Wednesday, November 28, 2018

圧覚Akkaku (Sense of Pressure)

圧覚 Akkaku (Sense of Pressure)

Pressure- bearing down on me, bearing down on you...
Under Pressure
Queen/David Bowie

Ichi Go Ichi E
One Meeting, One Chance
Japanese Proverb

People are occasionally incredulous that not all combative methods hinge on 'sparring*,'  (the assumption seems to be that this sole component is more critical than any other in creating useful skill-sets).  As mentioned in previous entries, the primary means of transmission for many older-style Japanese arts (including the one that I study and practice) are kata ([two-person] forms) in which the senior takes the role of the  Uke/Uchitachi/Uketachi (/打ち太刀/受け太刀receiver/swinging sword/receiving sword), the 'loser'.  As practice progresses, the speed, maai (間合いinterval meet, the nexus of distancing and timing), contact strength, connection, etc. are all subject to change, sometimes radically.  What often gets lost in written descriptions is just how unpredictable things can get within an individual form.

In learning any two-person form, both partners' are trained to initiate, receive and counter certain specific actions in certain orders- and for a while, this happens exactly as learned.   However, once the junior can replicate the gross format, the senior begins making alterations.  Before you know it, the senior partner can end up next to (or behind) you, while maintaining the format, forcing the junior to adapt and extend his/her awareness beyond his/her own space to include wherever aite (合手meeting hand, one's partner) is at that moment (keep in mind, this is all without losing focus on greater spatial awareness). 

The cutting, grabbing, crushing or striking in these forms might seem (almost) symbolic at first; shortly, though the danger becomes clear. Maintaining the attention and concentration required to avoid being struck, cut, bound or immobilized is taxing, especially when it feels like no matter where or how much you move, that aite is uncomfortably close... or just slightly too far away for your cuts, thrusts, kicks, punches or grabs to land, while s/he always seems to be able to reach you with ease.  Akkaku (this sense of pressure) is a distinguishing feature of effective kata keiko (形稽古- form consider the old, or, practice) on both physical and psycho-emotional levels and keeps us working at or close to the edge of our skill** while reinforcing the maintenance of core body and tool-use mechanics.

Among other things, akkaku prevents kata keiko from degenerating into merely tapping tools, striking the air near aite or grabbing/contacting in some namby-pamby way.  It provides a sense of urgency while helping to shape appropriate responses, built on the framework of kihon (basics) and gensoku (principles) native to our arts**.   In sets with matched tools (sword to sword, spear to spear, 'unarmed,' etc.), we are presented with what appear to be symmetrical, force-on-force exchanges that make variations on kihon.  As we progress, those kihon become more robust and useful thanks to an understanding derived through the alterations found within one's kata.  Training with akkaku also gently reinforces for shitachi (仕太刀performing sword) or tori (取りthe taker or 'winner' of a technique or form) that merely repeating the form ‘correctly' is no guarantee of a positive outcome.

Through consistent akkaku, it becomes clear that doing kata exactly the same way every time, even if it appears 'technically right' is an empty exercise (and poor training, which a good aite will make obvious rather quickly).  When done with proper intention (well designed) kata aren't fragile museum pieces to be treated preciously and put back on some shelf, nor are they observed at a remove.  Good kata are robust, meant to be inhabited, thoroughly dissected, digested and internalized***.  By bringing participants into the present to share a completely unique expression of principles in a setting that varies slightly depending on each person's level of experience, power generation, friction, etc. This is an excellent example of the expression Ichi Go Ichi E, the idea that even in the familiar each iteration will be unique.

Of course, there is 'free play' in Japanese arts; much of it quite hearty (up to and including inter-school challenges.)  With that said, there is a direct benefit to working at the fullest extent of one's speed and power against someone capable of leading you to make the 'appropriate' (to strategy, level, etc.) tactical choices through kata.  It is a means of transmission that alters the practice in progressively subtler ways, evoking some of the same psycho-physical responses as being in 'live fire' situations, with fewer of the bad habits and almost none of the feelings of invulnerability that 'winning' at sparring can induce.  And, as if by some strange coincidence, it turns out that many of the skills from properly trained kata translate to 'free' exchanges rather nicely (almost, as if these silly old training methods make provisions for real-world use...)

Yours in appreciating pressure,

*It is my contention that concentrating on sparring without a firm foundation in basics and body method can lead to bad habits, sloppiness, reliance on too few responses, and, can reinforce the assumption that force encounters ought to be symmetrical, a profoundly dangerous notion.  Also of concern is becoming too used to the built-in accommodations required to not die in robust exchanges. In other words, working one-on-one, barehanded, on level ground might lead to an inability to adapt to additional opponents, a challenging environment, or tools being deployed.

