uchi-daeshi about the incident, suspecting one of them to be the thief.  O Sensei came into the hall when this was happening, on hearing the story he reprimanded Tohei for leaving the opening and creating a thief.

The Japanese word for invincible, 無敵, literally no enemy, echoes this idea.  Instead of destroying your enemies, do not let people become enemies.

These two stories parallel minimising openings in ourselves and our training partners in aikido practice.

Leaving openings

Constantly closing openings is like the trade-off between armor and manoeuverability.  The “letting go of four hands” in the Book of 5 Rings dramatically abandons a defensive position to snatch victory.  An off the mat parallel to being armored but immobile may be the cliché of being “emotionally unavailable.”  Let’s continue the theme of generations in the Daito-ryu family by consider the following written by Ellis Amdur of his aikido instructor, Kuwamori Yasunori.

What was so marvelous about the man was that, in a world where such sensitivity was anathema, he was not afraid of the pain of loss. He never pretended he was above it all. He never hid in the subtle cowardice of non-attachment. Once, drinking with a then in-house disciple of Honbu dojo, a rough, hard man, Yasunori spoke openly of something personal. His friend recoiled in horror, saying, “How can you say that to me. You’ve revealed your weakness, and you are at my mercy.” Yasunori laughed and said, “I’m not afraid that you know who I am.” His friend could not handle this, and their relationship cooled. [2]

There was an opening of revealing a weakness but there is some benefit to being open with your friends.  How often do we hide in the “subtle cowardice of non-attachment?”  I know that I have regrets about more than one of these cowardly acts.  Yasunori was only able to be open because he was secure, this reminds me of the seanfhocail Is cuma le fear na mbróg cá leagann sé a chos, or the man with boots doesn’t mind where he puts his feet.

Another story from the same article also deals with managing openings:

For several months I lived in the Kuwamori home, above the dojo. The first night, spreading my futon beside that of its head instructor, I said in halting Japanese, “Goodnight sensei.” He turned on the light, and looked at me, and in careful, broken English said to me, “Don’t call me sensei. You call me by my name—Yasunori. I can’t be called “sensei” by someone who sleeps next to me. Think of me as your older brother. Find your sensei somewhere else. You understand? Goodnight, Ellis.”[2]

How easy it would have been to follow the norm of having Amdur call him sensei.  Defining the relationship as brotherly was different from the safer more traditional one.  How different is this to carrying sharpened metal chopsticks?

Empathy

In many aikido techniques tori matches uke’s movement and shares uke’s perspective.  During a technique tori often faces the same direction as uke, “seeing what uke was looking at,” either shoulder to shoulder or looking over uke’s shoulder.  Even with strikes we rarely block the strike directly like the cartoon image of karate.  Matching the motion of uke is expressed in brushing past or cutting up in time with uke’s action.  Beyond the introduction phase sensitivity to uke’s condition is needed.  We need to know where our partner is weak to execute effective technique.

Understanding others is needed for empathy, empathy is needed for compassion.  “Budo is compassion” makes sense in this respect.

Summary

At a first approximation martial arts is about recognising and exploiting openings in others.  To do this well we need to look at openings in ourselves.  Since we are similar to our partners there is a lot of transfer between these two areas.  We do not need to close every opening in ourselves, and sometimes there are advantages in vulnerability.

The age we live in allows us to be more vulnerable than in the history of some disciplines we study.  We should neither throw out all the lessons from that time nor ignore the advantages of living in today.  These lessons can be applied outside the dojo.

Acquire the skills to keep us safe; open yourself so love can flow through.

edit:

Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability, a talk on TEDtalks I saw today, sums this up really well.
TEDxKC – Brené Brown – The Price of Invulnerability, is also good and covers much the same issue from the opposite angle.