**Not safety though, that's dumb!  Which is why it works best to train with someone seasoned enough to know where on the continuum between level-appropriate stress, adrenal response and 'likely to die'-level panic we, the juniors, ought to find ourselves at any given moment.  Good aite are constantly pushing each other, not by trying to show the other person up, but through honest, connected and present interactions.

*** This is one reason that it makes no sense to 'shop' for forms from other arts and ways- those worth their salt exist to reinforce skills specific to one art's transmission.  Beyond the very real likelihood of misunderstanding the meaning of a form or its applications, it can lead to incongruities.  The kind that can be difficult to overcome when it matters, e.g. under duress (the very most wrong time to discover that a skill only works intermittently or not at all outside of the laboratory conditions of class...)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

称号 Shogo (Name Titles)

称号 Shogo- Titles

Please note:
This essay is a slightly modified version of one that appears in the recent update to the
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo Gakusei Benran 学生便覧 (student handbook)

Displays of deference have, from time immemorial, served as a means to reduce the friction of interpersonal interaction.  This was particularly critical in feudal societies, but examples carry through to our modern era; to imply through behavior or speech that one thinks oneself more important, experienced, skilled, etc. than the person with whom s/he is speaking, can, in itself, be perceived an insult.  Here in America, introducing oneself using honorifics may not receive a second thought; in Japan, however, it is a faux pas that will lead listeners to assume that the speaker is, at best, too young (in practice), inexperienced (at relating to humans IRL), insecure, or mentally deficient to be taken seriously; at worst, it's a quick way to catch a beating.  To that end, introducing oneself as "Nani-Nani Sensei (or worse yet, "Sensei Nani-Nani*") is a fairly easy error to avoid- just don't do it! 

Sensei. O Sensei.  Waka Sensei.  Renshi.  Shihan.  Hanshi.  Sempai.  Kohai.  Iemoto.  Soke.  Japanese traditions are rife with titles, most of which suffer from severe misuse.  What those words mean and how they are used matter, especially if you are expected to use them as forms of address.

Very few Japanese words are as widely known and carry more portent (and baggage) for English speakers than, 'Sensei'.  Most simply, it comprises two kanji (non-phonetic Chinese ideographs used in Japanese) sen, and, sei. Sen means before and appears in many compounds, including Sen no sen 先の先 (initiative of initiative- a timing concept) and sente 先手 (before hand- an attack, attacker, forestalling or making the first move).  Sen carries an idea of leading, in part because the kanji represents a person (two legs on the bottom) coercing a cow (legs and horn on top)- implying that rather than contend directly with a physically stronger animal, the human compels the cow or bull along by the horn or nose.  The notion at its essence is that the power of intellect, experience, and tools can overwhelm and control brute force.

Sei (or Sho) is existence.  Together, they make born or existing before... that's it.  Someone whom you respect (without regard to the field of endeavor) or whose counsel you seek might be called, "Sensei."  On a film set, the director is, Sensei, in a kitchen, it is the chef.  Dentists, researchers, lawyers, and school teachers can all be Sensei.

Okay, you may be saying, but what about O Sensei- that's almost always translated as 'Great Teacher,' so that's on the level, right?  Well... no.  O Sensei (大先生/翁先生) doesn't imply awesomeness- it's a means of clarification.  When folks of the same family name (usually father and son, but it can/has been otherwise) work in the same field, keeping straight which 'Jones Sensei' you mean can be a hassle.  Add Waka (young) to Sensei and it's no longer in doubt that one is talking about the junior relative.  Same with adding (large) or (old) "O" to Sensei, you aren't saying, 'most beststest teacher evah,' you're simply being clear that you mean the elder 'Jones'.

Sempai (before) (generation/companion) points to someone (or ones) senior to you, but, perhaps, not in quite as august a role as sensei.  It's been suggested that while the term sempai is clearly applicable to anyone with more experience, it is ideally used only for the person or people whose influence you feel strongly enough to want to follow around like a duckling trailing its mom.

Kohai 後輩 (rear generation/companion) is also a relative term, but one that is not ever used as a form of address.  To refer to younger students, diminutive honorifics are used (for boys, family name or occasionally, given name, followed by [kun]; for girls, family name, then ちゃん [chan], as opposed to family name, さん[san]).
Shogo are, in general, written 'titles' and not meant to be used as direct forms of address and doing so makes no more sense than using a full title in English, "thank you, Dr. Brown, Licensed General Family Practitioner..." That means that people addressing their teachers as "Shihan" or 'Hanshi*' are incorrectly applying shogo; '(name) Sensei' is what you call her/him (although one could use the shogo to talk about a teacher to another, it would, again, tend to be used as distinction from someone with a similar name).  This is true no matter whether Renshi (錬士- practice gentleman/expert), Shihan (師範- master paradigm) or Hanshi (範士- paradigm expert)- they may write shogo on meisho (明証 -certificates), but they should not expect you to call them such because it's goofy.  Despite their frequent misapplication, shogo, when used correctly, point to people who exemplify the teachings of a Ryu (- flow, a school or style).  In order to discuss lineage titles, just a bit about how Ryu are structured.
Ryu exist for many types of endeavors in Japan, from Ikebana/Kado 生け花 [flower arranging] to Cha no Yu/Chado 茶の湯 [tea ceremony] to etiquette, music, and theater.  Every member of a ryu is expected to mold him/herself to his/her ryu, first, by adopting group dynamics and reishiki (例式- formalities), then through the practice of Kata (- forms).  Initially rote and prescriptive, kata are designed to introduce clearly structured skills in certain orders to develop and integrate specific psycho-physical attributes.  Eventually moving beyond emulation and repetition, the practitioner finds him/herself appropriately manifesting gensoku (principles) innate to his/her ryu as acquired through the practice of kata and deepened through oyo (application).  It is in the transition from imitation of physical format to incorporation of the gensoku paired with immersion in the tradition that characterizes the oft-maligned (though, rather unsurprisingly, not often by those who are 'products' of) pedagogical methods of ryu.

Many ryu**, use lineal transmission (usually within families and/or around a location significant to the tradition) to ensure an active connection between the founder, the earliest students of the method, and subsequent generations.  Inheritors serve as a bridge between the (sometimes distant) past, present, and future with duties ranging from mooring the transmission symbolically (fulfilling ceremonial tasks without involvement in day-to-day operations) to much more hands-on.  Direct oversight can include everything from selecting prospective members to actively teaching, depending on the ryu. 

The two most common titles for those charged with the oversight of a Ryu are Soke (宗家- sect house) or Iemoto (家元- family foundation), although in some traditions Shihan indicates generational responsibility (for others, Shihan are responsible for technical transmission) and similar to other official-sounding titles, these are frequently misused in the West.  Implied by both is a willingness to carry their ryu's gensoku into the future with an odd combination of reverence, investment in their method's technical underpinnings and the fearlessness to encourage others to discover the 'truth' contained within the teachings.  As with other shogo, it is unusual to hear them used as a direct form of address (although one does occasionally hear Japanese speakers refer to the inheritor of their art as 'Soke Sensei' if s/he actively teaches.)

Two final notes:  when referring to one's own teacher to someone outside your group, it is déclassé to call him/her 'Sensei'; instead, standard politeness suggests that one to refer to him/her by family name (or whatever you use regularly) only.  However, when referring to other people's teacher(s), it is normal to use Sensei (this may seem overly deferential, but again, reduces 'social friction'.)                            

So there you have it- a snapshot of shogo and their proper use.  As with any component of training, the specifics may change depending on circumstance; in general, anyone teaching a Japanese-based art who wants you to call them by any title 'fancier' than Sensei on the tatami [ mat] demonstrates a lack of knowledge about (or indifference to) the culture, leading one to ask, 'what else might be odd?'

Best regards,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

* Just to reiterate, if you're gonna misuse these titles, at least do it in the correct order- titles after name!!!
**It must be said that there are some ryu without a centralized family or locale at all.  Rather than some (potentially distant) authority, these ryu rely on Menkyo Kaiden (complete transmission), at which point teachers have total discretion to move the ryu forward as they see fit, e.g. Araki and Kiraku Ryu. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

誠 Makoto (Truth/Honesty)

Makoto (Truth/Honesty)

Very few of us are as good as we'd like to be at the things that we find important.  There are two very distinct approaches to coping with this:  1)  Wait passively for long enough, spending time with someone we believe to be a good instructor, attending classes, doing the minimum to progress, believing all the while that skill will strike; like lightning.  Magical, magical lightning.  Or, 2) Work- struggle with failure and mixed success; to, through practice, slowly erode impediments and build-in means to understand and express the principles of our art(s)*.  If one opts for the first, nothing more is required- good luck and Godspeed; for those who take the second, there are few traits that enrich the process as deeply as Makoto.

It would be easy to leave Makoto (often translated as 'honesty' or 'truth') open to interpretation, but in this is meant to address a specific type.  It is not what we often think of, that is, being a 'pretty stand-up person who tries to do the right thing and sticks to his/her word.'  Makoto in training is only very rarely about what is said aloud; it is about actions and one's relationship to objective reality; the willingness to work from wherever we find ourselves and to train as we are without pretense**.  Training in that way plunks us down nakaima (literally, 'in the middle of now,' fully experiencing and inhabiting the present) and suggests, strongly, that we exist 'in the moment' rather than envisioning another present, longing for the past, or anticipating the future.