 

References

  1. Pranin, S., Don’t make a thief! Aikido Journal. http://www.aikidojournal.com/article?articleID=695
  2. Amdur, E., Oniisan. Aikido Journal. http://www.aikidojournal.com/article?articleID=74

suki, 隙 : part 2

This is part of a short series about openings/opportunities in aikido and other martial arts.
Part 1: introduction, openings in others
Part 2: openings in ourselves
Part 3: off the mat, vulnerability and compassion

The previous part dealt briefly with recognising and exploiting openings in our opponent (and noted how the same openings can be found in ourselves).
In this part we’ll look at closing openings, irimi, evasion, fall back plans and deliberately leaving openings.
We work from the perspective of the vulnerable partner this time.  Why should we look at vulnerabilities in ourselves?
* Knowing your vulnerabilities lets you know what to strengthen.
* You can not strengthen yourself to be invulnerable to all adversity at all times. When failure is not an option you must know how to win even when the odds are against you.

closing openings in our technique
In part 1 we noted techniques have some inherent openings. One example is the pivot in shihonage, the most common point in the technique for a counter.
As tori you have a few options if your technique is countered:

  1. don’t ever try to do the technique again
  2. complete the technique in abbreviated form the next time you do it
  3. leave the opening but persuade uke to not exploit it
  4. leave the opening but diminish uke’s ability to exploit the opening
  5. close the opening
  6. re-counter their counter technique
  7. some combination of the above options

Obviously not all of the above options fulfill the same aims equally. Let’s look at some of these in more detail.

1 don’t ever try to do the technique again
Do you have an alternative that will achieve your aims better? Does this technique offer you something unique?
2 complete the technique in abbreviated form
E.g. do udekime nage instead of shihonage. This avoids the openings in the pivot. What would we lose by not practising the technique in its longer form?
3 leave the opening but persuade uke to not exploit it
This type of compliant training has a place when introducing a technique or trying to focus on some other aspect of it. When the skill level is greatly different the more experienced practitioner will see many openings in the less experienced practitioner that the less experienced practitioner may not even know about. Which ones get highlighted is a matter of current priorities.
There is a danger of taking this option unconsciously, especially in kata training like aikido.
4 leave the opening but diminish uke’s ability to exploit the opening
This diminishing can take several forms: 

  1. attack their senses before the opening, e.g. atemi to the eyes (a canny partner may still guess what you’re doing)
  2. turn uke so they aren’t in a position to take advantage
  3. make a simulataneous attack that forces uke to take a position contradictory to one that they could counter from (can’t orient, can’t decide)
  4. destroy an essential component for their counter action e.g. stun/break/constrain a limb

A facetios conclusion of this line of thinking: to close the opening of uke escaping your ikkyo pin, first kill uke,,,

5 close the opening
Generally an opening starts earlier than you think. The best time to close an opening is before it begins.  (See irimi below)
Is it possible to close this opening and still keep the essential characteristics of the technique? This is the heart of a lot of our technical training.
6 recounter their counter technique
This can be easy in some situations and very difficult in others. Some counters/escapes by uke put tori back in an ideal position for a continued technique e.g. uke spinning out of shihonage may leave you back in a starting position for shihonage.
Direct counters that use atemi or a very short action are more difficult to re-counter.
We’ll look more at re-countering in evasion.
7 some combination of the above options
Ara waza / self defence techniques often both abbreviate the techniques and diminish the opponent with strikes early on.

 

Irimi
Irimi, to enter with the body, is a important part of aikido.  The idea is generally introduced with shomenuchi iriminage. We boldly enter to a safer place, closing the openings of hesitation and fear, like grabbing a nettle before it stings.

Evasion
You’ve tried to avoid leaving any openings for your partner to exploit but failed. Your guard was down and now there’s a fist sailing towards your face like a golf ball. Assuming you’re aware of the situation you may have some options

  1. get hit (not really evasion)
  2. evade by moving the target off the line of attack (slip, bob, weave, snap back, step out, etc.)
  3. change the line of the attack (parry)
  4. roll with the punch / absorb
  5. counter attack
  6. guard up / take a defensive mode
  7. some combination of the above

Evasion is similiar in throwing, locking and choking.