Training with makoto makes feeling insulted by reality seem a bit silly (e.g. gravity isn't a referendum on whether you're a saint or a jerk; being off-spine, out of structure and/or balance are fixable***, but only if experienced honestly- the same is true for any making a good cut, strong strike, etc.).  Through prolonged exposure, we find opportunities to be more aware (and to then act upon that information).  We can actively foster Makoto by receiving feedback, with an eye to developing the capacity to feel for ourselves where we need to make adjustments.  This presents us opportunities to pare away unhelpful and unnecessary habits with each repetition,  aggregating over time into more physically robust and powerful practitioners.  Beyond that though, Makoto in training offers insight into long-standing patterns of mind.  By coming to grips, often in a visceral and unmistakable way, with how individual choices and reactions are a microcosm, we can start to look inward, not with anger, impatience or expectation, but with genuine curiosity. 

Projecting who we think we are (or are trying to be) is personally dangerous in the early stages of training, both on and off 'the mat'.  At no point does that benefit society nearly as much as perpetuating a willingness to experience and interact with the world honestly.

Now, lest that start to sound inviting, it should be stated unequivocally that developing an honest practice can be unpleasant:  boring, irritating, terrifying, and harsh, by turns (or sometimes, all at once, and it a given that you will discover things that you don't want to). If the opening statement is true though, that very few of us are as good as we'd like to be, then makoto is one arrow in the quiver of improving.  Not by magic, but through an active, mindful and rigorous application.  Ultimately, you may even find makoto leaking into other parts of life- even when not wearing pajamas/shorts/sweatpants and punching, throwing or attacking people with sharp tools or blunt instruments.  For those of us drawn to 'martial' culture, we just happen to do that one punch, breath, throw, kick or cut at a time.

Yours in striving for Makoto,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*One of these approaches is fruitful, the other is consistently unreliable...  The chief issue with 'waiting' is that proficiency isn't binary (nor is it osmotic) even for those with 'talent.'  Yes, it may be possible to make some progress initially, just receiving pointers and corrections from a mentor at early stages, but sustained growth doesn't happen without sustained effort.  Taking agency as individual practitioners for our own development and, if inclined, the survival of the arts or ways that we practice is a necessary step (it's nobody's fault nor is it anyone's responsibility outside of ourselves).  Pretending that it is, fundamentally lacks makoto.

**Pretenses include things like failing to accept mistakes and/or take responsibility for oneself and one's improvement.

*** As you can imagine, the more minor or subtle the fu antei 不安(instability), the more honed one's perception and instantaneous the fixes need to be, particularly when interacting with other bodies that might not be interested falling down or being struck without... coaxing.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Kurushi 苦しい ([Lame] Excuses)

Kurushi 苦しい ([Lame] Excuses)

There are many words and expressions for 'practice' in common usage. Renshu 練習 is a term derived from metallurgy, meaning to forge (strengthening, adding whatever characteristics are meant to be imparted while removing impurities) but has been used for centuries in reference to practice (initially, meditation).

Keiko 稽古 is a slightly more holistic term a compound of two kanji (chinese characters) kei (consider, ponder or think [about]) and ko (old). Keiko implies a marriage of practice and study with an eye toward appreciating the roles of previous generations reflected in our traditions. There are also far more specific turns-of-phrase for things like austere practice (Shugyo)

As you may have gathered from previous blog entries, the notion that consistent practice is integral to acquiring any worthwhile skill is a one that we hold near and dear. Creating (and maintaining) a meaningful Nichijo no Renshu (daily training) can be difficult; not everyone has the inclination or interest to do it, and even for those who do, there are no guarantees of Awesomeness, only proficiency (and even so, not quickly). Let's look at some of the most commonly heard excuses.

Before we start in earnest, for the purposes of this essay, let's define practice as: a means to connect the observed (external) to the soma (comprising mind and body- the internal), creating cohesively consistent and usable 'assets', girded by the basics and principles of your art or way (which can then be used both internally and externally). One key component to 'practice' is repetition, but unlike training*, practice can't be done mindlessly (ultimately, good training can't either...); if training is about reinforcing core mechanics, practice is how you express those taijutsu (literally, body skills).

It takes too long/I don't have the time”

A period of focused, mindful, practice is of far more use than a much longer (but scattered) session. In truth, many arts' basics can be done in a relatively short period of time. Realistically at the beginning of an art, you can do everything you know in well under 20 minutes. With a greater volume of material comes a requirement that you select what you will devote your time/energy to during any individual session (FWIW, Kihon [fundamentals] should still factor in).

I'm not in the right shape”

And you plan to get into shape by doing... what now?

When beginning in an art, you'll spend some time doing conditioning (even if you are in competitive athletic shape). Why? Because each system has unique requirements for things like balance, connection and flexibility that being 'in shape' will be good for, but miss the mark. After achieving a baseline, it is necessary to maintain or surpass that conditioning level, lest you come to an intellectual understanding with no means to physically manifest your art. Does that mean that you will be an olympic-level athlete? No, not unless you train to be, but for every art or way there are some specific things that make learning the method go more smoothly; conditioning is high on that list.

I tried training but I didn't seem to be getting better”

If you're at an early stage of training, it is likely that you won't feel the improvement; that doesn't mean that there isn't any though. Later, you will hit plateaus or even start backsliding- (often what seems to be regression a good sign in part because it heralds the transition from forcing things to work to actually making use of the appropriate basics).

With that said, if your daily regimen is the same at year 5 or 8 as it was at year one, something may be hinky** By the time you've been around for a while, even if the amount of time that you spend practicing daily is the same as when you started, the focus will necessarily have shifted. Rather than taking days-off and bargaining, making the choice to engage in a consistent daily practice is of far greater use than skipping days and doing marathon 'make-up' sessions (if you can regularly find hour[s] in your day though [outside of livelihood, familial responsibilities and sleep/health maintenance] do that!) So maybe changing the concentration of your time may make a difference.

I can't remember what we did”

How good are your notes? If you aren't taking them, you're depriving yourself of a critical study tool. If you are but still get home and can't figure out what the heck you meant, you may need to find a better method. Some folks use pictures, descriptions, outlines or combinations of some or all; the idea is to find something that works for you (check with seniors, teachers and classmates, they might have helpful suggestions).

I don't want to do it wrong”

Okay, let's change contexts for a moment (just to fully appreciate what an insanely counterproductive notion this is)- imagine a child saying, “I'm not going to read (or practice reading) until I can read perfectly.” That makes zero sense. Here's the bad news- if you practice, you're gonna spend some time doing it wrong, but, there's good news too- if you've done the preliminary training, you can only do it 'wrong' for so long; at some point, principle, body method and theory meet*** to steer us in the right direction (sometimes, despite our brains' best efforts).

I need to be better first”

This is, in some ways, a continuation of the previous excuse. Improvement through practice assumes that you aren't starting from 'perfect'; the process of shedding unhelpful tendencies/habits while building-in more useful ones (liken that to creating a sculpture from a block of raw material) simply doesn't happen without practice (or to strain the allusion, carving). The sculpture gets better the more you carve to a point. Beyond that, it's no longer a matter of removing material but of polishing to bring-out the fine details. Even if the competence is obvious to you, that polish and 'finish' work allows the intricacies to express themselves.

Now it's true, we're not blocks of wood, granite or marble. We're complex(ish) creatures with bodies that (usually) aren't ideal and are never (totally) free from discomfort. With that said, what daily training offers to those willing to participate is the process of working with those raw materials of body and mind (and to, through exertion, develop ourselves into something more today than we were yesterday. Not ideal, just better.

I get enough from class, I don't need to work at home”

Maybe that's true. However, if even a chance exists that we gain more through the process of practice and study itself than merely the acquisition of 'skill;' perhaps expending effort every day offers rewards beyond getting good at punching, kicking, throwing and using tools. Heck, one might even suggest that training is, itself, some kind of path...

Yours in Renshu,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*We are drawing a distinction here between training (conditioning and development work for strength, posture, alignment, etc., usually in service of integrating core structural and movement principles), and practice, which points to acquiring, understanding and refining those principles. To be reductionist, training (development and observation of your body, position, power uses, spinal and joint placement, etc.) is the scaffolding that allows you to do things that you're expected to; practice (observation of the external and bringing it into your sphere as developed through training) lets you build more complex structures, so as to do things that you want to.

**At that point, have you been training in your art for 5 years, or, as people are fond of asking, “have you had the same year five times?”

*** This is not to say that it is impossible to misunderstand or think about things incorrectly, only that with correct training the physical expression will out... eventually.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Benpo 便法 (Shortcuts)

Benpo便法 (Shortcuts)

One very deliberate feature of the dojo website is that the links are fairly ecumenical. Since the intent of the site is to be informational, we've included a number of arts (many, that bear no connection with ours but that may prove of interest to readers) as well as to (Japanese and English) language resources and study materials. It is not uncommon to receive E-mail from people suggesting new links, some of which are great fits, others, less so. Several months ago we were contacted by someone from a "Cliff Notes"-type site suggesting it for inclusion. Our response was:

While recommendations are gratefully accepted, sites of the type that you suggest run counter to the ethos of traditional arts.