Fall back plan
Assuming you’ve taken option 1, i.e. failed to avoid or evade the attack, what now? We should have a back up plan. Grapplers learn to escape holds, strikers learn to regroup after being rocked, etc.  Fall back plans must be appropriate to the situation.

Deliberately leaving openings
Control, i.e. keeping your openings to a minimum, takes resources. There are times when you may not want to employ all your resources for control, such as:

  1. conserve resources for some other use e.g. move from a pin to submission
  2. allow your partner to train a specific skill
  3. set a specific trap for your partner (“indirectly causing an opening in our partner” as we called it in part 1)
  4. move into a more chaotic situation / scramble

We are free to surrender some control if we know how to act from less favorable positions; free in the sense that we can take risks if we can deal possible failure i.e. in bjj you’re more likely to give up a mount for an arm-bar if you have good sweeps.
You only have to take risks if you’re not winning, which is why in judo we are more content to hold a pin then try a submission compared to when playing under bjj rules.

In summary we should recognise the weaknesses in ourselves.  This knowledge will inform us how to better ourselves and what contingency plans we need to put in place.  Sometimes resources are better spent on tasks other than covering our openings.
Sorry for being so brief on each point, I’ll include some references that expand on the points here in the last part.

Suki, 隙: part 1 exploiting openings in others

This is a short series about openings/opportunities in aikido and other martial arts.
Part 1: introduction, openings in others
Part 2: openings in ourselves, letting go (not published yet)
Part 3: off the mat, vulnerability and compassion

Ability is nothing without opportunity – Napolean Bonaparte

Types of opening
Openings, sometimes called suki1 , 隙, in aikido come in three types:

  1. Timing/movement; dosa-no-suki / 動作の隙2 : If we are fast enough we may take the decisive action while uke transitions or pauses.
  2. Posture/Structure; kamae-no-suki / 構えの隙2 : If our partner’s structure is unsound or gaurd is open they will be open.
  3. Spirit; Kokoro-no-suki / 心の隙2 : If our partner “hedges their bets” and does not enter wholly into each action they will be open in their moment of indecision.

All three parts may be ok on individual inspection but your partner will still be open if they don’t coordinate the three properly (see Ki-ken-tai-ichi 3)


Sources of openings
These openings can come from 3 different sources: 4

  1. The unprompted actions/condition of our opponent, e.g. incorrect gaurd position: exploited with direct attack.
  2. Caused directly by us, e.g. beat attack: the first part of our action is to make an opening for our direct attack.
  3. Indirectly caused by us (see part 2 for more detail), e.g. 2nd intention attack: our initial attack fails but induces our opponent to attack, we exploit the opening in his attack with a counter technique like a parry-reposte.

By symmetry all these openings can also be found in ourselves. A way to learn to see openings in others is to have a partner exploit them in us. We won’t look at this symmetry any deeper here, but it should be kept in mind.
Once an opening has been observed an appropriate action must be taken before it is gone. Our training is the investment we make so that when openings present themselves we can observe, orient, decide and act in the most efficient manner (See Boyd5). One thing that can get in the way of this process is our own fear. We’ll deal with this more in part 2, but it’s summed up in “irimi.”


Failed technique and lack of openings
The ‘mountain-sea’ spirit means that it is bad to repeat the same thing several times when fighting the enemy. There may be no help but to do something twice, but do not try it a third time. If you once make an attack and fail, there is little chance of success if you use the same approach again. – the book of 5 rings, Musashi 6

The less open your partner is to one technique the more vulnerable they’ll be to another. For example, if uke is directly resisting a rearward throw they are creating an opening for a forward throw (sokumen irimi nage to omote kaiten nage; ko-uchi garrai to seoi-nage; etc), thus our actions should be tailored to our partner. There is also a time for determination but when this becomes stubbornness we become vulnerable ourselves.
In training you may wish to investigate one particular technique and how to make it effective even against an unwilling uke. This could be seen as improving a technique so it can exploit smaller openings.