My concern is that inclusion of such a site might encourage, even tacitly, the impression that reliance on secondary sources in lieu of (rather than as a supplement to) personal research is acceptable. For us, us there simply is no substitute for exertion in both practice and study.Thank you for your suggestion.

With that bit of correspondence sent we could get back to (continuing to ignore) long-neglected projects... but unfortunately, the seed was planted; so, what place do shortcuts have in traditional arts and ways?

Translated from Japanese, benpo presents a (Sanskrit-derived) term, meaning expedient method. Considering that its original use was tied closely to transmission of esoteric meditation practices, the implication is of being efficient while undergoing arduous training. Curiously though, despite the rather strong association with the (purportedly quicker) 'immutable path' it does not point to the skipping of steps or avoiding of hardship, both of which only seem like perks early on (it is often not obvious until too late the ways in which it manifests as a curses; There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is that built-in to many arts are links between, seemingly, disparate bits of information*.)

For most of us, training (and the surrounding/supporting activities) is not a full-time endeavor. No matter how genuine the desire to develop expertise, it is unreasonable to expect that anyone is going to go home from a long day of work and/or school, fulfill familial duties, do chores, and then spend time training, learning a new language and familiarizing him/herself with connected cultural practices. Modern life is complex and we are overbooked. Don't we need/deserve some kind of shortcuts to make practice easier or more fun?

Well, unless your days begin with you or a member of your household having to fetch cooking and bathing water from a nearby well, stream or river, you grow and/or hunt for the bulk of your food, and routinely have to forego opportunities to read (or otherwise deepen your training experience with research) by remaining daylight (because your artificial light alternative is a fire of some sort, which you must create, then tend yourself) to dig a new privvy or build/repair some portion of your hovel, probably not. Most of us who live in the modern West already exist in far more physical comfort by default than did most (even the very wealthiest) humans in history... The convenience of having nearly unfettered access to life's necessities (and many luxuries, just consider how a series of developments lead to the relative ubiquity of the internet in our homes, allowing us to view the bulk of preserved knowledge, music, science, art, etc. on demand, while in skivvies; beyond the initial barriers of acquiring hardware and maintaining a connection the only hard limits are one's free time and level of curiosity) raises an expectation that everything should come so simply. It hasn't, doesn't and shouldn't (always).

Despite the prevailing attitude that it is possible to hack anything and everything to achieve peak efficiency, sometimes the best hack is to just 'do the work'. Grit, determination, resiliency and other traits fostered through the process of earnestly trying (and failing often, though hopefully learning to avoid making the exact same mistakes in perpetuity), are nurtured this way.

Proceeding along an art or way (particularly when traditional cultural trappings figure heavily) tends to shift one's perspective. Instead of chasing instant gratification, we come to appreciate that adopting and holding to a regular practice is to tread the same ground as previous generations, itself, a type of shortcut (by not having to constantly reinvent the wheel). So despite moments of wishful thinking, we find ourselves genuinely grateful for clear transmission from good teachers**, and see that this (coupled with rigorous personal practice) are all the shortcut we can use. By moving too far away from those unreasonable expectations, we risk cheating ourselves.

Yours in the struggle,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

* A friend coined a great phrase, describing the population of her school (who range in age from 6 to late-teens, all with hearing-loss up to and including profound deafness, many of whom had not been exposed to a formal sign language before starting school) as inhabiting, "islands of knowledge." That is the case for us all- we each bring specialized bits of information and experience into our training. Guided exploration (with an instructor or senior) in conjunction with personal practice and study encourages those islands to connect, bridging them tenuously at first; those links become far more important and robust than one might guess.

** Actually, if fortune provides, a good teacher can, by example and pedagogical method, alter one's practice radically with just a question, phrase or through observation and correction. To use the image of a garden, we are like loam; training in basics makes an ideal planting medium for seed (the principles contained in our arts). A skilled, attentive teacher, like a master gardener, knows through experience when to further condition the soil, when to water, to harvest, and when conditions are right for the next round of planting. S/he also knows how to pull weeds and even thin culms to strengthen the plants that are most beneficial.

Friday, October 14, 2016



Kuden (verbal instructions) are important and universal enough to span centuries and cultures; every art, profession, and avocation has them. Unfortunately, though, these gems of simplicity tend to be ignored and forgotten once they've done their jobs. If you are in a position to teach or mentor, you've no doubt already come to appreciate these nuggets of wisdom; if you aren't (yet), still don't be too quick to discard kuden. Like any true friend, it's not just that they are/were there for you when you needed them; the memory of them can provide strength and guidance when there's no one around*.

To use a common modern example, take something as simple as 'look both ways before you cross the street,' a phrase so ubiquitous that it may be hard to remember the first time someone said it to you. Chances are that the introduction came from someone senior to us (a parent, guardian, older sibling or teacher); though it comprises words that we know, the phrase probably didn't mean very much because we lacked the practical experience of why people slow down when approaching an intersection. After a while, it sinks in that this idea is rooted in experience and that it isn't just some arbitrary suggestion, but a legitimate tool, and that looking out for one's safety is a shared responsibility (we can't expect that motorists and bicyclists will always be aware of pedestrians.)

Once we're old enough to start traveling without supervision, there may be an occasional flash of memory of someone saying, "look both ways before you cross the street," but in large part, you don't have to think about it. That kuden has served its purpose and expands to controlling vehicles as well. So, if a phrase as simple as 'look both ways' can inform your decisions, not just as a pedestrian, but as a bicyclist and driver, what untold fount of magic powers are contained in the kuden of something older and/or more esoteric?

Without going out on too much of a limb most are pretty mundane, detailing things like which "foot initiates a turn." The simplest aim is creating and maintaining consistency in (at first, exclusively) physical mechanics. Once those kuden have done their jobs, something interesting happens. Beyond the obvious detailing of foot placement, there are core alignments suggested (maintaining 'directional agreement' between toes and knees, which strongly implies how to position hips, center, trunk etc.). Somewhere in the process of manifesting these principles, Kuden become a part of how you inhabit and move through physical space. It is notable that a 'turn' of phrase so simple can help integrate a body method, especially one that proves key to everything from 'doing techniques', to power generation, use of weapons and even manual therapy/bodywork... not too bad for five words.**

Yours in appreciation,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*More than just convenient mnemonics, skillfully crafted kuden cue appropriate responses from us when there is no teacher or senior whence to solicit assistance.

**Often, the original renderings (in Japanese) can interesting/telling in their own right.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Kata (Forms)

Kata (Form)

Without changing the outward form, we must never do the same kata twice- this is a waste.

Note: Following the Japanese standard, 's' will not be used to indicate plurals.

Can you image the infomercial? “Check out this amazing tool that can teach and hide 'secret' material at the same time! How much would you expect to pay for this amazing, all purpose tool... $800? $200? Well it can be yours now for the special introductory price of...” The word “Kata” (kah-tah, not kadda), means 'form' and they are one of the chief means of passing along information in traditional Japanese culture. Kata often comprise a series of postures and gestures that, when performed in sequence, transmit principles of an art. Interestingly, modern research indicates that assuming certain postures or positions do more than just change our bodies- they can effect mood, behavior and even thought patterns.

Training in Kata (forms) despite their reputation, is more than rote learning through slavish repetition. Good kata practice must consist of pushing back, asking questions (of oneself and the sequence) ultimately, pulling them apart to find potential beyond the bunkai (discussion) and and oyo (applications). Oyo also separates the uchi/ura (inside) from the soto/omote (outside)- many oyo are not immediately obvious (even to participants of a tradition, let alone to those watching a form from the outside) and require explanation and demonstration by a senior or instructor.  Receiving oyo is predicated on a certain amount of confidence in the character of a student, that the lessons won't be misunderstood, neko ni koban (coins to a cat or as we say in English, casting pearls before swine) or misused.  One way that this determination is made through observation of a students' Kihon (fundamentals), which provide both tools and technology to perceive and (eventually) manifest the skills contained in kata.

In this context, Kihon exist as a means to inculcate a series of consistent and dependable mechanics (things like turning, transferring weight, correct grip and manipulation of tools, etc.) that function without conscious thought. The more thorough one's grasp of kihon, the more reliably they work, which in turn means the more efficiently you can learn, practice and implement the lessons of kata, particularly under pressure.

Building on the foundation of Kihon, students begin to learn Kata.  A key component to making the jump from the external imposition of forms into a usable skill is built-in to sound practice: progressive stress testing. What the heck does that mean? That before 'sparring' as such*, 'unpredictability' is introduced while completing forms with a more skilled uketachi (receiving sword) or uchitachi (swinging sword) senior partner. Once shitachi (performing sword, the junior) has learned the overall series of movements, uchitachi begins to make alterations, sometimes quite subtle, to the timing, distancing, rhythm and applied force of a kata without changing the overall sequence. It is the job of uchitachi to provide shitachi with practice 'at the limit of his/her skill' without exceeding that point (discouraging the junior by just beating the tar out of him/her or moving faster than the junior can respond to properly**.) Having to adapt to this pressure can evoke very real physical symptoms of being in 'live fire' situations such as “fight or flight”, “adrenal dump”, “hyper-vigilance” and other strong biological responses but without incurring some of the poor habits that free-play can bring. Shitachi is forced to be adaptive without panicking or abandoning the sound mechanics imparted by kihon, and always against a slightly stronger opponent than is comfortable.