Ignoring openings
Letting openings go unexploited can have consequences. One may be the training experience you are denying yourself and your partner. Outside of training we are even less often allowed a second chance at an opportunity.
Sometimes you’ll see more than one opening. When the decision appears arbitrary choose one resolutely.


References

  1. “kanji for, and meaning of, suki” a discussion on aikiweb http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/showthread.php?p=267569#post267569
  2. a term more widely used in kendo, these openings are discussed in answer 11 to a kendo exam that can be found on the ucl kendo clubs site: www.uclkendo.org
  3. Mind body and sword as one, a widely used concept, which I’ve previously blogged about: link to ki-ken-tai-ichi-blog
  4. I’m sure I’ve stolen this from an article on kazushi but can’t remember the source.
  5. John Boyd’s work on Command and Control, the OODA loop, was origionaly formed to describe US air superiority in Korea, it has since been applied to many other areas of adversarial activity: link wikipedia page
  6. The Book of 5 Rings – Miyamoto Musashi: Book of the 5 Rings on Amazon

ki-ken-tai-ichi

Mind-Sword-Body- Oneness

This usually refers to making a unified action with all three acting as one for a clear purpose. Each part is clearly performing one task, which is in harmony with the others. No part has to compensate for any other. The idea of ki-ken-tai-ichi can be applied to wide variety of actions like swinging a golf club or throwing a training partner. Let’s take the obvious exemplar, using a sword.

What is the clear purpose of the whole?

Bringing a critical amount of force to bear on your enemy before they do the same to you is the purpose when using a sword.

What is the clear purpose if each component?

Ki /spirit: Engage your spirit in this one action; do not flit to past or future actions. Considering motivations, possible outcomes or technical points is not engaging your spirit in one action.

Ken/sword: in stillness or motion the sharpness of the blade seeks out the target, it does not waiver from the path to its goal (See Book of the 5 Rings on postures)

Tai/body: the whole body is moved in unison to drive the one clear action, there is no extraneous movement

What is needed to be able to achieve ki-ken-tai-ichi?

Sincere practice to forge the technical skills, determination to commit your resources instantaneously and the focus to stay on your chosen course of action are what’s needed.

Practice for the individual parts

Ki /spirit: An isolation exercise (e.g. zazen) or by forging the mind in an environment where lack of concentration is weeded out (e.g. randori, see Kano’s writings on the purpose of randori).

Ken/sword: Tamshigiri (testing the quality of the blade by cutting), suburi (continuous repetition of basic strikes) and weapon sparring may help one-purpose-sword.

Tai/body: The body needs more forging and maintenance than the sword to be fit for its purpose. Your fitness should not interfere in your ability to perform an action. This fitness begins with flexibility (especially in the hips) to comfortably go through the full range of motion required. After flexibility the particular body movements can be ingrained.

Link between the three parts and related pracitice:

Mind -> (Body-Sword): There is no delay between thought and action. Developing reaction times by reacting to varying stimulus e.g. paired kata where uke-daichi dictates the rhythm. (See John Boyd’s OODA loop)

Body -> Sword: The actions of the body drive the sword. The delay between the start of the driving force of the action (body) and the tool it is expressed in (sword) should be minimised. Heavy work like digging with a pick and suburi with a heavy bokken can help build this feeling.

Body -> Mind: You must be familiar enough with your own body so that any change in stimulus (e.g. loss of balance, appearance of a threat) is instantly recognised.

Sword -> (Body-Mind): any movement of the sword should be seamlessly reflected in the action of the body. One example of the importance of this is continuing an attack after the initial strike is parried. “Putting your sensitivity in the sword” / “using the sword like an extension of your body”

When the three are inseparable:

The true action should exhibit “synchronised sincerity.” No gap should be felt between the sword body and mind by the you or an external observer.