Although this happens under controlled circumstances (E. G. both Uchitachi and Shitachi know the general shape that the engagement is going to take) there is a plasticity required to reacting appropriately as you come to embody the underlying principles. This method is ingenious for the ways that it causes stress and provides solutions to those stressors, leading Shitachi to make (stylistically and situationally) appropriate choices lest he/she get whacked, bumped or cut, sometimes severely. At the same time, Uchitachi is being trained to tinker with the junior's perception of timing, distance, connection, power and intent, all while leading the engagement with sensitivity (changing the ways in which one engages).

This holds true for waza (techniques) as well; unarmed kata, rather than treating striking and grappling (or therapeutic bodywork for that matter) as merely a technical repertoire, provides a 'seiteigata,' an idealized form of how principles can, or perhaps ought to, be articulated together. If these seiteigata are a vehicle for transmission, the oyo are something of a map***... the course and speed of your journey depends, in part, on the interplay between Tori the (taker or 'winner' of a technique) and Uke (the receiver or 'loser').

In the best case, Uke (again, the more experienced person) moderates the level of feedback (ranging from almost leading at the beginning, through level-appropriate resistance, to eventually, actively countering) that forces Tori to stay aware of the very real possibilities of unexpected changes. This type of practice eliminates the 'Geez, I can't wait for it to be my turn to actually do something other than just get beaten-on' feeling that can permeate one's experience as Uke; It also keeps Tori from developing a false sense of competence, believing that 'winning because the script calls for it' is an expression of skill. Being able to feel how minor changes from Uke can majorly alter (or utterly wreck) the interaction is a gift. . . even if it doesn't feel like one at times.

So where does the notion that kata training is solely the mind-numbing practice of arbitrary sets before we get to the 'good stuff' even arise? It may be that early Western students (of traditional Japanese arts anyway; other cultural tradition's reasons might be different) didn't, in large part, have language in common with their teachers- it would have been simple to get someone to follow along with exercises, forms and free-play without requiring in-depth explanations. Some of it may also come down to fundamental pedagogical concepts like Shu-Ha-Ri (essentially 'learn, embody, transcend [a form or method]') carried over from pre-modern Japan. Contrast that with Western models (outside of guild systems), in which one spends significantly less time in emulation and more time in 'application' or free-play (this is not to imply that good teachers did/do not continue to engage their charges with some pattern practice- to wit: Italian fencing schools in particular are known to have featured some esoteric training through form; much of that information has, unfortunately, been lost to time).

Wherever it derives though, bridging the conceptual gap between “boring/repetitive” and “engaged/lively” can fundamentally effect the ways in which one approaches forms. In return, those forms deliver to us new ways of, at first moving and gradually experiencing things by shifting perspectives.  By fully integrating a series of somatic responses, their intended meaning and accompanying mental/emotional components one comes to appreciate the brilliance and care that went into their formulation and transmission.  Ultimately, well-designed kata offer far more than proscribing where you put your hands and feet; they provide a (meta)physical connection with our traditions themselves, linking us directly with the experience of practitioners of the past and present while charging us to hold the teachings in trust for the future.

Yours in appreciation,
Jigme Chobang Daniels, Instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

Reader's note: you may notice that there is no mention made of solo forms here. Sure, when many people hear the word 'kata' the image that springs to mind is of a bunch of people, clad in white keikogi, doing the same individual 'kuroddy' form in unison (either unarmed or equipped with boating/farming equipment). Despite that powerful image, the omission is purposeful- I am not familiar enough with the teaching and practice of Karate no kata**** (training forms of Karate) to offer any thoughts of use. As for Japanese arts, Tandoku Renshu (literally, solo or single [person] forging) do exist and serve valuable roles in one's physical, biomechanical and proprioceptive development. However, these methods cover a lot of ground- everything from stretching/strengthening, tendon/fascia development and alignment exercises to full-on solo forms with and without weapons- these tend to be pretty specific to individual traditions though. In the tradition to which I belong, we have some interesting examples with a couple of tools that are designed to be done as both Tandoku and Sotai (partnered) Renshu and function well without alteration both ways (but, as is often the case, really 'make sense' with another person providing 'pressure').

* Which can, without sound kihon, degenerate quickly into competition on the order of doing anything, including sacrificing principle, good mechanics and strategy in order to win at a slightly more dangerous version of tag.

** Displaying a gross distortions of transmission not beneficial for either the senior (who is usually displaying ego) or junior.

***These oyo can, depending on the art, run the gamut from overt to cryptic.

**** An important linguistic note- Karate no Kata are the forms of Karate. Karatekata means false, fake, made-up, etc.